Sunday, July 17, 2011

800 Words: Classical, Folk and Kitsch

(Today, I'm just finishing the Jon Stewart Piece. In the meantime: Classical, Folk and Kitsch. A piece I wrote three years ago which still holds up fairly well)

This is the day of the Proms devoted to folk music. Allow me to repeat this: in the world's very greatest classical music festival, a festival that is one hundred thirteen years old, two months long, seventy-six concerts diverse, and capable of seating 10,000 at every one of them, there is a single day given over to the music that birthed the very music which we love enough to sustain such a festival.

There is a single day during which we make a half-hearted nod to the fact that our music does not just operate within an inbred vacuum of sterility. A single, segregated day when we acknowledge publicly that classical music has roots in the music of the people. The rest of the days we may fill with our Mahler symphonies, Stravinsky ballets, Handel oratorios and Bach cantatas, but never do we acknowledge in any more than the barest passing that the colossi of music were giants because they were fed upon a steady diet of other musicians who simply created music that lived in an ephemeral moment rather than for all time.

Please don't misunderstand, this is not an argument in support of devoting a week of the Proms every year to Joan Baez. This is an argument that says that the quality of the world's greatest music and the world's greatest music festival (and I truly believe that the Proms is just that) is ultimately suffering because - like most of our music world - it has a concept of 'diversity' that is intimately tangled up with the idea that cross-pollination will dilute the intelligence of what they can offer. We may, if we like, continue our retreat into a cave of ignorance that allows us to declare unser musik uber alles and continue polishing the halo that surrounds our music until its aural gleam deafens even us to its best qualities. Or we can accept that our music is great not in spite of its relation to the banalities of the real world but because of it.

I know, I know. I'm just another 'classical music is dying' bloviator and yet another finger-wagger who is telling you 'it's (y)our fault.' but if you like, you can go to your graves believing that suddenly (usually in '68) the masses got stupid and abandoned us to be the guardians of sacred knowledge that we must pass on from generation to generation until a Parsifal springs up that will deliver the musical world from its past iniquities and lead us back to that era of purity that was supposed to have existed before everything got corrupted by that evil of the 20th century greater than either fascism or communism, more pernicious than imperialism, more repulsive than antisemitism or segregation, the evil that sent the world on its irrevocable trajectory toward complete moral corruption. Surely by my description you know that I can only be speaking of kitsch.

You vaguely remember what kitsch means, don't you? Didn't some authors your college roommate made you read write about it? Didn't that Eastern European friend you once had always complain about how awful kitsch was and how much it was screwing up our lives before he made you listen to Somebody To Love twelve times in a row? Wasn't there something about the all-purpose use of that word that began to seem to you a bit tawdry, cliched...perhaps kitschy?

Everybody has had the experience of a guilty pleasure, even in music. You start by inveighing against something that to you represents every musical trend that is ersatz, destructive and evil. And just to reassure yourself that you're right that it's just as terrible as you think it is, you allow yourself to listen to it occasionally just so you can experience its badness anew. But then you find yourself gripped by the unsuppressable urge to listen to it 'ironically' over and over again until you finally can admit to yourself that there is nothing ironic about your response. As Noel Coward said, it's 'extraordinary how potent cheap music is.' Cliches are cliches for a reason, and the most extraordinary thing about cheap music is the duality of your response. Whenever we hear a cliche, we often realize the truth behind it at exactly the same moment that our stomach gives a slight churn because its truth is all too obvious to require any repetition. In just the same way, we can accept things we hear in music with total irony and total sincerity at the same time.

If you'd be so kind as to permit me a counter-factual exercise, then allow me to ask you to picture yourself living in central Europe a hundred years ago. Let's say that you were a music-lover living in Budapest who patronized the same coffeehouse week after week from 1885 to 1914. And for argument's sake, let's say that this coffeehouse was highly fashionable. Much of the time you would see all sorts of glitteratti coming in, and not just the celebrities of Budapest either. This haunt would be frequented by the greats of Vienna whenever they had business further down the Danube. Perhaps great authors like Schnitzler or Karl Krauss or Altenberg would stop there for a pastry and a cognac whenever they had a function to attend in the empire's second city. Whenever they were there they were perfectly happy to give you and your friends amiable answers to any questions you may have asked them about life, love and art. Perchance you could occasionally see a famous artist like Klimt scribbling furiously at a corner table while Schiele was yelling at the waiter that his master's absinthe should have been ten degrees cooler. Let's also suppose a rumor made the rounds that Archduke Rudolf once came in through the back entrance and took a secluded booth to meet for a tryst with Marie Vetsera. Maybe even a severely intoxicated Karl Lueger would occasionally stop by on a break from official business and treat you to a drink on the krone of the Jewish money he hated so much.

But the main reason that all these celebrities would make a point of coming to this cafe would be the music. Every night, an exotic musical act would entertain the guests. On any given night you might hear a traveling band of Roma musicians, or a troop of Turkish jannisaries, or perhaps if the management was feeling broad-minded they might have allowed some Jewish musicians to come in to play a spot of klezmer. Every single night a different group of musicians would be there who could hail from any corner of the Empire and occasionally from even farther afield.

And because your coffeehouse had such a sterling reputation for music, nearly every musician of note within the empire could occasionally be seen. Mahler had his own reserved table while he directed the Budapest Opera and would stubbornly insist that no diners speak while the musicians played. Whenever Brahms sailed down the Danube to hear Mahler conduct, Mahler would bring him along. Dvorak could also occasionally be seen peering behind a gigantic mound of goulash. Janacek came by few times and whenever he came could be seen furiously scribbling the notations of whatever he heard on a napkin. Johann Strauss was a frequent guest when his orchestra was off-season and even Richard Strauss was once seen at the cafe with a group of opera singers playing skat.

But there were two guests who came nearly every day from the time they were schoolboys until they were well into their thirties and always sat together at the same table. One was a debonair, extroverted young man who would invite unsuspecting ladies of good standing over to their table so he could bewitch them with talk of a revolution in Hungary that would begin with music. His name was Zoltan Kodaly. The other was a young and painfully shy little man who rarely spoke to anyone but seemed to hear everything. The few words he spoke were either to Kodaly or to the musicians whom Kodaly would invariably invite over to their table after the performance. The rest of the time he would sit quietly and when the music wasn't playing he would pour over mounds of sheet music with a red pen. His name was Bela Bartok. If there was indeed a coffeehouse that brought all the folk music of the empire together, it could not have been better memorialized than it was by those two visionary artists.

The reason all these great musicians would have made constant appearances at a coffeehouse like our imaginary one is because they understood that the 'simple' music of people who had given no thought to posterity or art was capable of containing as much inventiveness as the music of those who did. They, like us, sat through enough terrible concerts to know that 'art' was no guarantee of quality. They were wise enough to take inspiration wherever it came and humble enough to know that the soil which fertilizes great music is too rare to be spurned because of a compromised source. They may not have liked some or even most of the vernacular music they heard. But these composers were men of vision who might perceive the possibility of developing greatness out of even the blandest scrap of music. They knew better than to shut their ears to lesser music, because even in bad music may lay the seed of something infinitely greater.

There is no such thing as art that deserves to be taken seriously just because it is made in a certain style. No amount of protestation about the inherent superiority of classical music will make a bad piece of it seem like an infinitesimal fraction of the reward one derives from a good piece of music in any genre. Those of us who prefer classical music would do well to remember that in a just world, all great music eventually becomes classical.

For as long as I have been listening to the Proms, there has been talk of drastically shortening the season. Surely, people reason, there is no way to sustain a classical music festival at fever pitch for two months. Perhaps they're right. When you have seventy-six orchestral concerts (not to mention a dozen subsidiary ones at other locations), not all of them will generate the same amount of excitement. Maybe there is absolutely no way dress up the third concert of the season by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to interest people. But the solution to this problem is as plain as a British nose on its face.

As it happens, the BBC has at least taken baby steps in the correct direction by opening the door of the Proms at least 5 degrees ajar so that other genres can at least peak their heads in. The only problem was occasionally in how they chose to do it. Last year, rather than bring in the kind of jazz or rock or folk or eastern or theater acts that would honor the Proms with its presence, the otherwise sane Nicholas Kenyon chose to invite Michael ^#%^$*% Ball to give a concert. It was a baby step so far in the wrong direction that you have to wonder at the fact that the Proms manage to conduct themselves otherwise with so much intelligence. In any event, the concert was met with a wall of protest so loud that it's a wonder discussion of branching out to other genres was not closed down altogether.

But the truth remains obvious in spite of all the alarmist claims that any infringement on Radio 3's still extremely serious classical programming is a form of 'dumbing down.' There is simply no good reason why the Proms or Radio 3 should be exclusively classical. Those who complain incessantly about the dumbing down of Radio 3 would have a far better case if they did not regard any potential change in programming as inferior to the dulcet strains of Humphrey Searle that put them to bed every night as children. Classical programming itself will suffer as a result of operating without the context which a wider selection would provide.

There is no good reason why the Proms should not have other acts on their stage. There is no reason why the Proms should be just a venerated and venerable British institution when it could be every bit as important to European cultural life as the Edinburgh Festival.

Just imagine how relevant the Proms could be. Perhaps they could do an entire series devoted to the still remaining masters of jazz in its golden era. Just imagine, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman give concerts on successive nights. Each concert is preceded by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic who have devised a three-concert series devoted to the great works of the masters who were influenced by jazz. The series could even begin with the original piece of swing music, the finale from Schubert's 'Great' C-major symphony. And they could close it with Rhapsody in Blue and announce an obvious soloist for it like Jean-Yves Thibaudet, but instead Hank Jones would walk out and the crowd would go absolutely wild.

Or in the span of a week you could have a special, one-off Proms performance of the four great Shakespearean tragedies for which you hire the very best to direct: Peter Hall for Hamlet, Peter Brook for Othello, Trevor Nunn for Macbeth and Nicholas Hytner for Lear. You could construct a makeshift stage for each of them in the middle of the stage. You could have McKellen or Christopher Plummer come to do Lear with John Hurt playing the fool, Patrick Stewart could come play Macbeth and maybe you could even get one of the Redgrave sisters to play the Lady. Maybe you could even get Brannagh to play Othello this time with an Iago from Jeremy Irons to match him and bring Kate Winslet back to the stage to do Desdemona. And maybe, just maybe, you could get Daniel Day-Lewis to do Hamlet while he still looks 30.

These performances would sell out immediately and on days between performances, maybe Claudio Abbado could be convinced to bring over the Lucerne Festival Orchestra to do a series of programs about music based on Shakespeare. We could even have an Otello the day after Ken and Jeremy go to town on each other, only this time with Jonas Kaufmann (for surely he was born to star in Otello) and Sergei Leiferkus.

Of course this is a pigs fly vision of how the Proms would operate. But would the Proms truly be worse if we tried to make them more like that? How many new fans could we engage by showing other intelligent people that we don't want our fun to be sequestered? We ought to share in their fun and we ought to do everything to make them want to share in ours. If the Beeb can do that, then there's no reason the excitement can't last all throughout the two months. Hell, maybe it could go on for three or four.

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