How Classical Music Fetishism Is Killing The Music


It is a gorgeous winter day here in Toronto, Canada. Snow is peacefully falling down and everything is still white. Until snowplows and salt will change roads into a gray mess. I just returned from my long walk in the nearby park as I couldn’t resist to go out and enjoy this beauty.

On top of it, I had a great companion on my stroll. Mozart.
No, not a dog … the real Wolfgang Amadeus! His music. Violin concertos 1 – 5, played by James Ehnes straight to my ears from a smartphone.

This has been the best way to enjoy classical music for me lastly. Walking outside with headphones on, adjusting my steps to the tempo of a music piece, often humming a melody or waving my hands in an imaginary competition with a music conductor… A total immersion.

As I don’t have to analyze, critique or write about this music, I don’t have to stay home sitting. Listening while walking also helps me to pay less attention to mistakes or irregularities if they occur. I can listen as and when I want, and enjoy it fully.

On the other hand, you may agree with me, that going to a traditional classical music concert has become quite a strange experience. I wanted to add ‘lastly’, but this strangeness has been going on for a few centuries now.

In the past, as a musicology student and after graduation, I enjoyed all concerts regardless of the style or genre. And I used to go to a lot of them.

At that time it also came to me quite normal, that one would dress and behave differently for a jazz or a rock concert then a classical music concert. After all, you (normally) would wear a swimsuit on a beach instead of a fur coat. Also you don’t go in a pyjama to a business meeting. And you don’t start singing lascivious songs in a funeral.

I put “normally” into the brackets because everything is changing. That includes norms, rituals and rules, this western society has used to accept and obey for a long time.

But when those norms become laws which strangulate an experience, when they become like fetishism, they may kill the very object for which they have come into existence. Nowadays they are killing the classical music.

British Oxford Dictionary defines fetishism as an excessive and irrational attention, or attachment, to something. That says it all.

The famous German philosopher, sociologist and musicologist Theodor Adorno touched this topic some 80 years ago in his essay On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.

My intention here is not to bash classical music. Nor its audience, fans and some bloggers for their futile effort to revive and save it in the current form and presentation. My goal is to put attention to one critical issue. More importantly, I want to offer a possible solution that represents Musicably.

What prompted me to write this blog post was the blog On An Overgrown Path. In particular it was the post Classical music’s biggest problem is that no one cares. Its author is lamenting about digital algorithms applied by companies like Google and Facebook, allowing listeners to “stay in self-defined comfort zones”, while listening for free outstanding performances … and “no longer caring about protecting the arts”.

The author ends his post with following: “There is no viable solution because we are all part of the problem. Classical music’s biggest challenge is not ageing audiences, disruptive business models, institutionalized discrimination, unsatisfactory concert halls etc etc. The biggest challenge facing classical music is adapting to a society in which no one cares about anything except staying firmly within their own algorithmically defined comfort zone.”

Unfortunately this is an example of that same classical music ‘fetishism’ causing its demise. Although instead the demise, I see a simple – change.

For classical music purists, their object of fetishism – their fetish, seems to be in jeopardy. On one side, there is a dwindling audience. Less and less people are willing to pay for and accept the outdated ways of listening the classical music concerts, with strict requirements on the attire, behaviour and experience. You don’t dare to start clapping after a first part of a symphony! Otherwise you end up melting under scoffing views of listeners around you. Just sit quietly, don’t move, don’t cough, don’t clap when you feel good, don’t talk …

An opposite to the shrinking audience is a growing number of well educated professional musicians. They come from all possible corners of the world and want to make living by playing classical music. And many of them aim to become celebrities and rich.

One of the results of this situation is a growing number of classical music recordings and videos available for free on the internet. Yes! Because they are competing with many other music genres offered in the same way. If the classical music was not present in the same manner, even less listeners would be able to find their way to it.

On the other side of this ‘music consumption equation’ is a large audience with a still growing appetite for music of any genre. Although it is not necessarily in an antagonistic position to the classical music.

Music is one of the most popular ways of entertainment. Actually it is thriving. That proves the growing membership of internet music streaming services like Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music. But also Facebook, Google and other companies are advancing into the music realm.

So where is the problem?

It is in the elitist notion of the classical music and its ‘proprietors’. Which is fading in the glut of free and paid music from other genres, other cultures, and created by new technologies.

It lies also in an inability of the part of the contemporary classical music to challenge its audience the same way as the traditional classical music used to do. The way how current audience approaches and consumes music is different than a couple hundred years ago. And it will never return back.

In our fast pacing times many people simply don’t know how and don’t have the strength to slow-down and listen to music. It is to their detriment, what is the point I return back to in a moment.

So if the lifestyle of the audience has changed, why anyone still expects and requires that the classical music listeners keep listening and consuming it the same way as in the past? They don’t and they won’t!

There are many more people listening to various types of classical music, than what purists would acknowledge. And they love it. Only they do it in a different way, in a different space and for a different purpose.

In a challenging time people don’t search for another challenges in their lives. And if someone tells me, that every era has its challenges, I don’t disagree.

At the same time I would have to point out, that most of the older classical music was created for, and appreciated by affluent people. Those who had not been exposed to everyday’s challenges. Or it had been composed for a different purpose than the pure entertainment. Like the religious music.

Instead of challenges, many listeners still look for in a classical music for a refuge from their challenging lives. And they find it! In concerts of Andre Rieu, recordings of Ludovico Einaudi, choral works of Ola Gjeilo and Eric Whitacre, soundtracks of Howard Shore, James Horner, John Williams, or Hans Zimmer. Those are Haendels and Chopins of our times!

Many classical musicians make now their living by playing and recording music for movies and video games. If you listen to some of these recordings you realize, that they are actually pretty demanding music compositions. But they are being ‘packaged’ differently. They are being listened (consumed) in a different space and circumstances. And the audience still loves them.

If someone tells me, that this is not classical music anymore, I am truly sorry. Because this is the view of those very people, those music purists and classical music fetishists, who are killing classical music. They prefer either endless repeating of traditional pieces, or “challenging” new compositions, which repel most of the audience.

These people plainly refuse the idea, that if someone is willing to come to a concert where a symphonic orchestra plays Ennio Morricone, or music from the video game Final Fantasy, that those listeners are already making their steps in the right direction. Towards the classical music realm. But to continue in their walk, they need help. They need to be educated, prepared and comfortable to continue.

That is where I see the important role for classical music enthusiasts. Not to challenge. But to help and guide others who want to discover what classical music can give them, in a way appropriate to the 21st century.

Back to my previous point, it is also important to acknowledge, that with the overwhelming amount of potential distractions, people are losing their ability to focus and to listen. They get into a vicious circle of life, where they don’t know how to slow down, stop, relax, refocus, reenergize. These are benefits that not only classical music, but any music can bring to those who learn how to listen.

The better way how to acquire the ability to focus and to listen, is by musicking – by the active music making. Through playing a music instrument or through singing. That is what Musicably promotes and supports.

I don’t see classical music going anywhere anytime soon. I love it the same as many other listeners all over the world.

What I see though, is a need to change how classical music is being presented and offered to new generations of audience. Many orchestras are trying to find the right formula for that.

If we want someone willing to come to a symphonic concert hall, there needs to be a music program that speaks to those people.

And if we want that same audience be comfortable in a concert hall, the better way to help, is to have those listeners become also active players. To experience all those various feelings they can go through when playing music themselves. To discover, play and understand music on their own.

Then the gaping distance between the audience and the artists on a stage becomes smaller. A music star becomes an inspiration to follow and not an unreachable and idolized ‘semi-god’ or ‘goddess’. Classical music deserves more mutual understanding.


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