Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Will East Asia Save Classical Music?

Midori. Seiji Ozawa. Yo-Yo Ma. And soon
Lang Lang? One of the most interesting things going on in modern (as it were) classical music is the rise of East Asians as the custodians of a cultural form that was of course created in Europe. In China, Japan and Korea, devotion to the Western instrumental form is arguably much greater than in Europe and North America. Indeed, very casual empiricism suggests that among émigrés from these countries who have gone to the U.S. it is more common to see children mastering Western classical music than among the natives (including natives of East Asian ancestry). East Asian students, including naturalized US citizens, were 11 of the 35 contestants in the 2005 Van Cliburn piano competition. The International Herald Tribune has a story on the rising popularity of the study of classical music among the Chinese children of ambitious parents. Asian faces, while a minority, more and more populate major world orchestras, particularly on strings and piano.

When I used to live in Japan I was struck by how much more common Western classical music is there than in the U.S. Beethoven’s Ninth is a holiday tradition, played by orchestras all over the country. NHK (the state broadcaster) has a professional orchestra. All kindergarten teachers (overwhelmingly female) are expected to be skilled piano players (piano of course not being a native Japanese instrument). And so too in Korea, Taiwan and China proper, where the music is admired among the broader population more than in the West.

The reasons classical music are fading in the West are not clear, but fading it is. Classical-music listeners are trending older, CD sales of the form are down. Commercial classical stations are far rarer than they used to be. Whatever the reason, I will resist the temptation to offer fundamentally snobbish reasons, the ever-crasser tastes of the public and all that. That is because the competition is tougher in the best sense – the world’s cultural offerings are far greater and more interesting than ever before, not less and less interesting. People who once might have drifted into classical music may instead be wandering over to various forms of “world music,” much of it complex and compelling. As Greg Sandow notes, the primary reason that popular culture poses a threat to classical music is not because it’s so bad but because it’s so good. Globalization and improved communications technology have opened the world’s people to all sorts of new cultural possibilities.

And the decline of classical music in the West is also not for lack of trying by its advocates. Many orchestra leaders now recognize the need to connect with an audience incapable of relying on the music-education classes that public schools have long since dropped. The orchestra director in our town does a terrific job of educating, in a non-condescending way, the audience about the work they are about to hear, and of making concerts accessible to children. KMZT in LA is a good example of a commercial classical station that assumes its listeners are eager to learn, and emphasizes more well-known composers and works while not completely cutting out those less well-known.

But whatever the reason, classical music is facing tough times in the West. And it is strange to see, in tandem with its decline here, its ascendancy in the Far East. It is almost as though those in that part of the world see something in our heritage that we are no longer able to see for ourselves, that orchestral music, chamber music, etc. are still, despite the increasing cultural competition, among the most sublime of human artistic achievements. This is not a development without flaws. In Japan in particular (and, I assume, elsewhere in that part of the world) there is a tendency even greater than in the U.S. to be drawn to brand names – to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and the other giants, at the expense of new and innovative composers. And some of the students of classical music are undoubtedly driven by parents keen for the prestige of having a child musically accomplished in the Western tradition, which is associated with high culture there as much as elsewhere.

But all in all this is certainly a trade worth making, and certainly not unhealthy for the continued vitality of classical music. And it’s not the first time such a thing has happened. Britain was the creator of modern tennis, but a Brit hasn’t won at Wimbledon since Virginia Wade in 1977. But the Russians, Swedes, Swiss, Belgians and others who win it these days still treat the tournament and its traditions reverently. Another racket sport, badminton, has uncertain origins in, depending on who is talking, Greece, India and China. But it became big-time when British soldiers brought it home from India at the height of the Raj. (The international federation is now located in Gloucestershire.) Asians now dominate the game, but its future and past are both secure. It will be much the same if the job of maintaining the classical-music tradition falls more and more to the East. It would be ironic indeed if places like China, where Westerners were once seen as barbarians and Mao Zedong’s Red Guards once insisted on destroying every piano in the country as an emblem of bourgeois decadence, were the places where a Western cultural form went to be saved.


Blogger Joshua said...

There's an old cliché in rock music (famously parodied in the movie This Is Spinal Tap) that a band can still be "big in Japan" long after they're considered washed-up in their home country. Maybe we're seeing that again now, only on the scale of an entire musical genre.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Interesting possibility, but I hope not. There is to be sure a lot of consumption of classical music as empty prestige, but there is also (at least in my experience) a true dedication to and knowledge of the form that is lacking among anyone under 30 in the West these days.

3:12 PM  

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