Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I came to classical music through a perfume commercial.

Growing up we had some music in the house, a decent turntable my father has set up in the front room. He'd run wires through a hole in the wall into his study. We each had our own little record player in our rooms as well. I remember my Dad's record collection having Evita, Willie Nelson, a strange Janis Joplin album with a Robert Crumb cover, and a bunch of things I never listened to. Myself, my fondest albums were some Beatles late-period stuff, the soundtrack to Pete's Dragon, and a Saturday Night Live comedy album. I think the closest I got to listening to classical was Hooked on Classics. My musical idiom stayed pretty close to alt rock up through college-- They Might Giants, Adrian Belew, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, Midnight Oil, Timbuk 3, etc. We ended up with a couple of classical albums I listened to on and off. However for a time we also had a German ND grad-student border who insisted on playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”. I don't think it was entirely a surprise when she joined a Christian Cult, accused my mother of being a CIA agent, and ran off with her guru who'd renamed himself “King David”. She also thought Americans made too much of the Holocaust.

In any case, I'd had some exposure to classical music by the time I got to grad school. I'd known a couple of musicians when I was in foreign study at American University Cairo. I'd gone to a couple of excellent performances there. I'd also seen Amadeus on stage and in the theaters. So...you know...the usual.

When I headed off to Baltimore, I arrived a few weeks before the semester began. My sister was already there, having finished her MA the previous year. While we were waiting for the rental we would live in to get finished up, I was trying to work through the stack of books they'd sent me in preparation for teaching Contemporary American Letters, the freshman required course through the Writing Seminars Program. This class was clearly a money-maker for the department-- a fixed class students had to take, a cheap labor pool of graduate students, and no real pedagogical approach. The mix of books we had to teach from at the time was a mess-- and I spent much of my time trying to figure out poetry, meta-fiction, and how to successful use the anthologies and stand-alone books (of course written by instructors in the department).

And I watched a lot of TV since I had little else to do. So I couldn't help but be slammed in the face by the advertising campaign for Egoiste by Chanel. You can see the commercial here. The music you can hear in the background is Sergei Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights" from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. I don't know what is was about that music, but it really stuck with me. The freaky imagery of the commercial probably helped. Phil, my ex-brother in law, knew quite a bit about music. He told me what the piece was and pointed me to an exclusively classical music record store at a nearby mall. I tracked an album of the music and was pretty well hooked. At first I picked up more pieces by Prokofiev, then I started to see other multi-disc cheap compilation sets of other composers. Somehow, in that I found Dmitri Shostakovich, my favorite. I listened to some of the Romantic masters-- Brahms, Dvorak, etc-- but I found myself preferring early to mid 20th Century pieces, like Hindemith, Martinu, and Mahler. I dated a violinist for a while who had some impact on my tastes as well, and I got to see a number of live performances.

I buried myself fairly deeply into this-- and into modern poetry. I'm a goober at heart and when I find a hobby or interest, I tend to overdo things. There's an acquisitions mentality I've been trying to break for years that I can't quite handle. It works for the good when it is a hobby that I stick with and get a good deal of enjoyment out of, but in many cases I end up wasting money. I steer away from CCGs and CMGs for that reason-- the need to be a completest. For things like a particular genre of film, a writer, a musician, that indulgence can get out of hand. In the end I have a bunch of things I either have looked at once or not at all. When I went to Johns Hopkins I think some of this indulgence was a reaction to my general unhappiness. I tore through various book series-- like all of Spenser for Hire and everything Roger Zelazny wrote. At least for classical music, my interest stuck. I raided the university library for books on music and tried to figure out what I liked and didn't like. We didn't have the internet as we do now, so tracking things down was hard-- a pleasure, but hard. I wonder if, in part, all of this ended up being a sublimation for the fact that I wasn't playing or running any rpgs.

When I moved back to South Bend I kept up my interest. I went to Chicago a couple of times to check out the Tower Records downtown. I chased down particular albums via mail order. When Best Buy first opened here it had an extensive classical music collection. I raided that more than I care to say, building up my collection. I drove down to Bloomingtom a couple of times for Opera performances there. Eventually through my mom I got the opportunity to write reviews for the South Bend Tribune. I covered the Lake Michigan Symphony, the South Bend main and chamber series, Indiana Opera North (during its short run), and some other bits and pieces here and there. I quit doing that when the paper changed to a fully morning edition. At that point they wanted reviews in by 10-11, the night of the performance. Given that most things I went to didn't end until at least 10 plus driving time, I couldn't manage that.

I still love classical music, and again, especially 20th Century stuff. Some more modern pieces I still don't like-- too much dissonance even for my ear. I've also come to appreciate good soundtrack music-- some for the real lyrical quality and some of it for its evocative nature. I'd say a good part of that comes from soundtrack music's utility at the game table, a topic I'll hit on in the future. All that being said, I should point out-- I can't read music, I couldn't easily identify a composition reliably, I can't put names of techniques to what I hear except for the most obvious, but I do know what I like and enjoy.


  1. Dissonance is a fun subject in Art. We want our art to be beautiful to us, but to be memorable it needs to evoke a fear response. A good balance of attraction and repulsion. In perfume, this is why they need musk: a nasty smell that harmonizes with the pretty smells. In visual arts, creeping horror or at least ambiguity serves this purpose. Thus, Francis Bacon has more lasting impact than Mondrian. I'd love to have the dissonant creepy quality of the best Sienkiewicz.

    In story, the fear is called suspense. Of course, suspense is ruined if you're aping a formula that the reader knows too well. A writer like Aaron Sorkin is a master of misdirection, hinting at one pay off and serving up another. No one else could do what he does, which is why the show weakened when he was forced off.

  2. It's interesting to hear about your background in music. Covering the classical music scene for the newspaper sounds like a pretty cool job!

    I admit to being a music mooch and a open-minded fan of all genres. When I was 8 - 15 my best friend was a music fanatic. He kept copious notebooks of the Top 40 Countdown, Rolling Stones Billboard lists, etc. It might have been an OCD. It was through him that I got into new wave, punk, alternative music.

    Then I had my heavy metal boyfriend. Then I had my best friend that liked country. Then another boyfriend that got me into Moby, Olive and some old school rap. Brian's likes create a nice Venn diagram with some of my tastes - 80's new wave, soundtracks, musicals, some pop.

    I have always liked classical. But I can't say I know that much about it. I have the pieces that I like to listen to over and over. Like <10 albums. I have recently been buying more stuff from itunes. Right now I'm really into Bach's Cello Suites.

  3. [avoids all the "art" jokes]

    So odd to hear about someone NOT growing up around classical music, because there was so much of it around OUR house when I was growing up. It's funny what we assume is normal, or how we don't stop to think about how unique our own upbringing was. It's hard as a parent to not try to replicate my own childhood for my kids.

    I don't believe art NEEDS to invoke a fear response to be memorable, but it is one of the things that can make a work stick in one's head.

    I just read a review of The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton. The book argues that the human urge to create art and the appetite to appreciate it are evolutionary adaptations. Apparently if you ask a sampling of random people from around the world what kind of picture they like best, the answer is an open but varied landscape with a visible body of water, signs of animal and human life, and lots of blue - a landscape not unlike the African savannas our ancestors thrived in. Grassy savannas contain more protein per square mile than any other habitat.

  4. I overstated my case, but fear is one of the better ways to be memorable. Bold substantive and true originality works, but is a lot harder. You can only present each new idea once to a viewer.

    I dislike "polls" about what we like in pictures, and they in no way define the art instinct. The blue sky landscape is 1. conventional and trite 2. lacks any nooks or crannies to investigate. It is art that comforts. If you're on a great sunny plain, there's no where for predators to hide. By this definition, the book "Where the Wild Things Are" is the opposite of art. Sendak is a fraud.

    Art works when it changes how we perceive the world. Not when it comforts us that we have nothing left to learn. The poll based evolutionary biologist has created an example of schmaltz: warm greasy comforting lard or chicken fat.

    I'm not condemning all landscape. Landscape can be great when it changes how we look at landscape. Painters who traveled the frontier to show East Coast urbanites what our country looked like were changing minds. So were the Impressionists when they changed how we understood beauty and light.

  5. I think there's a great deal to be said for the art and dissonance. It's part of why I moved into some alternate stuff early in my musical listening, Laurie Anderson's performance pieces, Adrian Belew's purely ambient stuff, even Tangerine Dream and Vangelis.

    Don't get me wrong, I like musical dissonance-- or else a great deal of the 20th century would be closed to me. But there are definitely some classical composers who move outside my comfort zone-- Boulez, some Ives, Messiaen, Crumb. But others like Turnage, Rouse, Webern, and Rochberg work for me. But I'll admit it took some time for me to get to that point.

    And I find it interesting the idea of growing up in a house with classical music. I mean we had the radio, and other music, but it certainly wasn't anything vital. And that's despite my playing the flute for four years. The closest I think we got was having a James Galway greatest hits album around.

  6. No, James Galway doesn't count!

    That art & evolution theory isn't trying to DEFINE art, just examine why we like what we like and why we want to like it. Did you know they're making a live action WTWTA movie? I imagine the sense of that book being awfully hard to capture.

    I haven't read The Art Instinct, but I plan to. More and more I've come to believe that behavior, and thus our interaction with art, is inextricably linked to (but not solely caused by) biology.

    Calendars are full of landscape photos because people like that, and they like that because it is comforting, or inspires, or makes us think differently than we might otherwise. Art doesn't need to make us consciously "think" in order to be compelling or worthwhile, though. Some times it simply makes us feel good. Some times it makes us uncomfortable. Both are worth exploring, as a rule, but they don't have to be. The like or dislike reaction, though lacking actual analysis, is probably an unavoidable part of our interaction with art (or anything).

    Some of the appeal of a natural landscape is that sense of belonging to the world, which is essential to sanity. Tolkien talks about this in his "Fairy Stories" essay, that there is a powerful need in us to communicate/interact with other living things.

    Some of my favorite pieces of classical music definitely have their ominous or fearful elements, but some appeal because they are simply beautiful (a series of sounds that for whatever reason just sound great), some are jubilant, some are sad (which could arguably be linked to the fear of loss), etc.

    Oddly enough, it was the band Living Colour that made me really appreciate dissonance in music. A lot of their songs pull off this great, almost visceral, almost frightening balance of dissonance and...sonance? Whatever the opposite of dissonance is! :D