Monday, December 18, 2006

Leopold! Leopold!

I’ve always been ambivalent about classical music. I’m interested in it, but I feel intimidated, as if it’s beyond me. Some rare and fragile thing which requires a more refined sense than I possess. Like smision. I hesitate to really get into it because it seems like such a vast field of endeavour, and I worry that I will never develop a true appreciation for it no matter how I try. Sort of how I feel about modern art, except that I am almost certain that almost all modern art is ass, while I know that there’s a lot of good classical music out there impatiently awaiting my appreciation.

Note: By claiming that modern art possesses a distinctly asseous character I don’t mean Picasso, or whatever no doubt excellent artist you have in mind, I mean post-post-post-modern art or whatever they’ve been doing since around 1960 or so. Whatever they give the Turner Prize to these days. Goat carcases stuffed with the artist’s used tampons or giant crucifixes made of jars of earwax or whatever. Come on, admit it, that stuff sucks. Actually, after I wrote those last couple sentences I went back to find a funny Turner Prize-winning exhibit to link to, and the one I found was way crazier than I could have ever imagined. The guy who won in 2001 apparently got great acclaim for his masterful piece that involved TURNING THE LIGHTS IN AN EMPTY MUSEUM ROOM ON AND OFF AT FIVE SECOND INTERVALS. No joke could top that. In fact, here’s the entire description of this artistic masterwork from the website just so you don’t miss it. It goes beyond humor, beyond insanity into some unimaginable dimension of gibbering art-curator psychosis. I can only hope that the winning artist was actually performing an oral sex act on whoever wrote this at the moment it was written, because honestly I can think of no other reason for writing this orgasmic, mind-blowingly stark raving bonkers description of somebody turning a lightswitch on and off:

Work # 227: The lights going on and off. Nothing is added to the space and nothing is taken away, but at intervals of five seconds the gallery is filled with light and then subsequently thrown into darkness. Realising the premise set out in Work # 232, Creed celebrates the mechanics of the everyday, and in manipulating the gallery's existing light fittings he creates a new and unexpected effect. In the context of Tate Britain, an institution displaying a huge variety of objects, this work challenges the traditional methods of museum display and thus the encounter one would normally expect to have in a gallery. Disrupting the norm, allowing and then denying the lights their function, Creed plays with the viewer's sense of space and time. Our negotiation of the gallery is impeded, yet we become more aware of our own visual sensitivity, the actuality of the space and our own actions within it. We are invited to re-evaluate our relationship to our immediate surroundings, to look again and to question what we are presented with. Responding to the actual condition in which he has been asked to exhibit, Creed exposes rules, conventions and opportunities that are usually overlooked, and in so doing implicates and empowers the viewer.

Holy. Quacking. Mother. Of. God. Words fail me.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Classical music has always struck me as something for true connoisseurs, like tasting a sip of wine and being able to detect hints of loganberries, dander, walnuts, Palmolive and pencil shavings, or like watching a fashion show and swooning over the bold use of pleats, or watching people play cricket without wanting to kill yourself. I don’t know if I have the ear.

As I keep saying over and over again as an excuse when I don’t hear something properly: “I am a visual learner”. This sounds so much less humiliating than the actual responses, which would be “I wasn’t listening to a single word you just said because I was mentally going through World 1-1 on Super Mario Brothers,” or “I am only 31 years old but I seem to be going deaf, would you mind repeating that? Perhaps the sound waves have trouble traveling through the thick tufts of hair which have recently been sprouting from my ears.” But I really do, deep down, think I’m a visual learner.

No, that’s wrong – I learn best through reading things. Is there a term for that? I get drawn to things because they’re connected to something I’ve read. If I see a beautiful landscape, chances are I’ll be reminded of some book where someone describes a beautiful landscape. I might even recall the exact words the author used to describe the stupid landscape.

This strange reliance on text is why, in my younger years, I tended to easily fall into the trap of reading a record review and believing that I would like a certain album based on the review. This is of course impossible. No record review in history has accurately described an album. But I keep falling for it. So technically speaking, I’m probably not a visual learner, it’s more that I relate to the world best through remembering facts I’ve read on paper – literature, poems, quotes. Trivia. I would say I’m a trivial learner with krapaesthetic tendencies and good outerspatial relations.

It is therefore with great surprise that I find myself currently listening to all of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, one after another, although I’m still not sure what I think. But at least I’m listening. And I’ve been going to great lengths to acquire and listen to a lot of other classical music lately. Over the past few months there has been a lot of activity on the classical-music-appreciation front, me-wise. What gives? The reasons are, like certain parts of a car’s engine, manifold.

Reasons Why I am No Longer Intimidated by Classical Music

1) I’m getting very, very old. I hate to say it, but I’m no spring chicken, and as you may have noticed the last time you went to a classical music concert, it’s a genre that has some sort of special appeal to the innermost souls of those wispy-skulled specimens who are teetering over the grave. I think I’m more able to sit for longer periods of time and appreciate subtleties than I used to be. Or perhaps my decades of life lived to the fullest, the constant roiling tumults of fierce passion and sorrow have given me a more complete palette of memories and emotions with which to appreciate the sublime outpourings of some dead guy in a wig.

2) I now have an iPod. Before this summer, if I wanted to listen to a Wagner opera, I had to juggle four CDs. Now I just have to hit a single button. Of course, in either case I fall asleep 15 minutes into the opera, but now I don’t have the theoretical CD-switching looming over me, disturbing my blissful slumbers. It is nice to be able to have long musical works all on one portable device. Even some symphonies, like Beethoven’s Ninth, sometimes come on two CDs, and it used to be a pain to swap them out. And I’m not complaining about the new format – I’m certainly nowhere near being able to discern the fact that MP3s are usually of far lower quality than CDs. Come on. I can barely tell the different notes apart. I don’t give a rat’s ass about sampling quality or whatever. If I can put 20 or 30 CDs worth of music on a flash drive, the world of classical music suddenly seems a lot less like a spinning plates act and more like a pleasant one-button trip to opera-filled slumberland.

3) Bittorrent. I don’t want to say that I have illegally acquired any music, but I will say that in the past I was a bit hesitant to go out and randomly buy a lot of classical music CDs because of the bewildering variety and high cost. Which conductor should be conducting this piece? Is this a good recording? Is it a good orchestra? Is it digital or analog? I never used to f*#king know, and I still don’t, but now I don’t necessarily have to spend as much as I would have 15 years ago to listen to some things and find out what I like and what I don’t. Back in the day I was always panicked that I’d get home and find out I absolutely hated it, or that I would read something online saying that I’d bought the worst version possible. This leads me to another reason why I feel more confident in liking classical music lately, namely

4) Online research. As I exhaustively described above, I like things more when I have read something on the subject, and thanks to the Internet I can find out crucial information about music without having to hang out with the ponytailed mouthbreathers in the music section of the bookstore. I was able to recently hold a brief conversation about the differences between Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” and “Stalingrad” symphonies, neither of which I’ve ever heard a note of, but I’d picked up the info while randomly reading Wikipedia entries on composers. Again, I would never sit in a bookstore and flip through “Mammoth Biographical Encyclopedia of Great Composers” or whatever, but online I can find out more or less the same stuff in seconds. I try not to base my opinions about music on what I read, but I feel nevertheless that the Internet gives me the initial foothold I need to start really appreciating the hell out of something.

5) I’ve given up on the idea of progress in art. I honestly used to believe that it was somehow wrong to enjoy art from an older and less enlightened time. Let me explain: when I was in high school, all my classes started with people from way back in the past, and ended up with people in the early 20th century. All your classes were probably like this too. History started when a guy invented the wheel, and reached its fullest flowering when Henry Ford invented the Model T. Obviously anyone before Ford was a nobody. Only a moron would be interested in that prehistoric guy’s stone wheel, now that something better had come along. Same with science, philosophy, art, etc. The Renaissance became the Enlightenment became the Industrial Age, and things got better in every way as we went along. The previous people’s inventions and artwork always seemed clearly inferior to the later peoples’ and the implication was that human history had been a pretty much uninterrupted series of bold steps forward. At least that’s the subliminal attitude I somehow absorbed and held while growing up and even into the first year or two of college.

I thought that to appreciate something you had to know its place on the evolutionary scale. This made me feel silly for liking Beethoven, because I assumed that something far better must have been invented since then. Something terribly modern involving twelve tones or polychronous atonality or absolute silence or something. So since I liked Beethoven I decided I had bad taste in classical music, and I sort of gave up for a while. It’s taken a long time, but I think I’ve discarded the whole absurd notion that human history has been one long climb upwards towards perfection. I think the first time this really hit home to me was in an art history class in college, when I realized that I vastly preferred Romanesque architecture to Gothic. But Gothic came later, interrobang!? And then came colossally crappier things like Baroque and Rococo, interrobang!? I finally wrapped my head around the idea that newer was not always better. So now I’m able to listen to Beethoven without feeling a nagging guilt that I should be listening to somebody further down the evolutionary ladder instead. I mean up the ladder. Stupid metaphor getting me all turned around. There is no evolutionary ladder for art. Well, there is, but it has nothing to do with quality. Older things can be better. Same way that cockroaches are more successful than a lot of your fancy modern bugs. By the way, Henry Ford was a complete dickhead.

6) I don’t believe that I’m underqualified to be “cultured” any more, and that takes some of the fear out of certain subjects. I guess growing up in a normal American family I always subconsciously assumed that there was some master race of incredibly sophisticated people lounging around in Europe or somewhere, with perfect taste and an encyclopedic knowledge of the finer things in life, and that I was somehow never going to be in that league. Classical music seemed to be something for those people, whoever and wherever they were. Then I worked with a lot of people who seemed pretty “cultured” in Munich, and I started to realize that everyone’s faking it and that everyone’s utterly full of sh*t. Sure, I’m not perfectly refined. Sure, on a recent trip to the Philharmonic I had to be issued a jacket and shoes by the ushers because my attire was so far, far below the minimal standard of sartorial decency, and then I was so amused by the whole thing that I giggled uncontrollably for the first 10 minutes of the concert. But somehow I’ve made my peace with my level of refinement and damn it I definitely have just as much right to pretend I know something about a pretentious and complicated subject like classical music as any other jerk. So I’m not as intimidated by classical music as I might have been years ago.

So there you have it. I now feel fully qualified to successfully appreciate classical music, whereas I didn’t before. I had no idea I had so much to say on the matter. I guess I haven’t posted here for a while and my blogging mojo must have been building up like a magma pocket under Krakatoa. If you’ve read through this whole thing I apologize from the bottom of my heart and I can only hope that my little jokes here and there made up for the astoundingly boring topic.

1 comment:

Jinna said...

Oooh I love classical music. And Beethoven, and Mahler!

I think I had an advantage in not being intimidated, because I took violin and piano growing up. I still want to know more about it though.

FYI, I recently came across this list of the best 20 classical CDs and I'm planning to use it to build my collection:

BTW, it is awful of me to admit that I would love to see that 5 seconds lights on/off exhibit? It must be the mad art student in me coming out.