Classical Music Still Sucks: Just ask the people who promote it

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Many years ago I wrote a little blog post titled “Classical music sucks: just ask the people paid to promote it“. It seems just as pertinent now as it did then. Just last month this little post attracted the canniest piece of comment spam I have received to date:

Hi. I can tell this website caters towards the urban community.

Next Tuesday Radio 4 will broadcast a programme titled Who Killed Classical Music? The BBC seem to have forgotten that Norman Lebrecht published a book with the exact same title in 1997, as he’s not mentioned anywhere in the programme blurb. I’m sure he’ll remind them shortly.

A cynical observer may suspect that Lebrecht’s book turned out to be an opportunistic piece of publishing ephemera which failed to offer any satisfactory answers, but let’s assume instead that the BBC is genuinely ignorant and is tackling the old chestnut in good faith. Let’s see what they’ve dug up:

The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?

Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising ‘Serialism’ where melodies were no longer allowed.

It’s hard to believe that composers like Prokofiev (and Alexander Goehr, Tansy Davies and others) knowingly signed up to contribute to a show with such an inane premise. Or is it? The spiel continues:

Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers – including Gabriel himself – is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.

“Is music an art form? Or is it all just showbiz?” Morton Feldman’s question remains eternal. Never mind painting or sculpture, Christopher Nolan talking about his latest goddamn Batman movie wouldn’t take such a dismissive line towards
the wide range of cinema that “strayed too far” beyond its traditional roots in action, spectacle and broad melodrama. No other art form has so many of its practitioners going out of their way to tell how badly it sucks and isn’t really worth your attention.

Just yesterday The Guardian reported on a concert where the audience was deliberately groped and pestered throughout:

while the Phaedrus Ensemble got stuck in to Debussy, the audience were blindfolded and fed different sensory experiences in parallel with the music: fizzy pop and cola bottles for the effervescent second movement and fingers scampering up your arms in tandem with the first violin, then as the music changed, a scent-soaked silk scarf flickering across your skin, and hands laid on to give a sensation of pressure or relaxation. It’s a thoroughly entertaining experience.

As an experience it seems uncannily similar to Umberto Eco’s tour of the wax museums of California, where he saw reproductions of the world’s most famous artistic masterpieces: a full-length, three-dimensional Mona Lisa sitting for her portrait, the Venus de Milo in flesh-coloured wax, complete with arms. The museums wanted to give you more than the art, they wanted to show the real-life models “as they would have appeared” to the artists who immortalised them. Eco observes that for these add-ons to work, the art being so “enhanced” must first be idolised, an object for uncomprehending reverence. As such, the art is rendered meaningless in itself and so reduced to kitsch.

In the music world of today, those philistine hucksters encountered by Eco have been promoted to curators at the Louvre. Here is a genuine classical music experience! It must be good because it doesn’t sound like classical music! It must be good because it needs other sensory input to improve it! The music we are giving you sucks so hard we will do anything we can to hide it!

Composers, musicians and concert promoters are falling over themselves to denounce the qualities in music that led them into their love of music and their careers, with all the authority of a TV chef reassuring viewers that he never cooks with vegetables. Their fumbling for inclusiveness result in a presumptive orthodoxy of Boulez-like proportions.

Like that bit from Greg Sandow I quoted back in 2005 says,

This is yet another way in which classical music is drained of all meaning. Who cares what Shostakovich really is? It’s classical music! It’s a celebration! It’s big, grand, and colorful! Can anyone imagine talking about any other serious art this way?

  1. “Classical Music Still Sucks”. As in every era, *most* classical music sucks, because most “composers” have no talent. I just visited your listening room for a brief time. The only thing more astounding than that you took the time to “create” this stuff is that you are so completely and utterly out of touch that you honestly believe someone might enjoy listening to it. This is why you cannot perceive the truth in what you call an “inane premise”. While somewhat naive (e.g., of course there is melody, albeit nearly always ugly in serial music), the basic truth that serialism was a terrible and absurd disease from which classical music is still attempting to recover is undeniable by those who truly understand what music is.

  2. Sheesh, what a grouch.

  3. So your argument is that classical musicians don’t like classical music? You know this since people try to promote classical music with gimmicks? Do you know how many popular groups and artists do the exact same crap? Kiss? Any pop act with jumbo screens and fireworks? Music videos? I’m the first one to argue that there should be reforms with classical performance but your arguments are completely ignorrant of the culture. Schoenberg stated that his “atonal” music was actually based off beethoven’s final quartets. He in fact didn’t strictly follow atonal ism and would use it time to time like a flavor of sorts. Some of his music is actually quite lyrical. The reason that music became so fragmented is because the were living through World War One and Two! If you actually want to have a discussion about why classical sucks, actually study the music! The music is find for the most part, the culture is what makes it suck!

  4. Too many “classical” musicians complain about new music and never learn it, and by never even attempting to understand it, ensure that it will never be played or understood by them. I think that more than the listeners shows that new music won’t have the same impact culturally as it once did.

    As for multimedia experiences in the arts like touch and smell and taste and visuals added to performances, all of these things are always part of the equation. I can remember many times that a bad smelling person sitting next to me altered my experience. Similarly, what I eat before or during can change my outlook. The performers or organizers are simply taking it into their own hands to enhance what is already there. As somebody else mentioned, KISS, Gwar, etc., not to mention the dinner parties and galas of the 17-and 1800′s.

    “Composers, musicians and concert promoters are falling over themselves to denounce the qualities in music that led them into their love of music and their careers,”

    I disagree completely. They all are excited about these things, but these things are steeped in tradition left over from centuries before. Their relevance is lost and classical music is being presented as an elitist art form. This exclusion and irrelevance is what causes such disinterest in an industry that already has the material and the potential to be culturally and socially important.

  5. “String Quartet No.2 (Canon in Beta) (2005/08). The original 2005 version and a 23-minute take of the 2008 version that toured Australia as a multimedia installation.”

    You have art with multimedia, how can you complain about others?

  6. 4 comments. 0 people who actually understood the article.

    It’s interesting how classical music authorities have been telling everyone classical music is dead/elitist/doesn’t appeal to young people/too old-fashioned for decades. None of those things are actually true, so I have no idea why the authorities seem to WANT those things to be true; perhaps because it seems easier to kill the art form than to accept that it’s evolved.

  7. I think it shows just how much people in the classical music world are hampered by outdated ways of thinking about their art. The social, political and financial clout moved to popular music over the past 60 years (and popular music’s moment of cultural relevance may be passing now, too) and left classical music in a double-bind: mindlessly trying to play catch-up to the trappings of popular music while also asserting an intangible superiority.

    The self-defeating backwardness comes out in other ways besides those described above, like the recurring instances of musicians boasting above deliberately playing something badly, or in AD 2013 gibbering about female conductors.

  8. […] details of this programme did the rounds of Twitter and Facebook last week there was quite a bit of facepalming and disbelief. Who approved clumsy and ahistorical statements such as ‘Until the early 20th […]

  9. […] demolition of BBC Radio 4′s pitiful Who Killed Classical Music? programme. I’d already condemned the show before I’d even heard it. Regrettably, my prejudice was justified. A small sampling of the […]

  10. […] got a nice email circular from the Nonclassical people, reminding me to listen to Who Killed Classical Music? “Nonclassical founder and composer Gabriel Prokofiev looks at the increasing disconnection […]