Five minutes to ecstasy

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music

In which the New York Times asks several artists to provide an entry into classical for non-classical listeners. An idea which I’m sure has been done to death, but which is kind of irresistible anyway. And which in fact syncs up nicely with my own recent mission to finally explore the stuff. My exploration is two-fold—and I’m not sure how possible it will be to attain the second without the first:

1) Will I ever simply understand and be able to follow classical composition? (I have a brain, I assume I’m capable, but will I maintain my interest long enough to do so?)
2) Will I in fact arrive at a place (a state of mind) where listening to classical is no longer just work but is in fact deeply pleasurable?

I arrived at that aforementioned place with jazz a decade ago (though a great deal of it, including some of the stuff I love, still confuses the hell out of me), and this was after two previous decades of effort. Ditto Captain Beefheart. So I assume this is possible with classical, too. However, jazz and rock—or anyway, the jazz I ended up gravitating towards and the rock that’s always been there—do not seem nearly as distant from one another as classical and rock. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but the trajectory seems to me to be one-way: all sorts of pop and rock “incorporate”—yuck—classical, but so what? Pop and rock subsume (take on? eat up?) everything, ultimately. But where is the rock or the pop in classical? Can I hear pop flowing in the other direction? Is there pop music in the DNA of, say, Bach?

I’m not a total novice. I have some classical favourites, though most of them are 20th century, and mostly the sort of thing that upends a listener’s ideas of “classical” (is it even referred to as classical?). Again, it tends to be stuff with an obvious link to pop (start with some of the minimalists and work your way out from there).

Next month I’m attending, with a friend who has become my guide to the stuff, my very first symphony, a performance of Mahler’s 5th. Twenty-five years ago, I saw my first opera and I think I lasted 15 minutes before squirming wildly in my seat for the next 12 hours. Sub-titles didn’t help. I don’t recall which opera it was.

12 thoughts on “Five minutes to ecstasy

  1. Aside from classical music being the only music I can get away with playing in the presence of my spouse, it’s good both as aural wallpaper and if you hone in. A symphony orchestra playing as an organic unit, as well as a choral society sometimes, is a beautiful thing. Not to mention chamber music or prodigious soloists. Rock music on the other hand and especially rap and country cry out to have the lyrics be listened to (if possible—not so hard with country.) Classical (and jazz) don’t really require so much engagement with the forebrain, absent being confined to a chair in a concert hall. Pushing 70 years old myself I know my brain is growing mushy because I don’t really have as much discernment between good and bad. I used to hear more music I hated—not so much now. Maybe it’s because I don’t listen to the radio so much, and I’m mostly exposed to music that is recommended or (uh) curated.

    One way I listen, for at least an hour every day, is to let my iTunes randomizer haul up an hour’s worth of music off my hard drive. Lots of it is classical, because I have a lot of classical (much of it Gramophone Gem-rated—so necessarily top grade), but there’s also jazz, blues, novelty, shlock, hiphop, gospel, reggae, soul/r&b, rockist rock, latin, world, afropop, plus just about everything Christgau rates A-minus or better as well as lots of B+ and *, **, ***, etc. You name it. Sometimes the mixture is heavy on the classical (like this one: Sometimes there’s little or no classical, but I’ve come to enjoy the classical as much as anything. And I wouldn’t mind nothing but classical. But that’s just me—increasingly so, especially with the being so exposed to it.

  2. I started paying attention to classical and pop-etc. at the same time, , and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts broke it down and made the connections, how various devices were used in different genres and subgenres: I especially liked baroque chamber music, and when the Beatles came to America, their fan LB demonstrated what they got from that, without making too much of it. A few years later, I got hooked on a mono LP of solo Satie, played by pianist Aldo Ciccolini: microdots of concentrated instrumental reveries/tales/jokes/riddles/filler x atmospherics; yadda yadda when Eno released Discreet Music and started talking up “musical furniture,” I thought of Aldo (and Satie). When heavy metal came along, I started getting back into Beethoven’s Vth (and Walter Murphy’s discoid “A Fifth of Beethoven” seemed like a natural-enough thing). Mozart made some good car music, but I’ve never really been a classical head.

  3. And I dug the ESD CD reissue of Switched-On Bach (think it was the first of several vintage W Carlos albums on that label, the only one I’ve heard).

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Two points, Christo:
    1) “Rock music on the other hand and especially rap and country cry out to have the lyrics be listened to” – Believe it or not, most of the rap I’ve enjoyed over the years has been done so in ignorance of the lyrics, especially once rap entered its phase of not sticking to a strict vocal meter, which I understand — I could be wrong — originated with Eric B & Rakim and has since gone a million miles even further than that. I guess in that way, rap really has functioned for me a little more like jazz. (Country, on the other hand, I agree with you; I’ve always latched on to lyrics in my favourite country very early on, often in the first listen.)
    2) I’ve been a “randomizer” with music for a long time now, sometimes even with favourite albums; I’ll shuffle-play them just for the hell of it and because it offers a fresh perspective. But most of my playlists (i.e., my Spotify “all-time Hit Parade”), while wide-ranging in one sense (and currently hosting more than 2,000 tracks), have only a few jazz things on them, and maybe one or two classical (Satie, for instance). I would LOVE to get at a place where you are where I can know some classical well enough to just naturally want to include them in such a mix–but I’m far from that place right now.

    Don, I enjoyed Switched on Bach the couple times I listened to it, but I never latched on to the songs per se. I was interested (and a bit clinically, I must admit) to the synthesizers. Oddly enough, just as I kicked off this classical discovery phase, those Bernstein specials (I think it’s the same thing) played on Turner Classic Movies. I recorded them, and plan to still watch. I’m no kind of stickler for a purist kind of enjoyment (i.e., “it hits you or it doesn’t”), and happy to receive a tour guide wherever I can. Jazz really only opened up for me (beyond a few old favourites, that is) after reading a number of pieces by Ralph Gleason. In the first six months of my jazz phase, I was reading about it as much as I was listening to it.

    Insofar as classical is concerned, Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band was my passageway–my Elvis, you might even say.

  5. Yeah, I saw one of those again on TCM recently, was reminded of how much of an info overload the visuals could be back in the early 60s, had to listen around all of that, as in the beginning, but so be it. You might also enjoy Ralph J. Gleason’s vintage public TV series, Jazz Casual, which fits its title: no big production, just the guest doing his thing for a few minutes, then taking a break to talk with or to Ralph, (who mostly keeps his mouth shut, in the ones I’ve seen), then another number, and later cats. Very refreshing, and usually several eps on YouTube.
    Oh forgot to mention my classical guitar phase: began with From The Jungles of Paraguay—John Williams Plays Barrios (B. being quite vibrant though not hyperactive composer), also on YouTube, but the true gateway to investment began with Christopher Parkening’s tribute to Segovia—-CP is mellower than Segovia (see also his classical The California Album), but his take led me to the autumn lens of Five Centuries of Spanish Guitar and An All-Bach Programme, for instance.

  6. And I dug the ESD CD reissue of Switched-On Bach (think it was the first of several vintage W Carlos albums on that label, the only one I’ve heard).

  7. Every now and then (like, three times so far) I go to Wikipedia’s List of 21st-century classical composers and pick one born 1990 or later (so, younger than Taylor Swift by a minimum of 18 days) and type the name into YouTube. I may or may not report back on this endeavor. Dylan Mattingly is worth exploring.

    Also worth exploring might be film scores of the 1930s and 1940s (e.g. by someone like Max Steiner): probably the basic vocabulary of European 19th century romanticism without the necessity of or opportunity to elaborate symphonically (or sonatically or whatever). So somewhere between the demands of classical and the demands of pop.

    In the meantime, I recommend Claudio Arrau playing Chopin. Once saw a TV biopic that had Chopin saying he worked hard to make it seem as if he wasn’t working hard. I identified with that, even if the real Chopin might not have.

  8. I had to read “born 1990 or later” three times to make sure you didn’t mean 1890, and by “Taylor Swift” you didn’t, in fact, mean Igor Stravinsky (1891). My whole sense of everything, including mortality itself is completely scrambled right now.

  9. Here’s a question for you, Frank (feel free to take months to think about it): can you ascribe, or maybe I should say, do you simply hear (or ascertain on any level), any punk in classical? For as long as I’ve read you, you’ve identified punkness (your version[s] of punkness) in places I might never have seen it in myself, at least until reading you. (Like, I’d never even thought about how much of a punk mid-60s Dylan really was until I read that early piece you wrote on him back in the ’80s). I’m not assuming you know classical well enough to know the answer, but I wonder if such a thing exists. It’s almost certainly there in jazz, I assume (or is it?), in some of the be-boppers and so forth. (I’m actually having difficulty formulating this into a coherent question; it may well be a dead end.)

  10. Enjoying this conversation. Erik Satie is one of my all-time heroes, not only for his music but his writings and his life. The Banquet Years by Shattuck is a great book about that time period that got me to try him out.

    Satie is barely considered classical by most classical music people. Satie’s focus on stark melody is perfect for pop people and there’s plenty more to love beyond the famous stuff such as the first Gymnopedie (ever since My Dinner With Andre, the first Gymnopedie has shown up all over the place, lots of advertisements and movie & tv soundtracks). Satie wrote a pop standard called Je Te Veux early in his career. He understood jazz immediately, writing “jazz shouts its sorrows and we don’t give a damn, that’s why it’s fine, real.”

    Through Satie, French classical music absorbed true jazz and pop influences and made a virtue of spare music with plenty of space in it. I found some other classical people I genuinely love and play a lot. Poulenc’s music for small ensembles is like Satie with chops – it’s some of the music I’ve listened to the most this decade. Try Poulenc’s “Sonata for Oboe and Piano” from 1962, about 13 minutes of various kinds of gorgeous.

    Ravel, who was another genuine jazz fan, did a theatrical piece called L’enfant et les Sortileges that should be made into a full-length cartoon. This little boy gets sent to his room and the furniture comes alive. It’s a trip. Awesome melodies. I can’t recommend the youtube videos of this, don’t look. Somebody rescue this piece with animation and non-classical-singers.

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