05.31.2010

This past Christmas my mother gave me a subscription to Listen: Life With Classical Music, “America’s classical music magazine,” which is published by Arkiv Music. In the Summer 2010 issue, there’s an interesting article about Brett Richardson, a pianist who performs regularly in a bar in New Orleans called The Spotted Cat. Along with the usual suspects–stride piano, ragtime, blues–he also plays Chopin, Poulenc, Bach, Prokofiev, Schumann, and the music of other classical composers. The article isn’t available on Listen‘s website, but Richardson had a couple of great quotes that I hope they won’t mind me sharing with you here.

“I’m disgusted with [the institution of classical music]. And I participated in it for a long time before I was able to articulate what bothered me. Basically, I don’t think the tradition is currently conducive to the masses. It’s a stuffy thing. To force someone to sit still and pay attention, it’s just alienating and furstrating. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! But if you go somewhere and play some Scott Joplin, play some blues, and then sneak in some Beethoven, people are like, ‘Oh, man, that’s great! Some fine piano-playing right there.’ People like Beethoven, they really do. But if you present it in a lofty way, people will be put off, agitated, even insulted…. Ultimately, I would prefer to contribute to the atmosphere rather than be at the center of it. To be on stage and playing Rachmaninoff is a big responsibility. To say, ‘Okay, you have to be still and quiet and pay attention while I do this,’ well, hey, you better do it damn good. But if you’re playing where people are telling jokes and flirting and you’re contributing to that, that’s the whole point of sharing music. If people want to sit and listen quietly, they can do that, but if they want to get in fights, well, that’s fine, too.”

Although I wouldn’t say I’m “disgusted” with the institution of classical music, I do agree with his comments about it to some extent. That’s the reason why the institution is struggling all over the country–because it’s not conducive to the masses. And that’s why a lot of the contemporary classical music that matters isn’t being written for and performed in concert halls (though some of it is, to be sure). It’s being fused with popular music and played in spaces like galleries, lofts, and yes, even bars; places where it’s not portrayed as “sophisticated” or “high-brow,” for the “hallowed halls,” but for people to come together, hang out, share and enjoy. I certainly wouldn’t want my only experiences of listening to classical music to be in a noisy club. But if I knew of a bar nearby that played classical music, you’d definitely find me there a lot.

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    Mark Harbison on 06.01.2010

    Based on this, it sounds like Brett Richardson believes that the purpose of music is to contribute to and intensify the already present atmosphere . . . would you agree with that? I guess “what’s the purpose of music?” is kind of a big question, but it seems to me like his answer is incredibly narrow. Is there a place for stuffy music? SHOULD the masses be partaking in high-brow art like classical music? Is it designed to be enjoyed by everyone? Should it be?

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    ajharbison on 06.02.2010

    I don’t think Richardson would say that the SOLE purpose of music is to contribute to and intensify the atmosphere. But obviously, if you’re playing piano in a bar, the purpose of that music isn’t to be listened to attentively in silence. In his particular context, I think, contributing to the atmosphere is a main or perhaps even the main purpose of the music that he’s playing.

    In terms of the larger question, I think that there’s definitely a place for sitting quietly in a concert hall and listening to classical music. If I had more money I’d be doing that much more often myself. But to say that that’s the best venue, or the only venue, where classical music should be performed is to shut it out from a lot of people who might otherwise enjoy it.

    AJ Harbison

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