The quote that inspired the title of this post is by the late Ravi Shankar during a concert (Concert for Bangladesh) in 1971. The actual quote “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more” was said in response to the American audience applause after he finished tuning. You can actually hear the whole exchange at the beginning of this NPR special memorial to Shankar. It reminded me of a story I read many years ago in a book or article about ethnomusicology. I don’t even remember where it’s from so will paraphrase here:
A renown Indian master musician upon visiting England was invited to a concert of classical music. The concert was to feature Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, one of the great masterpieces. After the concert the Indian guru was asked what he thought to which he replied, “I enjoyed the first part”
“The first movement of the Beethoven symphony?” he was asked. “No,” he responded, “before that.”
What we were supposed to take away from this story is that the actual tuning of the orchestra before the start of the concert was the most aesthetically pleasing to the Indian musician. Whether the story was intended to simply show the difference in taste between Western ears and Indian ears or if it was a subtle dig at how the alaap of Indian Classical Raga music sounds like so much tuning I have no idea. While doing a search in the hopes of finding where this might have been first published I came across this slightly different version:
My freshman Music History prof, a distinguished musicologist, recounted to us the story of when an Indian musician of the highest renown was to hear for the first time Beethoven’s 5th symphony, back in the day. Everyone was excited, it was a unique opportunity to test western music through virgin ears! After it was over, the verdict: “it was wonderful, until the sound started” or something to that effect. (the reason for the anecdote, the lesson we were supposed to take away, besides the caution against taking one’s cultural biases too much for granted, was the value of silence in music).
If I find the original source, I’ll post the citation.
Another related (and no, I don’t remember if this was from the same source or a different one) story goes like this (again paraphrased):
A master African drummer is brought to a concert of classical music upon his visit to Europe. This was a concert featuring a wide variety of Classical Music styles from the baroque, to classical, to romantic and modern. When asked what he thought about the concert the African musician said, “Why does everything sound the same?”
What we’re supposed to take away from this is that given that the African drummer comes from a tradition of complex polyrhythmic drumming, all the various classical music styles were relatively monorhythmic to him (it might be interesting to see what he thinks about Conlon Nancarrow, eh?).
If these anecdotes seem too fanciful (and unbelievable), here is one about an Armenian musician’s description of [both] Classical Music and Western Pop Music. It’s taken from the SEM (Society for Ethnomusicology) listserv in 1998:
Consider this post from an Armenian musician who grew up with only Armenian music in his family and community the SEM listserver (1998) in reference to Classical music:“I found that most European music sounds either like “mush” or “foamy,” without a solid base. The classical music seemed to make the least sense, with a kind of schizophrenic melody—one moment it’s calm, the next it’s crazy. Of course there always seemed to be “mush” (harmony) which made all the songs seem kind of similar.”or this observation of rock and pop:“The rock and pop styles then and now sound like music produced by machinery, and rarely have I heard a melody worth repeating. The same with “country” and “folk” and other more traditional styles. These musics, while making more sense with their melody (of the most undeveloped type), have killed off any sense of gracefulness with their monotonous droning and machine-like sense of rhythm.”Obviously, Western styles are not pleasing to his ear.
We don’t “save” classical music by offering a completely re-engineered concert format meant for a completely different type of listener. We save it by honoring it for what it is – one of humanity’s highest achievements.
It’s true that classical music asks more of its listeners than pops, just as it asks more of the musicians. It has more complex things to say. It illuminates human emotions for which words don’t suffice. A symphony communicates aspects of the human experience that can’t be conveyed in a three-minute “song.”
My colleagues and I are committed to the limitless capacity of classical music to nourish the inner lives of everyone it reaches. We are committed to performing the very best that humanity has to offer at the highest level. And, I would argue, highest level is the key. For who hasn’t sat through a mediocre rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth and wondered as a result, “What’s so great about that?”
As I’m also in the middle of reading Bruno Nettl’s, “Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music,” and have just recently played shows with my Klezmer band, Rock band, World Music ensemble, and Experimental video and noise projects (in the last week or so) I probably wasn’t in much of a mood for the implicit elitist attitude that comes with referring to one genre of music being the “best that humanity has to offer” and “humanity’s highest achievements.”
As Nettl says in the section, A Taxonomy of Concerts, regarding The Untouchables (i.e. Rock and Pop concerts):
More typically, music school teachers prefer that their students avoid contact with these musics lest they become irrevocably polluted. The similarity of the concentric circle structure (in which musics in the Music Building relate to each other) to a colonial system is suggestive. Musics outside the central repertory may enter the hallowed space by way of a servants’ entrance: classes in musicology. They may be accepted (performed) as long as they behave like the central repertory (performed in concerts with traditional structure) but remain separate (no sitar or electronic music in an orchestral and quartet concert). It is difficult to avoid a comparison with the colonialist who expects the colonized native to behave like himself (take up Christianity and give up having two wives) but at the same time to keep his distance (avoid intermarrying with the colonialist population). (pg. 96)
While Nettl’s book is about Music Schools rather than the professional music world, it’s not difficult to see where the latter’s sentiment has its roots. Not to say that there is anything wrong with Classical Music–far from it. As I mentioned in Peter’s thread I don’t really prefer that orchestras do the pops concerts. I’ve played hundreds of shows over the past decade doing pop and rock covers and I rarely enjoy performing them myself–even the ones I’ve written myself.
Then again, going back to the Armenian musician’s comments about Rock, Pop, and Folk music — as well as Classical Music — and I can sympathize. When you actively perform or listen to a truly wide variety of music, then the “limitless capacity of classical music to nourish the inner lives of everyone it reaches” rings a little hollow.
As Nettl relates:
Musicians in Madras used to say to me, an American, “We have our trinity of great composers, Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri, and Dikshitar, just as you have your tinity,” meaning Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. (pg. 28)
And musicians in Aleppo or Cairo have their trinity of great composers, Mohammed Abdel Wahhab, Baligh Hamdi, and Abdel Halim Hafez; and musicians in Turkey have their Tanburi Cemil Bey, Neyzen Dede, and Misirli Udi Ibrahim Efendi; and China has their Wei Liangfu, Xian Xinghai, and Zhu Zaiyu. All composers from their respective countries that wrote music in their native art music styles and not European art music (e.g. Classical Music) style. I could go on to list Persian Classical Music composers, or Azerbaijani Mugham composer, or Japanese Gagaku court composers, or Thai Piphat Orchestra composers, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
The point is, European Classical Music is simply one art music style amongst many and in this digital information age there is really no excuse for having a parochial view that it is the “best that humanity has to offer” or that it is “humanity’s highest achievements.” The same could be said about the pop music side, for that matter–this is just the Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest] issue after all.
The main issue is humility (or lack thereof). Doug Borwick, in his recent post, Discovering Humility, says:
Expertise and passion are essential for the creation and presentation of art.
At the same time, expertise and passion can be roadblocks to reaching communities. They separate us from those without them and make communicating difficult. It is a challenge for the passionate expert to understand those who do not share his or her knowledge and point of view, and it requires almost superhuman effort for the expert not to be seen as condescending. This leaves us with a dilemma, especially when it comes to the task of engaging with our communities.
and gives a hypothetical example in the realm of sports:
Think of it like this. The championship professional sports franchise is very, very, very good at what they do. Some teams and individual athletes may think that their abilities make them superior to the minions that surround them and, in a society that values athletics as much as ours does, they can get away with it to a degree. But most (though granted not all) of the ones we admire we appreciate for their well-grounded awareness that athletic prowess is only one relatively small element of what it means to be human; some even have a sense of humor about it.
Borwick continues with, “Our society is not, today, predisposed to give the aloof artist or arts organization the benefit of the doubt. In a time when expanding reach is critical, the first tool that needs to be mastered is the skill of relationship building. The foundation of that is humility.” In the end, I think that was the real purpose of the three stories I gave at the beginning of the post–to give us a little bit of humility.