Courtesy of The New York Times

October 3, 2016

SWAN | Trying to Be Relevant

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I was at a party one time and I was introduced to someone through a mutual friend. “This is Nick,” my friend said. “He’s really into music and he plays the piano.”

“Cool, that’s sort of interesting! What do you like to play on the piano?”

“Well, I’m classically trained, and my favorite composers are Bach and Chopin.”

“Wow, you must be really sensitive and have an exquisite taste for the nuances of creating art, like Bach’s subtle suspensions and dissonances in ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and other works!”

Or, some derivative of that story occurred, sans the closing remark. Being introduced as a musician of the western classical tradition often garners a vague, uninspired response of awe and not much further dialogue. The reason for this is not hard to ascertain, as the antiquity of classical music as a whole polarizes many unfamiliar individuals. Those who study and play it are equated to contentious historians and scholars, blindly devoted to an art form that is slowly withering away. For many years, I was able to find a certain degree of romance in this undying faith to the elder musical gods and their respective bodies of work. And, like many classical enthusiasts, I believed my preferred art to be vastly superior to the relatively simple properties and aesthetics of popular music. Yet, after a fair share of existential dread and awakening, I’ve begun to lose appreciation for this isolated mode of making music. Too often does classical performance feel like an anxious shout of blaring chords and lightning chromatic runs into a vast, empty void. And nobody likes shouting into the void.

Would classical composers themselves be pleased with how their music has been relegated to such a tiny intellectual class of players? I think not. Hundreds of years ago, during the time of our beloved composers like Beethoven or Mozart, the process of musicking was entirely different from current practices of classical interpretation. Chiefly, it was much more formulaic than what current enthusiasts wish to believe. Composers would build upon schemas, or patterns of notes and chord progressions that were popular among contemporary audiences and norms. (Try to imagine the chord progression of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major.” This is one schema that has remained popular for so many generations of musical creation.) Often times these composers would actually improvise melodies and harmonies over these schemata, only loosely obeying the written progressions and directions. This is nearly the polar opposite of modern classical playing, which as previously mentioned, is fixed in its own tradition. When considering the fact that many composers worked in such a way, the current practice of playing classical music seems odd and completely academic in nature rather than inherently musical. By attempting to faithfully recreate the recorded ideas of past composers, current musicians lose sight of the true artistic spirit in which these figures originated.

Furthermore, an exclusive fixation on classical music is contrary to the intentions of these composers. As previously mentioned, composers would often write in the most popular styles of their times, seeking originality through subtle modifications of these progressions and harmonies. In this sense, perhaps a true honoring of the spirit of classical composers would be to seriously consider and work within the popular schemas and practices of our time. Music in its most basic form is merely a method of communication, and so when this social aspect of making music is removed, it ceases to exist on a human scale and is thus only aesthetically pleasant. Many of us have seen Amadeus in high school or at some point, and despite the film’s comic undertone, it does accurately capture the communal nature of musical appreciation at the time. As we rage to electronic MacBook creations, musical patrons of the 1790s raged to the fortepiano. Making music that can be enjoyed and identified with by the masses of contemporary listeners is indeed truer to the origins of classical works and to music in general.

This is not to criticize the efficacy of a quality classical training on a particular instrument. Indeed, such a background in music awards one with a supreme technical demand and a comprehensive understanding of theory that will foreseeably always be relevant. Neither am I doubting the merits of the current study of western classical music as it occurs in classrooms and concert halls around the world. Yet, I do question whether this academic tradition is music in its truest form. Perhaps emulating the spirit of classical composers is the finest way of honoring their achievements. Not everyone derives pleasure from EDM-driven pop music, but it is important to consider these current trends and even seek to improve upon them where they may fall short. This indeed is a more faithful representation of the epic visionaries of classical music.

Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester. 

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