John Cage, who seems to be showing up in this blog a lot these days, had some dismissive words about “conventional” classical music. “I am less and less interested in music because I find environmental sounds and noises more aesthetically useful than the sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures….A composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way of getting things done.” Although, as Philip Clark reports in his wonderful Gramophone piece where I found this juicy morsel, Cage was saying this while also flirting with Maoism, who would seem to be the ultimate in telling people what to do.
Composers do tell people what to do–still leaving wide leeway about just how to do it, but even beyond playwrights, they dictate the content of an experience down to the precise rhythm (never that precise when I am playing the piano or singing, sad to say).
By association, they dictate what an audience in a classical concert setting will experience. Sit quietly, and through some magic of group introspection let the genius of, for example, the Moonlight Sonata wash over you. (Link is to Wilhelm Kempff’s beguiling utterly centered performance of it.)
This is a concert format that’s okay with me, I grew up with it, whether hearing some musical giant like Van Cliburn amaze with thundering octaves in Chopin, or sitting through student recitals that go no deeper than “The Happy Farmer.” Either way, you sat quietly, you worried about when to clap, you hoped that it wouldn’t go over your head, and for every amazing bit, there were two or three, that were let’s face it a bore.
There are signs afoot that this old format is crumbling. Classical performances have been cropping up in bars, and now often include pieces that call for a lot of improvisation. Classical ensembles like “Brooklyn Rider” seem to have the vibe and cred of indie rockers.
A nice piece in SF Weekly’s Exhibitionist blog outlines an effort in San Francisco called Classical Revolution.
It sounds wonderful:
In the fall of 2006, a group of classically trained musicians began playing a weekly chamber session at the Revolution Café on 22nd Street in the Mission. Charith Premawardhana, the founder of Classical Revolution, says that he and his cohorts wanted to take the environments in which they had met and played — basements and living rooms, mostly — and transfer that vibe to a café setting. In the beginning, he says, “it was mostly so that we could have a fun place to play music. But it’s served a lot of different purposes since then. It creates a space for chamber music that’s more casual and fun. People can show up and dress how they want, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money.”
It also sounds a lot like the house parties Schubert composed for and attended, still the best way to experience his chamber music and songs, a few people around the piano.