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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Is Music Worse Off Than Poetry Or Dance?


By Michael Parkhurst

A brief response to your "Requiem" for classical music ("WHY CLASSICAL MUSIC HAS FALLEN OFF THE CULTURAL LITERACY MENU"):

Disclaimer: Iím NOT a practicing arts professional and know barely enough  about any of the arts to be dangerous. As will be apparent shortly!

While I agree with much of what you said in the essay, itís worth pointing out a couple of obvious things that often get lost in a discussion like this one. As you rightly acknowledge, any meaningful appreciation of the arts requires some kind of training or education. However, the number of people who have ever had the luxury of acquiring that training Ė to understand what the heck is going on in a symphony or distinguish between a sonata and a cantata Ė has *always* been relatively limited. (Hasnít it?)

Iím curious if there isnít a much larger educated audience for serious music (both in relative and abstract terms) than ever before. I suspect there is, but maybe Iím wrongÖ

Secondly, very few of us get much of an education in what you might call the grammar and vocabulary of ANY of the arts. We Ė I mean the vast majority of Americans, definitely including myself! Ė are *at least* as ignorant about painting, literature, drama, sculpture, dance, architecture etc. as we are about music.

But there are some real differences among the arts, and itís interesting to consider what makes music particularly inaccessible for us modern philistines. I can look at a 16th Century painting and be dimly aware that there are dozens of symbols that I canít recognize, but that are absolutely intrinsic to whatís going on in the painting Ė in the same way that I am dimly aware that there is a formidable set of theoretical decisions driving the Bach piece Iím listening to that are totally beyond my current understanding.

Same with modern painting, film, etc.: if I have any self-awareness, I know I donít really know what the heck Chagall is doing or why; and thatís all the more true with Charles Ives. But for some reason hardly anybody would admit they donít know who Chagall is, but wouldnít necessarily lose sleep over confusing Ives with Barber (if I understand your essay aright).

So letís think about this a little more: There are a couple of very different things going on when we talk about "accessibility"; one is what Iíve been discussing - the formal complexity and historical context that have to be mastered to "appreciate" the work in any meaningful sense. I think itís relatively safe to say that all art is relatively inaccessible in that sense.

Indeed, Iíd suggest that is one of the defining markers of art: that it requires and rewards (intentionally, intrinsically) effort, attention and knowledge of its history and context to be very meaningful at all.

So Bach is just as inaccessible in that sense as Elliott Carter. Then thereís accessibility in terms of enjoyment Ė Bachís work is "accessible" in a way that Carter is not. And here we run up against something about music that seems to me to be very special.

Arguably all the arts, but certainly painting, literature and music (to pick three) all veered sharply away in the twentieth century (or had influential movements that did) from "accessibility" in the second sense. In a sense it became one of the signifiers of an intent to produce "serious" art to reject popular accessibility.

But some art forms got farther away from the public than others; it wasnít long before stuff that looks like Kandinsky or Pollock found its way to the walls of tonier banks and insurance companies. People evince great respect for modernist fiction like Joyce, even if very few people actually made it through "Ulysses." But your essay neatly puts its finger on something very interesting: from at least the mid-twentieth century on, it seems like itís perfectly ok NOT to know anything about music, in a way that is definitely hard to imagine for some of the other arts.

Returning to your original question: why the heck is that? Well, I donít know for sure. I started to say itís because musical experience Ė however much it resembles mathematics in its purity and elegance on the page Ė is incredibly intimate in a way other arts are not. But then, reading literature is at least as intimate, and so probably is film. Am I more likely to stick with a "challenging" film or novel and try to "get something out of it" than I am to grit my teeth and sit still for what feels like an aural assault?

If much of twentieth century art is (among other things) a renunciation of Beauty, then we shouldnít be surprised that only people that have to (for professional or neurotic-compulsive reasons) do listen to some of the most highly-regarded recent music.

Still, thereís some very lovely music out there Ė why isnít John Adams a household name, but Franzen is? Is it simply Ö marketing? You certainly asked one of the key questions: what would it take to make a "splash" in music that registered in the culture at large? Would you say somebody like Philip Glass does that when he scores films & operas? Adams when people discuss what they see as anti-semitism in Klinghoffer?

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if I havenít come full circle on myself. Is serious music any farther out of the cultural conversation than say, poetry or dance?

Michael Parkhurst

Portland, Oregon


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