Sunday, May 14, 2006

I was in Quebec last week to visit my friend Laura (a violinist who I met at Indiana) and her boyfriend Marcin (a violist). We were sitting around, as geeks tend to, playing upwords in their apartment and drinking. During this, Marcin got up to put on a CD. Laura, proceeded to ask the following questions:

"who is it?"


"What kind?"

"String Quartet"

"Who's playing?"

"Borodin Quartet"

"Any Good?"


I write this not to demonstrate so much the succinctness of their conversation, but the difference between the two of us. Despite my prevalent classical training, I recently realized that it had been over six months since I had even attended a classical music concert, being busy with thesis work and exploring other musical genres. Given this distance between myself and my born musical community, I realized a key difference between the different levels of interest in this music.

The average listener to classical music would stop after the first questioning - determining by composer whether or not they were interested in listening. A slightly more descerning ear probes further for genre - preferring, perhaps, string works over keyboard, or some such. These questions can go in either order - with a casual listener preferring violin over oboe, and then deciding by composer.

The more discerning ear then proceeds to actual ensemble - basing their judgment of listing further by the performers themselves. The Emerson recordings of shostakovich string quartets over the Kronos recording.

The performer, however, goes further - slicing and dicing an individual performance of a work by it's pros and cons - basically doing my job by criticizing the work for themselves.

It is our process of selection that greatly defines us as listeners - what we choose before the sounds even enter our ears. Discerning taste is often defined more by what we choose than what we hear once we have chosen.

This process frightened me a bit, mostly because I discovered that in that particular situation, I was of the 1-2 question category. I had a beer in my hand and a word game in front of me - what did I care who was playing the music we would mostly ignore? Well, a few years ago I would have cared very much. Or at least I would have liked to think that I did.

My classical fangs have dulled a bit in the last year - gone out of use as I sharpened my claws against new musical scratching posts. I have begun to think of classical music more in the abstract - as a cultural construct that has shaped a great deal of my development. However, I have ceased to identify myself as a classical musician. It is something I have and can do, but it is no longer the center of my existence.

Nowadays, I skip from question two to question four, evaluating the music without some of the in-between baggage of caring who produces it. Well, perhaps that is overstating - of course the issue of the performer is present - I would say different things about a group I was familiar with and had a particular reputation than one that did not. But my perspective on this universe is different now than it used to be. My questions become fewer, and my answers longer.

Hmmm - I wonder if this is a good thing?

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