“Three Strikes and you’re OUT!”

An interesting blog in the NYT by David Lang (one of the founders of Bang on a Can) making an analogy to Baseball and Classical music.  I posted a response at the cello chat forums, but thought I’d include it here for those interested.

Response below:

A nice piece–and for the record, I’ve always loved David Lang’s work ever since I first started listening to Bang on a Can.  And one of the main reasons I decided an orchestral career wasn’t for me was primarily the lack of focus on new music, or music being composed today.

I think the analogy fails in many ways (or obfuscates issues–which is really what analogies are designed to do–heighten similarities but lessen the differences, eh?).  I think the biggest differences between sports and classical music deal with the end performance (and here, I think it might be helpful to point out that Baseball’s popularity has waned over the decades especially in light of the Basketball/Football).  But sorts teams are attempting to re-create past games–each game is a new one.  Same set of rules, for sure, but the script isn’t already set (nor are the players in most cases).  I think John Zorn wanted to highlight that aspect of a “game with rules” in his game piece compositions–which obviously include hefty amounts of impovisation (to specific rules) that is no longer a part of classical music training and performance. 

He does address it at the end of his piece, but having a baseball game that’s a re-creation of a past game isn’t functionally a whole lot different than scripting a new baseball game that needs to be played pitch-for-pitch (pun intended) exactly as the score (also, pun intended) dictates.  It’s a set of rules to improvise to, which classical musicians are some of the most ill-trained folks to be attempting.  While I would be VERY interested in seeing a full symphony orchestra try something like this, it would require a completly different kind of training for the musicians.

I loved this:

This isn’t just true today, it was true for almost all of the august composers on everyone’s lists. For most of his life, Beethoven, now considered the towering giant of his age, was not the most successful or popular or recognized composer of his own neighborhood, let alone his era. He is on our list now because of things a later set of listeners valued, and we value them still.

The difference, in Beethoven’s time, is that audiences got opportunities to hear the new works as they came out, and in some cases repeatedly. You can’t cull out the so-called schlock compositions if you don’t get a chance to hear them in the first place, right? Sure, maybe as with Bach, there will be a revival of some unknown genius composers work from, say, the 20th century–but that’s putting more stock in Bach’s work supposedly forgotten status (which is way overstated).

This next one:

But there are also other things worth valuing in music. As a composer it is vital for me to help an audience learn how to hear music made right now. It is a real problem — listeners who come to hear new music searching for only the composers and performers who can fly up immediately to some musical pantheon will almost always be disappointed. Not because musicians are worse now, or aren’t skilled, or inspired, or serious, but because “greatness” is not an objective measurement.

That’s the crux of the argument/analogy, I think.  Composers/Performers have gotten so far apart hat we’ve basically created two separate audience cultures–and these audiences don’t tend to overlap much with each other (nor with some other genres of music).

I think the other big problem with using the so-called popularity of sports as something to demonstrate a model relevance and sustainability to emulate is a bit off as well.  With so many impending lock-downs/lock-outs in sports and the constant debates about the economic viabiliy of Sports Stadiums for the cities in which they are housed, it’s easier to think of this as just another big and unwieldy organization that’s going to have to start changing as well.

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