Monday, December 31, 2012

The 10 greatest myths about classical music

If you, like me, are a lover of Art music, you've probably had to deal with loads of ignorance about the object of our love. You may have frequently found yourself outnumbered by groups of sissy pop fans or  pseudo rockboys - each group insisting vehemently on a particular classical music myth - even going as far as to ridicule your taste. This may have slightly annoyed you, but you know that educating the rockboy and the pansypopper is a task that will take some time. Further, when the right stuff is swirling around inside and banality of chord progressions eludes you, you actually enjoy some of their music. So you put up with them and present the stiff upper lip.
But when a wannabe rapper come along and start expounding, that's when you draw the line. Enough is, so to speak, enough. You draw back the arm and let go of one of the solidest right in the face of the little shit. You witness with satisfaction, his collapse to the ground and the ceasing of nonsense from his lips. And later, perhaps you go home and play a little Rachmaninoff. Nothing  better when the blood is flowing than good old Rach.
Yet, at the end of the day, however much the wannabe rapper deserved it, it is you who have set yourself up for assault charges. Furthermore, you have attracted the attention of one of the lowliest sets of beings in all creation, one which will now be very angry with you and might cause trouble for you later.
It is with this in mind that I have have taken it upon myself to Educate. In the hope that it may have some effect on the pansypopper, the rockboy and the rapshit. And, hopefully, provide you with some entertainment.

Myth one: Classical music is necessarily old

The slow bastardisation of the word 'classical' has lead to this widespread belief. 'Classic', when used in the context of cars, cameras and many other objects implies an old, dated model which is quaint and amusing. Does it apply to music? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Classical music is music of an advanced form, structure and complexity. As a genre, it has gone through more than fifteen periods over seven hundred years, many of them running simultaneously and a some of them running right now. There are 'classical' composers living today just like there were 'classical' composers living five hundred years ago. Two famous examples of living composers are Karl Jenkins and Philip Glass. Much of their music is more recent than the rock of Led Zeppelin and Guns n Roses.
[Note to the educated: I don't want to confuse them by telling them about the Classical Period under this heading. It would be too much for them to process.]

Myth two: Classical music is slow, soft and peaceful

Rockboys this is for you. You think classical music is a large collection of lullabies, right? Very peaceful, pastoral and calming to the nerves, ideal for 'relaxation'.
Well I've got news for you. Classical music is the only music that frequently demands playing twenty notes or more per second. Furthermore, much of it was written to communicate a disturbed individual's turbulent mental state. And with the likes of  Beethoven and Schumann (who had much greater cause to be upset than  Kurt Cobain) regularly communicating thus, the music is often passionate, uncomfortable and nerve wracking.

Myth three: Classical sopranos make a sport of glass breaking

The ridiculous cartoon of a prima donna holding a wine glass  and screaming an unearthly note to shatter it is one that seems to have left an indelible mark. One frequently encounters an 'imitation' soprano performance by a drunken man who shouts in a falsetto that shatters eardrums, not glass. That the wine glass  also shatters can be attributed to his tight grip made still tighter by the condition of his bladder.
The fact is, the highest note in operatic repertoire is F6. Glass cannot be shattered at that frequency. Mariah Carey, who frequently shrieks in her 'whistle register', is much more likely to break bad quality glass than any operatic soprano.

Myth four: Classical musicians are rubbish: they cannot 'play by ear'

Replaying music by listening to it as opposed to reading notation is not a wondrous skill. It is simply a different skill, a useful skill, and one which most musicians should acquire. The skill that really distinguishes an extraordinary musician from an ordinary one is the ability to create good music - to compose. 'Playing by ear' - merely reproducing what someone else has created requires just as much skill as learning to read notation and play it well.
Most people who 'learn music' are taught the notation method of learning; this is a direct outcome of the division between composers and pianists that occurred in the nineteenth century. Often teachers completely neglect the second method - to reproduce sound without notation. This has resulted in a large number of so called musicians who seem unable to play ba ba black sheep or Happy Birthday on request, but can perhaps play a stern Liszt Rhapsody.
Turn the tables - ask them to play a different Liszt Rhapsody 'by ear' - they will be absolutely and completely stumped. Their inability to play by ear has nothing to do with classical music - if they cannot play pop, rock or folk music by ear they most certainly cannot play classical by ear. Give them notes for folk, rock or pop and they'll do a decent job (Probably a better job than they are doing with the Liszt Rhapsody)
These exclusively-notation-musicians can be found in large numbers in all genres of music. Some of them rise to prominence in classical music performance because among all the genres, classical is the best documented and scored. It's not the Art which encourages their one dimensional view, it is they who feed off a positive characteristic of the Art to succeed despite their significant limitation.

Myth five: Lifts(elevators) play classical music 

This is just silly. Lifts play 'themes' from classical works, often monophonic and in a different key. And if you've found an elevator that actually plays CD-recorded music, it is most likely soft saxophone music by Kenny G which is about as close to classical music as Sly Donkey is to Bridge.

Myth six: Orchestral/choral conductors are just for show 

Apart from composers, conductors are the most revered members of our field. And with good reason, too. The conductor has to shape the music of an orchestra or a choir - both of which are composed of multiple performers. He needs to give the music a unique, individual character. While most of the conductor's work happens before the show (during rehearsals),  his role is critical at the time of the performance too. Without the expressions on his face, the movement of his arms and his general body language, the ensemble would likely perform substantially below par.

Myth seven: Classical music is elitist and pretentious 

One cannot blame the general public for believing this myth because there are plenty of elitist and pretentious people who make a show of enjoying classical music. However, true music lovers will soon note that these people often know as much about music as Jains know about the taste of meat. Most of them are unable to hold a tune or sing in correct time. Their greatest contribution to the art is the righteous indignation with which they turn around and censure fellow concert-goers for shuffling the feet or whispering during a performance.
The true patrons of classical music are the community of performers, composers and teachers. These people are generally humble because they are consciously aware of how very little they know and of how much more there is to learn. Furthermore, they just don't have the money to indulge highfalutin whims as music is not the highest paying line of work. In the vein of the composers whom they dedicate their profession to, they are frequently strugglers searching for a way to express themselves. There is simply no time for pretentiousness and idiocy.

Myth eight: Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra performed classical music

Here, I find myself having to perform the painful task of distinguishing between old pop music and classical music. It is a very insulting task, rather like distinguishing between the localities of Bandra and Bandra East. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are crooners. Their music is great if you want to be thrown back in time into a 20th century music hall or if you want to fall off to sleep. The way they sing is not only un-classical, it is anti classical. Frank Sinatra, in particular, seems to delight in consonant clusters and zero resonance. Enough said!

Myth nine: Nobody is interested in classical music 'any more'

A prevailing myth is that 'in the old days', everyone listened to classical music and that now, with electronically enhanced sounds available, classical music is in some sort of decline.
The truth is, the enlightened percentage of the population that patronised classical music in 18th and 19th century Europe was just as small  as the one that does so now. But it is a loyal, consistent percentage - one that will never increase or reduce dramatically.
In fact, in this century and the previous one, with the expansion of classical music to the far east, countries that never had a chance to be a part of the tradition have started producing the greatest virtuosos. The loyal, small percentage I talked about is visible in more and more nations and cultures. Furthermore, with the population explosion worldwide, it is safe to say that there are several hundred times more people interested in classical music now than there were two hundred years ago. It is the other percentage of the population that has changed - 200 hundred years ago, they listened to sea shanties and folk songs. Today, they patronise rock, pop, funk, trance, dance, hip hop and much more.

Myth ten:  Classical music is from Tom and Jerry

A delightful show is Tom and Jerry and one of the reasons is the fabulous music. Who can forget Tom's solemn, ridiculous cat concerto? Or Jerry's Hollywood Bowl?
While the music makes the show adult-watchable, thinking that it was originally intended for the show should get you classified as slightly simple. Liszt, Tchaikovsky et al were not seers. And even if they did visualise a Tom and Jerry filled future, they most certainly did not attempt to provide the background music to which that future would march. Their music was composed for a live concert audience; it has been simply put to good use by MGM.
Yet, the frequency with which this myth is entertained is truly remarkable. Just the other day, a work mate of mine called Beethoven's 5th Symphony a 'Tom and Jerry tune'. This with a look of delighted recognition on his faces as he heard the urgent motif sounding somewhere in the distance. It is to him that I dedicate this final myth - in the hope that he and all like him may soon see the error of their ways and vow to reform. 


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