What does your taste say about you?

…. if anything
Music, in whatever form, is just one of those things. It is, for most humans, an enjoyable, even integral, part of life. It is very rare that I meet someone who doesn’t have an opinion about, taste for, or love of music, and I remember just about every one of them. It baffles me.
Music, no matter what kind, is a unifying, identifying, telling thing. I read into lots of things when I meet someone, not even really consciously, and there are a lot of things that say a lot about a person.
I’ve had this conversation with a few people recently. Say you’re among a group of people who you know of, but you don’t know very well, like friends of a good friend of yours or something. One of the first things I go to for a topic of conversation is music, because it’s something almost everyone at least has an opinion about, if not passionately loves. “What kind of music do you listen to?” is such a broad topic, especially in today’s media-soaked age of exposure, YouTube, Pandora, iTunes radio, and whatever else. More specifically, I’d ask something more along the lines of “what’s in your CD player” (well, ten years ago maybe) or “what’s on you iPod right now?” or “what have you listened to or been impressed by most recently?” Granted, someone may have just happened to be listening to like, old showtunes or Gregorian chant or Mary Had a Little Lamb or something, which may be completely non-indicative of their tastes in music. But it’s a good place to start.
Not only do other people begin to form a basis for what kind of person they think you are based on certain things, but more and more people (well, a specific type of people, I feel) begin to define themselves by or at least identify themselves with or as listeners of a specific type of or trend in music.
Let me elaborate. Let me also preface. This may sound like I judge people based on certain seemingly insignificant things, but I try to be observant. I feel that making observations and forming tentative opinions is different than judging. For example, do your socks match? It would be rare that they didn’t… but it would certainly say one of a few things about a person if they didn’t, and some educated inferences could be made. The people who define themselves by their tastes in music are also often those who are also way too proud of their tastes in music, and are eager to let you know they don’t listen to the radio, and if they do, it’s that college radio station, or the independent one that plays all the underground music. They’ll tell you that “I listened to ‘fourteen tortillas and the zebra-face mask’ before they were popular,’ or be quick to share their disgust for anything even barely recognizable as ‘mainstream.’ Hipsters.
I’m not entirely sure where that superiority complex comes from, that one person can feel that their tastes or opinions in music are somehow better than some other person’s, or that it makes them more enlightened or intelligent or educated or something… and I think if approached about it, many of that ilk would be quick to deny any elitist tendencies, but that doesn’t change the fact that the approach and the tone and the whole thing makes people feel that way. It’s almost off-putting.
I’m not here to talk about a societal idiosyncrasy (for now), but it is a phenomenon that I think is a recent (past 30-50 years?) one, at least with the mainstream music scene. There have always been early adopters and system-buckers and rebels (Beatles, Elvis, whatever), but for someone to be proud of or almost have an agenda about their superior tastes in music… bleh.
Anyway, what I’m most interested in is this: is this a phenomenon that appears in classical music? And I would say, probably yes… In a future series I’ve already written, we’ll talk about an example of this in greater depth, but I think the old “emperor’s new clothes” mentality comes into play a bit, either because it’s really there or because people perceive that anyone who likes to listen to ultra-modern, “atonal” music MUST only be claiming so because they think it’s cool. “If I don’t like it, I don’t understand how you could, and therefore you must have an ulterior motive for claiming you do.” And that’s not necessarily true either.
I’ve talked before in this article about people who don’t like classical music, and what I mean by that is they may say they like classical music, may listen to Chopin or even know some pieces by name, but I would be daring enough to say that doesn’t mean you like it as much as it means you don’t mind it.
Let me use an example. I had a friend talking to me the other day who told me he’s been listening to Björk again lately. I really like some of her songs, have most of her albums, but I still have a hard time saying “I like Björk.” Why? Because I don’t like all of Björk? Not really, but because I don’t feel I like (or just know) enough of her music to make an opinion. I really like a few of her albums, but she’s an artist with such a diverse output that I kind of have a hard time committing to saying I like her as an artist overall. I’m sure she’s a delightful person, she’s very talented, outstandingly creative, but I don’t know that I can say in one sweeping statement that I like her music as a whole. Does that make any sense? I feel more confident in not saying I like Madonna. Of course, everyone knows a few of her songs, but I don’t like enough of her songs or want to listen to them on a regular enough basis to say I like her as an artist. She also qualifies as someone with a wide range of styles in her career, but nothing that makes me a fan. Tori Amos on the other hand… I have just about everything she’s ever done and love it.
Anyway, I think if the above could be said about one artist, then to make a sweeping statement about an entire genre, an entire two or three hundred years of music is an even more sweeping generalization. But that isn’t really my point.
As in the article above, I stated that I feel that liking Chopin’s nocturnes or a few run-of-the-mill pieces of classical music doesn’t make you a listener of classical music. And that’s okay! What I kind of mean to get at is that for those more die-hard classical music aficionados, there is, to some degree or other, that same kind of superiority, or at least an eagerness to take a stand for, to share your tastes or interest in a certain composer or group of composers. I would say that if someone really enjoys or has at least been recently interested in music (and depending on the surroundings, the degree of ‘radicalism’ would be different) of anyone from Schoenberg, Berg, Webern to Babbitt and Boulez and Messiaen to Stockhausen, Lachenmann, Reich, or Sorabji or Finnissey, etc., then they will tell you about it. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’m one of those people. I’ve lately been deeply interested in Milton Babbitt’s works (as we will discuss eventually), and have been eager to share it with some of my friends. It raises all sort of questions about the real purpose or nature of art, musicality, and listening, but I think some of that “Well, I listen to [radically controversial composer]” is still there.
I think it’s an interesting social phenomenon. But it becomes a matter of practicality for professional musicians. Let’s take pianists as an example. Garrick Ohlsson and Idil Biret come to mind as two pianists with frighteningly large repertoires. The list of concertos alone that each of them play is huge. One of my favorite pianists, Mitsuko Uchida, recently featured on a Tuesday post talking about Beethoven’s concertos, describes her repertoire as ‘the Germans’ (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, and even Bach), and then things kind of off of that main track of hers, like Messiaen. A performer cannot reasonably play everything. Unless you’re Lazar Berman and refuse to play Chopin (he may have since retracted that statement or decided to return to the famous Romantic composer), there’s a certain amount of ‘standard repertoire’ one is expected to play or have some familiarity with for college exams, auditions, competitions, and the like, but aside from a core ‘expected’ repertoire, a pianist’s decisions about what or who he or she will pursue determines in many ways the direction that person’s career will go, what they will (or won’t) be known for, etc. Schoenberg and Scriabin both wrote wonderful piano concertos, but I’ve only seen or heard of a number of people play them (Ohlsson being one for the latter, and perhaps the former; not sure), so the decision of taste becomes a strategic one.

Don’t get to thinking there is some ultimate, final conclusion or result of this train of thought; it was simply one I had as a result of starting to dive into works of more well-known, highly regarded composers that I’d previously neglected, with the result that I’m really thoroughly being blown away by and falling in love with them, and the thought that mainstream is perhaps mainstream for a reason, at least with classical music. Our first fully-fledged clarinet piece in this small series was a large impetus for this realization, as was Beethoven’s first piano concerto a few weeks back. I hope you enjoy these as much as I am.

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