Bursting the Bubble
In my heart of hearts I know that lists of the greatest “fill in the blank” are ultimately pretty silly. (E.g. How can you narrow the best barbeque in the United States down to only ten places; have you actually eaten in every barbeque joint in this country?) Yet I still get pretty worked up whenever there’s a classical music list and there’s nothing contemporary or American on it, or when it’s a music list and there’s absolutely no classical on it at all. Readers here and elsewhere have already been overexposed to my thoughts about it time and time again.
I’m actually trying my best to recover from list-o-mania. So I hesitate to say anything about the National Association of Record Merchandisers-endorsed list of the “200 Definitive Albums” which completely ignores classical music (unless you count Andrea Bocelli) yet has room for an album by Kenny G. And I’m still making a valiant attempt not to be insulted by last year’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Though this colossal work pools the collective minds of “90 leading international critics” and claims to feature music of all genres, it too manages to completely ignore anything coming from the Western classical music tradition despite featuring several recordings directly inspired by it. According to the collective minds of 90 experts, you can go through your whole life and not worry about hearing Mussorgsky’s great solo piano composition Pictures at an Exhibition or Ravel’s ubiquitous orchestration of it (good luck); but whatever you do, don’t miss out on Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s version!
I guess we’re now allowed to die without having to listen to classical music. But perhaps recordings of older pieces issued between 1955 and 2005 (the 1001 list’s chronological markers) are automatically disqualified, since that music was actually not composed during those years. O.K., there’s still a vital half century’s worth of repertoire to pick something from. It’s hard to imagine how these erudite arbiters of taste—they even namedropped North Indian classical santoorist Shivkumar Sharma (!)—were able to tune out absolutely everybody in classical music. They even bypassed Philip Glass, who has collaborated with a wide range of folks on their list, from Ravi Shankar and Paul Simon to Patti Smith and David Byrne. Admittedly, I’m 42 (which is a reasonable guess for the median age of these critics) and I’ve heard less than half the albums they claim I can’t die before hearing. I share their passion for Joni Mitchell, My Bloody Valentine, and even the Smashing Pumpkins, but I still haven’t heard Dexys Midnight Runners who made it onto their list twice. I’ve clearly got lots of catching up to do since I’ve already wasted so much of my precious time on all that classical falderal. Oops, I’ve been sucked into list-o-mania again, sorry…
But before you think I’m revisiting an old polemic, all of my fuming while reading through these latest lists did inspire some new lines of questioning about our relationship to the music we care about and its seemingly fragile relationship to the world beyond us. It made me wonder. First I’ll ask all the composers and performers of new music out there: how much music do you actively listen to? How much of it is contemporary classical music (that term again, sorry) or the older stuff? How much does what you listen to jibe with what is on these lists? And then, additionally, for all the other dedicated “new music” aficionados who regularly read this site, what makes you want to listen to this music? What brought you to it for the first time? Why is “new music” so far removed from the radar of folks who are otherwise quite music savvy (e.g. I’m thrilled yet shocked that folks like Baaba Maal and the Louvin Brothers got on this list)? Of course, everyone is welcome to answer any of these questions here and pose additional ones of their own.
Meanwhile, one last source of endless confusion for me: Why are folks on both sides of what I thought was an imaginary divide at this point so unaware of what’s on the other side? I had dinner the other night with someone in the classical camp who is pretty with it, yet she had never heard of the Magnetic Fields. We’ve all got war stories about the snobbery of classical music, particularly those of us who cavort in things contemporary. But the snobbery seems to go both ways. In the circle of folks who claim to be broadminded, why has music now become a catch-all phrase for every genre except classical? Maybe, once and for all, it’s time to earnestly knock down this wall, or burst this bubble. (Choose whatever metaphor you like.) But how?