Had I been living under a rock for the last several months, I might have tuned into this week’s inaugural events under the impression that I had stumbled on some kind rock festival (the kind where they also play John Williams, evidently). And not just because of the panoply of pop royalty present, but rather from the size and enthusiasm of the audience.

Fortunately, the inauguration resembled Woodstock a good deal more than Altamont. The atmosphere was idealistic and communal, but hardly low-key—that rare paradox of passion tempered with commitment.

All in all, it’s remarkable how similar the experience of a political rally can be to that of a rock concert. Both experiences are well-suited to handle crowds of people and monumental emotions, as would appear the classical concert. Save for the happy anomaly like Bernstein’s 1989 “Ode to Freedom” concert in Berlin or that rare venture, the evening-length politico/religious crowd-pleaser (Mahler’s second and Britten’s War Requiem come to mind), I can’t think of an appropriate analogue. And I’m not just thinking of big events, like the Proms. I can think of several large festivals of classical music, but none that reflect the “big ideas” and sense of audience community that characterize both rock and politics.

That’s not to say that this difference characterizes a deficiency. To the contrary, I think that classical music’s limited success in these kinds of mass gatherings owes much to its finest qualities. Put simply, Big Ideas are more often than not also Vague Ideas—their size does not necessarily denote great intricacy. While much mainstream arena-rock is certainly detailed, it’s more the combined sense of “surface details” that colors the music with edge and oomph. In other words, most of the detail is effective as a wash. On the whole classical music seems to be much more concerned with its details and nuances interacting on the molecular level, saying something less monolithic but more specific. So perhaps it’s natural that rock’s more homogenous and non-rhetorical use of detail should be a good fit for the very different demands of the arena.

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4 thoughts on “Barack-stock

  1. Chris Becker

    From Michael Veal’s wonderful book Dub:
    “In America and Eruope of the 1960s and 1970s, events such as countercultural music festivals were sites in which the spiritual, political, and cultural implications of new forms of sound technology (high-intensity amplification, PA systems, sound processing circuitry) could be communally explored and evaluated by musicians, audiences, and technicians alike. It is interesting to note, though, that for every high-intensity amplification system used, there was also an Indian spiritual guru, African traditional drummer, or Native American rain chant.”

    I think there is much more nuance in rock music in a live setting than you would have us believe. Beside the obvious spiritual components and roots (which no “composer” under 30 seems to be aware of – I doubt anyone here can even tell me the etymology of the word “rock”) there’s a level of communication between musicians onstage and their audience that is as detailed and profound as anything going on between the members of an orchestra.

    I mean, last night I caught a little bit of Andre Rieu’s orchestra on PBS. People in his audience were swaying back and forth, cheering, laughing – the musicians onstage were laughing – hamming it up. And it all sounded truly horrible. All of that lovely detail was there – all of the “classical” that is missing from say – and AC/DC concert. But it was repulsive. And spiritually hollow (and that’s putting it mildly).

    But I don’t look at Andre and think “That’s ‘classical’ music!” Likewise, the term “arena rock” is vague and does a disservice to any attempt to talk intelligently about rock and roll language.

  2. robteehan

    I don’t know, Dan, I can think of a few classical works that probably would have gone over fantastically well – Fanfare for the Common Man, the finale of Beethoven 9, even (for example), the last 4 minutes of the Shostakovich violin concerto, which Maxim Vengerov performed at the Grammy’s some years ago and lit the crowd on fire.

    What about the Olympic games? In the opening and closing ceremonies you see classical music fulfilling the ‘arena rock’ function. (Often there’s a mix of many genres). And, on the other side, what about all the indie rock bands that got their start playing in small, intimate venues, and continue to do so? There’s a lot of subtle, detailed and nuanced rock music out there too!

  3. ScottG

    other nations
    Also, let’s not forget the big festivals outside our personal bubbles. For instance, I sang at the Estonian “Laulupidu” song festival a few years ago, in which a choir of 30,000 sang for an audience of about 600,000 or so. 60% of the nation was there. The conductors, projected on the Jumbotron, were tossed in the air by big burly men after each song, while the audience chanted their names, and women in national costumes threw wreaths of flowers. There were carnival booths, t-shirt sales, too many food vendors to count… In any case, bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced, including Arena Rock concerts.

  4. Matthew Peterson

    On the whole classical music seems to be much more concerned with its details and nuances interacting on the molecular level, saying something less monolithic but more specific.

    I think the greatest music, whether it’s the Beatles or Beethoven or Led Zeppelin or Mahler, concerns itself primarily with “Big Ideas.” It is both full of nuance and truly “monolithic” (whether in scope, impact, rhetorical content, or musical content, etc). It is music where, to quote Stockhausen, “alles ist möglich” (everything is possible).

    Therefore I think it’s totally believable that hundreds of thousands of people could be brought together in a mass setting for any type of music. I think the reasons we don’t see this with classical concert music have more to do with economical, societal, and technological factors than (perhaps contrived) innate differences between it and other musics.


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