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Why Classical Music Still Matters Hardcover – May 2 2007


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From Publishers Weekly

Classical music isn't necessarily that bad off, Kramer admits; there's still a diverse range of concert performances, and many listeners are choosing to download works from the Internet. But "something still feels wrong," something he identifies as the loss of the genre's crucial role in our cultural lives. The reasons Kramer, a music and literature professor at Fordham University, offers for why one ought to appreciate classical music fall back on the usual high-culture arguments that it "asks its listeners to imagine a work with more fullness and complexity than most other music does," converting emotions into tangible sound yet somehow not reducing them to abstraction. The problem with writing about classical music, of course, is that no matter how passionately you describe a Brahms quintet, it's not the same as hearing an actual performance. At times, Kramer's enthusiasm becomes overwrought, as when he rhapsodizes about the piano's harp and hammers uniting to create an instrument of " magic and engineering." He's more convincing when he describes the effect a young busker's Bach sonata has on the crowds at a New York subway platform. Such moments of direct observation are sprinkled throughout the erudite text—if only they appeared more consistently. (May)
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"Wow. Kramer succeeds at what is a fantastically difficult task: to seduce readers into a powerful engagement with classical music by portraying in words its complex entanglements with fundamental human drives and social needs. Ranging from J.S. Bach to John Adams, the author shows again and again how classical music participates in the exploration of subjectivity, the conquest of time and mortality, the harmonization of humanity and technology, the cultivation of attention, and the liberation of human energy. Matching some of the most famous descriptive musical prose of the modern era, Kramer uses his extraordinary command of language to treat the material in a manner that could not be more original and stimulating."—Robert Fink, author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice

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Amazon.com: 9 reviews
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Why musical meaning still intrigues us June 27 2009
By Roochak - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Sure, we enjoy listening to classical music, but why should the music really matter to us? Lawrence Kramer has set himself quite a challenge trying to answer that question, and understanding his argument in this brief but difficult book is no less of a challenge for the reader.

The latter is partly a function of Kramer's prose-poetic style: you're invited to negotiate 226 pages of such passages as "Regardless of the specific analogies involved, thinking about the performer or performance in the sense of creative reproduction and worldly activity takes us into the wider field of human performances, both symbolic and material, and therefore into the realms of action, desire, social condition, and the vitality of experience." Philosophical arguments about aesthetic value are notoriously difficult to follow in any event; it comes with the territory.

While Kramer has only good things to say about jazz and pop music, he locates a reflexive, ambivalent individualism -- the product of Enlightenment values and a fundamental condition of modernity -- in "classical" music, here identified with European art music from Bach to Ligeti. If the burden of creativity in jazz and pop lies almost entirely within the power of the performer (or arranger), the classical score is a symbol, a notional concept of music; the actual music is created by the subjective listener, in close collaboration with the composer and the performer(s). Far from being "timeless", classical music is provisional; it exists only in the hearing of the listening subject, and so the music has different meanings in different contexts, from the concert hall to the movie soundtrack.

Kramer's summary chapters on musical value bookend the essay, whose individual chapters focus on melody, which enacts a journey through experience; on score and performance, or the musical expression of emotions that we can't, or won't, put into words (Kramer's examples drawn from Hollywood movies are persuasive here); on art songs of loss and defiance, and the life-affirming process of finding meaning in them; on the paradox of classical piano music, which centers on a machine designed for players to embody mind and spirit, both their own and the composer's; and finally, a chapter on how art music creates a sense of cultural memory, a critical and reflexive sense that transcends mere nostalgia.

This is by no means an easy book to read, but I finished it with a richer sense of what this music has to offer to the engaged listener: the stimulation of a wider imaginative freedom, with which to better grasp the relation of [musical] work to world. And if classical music still matters, that's not too much to ask of it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND MUSIC ARGUES THE "FOR" CASE April 9 2013
By Steven H Propp - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Lawrence Kramer is Professor of English and Music at Fordham University, and has also written books such as Interpreting Music, Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History, Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss, etc.

He wrote in the "In Lieu of a Preface" to this 2007 book, "few have asked forthrightly why and how classical music should still matter. That is exactly what this book does... [It] looks for answers that can appeal both to lovers of this music and to skeptics... It affirms the VALUE of classical music by revealing what its VALUES are." (Pg. vii) He adds, "This book... springs from an effort to ... ask for simple answer to a simple question: What's in this music for me? In other words, why does classical music still matter?... The idea is simply to suggest by example how classical music can become a source of pleasure, discovery, and reflection tuned not only to the world of the music, rich though that is, but also to the even richer world beyond the music." (Pg. 4, 6)

He suggests, "Classical music finds its special character in a sustained encounter with this dimension of melody." (Pg. 38) Later, he adds, "So rooted, so culturally fraught, is the principle of melodic return that its own return is virtuallly irrepressible. It seems like the force of nature itself, of a piece with traditional conceptions of cyclical time." (Pg. 69) He states, "The [musical] score is like a map that traces a route while erasing its destination... What makes a score 'classical' is the particular relationship between the way it is written and the way it is treated. The classical score has to project a conception of the fate of melody (or a credible alternative), and it has to endow its details with meaning and drama." (Pg. 81)

He says, "The history of the piano might be written as the gradual discovery and development of its ability to create an intimate space in which playing and listening meet, touch, part, and meet again. This ability... allows the piano to become a microcosm for the whole enterprise." (Pg. 137)

He summarizes, "Classical music still matters because we can now openly recognize something that has always been true of it but little heeded: that performance is a way to live with music, and even a little to live through music, and that anyone and everyone can play." (Pg. 87) He argues, "All classical music is designed to be heard attentively... More 'popular' types of music are more attuned to movement; they are something one moves to, not something one grows still for. People in the subway can literally take such music in stride. With music like this Bach, one can only stride away." (Pg. 210)

This is not a book particularly analyzing/critiquing the current classical music outlook (see books like Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics and Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall for such analysis), and reads more like a series of general prose essays, than an attempt to present a progressive argument. Nonetheless, for anyone who wants an intelligent commentator on classical music in general (that's less "negative" about popular music than, say, Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value), this book will be of much interest.
Not what I was hoping it would be. May 1 2014
By Avid_Reader84 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Book didn't seem so much to be about why classical music is important as it was about why the guy wrote the book and what HE personally thought about specific songs.
Incredible! April 9 2014
By Sarah T. Donner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Book came in timely fashion and was, if not brand new, one would never know. Thanks. It is always amazing to me that the books we order are delivered in such good shape, often brand new.
A good advertisement July 29 2013
By kristella - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Kramer is, undoubtably, an accomplished scholar and a well-respected intellectual in his own realm with a lot of work going on for him. I highly support the idea of nonacademic (in lieu of anti-academic) writing; I think that's fantastic. His reasons for why classical music is still relevant today is descriptive, emotional, purple-prose that loses me as a classical musician. The first chapter seems like 34 pages of him defending himself and the subsequent essays. The fate of melody reads too much like someone trying to tell me a summary of an epic saga. While I admire the tone he sets in accordance with his audience, I think it reads too much like an advertisement for the genre, pointing out some cool shiny fixtures that have a tradition and is constantly changing, rather than its relevancy in contemporary culture.

It's a long preface to reading Aaron Copland's "What to Listen for in Music."


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