Monday, August 1, 2011

Hayley Westenra and "Classical Music"

I just read this article in the Telegraph on Hayley Westenra. I have to admit that I have never heard of her before--I often lose touch with current events in music. Apparently she was the last instant-child-singer-star to be discovered/invented by the biz, a few years ago, before the current one. This article is plainly a puff piece designed to create interest in a new album about to be released. And since we live in the World Oprah Made, there has to be something revealed, some confession to be made. Alas, in her case all it seems to be is a mild eating disorder. The article is rather coy, but it sounds like she was anorexic for a while, followed by overweight for a while and now she's just perfect!

OK... What interested me, though, were some of the comments on the article. Some raised the question, is this classical music? If you will recall, I have a couple of working definitions. One is: music of the historic period 1770 to 1827. Another is music that has stood the test of time. That is, we might expect to see a concert of 'classical' music that might include anything from good medieval music to The Beatles. Indeed, I have played concerts with that kind of range myself. In other words, while 'classical' often seems to mean just music for orchestra or string quartet, it can also mean music for Medieval vocal or instrumental ensemble. Or a harpsichord recital. Now I admit, my inclusion of the Beatles is problematic, but that's just my personal crusade so you can ignore it. Besides, I don't like most arrangements of the Beatles' music.

Let's have a little listen to Hayley Westenra and see what sort of thing her music is:

Just off the top of my head, that is not classical music in either of the definitions. And neither is anything that Morricone has done (this album is a collaboration between them). What we are hearing are some of the 'accidents' of classical music without any of the substance. Here is what Wikipedia says about the philosophical concept of 'accidents':

Aristotle made a distinction between the essential and accidental properties of a thing. For example, a chair can be made of wood, metal, or plastic, but this is an accident: it is accidental to its being a chair. It is still a chair regardless of the material it is made of. To put this in technical terms, an accident is a property which has no necessary connection to the essence of the thing being described.
 It is not necessary to classical music that there be soft flowing strings and no drum track. It is essential that there be something going on that is not a cliche, that there be some musical substance. Music that takes us somewhere, that has significant structure, that is beautiful is probably 'classical' music. Music that goes nowhere, just contains harmonic and melodic cliches, that evokes sappy melodrama or benumbed tranquilized stupor, this is not classical music. It is however Hayley Westenra and Ennio Morricone. Their music apes some of the superficial accidents of classical music. Agh! Let's wash our ears out with the real thing, shall we?

Notice that you don't need an orchestra, you don't need digital editing and sound processing or any other gimmicks. All you need is a real singer, a pianist and, very important, a real composer. Why would anyone listen to Hayley Westenra trudge her dreary way through the morass that is Morricone when they could listen to Cecilia Bartoli sparkle her way through the delight that is Mozart?

Here's my theory: the people that buy recordings by Westenra and her ilk don't actually listen to them. They put them on as background music and enjoy the tranquilizing sounds they make. I had to listen to that recording a couple of times and I was ready to jump off a bridge. I suspect that all the economic players in the biz these days try very hard to make sure that no-one does what I have just done: put the bad and the good side by side so you can tell which is which. Everyone seems to think it is unfair or illegitimate to compare anything. Why is that? We go to a wine-tasting and compare different wines and pick our favorites.

Go back and listen to both pieces and tell me what you think. Can anyone actually listen to the first one?


RG said...

"I had to listen to that recording a couple of times and I was ready to jump off a bridge"

That you did not learn ancient Greek is no wonder given that you begin with no tutor and a 900 page textbook. On the other hand, your not having (yet) done so has obviously nothing to do with strength character -- lack of diligence, carefulness, or energy. I did learn classical Greek (and Latin and Sanskrit/Pali and Hebrew and even Arabic not to mention a handful of the associated "scholarly" reporting languages). As my facility with these languages improved, my reading speed increased. Except when focussed on a particular curiosity, I can skim and scan and quickly understand what a text is about – see that it is crummy stuff and not worth a donation of time and attention. Over the decades, quicker and quicker. A whole page or even two or three pages at one glance. But music does not allow you that. It goes at its own pace, and you cannot look ahead. You cannot skim and scan or even easily skip. When you listen to works with the exactitude you bring that makes these posts possible, I suppose you must listen to very bit as closely as possible. No matter how bad. I would jump.

Bryan Townsend said...

I almost always listen to a piece all the way through. As you say, since music is a time art, you can't browse and skip ahead the way you can with text. But sometimes, if the piece is really predictable, I do skip ahead. Most popular music, for example, is very repetitive (the technical term is "strophic") so sampling the beginning, the middle and the end, gives you a pretty good idea.

I once had to write a paper on Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner. This opera is about five hours long and I had to listen to it several times. After that experience, I am grateful to composers who manage to be a little more charitable in their use of the listener's time.