One-Year War and Peace 14.8 – Dolohov vs Denisov

And now Dolohov enters for what I think is his last major story segment in War and Peace. I can’t remember. Oddly enough, there’s not the wild crazy man element that used to be there right back at the beginning.

The only thing that remains is the lack of compassion for most other human beings. Denisov doesn’t really want to kill prisoners, especially not the drummer boy. Dolohov wouldn’t take those sorts of chances.

Petya sits in the corner and is uncomfortable, but feels that if this is what the grown-ups think, it must be true . . .

This reminds me a bit of the execution scene in the last book. When it’s war, and people are accidentally getting killed by bullets and cannons, that’s bearable. It’s the cold-blooded murder of other men that is far more disturbing, and that’s brought out here.

One-Year War and Peace 14.7 – Still a Boy

I’ll still have to hold my thoughts on music in the air for another day or two . . .

But back to War and Peace. Here we find out a bit more about Petya. The first thing I thought when I read this, was how well Tolstoy does families. Even though Petya is not the same as the rest of his family, there is, nonetheless, that same impetuousness that characterises the lot of them.

It makes the father gamble all his money away, it makes the mother lose her temper needlessly at Sonya and “donate” money to poor friends, it’s certainly been the characteristic of Nikolai, it made Natasha throw away her engagement, and here we see it in Petya who just wants to be out on the battlefield, riding a horse in front of people firing at him.

Brilliant, brilliant characterisation.

Then the second thought, which is much more obvious, is how much Petya is still a boy, even though he’s pretending to be a man. It reminds me very much of Nikolai at the banquet, back at the beginning of the book.

Which works beautifully, when we get his little touch of humanity in remembering the French drummer boy. In other circumstances, they’d probably run around and play games together, and Petya knows this. But in this case, there’s a war on . . .

One-Year War and Peace 14.6 – Tihon in Action

Another brief vignette, but very cleverly done. It starts quite humourously, as Denisov questions Tihon about what he’s been up to. It brings out all the larrikinism in Tihon (he could almost be Australian, really!) and also the sense of fun that the guerrillas were clearly having.

But, at the same time, as Petya realises that Tihon has killed a man – Tolstoy briefly notes his pangs of conscience. And they are ours and Tolstoy’s pangs of conscience. Despite the laughs and jokes – war is not a fun affair, no matter how it’s fought.

If we’ve learned nothing else from War and Peace it’s that everyone is a human being. That little bit of news kind of leaves a dark edge hanging over the edge of this story and takes away from the fun of the opening of the chapter – as it should.

Further on Music Explanation

I’m on the babysitting duty tonight (Shelby sleeps in our second bedroom, which doubles as the study/computer room), so I’ve got some more time to write some stuff.

Just wanted to follow up on the thoughts from last time. I might break this up into subsections, just to keep it from getting too unwieldy.

1. Range of Writing Styles on Music

First off, regarding Yvonne’s comment:

I think you maybe underestimate and over-generalise (esp. under “Problem 3″) regarding the range and humanity of writing about music available today.

I will admit, I was being a bit harsh there, and I’m happy to apologise for that comment. The sentiments were more based on the musical writing I’d been reading in the last couple of years, which has included some pretty atrocious stuff.

Certainly, if I think a bit broader, I have come across writers on music in recent years with some valuable insights that they have shared with great enthusiasm.

My bigger problem is quite simply that these insights, while they are valuable to me, are not valuable to my non-classical friends. And this is where I start to feel we have a hole in the musical world.

Moving on to point 2:

2. The Target Audience

Yvonne also said:

I think you perhaps do know who they’re aimed at, which is everyone who is attending the performance. Nothing less.

This is where I disagree, but again, I haven’t been to one of the performances at Yvonne’s work for a while (but I’ll be there Wednesday night!), so I’ll look forward to having a closer look at the concert guides there and hopefully the pre-concert talk, if I can get down there early enough. And it should be mentioned that Yvonne has blazed a trail in terms of getting helpful things like Glossaries in concert guides, which I think is a massive step forward.

But a lot of the liner notes and concert guides/programmes that I’ve come across in recent years still insist on using musical terminology that someone new to the classical music world wouldn’t have a chance of understanding.

So I would argue that these type of explanations are not aimed at everyone – they’re aimed at everyone who has the necessary pre-requisite musical knowledge. And it’s these particular explanations (which, in my opinion, still make up the majority of musical writing) that annoy me.

What I’d really like to see is more writing/introductions that takes someone from absolute scratch and lifts them up to the type of levels of experienced listeners, which was the type of solution I was proposing in the last post.

To be fair to writers and presenters over the last few decades, I think the current situation in musical explanation came about because 50-100 years ago, society taught people about music. A larger number of people would have studied music, and those who did study music would have learned about classical music in the process. With that type of educational background, writers wouldn’t have to start from scratch – they could assume a reasonable amount of knowledge would be known by their audiences.

Thus, George Grove, in his introduction to his book on Beethoven symphonies says that he’s writing for the amateur (in fact, he thought professional musicians would be bored stiff by the whole thing). But nonetheless, he assumes that his readers can read music, understand the basic structures of classical music, are fairly familiar with keys and tonalities, etc. Obviously, now, his book now would be less suitable for amateurs and more suited to academics and music students.

So there’s a clear shift in society that has occurred, with less and less people learning about classical music. The problem is that there hasn’t been a corresponding shift in the way musical explanations are written. A lot of these notes and explanations are still written as if their audiences have all the pre-requisite knowledge.

I’m doubtful that they do.

To my mind, if less people understand the basics of classical music, to keep the artform alive, we need to start at a lower basis point. By all means, still go into all the detail, and don’t skimp on the explanation. But also recognise that there are people out there who might need a hand up to get started.

Now, the bigger question that Ian raised is how to get people there in the first place. I think that will have to be another post . . .

One-Year War and Peace 14.5 – A New Character

And here, as we get closer to the action that’s coming up, we meet the crazy peasant guerrilla, Tihon. (Well, okay, he’s not crazy – he’s just fearless.)

I’m almost sorry he didn’t get introduced earlier in the novel – I think he would be great fun. Certainly, if they were making a movie of War and Peace nowadays to appeal to the current generation of movie goers, there’s nothing quite like a fearless peasant armed with a musket and an ax, as a good “sidekick” character to cheer in the action scenes.

Of course, this feels like another bizarre stage of the whole war. We went through the formal battle years, then the destruction of Moscow, and now this snapshot of life among the guerrillas. It’s like reading about the Vietnam war, compared with, say, the American Civil War. A far different type of warfare . . . and it breeds different characters.

One-Year War and Peace 14.4 – Denisov the Marauder

This chapter is more a set-up than anything else – it’s another of those of telescoping chapters – where Tolstoy is in the process of taking us from the big picture to the small minute details.

I think my main comment would be that, for some reason, Denisov seems born to have become a vigilante Russian soldier. While he did his best serving in uniform and working for the generals, it’s this kind of thing – where he gets to be his own man – that he is most suited for.

In fact, the battle with his superiors earlier in the book almost prepare us for why Denisov here is so keen to attack the French by himself, without letting a general get any credit for it.

Finally, introducing Petya Rostov –  in the middle of a war, dressed in uniform on a horse – is a reminder of how epic War and Peace really is. There are those of us who can still remember when Petya was a young boy running around the house with his sisters. If there is any character who has aged the most dramatically over the course of the book, it is Petya.

We’ll see what happens to them tomorrow . . .

New Idea for Classical Music: We Could Try Talking in English

There are a lot of issues that classical music has to deal with if it ever wants to become popular again (yes, it once was really popular – even with young people!). It has a terrible image problem, for instance. Most people figure it’s only for old people, rich people or as background music for expensive restaurants. There’s also an awful lot of other music out there for it to compete against. So I don’t doubt it has its fair share of problems.

But by the same token, it’s obvious that the classical music world is not being as welcoming as it could be. After all, Shakespeare is much older than most classical music, and nobody thinks we should throw that out. People still like reading Charles Dickens and, as this blog shows, Leo Tolstoy. And it’s not an intelligence thing. People of all ages love going to arthouse movies, foreign films, and Tom Stoppard plays.

So why is classical music dying out?

As I said – it’s a multifaceted question. And many people are making great steps towards addressing the question, probably none more so than Greg Sandow, who has an excellent blog on the future of classical music. Even if you have no interest in classical music, but you just like music, his site is well worth a look, especially his book-in-progress that he’s writing on the future of classical music.

I don’t pretend to have any comprehensive answers on the different topics, but I’ve been giving some thought to one particular facet of the problem – how to explain classical music. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s been the main dilemma floating around in my head for something like the last five years.

The reason I’ve gotten so interested in this one is twofold:

  1. As someone who never learned much music theory, I’ve been struggling to understand classical music for years. I’m getting there, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult to learn about classical music without going off and getting a music degree.
  2. I’ve also seen classical music companies that will go all out – setting off fireworks in concerts, projecting pictures on the walls, getting their musicians to wear casual clothes, etc – anything, literally anything, to make their concerts seem more relevant.

I have a very simple question – never mind the fireworks and pictures – why don’t we start explaining classical music to people? Maybe – just maybe – the reason they don’t like it, is because they don’t understand it. Certainly, I’d have been going to a lot more concerts at an earlier age, if somebody had taken the time to explain the music to me.

Up until recently, I  never had my thoughts on this in any sort of cohesive order, but in the last couple of weeks, I’ve finally been able to put my thoughts down properly. Here they are. It should be stated up front, that there’s not a large body of research to back up what I’m saying, so everything’s still in the hypothetical stage at this point in time – but I’d be very curious to see what happens if this area was investigated further by classical music companies in the future.

My Main Hypothesis: To the untrained listener, most classical music sounds random (ie they can’t tell where it’s going or how long it’s going to last) and similar (they can’t distinguish one work from another).

I thought I’d cleverly thought this hypothesis up by myself, but I was just looking around the Oxford Companion to Music recently and no – they’ve known it for ages – you can read all about it under the entry about Music Appreciation.

Anyway, that hypothesis, for me, explains why, when you simply just expose a newcomer to classical music – instead of being bowled over by the experience and eagerly wanting more – they find it all rather long and boring and exactly like all other classical music they’ve heard. Even if they like the music, they may only do so for simple reasons such as certain melodies and an overall mood. And I believe that type of shallow listening leads to the “chocolate box music”  which gets cranked out on a regular basis in upmarket shopping centres , and why there’s only 100 or so pieces being recombined in various ways in classical compilation albums around the world.

There are educational resources provided at most classical concerts – a set of annotations or progamme notes and often a pre-concert talk – but it’s quite unclear who these are aimed at, and there is a wild variance in style, depending on who writes them. Some writers will tell you all the scandals going on in the composer’s life. Others will give you a rather lengthy technical analysis. The only thing that you can guarantee in 99% of the cases is that they will assume you have six grades of music theory under your belt, and will consistently use terms that the average person on the street does not understand.

Thus, to address the problem in the hypothesis, I propose that all educational activities (or “contextualisation” as we like to call it in the industry) should be directed towards the following goal:

Main Aim of Educational Activities (including programme notes and pre-concert talks): To provide a guided listening experience for the musical newcomer that a) removes the randomness of the music (by explaining the overall structure and direction of the work) and b) points out the particularities of that composition (so they are able to distinguish it from other works).

Again, I thought this was a novel new idea that I’d arrived at, but it was in the Oxford Companion under Annotations. That’s apparently why they invented programme notes in the first place – because the ordinary man on the street didn’t understand what he was listening to.

If that was the overarching goal, how to run and evaluate contextualisation activities would become quite clear. However, over the decades, I believe presenters have lost touch with that purpose. As I said, it varies greatly from writer to writer exactly what they’re going to focus on. In addition, audiences don’t come equipped with the same musical knowledge that they used to have. So classical music presenters in the 21st century are left with three main problems to overcome.

Problem 1 – High Entry Point: Because newcomers don’t have the musical training that they used to, many of the terms and concepts that the classical music world takes for granted – terms that are, in fact, essential for understanding the music – aren’t known by new people. So thus we assume that people know about sonata form, Italian tempo markings, etc. when quite clearly, there are less and less people who do understand it.

Problem 2 – Missing Audio Hooks: Even where descriptions of classical music works are provided to listeners, one of the biggest problems is that it’s really easy to get “lost” in the middle of a work. Nothing is worse than listening to a 15-20 minute movement and have no idea what’s going on or what’s coming up. I think programme notes used to provide complete walk-throughs of music that helped people follow things, but increasingly notes either provide only a cursory overview of the piece or mention specific highlights and assume that the audience will know when they’re up to the second theme or the recapitulation. The way this used to be dealt with (looking at some of the classic old books that explain music, such as George Grove’s Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies or Joseph de Marliave’s Beethoven’s Quartets, for example) was a) to write quite a lengthy description that provided a wall-to-wall description with no gaps and b) to quote examples in musical notation so that audiences (most of whom could read music) could listen out for the bits and know where they were in the music. Obviously, this is not still an appropriate way to deal with the problem, because it’s not realistic to assume that new audiences are going to be able to read music. However, it does show the importance of providing audio hooks for listeners to follow through the music.

Problem 3 – Emotion vs Analysis: If you go back to the old books, like the Grove and the de Marliave I just mentioned, you’ll notice they weren’t afraid to express their emotions about music. If they found something beautiful or stirring, they said so. While this may provide a subjective approach to the music, I believe it encourages active listening, because you want to hear what these guys hear. If they say something is beautiful, you listen more closely to see if it is. If they say that a passage is terrifying, you listen out for it. However, most writers on music in the last 50 years or so have retreated to a very academic position, and it’s quite difficult to work out from many musical writers if they actually enjoy the music they’re writing about. Who wants to hear from someone who doesn’t like something? (Unless it’s a reviewer . . .)

Even die-hard classical music fans don’t think this way. Just hear the crowd talking on the way out from a concert or read user comments on CDs on Amazon, and listeners are regularly reporting their subjective emotional reactions to the music. So why aren’t the music explainers?

So, the upshot of that is, my thoughts on how to present music to a) provide a guided listening experience and b) to overcome the three problems above, are as follows:

1. Provide an introduction before the work begins, that covers off any terminology or concepts the listeners need to know before they begin. This covers off Problem 1. While this could be done in a pre-concert talk, I’m not sure that most new listeners would show up for this kind of thing. After all, is it essential to show up for a talk 45 minutes before you see Beyonce, Justin Timberlake or U2 perform? (There might be a market for it with, say, Bob Dylan, but that’s a different discussion . . .)

I think ultimately, the necessary pre-requisite knowledge needs to be explained by someone on stage before the work begins in front of the entire audience (not just the 10% who came to your talk).

2. This is a more radical idea: Provide a written running commentary throughout the work while it’s playing. If you’ve got a very clever writer, you could do it in the programme, but it would still be sensible to have some visuals to indicate where you’re up to. The best idea I ever heard of for this was the Concert Companion which they were trialling in the US, but it sounds as if it got too expensive and died out. I would simply set up a surtitle machine like they do for the opera and have comments run on that. That would ensure that listeners hear the moments they’re supposed to hear without getting lost, thus dealing with Problem 2.

3. Finally, with both 1. and 2., they should be in language that is human and interesting, not cold and analytical.

Anyway, while this is all hypothetical, I find it all really exciting and it makes me quite optimistic because:

  • All of this is largely untested. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of classical music explanations (either in programmes or CD liner notes) that explain all the terminology you need to know, so point 1 is almost completely untested and is almost the most crucial. So who knows what could happen if the classical music world decided to start speaking in English?
  • The idea of a running commentary also has very rarely been tried with instrumental music. The Concert Companion is the best example of that, and by all accounts, it was very popular with new audiences. However, if we look to the field of opera, the invention of surtitles, allowing audiences to follow the opera moment by moment, has worked wonders for opera’s popularity. Who’s to say it couldn’t do great things for instrumental classical music?
  • Whenever I see musicians speaking from stage and using ordinary language about their music – while it doesn’t always deal with Problem 1 and rarely with Problem 2, the connection that is formed between performer and audience, as they explain why they like a work and what’s going on, nearly always makes the audiences listen better.

So, really, while the present state of classical music is all doom and gloom, there are vast uncharted areas of how to present and explain classical music that are open to the performing arts organisations, recording companies and performers. Maybe this current recession will be the catalyst we need to change direction?

One-Year War and Peace 14.3 – Dolohov Returns

Well, here’s a surprise that I never expected. I can’t believe that I don’t remember this from the last time I remembered the novel. (Dont’ believe anything that anyone says about speed reading – you miss heaps of details!)

Here’s Denisov and Dolohov, teaming up as guerilla fighters to whup the French! Out of the woodwork have come thousands of French peasants, all dedicated to bashing the French. I know Tolstoy’s not in favour of war, but do I detect a certain note of glee in his descriptions of how all this works?

Because it does kind of prove the point that if you get a whole nation behind you (not just an army), you can be pretty powerful.

One-Year War and Peace 14.2 – The X Factor

I got a bit of amusement out of this chapter, which attempts to explain the mathematics behind warfare, and also how a bunch of scattered guerillas can beat the snot out of a massed army.

I’m not sure what real military historians would make of it all – after all, does this apply in general to most battles – or is the Russian experience of beating the French a bit of an anomaly?

Either way, I was thinking that Tolstoy really set the ground rules for most war movies to come. In many of the films coming out nowadays (from Braveheart right on down to Lord of the Rings), an army that is smaller and less well-equipped comes out and whups the bad guys. While partly this is due to getting help from other allies, secret weapons, etc., nearly always there is a scene where somebody delivers some sort of speech or makes some sort of comment that fires up the spirit of the underdogs, and it’s that spirit that goes out and makes them win.

Actually, never mind Tolstoy – really, we’re back to Shakespeare’s Henry V again. Henry delivers his St Crispin’s day speech, basically saying, “Guys, we don’t need more men! We just need to have courage and go out there and bash the French! Who’d want to have more men if they’re cowards anyway?”

Of course, Shakespeare phrases it a lot more nicely than that, so I’ll leave you with Kenneth Branagh rattling off the speech. Notice also the soundtrack for this speech, that has been ripped off in film trailers for years afterwards (most recently I saw them using it to advertise Australia).

One-Year War and Peace 14.1

And here we begin Book 14. Does it come as a surprise to anyone that we begin with a chapter of philosophy and history? I would have been a bit disappointed if he’d started anywhere else.

I won’t comment on the philosophy, because there’s not necessarily any new ideas, but I must admit, I’ve now gotten curious about what the French think of this book. There’s a certain sense of relentless French-bashing in this chapter, as Tolstoy describes the great French general’s army falling part, despite winning the last battle of the war and conquering the enemy’s country.

Also, as he describes the fencing analogy, where Russia threw down its sword and grabbed a cudgel, you can’t help but get a sense of pride coming through these words that Russia, as a nation, collectively banded together to make life miserable for the French – even if nobody particularly planned it and it was just guided by the events of history.

Nonetheless, I think Tolstoy’s saying that the collective force of millions of irritated Russians acted to throw Napoleon out. Certainly, that is the contrast he is making with “traditional” war, where an army, barely amounting to a fraction of the population, conquers another country’s army, and the other country just says, “Oh well, our army’s gone – we must be beaten.” Not so Russia . . .