The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What do rap and opera have in common to make them major musical blind spots for the public? | February 19, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

Last weekend, I asked: “What musical blind spots do you have?” It was inspired by the same question that was asked by the “Delayed Cadence” blog on NPR’s website, where some professional musicians started off the responses.

“What works and composers just don’t speak to you” is how I couched it. For myself, I put the Second Viennese School – the 12-tone, atonal and serial composers like Schoenberg (below), Webern and Berg– and works right at the top of my own list.

Both for me and for NPR, the question got a lot of responses from readers, both listeners and professional and amateur musicians.

Here is a link to that posting by me:

http://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/classical-music-survey-what-musical-blind-spots-do-you-have-what-works-and-composers-just-dont-speak-to-you/

And here is a link to the original posting at NPR:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/02/03/146365081/where-are-your-musical-blind-spots

But apparently the national audience of NPR showed a trend toward to two big blind spots: Rap Music and Opera.

Rap (below, an image of rap legends) didn’t surprise me so much. Age, of course, is one major reason. Race and class are probably other important factors. Artistically, to me — at least with few exceptions – the music in rap seems secondary or tertiary at best. The words and rhythms seem to matter most.

So I can accept rap as social commentary, but not as a beautiful sound experience – at least not in very many cases. Oh well – poor me, I guess. But, then, why don’t I feel more deprived when I don’t hear it?

But opera as a major and popular musical blind spot?

That one took me by surprise, since opera – with all its visual elements and grandeur – seems to be thriving today while symphony orchestras and chamber music groups are suffering financially and attendance-wise.

So what do you think makes opera a blind spot?

Is it the length of operas? Or the emotional and cognitive cross-interference that often comes from mixing words and sound? The sometimes silly plots and improbable characters? The stylized costumes? The self-aggrandizing posing and dramatically exaggerated presentation? The fact that in both cases the language is often hard to understand or that the volume often makes it seem like they are singing at you? Is it the preposterous reliance on bling and gold, glamor and props? Just look at the photos of the two singers — once rap and the opera.

Here is the follow-up link to the NPR post about blind spots:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/02/16/146997896/why-do-people-hate-rap-and-opera

Take a look and be sure to read – or at least sample — the more than 250 comments, many of which are quire insightful and thought-provoking.

Then let us know why you either agree or disagree that opera – or rap, for that matter — is a major blind spot and why you think the way you think.  

The Ear wants to hear.


11 Comments »

  1. May I use the image of the Opera singer (I want to send one copy for personal use as a joke to a friend. .) Thanks

    Comment by rubberto@gmail.com — May 23, 2013 @ 7:42 am

  2. I have no great liking for rap but little to say about it.

    On the other hand:
    Opera as an art form is a amalgam of many things – in fact, from a theatrical standpoint – arguably of all things. For me, however, at its core the essence of opera is the human voice singing. So while opera buffs have their preferences – from Monteverdi to Verdi to Menotti – from ornamentation to melody to drama – for opera omnivores like me it comes down to singers signing.

    Comment by Marius — February 22, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

    • Do you think that the current crop of voices, and even those of the recent past, are over-inflated to fill larger spaces with more sound? Do you believe in the Western art song paradigm of a wide fast vibrato, and an emphasis on consonant open vocalizing, as opposed to clearer consonants and less vibrato?

      Most pop and jazz singers, with the notable exceptions of Sarah Vaughn and some male rockers, use the latter approach, with more listenable results, at least to this ear. Do the singers that specialize in modern operas by Adams, Glass, etc., have a vocal appraoch that appeals to you?
      thanx,
      MBB

      Comment by Michael BB — February 22, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

  3. Rap music is a show business form, not a musical form. It lacks a key element of music, melody. It has some harmony, and ot course a great deal of powerful rhythm, but no tune.
    This does not dismiss it culturally, just musically. Show business uses music, but is not equal or synonymous with it. The Grammys are about sales and popularity, not musical values. I am OK with that. I don’t care for rap “music” much because I am not meant to care for it much. If it was made in such a way so that I, a middle-aged white composer, liked it, they’d be doing it wrong, somehow. It is aimed at young people, black and white alike, not musicians of any stripe, really.

    As for opera, the melody of course is so omnipresent as to be the main feature. Modern opera is despised by most opera fans, and bel canto is misunderstood, or perhaps understood all too well, by opera disparagers.

    I think that the classic operas were meant to be sung by voices that are not as over-inflated and vibratoed-up as todays’ singers. The story lines are soap operas, no pun intended. Modern opera has so few of these qualities that Real Opera Buffas, I mean Buffs, do not want to hear or see it.
    Thus, opera is either an anachronism, or out of touch with its core audience. Rap, on the other hand, is deeply in tune, for better or worse, with its audience. The American forms that are related, or antecedent to, opera and rap are, of course, soul music and Broadway musical theater. Most people who like these two forms care little for rap or opera, and I am afraid the feeling from the other, newer side is mutual. Composer Maurice Ravel might say that this is the way of things, whereby each new generation must have its own forms, its own expressions, and untimately, History and Time will tell out which ones have staying power. And, Time will also tell which forms freeze in the past, and which ones are amenable to new input and presentations.

    Comment by Michael BB — February 19, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

    • Hi Michael,
      Thank you for reading and replying carefully and at length.
      I think you are correct on many counts.
      Besides, an informal survey or popularity contest is no real test of greatness.
      We will indeed see what History and Time make of all these various kinds of music. The cream will rise to the top, as they say.
      At least we can hope so. But marketing, hype and spin might alter the outcomes, I am afraid, and might not let merit work its magic. We will see.
      Thank you again.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 20, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  4. As an instrumentalist I love playing opera overtures, but despite a double–vocal/instrumental–undergrad major, I’ve never taken to opera. Part of it has to do with Eileen Farell who appeared with the Bach Aria Group @ Northern IL U when I was in music school. Ray Still on oboe, Bernard Greenhouse on cello, et. al. They were great. Then out comes Eileen Farell. I was sitting on the main floor front row right in front of her. I understand that opera singers have to be loud to balance an accompanying orchestra, but when she opened her mouth, she spit on about the first 5 rows. I didn’t embarrass her by leaving but after intermission, I sat in the balcony. It was like Gallagher, only without the post maul & water melons. If I looked like she did, I’d record but not appear in public.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — February 19, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  5. I do not like Brussel sprouts. Is that a matter of importance or interest to a broad range of readers?
    I doubt it, but now, there it is on the record. Whew!
    I do however rest easier at night knowing that Haydn is still being listened to by a fair number of people around the globe, including me, after more than 200 years, despite NPR’s Mr. Huizenga making the point that he just doesnt get Haydn’s music. (What a relief, though, that he does seem to like opera!)

    I like the point made that some works of art require more time and effort to understand and enjoy than others. I’m reminded that works of art are kind of like people, except that people are only with us for a limited span of time, whereas some art works, if they do indeed speak to a broad spectrum of humanity or have a continuing relevant message to a particular sub-set of humanity — such as “NPR News listeners,” for instance — seem to have some staying power in our culture. Or if they cease to have a “relevant message,” they are chucked away (sometimes just for a while) in the dustbin of history. Works of art, like people, exist with their own histories, their own assumptions, their own messages and stories to tell, their beauty spots and their warts. They come to us with a fundamental question: do you understand me? Will you take the time or make an effort to understand me or not? (Notice that this is not necessary the same question as “do you like me”?)

    Ultimately we as individuals decide who will be our friends, which person or groups of people we most value. Similarly, we decide when and if we will engage with a particular work of art and seek to understand it. But that is about US, our Blind Spots, our prejudices — not necessarily about the work itself. Do we choose to listen openly and try to suspend judgement and hear what the work has to say, or not?

    As a classical musician and teacher with a rock-guitarist son and an elementary music-teacher daughter and a classical music teacher/performer spouse, I’d like to put in a vote for more INclusiveness, and less talk — especially superficial talk — about what we like and don’t like in the arts. In my opinion (yes, just that, no statistics to back it up), such conversations do nothing to further public awareness or the richness and diversity of music in our world, or to promote the understanding of the importance of music in some of our lives. Yes, of course let’s talk passionately and intelligently about music, but can we go a little deeper than the “I don’t like it” conversation?

    So, three cheers for Hip-Hop, Webern, opera, Dolly Parton, the Beatles, Irving Berlin, Louis Armstrong, Morton Feldman, Schubert, Guillaume de Machaut, and the next piece of music I will hear. Luckily, it is all available to us somewhere waiting to be understood, and — perhaps! — even enjoyed.

    By the way, I’m sorry you chose that picture to reinforce a very foolish stereotype regarding opera singers, and the world of opera. Could we move beyond the fat lady in the helmet, please, or save it for Bugs Bunny cartoons?

    And regarding the supposed validity of the notion that rap and opera are “major musical blind spots” for the public, I don’t think that NPR’s blog provides us with any statistical proof that statement whatsoever, and does not need to be taken very seriously as such. Rap and opera are both doing fine, thanks.
    Like Haydn.
    And like Brussel sprouts, come to think of it.

    Comment by Bill Lutes — February 19, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    • Hi Bill,

      Well, I can’t really disagree with your point that the NPR discussion is superficial. But blogs, or essays, are not always about serious education or deep thoughts. Some are; many are not.

      Sometimes people just want and need and appreciate a chance to sound off–even about Brussel sprouts.

      You make many good points, but once could also say that although the “like or don’t like” attempt is kind of a parlor game, it might also give us some idea of why certain audiences for certain works are expanding and others are shrinking. It should be taken as nothing more than a completely informal and unscientific sampling. It is surely not serious criticism or deep analysis.

      The portrait of the opera singer is indeed stereotypical to the point of parody, and that was intentional on my part; can one say the same about the rap singer? And is it, in its excess, really so far off the mark from what I saw in the Met’s version of Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung” last weekend? Sorry, you will have a hard time convincing me that too much opera isn’t still focused inordinately on glamour and glitz as well as on trivia about singers, history and productions.

      Fun is an important part of art; and it is also an important part of discussions about art. If people have fun sounding off about their likes or dislikes, and about what does or doesn’t speak to them, no matter how superficially, I really don’t see where the harm is. It rends me of some academics I know who took offense and protested too much about Anthony Tommasini’s list of the Top 10 most important composers. Just take it for what it is–nothing more, nothing less.

      The whole idea of such projects is to invite sharp agreement AND disagreement, and to have fun sharing thoughts and reactions, however superficial or sincere. I don’t like a lot of bestselling novels or movies either, but why they become bestsellers can be an interesting cultural question that intrigues me.

      Maybe it has something to do with the idea that misery loves company and so does joy.

      Anyway, I hope a lot of readers consider what you have to say and take it to heart. The contemporary culture can and should include a lot; but that doesn’t mean that each individual must or should do the same. Time is limited and people have to prioritize how they sped their time. It good to know your weaknesses and dislikes, but even more important to further your strengths and likes as they are revealed to you.

      Best,
      Jake

      PS: I hav a great recipe for Brussel sprouts, which I also used to hate. You might just love it.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 19, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

      • If you eat Brussels Sprouts after the first frost (local, not from California where there are seldom frosts in the growing regions), you will find them much sweeter, without the bitterness stereotypical for Brussels Sprouts.

        If you overcook them, they’ll still be mealy. (I know, the complaint about Brussels Sprouts was only an aside, but food was my first career, so I couldn’t resist; and I hear Mikko sent a similar comment to Nutrition Action today when they complained about Brussels Sprouts being bitter and widely hated.)

        Comment by Steve Rankin — February 19, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

      • Here’s how The Ear like Brussels Sprouts:
        Peel off the rough and bitter outer ayers from ones harvested after the first frost.
        Cut the sprouts in half length-wise.
        Dice an onion.
        Chop uo some bacon or pancetta.
        Saute the onion in the rendered bacon or pancetta.
        Then saute the sprout halves briefly.
        Add a tiny bit of water to evaporate an steam them, an drover with a lid.
        Serve them with a bit of crispness and dark green scolor left.
        If they turn gray, well try better next time.
        Eat with music you love, preferably solo piano or chamber music.
        Happy cooking, eating and listening.
        The Ear.

        Comment by welltemperedear — February 19, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

  6. I’m wandering the border, myself. I took a Spoken Word poetry class last semester that taught me that there’s a little tiny facet of hip-hop that can be not only socially relevant and deliver incisive, meaningful commentary, but also be even a little bit enjoyable to listen to. It takes getting used to, granted, and some of the work that was presented as social commentary I found to be mindless drivel (as I consider most hip-hop, having heard a fair amount in school and on the radio), but there’s a minuscule facet that I think merits at least the distinction of well-accompanied and well-written poetry, if perhaps not music. Look for Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon” (YouTube; preferably a video with lyrics) for an example of the good, and reserve judgement until you’ve heard the whole song – it’s easy to misinterpret the opening.

    As for opera, my initial reservations begin and end with the vocal style. I simply can’t stand a lot of bel canto (“con belto”) singing – the vibrato style especially grates on my ears. I mind female voices far more than male, and I’m also turned away by the lack of dynamic contrast in all but the very best singers in high passages. Traviata, for example: one passage goes from forte to pianississimo in a few bars, then back to mezzoforte or so, then down to piano (or something similar – you get the idea). It’s sung pretty much all fortissimo. This doesn’t bother me as much when I don’t have a score, and it’s certainly not as much a problem for me as the vocal style.

    Now, I love Mozart opera. The vocal style is usually cleaner, so it doesn’t bother me; singers don’t take liberties with the score either. Plus, with something like Figaro, the plot is really quite excellent, whereas “La Boheme” is dramatically pretty weak, with totally flat characters (albeit great orchestral writing).

    Much of this can be chalked up to inexperience, probably, but first impressions are important, and the grating vocal style of bel canto is really hard for me to get over.

    Mikko

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — February 19, 2012 @ 1:05 pm


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