Thursday, October 15, 2009

Heavens to Betsy

High on my list of coveted possessions at the moment is the new DVD of Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a live performance of this work during a centenary festival dedicated to Messiaen's music; the experience of hearing the score performed by a live orchestra, chorus, and soloists remains one of my most memorable musical experiences. Messiaen's score is one of enormous power; although the spiritual journey of Saint Francis is long and accompanied by often dissonant music, the score builds inexorably toward moments of exquisite beauty, and the final C-sharp major peroration is jaw-dropping.

You can imagine my reaction, therefore, when I encountered a review of the new DVD in my hometown paper, the Toronto Star, which begins as follows:
It may not be the right thing to say in polite company, but sitting through a lot of new music feels like sonic self-flagellation. If, as the late philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, pleasure is the absence of pain, silence might be bliss. That concern could come to a head during the 5 1/2 hours of Olivier Messiaen's only opera, a series of vignettes depicting St. Francis's hourney toward light and grace. The music is atonal. Jean Kalman's set is stark, laden with rough-hewn symbolism.
Had I read this when it originally came out, I would have been sorely tempted to report an error in this article to the editors. Saint Francois, of course, is not atonal. This is simply factually wrong; Messiaen's score, like almost all of his music, is organized using an extended tonal language which encompasses many dissonant chords but which always resolves to a tonal center. If Mr. Terauds really believes that Messiaen's music is atonal, he has quite a bit of homework to do; it would be as though the Star's pop music critic thought that John Denver was a death metal artist. Of course, I don't think Terauds is quite that foolish; rather, I think he's using the word "atonal" carelessly, as a sort of mental shorthand for any music that sometimes doesn't sound nice. But, people, if any music that contains dissonance is atonal, then all music since the abandonment of parallel organum is atonal. Words have meanings.

But the broader problem (and one I see came up the last time Terauds reviewed Messiaen) is that this sort of classical music reporting, the kind that assumes a priori that all contemporary music is undesirable, is unhelpful, anti-intellectual, and tiresome. The presumption is that before listening to a piece of new music, you ought to assume that it's awful and atonal and unlistenable, and that you should abandon your preconceived opinion only slowly and with great reluctance, should the work turn out to be any good. (Terauds does in fact come around and give the opera a qualified recommendation, but by the time you've read that far into the article, the damage is already done.) This attitude should be anathema to a critic, consisting as it does in reviewing a work before hearing it. It also reflects a very small view of classical music: under this model, the normative pattern of classical music is to take a score by some long-dead composer off the shelf, perform it, and put it back. Performing a work of "new" music (and by "new" we mean anything written more recently than the birth of your grandparents) is a peripheral activity, one to be regarded with great suspicion.

But this sort of reporting is also extremely old-fashioned - it ignores the most interesting parts of the contemporary music scene in favour of the increasingly stagnant scene in the symphony hall and opera house. Festivals of new music like New York's Bang on a Can are attracting an increasingly mainstream audience, Greg Sandow reports that works like Messiaen's Quatuor frequently share the bill with pop musicians at clubs, and Toronto's recent Luminato festival combined more mainstream entertainment with a new music theatre piece by R. Murray Schafer. It is difficult to imagine that these events would have had the same appeal to a broad audience had the organizers instead programmed, say, all the Mozart string quintets. New music has proven itself to be capable of reaching out to a much wider audience than the blue-rinse brigade at your typical symphony performance; it can do this because its complexity, dissonance, and many of its mannerisms connect to trends in the experimental wing of the pop music scene. The traditional repertoire, especially the eighteenth-century music of Mozart or Haydn, seems more remote to non-classical music fans, like upper-class dinner music in a period film. For traditional classical music listeners (like Terauds and, let's face it, myself), there is something a bit counterintuitive about this, but we should welcome the development as a chance to rejuvenate the musical culture, and eventually bring more listeners into the fold.

The bottom line: should we review new classical music in a way that reflects the knee-jerk prejudice of your aged Aunt Mildred? Or should we consider reviewing new music with an open mind, witholding an opinion until we've judged the work on its own merits, just like arts journalists are expected to in any other area of creative endeavour?


Danielle said...

Instead of directly answering your question, I would like to posit that the real problem here is that classical music should be reviewed by people who know something about it.
I don't know what Mr Terauds' educational background or experience is, but every review of his I have read has left me scratching my head and thinking, "Were we at the same concert?" or "Do I know anything about music?"

The answer to the first question is usually yes, and usually such thoughts can be dismissed with a "matter of taste" type statement. The second is more tricky. I think that most of the time my opinion is educated, and it is usually in direct opposition to his, meaning that either his isn't educated, or things I thought were objective are in fact, not.

Me: Cecilia Bartoli is a good singer.
John: She sucks.

I don't care what you think of her artistic choices -- the woman has pipes.

Us: Messiaen's music is not atonal.
John: Yes it is and it sucks.

Sorry John. You're wrong again, and everything you write after "Messiaen's music is atonal" goes in one ear and out the other.

Andrew W. said...

This is how I've often felt about Terauds as well. I think part of the issue is the Star's in-house style, which is profoundly anti-intellectual, especially on intellectual topics. I know that sounds odd, but here we are!

When one looks at the Star's reporting over the years, William Littler starts to look more like an aberration than the rule. I think what's sad is that Terauds knows a lot more than he's letting on, but he's condescending to his readers, presumably because he, like many others, feels some kind of need to bring people "into the fold" of new music, whatever that means, exactly.

Somewhere in here is a long post about the relationship between conversion experiences and classical music culture...Osbert?