About a year ago (October 6, if you’re counting), I tripped past the 200-follower mark on tumblr, and launched a new series of posts to celebrate. Since most of you reading this are probably regular readers of the blog and have seen my Music Monday posts already, so I won’t go on about the general premise of the series; instead I want to zoom out and take a look at the series as a whole, both in terms of how it’s changed so far and in terms of where I want to take it from here.
In truth, these posts didn’t start with the blog. Back in college, I had a friend who wanted to become more familiar with the classical music tradition, and asked me if I wouldn’t be willing to post a piece on their Facebook wall every week or so, since I generally have some familiarity with that repertoire. I started out just posting YouTube videos saying “Listen to this!”, but — especially during summer breaks and other times off from the academic grind — I soon started providing more context for the music of the week, sometimes doing some pretty extensive research and taking advantage of Yale’s access to academic resources. Not only was it a chance to find out more concrete information on pieces and composers that I loved, but it was also an excellent opportunity to synthesize what I was learning in the music history curriculum and do my best to teach it to someone else. Once I got lost in the flurry of senior year, the posts tapered to a halt, but I always vaguely wanted to revive them, possibly in a more formal context.
Hence the blogging. But in turning them into a series on my blog, things started changing pretty quickly. My friend and I both have pretty high Facebook privacy settings, so when I wrote on their wall, I felt very free to take a somewhat casual tone, both in terms of the prose style and in terms of the contextualizing content. We were on pretty much the same page, so I knew that they’d understand the times I was quickly glossing some larger trend in European and American Intellectual History, and equally that my outlines of trends in the equivalent musical history were the tentative descriptions of a neophyte and not worth relying too heavily on.
I can’t count on that context here. I don’t know everyone who follows me on social media, and I certainly don’t know all the people who follow them and might see my posts when they get shared, reblogged, and retweeted. And the thing is, I actually don’t know all that much about music history. Sure, I probably know more than the average person you might pluck off the street, but when it comes right down to it, my exposure is three semesters of undergraduate history, a book or two, and a haphazard pile of program notes. There are a few narrow areas where I feel like I do actually kinda know my stuff, but when it comes to the wider field, I am keenly aware of the depth of my ignorance. There’s a lot I don’t know, and I don’t want the anonymizing ability of the internet at large to give me an aura of expertise I don’t deserve.
This has driven one of the biggest changes in the series: The plunge into obscurity. It’s true that I’ve covered a few Name Brand Composers of the 20th Century, but I think it’s safe to say that many of the works I’ve covered have been . . . uncommon knowledge, to say the least. (Be honest: How many of you only know about Vue sur les Jardins Interdits because I wrote about it?) I firmly believe that a piece’s reception history is a critical part of telling its story — to really explain Beethoven’s Eroica, you need to cover the ways subsequent generations of musicians (whether composers, performers, analysts, musicologists, or any other division of the trade) and audiences have obsessed over and interpreted that piece; covering only the context of its creation and the biography of its creator leaves out significant chunks of what that piece has come to be; it is an inadequate introduction to it. (Likewise, even tho much of the writing that fills program notes about it is . . . misleading, a proper introduction to the Rite of Spring pretty much has to cover both the commotion at the première and the mythological status that that commotion has attained over the past century or so.) I have an intuitive sense of these things, and I’m fine casually talking about them with friends, but I’m not well enough versed in most of them to feel comfortable formalizing them in writing for the general public, and the prospect of trying to gain that level of knowledge in the space of a week for each new piece is daunting to say the least.
Obscurer works don’t have that baggage. I don’t have to spend time looking for trustworthy sources to verify the myriad apocryphal stories that have sprung up around them and then figure out a way to convey both the legend and the legend’s veracity; I can focus on giving a snapshot of the music instead. Learning enough about a new composer every week to write a brief bio to preface a walk-thru of one of their works is a much more achievable task than confronting a constellation of inherited meanings in need of even more contextualization and critique.
I am super OK with this. There will always be someone to advocate for Shostakovich. Brahms is not in danger of falling thru the cracks. But I want a more vibrant, diverse classical repertoire. I want it to be a regular occurrence that concertgoers find themselves faced with programs full of works they’ve never heard before. That can’t happen if the same old pieces get all the press. I want to de-stabilize the classical canon, and publicizing works that don’t get a lot of air time seems at least like a nudge in that direction. (That’s also why I’ve avoided describing obscure works as sounding like more famous counterparts. If I’m always defining unknown music in terms of music that’s firmly established, I’m not actually doing much to de-center that famous music and prove that the less-than-famous stuff can stand fully on its own.) If anything, the Music Monday posts are a paean to the unheard music, a reminder that the limits of the classical universe are wider than many concert series would lead you to believe, that stepping off the beaten path need not mean sacrificing musical quality.
I mentioned diversity above, and that’s an area where I see a lot of room for growth. I’m pretty happy with the gender balance (tho there’s definitely room for more trans voices in the mix), but on the whole the posts are embarrassingly white. I need to do better on this front. Underrepresentation is not a problem that will magically fix itself — idly listening and rebroadcasting whatever crosses your path is overwhelmingly likely to reproduce the biases already latent in the field. It requires conscious, deliberate effort to counteract these biases, and I have failed to fully live up to that ideal. (If anyone knows offhand of any good resources for discovering non-white composers, I would be very grateful if you’d pass them along! Obviously, I can’t expect anyone else to do my legwork for me, but pointers are always welcome.)
To an outsider, classical music can be a cryptic, exclusionist world that’s hard to get into, a world that demands you revere and respect music instead of loving it. I want to get away from that. I truly believe that this music is there for any and all who want to listen to it. If you don’t want to, no harm no foul! Go on your way, and love and cherish the music that you enjoy. (Different isn’t better, after all.) But if you do want to listen, if you want to get a little further into this world than a Spotify playlist of the 100 Most Relaxing Classical Tracks, I want to be here as a guide. I want to share this strange, beautiful music that means so much to me while also being aware of its failings and its flaws. Even if it’s a scene that has been and is still filled with people who are less than moral paragons (tho, of course, it is hardly alone in this), its products still have the power to move us, and move us deeply. If I’ve shared something that touched you, that you never knew existed before, if I’ve expanded even slightly your sense of the extant and the possible, then I have done my job. I hope you’ll join me for another year of discovery out here in the heart of the nonstandard repertoire.