Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love classical music (part 2)

Ben Klemens
7 min readJul 25, 2016

OK, you read Part 1, and are thinking that you’ll give all that music that sounded like an unending wash of notes another chance. So, where to begin? This is about the social habits of music listeners. Part one was about how the music is structured; that will be the starting point, but from there most of the story is frankly more about fashion statements and how people organize around them.

What to begin with

If the problem is that phrasing is more subtle, and phrase stops and starts aren’t at pre-set intervals, then the answer to the ‘where do I begin?’ question is not to begin at the chronological beginning and then plough through by birth date of composer, but to find works where the phrases stand out more and have clearer starts and stops.

I won’t give specific composer recommendations, because what’s easy for some is obtuse for others. Some composers (e.g., Copeland, Ives) range from clearly phrased to super-complex. But there are certain forms that lend themselves more to clarity for the unhabituated.

Recall soli pieces, which have a focal central player, possibly with backup. The archetype of this is the concerto. So if you want a specific point to start exploring, maybe pick your favorite instrument — oboe, guitar, piano, clarinet, cello, trombone — and type, e.g., “harmonica concerto” into the Youtube search bar and see what turns up. United Airlines has a dial-a-concerto service: call them up, ask to speak to an operator, and they’ll play you Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for twenty minutes to an hour.

Any composer you can think of has probably written a series of string quartets: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Haydn, Schubert, Adams, Fauré …. With exactly four voices, they will be easier to follow than many 50-voice orchestral pieces, and often have a clear back-and-forth between phrases carried by different parts. These are perfect for the game of focusing on individual voices for a while, then seeing how that voice fits in to the whole.

Symphonies get a lot of play and bring in audiences at the concert hall, but they’re not really the place that I started, and they’re not the biggest part of my playlist. But I’ll mention Beethoven, because some people don’t have a copy of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, even though it’s not that challenging to find the whole set led by a well-regarded conductor (e.g., Karajan, Bernstein) via the search bar of any media provider. Beethoven got famous for a reason: he writes clearly, and his phrasing is easy to follow even the first time through, and like Gershwin, his melodies are generally hummable.

[Trivia: how important is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, aka the national anthem of the European Union? When Sony engineers were deciding how long a compact disc should be, they decided that it should be just long enough to fit a rendition of the 9th.]

Movie soundtracks have to be easy to follow, because the audience is supposed to not be paying attention. There’s a period in the 40s and 50s when orchestral music leaned Hollywood. Copland, Prokofiev, Rimski-Korsakov, Korngold, even Shostakovich either went to Hollywood or were influenced by what was coming out of it. Of course, there are still soundtrack composers to the present day, like John Williams (the guy who wrote, e.g., the Imperial March from Star Wars). So soundtracks are easy to parse and have clear themes (check out the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, which is one theme a thousand times), but the fundamental purpose is to be background. That limits the dynamics and how many surprises the composer gets to throw in.

How I found it all: the bipartite graph

There’s a short list of composers you’ve heard of, but the drop off to relative obscurity is fast. This is a problem for recommendation engines underlying pandora/last.fm/et cetera, and I’m sorry to say that those systems have had limited payoff for me. Instead, the bipartite graph of composers and performers has been my recommendation engine.

Pop artists usually perform their own songs, because under U.S. copyright laws, if you perform a cover of somebody else’s song on the radio, they get paid and you don’t. But musicians in the realm we’re talking about here have no hope of radio play, and most spend their lives getting good at either playing or writing only, so we get a clean division of labor where a set of performers select pieces from those written by a set of composers. This is the bipartite graph we can bounce between. Start with a composer you like, find the artist/curator who likes recording those pieces, find out what other composers he/she/they also like to present.

I saw Missy Mazzoli and her Victoire ensemble at the Wind-up Space in Baltimore. I have so many non-romantic hearts for this person. [Dear Tiger Beat, please stop dicking around and publish a Missy Mazzoli poster already. I know you people are getting my emails.]

Ms Mazzoli has written pieces for the NOW Ensemble. Her track was itself a delight, but the rest of the album gave me a list of other composers that the members of NOW thought were Mazzoliesque enough to put on the same album.

The Kronos Quartet recorded a piece by Alfred Schnittke under the title “Collected songs where every verse is filled with grief,” which changed my life. It even inspired me to make a twitter bot. Now I can say that what made it such a great gateway song is that, despite having a lot going on and being well-layered, the phrases largely have clear starting and stopping points. This led me to explore Alfred Schnittke more — check out his suite in the olden style, which is entirely well behaved until a few phrases throw in super-modernist sour notes.

But after their showing on Schnittke, if Kronos Quartet records a composer, I’m going to check that person out. They recorded an impressive clarinet concerto by Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentine composer, who often enlists his favorite soprano, Dawn Upshaw, who also performed some sorrowful songs by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki…

Concert halls have opening acts. Setting aside Beethoven’s 9th, most of the works you’ve heard of are under maybe 40 minutes, and people expect at least an hour for their ticket money. Thus, the familiar structure of the headliner you’ve heard of and an opening act for you to learn about. I went to this Tchaikovsky/Prokofiev set and found out about this badass piece by Victoria Borisova-Ollas. If you can’t afford the ticket, the odds are very good that the programs for your closest civic orchestra are all online. Last year’s season is there for you to discover.

And there used to be liner notes. No music critic can write more than a paragraph without comparing this composer with another. But the shift to online downloads has been a real disaster here, as Amazon et al think it’s OK to sell digitized music without digitized liner notes.

Sidebar: naming

Down here at the last section, I’ll point out that, outside of the title that brought you here, I managed to write this whole two-part series without using the word “classical”. That word has serious problems.

I still don’t know what to call this class of music: Wikipedia recommended “erudite music”, which I like for its self-aware pretension; the directory on my hard drive is currently named oddbar music, in contrast to the prevalent even-barred music. But the name doesn’t really matter anyway, as long as it’s not “classical”.

First, the term is too broad: baroque keyboard flourishes, minimalists, liturgical choral, serialist string quartets, whatever Morton Feldman does— really, they’re all the same category? Here’s a well-researched map of popular music genres that portrays classical as a monolithic grey blob over the city of pop genres.

There’s some implication that if you’re into classical, you should like the whole blob, and if you don’t, you’re somehow not there yet. I’m certainly not: those of you who are well versed with all this will notice that I barely mentioned anything pre-Romantic. It’s just not my scene.

Second, the term is too narrow, and has a powdered wig problem. It is supposed to evoke centuries past, the way that vendors put out a new model of their product and rename the model from six weeks ago the “classic” edition. But its old-soundingness implies that this thread of music tapered off circa 1900, which is false to the point of being damaging. As per many of the above links, there is fabulous music happening outside of the 8-bar norm up to the present.

There’s a world of music that is not strictly divided into 8-bar units, and that has a lot of corollaries. That music will have more going on, more overlapping and interplay between phrases, phrases that are free to be as long as they want to be without circling back at bar 8, and for the same reasons that music will be harder to follow. I didn’t talk about any of the markers the textbooks focused on, like instrumentation (there are pop string quartets), or about age (there’s old dance music and symphonies written in this decade), or about other sundry fashion statements, because these things don’t clarify a lot but do create a wedge between the fans of some music and fans of other music. Let the snobs have their distinctions; I just want a better playlist.

Thanks to Susan E Chalmers (who, unlike the author, has some authority on these matters) for commentary and suggestions.



Ben Klemens

BK served as director of the FSF’s End Software Patents campaign, and is the lead author of Apophenia (http://apophenia.info), a statistics library.