Why classical music is so hopelessly out of place in today’s music scene
It’s all about ME!
You can describe the biggest thing happening in music today with one name: Adele. It’s not necessary to know her full name, or to know the names of the pieces (er… songs) that she performs, who wrote those songs, or what other musicians are performing with her. It’s enough to know “Adele” because the music business today is about individuals.
Modern audiences focus their attention on one person who becomes the face of the entire music experience. The narratives that are told are in the first person. It’s about “Me! me! me!”
Contrast that with classical music, which is utterly different and at odds with the “Me! me! me!” mentality, mostly because of the plethora of dead people involved.
There are many dead people involved in Classical Music, and they’re very very important.
The kingpin musician in any classical performance is the composer — the person who imagined the music and wrote it down. Since we have a written music tradition that spans hundreds of years, these composers tend to be mostly dead.
Yet the ideas that the composers wrote down are treated as the holy gospel by classical musicians who play their works. There’s no such thing as “FEAT” in classical; the music is the composer’s, and theirs alone. The musicians playing the pieces will come under intense criticism if they’re perceived as deviating from the composer’s intention in a significant way. It’s their job to bring the composer’s conception to life.
Classical musicians don’t “cover” the works they play. They study them like a crime scene, using every last fibre of skill and intellect to prise out the composer’s wishes for how the music is supposed to be played. The most successful outcome of performing a Beethoven Sonata would be to play it exactly as Beethoven heard it in his mind when he wrote it down.
Of course there is room for individual performers and interpretations. Depending on how precise the composer was, the performer can make their own decisions on important matters such as the tempo, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. They also have to produce a beautiful acoustic sound on their instrument, which is usually made out of wood and/or metal, and is always unplugged. All of that is already really hard, and takes considerable skill and creativity. In most cases it’s terribly difficult even just to play all the right notes at the right time.
In summary: the first, and utterly fundamental dissonance between classical music and the modern music scene is the lack of a constant “front man” to take all of the credit and be the star. The concept of “Adele” can’t exist in the classical world. It’s all about the composers, and they’re too dead to put on a show.
You get what you SEE!
If you know what I’m talking about regarding Adele, chances are you’ve seen her videos on YouTube, which is, by sheer volume, clearly the dominant distribution channel for her new album. Just the video “Adele — Hello” alone has over 578 million views in the few weeks that it has existed. That is probably more views than all of the classical videos on the entire damn internet have gotten in the last year.
This is something that everybody has known ever since Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video: modern music is as much (if not more) a visual experience than a pure musical experience. The centerpiece of any song that gets released today is a video that often features a lot of close up footage of the performer, exploiting their strongest visual assets, whatever those may be. The production value of modern music videos matches or exceeds that of Hollywood films, and it’s certain that the lion’s share of the budget goes to shooting the video, not to recording the music.
Modern music is as much (if not more) a visual experience than a pure musical experience.
And thus we come to the second oddity of classical music: the ideal way to consume it is with your eyes closed, so as to not be distracted by whatever physical maneuvers might be needed to produce the sound. The pure music itself is the highest ideal. The classical musician is not encouraged to introduce too much show to the mix — it would be considered distasteful, and would lead to accusations that they somehow have spent more time planning their facial expressions than their fingerings.
Putting classical music onto YouTube usually results in the highest forms of visual boredom; in the best case you can watch the performer playing their instrument (hopefully without too many highly affected eyebrow raises), and in all other cases, you get a photo that statically stares at you while the music plays. Which is, of course, fine, because this is music that you are meant to listen to with the lights turned off and eyes closed anyway.
Putting classical music onto YouTube usually results in the highest forms of visual boredom
Another difficulty that the classical music industry has with its visual presentation is that in most cases, a truly mature and profound performer will have logged a few decades of performance experience before they reach their musical prime. Virtually nobody in classical music is truly ready to be a star when they’re a late teen or in their early twenties. Things like Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift don’t happen in classical music because true mastery of the art can rarely be achieved in so little time, and youthful good looks don’t compensate for audible lack of experience.
Young, pretty classical performers who get sold to undiscerning audiences rarely leave behind timeless recordings and legacies that withstand decades of scrutiny and repeated listening. Nor do their careers retain their lustre much past their mid-thirties.
Maybe Disney showed the way for classical music to solve their visual problem with Fantasia. Fantasia did wonders for promoting classical music, and creating vivid, memorable imagery for certain pieces. However, pure classical musicians will also tell you that what Disney did to those poor pieces — cutting them, arranging them, warping them to the needs of the storyline, rather than making the story conform to the music — was its own form of sacrilege, and that once you become interested in Le Sacre du Printemps via Fantasia, you really owe it to yourself (and to the sanctity of the music) to get a good recording of the whole work, sit down, close your eyes, and listen to it sans cartoons.
And thus the second clash between classical music and modern music culture is the extreme dependence of modern music on videos and highly staged shows in the live arena, versus classical which is very often better heard but not seen.
For a classical musician who is cognizant of these challenges, there aren’t a lot of easy answers. A few artists in the “crossover” genre, such as The Piano Guys and 2Cellos have thoroughly mastered the art of the visual narrative, and reap the rewards in sales numbers. But they don’t really do classical music. They play vaguely classical “songs” on acoustic instruments. Acts like Andre Rieu, who have long optimised for crowd pleasing showmanship, are thoroughly and broadly scorned by classical music aficionados as being charlatan sell-outs (but everyone wishes they had Rieu’s ticket sales numbers for themselves.)
To date, what I have opted to do with the music recorded by Kimiko Ishizaka when sharing it on YouTube is either to show her performing, or to show some other highbrow abstraction of the music. This could be the notes, scrolling by on the page, fractal animations that enhance the mood without imposing an actual story, or, in some cases, just a photo or two. This certainly fits Kimiko’s style of putting the music first, and allowing herself and her potential star power to recede into the background, in deference to the dead composer whose work she is playing.
The best example of such a video that we have to date is the 1 hour 49 minute long “music video” of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, BWV 846–869 (shit, even the names of the pieces are utterly crap compared to modern song titles) where the piano playing is accompanied by screenshots of the score so that (assuming you can read music) you can follow along with the playing and hopefully gain new insights into the composition and architecture of the pieces.
Is there a different visual idiom that we could use? Could Kimiko Ishizaka make a real music video? It’s too early to say, but maybe there’s some room to explore the general direction taken by Disney and Fantasia while retaining the completeness and authenticity of the musical experience. In any case, if you’re an animator, I’d love to talk to you.