Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Musical Musings

Right now, I'm listening to a recording of Rachmaninoff's second symphony. This symphony is a piece I wasn't well acquainted with until fairly recently; I'd heard bits and pieces of it over the years, but I'd never heard it in its entirety until late last month, when I was lucky enough to have a ticket to hear it performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (As I mentioned in a previous entry, I spent about five days in Chicago last month. I was there with my community choir; we were there to perform a piece with two other choirs and an orchestra in a comparatively small community close to Chicago, and because it's so far away from where we live, we decided we'd make a trip of it.) Even from my seat way up in the gallery, the sound was spectacular.

The evening I heard this symphony, I happened to be sitting beside my choir director. We've always gotten along well, and during the intermission we got to talking a bit, and the conversation naturally turned to music. While even my infamously good memory has lost track of much of what we said, I remember one part of the conversation quite well—I remarked that I couldn't believe that anyone could possibly think of classical music as boring, and he replied that he suspected that an appreciation of classical music might at least partially depend on whether the person hearing it knew something about actually playing it. I had to admit that maybe he had a point; hearing music takes very little effort, but how much one gets from listening to it, actually paying attention to it, can sometimes depend on knowing exactly what to listen for. And yet, I know at least one person who doesn't play any musical instruments, but who has a keen appreciation for classical music, even though she was really only introduced to it when she was in her early twenties.

Perhaps it's got something to do with the image that classical music has gradually developed in the last hundred years or so. The performers of it are usually dressed in formal attire, and even if the audience isn't always dressed as formally as the performers are, their clothing is usually a bit nicer than what they'd choose to wear if they were just going to a movie with some friends. It's a form of music associated with grandparents, the intellectual elite (or those who only pretend to be) and rich people—not, perhaps, as accessible to most younger people as the manufactured marketing tool that we know as pop music.*

I suppose that it irritates me a bit that one of my favourite forms of music—one that's got such a range of emotion, one that I find so fascinating to listen to and that I even like to play once in awhile, even if I'm not very good at it—is widely dismissed as the kind of music that only people who are over-privileged, hopeless sticks in the mud or geniuses or pseudo-intellectuals could possibly find any value in. People forget that it's still used in most movie soundtracks. (Who could say that John Williams' "Imperial March" or "Hedwig's Theme", Howard Shore's theme for the Lord of the Rings films, or Alan Silvestri's theme for "Back to the Future" are boring, forgettable or inaccessible?) They forget that despite its reputation as a tedious artefact of the past that simply has no relevance today, many people of all ages are learning to play it—and love it—and that if they really want to listen to it, they don't need a ticket to the symphony, they can just flip to the appropriate station on the radio or look up a performance on YouTube.

Perhaps this is another kind of damage that's wrought by privilege, or at least, by the perception of it. It turns a great kind of music into something that many people won't even consider listening to because they think you have to be old or snobby to have any interest in it at all, and that anyone who isn't old or elitist is only pretending to like it. Food for thought, anyway.

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*I think that at this point, it may be best—purely in the interests of honesty and perhaps for bit of comic relief—to acknowledge that despite my lifelong love of classical music (and many other kinds of music, of course), when I was a teenager I was as likely as most other girls my age to listen to the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and the Backstreet Boys, that I've recently developed an almost worrying appreciation for the work of Lady Gaga, and that I still listen to *NSYNC when I need a good laugh.

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