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Differences between classical and rock music performance

I’ve been reading the book “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy.” The author has a choice quote about the differences between classical music performance and rock concerts.

Some social critics have judged the symphony orchestra to be the epitome of capitalist oppression. A strict hierarchy is observed throughout. As ruling aristocrat, the conductor leads compliant musicians, who in turn lead a compliant audience. The orchestra itself is stratified, with the pecking order among the strings clear for all to see. Everything is uniform and formal, from the penguin tuxedos to the prescribed moments of applause. Specialization and expertise reign. The music is written by expert composers and performed by expert musicians. The audience has no part in production; it simply consumes what is offered. In short, the orchestra is a music factory. It is appealing imagery for its often well-heeled audience, relaxing after a long day in their managerial duties.

By comparison, a rock concert is all barricade and guillotine. Its every symbol is of rebellion against hierarchy. Players interact among themselves and with the audience in stringent egalitarianism, conveying by smiles and greetings that the concert is a pleasurable social engagement for them, that in the audience they are among friends.

Rock is also profoundly anti-intellectual. The use of a score is unthinkable in a rock concert; the inability to read music is worn as a badge of honor. Performances are made to appear spontaneous, with much pretense of improvisation. Nothing is to appear to have been rehearsed; virtuosity must seem inborn and not acquired. It is no surprise that rock music is the first important genre of music in history to be composed and performed largely by young people for an audience of young people. It’s images reflect the concerns of youth, and it accepts  aging players only so long as they maintain the trappings of the young. “Hope I die before I get old,” sings the Who.

Now, the author goes on to note that many of these differences are more superficial than meaningful. He also notes that performances in the early days of classical music were not nearly as austere. I’d also add that a lot of modern pop shows seem totally worked-out and choreographed; there’s no element of improvisation.  Nonetheless, I think there’s more than a grain of truth in the observations quoted above.

I’m reminded of an anecdote I once read detailing how, in Soviet-era Russian, musicians did try to institute non-hierarchical symphonies but the lead violin player ended up guiding everyone.

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