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Improper Conduct

In a recent Arts and Culture article for the Los Angeles Times, Rick Schultz lists responses from conductors describing what they listen to for recreation. What I find interesting is the article’s angle: There’s classical music, and there’s other genres, especially with the diverse range of “non-classical” music mentioned by the respondents. Rock appears quite a bit, but so too does jazz, and even pre-rock popular music in one instance.

In other words, within broad cultural contexts, there’s still a certain element of surprise to the notion that classical music fans, performers, and composers aren’t part of some monolithic collective of “refined taste.” Far from it! But the stereotypes remain, even within the cultural contexts described by Schultz. As he points out, quite a few of these conductors grew up with rock music:

One reason for the change in attitude is the Internet, which gives busy conductors easy access to different musical genres. Another is simply that for baby boom conductors such as [Baltimore Symphony music director Marin] Alsop and Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, pop and rock was in the air during their formidable years. Even much of an earlier generation of conductors was swept up.

With his lifelong interest in popular music, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein receives mention in the previous paragraph as well. His approach might seem a bit paternalistic nowadays, at least if one uses as a frame of reference the avuncular and meant-to-reassure-adults CBS documentary Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution (1967).

Still, his advocacy of rock back in the 1960s likely seemed even more incongruous than it (perhaps?) does nowadays. He sure enjoyed performing it for the kids. The kids who are now the same age as those leading major orchestras… and even older.

And he seemed to have really loosened up by the time he won his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, as seen in this footage.

And yet, even in these times, classical remains as some kind of separate entity from practically all other kinds of music. The aforementioned L.A. Times article, as well as the recent discussion that emerged over the exclusion of classical musicians from a New York Times Magazine feature The Lives They Lived, underscore this point. I reference similar writings in my posting on the latter, but it seems that the “greatness” attached to classical by its advocates many years ago have worked too well. They remain compelling to the point that they’ve have ended up backfiring.

Based on personal observations, I’ve noticed that people who enjoy classical music have popular favourites as well. The L.A. Times article seems to bear this out. I’m not so sure that it works to the same in reverse, however. (That said, counterexamples are welcome!) That is, unless things have changed substantially in the small rural town where I grew up, and unless some of the broader cultural issues mentioned in my posting on “marginalized elitism” have magically cleared up overnight.

In any case, there are times when I’ve detected some denial that there’s anything to this. That “we” already know about such similarities… “we” being those who are in an academic and/or culturally sophisticated environment. Or that people don’t care about finding music beyond a favoured genre. One person I spoke to recently assumed that I’m engaging in research on cross-genre similarity as a way to “elevate” listeners’ taste.

A person’s interest in a genre can wind down, especially if they have difficulty finding other things they like that fit that category. Perhaps this means that there are other musical features they find more compelling, without being aware of it. For instance, in my case, there’s Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Both German Romantics and near-contemporaries, always categorized broadly as “classical,” which is presumably “my music.” But I have multiple recordings of the same pieces by Wagner, and almost nothing by Brahms, whose music goes in one ear and out the other for me. That is, with the exception of The Hungarian Dances.

There are, in fact, plenty of popular musicians I’d rather listen to than [most] Brahms, some of whom I’ve mentioned in previous postings.

This might be an idiosyncratic personal trait, but I’d seriously doubt it. For every one curmudgeon who thinks I’m on a mission to make people more “cultured,” there are plenty of others who get excited in describing their diverse musical tastes. Maybe it’s not an unusual phenomenon, but it requires the creation of opportunities for people to rely on more than just chance to find something they like. For instance, how do I find something that’s different from what they I listen to, but that’s also sufficiently similar (whatever that might mean)? Where do I begin to explore heavy metal if I tend to like classical (or at least composers of a specific kind), and vice versa? A relevant account from Schultz’s article is conductor Osmo Vänskä’s story of hearing his son’s “battle metal” band:

“It was a great moment in my life,” said Vänskä, 59. “We can play loud too, but when I listened to them, my stomach felt the bass drum and bass guitar. I would like to get a similar kind of sound from the symphonists. There are things that should give exactly the same physical feeling in your body, like Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.'”

Metal informing classical performance? Why not? As the stories of these conductors convey, there can be a richness to personal musical narratives that genre categories can overlook. The continuing polarization of “art music” against popular music doesn’t help much. Nonetheless, more stories like the L.A. Times piece can use this persistent cultural convention as a way to subvert it, and to invite broad musical exploration with less trepidation.

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