October 22, 2012

Classical Conditioning

Hipster Beethoven used hash tags in front of everything. Before they were cool.

As a classical music lover and ex-cellist, I always feel like it’s my civic duty to get other people to think that classical music is cool, too. Some of my friends occasionally listen to it; a friend named Caroline listens to classical music on Spotify while studying, and some other friends jokingly play it so we can be super-classy while indulging ourselves in super-classy home-cooked dinners prepared in super-classy (read: grungy) Allston apartments (did I mention that it’s classy?). But other than that, I feel like the only other people I can adequately nerd-out with are other people who play or have played classical music.

One of my major problems with a lot of things is that they seem inaccessible to people who don’t know a lot about it. Science scares people away by assigning tricky terminology to not-so-difficult concepts; cool and useful pieces of technology scare my middle-aged parents away by having “too many buttons” and 50 page long instruction manuals; math scares people away because…well, math is just scary.

The same can be said for classical music. Because it doesn’t necessarily fall into the realm of pop culture, it’s not something that most people are exposed to on a frequent basis. And when they are, it’s not unusal for it to go something like this:

 Classical snob #1: “I thought that the conductor held the fermata just a little too long.”

Classical snob #2: “But the effect that the long fermata had was tremendous…just think about how much more suspenseful it made the beginning of the fugue that followed major thirds minor sixths arpeggio col legno triads atonal blahblahblahblahblah.”

Random guy who just happened to go to a classical performance: What.

 *Disclaimer: The above is not an actual conversation

I’ve been playing classical music since the fifth grade and can’t even stand conversations like that.

The irony is that even though it seems slightly complicated or inaccessible from afar, the reason that I fell in love with classical music in the first place is that it is so beautifully simplistic. There are no pickups, no places to plug in a ¼ inch cable, no effects to apply, no fancy software needed, not even any frets – just a collection of sound waves bouncing around in a dried-out and hollowed piece of wood.

I really, really want to convince you that classical music isn’t at all boring, and that it definitely isn’t meant for only a subset of the population, and that it’s not just the music that you listen to when you’re past the aged of 60. Heck, back in the day, going to see Bach debut his latest piece was just as cool as hopping on the T and getting your club on (*Disclaimer: I also do not know this to be fact). It’s beautiful, often formulaic—many composers basically created pieces using ‘recipes,’ so to speak. How many times have you ever felt confused reading the directions for chocolate chip cookies?! But most importantly, classical music has so many cool stories to tell that all kinds of people with all kinds of musical backgrounds can relate to.

Here are some of my favorite classical pieces that never get old (or, if you’re going to look at it literally, some pieces that are very, very old). I’m not going to get too much into the reasons that they rock so hard right now, because some of these definitely deserve their own posts (patience, young warrior; good stories take time). For now, just soak up the wonder that is horse hair, nylon strings and wood. And, if appropriate, say hello to some of your new study and relaxation music!

Mendelssohn // Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20

Mendelssohn wrote this piece as a birthday present to his violin teacher Eduard Rietz. A birthday present. How many people can say that they got a string octet as a birthday present? This recording, performed by the Emerson String Quartet in Boston’s very own Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, is just awesome. Eight people playing this together is just an incredible thing to see and hear.

Shostakovich // String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 – II (Allegro molto)

Shostakovich stole my heart several years ago, and if he were still alive I would probably promise him my first-born child. This ain’t your grandmaw’s classical music; it speaks more of a rock concert than a fine evening out at Symphony Hall. But the tumultuous sound reflect’s the composer’s struggles. The piece was written during the height of the struggle between Shostakovich and Joseph Stalin, and at a point in which the composer was thinking of taking his own life. To me, nobody tells better musical stories than Dmitri Shostakovich.

Debussy // Suite bergamasque – III (Clair de lune)

Yeah, I know, everybody in the world has heard Clair de lune or played it in their childhood piano lessons or insert other place where you may have encountered it here. But come on. It is such a pretty song. All of the “empty space” in the song is a perfect example of how lack of sound can be just as powerful – in my opinion it’s what makes the piece sound like such a dreamy lullaby.

Beethoven // String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major, Op. 127 – I (Maestoso)

It’s all about the sounds in this song for me. It’s rich, dense, and crisp at points – kind of like a really gooey caramel chocolate brownie that’s slightly burnt around the edges.

Bernstein // Overture to Candide

This song is just so much fun. I have really great memories of my orchestra friends and I singing (the entirety of) this piece really badly. And dancing and making strange excited facial expressions. The different parts in this piece sound like they’re running around chasing each other all the time. How could you not love a song that is so giddy and playful?

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About bucallison

Allison is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying neuroscience. She hails from the steamy swamplands of New Orleans, Louisiana, and as a result spends her time watching Saints games and trying to convince people that her house "doesn't look like one of those ones on 'Swamp People'". She's been known to be mildly obsessed with Lady Gaga, but also enjoys everything from Queen to Ratatat to Garth Brooks. She also loves photography, food (all of it), making things, and super fun people.

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