Xenophonics

I’m coining a new term here. So give it up. Well, “xenophonics” can be found out in internet land, but it has never been used like its about to be used here. (And, it has nothing to do with the real Greek dude, Xenophon, or the fake Greek chick, Xena.) What I mean is, taking a piece of classical music [1] and plopping it down in an environment that is not necessarily where one would expect to find it. In the media, this is usually a bar, as it is in Allan Kozinn’s Times piece on the Parker String Quartet.

I can’t tell you exactly how many of these piece there have been in the past year. There was a piece about Opera On Tap, a Brooklyn based group that gets drunk and sings arias. Then there was the Steve Smith’s recent profile on I.C.E. I attended a performance at Monkey Town where a violinist played some Bach suites while dancers from Public Dance Theater tore it up.

Situating classical music in “informal” settings seems to be a remedy many are concocting to give classical music a face that is less stick-up-the-ass than the common prejudice we are fed growing up; that classical music–ergo, people who make classical music; ergo, people who listen to classical music–is stuffy, boring, and namely, sex-and-drugs free.

While I’m totally on-board with the idea, it would be amiss to assume this is all classical music needs to reconnect with larger public audiences.

First of all, it tosses out the modern notion of focused attention that is required to “appreciate” a lot of classical music. It promotes casual interface, like with television watching or radio listening. Now, this wouldn’t be a bad thing for music that’s composed with this context in mind, but I assure you, this is not the case with Ligetti or Bartok. This kind of reaction is tied to my criticism of Osvaldo Golijov’s part concert, part Salsa club Franken-style. It disregards the reality that for every kind of music there exists in companion an equally idiosyncratic way of listening to it.

Which leads us inevitably to the main problem. This kind of xenophonia does nothing to address the nature of the music itself. It does not challenge new music to shrug off the trappings of the concert-setting ideal. It does not cause composers to question who their audience is and how they are writing music. Composing a symphony for an orchestra already dooms a piece of music to one very specific, perhaps fateful experience. And composing a string quartet that uses harmonics and virtuosically subtle tricks and textures pretty much eliminates presenting the piece of music in anything but a concert-hall setting.

Xenophonic presentations of classical music will not cultivate a taste for the kind of focused listening experience the concert hall provides.  On the other hand, they might spark consumer interest in recordings, which can be played casually, bent to the rules of daily activity (whether you’re at home washing the dishes or marching to your iPod at the gym). There isn’t one solution to the problems classical music faces, so while stumbling upon a string quartet in your local watering hole might add some novelty to your night, but will it compel you to stumble into Alice Tully Hall? Not likely.

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2 Comments

  1. [1] For these purposes, the term “classical music” should be construed to mean anything from Medieval organum to Ricky Ian Gordon, from Byrd to Cage, from madrigal to phase. I mean “Classical Music” in the big fat umbrella sense.

  2. Great post! If you watch Hilary Hahn: A Portrait (DVD) she plays unaccompanied Bach on violin in a classical music bar. The people talk while she plays, but then quiet down and listen.

    I like your points on a casual interface and giving classical music a “face that is less stick-up-the-ass.” This would be a great way for freelance musicians as well as small chamber music groups, or even a group that has a mix of music genres to get started, and at the same time, promoting classical music.


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