The Sound of Music

Posted on February 10, 2014 by psu

Classical music angst filled the Intertubes again last week. Well, it filled as much of the Intertubes as classical music ever does, which is to say probably a small amount. But, I ran across a “defense” of the industry against an army of worn out straw-man arguments trotted out as link-bait in Slate.

It’s not entirely clear to me why we care what this “Mark Vanhoenacker” has to say about anything, much less classical music. His resume seems to be filled with pieces on pavement reflectors, reserve seating in movie theaters, and such deep cultural questions as what highway fences are for.

Strangely, the New Yorker felt they had to answer this guy, even though nothing in the piece that he wrote or his past history indicates to me that he is a human being who is actually worth talking to. To me he reads more like an infantile college student who is having fun trolling on the USENET.

Still, the whole exchange happened just as the PSO tried an interesting form of “audience outreach” at the show we went to the a couple of Saturdays ago. So it got my brain thinking about this whole subject again: how should we feel about the state of classical music in the culture at large?

In the past, I have been distinctly ambivalent. On the one hand, the whole institution does, at times, seem like a zombied corpse, shambling towards nowhere (I’ll note here that I beat Slate to the punch by 10 whole years). On the other hand, I’ve been going to the PSO regularly for the last twenty years, and some of my most astounding musical experiences have happened in Heinz Hall. If the Symphony Orchestra is a dead institution, then all dead things should be so full of wonder.

I’ve been surprised by old music. More surprisingly, I’ve been surprised by new music. Last year one of the concerts employed a guy throwing out club beats on his Macbook Pro. It was a highlight of the season.

Of course, it’s not always great, but nothing is always great. But, I stand by what I said in the intro to my 2009 article:

In reality, I have no ambivalence about the PSO. I think they are consistently one of the top bands in the country, and it’s readily apparent at the shows that they have a strong connection with the audience and the community.

Anything I say from this point forward should be evaluated from this base position: I’m a fan of the PSO. I think their continued existence is self-justifying.

But, what about the “larger question”? First, you should go read this article by Alex Ross and pick up the rest of the book as well. Ross knows more about music than I ever will, and is a better writer than I’ll ever be. So it’s not surprising that he has a deeper and more insightful take on this question than I will ever manage to generate here. Pay particular attention to his dislike of the phrase “Classical Music” and the straightjacket that it puts around everything that the orchestra (and string quartet, and ballet, and opera) is supposed to do.

Second, you should read the New Yorker response to the Slate moron. It’s also good, but not as good as the Ross piece from years ago. It suffers from trying to argue with a moron. Doing that tends to make you look dumber than you actually are.

As good as the Ross piece is, it’s still his take and not my take, and I have a few thoughts that I think he left out. I just won’t be as good as explaining them to you.

Over time I’ve become less concerned with the various forms of cultural scorekeeping that is so popular with dorks, and most importantly, dorks who write things. Is Beethoven more important than Beyoncé? I don’t know. I don’t think you know either. I think someone a hundred years from now might think they know if people are still listening to both of them then. But even a hundred years from now the question is sort of pointless. Music is music. There is good music and there is bad music. There is music people listen to and music people ignore. But to me this says more about people and the choices they make than anything about the music itself.

These days orchestral music seems to suffer more scorn than praise. In discussing this with my buddy Pete, he made the snarky, but true, point that orchestras suffer from scorn at the hands of both their fans and their detractors. A lot of their fans, who would like them to play nothing but the 18th and 19th century masters, get a bit annoyed at those new-fangled kids like Stravinsky, or Mahler. Their detractors would like to hear “new” music (whatever that means), but have become convinced that the interesting “new” music lies elsewhere (mostly because of the orchestra’s “fans”). Ross points out the problem of the “culturally aware non-attender”, a large potential audience of people who simply don’t go to see orchestras play because someone or something has convinced them that there is nothing there for them to see.

In this context the odds seem to be against the orchestra. It’s true that the performance environment is a calcified set of museum rituals that is largely hostile to beginners. There are strange and invisible rules. The music can be long and complicated (but no more so than some pop culture artifacts, IMHO. I’m looking at you LOST), and there are self-appointed culture police everywhere telling you that you have done wrong (I have occasionally been guilty of glaring at people when they made the wrong noise at the wrong time). Bugs Bunny was already spoofing a lot of this back in the 50s (“Leopold!!”), it’s not likely to be much different any time soon.

It’s also true that symphony programming tends to be on the conservative side. You will have to learn your Beethoven and Mozart, and it’s not likely that you’ll hear your favorite club band in the hall any time soon (although as last year showed, it’s also not impossible).

But these things should not concern you. Don’t look at the orchestra as an outlet for all your musical needs, or even the place to go for the newest and craziest things (although you will get the occasional doses of this). Look at it as just another performer in the larger universe of music performance. There is pop, jazz, dance, crazy industrial noise, and the PSO. Each has its niche and provides a bit of musical heaven that the others do not offer.

For me, the bit of heaven that the orchestra provides is that sound. There is nothing on earth like the sound of the full orchestra as heard from a good seat. Part of the reason the culture police are always telling the audience to be quiet is so that you can get every bit of that sound. There is the way it can go from barely being there to filling the entire hall with the gleaming blare of a string and brass chorale (as in the Bruckner symphonies, or the start of the last movement of the Beethoven 5). And there is the way it can do the opposite, dying off in an instant, 100 players all stopping on a dime at the very same moment. It makes me grin inside just to think about it.

Orchestras play loud, soft, fast, slow, and fast and slow at the same time. They make sounds that are luscious and sounds that make you want to tear your ears off. They can feel as loud as any rock concert, but the shit that the amplifiers put into the sound is never there, because there are no amplifiers. It’s just people, instruments, air, and the room. You admittedly have to put up with a lot of crap to experience those perfect moments once in a while. But for me it’s worth it.

It was the sound of the orchestra that I was thinking of a couple weeks ago when the guest conductor at the PSO presented a 20 minute talk on the musical ins and outs of the Strauss work “Also Sprach Zarathustra” … the famous opening from the 2001 film. There were a lot of tidbits in this talk linking the music to the German philosophy at the time and tracing the various motifs and musical structures through the various chapters. Blah blah blah.

This did not interest me. Because the very first thing he did in the talk was play the famous opening arranged for just the woodwind section of the orchestra (oboe, clarinet, bassoon, maybe flutes). In this form it sounded like this bit I remember from this old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the rabbit slips the tenor some head shrinking potion (it’s at 4:04 in the video), making the sound from his voice shrivel up on the big note. It was comical.

For contrast, he had the orchestra play the same opening in its actual form. The big sound filled the hall and was appropriately majestic. In thirty seconds, without saying anything, he had explained to you why you go to see the orchestra live. You just don’t get that sound anywhere else. They have not figured out how to bottle it up on records (or MP3s). You can’t make Garage Band do it. You’ll never hear it on the radio in your car. You have to be in front of the band. It was by far the most interesting part of the talk for me.

But you don’t need to go to the PSO to hear this sound either. There are orchestras all over the place. School orchestras, community orchestras, even community school orchestras. I live in a suburban hell-hole near Pittsburgh, but even here there is a youth orchestra of some repute. The other night they played the Beethoven Egmont overture. Clearly they don’t have the experience and the technical polish of the professionals. You don’t get the shimmering tone in the strings and the confident and perfect intonation in the winds and the brass. And, it must be said that the sections don’t always stay together. But the sound was there. You could hear it in the Beethoven. The leaders of the band had taught these kids the importance of the music and the sound and even through all the flubs it was there for all to hear. As an aside, it must be said that later some of the section players also played a frolicking Bassoon trio. This is not done enough.

I think we take this sound for granted these days. It’s all around us, playing under commercials, beneath Frodo and Sam as they trek to Mount Doom, and over our heads when we get into elevators. It’s so ubiquitous that we don’t even hear it anymore, and we have forgotten its magic. The magic is in the 100 or so players right in front of you, in the same space and the same air playing as if they are one instrument. The magic is in having this sound made just for you so that in that instant you can hear what Beethoven, or Stravinsky, or Mahler, or Jennifer Higdon, or Mason Bates or Danny Elfman or Howard Shore wanted to you hear and feel. We should not forget that this magic can happen. We shouldn’t forget what music sounds like when played this way.


The Bugs Bunny cartoon is Long Haired Hare. It’s on the DVDs. It and several other of the classic Looney Tunes shorts show that Classical Music performance had already calcified by the mid-20th century.

The two Alex Ross books you should read are The Rest is Noise and Listen to This.