Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Whole Enchilada

In the middle of one of the recent drive-bys of the death-of-classical music trope, someone smartly observed that a good portion of the youth (and no-longer-so-youthful)  who would otherwise have been deeply engaged by music — whether as performers or listeners — had probably had their time and attentions and pocket monies siphoned off by some form of gaming, electronic or otherwise.   I think this observation is a smart one because gaming done well does more than resemble the kind of immersion in pseudo-encyclopedic synthetic worlds that thoroughly absorbed generations past and the raw numbers plotting the growth in the gaming market against the simultaneous decline in recorded music sales are quite convincing.

Richard Wagner's success, for one, was in turning a mix of complex and ambiguous myth and fiction into musical stage works which worked simultaneously at broad narrative and local detail levels, and at both literary and musical streams, allowing for multiple paths to their comprehension.  Neither of Wagner's major contemporary rivals — Verdi and Brahms — offered comparable stuff with which to engage generations of, well, nerds — smart kids with sufficient leisure time and a certain amount of detachment from ordinary life.  

(A similar phenomena is to be found in the Tolkien audience, the hard core of which delights in every aspect of that other Ring World, Middle Earth, with all its lore and legend, the hardest core of those devotees going so far as to master (and sometimes extend)  all that is known of the scripts and tongues Tolkien invented.  (Although I found the ravishing of the Shire chapter near the end of TLOTR to be genuinely moving, a prescient bit of environmentalist writing, I was never a Tolkien partisan.  This was largely because I found Tolkien's diction dull and all of the detail with which some of my classmates at Serrano Jr. High were obsessed — you know, the Elvish graffiti on their lockers and endless map making of exotic realms — was actually little more than decoration for a predictable story line.  (I probably lost a lot of friends here; just thank goodness I didn't get started on Wagner...)))   

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wagner's success was the fact that it has been so little imitated.  No other composer has succeeded in writing and mounting a similar cycle of operas, let alone getting such a cycle into repertoire production. (Stockhausen's Licht cycle has not yet been performed in entirety and I'm not altogether sure that either (a) it would be worth the resources required to produce and/or (b) that the mythic/narrative content is actually of similar engaging substance to the Wagner.)  To their credit, several of the "new complexity" gang have worked in cycles of pieces and although some of these composers have used such cycles to create operas, these are individual evening-length works, so above and beyond the question of whether the musical language of the complexistas would be attractive to an audience who would otherwise be gaming, I strongly doubt that the content, both internal and in the accompanying apparatus, is quite enough to keep them away from their cards, consoles, joysticks, keyboards and monitors. It's pretty obvious, though, that there is a real opportunity hear to create large scale musical works with multiple narratives, associative complexity, and interpretive ambiguity using game-like media.  I think the audience is out there for such a work, indeed for such a commodity, and although it is not the kind of work I believe I could do particularly well myself, I would be delighted to learn what diversities of musical materials, styles, textures, continuities other composer may find to sustain such works, such worlds.



1 comment:

Neal said...

Very interesting observations Mr. Wolf. I like the juxtaposition between Wagner's time and the present. I agree that there is a medium out there in which one can successfully attract the youth to the classical music market. Perhaps using various methods of multi-media/audience interactive techniques. There has been plenty of this kind of experimentation, particularly in the younger generation of classical musicians, but I think we're still waiting for our modern-day Wagner to show his/herself and to revive the popularity of our waning field.