Friend and faithful reader D. suggests I make my blog more controversial, more “opinionated.” But friend and faithful reader T. praises its persistent “positive attitude.” Between these two devils, perched on opposite shoulders, I often know not what to choose. My blog head goes agog.

Yesterday, I followed Alex Ross’ link to Greg Sandow’s book-in-progress. I felt the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise, as I poured boiling water over coarsely ground Arabian Mocha Sanani. It is (sigh, another) book on “what ails classical music,” and I admit it, I can’t help being defensive when the diseases of my career are enumerated. I am the patient on the table; I am not totally anaesthetized; but the doctors are speaking as if I can’t hear anything. Don’t disturb the pianist; he’s practicing. But what is he practicing for? The market vanishes; the audience declines; I am a delusional psychotic, living in a make-believe world.

I wrote down some very argumentative comments but I slept on them and they don’t seem valid in today’s foggier light. Yesterday my demons were active (my inner D.) and I said enormously rude things to people in rehearsal, so I knew well enough not to blog. (Instead I practiced Berg’s Chamber Concerto and watched South Park, both excellent outlets for rudeness). For example, I second all complaints about the lack of rhythmic freedom in modern classical performance… Greg Sandow and I agree about this, and how important it is to restore it… and yet somehow I wanted to find a dispute?

I would like to address one important point, however, at the intersection of language and substance. Mr. Sandow expresses a desire to write about the culture “outside” of classical music (already, you see? the power of language? we are “insiders,” a clique, an elite), and so he contemplates the Cuban singer Beny Moré. According to Mr. Sandow, Beny Moré “[paces] the song any way he wants to, [takes] us with him, no questions asked, anywhere he goes.” He “grabs the music.”

Moré is a rhetorical device here, a foil: what classical music is NOT. Let us admittedly go further than Mr. Sandow would, and pursue the connotations of these seemingly innocent, descriptive sentences. Classical music is not grabbed, or grabbing; its performance is passive, not active (simply reproductive). Classical music is not about “want;” it is foreordained, fated, not-free; it is not “any way” but obsessed with correctness, legality. There are things classical music “can’t do,” Mr. Sandow points out, omitting the things that Moré’s singing cannot do (suggesting nothing is beyond his freedoms); the can’t is subtly but completely appropriated to classical music’s side (how we “wish” classical music could be more like X, over there in the greener grass).

The narrative these connotations create is familiar. These statements seem so obvious, so engrained, so common-sense, so unarguably true, that their essential emptiness can be forgotten. This sounds harsh; I apologize. But how do I mean emptiness? These are clichés that promise more than anyone can deliver. Beny Moré does not “pace the song any way he wants to,” he paces in very specific rubato-laden ways: he chooses, like the rest of us. (The question is does he choose beautifully or not? Do we wish to emulate his choices?) According to Sandow, we listeners will follow him “anywhere he goes;” he calls up metaphors of unlimited freedom; but there is no such thing; his freedoms are specific (or else they are nothing), like ours; he must make choices which omit other possibilities. Every performance is a set of choices, and therefore also a set of omissions. (There is no “absolute freedom” in performance). Mr. Sandow’s use of language posits Mr. Moré, in a sense, Romantically, before choice, before the notes are placed on the page, before the tape is rolled, before a note is struck… in the hush before the concert, in this charmed preliminary state. It’s not a fair fight; it is semiologically rigged.

I detect similar dangers in this ensuing passage:

For classical musicians, to sing or play like this would be illegal. You have to learn the proper style for everything you play—Bach goes like this, Mozart goes like that. And then you work within that style. But for Beny Moré (or for any pop or jazz musician, especially the great ones), style is anything he wants to do. He makes his own style.

Again, a metaphor substituting in for Moré’s style, an alluring mirage: “anything he wants to do.” Bach and Mozart function in this paragraph not as homo sapiens but as brand names, like Xerox or Kleenex; I am not suggesting remotely that Mr. Sandow wants it to be that way, simply that certain kinds of sentences have that power. The idea that they created their own styles (no, really, they lived and breathed and chose!) is missing, because it would blur the prevailing dichotomy. Again, following connotations but going further than Mr. Sandow’s intent: Bach and Mozart are pools from which we draw rules, prisons in which we classical musicians lock ourselves, icons of obligation. Ahh, the damning words “proper style”! We are stuck with prefabricated styles while those great pop and jazz musicians can make their own. As if there weren’t an infinite number of styles of playing Bach or Mozart… as if jazz musicians are not in some ways burdened by choice. (Here the patient miraculously gets up off the table and starts arguing with the doctors.)

I would also like to quibble with one statement:

From descriptions of long-ago performances, we can learn that classical pianists used to let the melodies they played with their right hands float apart from the accompanying rhythms that their left hands shaped.

I invite Mr. Sandow to my apt. any morning at roughly 8 AM when my CD alarm clock goes off, and Ignaz Friedman’s left and right hands happily and messily diverge. We do not need “descriptions;” numerous recorded examples of an older rubato tradition exist, and are ignored, why? An interesting cultural question, of evolving or devolving classical music taste, perhaps one in which reviewers are not entirely blameless? No, no, I didn’t say that. That was the Jeremy of yesterday.

The Jeremy of yesterday, a devil yearning for sainthood, found an antidote to several hours of Berg in a 30-minute battle with the Stairmaster and some truly evil animation. The orgy of abuse to which the South Park folks subject poor Sally Struthers is appalling. Two men have a stilted conversation in front of a door, complaining about “rude shows which make fun of people for being fat,” how “cruel and unfair” that is, which all makes it very clear that the cruellest, most unfair, wrongest mockery yet is lying on the other side of that door: and indeed, jackpot! we behold Sally Struthers now transformed… into Jabba the Hut, speaking in tongues, with subtitles (hilarious subtitles!), crumbs falling out of her twisted monstrous mouth. It was wicked; I laughed incredibly hard while my good side looked on despairingly; I turned off the TV and fell instantly into a long, peaceful sleep (the sleep of the damned), only to be awakened by rubato, by a pianist doing “anything he wanted to do.”

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  1. sheri
    Posted November 6, 2005 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I suspect I should be writing this comment on Greg Sandow’s page, but my blood also boils whenever people talk about classical music as lock-step and tradition-bound. From my remote outpost on the cultural landscape, classical music looks fine.

    Although I do think the way classical music is positioned and understood in the US is constantly changing. But it’s a relatively slow-moving shift, over decades – the way cultural changes used to be, before pop culture and mass media revved everything up. I like to imagine it’s a healthy evolution, not only in taste and style, but from aspiring to some notion of European “high art,” to a more integrated passion for the music itself. And that may well mean smaller audiences. Not such a bad trade-off, to my mind.

    Personally, I’m happy there are distinctions between jazz and classical. But, speaking of Romanticism, I also get a little whiff of Rousseau, even in the way he pours over the commercially-naive packaging of Beny Moré’s CD. I’m not sure that’s at all helpful. -S.

  2. Qais Al-Awqati
    Posted November 6, 2005 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Your point is well taken even tho’ I have not read Sandow’s book. Last night I was at Carnegie Hall; it was packed, it was a wonderful performance; everybody on both sides of the stage seemed enthusiastic. As a scientist writing here; is there any real evidence that classical music in the halcyon days was actually as popular as pop music of its day? Some sociologist of music history must have dug into this vexing issue. I would be grateful if anybody would point me in the direction of such research. My sense is that classical music was always something that a small fraction of society practiced and listened to. I know that previously many lovers of music played some instrument more difficult than a CD player, still, where are the data here so that when we proclaim a certain patient is morbidly ill we do not confuse a chronic even incurable condition (say constipation) with an an acute fatal disease.

  3. Martin
    Posted November 10, 2005 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I found Sandow’s writing remarkably puerile. The “problem” with classical music is that classical musicians are having a very hard time earning a living.

    Does he suppose jazz musicians, with their (supposed) freedom are doing any better? (Jazz musicians are every bit as obsessed with the rules of their craft as are their classical peers.)

    Does anybody think pop music is in very good shape, artistically or commercially?

    I live in Colorado which provides nothing – zero, nada – in arts funding. The Canadians seem to produce important artists. Even the Finns.

    How much of the “situation” (no money) is specific to the USA? Are things significantly different in Italy, Germany, France?

  4. R J Keefe
    Posted November 14, 2005 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Have you noticed, at Orpheus concerts especially, the spread of bleacher-seat behavior in the balconies? Shouting, whistling, enthusiastic roaring? Not to mention applause between movements! I take this to be a good sign. Certain audiences are not graying.

    And will you be at Carnegie on 3 December? I want to work up something pretentious to say to my wife.

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