"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Western Classical Music Is Boring

Roland Keith spent a number of years in India and while he was there he studied the sitar. He went everywhere with his teacher, a student of Ravi Shankar, a disciple of the renowned Jaipur musical tradition (gharana).

Image result for images ravi shankar

He went to concerts in large auditoriums, musical evenings at the homes of wealthy Delhi patrons of the arts, and informal jam sessions between his guru and his musician friends. One of his favorite musical styles was called the jugalbandi in which two musicians playing different instruments play together. ‘Together’ is not the right word, for they do not play in a formally scripted harmonious duet, but play off each other, mimicking, challenging, and finally coming together on the end beat of a raga cycle. In the picture below musicians are playing the sarod and the sitar (with tabla accompaniment).

At each challenge given, at each challenge taken and bested, and at each individual flight of virtuosity – at various times one musician will give way to the other who will perform a solo – there are smiles, head wags and gestures of approval, murmurs, and shouts of acclaim. The jugalbandi is an exciting display of musical mastery, innovation, and personal interaction.

Image result for images indian music jugalbandi duet

At major concerts of Indian music, the audience never sits on its hands as it does in Western classical events. Music-lovers know the ragas well, appreciate the individual style and talent of the musicians, and feel the music in a very overt way.  If a phrasing of the alaap, or slow, meditative, and poetic first ‘movement’ is particularly moving (the microtones of Indian classical music and the technique of playing around the note before hitting it squarely allow for a subtlety of expression and intimacy that can only be approximated in Western violin pieces), the audience will gasp and applaud.

Although the raga is based on a fixed series of notes and the time of day during which the raga is to be played is determined, the performance itself is improvisational.  The musician, depending on the tenor of the audience, his own personal feelings, the weather, his family, will interpret the piece differently.  No raga is ever played the same way twice.  This gives the audience a feeling of expectation and allows for surprise and a particular kind of spontaneous joy.

Keith learned Indian music before he ever learned or even appreciated Western classical music; but when he returned to the States and began to go to concerts in New York and Washington, he was disappointed.  After India, much of the music in the Western canon seemed lifeless and without joy or passion.  He shifted restlessly in his seat at long, slow passages of Schubert and Schumann, waited impatiently for the final allegro movements of Beethoven, and wondered if he was simply a musical neophyte, finally feeling something as he listened to the bright, lively music of Mozart.

As he learned more, he appreciated more.  He went to symphony concerts in Bucharest in the early 90s before musicians had gone to the West for more money and recognition.  They played difficult modern music.  There was no predictable canon; and the musicians took on the most challenging pieces.  It was an environment in which classical music was appreciated if not loved, and although the audience was nothing like those in India, there was far more interaction.

Image result for bucharest concert hall

Keith liked organ recitals the best of all, and got up early every Sunday morning in Paris to hear the great organ of St. Sulpice after Mass and never missed a full concert during the Fall season. The music – especially that of J.S.Bach – was as moving as anything he had heard in India.  The mathematical structure, the accelerated tempo, the subtle variations, and the sheer power of the music delivered through 60’ tall pipes into a vast cathedral space were overwhelming.

Image result for images st sulpice paris

Classical music in the United States is dying.  According to a former violinist for the Metropolitan Opera, there are a number of signs:
¶The recent labor disputes of American orchestras due to decreased budgets and donor support.
¶The reduction or outright cancellation of Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic tours and concerts in the parks.
¶The demise of classical music radio stations across America.
¶The increased media focus on rock and pop superstars, while classical music managements have difficulty booking concerts for their artists. (NY Times, Letters to the Editor, 11.24.12)

As a result, most symphony orchestras rely on the canon – the fewer concert-goers there are, the more conservative they feel they must be.  Why take the chance of alienating both old and young with a complex Liszt or Benjamin Britten?  Ironically but not surprisingly, the more predictable and over-performed the music, the less people enjoy it and stay away in even greater numbers.

Western classical music suffers from many ills. Most symphony orchestra rarely play any 20th century music, and even the sprightly Mozart cannot draw big audiences for whom an unbelievable array of modern, contemporary music and entertainment is available. Secondly, the venue – the concert hall – is as formal, deadening, and insufferably enclosed as can be.  Compare this to a rock concert.  Here a are a few pictures from a Romeo Santos concert (Sold Out at Madison Square Garden). 

Image result for images romeo santos concert audience

Image result for images romeo santos concert audience

Keith saw the performance on television, and it was one of the most high-energy, interactive, exciting shows he had seen in a long time.  A long way from Lincoln Center. How can classical music possibly compete with Romeo Santos?

Richard Dare, CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic put it this way in a recent article in the Huffington Post (5.29.12 The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained):
But this was classical music. And there are a great many "clap here, not there" cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied -- as I believe are many classical concert goers -- by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.
I don't think classical music was intended to be listened to in this way. And I don't think it honors the art form for us to maintain such a cadaverous body of rules.
Dare says that it wasn’t always this way:
Joseph Horowitz in his wonderful new book, Moral Fire, describes audiences "screaming" and "standing on chairs" during classical concerts in the 1890s. The New York Times records an audience that "wept and shouted, strung banners across the orchestra pit over the heads of the audience and flapped unrestrainedly" when listening to their favorite opera singer at the Met in the 1920s.
What to do about this? Dare has few answers, but suggests a few of those noted above.  No one wants to sit in the confines of a music hall. Organ music has been relegated to living room Wurlitzers and no longer can we listen to the great Gothic reverb of French cathedrals.  

We listen to plenty of classical music, Dare goes on, but it is in the form of occasional musical scores and video game soundtracks.  It is just we don’t like to still for hours, sitting on our hands.

He is acknowledging what most people have concluded.  Concert hall classical performances are dead, and many suspect that within a generation record sales will be down to nothing.  Older people who have grown up with classical music will no longer be around to buy tickets; and without concerts, recordings will become far less sought after.

Keith recently attended a recital by an opera singer for the Met. She performed in a small town of Mississippi.  Suspecting that few of the audience-goers knew much about opera, she decided to dumb things down.  Before each aria, she summarized the plot of the opera to give some context to the music, expected in the liner notes of handout programs; but she went ghetto and rapped it, made references to street life, interjected her story with “You go, girl” and attitude. It not only dumbed down Puccini and Verdi but was insulting to both black and white patrons alike.  What was she thinking?

One supposes her intentions were good, and she was trying to make opera more ‘accessible’, but it was painful to watch.

Keith recently went to a performance of Hamlet at a Virginia Shakespeare theatre.  The director admitted that he wanted to make the play more accessible so he had Hamlet give his famous ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy in an offhanded, dismissive manner which ended up sounding like a goomba on the Sopranos – “Hey, Vinnie. To be or not to be?  Lemme tell ya, that’s da question”.

Shakespeare has one great advantage – he wrote about universal themes.  Love, hate, power, jealousy, gender-bending, war, and death.  There is no way that these plays cannot be compelling, even if the language is difficult to follow.  There will always be ways to make the plays modern, relevant, and accessible without compromising the playwright’s intent or meaning and without dumbing them down.  One of the best performances of Richard III was that starring Ian McKellen who morphs more and more into a Nazi-type dictator as the play progresses. He is a chain-smoking, modern, twisted, relevant, scary Richard, and absolutely perfect and true to Shakespeare.   

Image result for images ian mckellen richard iii

Classical music, on the other hand, is a very different story. There is no way to change what Schumann wrote.  Sure, the conductor can tweak the score here and there all the while respecting the composer, but it still is Schumann.

Keith listens to the treacly selections of classical music in the dentist’s waiting room, but that’s it.  He mentioned that he had just bought Romeo Santos’ concert album.  He listens to Indian ragas on long trips in the car between salsa, Ali Farka TourĂ©, and Angolan zouk. He will occasionally put on a Puccini aria – I love the great divas – but one aria at a time is enough.


  1. Dude, have you ever heard the last movement of Mahler 9th? Or the first movement of Mahler's 5th? Or Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps"? etc... You need time to absorb it. Western classical music has reached heights that Indian folk music, or Western folk music, never will. There is a reason people don't make a sound while listening Mahler, it's a religious experience, tap dancing is not ok!!!

  2. I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. Unlike other blogs I have read which are really not that good.Thanks alot! soul-desire


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