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Where are we rolling down...

 Pal, good bye! Our mission is off,
Rock-n-roll is recalling its soldiers home.
Somebody else's words are coming instead
With the grass having covered our fires' ends.

ANDREI MAKAREVITCH (Russian rock star)

 You are just so young
You are trifling around
They call you a star out of mere *flattery
From Russian Pop

My thoughts presented below are partly inspired by clarinetist Vladimir Sokolov's concert, which took place in the Small Hall of the Conservatory on the 6th of November.

At the present time Vladimir Sokolov is, no doubt, one of the best clarinetists in the world. Without going into details I'd like just to mention that his playing has always excelled academically in the best sense of the word. Today academic has become almost a synonym to boring. In the best times, however, it is used to denote, if I can put it so, intelligent performance, characterized first of all by a scrupulous attitude to the authentic text and consideration towards sound and phrasing. At first sight, following these rules seems to be quite easy, and besides, they are usually perceived as axioms. Taking a closer look at the tendency of modern performing, however, makes it clear that its axiomatic character is rather ghostlike. Sometimes even ridiculous: verbal loyalty to these 'axioms is neutralized by complete ignoring them as far as performing is concerned. This very fact brings in the limelight an idea that it is not at all easy to follow these principles and, frankly speaking, truly very difficult. It requires intellectual work much more painstaking than most modern performers consider a possible undertaking.

We can by no means profess that all or most composers in the past were equally academic (since we agreed to use this term). But the subject here is not exactly a particular person, but rather a tendency. Since the late 60-70s performers have followed a path of simplifying their tasks. The average technical level of performance is rising whereas the average culture (including musical) level is decreasing. When speaking about the average technical level, I do not mean that the performers, in mass, are playing in concerts that sparkle with technical skill. The reason, however, is not that they can't - they can. For example, take a program of entrance exams to the conservatory, even for most average students, and to compare it with what was played, say, thirty years ago. No, there is something different to the problem. It is common knowledge that demand determines supply. So, today there is no demand for even technically neat performances, to say nothing of intellectual pathos. But that's a slightly different facet of the problem.

It is commonly agreed that pop culture (understood widely) has more influence on the modern society than society is aware of and, perhaps, than it would like to experience. The term pop culture seems to be deprived of its popularity nowadays, replaced by collocation show business, widely used among a variety of people. As a matter of fact, regarding, say, only pop music (also widely), it is, mainly, a true business. At any rate, a question of popularity of this or that artist as well as longevity of his popularity is a question of how impressive his material background appears to be. I, personally, find most modern pop music uninteresting (including everything else belonging to pop culture, by the way). Speaking about this facet of modern life one becomes aware of an obvious fact: pop culture has an immense influence on common culture as well.Everything wouldn't be so problematic if we spoke about the mere contrasts of pop and academic music. In such cases discussions are usually blocked by the impossibilities of comparing these two genres. In one of my columns I have already touched on this question; the problem, in fact, is that, strictly speaking, there is actually nothing more to compare. Academic (or classical - as you wish) music has somehow quietly become a part of this very show business. In spite of some idealistic superstitions preserved in schools and conservatories, the adult life of almost every musician, soloist or not, clearly proves that, beyond the ideals, we face a rigid fact - we are forced to transform academic music from high art into mere productions.

Thus, mainstream academic music lives and develops by the same laws as does main stream pop music. On one hand, there is an apparent dictatorship of the audience, who determine the appearance of those artists on the stage and the release of disks by those musicians who cater for their demands. On the other hand, there is the blatant power of recording companies, subtly and, at first sight, delicately, feeding the audience on those who have tuned into it.

I must have simplified the situation a bit, and the audience dictatorship does exist, although in another dimension. Every new promoted idol must be made absolutely clear to the audience, so that it requires minimum ntellectual efforts (or does not require them at all...). On the other hand, it is a good idea to make the audience feel a sense of belonging to the cultural elite due to a long preserved image of academic music as elite. Taking into consideration the fact that mainstream thinking is lazy this goal can be achieved by means of introducing radically new ideas. From the point of view of academic music (in the above mentioned sense) these ideas can be called, at the best, extravagant. At any rate, they can't give anything to the listener, who is in the mood for deep perception and brought up on the performing arts of the old masters. From the point of view of the recording corporation or that of a producer, these ideas are their bread, since they allow people with any cultural level to feel involved in the high art. There is no need to state with whom the truth resides. I'd like just to say that as a result we observe phenomena in our musical reality such as authentic performance, Kronos Quartet, the Three Tenors, Gidon Kremer, etc.

Thus, the gradual commercialization of academic music has led to nothing other than a perceptible decrease of the cultural levels of both performers and audience members. Perhaps, the aforementioned facts can give rise to some radically different conclusions; however, I wouldn't like to deprive the readers of the opportunity to estimate the situation on their own and, maybe, plunge into discussions of their own on the subject.

Now we've come back to the to the issue of Vladimir Sokolov; what do the previous allusions to his work which has given rise to my speculations on these topics, have to do with this cultural debate? Logically, as a counterpart to the aforementioned main stream, I assume, there must be an underground. Although the usage of such terms with regard to academic music must seem a bit ridiculous, I find them quite compatible. My personal feelings in this case must be similar to those of Andrei Makarevitch, cited in the epigraph. He is mourning the rock-n-roll epoch as a way of life. In a similar way I am still yearning for concerts aimed not at showing off in the hall and on  stage, but which reveal a sincere desire to share something vital and sacred, which, unfortunately, is becoming more and more infrequent. When the performer with the power of his talent aspires to communicate the author's ideas and thoughts, realized and felt as his own, to the listener, and the latter is ready to adequately perceive them... Upbringing of a cultural listener is a separate topic which will surely be touched upon at some time in the future. As far as really intelligent and sincere performers are concerned, they are becoming fewer and fewer, at the moment truly forming a peculiar underground. Their concerts are not frequent, their discs are not numerous and are not released with the largest circulation, and their names are not known to all. Vladimir Sokolov, Natalia Gutman, Victor Tretyakov, Eliso Virsaladze... These are only some whose names do sound familiar. Not for all, but these are the people who keep on giving concerts, enabling you to leave the hall with the feeling that you have just discovered for yourself something very important and until now unknown. That you have experienced something, the memory of which will perhaps remain with you forever.

I know that there is never enough of good. Moreover, I'd be very delighted if time proves my statements insubstantial and we make sure there are no fewer true performers and that the academic pattern of music doesn't disappear, but coexists with various new musical trends. I see no harm in discussing this topic today, in detail and development. Life will all the same choose its own path. And the final dot over 'i' we'll be able to put some time then. In, say, fifty years.

 

Boris Lifanovsky

boris@lifanovsky.com



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