One day when I was fifteen I was riding in a friend's car going to Krispy Kreme. He had new sub-woofers, and intended to use them. I complained that the bass was so loud, particularly in the back seat, that I couldn't hear the music. I was generally mocked for this position. It was the first time I realized that I was at the show to listen, and that some people aren't. Since then the road, as it were, has been classical music.
Around the same time, I was playing in an indie rock band. I left every rehearsal with my ears ringing. Our small slate of gigs was the outset of my lifelong slate of negotiations with sound guys. Though my ears were still untrained, I began to notice: wait a minute, the sound at rock shows is execrable and no one can hear anything! And since then the road has been classical music, though I didn't always realize that, and the road has sometimes been muddy.
Noted: I am defining "classical music" very broadly. Kyle Gann once described classical music, globally, as any ritual music designed for listening. I like this idea. If it's true, then rock music and jazz and hip-hop and everything else become classical musics when people are there to listen—rather than, say, primarily to dance, drive, or drink beers. (Disclosure: I too enjoy dancing, driving, and drinking beers, so nothing pejorative is implied.)
This suggests that a style can be classical music sometimes and not classical music other times, and that's awfully knotty, isn't it? One musician or one performance could even be both at the same time, different music to different observers. Because who can say what any one person at the show is there to do? I heard Guided by Voices at a rock club when I was 19, and squeaky Iowa boy that I was, I had no fake ID, nor any desire to purchase alcohol. I was there to hear the songs. (The band was ostensibly there to play them, though they drank what is even more so in retrospect a tremendous amount of beer during the set.) A few weeks ago I went to hear Of Montreal. It was, dramaturgically, the most sophisticated small-stage rock show I've ever seen. And the sound at the venue was decent, but still the base level of amplification was so high that I didn't get a single lyric from a song I didn't already know.
So is Of Montreal classical music? In some senses yes, in some senses no. For me the album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is classical music. I have listened to it many times, in detail and with care. I have transcribed its tunes and delighted in the subtleties of its lyrics and forms. When I heard the same songs in concert, were they classical music, according again to our clearly-arguable-but-in-my-experience-useful working Gannian definition? Perhaps not. They were springboards for fascinating theatricality, but they weren't there for listening, not primarily or exclusively. If they were, good, clear sound would have been the first priority.
Rock clubs subsist by selling alcoholic beverages. Musical performances that take place at these bars are one step removed from advertising campaigns for those same alcoholic beverages. Isn't it fascinating that "classical music," that special ritual of listening, has in our country lately been knocking on the alley door of the rock clubs, asking to be let in? I've been just as alienated by classical performance customs as everyone else in my generation (see roughly every other blog post I wrote from 2007-2009), but I'm still somewhat amazed that a tradition designed around listening would seek its continuance in a venue designed around alcohol sales. People drink alcoholic beverages and become—what? They become louder. So the band has to get louder, too. Alcohol does not improve one's ability to listen, nor does it promote concentrated listening environments. It can have positive effects on social interchange, and that I suppose is what classical music is seeking, that real and easy connection to quotidian social reality. I've been to some great shows at rock clubs and restaurants, but it works best when there's a separate room or space for the music. I've been to more where the music seemed to sneak in and out of the space, trying to say its piece before the clientele kicked up. Bars are naturally loud. It's not an inherently great fit for classical music—for any music based around listening.
And wouldn't it be better anyway if we were paying for the music, not for the drinks? Then maybe (and I'm reaching, here) we'd be paying musicians and not corporations for a change. There's a Charles Ives quote about real music beginning when the last person trying to make a living from music passes away. I have a humbler vision: maybe real music-making begins when its economics are divorced from the economics of alcohol.
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