3/7/08

Help Wanted: Only Schenker Students Need Apply

This is how “classical” music gets its reputation: through subtle sublimation couched in amusing puff pieces like this one.

Classical music helps soothe stressed dogs

Fantastic! Why don’t we put our kids in front of the TV so we can go out and catch some dinner at a nice $30 per person restaurant, where we’ll figure out how to anaesthetize the dog?

Subtitle:

Bay Area researcher-pianist team produces book, CD for dogs.

If only they had thumbs. And the dogs an ability to read. Drum kit: pah-dum, tss!

With dog treats spilling out of her black canvas bag, Maria Skorobogatov proceeded through one of the Peninsula Humane Society’s kennels as classical music played from overhead speakers.

The occupants barked their hellos and stood on their hind legs to be noticed.

Is it just me, or is the personification of animals tiring?

But the animal behaviorist walked passed the chatty ones Tuesday and rewarded those who remained quiet and still.

“Hello sweetheart,” Skorobogatov said softly to one well-behaved dog.

Throughout her brief visit, music played.

“We want to see if it’s having any type of effect,” Skorobogatov said of the music. “We use sounds and visual aids to keep them mentally and physically stimulated. It also helps them relax and that gets them adopted.”

I don’t have a problem with this. We’ve seen before that classical music dissuades panhandlers from panhandling, crack dealers from dealing crack, and prostitutes from Dirty Sanchez-ing. Whatever does the job, right?

(Also, whew. I don’t have to spell that name again!)

So why bring this up?

The music played that morning originated on the other side of San Mateo County with Half Moon Bay resident Lisa Spector. The Julliard School graduate

Because we all know the only legitimate musicians are cultivated at Julliard.

and concert pianist collaborated with Joshua Leeds, a sound researcher in Marin, to study the impact of classical music has on dogs.

Because dogs need classical gas, too.

Two years of research and clinical demonstrations

“Demonstrations,” in case you’re taking note, is the scientific equivalent of Brian, from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, asking, “Why don’t women go to stonings?” With a staunch reply, his mother answers, “Because it’s written that way.” I would prefer our scientists, even if they’re testing the effects of classical music on dogs, to perform experiments. Go control groups!

[the research] produced a book, “Though a Dog’s Ear: Using Sound to Improve the Health & Behavior of your Canine Companion,” written by Leeds and Susan Wagner, a board-certified veterinary neurologist.

Spector is the pianist on a 45-minute CD that Leeds produced to go with the book.

At this point, I’m thinking hippie bull, parental transference, guilt and gross puppy love—the wrong, wrong kind of puppy love. But what is your point, Empiricus? Be patient, my young apprentice.

It’s been Spector’s experience that when she tickled the ivories,

I hope we can all agree that clich├ęs are fun, in the wrong, wrong kind of way.

dogs she took care of would move closer to her and fall asleep.

Take note that dogs fall asleep.

No more doggy angst—just peace and quiet.

Are we anaesthetizing or euthanizing Old Yeller?

“What calms people, calms dogs,” Spector said as her dog Sanchez slept at her feet.

This shit not only calms them down, it makes them fall asleep.

On the CD, she plays music of Bach, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, among other composers.

Rachmaninoff I get. But here we get to another point to be noted. She plays music. Sure, we could go in semantic circles all day and night if we tried to define music, but, BUT keep that in mind.

[...] she simplified the compositions and slowed the tempos to between 40 and 60 beats per minute to create simpler sounds.

Hear that Schenkerites? “Simplified.” Get your reduction goggles on. Be ready.

Still I would like to point out a couple more things.

Our sound researcher, Joshua Leeds asserts that

“There’s too much noise and too much input,” he said. “Our dogs are indicators of the stressed environment we live in.”

Emphasis mine.

Four different CDs were cut and tested on 150 dogs in homes and shelters. The one that had an overwhelming response was the simplified classical music performed on piano.

Seventy percent of dogs in kennels showed a reduction in stress, while 85 percent in households were calmed.

He goes on:

“We live in (a) world that is pretty over-the-top with all kinds of environmental stressors,” Leeds said. “We have to be conscious with what we are surrounding ourselves with.”

In other words, dogs are subjected to stressful environments, like us; dogs are calmed by classical music, like us.

Sweet. Now we’re primed for the $30 meat and potatoes.

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What we’ve seen above and here is that “classical” music can used as a tool to achieve certain tasks. Above, classical music is used to calm dogs. In the later, Beethoven et al were piped over loudspeakers at convenient stores to dissuade undesirables from loitering. What both “experiments” have in common is that music can be used as a depressant and deterrent, demonstrating that music, specifically “classical,” has extra-enjoyment properties, stuffs that reach beyond the Detritus’s normal range of analytic critique. That is, “classical” music is not just for enjoyment or to provoke serious and deep thought—it has other properties, too. Musical therapy is one that comes to mind.

I whole-heartedly accept this. What I find irritating, and more on point to the Detritus’s goal, however, is hidden between the lines.

First, this experiment, or as so aptly described above as a “demonstration,” plays with parallel narratives—one, of the problems concerning dogs, the other about us and our problems. Because Joshua Leeds closely connects environmental stress between dogs and humans, the implication is that “classical” music may have the same anaesthetizing properties between species, whereas rock and pop music does not. This made painfully clear by Sanchez falling asleep at the faintest hint of “classical” music. What can we conclude? That “classical” music can be a powerful depressant for us, too. As if “classical” music didn’t already suffer from the stigma of potentially boring people, here’s a pseudo-scientific “demonstration” informing Average Joe that it is, in fact, boring.

Do you want to know exactly how boring? Near the top of the page of the article, there’s a couple of mp3 links of excerpts from the CD. They’re on the right-hand side. Go ahead, give ‘em a listen.

WAKE UP! YOU STILL THERE? Good.

Now go listen to the originals. Here’s Beethoven Op. 13, Second Movement. And here is Bach’s Prelude in C Major, BWV 1096.

Even for those of you who haven’t had 30 grueling years of Kostka and Payne (blecht), you’ll be able to recognize that the pieces on the doggie CD are... well... very simplified, or reduced, compared to the originals. Rhythm has been eliminated for the most part. What’s left is merely the harmony, like a class exercise—not so much musical but technically proficient.

Granted, these class exercises are of the highest quality (I’d give ‘em an A+)—that’s why they’re Bach and Beethoven—but, nevertheless, they are reductions of the masterpieces, not the pieces themselves. This is where I find another problem. At what point of reduction (yeah I’m asking you, you Schenkerites) can we still attach the names Bach and Beethoven to these increasingly nondescript chorales? I know I’m inching very close to the question of intellectual property, but that’s not where I’m going.

What I am saying is that the doggie pianist still attaches Beethoven and Bach’s names to these rather non-musical reductions (insert discussion about what is or isn’t musical here). By doing so, and at the same time trying to anaesthetize dogs, which is given some measure of credibility by a scientist’s research (?), Beethoven and Bach, specifically, are taking one on the chin. They are boring. Two masters whose names are entrenched in the collective consciousness are boring!

On the brighter side, if you’ve kept your harmony exercises and Schenkerian reductions, I know a field ripe for exploitation.

For someone who read this article with little or no interest in classical music but loved dogs, what might he or she come away with? Beethoven and Bach are boring? Classical music is boring? So boring you can put dogs to sleep with it? So boring it can be researched and studied? If I listened to classical music, I can relieve my stress through boredom?

It comes as no surprise that the San Francisco/Bay Area classical music radio station 102.1 KDFC, every weekday at 2PM and 7PM, air a program titled the “Island of Sanity.” It’s their

signature midday getaway—three pieces of calm, comfortable, KDFC classical.

It’s designed to mitigate your stressful workday. Like I said above, I don’t have a problem with using classical music as a tool for something else, like stress relief. I take issue with our media outlets who refuse to engage their audiences with lively discussion or adventurous and stimulating programming.

What really kills me is that every day an article is written about how shitty modern music is—it’s academic, it’s elitist, it’s emotionless, etc.—and how “tonal” music is much better. In fact, I bet tonal composers receive four to five times the number of qualifying adjectives than those under Schoenberg’s evil, serialist, tonal-center-hating regime, even though they can, and have been, elitist and academic. But when poorly conceived doggie CDs are written about in a major newspaper, ones that equate classical music, in general, with stress-relief through boredom, I have an even greater bone to pick. It blindly condemns all classical music, tonal, modern, what have you, to an existence solely as a background for meditation. I ain’t cool with that.

Compound the crappy articles about music and dogs with rabid connoisseurship and hefty prices at the symphony, and I might as well quit this music thing altogether!

Is anyone out there who has a problem with all of this dreck? Is there anything to be done about it? Does the free market really have the final say? Am I insane? Is my dog insane?

(Tired of ranting. Commits suicide, again.)
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4 comments:

Uncle Milty said...

Point taken, Empiricus. But I think you're trying much to hard to find the way in which, once again, the mainstream media and culture are marginalizing and patronizing classical music. I think everything you're saying is valid, but seriously, it's just an article about the calming effect of music, not attack on modernist art music, no matter how subliminally or unconsciously you felt it.

Should we really be bothered by the existance of simplified works of master composers? Again, I feel your argument, but I just can't get bothered by this. I must say that I've read both the original Oliver Twist and the reader's digest abridged Oliver Twist publication my grandparents bought in the 1950s. Clearly an issue of taste, but I far more enjoyed the abridged version. And I don't really care how offended Dickens or the hordes of classic lit majors at east muckied-muck university are by that. That's not so much an argument as it is basic antecdotal reality.

My main point is, let's fight the battles that need fighting. Your primary enemies are not security moms who buy cds for their dogs. Detritus should stand for the honest critique of poor music journalism and the systemic outright disregard of modern music amongst critics. Harmless pop pschology is truly just an innocuous aside to the real argument.

That said, I do not object to the rant. I enjoy rants and ranters (though not so much rantees, go figure).

Empiricus said...

Wonderful point, Uncle Milty. I agree with just about everything. Puff pieces like this, ones that subtly sublimate classical music's riches, aren't the problem; rather, they are symptoms of larger causes. In my opinion (that's all it is, an opinion), the causes are ultimately linked to generally bad/misinformed musical thinking, whatever the medium, be it a newspaper column, a musical-theoretical or musicological journal, a cognitive neuroscience periodical, etc.--sources of authority. Largely, it's unintentional, I'm pretty sure.

However, the point, regardless of the source, is that it carries with it the weight of authority. And like a rumor, it is the paradigm of trickle-down information. So much so that by the time the faulty thinking, research or logic reaches the author of a puff piece, it is diluted to point where one can throw around terms like "classical music" and associate it with doggy boredom without any consequences for its implications.

While I sympathize with this author as being misinformed, I can't help but to point out the ways in which this represents another authoritative voice. The author is no doubt a conduit of information, one who presumably influences her audience (to what degree, I can't say). And as a concerned citizen, I would like better information.

So, in that sense, I have no problem fighting this battle on a weaker front. It's like overcoming a fever--you treat the symptoms and at the same time you treat the cause.

Maybe I was digging too hard, but the more I read music related articles in our beloved newspapers the more apparent, and seemingly rampant, these things become.

Either way, nice work Uncle Milty. Thanks for keeping us on our toes and holding us responsible, too.

Uncle Milty said...

It's hard to blame you for having idealistic and unbridled passion for your subject. And frankly, that's a characteristic that I feel should be treasured in others.

Love to read you guys. Keep fighting the good fight.

PS. I'd love to see some discussion on this subject of abridged masterworks...any strong opinions out there?

Lyrad Simool said...

I taught my dog to sing Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina" in Russian (the only language he speaks). Now my dog calms me.