Josh McNeill

Language, Music, Louisiana.

Tag: classical (page 1 of 2)

New chamber piece.

It looks like I lied more than once in my last post; there were actually three pieces that I needed to upload. Luckily, one of those needed no work at all. It’s the third chamber doodle in the music section.

School preludes.. basically.

I uploaded a couple short pieces that I did this past year in school. They were all done in like 3-4 hours because I’m dumb enough to try to take over the maximum allowable classes and still have a job at the same time. I still liked the results of these enough to add them as “doodles”. Each one had a pedagogical requirements. The second string piece just had to be 2-4 voices. The first chamber piece was a final that… okay I lied. That piece had no requirements. And the second chamber piece is supposed to be useable as film music (you can try to guess the scene I had in mind if you want, that’s what the class did for each student’s work). Anyway, they’re all available for listening/downloading in the music section.

I have two other chamber pieces that I’ll be posting when I have time to fix ’em a bit.

Age schmage.

Colin Holter of NewMusicBox asks in a post:

Have you ever read a piece of serious writing on the attitudes of the elderly toward classical music?

And Molly Sheridan echoes the question over at Mind the Gap:

In what other market would we try and sell an experience to a rarely interested buyer while simultaneously overlooking those demographics that have demonstrated a high affinity for it?

The idea is that perhaps classical institutions should be putting their efforts into courting older people instead of hoping to attract younger people because it’s clear that younger people don’t give a crap. While this sounds like a solid idea, there are a number of aspects to it that are being ignored and even Sheridan admits that “these are not perfect questions.”

Possibly the biggest error in this line of reasoning is overlooking that everyone actually does this. As a commenter at Mind the Gap claims:

Marketers are constantly chasing the elusive younger demographic that doesn’t watch TV while ignoring the older (and wealthier) folks who do.

Remember Joe Camel? He was a cartoon camel who lost his post as mascot for Camel cigarettes because it was feared that he marketed the product too directly toward young people. I admit that I’m making an assumption here myself, but I doubt one could find any industry where a significant portion of the marketing wasn’t aimed at a demographic that currently has no interest in the product. Afterall, why bother marketing to people who will buy your product regardless? Sounds like a waste of money to me.

In fact, this even occurs in the industry that classical music most wishes it could be as successful as: pop music. I’m not even referring to boys bands and their ilk but even successful non-classical bands with a markedly less commercial approach do this. One of my favorite bands, Thursday, admits in an interview:

It’s a weird situation to be in. If we just relied on our fans growing up to have a career, it would be impossible. We’ll be playing in a town and go out for dinner that night and the waitress will have a Thursday tattoo and be like, “Oh wow, I don’t go to shows anymore or buy albums, but I still love you guys.” And it’s like, it’s nice that you still love us, but you’re not coming to see us, or getting our record. I’m sure we have a lot of fans who have since grown up and still have a soft spot in their hearts. But generally I think older people get less and less involved in music. Cause when you’re younger, it’s your whole culture.

I think it would be great if young kids were digging us, because, I don’t know, maybe I could pay rent next month.

The difference in Thursday’s case is that the aging fans they can count on are no longer willing to dish out money while classical music fully expects only these older fans to dish out money but the general idea is the same: Thursday needs to constantly court a new demographic to survive.

Holter mentions in his post that “we can agree that it is thought that the patrons of classical music in the United States are old and getting older,” which may be the most telling sign of where all this comes from. This isn’t “conventional wisdom,” it’s fact. That link, from Greg Sandow’s blog, I’m fairly certain, doesn’t even come close to all the evidence Sandow has posted over the years. While I don’t know Holter at all, even in writing, and am so reticent to pass judgement on him, I still feel inclined to speculate that his refusal to flat out accept this fact could be evidence that he wants to deny that there’s a problem. In that light, why wouldn’t the classical world spend all it’s time going after old people? If there’s no problem, if the industry can count on people spontaneously becoming engrossed in classical music once they hit 60, even those who have never listened before, then there’s really no reason to focus so much on procuring a new young audience.

And, if I had time, I might get into the fact that everything about how the classical world operates already seems geared toward old people. Just look at the programs that largely mimic the programs that were being used 60-70 years ago; is that an appeal to young people or to people who were alive back then? I’m sure I don’t need to extrapolate much further than that in order for anyone to get my point.

Too old for prizes?

The Rest is Noise reports on French composer Henri Dutilleux receiving the Kravis Prize today, which consists of a $200,000 grant and a commission with the New York Philharmonic. The most interesting part to me is this phrase:

” . . . Henri Dutilleux, who turns ninety-six next month.”

Wow. Go him. But it really makes me wonder what the probability of him completing this commission is. I guess anyone could die at any second so handing out a huge sum of cash and a work order to someone who’s particularly old isn’t much different from handing it out to someone who is particularly young, but I still suspect that the probabilities of dying before the work’s completion are incredibly out of wack. Is it wrong to even take this into consideration? I mean, there are plenty of young up-starts who would kill to get this opportunity. I guess the risk in that case is they may not write something that anyone wants to hear… That brings us to a discussion of the general lack of taking risks on new music in the classical world. But then, Dutilleux doesn’t write safe romantic-style music so I guess he’s a bit of a risk in that sense.

In any case, things like this simply don’t come up in the pop music world where you’re old once you hit thirty.

Noiseless concerts.

This morning I came across this post on Alex Ross’s blog about a recent skirmish at a London Philharmonic concert of Bruckner’s 4th symphony. Norman Lebrecht, while giving more in depth coverage of the incident, attracted the attention of the instigator, one Alex Verney-Elliott, whose response was posted on Lebrecht’s blog.

Mr. Verney-Elliott, apparently, got up in the middle of the 4th movement and called the performance “rubbish” before storming off, as the YouTube clip on Mr. Ross’s blog shows. I listened and, honestly, it’s barely audible. I understand that unwrapping a piece of gum at a classical performance can sometimes be loud enough to be distracting, due to the lack of amplification and extreme dynamics of the music, but this doesn’t seem to be the case here. What’s more, wasn’t this a common occurence in past eras? Don’t misunderstand me, like some commenters, I think Mr. Verney-Elliott probably should have waited until the end of the performance to “boo”, but mid-performance outbursts have not always been so frowned upon (I’m fairly certain this pertains even to “booing”, which I believe I’ve read about happening at opera houses in Rossini’s day on Greg Sandow’s blog). Essentially, outbursts are an extremely effective way of calling attention the perceived competence level of performers. Of course, the drawback is that those making the noise could be an extreme minority, as Mr Verney-Elliott seems to be.

In any case, the responses are interesting. Calls for “banning” Mr. Verney-Elliott seem ridiculous. While admittedly not going quite this far, it’s almost as if other concert-goers are against having people in the audience who won’t reliably clap at the end, regardless of how they feel about the performance. That’s unfortunate. How often do bad performances receive bad ovations? Or no ovations? Or “booing”? Perhaps Mr. Verney-Elliott was at one end of the politeness-spectrum in this case but it seems to me that the vast majority of listeners are at the other of this spectrum where they aren’t even willing to tell a performer that they sucked. How can things improve in that atmosphere? Critics can pan performances but they’re not necessarily the voice of the people.

So maybe Mr. Verney-Elliott went too far, but I think it only appears to be an extreme actions because of the culture surrounding classical music performances. As one commenter stated, this heckler should maybe have been at a rock or jazz concert where such actions are acceptable. Therein lies the crux of why your average music lover is way more likely to do just that.

Does Rachmaninoff actually care?

So The Rambler has informed me that IMSLP, a web site that posts scores for public domain music, has been put on hiatus by GoDaddy at the request the Music Publishers Association of the UK (MPA). Apparently, this is not the first time this has happened. The MPA is concerned over the status of a Rachmaninoff piece (The Bells). I have no idea how the legal nuances of this work out since, obviously, these scores are available internationally through IMSLP. The part that concerns me is how Rachmaninoff feels about all this. He died in 1943. Many people have been born, lived full lives, and died since his death. Isn’t the point of copyright to protect creators? To give them financial incentive to create? How is Rachmaninoff benefiting from this? How is his family benefiting from this? I’m pretty sure he never even had kids so there would be no younger beneficiaries of his work. Even if he had kids, it would be pretty likely that they would have already lived out their long lives as well. To me, this is the problem with the copyright system: our culture is being held up for ransom.

Coffee weighs more than music.

This was a video created by vocal group Octarium and subsequently commented on by Alex Ross. It draws attention to how difficult it can be for people who want to make a living in music, not just non-profit groups, to thrive and how little an audience can care about that. Mr. Ross points out that he can’t understand why so many people don’t want to pay for their musical entertainment even while they’re willing to pay for over-priced flavored hot water, otherwise known as coffee, on a daily basis. I think the answer is simple: coffee has mass. When you walk into a coffee shop and order your tall cafe mocha latte decaf espresso you can expect that said coffee shop now has one less tall cafe mocha latte decaf espresso available for sale. You can also expect that they had to spend money to obtain that tall cafe mocha latte decaf espresso in the first place. Music, on the other hand, can be created and disseminated with literally no expense at all (studios have been shutting down left and right for the last decade for a very good reason). Even live music can be be an expenseless endeavor for the performers, assuming it’s not an opera company or an ensemble large enough to require a special size of venue. All that is required to produce these things is time and commitment. All that’s required to distribute the product of that time and commitment is an internet connection. So why should any consumer feel the need to pay for this? If coffee were so cheap to produce and could be replicated ad infinitum, do you think people would expect to have to pay for that as well?

Classical study halls.

A recent post over at The Free Arrow, that came to me via Greg Sandow’s blog, talks about the idea of using a scoreboard of sorts at classical concerts to help the uninitiated follow along. The author, Michael Oneil Lam, tells us that he is not part of the classical world but does go to concerts because his wife is a musician. He states his frustration with following program notes at these events:

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs. Thus, I have to look several events forward and backward in the notes and try to pattern-match them to the things I’ve heard in the past 5-10 minutes to have any hope of knowing where I am in the piece (“is this the ‘lyrical horn solo’ or was that the bit a couple of minutes ago?”). After 15 minutes or so of this, I inevitably give up.

He then goes on to describe how a scoreboard would be able to display the name of the piece, conductor, composer, current position in the music and even what section of the orchestra the audience should be paying attention to. I have to applaud Michael for spending the time and effort to come up with a fairly novel idea but I also can’t help noticing the myriad of issues at classical concerts that this idea should bring to our attention.

For one, why do we require such detailed program notes in the first place? Why don’t program notes exist at concerts for any other genre of music? At a pop music concert (to use a convenient general term for non-classical music) we’re only told the name of the artist if they decide to tell us themselves. We only know the name of the song or the backstory for it if the musicians choose to talk to us about it. And we certainly never hear about subdominant modulations or the theory behind why the guitar solo is based on a pentatonic scale. These are all things we regularly find in program notes though. It’s as if the classical world is so insecure about whether the music can be appreciated on its own that it decides to shove obtuse information into the face of the audience in order to assert its complexity and importance. Pianist Jeremy Denk checked something similar to this off on his list of program note sins, calling it the “insider’s club” sin:

Included in many program notes are tidbits of historical information.

It’s amazing how canonical these tidbits can become. I played Beethoven’s First Concerto a number of times last season and every single program note noted that while the First Concerto is called number 1, it was actually composed second, after the Second Concerto, which was actually first. Now, as a performer and person, I am theoretically glad I know this, in the larger context of the Beethoven story, but, finally: YAWN. In fact, double yawn! Yawn times infinity plus one! Suppose you as a listener and program note reader do not know the Second Concerto, and you’re just looking for help to appreciate the work before you: this seems like a pretty “meta” piece of information to help you out; it seems like what a kind of tedious museum guide would say. Ironic, because of all Beethoven works the First Concerto is not “meta”: from the moment the piano enters, its simplicity requires no insider information. Beethoven takes care to speak to you with obvious grammar, with clear rhetoric, almost Phrasing for Dummies. And he takes you dummies through an epic tale nonetheless, using the harmonic equivalent of “see Jane run” as a doorway to shaded, subtle corners of tonality.

When I find these tidbits in program notes, I get an unshakable mental image: a group of gentlemen in smoking jackets, smoking cigars in a private club, exchanging “I say, old chap, did you know that the first concerto was actually composed second”? They’re chortling to each other, but their back is to you; through the knowledge they share, they exclude the larger group. The tidbits of knowledge are a badge of belonging, even though they do not particularly or centrally illuminate the work in question. For some reason these tidbits have become a habit, even a required element of program notes: I have no idea why.

One might say that knowing things like the name of the piece or conductor or movements is very basic information that the audience should know so that they can follow up on what they heard afterward, if they liked it, and I would agree. Part of the problem with giving this information out in program notes is that it’s highly passive. One of the things that’s great about pop concerts that you will rarely find at a classical concert is how communicative it all is. The musicians often talk to the audience, play with the audience, even enter the audience. The audience often sings along, dances, even talks back. The interconnection between performers and listeners, at a good concert, can be magical. Then you go to a symphony and the most interaction you get is an academic lecture before anyone has actually arrived, applause (when it’s actually allowed), and a bow. Maybe one of the many small things that would help orchestras become intimate with their audience would be doing something as simple as speaking to them and not in academic jargon but simple speech; speech that shows that they’re normal, relatable people too. While I don’t agree with this guy’s ultimate solution to classical music’s problems, he encapsulates how much easier it can be to for an apathetic audience to enjoy a very old piano piece simply be engaging them:

Essentially, concert halls seem to be made into study halls. We don’t go there to listen to the music and experience something communal but to instead study work that we’re told is important and apparently that’s what outsiders see it as too. Michael feels that he needs to be told which part of the music he should be paying attention to but that’s not what music is supposed to be about. We’re simply supposed to listen, to feel, to soak in an experience that’s beyond words, beyond program notes and study guides.

Oh, that ironic classical scene.

A common topic, and one that I follow quite a bit, is how to save classical msuic. There are blogs, such as Greg Sandow’s, that talk about nothing but this. What I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of these conversations contain language that directly demonstrate one of the largest problems that the genre has: elitism. I don’t mean to slam people who seem to be honestly trying to find solutions to things such as an aging audience and dwindling funding but perpetuating a rather large issue, even while trying to figure out solutions, really needs to be addressed. I recently read a post over at Seated Ovation that contrasts the German classical scene with the American scene; in particular, their ability to attract young audiences. The article contained this gem:

And, generally, young people turn out for the Berlin Philharmonic. There’s an especially large surplus of the 25-35 crowd who dress well and seem culturally refined, more like the breakdown of the Met Opera than the New York Phil (the Staatsoper audience, based on the two performances I attended in their main theater, seems to skew older).

We’ll ignore the anecdotal evidence, especially since the writer claims it’s anecdotal himself, and focus on the language he’s using. Namely, why would one feel the need to point out that this 25-35 crowd is culturally refined and well dressed? Maybe they are, but who cares? Statements like this imply that one is not cultured if they’re not attending symphony performances. I would argue that most orchestras are so far removed from modern culture that they can’t be used as a measure of how “refined” someone’s sense of culture is at all. At best, it’s a measure of how aware one is of the culture that our modern world sprang from, especially since the majority of what you will hear programmed is over 100 years old, even in Berlin (judging by the current season at the Philharmonic).

This simple sentence also implies that those who go to orchestral concerts have the desire and finances necessary to get all dazzled up. There’s something to be said for wearing your best clothes to a performance; it makes the show something special and allows you to escape your routine. That said, it also carries connotations of superiority, as if you would not be welcome if you couldn’t fit this mold. Maybe that’s not the case, maybe it is, maybe this is a very small implication anyway. Regardless, it helps to preserve the damaging image that classical music has of being elitist which can keep even adventurous listeners out of the concert halls.

I’ve come across this sort of thing reading posts at On An Overgrown Path as well. For instance, not in this post but in the author’s comments, he writes:

This path raises all sorts of interesting questions. Have the ears and brains of the young people – the MP3 generation – lost the ability, like their audio systems, to decode more complex musical sounds? Does this explain the increasing popularity of world music, the sound of which is largely percussive and light in complex overtones? Does it also explain the decline in popularity among young listeners of classical music? Do we need to spend more time thinking about the auditory capabilities of audiences and the limitations of audio reproduction systems? Do we need to think more about the lost art of listening?

The implication here being that young people simply can’t hear the greatness that is classical music. The music is simply too complex for their dumbed down ears. This sort of statement doesn’t seem to phase the classical audience that will likely be reading it but anyone who’s not already in that circle is probably going to feel, as I did, that this is a bit of a shot at those who listen to popular music.

The intentions in all of this are great. We need more people asking questions about why the classical audience is aging and trying to find out what will keep this tradition vibrant but it’s at least a little ironic to me that the very people doing this tend to perpetuate some really bad PR. It’s all seems to add up to people asking, “How can we get people to step up to our level?” As opposed to asking, “How can we make ourselves relevant to a world that doesn’t even know we’re here anymore?”

Times change and so do file formats.

I uploaded a new piece for violin and cello today. This is my first attempt at writing something for string instruments other than guitar, and other than purposefully synthesized strings, and it turned out nice. This was written pretty quickly, an just a day, hence it’s a doodle just like most of the piano pieces posted here so far. Anyway, check it out.

I also spent a little time mixing all my classical tracks down to flac format. These are lossless, meaning the quality doesn’t diminish when the files are compressed into something that doesn’t take up an enormous amount of space. They’re still bigger than MP3s but not significantly. Seems to me that this is the way everything you find online is going to start going so I’m gonna jump on that train. They’re already widespread in torrents…..

Anyway, I’m considering making flac versions of everything I’ve done and possibly even remixing old songs that I absolutely butchered in my more ignorant days. We’ll see.

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