Sunday, April 22, 2007

Not That Tired Old Stereotype Again

Classical music doesn’t belong to the lifted pinky finger set.
Posted by olvlzl.
When they said that they were giving the music Pulitzer to Ornette Coleman my response was, ‘bout time. He’s a great creative artist of the highest merit. His might be one of the most deserved Pulitzer prizes ever given out. This article today suggesting that the classical music world might not agree really threw me for a friggin’ loop, as we used to say around the old practice room. How could anyone suspect that we wouldn’t know that Coleman, a giant of music, was well overdue for that level of recognition. I’ll bet that there are more genuine fans of jazz among classical musicians than among the general population by at least a factor of three. I’m hard pressed to think of one I know who doesn’t listen to and study it. And of classical musicians, it’s the hard core modernists who are likely to be the biggest fans.

The idea that classical musicians are snobs is one of those cultural stereotypes that is maintained mostly among people who have strongly held convictions in conjunction with complete ignorance. Classical music snobs there might be, but they aren’t in the majority and certainly aren’t concentrated in the most creative. Brahms is reported to have been interested at the end of his life in ragtime. Debussy attempted and got close. Stravinsky, Bartok and others too numerous to name, broke through to both ragtime and approached jazz, in their way. The nail in that coffin should be that beyond any stereotype of him, Arnold Schoenberg showed clear signs of being very familiar with and very influenced by jazz. We haven’t even gotten to North America where virtually every important composer was raised on it. And there have always been large numbers of jazz musicians who were accomplished and fully informed members of the classical music community*. The idea that people who produce and listen to any worthwhile music would fail to recognize such sophisticated, interesting and just plain exciting music is so wrong that it is proof that some people just don’t get it at all.

If you want to know what would really shock me, it would be if more than a few in the mainstream pop music audience could give Ornette Coleman’s music enough attention to really listen to it**. Listening is an ability that gets developed by doing it. You have to both listen to the same thing often enough to get beneath the surface and to constantly listen to new things. And by new things, I mean things you’ve never heard before, things you don’t like on first hearing, even things you hate. The constant consumption of the same old, same old kills off the ability. If you want to see where the exclusive snobs are, it’s in the people who will brush off the work of great pioneers like Coleman, or Betty Carter or Arnold Schoenberg or Milton Babbitt as they go back to not listen to the same, sappy three minute tune for the thousandth time. To deride music as carefully and daringly produced as theirs because it failed to entertain on the first hearing, to think that such a superficial brush off was worth the breath wasted to express it, now that’s snobbery.

Tastes differ and there isn’t anything wrong with not liking even really great music. I’ve played and sung hours and hours of Handel and I know he was a great composer but his music leaves me just about entirely cold***. Not liking something isn’t the same thing as off handedly rejecting it as worthless and those who like it as somehow unworthy. The insistence on esthetic conformity is the sign of an egotistical child, not an adult.

* This disc of fully fledged jazz sessions by Mel Powell, who won the Pulitzer for his classical compositions, and the great Mary Lou Williams, mentioned here just the other week, is only one of many documents supporting my contention.

** Though not necessarily pop musicians. Many of even the most commercial of pop musicians are avid consumers and supporters of the most sophisticated and advanced classical music. I wonder how many Dead Heads know that they were just a few of the pop musicians influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen. At least a few, I'd imagine.

*** Listening to his opera “Giulio Cesare," on the Met broadcast just yesterday, admiring the performances and the skillful writing, it still has that effect on me for reasons I can’t identify.