Uniquely terrible

Contemporary classical music shows that cultural tolerance should have bounds.

By Luke Dumas

[img id=”77257″ align=”alignleft”] Sure, there’s something to be said for opening one’s mind to new cultural experiences—for trying new things and broadening one’s horizons—but in my opinion, there’s a little bit more to be said for sifting through the excess.

You know what I’m talking about. You go to this exhibit or that demonstration because it promises innovation, social importance, and provocation of thought, only to find some gimmicky nonsense—a peanut-butter-and-jelly sculpture, or a nude interpretive dance involving small dogs and chocolate cake—revolutionary only to the person pretentious enough to conceive of it, and his few adoring fans. You go in hopes that it will somehow make you more cultured or enlightened, but for which you afterward feel confused, gypped, and a little bit soiled.

Knowing how I enjoy the classical stylings of Chopin and Tchaikovsky, my music-major friend tricked me into attending just such an event: what he called a “contemporary classical music concert.” I had never heard of contemporary classical music, but it was apparently a genre known to music connoisseurs worldwide, though hidden from the general public by its own web of lies. I was skeptical of its legitimacy from the very beginning. The concert was free, for one, and was being held at the end of a dark hallway in Goodspeed Hall, where a group of attendees had gathered, awaiting a masterpiece. A woman wearing an evening gown, dangly earrings, and a cashmere pashmina turned to her husband and remarked on the quality of the program. I, however, was rather more entertained by the program notes, in which the composer himself spoke about how the last piece of the concert gave voice to countless victims of violence across the world. Skeptical or not, I was intrigued as we took our seats in the main hall.

Before I go any further, let me just ask: Do you know that sound a violin makes when a child rakes the bow across its strings for the very first time? That “reeeeeeek” sound? Yeah, well, that was the entire first piece. A single violinist, giving what I initially believed was a very bad performance: “Reeeeeeek! Re-ah-uh-oh-eeeek!” There weren’t even notes, really—just that noise at varying pitches.

“What’s happening?” I thought, wiping the blood from my ears. Was it supposed to sound like this? And if so, why? I didn’t know much about music, but I knew crap when I heard it, which this most definitely was. But when I looked at those around me, I saw that most were contented—no, enchanted! Tears filled eyes and fell down heavily rouged cheeks. And when the violinist finished and took a bow, applause erupted around me.

It’s true, some people enjoy this rare form of torture; like leather whips and suspended harnesses, a bout of “highbrow” culture now and again can break the monotony of the everyday and can really spice things up. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to see a performer do all he can to suck at playing his instrument. (Nor is it every day that one gets to hear a soprano screaming at the top of her lungs—in English, Russian, and Hebrew—that she is a daughter with no face, that rivers hold her tears, and, somewhat inexplicably, “Murder to rape!” especially in the context of one man’s noble contribution to the fight against domestic violence.)

And yet, for some strange reason, I don’t see it as particularly noble or innovative or thought-provoking; I see it as wrong. That was my initial, disappointed reaction, and so my opinion remains to this day, a number of concerts later. Everything is wrong in contemporary classical music—as is much of what we have come to accept as artistic expression in general—because being so wrong has never been done before. Every piece is an attempt at artistic revolution, but, for those of us who are a little more difficult to impress, who don’t experience nirvana in Fulton Recital Hall or the top floor of Cobb, it all seems like a mess. It’s all a little much.

Therein lies the value of sifting through the excess. If you, like me, have a low threshold for stupid, avoid it like the plague. Take notice of the trigger words—revolutionary, thought-provoking, one-of-a-kind—which often take the place of actual descriptions and synopses so as to beguile naive students like us who want to broaden our minds and cultural horizons. With so many options available on any given night, this culture thing can be a dangerous game, and as in any game, there are losers. Make your moves wisely.

Luke Dumas is a first-year in the College.