Parochialism in Music

Originally posted on 2/14/20 as 'Artist-in-Residence' for the American Viola Society:

I have spent a bit of time in different musical worlds, and I've noticed that those who primarily spend time in only one or two of them tend to judge everything else by their own set of priorities. (This is true outside of music, too.) Boris Schwarz recommends in his excellent book, Great Masters of the Violin, that you have to be able to listen to other people with a filter. I think it's great that not everyone is doing the same thing, and we should try listening to what they're actually doing--- vs. what they're not. 

Even within mainstream Classical music, musical priorities have shifted quite a bit over time. If you go listen to recordings from 50 and 100 years ago, you might hear ways of phrasing you don't often hear today. If you compare how people play today, mainstream vs. HIP, you will also hear differing priorities. So even though you just spent four hours perfecting whatever you're trying to perfect in a practice room... try putting that aside when listening to something else. 

When something new comes along, many pioneers of that new movement will see everything else as hopelessly old-fashioned and on the brink of disappearing forever. Yet, it often doesn't. Having grown up with Classical music, it was a bit of a surprise in school to encounter composers and performers who looked down on nearly all of what I liked and what brought me (and probably them, too!) to study music in the first place. But now, three decades later.... tonal music is much more in fashion than it was then... and it's even winning competitions! HIP, still somewhat new at the time, has maintained a prominent role, but it's alongside non-HIP performances--- not in place of them. Styles go out of fashion and come back, pendulums (pendula?) swing from one extreme to the other. 

A violist once said that eighty percent of the soloists who played with her orchestra couldn't get into it (i.e. couldn't win the audition.) Ouch! That might actually be true, but so is the reverse: a decent portion of her orchestra couldn't get invited for a solo performance, and if they could, it might not be as great as they'd like to think. Double ouch! Probably more than eighty percent of any of the aforementioned people couldn't improvise a decent Jazz solo. (I can't.) There's nothing wrong with any of this. All three specialties have some overlap on a Venn Diagram, but only some, and not everyone is going to be great at everything. Over time, people's strengths will lead them in different directions, which is fine for playing, but less so for enjoyment of listening. 

This last point I'd like to make will be the most controversial, because music is culturally based. As far as humanly possible, I think it's worth putting cultural considerations aside. From an early age, I was a Richard Wagner fan, and that did not go over well with some of my older relatives. For many decades after WWII there was a strong bias against anything German, especially something so symbolic as Wagner. On the one hand, to be fair to Wagner, he died well before the Nazis existed. On the other hand, Wagner personally seems to have been a pretty awful human being, too. But.... I really like a lot of the music! It didn't seem right to me to avoid it because of non-musical considerations. 

I'm seeing more and more bias against Classical music in general from some people who see it as belonging to a different 'tribe' than their own, either economically, ethnically, socially, or politically. I think it is worth fighting against this natural tendency. It's a trap! As far as possible I think we should try to judge music by whether it genuinely appeals to us, not by whether we like the people (or the tribe/culture/opinions of the people) who created it. To be a perfectionist about this is probably impossible. 

Best, Scott

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