On David Byrne’s Surprising Comments on Classical Music

I’m finally finishing How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s a great book – the time it took for me to almost be done with it has nothing to do with its quality, and everything to do with the fact that I’m afraid of book-commitment. Indeed, having How Music Works waiting there for me while I’m in the depths of some <immortanJoe>mediocre</immortanJoe> genre fiction book is a comfort that I’m sure I’ll soon miss. That said, I got to a point in it last night where I went, “Now you’ve done it, David Byrne. Now you’ve made me want to go and blog about this.”

The point, you’ll not be surprised to hear, came when Byrne was discussing classical music vs. pop music. Specifically, he was talking about the perception and function of high art vs art in pop culture. (Or, as the kids put it, “pop art.”) There’s a whole hell of a lot to say about that “debate,” and Byrne gives short shrift to it. Now, admittedly, it’s a book in and of itself, and Byrne doesn’t have the space to go into it in a book that’s ostensibly about the business of music, as well as how music itself functions as social glue and as a phenomena in our daily lives. And further, Byrne is very straightforward throughout his book about his biases toward pop music in general, and against classical or “high-art” music in general.

There are a couple of points that set me off in his chapter, “Amateurs.” The first one is that “The dead guys won’t write more symphonies” (p. 298) and the second is in reference to the arts funding that symphony halls and art houses receive but that pop music venues do not – “Why not invest in the future of music, instead of building fortresses to preserve its past?” (p. 282)

It’s almost a platitude to say that Beethoven is dead, so he won’t be writing more symphonies. Of course not – not until the glorious day that we can clone him, and install him as Minister of Kultur in my Iron Fist government, of course. However, as I’ve written about before, it’s not like you can’t get anything important out of a dead guy. The works that, in Byrne’s book’s examples, the Koch brothers and the capitalist vultures prop up as a means to assuage their egos, can mean a whole hell of a lot to people – and yes, symphony halls are costly as hell to maintain, but they’re also where symphonies sound best live. You can hear a pops concert in a park, but you miss a lot of the textures of the music.

Let’s talk about symphony halls for a moment, shall we? They’re stuffy, and if you go there and you’re 30 or below, you’ll be the youngest person there by at least 30 years. They’re not a little intimidating at first glance, and they’re not in any way like your local venue. They are, some would argue, relics of a long-gone past, and relics that should be swept away if they can’t hold their own as a business. (Not that Byrne says that, though he does come damn close to it.) However, symphony halls and opera houses are a certain style of architecture that you don’t see anymore: Ornate. They stand as a reminder of history and the human need to embellish, and as a counter to glass-faced condos, new-retro buildings, and whatever horrible styles the hipsters at architecture firms are coming up with next. I’d say that they’re visual art as much as they are a place to hear music, and yes, the arts need public funding – as well as whatever cash the ravenous hordes of capitalists or whoever want to throw at them. Why? Because we live in a society that doesn’t value its works, only profit and results. And yes, we’ve been that way for centuries, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that, more than anything else, the arts keep us, as a society human. Whether or not the billionaire philanthropists are thinking about that or their egos, I don’t know, but I do think this is an example of shutting up and taking money when it’s offered.

As for stuffiness and intimidating, as someone who comes from a family of steel salesmen, restaurant servers, and, yes, lawyers, I think that wears off the second time you go into a building. Going to the symphony hall is like like going to a museum. If you’re not used to it, and you don’t know that, no, it’s not cool to touch a 300 year-old artwork, then you’ll be a bit weirded out by the security guards and the vastly different atmosphere. But once you’ve gone a few times, know how they work, they become a lot more welcoming. The empty space becomes room to wander around, to look at pieces from different perspectives. From personal experience, no one in my family aside from my brother was really into classical music, despite the fact that, somewhere along the line, one of the Simons was a concert violinist in Austin, Texas. My dad took me to art museums, and made them less intimidating by interacting with the art in the form of mocking the paintings in a Cockney accent. It drew weird looks, but it showed me that places of “high art” are not places to be feared.

Same with the symphony halls: Once you’re used to the rows of seating and the appearance that you’re in a cathedral from the year 1700, you realize that it’s just another venue. One that you probably shouldn’t form a circle pit in, but just another venue regardless. They are, I maintain, intimidating only if you let them be, and only if you buy into the common line that these places are only for the upper crust.

“But what about the dressing up?” some will ask. Well, yeah, you should probably dress up. That comes with the territory. It’s like dressing up for church or services. You show respect by not showing up dressing like an asshole. It may be a bit classist, but hey, nothing’s perfect.

Next, let’s look at the lazy “Dead guys won’t write more symphonies” line. Well, no. Of course they won’t. But guess what: John Lennon and BB King aren’t going to be writing any more songs, either. That’s what happens when you die: You stop working. It’s the ultimate retirement! But let’s not even get into the implication that “the dead guys” have works that aren’t important because they’re dead. Instead, let’s consider the fact that, yeah, at this very moment, there are composers coming out with new work. New work that doesn’t fit the mold of the Romantic composers! The classical scene isn’t dead by any means, it just works wildly differently.

As Byrne admits in the book, by quoting Alex Ross, who’s a much better source to learn about classical music from, symphony programmers are constantly trying to find ways to draw people into the halls – or bring events to the public. It’s a singular difficulty that they face, because most of the people they’re trying to court don’t know that they already know a great many Important Works. How do they know these Works? By being consumers of media, of course. You hear snatches of Gershwin, Wagner, Mahler, Beethoven, and Glass in everything ranging from airline commercials to the Lone Ranger theme to the Interstellar soundtrack. (That last example is more an example of being heavily influenced by Philip Glass, from the minimal background of the sonic backdrop to the repetitive tones going on through the piano to the percussion – best listened to at high volume and with stupid high quality headphones.) The best programmers know that the way they reach people is through pops concerts, held on lovely days in public parks. There, conductors have a bit of exposition about pieces before the orchestra plays them, and the audience learns something about what they’re going to hear.

And I think that’s at the crux of the matter. To not feel intimidated by classical music, you have to learn a bit about how it works. Whether that’s done through school education or by watching something like Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts doesn’t matter – but in order to really get what’s going on, you have to know the context – which Byrne also notes is important for pop music. I don’t think that’s oppressive, or exclusionary, or whatever. You just have to learn. Classical engages a different part of the body than pop music.Though there’s plenty of opportunity to dance to classical music (waltzes, anyone?), those dances are a bit different than you’ll experience if you go to the Goodfoot in Portland.

Byrne isn’t a classical music fan. He’s a pop guy, he’s a rock guy, he’s a funk guy. I won’t comment about pop or funk, because those are definitely not my purview. Byrne is, however, a really smart guy, and seeing him handwave away Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart because they’re dead and you can’t dance to them is disappointing to an extreme. The arguments he uses are lazy and they ignore a vast swath of compositions that are intense as hell simply because they’re – presumably – not as well known as Figaro, or Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, or Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. How Music Works is a fantastic book to learn about pop music, or rock, or even get a good idea about the way tech and buildings change the way music works, but it’s not a great place to expand your horizons about the vibrant realm of classical music.

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