Thursday, April 27, 2006

Matt Groening (hearts) Messiaen

In an interview this week at the Onion AV Club (click here for it), Matt Groening casually induces a dopamine rush for hundreds of music geeks: "I would prefer to listen to a French classical composer like Olivier Messiaen than to the pop hits of the day."

Somehow, this is the exact opposite of that time Condi Rice professed to love Brahms.

Groening's comment brings up an interesting question, though. I imagine that he's quite a busy guy -- "Life in Hell" / "The Simpsons" / "Futurama" revival -- but somehow he apparently finds time for... Messiaen?

'People are busier than ever!' is one of the modern era's more popular bromides. We all sigh and wish we had the leisure time of, say, Charlemagne. Irregardless of Holy Roman scheduling issues, though, people spit out that little sentence over and over because it very much feels true- and nothing makes its point more clearly than the music of Olivier Messiaen.

He wrote fairly long pieces. "Turangalîla" clocks in at around an hour-and-a-half, the "Catalogue des Oiseaux" takes three CDs (I've never gotten through it all), "Quaotour pour fin du Temps" is at least an hour, and there are lots and lots of pieces with names like "The Ascended Blood of the Lord" (in French) that usually go on for about a half-hour. These pieces don't get performed in public very often, so presumably Matt Groening listens to them -- as I do -- on a stereo or computer or iPod.

So, my big question is: where does classical music fit into people's schedules today?

I like a lot of pieces by Messiaen, but I can't imagine sitting down in the evening with a pair of headphones and listening to "Turangalîla" in one block. Even if I were following a score, I'd probably start to get sleepy or antsy- this is a long symphony, and even with the aura of immediacy and excitement that hangs in the air at a live concert it can start to weary the listener. As a result, %90 of the Messiaen that has entered my ears as been, in some sense, 'background music.'

This is a dirty, despicable thing for a classical music person to admit. Composers like Hindemith were always at pains to point out that the existence of background music cheapens the very nature of music, the idea being that true music -- concert music -- must be enjoyed with full concentration and no distractions. How many people have the luxury of approaching music like this today, though? Who, upon arriving home with their new album, reverently sets it up on their stereo/computer, takes the phone off the hook, sedates the dog, closes their eyes, and earnestly savors the music for an hour?

Well, not me. I would earnestly like to be that person, so serious and focused on music that whole evenings drift past as I lay on my back with my MDR-7506s caressing my ears, never growing bored or antsy. That never happens though. More likely I hear a fifteen minute tract of "Turangalîla" while running errands, the whole symphony divvied up over multiple days and multiple little occasions- tinkling piano and ondes martenot occupying the part of my attention that is not engaged in, say, checking email, then thunderous alien brass egging me on as I put away the groceries. This is a bit like if you could hang a Picasso in your hallway instead of traipsing down to the museum to stare at it earnestly- you gain a deep, pleasant famliarity with the painting by passing it constantly, but you unavoidably become a little numb to its initially striking features.*

Still, classical music as a culture -- and I do realize more and more that classical music is just a 'scene' with especially rich donors -- persists in pretending that people listen to its pieces in big blocks without interruption, that the vast majority of its listeners sit down with Beethoven 8 and listen to it as though they were reading a novel. Moreover, composers are still writing very long pieces (I am too, I realize). Honestly, there are probably only a few hundred people on the planet (and I think I'm being generous) that have made it through that six hour Feldman string quartet. This has the unusual effect, I think, of scaring off newcomers to classical music and making its existing fans feel guilty inside: on some level, you think that a good classical music fan, a serious one who really gets it, would be looking into SACD technology and sitting down in front of the stereo to smile dreamily for an hour of Schubert piano sonatas.

When I do sit down like this and listen to a piece 'properly' in a non-concert setting, it's almost always when I'm reading along in a score. Even this, it seems to me, is a little impure, like taking your Arden Shakespeare with you to the theater. It's music as study, not a pure aesthetic experience. Still, it's probably my favorite way of listening- I'm working through the complete Haydn symphonies right now, and without the scores I'd probably have been a little bored somewhere around the third CD.

So- am I alone? How do people listen to classical music today? Am I the only one who feels a trace of guilt that he's never heard Boulez' "Sur Incises" without groceries being involved?


*Still, in a sense I think know "Turangalîla" better because of this constant, casual acquaintence. I guess that's why people buy lots of recordings of the same Beethoven symphonies- an attempt to recapture some of the novelty.


Blogger Samuel Vriezen said...

When the Feldman quartet was performed in Holland by the Ives Ensemble twice, I guess possibly up to 50 people or so heard the whole thing. On a CD, I'd never do that. In general, CDs are simply not the music.

But as to Sur Incises... I heard that one live, twice, and did I ever miss some groceries!

1:01 PM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

Lucky! I haven't had a chance to hear Sur Incises live yet, but it's been the soundtrack to all my latest dinner preparations.

11:19 AM  
Blogger georgesdelatour said...

I've just bought a CD boxed set of Messiaen's complete organ music, performed by Olivier Latry. When I was a teenager I thought nothing of playing an album set of the Vingt Regards the whole way through. Nowadays I usually have to listen in smaller doses.

Okay, maybe "CDs are simply not the music", but sometimes they're all there is. With music I'm really interested in I try to buy various different recordings, to avoid memorizing one performance too much.

Musicians should feel free to make their music in all shapes and sizes. The grindcore band Napalm Death released a single that lasted just one second. It takes longer to read out the song's title than to listen to it!

I suppose operas (eg Wagner's Ring cycle) are about as long as music usually gets for a single listening session.

6:23 PM  

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