Musical Barriers

The other night I watched a riveting documentary “Genius Within:  The Inner Life of Glenn Gould” on American Masters (PBS).  Although I love music I’ve never been able to get into classical music.  I had encountered Glenn Gould decades ago when I read gushing review of his 1955 performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” so I rushed out and bought a copy.  Boy was I disappointed.  I thought they were nasty little gnarled piano riffs that were cold and unfeeling.  After watching the biography on Monday night, I went out and bought a new CD copy of Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” on Tuesday.

Guess what?  I found them just as unpleasant as ever.  How can compositions so admired, played by a performer deemed so astounding, be so unpleasant for me to hear?   Has my mind programmed with 59 years of pop music unable to fathom the implied beauty of Bach?

To be honest, the piano is not an instrument that soothes my soul, and Gould plays it in a style that I find painful.  Watching the films of Gould playing, it’s obvious he’s lost in a deep trance and I know he finds tremendous beauty in the sound he produces.  I can admire his skill, even though I don’t have the training to even begin to understand what he is doing, but as a listener trying to find a way into the world of classical music, not enjoying it is a real barrier.

While researching the “Goldberg Variations” I came across an article in Slate, “The Goldberg Variations Made New:  Move over Glenn Gould, here’s Simone Dinnerstein,” by Evan Eisenberg.  Within the article are downloads to three Goldberg variations played by Gould and Dinnerstein.  I find them as different as rock and rap.  Please download and play #28 (labeled 29 on the files) of each performance (Dinnerstein-28 and Gould-28).  Gould plays like a wild madman, while Dinnerstein makes her piece serene, which makes the piano seem warm and friendly to me.  I’m not saying I’d put the Dinnerstein cuts in heavy rotation on my playlists, but she makes Bach more accessible to me.

This brings up a number of questions.  Is there anyway I could train my mind to break through the musical barriers that keep me from enjoying classical music?  Could I ever love the “Goldberg Variations” as much as even “Animal” by Ke$ha, the song I’m playing at the moment as I write.  Is it a cultural barrier?  Did I grow up with wrong long hairs, The Beatles instead of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?  If I played the “Goldberg Variations” enough would my brain grow new neural pathways and sooner or later I’d break through the classical musical barrier?

And why do so few people still listen to classical music?  Does it take a fundamental knowledge of music and music history to appreciate classical music?  Does classical music push the same buttons that rock and pop music push in my head?  Or is like ducks, and I just imprinted on rock?  If my Mom and Dad had played the “Goldberg Variations” in 1955 when I was four, would my musical tastes have formed differently?

And my music tastes do change.  I’m listening to Nicki Minaj and Kanye West at the moment.  Their rap and pop styles are light years away from the music I grew up on in the 1960s.  I started off with rock, went to folk, country, jazz, big band – hell I even love Ravi Shankar’s Indian music – so what keeps me from enjoying classical music?

JWH – 12/29/10

2 thoughts on “Musical Barriers”

  1. I don’t listen to any kind of music much, and I’m not all that familiar with classical music. But I tried to get into it in college, a bit.

    I found a little book, used, called “How to Build a Record Library.” Written by the music editor of the New York Times, Howard Taubman, in 1953, it was obsolete long before I found it. But it suggested some classical works in which “you cannot possibly go wrong.”

    I bought some of the CDs – not the specific performance he recommended, but the work, at least – and I discovered something about them (or about myself). I didn’t like them at first. Maybe I’m just not musical enough. But after I listened to a symphony a half dozen times or so, that changed.

    I still don’t like classical music if I’m not familiar with it. I have to listen to it many times before it finally… clicks with me. I don’t know why. Well, I haven’t listened to any of those CDs for years, so maybe it’s worn off. I should check, I suppose.

    And those were symphonies. I’m not familiar with the work you mentioned, but I suspect that it would be harder to like. Symphonies were just a lot more interesting to me. But even then, I never liked them until I really worked at it. It was worth the effort, though.

  2. What’s interesting is I love movie soundtracks, like those played by symphony orchestras. Some of them I find tremendously emotional and moving, even with only one listen. Did the composers of music think different centuries ago?

    I might try to find that book, “How to Build a Record Library” or its modern equivalent. I keep thinking I’m missing out. Too many people love classical music in such a passionate way to just write it off.

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