NYT Opinionator Blog

May 11, 2011

It’s spring and baseball season is under way again — for me, always a welcome event. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the game and its history. Which reminded me of the recent passing of the baseball legend Duke Snider. And, surprisingly, that made me think of classical music. Honest! I grew up in the 1960s in Los Angeles, a die-hard fan of the Dodgers. I loved baseball, loved going to the games, but I identified with the team in other ways as well. Many of my older relatives, including my mother, aunts and uncles and all my grandparents, were immigrants to America. Among them, there were lots of references to some mythic “old country.” Germany, Lithuania, Austria, Poland. The Dodgers had a mythic “old country,” too. Brooklyn. The Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles the year after I was born, and they brought with them many of the players who became the idols of my youth. Sandy Koufax, Jim Gilliam, Don Drysdale, Duke Snider — they all came to L.A. So did their honey-voiced announcer Vin Scully, and, incredibly, he is still calling some games for them. After I got interested in music my parents’ friend Peachy Spielberg once said to me, “Vin Scully — he’s like Mozart.”) My father taught me how to keep score during the games and I would follow along, marking for posterity what each player did with each at-bat, memorializing where each ball went and how it went there. I saved every single scorecard from the games I went to in my youth. Imagine my horror when I came home from college and discovered that my mother had given away my scorecards, along with my baseball cards and stamp collection. All that history, gone. I never saw Duke Snider play — by the time I became aware of the Dodgers, Snider had been lost to the newly created Mets and then traded to the hated Giants. But the old-timers still talked about him and that kept the memory of his greatness alive. The Duke was part of the collective memories of the fans — our shared history, our myth, our lore. Baseball fans love this kind of stuff — the constant measuring of the present against the past, the counting of things, the microscopic scrutiny of arcane statistics. The baseball historian Bill James revolutionized the way players and games get evaluated with his innovations in how these statistics get sliced up and weighted, inventing new terms like “sabermetrics” and “win shares.” Baseball fans not only love this stuff; they think that knowing these things makes the game more fun to watch. Connections are drawn between the game in front of you today and all the games ever played before, creating an intense dialog between each player on the field and all past players on all past fields. Somehow the legendary magnificence of baseball’s past doesn’t get in the way of enjoying what is happening in baseball’s present. Can we say the same thing about classical music? Not always. Our love of the past can enhance what we hear but I often feel that the appreciation of classical music’s glorious past can get in the way of truly hearing the music being made right now. How listeners learn to hear new things and relate them to the things they already know is where the action is in music. As a composer who is also a director of the new music organization Bang on a Can, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to energize that connection. Classical music is also about the keeping of an intense set of records and statistics. It is about a reverence for the giants of the past, and a constant measurement of what is happening now against what has come before. We hear a Beethoven symphony at the New York Philharmonic and it is in instant contact with all the other live performances of it we have ever heard, with all the things we have ever thought about it, with the legendary recordings of Toscanini, von Karajan and Kleiber. My German grandmother compared every musical experience she had — unfavorably, in fact — to what she remembered hearing Hans Knappertsbusch conduct back in the old country when she was young. The past is always present. It turns out that classical music fans do a lot of the same remembering and measuring as baseball fans. Both baseball and classical music have a great sense of history, a tremendous respect for the past, and a slew of nerdy people like me who want to know all the details. Both are made of people who argue passionately with each other about who was the greatest. We handicap our favorite composers and performers, we buy 20 recordings of the same piece just to be able to argue about interpretations. We want to know as much about where we have been as we can. The strange thing is that music fans and baseball fans remember the past with very different results; appreciation of the past helps baseball fans enjoy the game in front of them, while sometimes classical music’s illustrious past can keep us from enjoying what is happening right now. Can it be that loving what we have heard before has the potential to make us love what we are hearing now just a little less? Sometimes classical music’s illustrious past can keep us from enjoying what is happening right now. I started thinking about this first during the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini’s contest a few months back, which invited readers to pick the 10 greatest composers of all time. Baseball fans make lists like this all the time — best pitchers, best left handed hitters with men in scoring position, etc. Ranking all the great composers of the past suddenly made musical taste itself very much like a sport; people responded to Tommasini’s challenge in droves, fighting passionately about the merits of Rossini or Vivaldi. Was Schumann in or out? Did Machaut or Perotin deserve to be listed? The readers loved the sport of it. They were certainly very passionate about the process; the question is, did it make them better listeners? As readers submitted their impassioned comments it started seeming as if they were hardening their positions, fighting more feverishly about how some favorite dead composer from a few hundred years ago could beat up some other dead composer. But I soon began to think that this challenge was encouraging people to think about music in a way that would make it harder for listeners to be open to hearing something new. If the only point of listening to music is to be in the presence of greatness then it becomes difficult to listen to music as it is being made: most music in any period is not great. What it is, however, is raw, new, fresh, untried, unstable and calamitously unsteady on its feet. The present is always a mess of wildly competing ideas and trends and fashions, a whirlwind blowing in many directions at once. Whether listeners care to see it or not we are all always inside the whirlwind, and for some of us that’s the most exciting place to be. It is impossible to tell while we are in it if it will lead us someplace we might want to go. This isn’t just true today, it was true for almost all of the august composers on everyone’s lists. For most of his life, Beethoven, now considered the towering giant of his age, was not the most successful or popular or recognized composer of his own neighborhood, let alone his era. He is on our list now because of things a later set of listeners valued, and we value them still. But there are also other things worth valuing in music. As a composer it is vital for me to help an audience learn how to hear music made right now. It is a real problem — listeners who come to hear new music searching for only the composers and performers who can fly up immediately to some musical pantheon will almost always be disappointed. Not because musicians are worse now, or aren’t skilled, or inspired, or serious, but because “greatness” is not an objective measurement. It is the end result of an unpredictable communal process of the sorting of memories; the listeners of the future will decide if something is memorable through the simple act of remembering it. We are always in the process of becoming those listeners of the future, culling our memories for the moments that seem most meaningful to us. But we can’t be those listeners yet. The Times contest bothered me while it was going on, but I didn’t realize how much until Duke Snider died. I started thinking about how baseball fans have no problem keeping both parts of the game alive — the memory of the past and the enjoyment of the present. The past existence of legendary players from yesteryear never gets in the way of a fan enjoying the game in front of him or her. Certain things that happen in classical music would be unthinkable in baseball. Imagine a baseball game in which all the players dress up in the uniforms of a hundred years ago, and then follow, pitch by pitch, a classic match-up from the past. Imagine watching a game, and saying that a hit or a run on the field in front of you is not as elegant or meaningful as a hit or run from a game 50 years before. Imagine seeing your favorite team win a game, but discounting it because you remembered a previous incarnation of that team that was more talented or exciting. Or imagine going to a game that wasn’t as thrilling as a game you remember from your past and then deciding never to see another live game again. That last one is the analog to classical music that bothers me the most. Could baseball have a lesson for music lovers that would allow us to appreciate the past and the present at the same time? What is behind this ability of baseball fans to connect the present action to the sport’s past glory and still appreciate the moment-to-moment excitement of the players on the field? These aren’t distinct functions of sports fandom; they are closely related to each other, and they inform each other. A fan appreciates the successes of the past more as he or she sees contemporary players working to succeed now, and vice versa. This is the kind of thinking that the institutions of classical music need to promote if we want the field refreshed by new music and musicians. I think what baseball projects, and what classical music needs, is the sense that one goes to a live event not to experience greatness, but to experience the possibility of greatness. It really comes down to risk. We revel in the risk inherent in the clash of competing ideas and options, before time evens them out into a few straight, orderly narratives. The game, the concert, the experience in front of us — the chance to experience greatness is a risk. Not every game is great but what we go for is the chance that this particular game might be. Maybe for baseball fans the possibility of greatness alone is reason enough to go. I am not completely happy comparing baseball and music — for me, at least, baseball is just a game and music is for real. The biggest problem with the comparison is that baseball is about determining winners and losers — one team’s success comes at another’s expense — which is the opposite of what I believe about music; the success of a new composer or performer actually makes more room in the musical universe for other new musicians to follow. One of the reasons that Bang on a Can began as a 12-hour marathon was to make it harder for people to come to a concert and agree afterwards about which composition was better — the marathons are just too large to keep all the pieces straight. But what I like about the baseball-music analogy is that the combination of respect for the past and excitement about the present allows baseball audiences to enjoy baseball in a way that makes it richer, making them more excited, motivated, attentive and passionate. I want the classical music audience to feel that way, too.