On Faux Musical Quality, Popularity, and Relevance

Baharon Phool Barsao

A few weeks ago I read a clickbait piece on mic.com, “How The Music Industry Is Brainwashing You to Like Bad Pop Songs.” It linked to a study showing how the emotion centers of the brain light up in fMRIs when familiar tunes were played to the test subjects. This isn’t a particularly surprising result.  The phenomenon has been well documented in psychological studies and is one of the most robust psychological phenomena around.  The seminal research was done in a recall test using Chinese characters.  It showed that test subjects could only recall characters they were shown previous at little better than chance levels, but when asked which characters the subjects liked, invariably the characters they were shown earlier were picked.

This is an aspect of human psychology that gives interesting ammo to both sides of the Classical Music Crisis debate.  The idea that Pop music is somehow more relevant to contemporary culture loses some of its force when we realize that the constant bombardment of [Euro-American] pop tunes insures that a relatively big audience will “prefer” them to Classical Music, or Bollywood Music, or whatever genre happens to not be dominant in the US at the time. It’s simply a reflection of the “mere exposure effect.”

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Myth of the Monolithic Pop Culture

pop-music

One of the many ideas that Crisis folks rely on is what we could call a Monolithic Pop Culture trope. The whole idea of Classical Music culture being rooted in the past (and therefore needing to “catch up” to contemporary culture) relies on this myth that culture has “evolved” (nevermind the problematic aspects of a type of Social Darwinism which implied in claim) to the point where Classical Music culture is no longer relevant.

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Opera: “I’m not dead!”

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in “Fidelio.”

holygrainotdead

With all the talk about San Diego Opera, the Met Opera, and a bit further back, the closure of New York City Opera we might be quick to say that Opera is a dying art form in the US. Indeed, a recent NAI report shows that Opera attendance is steadily declining from a recent high in 2007 of 3,568,000 to 2,304,000 in 2011 (of course, this report is also showing increased attendance at Symphony Concerts from ’09 – 25,443,000 to ’11 – 26,812,000 — more than 10 million more than the declining NFL audiences in all three years. But these are besides the point.

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in “Fidelio.”

Eamon Pereyra (from left) plays Jaquino, Cassandra Black is Leonore and Erica Schuller plays Marzelline in the Bollywood version of “Fidelio” by the Skylight Music Theatre.

Bill Eddin’s recent post is by guest blogger, Viswa Subarraman, conductor and Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee. Subarraman and Skylight recently produced a Bollywood version of Fidelio and the director has some things to say about the San Diego Opera’s decision to call it quits.

San Diego is choosing to go quietly into that good night. The rest of us are choosing to fight to preserve an incredible 200+ year old art form. You know how? By doing great theater. Would we love to hire the Renee Flemings of the world? Sure! But let’s be real – it ain’t gonna happen in Milwaukee. So what can we do? We can find the future Renee Flemings of the world and give them a shot at learning and honing their craft, so they can go on to those big paychecks and big stages. I’m very proud of companies such as ours and Fort Worth Opera that seem to nurture the next generation of great opera singers. It’s also great for our audience – they have the opportunity to see these wonderful artists develop right before their eyes. We also focus on our communities.

Subarraman says, “It is sad to me that a company with the resources that San Diego has doesn’t understand that downsizing, creating variety in their programming, finding young, talented singers (read cheaper) to mix with the stars on stage isn’t diluting the art form. It’s called progressing the art form.

and closes with the admonition to

Try things. You might find that you actually diversify your audience base, which might allow you to start raising even more money. Funny how that can work in so many cities where we create magic with our “diluted” companies! I’m sorry to see San Diego lose its opera company, but man… what an opportunity for some creative opera people to take those resources and bring great art to a community that still wants it.

This echoes a piece I read (thanks to You’ve Cott Mail) by Mary Wisniewski discussing all these big Opera Organizations failing while a plethora of smaller and new opera companies are cropping up all around Chicago–which shouldn’t detract from the fact that the Chicago Lyric has seen its ticket sales up 15 percent for fiscal year 2013.

The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie,” last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general director Andreas Mitisek.

New companies have sprung up as well. Haymarket Opera Company specializes in the Baroque era, and South Shore Opera Company has done shows using African-American casts, including William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island.”

 

After my previous post, which discussed the Louisville based Thompson Street Opera Company (as well as my own Klingon Opera which premiered in Louisville), and after performing at Classical Revolution Cincinnati doing some arias from the Klingon Opera last year and getting to hear “The Bubble” by Jennifer Jolley and Kendall A. produced by NANOWorks Opera (North American New Opera Workshop) there, I’d say Opera is evolving and thriving in ways that the big organizations are masking due to all the media attention they get (that Negativity Bias at work again).

Of course, Opera’s death has been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t evolving in ways that mass media representations of it can hope to show given the focus on big organizations. As Rosenberg notes in the link, “Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar had upped the ante with Opera’s Second Death (2001). They argue that opera came into the world ‘stillborn,’ ‘as something outdated.’” and they “acknowledge that composers and wordsmiths go on writing operas, they insist that the genre remains ‘a huge relic’ and ‘an enormous anachronism.’

The irony being that in 2020 the Royal Opera in Britain has commissioned four new works for the 2020 season inspired by Žižek.

The Royal Opera will challenge leading European composers Kaija Saariaho (Finland), Mark-Anthony Turnage (UK), Luca Francesconi (Italy) and Jörg Widmann (Germany) to create large scale new operas. The vision is for four distinct operas, each one in part inspired by the composer’s response to a set of questions developed in collaboration with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “What preoccupies us today? How do we represent ourselves on stage? What are the collective myths of our present and future?”

In other somewhat related news, my interactive video and cello project, Camera Lucida, will be giving a performance and a talk/performance at The International Žižek Studies Conference next weekend. While we can only be there for one day of the conference and will not likely have much of a chance to interact with Žižek, our day talk/performance will focus on a piece we call “Fossils” which uses appropriated text which will be incorporated in the multi-media performance (with Acro-Dancers, Holly Price and Christopher Cox) both as a pre-recorded element and live by me.

Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida's "Fossils" at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI.  November 10, 2012

Christine Olson dancing to Camera Lucida’s “Fossils” at the Commonwealth Gallery in Madison, WI. November 10, 2012

 

The closest analogue I can think of to our performance would be the late, Robert Ashley’s “Different Lives” which is a completely different and more experimental way to approach opera.

Opera isn’t dead, it’s just changing far too fast for most people to understand and morphing into new forms and smaller, more nimble organizations which can produce works that can be a bit more experimental and exploratory. As long as we allow the Crisis folks to dominate the discourse, we’re not going to see much focus on this.

Creativity, Craftmanship, and Copying

MusicBusiness

Michael Rushton’s recent post says some wonderful things about the problem of focusing on either Creativity or Quantification.

Creativity is a wonderful thing, but successful songwriters, playwrights, poets, video game designers and chefs, know technique – they have to. It is great to encourage children to experiment and explore, to instill a love of creativity. But they won’t turn into adults that make genuinely interesting creative works until they have learned technique. “The Daily Show” sketches cannot be written by someone who only understands how to analyze data, Egan is correct. But neither can they be written by somebody with no experience or sense of how television comedy works.

In my post, to create or to copy, I explored the misguided dichotomy of creativity versus copying by giving an example of a comment by Japanese Bunraku musicians:

[This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.

And what they are describing is the process of learning Craftsmanship.

Sure, there are plenty of artists who “copy,” and probably as many who are “creative” without any sense of craftsmanship. But as I said in that post,

In the end, the greatest artists are those that can make ANY work, whether their own or someone else’s, speak powerfully. On the flipside the weakest artists have to hide behind the rubric and hubris of citing originality and creativity, or, dedication to the re-creation of a previous work to hide the fact that he or she has nothing really to say.

So again, I wonder, going back to Rushton’s final paragraph:

The need to teach “creativity” has achieved a lot of buzz lately, as Egan notes. But is it misplaced? Should the emphasis rather be placed on technique, know-how, rather than some generally vague notion of creativity? Misleading to characterize the issue as one between creativity and the quants.

and my questions about the Music Conservatory and Music Education industries and Arts funding politics I still have to wonder how much of the entrepreneurial and business shift in some conservatories are more for the sake of legitimizing the status quo in the pre-professional world of music making.

Cultural Omnivores must truly be dead…

audience

audience

The shrinking Cultural Omnivores issue is an interesting one since they functioned primarily as “swing voters” in the realm of audiences.  This sub-population tend to go to both highbrow and lowbrow events, not favoring one over the other–hence the name, “Cultural Omnivores.”  Apparently, one of the studies explaining decline has shown that there are fewer and fewer of them, and this population happened to be a significant proportion of Classical Music audiences by some counts.

Another interpretation of the decline of this segment of the total audience population is that there are now fewer “fox” audience members leaving a higher proportion of “hedgehog” audience members to determine the landscape of highbrow and lowbrow audiences.  The main interpretation is that, with fewer swing voters, we have audiences moving to the extremes, much as what might be happening with other similar phenomena like the growing disparity between the rich and the poor (both with people, and with arts organizations) because we’re losing the “middle class.”

This is all a separate issue from the reason I’m posting this blog post (now that I once again have net access at home–I have tons of blogging to catch up on). Namely, there’s this interesting comment, from our friend, thad, whom I blogged about a bit ago due to a comment he made about the idea that we needed to bring in the club babes to orchestra concerts to draw in the youth. I’ll let his comment speak for itself:

Music, for the young, is tribal. They need to see people like themselves in the audience if they are to bond with the performance.

The young avoid classical concerts not because the music isn’t cool enough for them, but because the audience is full of deeply uncool old people. Change the latter – directly, by any means necessary – and you’ll awaken interest in the music.

Contrast this with some of the attitudes regarding the obsession with youth culture that I posted here.

While I’m not in the cohort which defines the majority of cultural omnivores, I’m probably as omnivorous (or more so) than most–not just in my tastes for shows and concerts, but also in my choice of groups I perform with–I love that diversity.  I love it when I see old people, young people, children, people of all races and ethnic backgrounds coming to the shows I play, or when these are the people I play shows with.  If everything turned into a generic hipster homogeneous universe for the Creative Class, then not only would classical music be dead, but pop, jazz, rock, klezmer, bollywood, noise, and the other thousands of musical genres out there.

It would be like a literal “melting pot”–a metaphor I particulaly dislike since as we know, once you melt all the colors together you get this bland purplish-brown hue that’s undifferentiated throughout.  Basically you lose all the variety that makes everything exciting and any spice would become irrelevant to the feast since the overwhelming taste is a bland blended mush.