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Classical Notes

Does classical music make you act smarter?

Posted at 8:28 AM on May 3, 2006 by Don Lee

In this space two months ago I mentioned a book that critic Greg Sandow is drafting online, a book about the future of classical music. He argues that the grand vessels bearing the classical music tradition are outmoded, foundering and threatened with sinking. In the six installments that form the introduction to his book, he lists a few ideas for turning the old galleon around.

In general, Sandow thinks classical music institutions need to engage more fully with contemporary life. A common objection to his arguments, cited in Episode Six (just published online), is this one: he’s dumbing down classical music.

He responds with some insightful answers to the charge, differentiating between the music and the way it is presented.

Sandow thinks classical music insiders tend to make “a fetish about how brainy classical music supposedly is.” Consistent with that, they advocate a performance style that “acts out a pantomime of profundity and intelligence. With silence and formal dress, we put a frame around the music, a frame that says, ‘Something very important is happening here.’”

But later Sandow admits to a paradox: “I don’t have trouble with the music, which I love just about to distraction. Especially—and I don’t care how ironic this sounds, after what I’ve just written—I love its inner details, its structure, the way it’s constructed.”

It seems Sandow agrees there is something important happening here…so important that people who love the music should do nothing to stand in its way.