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Breakfast Table Tirade

August 5, 2008

On Friday morning, during a trip to Santa Cruz to review a couple of shows in this year's Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival, I found myself sitting at breakfast in the lovely waterfront B&B where I stayed overnight, chatting with a New York-based television producer about classical music.

The producer, whom I shall call D, is in the early stages of putting together a television documentary about classical music, specifically looking at the barriers preventing the wider reception of classical music in America today. D was in town to catch the opening night of the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival.

D is a big fan of Classical period composers. He especially loves Mozart. "I grew up with this music," he said. D was feeling slightly apprehensive about attending the Cabrillo Festival, as in the past, he admitted, he had not gotten a lot out of contemporary classical music. "It doesn't really have any melodies," he told me over fresh scones and lemon preserves. "There's nothing to hang on to."

I thought it was interesting that someone planning on making a documentary about barriers preventing the wider reception of classical music should have this attitude. "I wonder if your feelings about contemporary classical music in some way reflect what many people say about classical music in general in this country?" I suggested. "I mean, you like Mozart because it's wired into your system. You've been listening to the composer's music all your life, so his melodies, rhythms and harmonic systems seem completely familiar and natural to you. If other people feel the same way about Mozart as you do about, say, John Cage, George Benjamin and Conlon Nancarrow, then perhaps that's because they haven't spent a lot of time with Mozart. As a result, his music sounds weird. They don't understand it. Getting to grips with this 'unusual' sound would require a lot of effort, so it's easier just to say they don't like it and stick to stuff they know they do like, whether that be folk music, rap, hip-hop or whatever."

D thought about this for a second and then said, "But you can't compare your average pop song to a Mozart symphony or piano concerto. Pop music is generally very simple. Often it only employs three chords and has very straight forward repeated melodies. Whereas Mozart's music is so sophisticated."

I pushed my point further. "You know, about six months ago, I would have been inclined to agree with you," I told D. I then went on to describe my experience of learning and performing Ordo Virtutum, a 12th century musical drama by Hildegard von Bingen composed in Germanic Latin plainchant, with my a cappella singing ensemble, San Francisco Renaissance Voices. "When I first received the score, I was completely put off by the music. It seemed like an incomprehensible jumble of notes to me. It had no hummable melodies, no rhythms to speak of and, being monophonic, no harmonies," I explained. "But gradually, as I got comfortable with the music and started to learn it, I found that it started to take shape. After a few weeks, Hildegard's formerly dull and inscrutable chants seemed like the most beautiful music in the world. All I needed was to take the time to immerse myself in it."

The point I was trying to make to D is rather simple: People put up barriers to classical music (and many other art forms) not at the deepest level because they find it too complicated or elitist, but rather because they're just not used to hearing it. If J. S. Bach's Toccatas were constantly played on commercial radio stations and in shopping malls, people would inevitably soak up the composer's sounds. After a while, they might actually dig it. Or at the very least, gain an understanding of how it works.

Thinking about this subject reminds me of the time I experienced my first -- and, at this point in time, last -- Chinese opera at Berkeley's Cal Performances the year before last. The Peony Pavilion is regarded as a masterwork. But to me, it sounded like cats being strangled. If I were to listen to lots more Chinese opera, I'm certain the barriers would come down. I may not ever fall in love with this form of music. But I would doubtless be more inclined to stay open-minded and curious about it.

So I wonder if the answer to the barriers question is, at least in part, one of immersion? This is kind of obvious really. It all boils down to openness and education. Simply dismissing unfamiliar genres as "dumb", "elitist" or whatever is all too easy.

I'm not sure what D made of my breakfast table tirade. I'm excited about his project anyway. I hope it comes off.

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