Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kanye's the new Mozart?

Following my review of The Rest Is Noise, the monumental book about 20th century classical music, Citizen Carrie left a comment (in part):
Although I like some 20th century composers (including Stravinsky and Ives), I really think that all music is a product of its particular era. As such, then of course a lot of people will think classical music (and you might as well include opera) will sound better from the 18th and 19th centuries than the 20th century. I don't know enough about music to go into why I think it happened, but I think that by the time the 20th century came by, classical symphonic music (and you might as well include opera) had just kind of naturally run its course.
This is an interesting idea, that classical music is no longer viable. A lot of people don't like this view, as they would rather not think of this art form as something that should be consigned to the museum; they (presumably Ross is among them) would argue that it still has vitality, but needs time to be appreciated. (I'll forgo the obvious comment, that "new classical music" is something of an oxymoron.)

So perhaps we ask ourselves, what is classical music? We're pretty sure it encompasses Vivaldi through Mahler, but, outside of that, it's not as clear. Are English madrigals part of classical music? I know the only place I ever hear them is the excellent Through the Night program hosted by Peter Van de Graaff, found in Chicago on WFMT-FM. Peter seems to consider them within the classical umbrella. Palestrina? Does his 16th century polyphony count, or is that more of a proto-classical music?

Coming forward, it becomes more difficult. The Rite of Spring was considered shocking at its premiere, but we're fairly comfortable hearing it in the concert hall now. I have my favorites from the past 100 years (I perhaps didn't make that clear in my review, that there are some pieces I like, some that have an impact on me, and some that don't work at all). But, in general, there's an inaccessibility to classical music of the 20th century, something that sadly would not be regretted by its creators to an amazing extent.

As I try to figure out what classical music is, I move to the thorniest case. Ross spends a fair amount of time on John Cage, and the critic Alan Rich continually writes about him. But Cage stretches the boundaries of what classical music is, and I wonder why he's classified as such. Much of his work seems far closer to conceptual art, yet he is evaluated in the classical genre. (Had a saxophonist come out to play Cage's famous 4'33", the silent piece, would it be considered jazz?)

I guess the real question for me is how this music will be seen 100 or 200 years from now. It's pretty well-known by now, the extent to which Bach was forgotten until his music was revived by Mendelssohn 80 years after his death. So it's dangerous to look at what is popular at any particular moment and assume what will and what will not go into the canon.

Whose music will emerge from the 20th century and be played in the concert halls of 2100? 2200? Are there composers out there who will rise to the fore, people who are barely noticed now, while Stravinsky and Schoenberg will fade from major attention?

My knowledge pretty much grinds to a halt here. I'm more or less groping in the dark here, but I find it hard to believe that the intellectual component of much of modern music will be appreciated outside of the music schools - I think the proof will come in the listening, and I think consonance and melody will always be prized. I'd guess that a lot of the minimalist music will fall by the wayside, and those things that are conceptual will rarely be heard. Corigliano, Pärt, Tavener, they'll move up alongside Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, who will retain their places. Just my 2¢.

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