Friday, March 09, 2012

The Orchestra As Torture

I have an update today, sort of a brief book report, on a topic that I’ve written about quite a bit, a topic that I’m trying to learn more about.

Orchestral music.

I’ve written about orchestral music a few times and I’m pretty interested in music as a topic. A few weeks ago I did a post about bird songs and classical music and I had decided to start listening to more classical music using “bird songs” as a kind of theme.

But I thought, too, first, before I really start that I would get even more basic. I thought I would get a copy of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra—because I’ve heard people say good things about it—and I would read the book and listen to the famous piece of music and narration by composer Benjamin Britten just to start off with the very simple basics.

I mean, I know a little about music already, but normally it never hurts to review things and make sure your fundamental knowledge is consistent with what everyone else considers “fundamental.”

Normally I’ve found that to be true. I mean, I often go back and review the basics of things like astronomy or computer technology or photography or any of a dozen other topics I’m interested in.

But there is just something about classical music that I have a mental block about. I guess. (Or maybe it’s just a troubled and awful behavior-set practiced in today’s world by troubled and awful people.)

Anyway. So I bought the book and read through it. Then I put in the CD (into my Sony Discman) and started listening to Benjamin Britten’s music and Ben Kingsley’s narration.

I liked Ben Kingsley’s narration.

But I found the music to be, for the most part, incomprehensible and maddening. And I mean that literally. After a few minutes of listening I wanted to throw my CD player against the wall.

First of all, although I know my ears aren’t all that educated about music, when the Britten composition played its introduction I didn’t hear any melody at all, just a bunch of musicians all playing at the same time.

Second, when Kingsley narrated information about individual instruments and individual sections of the orchestra, the musicians would then play supposedly representative examples. But the musicians were almost always playing so fast that I found it impossible to really get any idea what the individual instruments sounded like. (And, for the most part, I know what they sound like and I still couldn’t tell from listening to Britten’s composition.)

And, third, when the supposedly representative examples of individual instruments and individual sections were playing, there were always other instruments and/or other sections of the orchestra playing at the same time. So how the hell (I originally typed a much more extreme expletive) is someone supposed to tell which sound they’re supposed to be listening to?!

[I’m shaking my head as I type this] It just seems like the stupidest, most ill-conceived idea for an “instructional” piece of music I’ve ever heard.

But more than that. It seems to accomplish—in me, at least—the very opposite of what it says it wants to do. Instead of giving me knowledge about orchestral music, instead of making me more comfortable with orchestral music, it makes me want to hate classical music, it makes me want to hate orchestras, and it makes me want to hate the people who are part of this sub-culture of the music world.


Sometimes environments or little sub-cultures are self-selecting for particular types of people. It’s very clear to me that classical music (in today’s world) is not interested in selecting for a person like me.

But I’m not giving up. I mean, ultimately, music is music and I love music. The particular sub-culture that has grown up around what gets called “classical music” and orchestral music is just that: a sub-culture. They don’t own music and they don’t even own classical music. They just own the sub-culture in today’s world.

I don’t get them and I don’t want to.

I’m going to figure out a way to listen to more classical music, more orchestral music, and to learn about it.

I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but I don’t give up easily. There’s still bird songs, thank heavens!


I’m going to end today with a quote. Michael Hurd is a contemporary composer and writer. He wrote a book called, “The Orchestra: An Illustrated Guide to the History and Development of Instruments and Music.”

It’s an interesting book and I enjoyed reading it.

However, a couple of paragraphs in the book struck me as kind of odd when I first read them. I didn’t really understand the tone of the paragraphs and they seemed out-of-place in a book about the history of the orchestra.

However, when I look back at them now after immersing myself in contemporary orchestral music and classical music for a while (I’ve been reading and listening to more than just “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) the paragraphs make more sense, and their strange tone is less strange.

Here are the two paragraphs I’m talking about:

What precisely the future of the orchestra may be is hard to guess. Will it continue merely as a vehicle for reviewing the past, while contemporary composers turn more and more to electronic ways of realizing their dreams? Will conductors continue to inflate their egos in a dizzying star-system reminiscent of the worst excesses of Hollywood? Will the tottering economies of the Western world be able to support as many orchestras as we now enjoy? In short: Is the history of the orchestra at an end?

Only one thing is certain. There will be music in the future, and it will be the music the future wants. And if it is not the orchestra as we know it today that helps to supply the need, then whatever takes its place may well be just as remarkable.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Another Look At Another Venus

Chopin: Keyboards And Butterflies

The Application Of Beyond Understanding

Beautiful Music

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