Rudel asked the driver why he enjoyed listening to classical on the job. “And he said, ‘Man, if you were driving around these streets all day, you’d need to relax, too.’ ”
“When I started in this business,” Rudel said, “the word ‘relax’ in classical? They wanted to kill you if you used those two things together. It was meant for intellectual stimulation! But you know what? In this day and age, we could use a little relaxation. That doesn’t diminish its value.”
This may account for the unprecedented moment classical music is experiencing right now, as it forges a new place in culture for itself, unlike any it’s occupied in the centuries we casually tuck into the term.
Locked out of the concert hall because of global coronavirus concerns, endangered in physical and financial terms, classical music is fighting to survive and finding more paths than ever to listeners.
Part of this phenomenon is that we’re quite literally a captive audience. But another part is the odd compatibility between classical music and digital media.
Streaming platforms like Spotify let listeners wander though endless interpretations of classical works with ease, while video hubs like YouTube allow us to follow along with visual scores (even the ones that had to be invented from scratch), video conference software like Zoom enable impossible collaborations (with admittedly iffy sound), and live-streaming platforms like Instagram find home for countless performances exiled from the halls.
And yet, the bigger part of it is that we associate classical music with relaxation, and that’s in higher demand than hand sanitizer right now.
So what is it that makes classical music “relaxing,” anyway? What about it makes people “relax”?
Certainly there’s no rule that the music itself be a bubble bath. I spent this past week managing my own pandemic anxieties by clicking between the dark woods of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle (which ran nightly on the Met’s Live in HD site) and the blinding blasts of Krzysztof Penderecki (the Polish composer of the terrifying “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” who died this week at 86 after a long illness), and I don’t exactly feel fresh from the spa. I feel like I’ve had the full panoply of my longings and terrors reflected back at me from my laptop. I feel understood.
So maybe “relaxing” is the wrong word; but there is certainly something soothing about recognizing the emotions we’re feeling now in music cast forth through hundreds of years. In times of crisis, we turn to this music for its wordless answers; and this tendency has a lot less to do with what the music on the page presents than with what it represents: permanence.
Classical music properly done offers listeners a sample of the impossible: a seamless overlap of past and present, a fleeting encounter between the ideal and the real.
And while no artifact is more ephemeral than a piece of music, the experience of music — when we allow its treatment of time to temporarily override time’s treatment of us — can give us surer footing in our least stable moments.
Classical music gives us something beautiful to listen to, but it also gives us an experience of certainty, a structure we trust (the sonata form is itself an institution), a way things should go.
It may be why classical fare has figured so prominently and so boldly into the mass migration of American culture online. My social media feed this week has been a virtual mob of quarantined musicians reaching deep into the past for works to pass the long days at home, and light the way forward. (I’ve observed a distinct spike in Bach-for-one, for one.)
The past few weeks online have shown this in action. Italian communities besieged and locked-down by the novel coronavirus, quarantined on their balconies but clinging to the connection of earshot as they serenade each other — led, in spirit, by the tenor Maurizio Marchini, whose stirring “Nessun Dorma” carried from Florence around the world, and even into some hospital wards. We’ve seen virtual orchestras, like the Cunningham Piano Online Ensemble, use Mozart to overcome the distance of nine countries and four generations. And we’ve seen ensembles scattered by isolation — from Norway to Spain to Australia and everywhere in between — assemble to perform, and to help the rest of us regroup.
Watching members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” online from 19 separate apartments, or 49 members of the Colorado Symphony doing the same, or 71 members of the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra sign on for a performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Titan” symphony resonates not only as a spectacle of technology or a salvo of resilience. The scattered togetherness of these performances are reassurance that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — and even as our institutions shudder (and shutter) — some things last.
This assertion of permanence against unceasing change may also be the impulse behind so many music institutions engaging with their audiences by re-engaging their own archives. On a purely practical level, archives are easier to pull together than live stream, and require no gathering. But on a more poetic level, archives represent a past we can return to — a souvenir of stability.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra just launched its OffStage platform, mixing at-home recitals from BSO musicians and archived video footage of BSO performances. The Philadelphia Orchestra is releasing weekly treasures from its archives as well as solo performances from musicians’ homes via its Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra platform. New music mainstays Bang on a Can announced the May 1 launch of its own digital platform, Canland, showcasing archival performances rescued from “old CD-ROMs and floppy disks” from the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk.
And the New York Philharmonic just announced the archival trove of NY Phil Plays On, a “new portal for free content to provide comfort and connection to the millions of classical music fans worldwide in isolation” — part of CEO Deborah Borda’s approach to staying connected to the Phil’s audiences, while preparing it for “the next series of unforeseen events.”
“I say this many times but it’s absolutely true so I’ll say it again,” Borda declares on the phone, “the New York Philharmonic survived the Civil War, two world wars, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, so we will come out of this on the other side. We will come out of it, we will be different. We will be changed, there’s no question about that, but all of society will.”
But even for younger institutions like New York-based National Sawdust, which serves as a venue, a record label, a producer and an incubator for emerging composers and performers, archives can function as an anchor against the pull of an uncertain future.
Its newly launched Live@NationalSawdust site will showcase weekly selections organized by themes that composer and co-founder Paola Prestini hopes will assist listeners in navigating from one week to the next. The site’s first offering reaches back to Sawdust’s first opening, featuring pieces by Glass, Nico Muhly and Prestini herself.
“These are records of our time, and they’re so important,” she says. “The poet Borges has this statement that I’ve been thinking about the last couple of weeks, that you must build as if the sand were stone. I think that’s kind of where we’re at right now. Everything’s morphing and changing, yet we need to build believing in permanence, and believe that what we do is so important for so many people.”