There is a dirty rumor being passed around about classical music.
What makes it worse, is it's often repeated by the very people (fans and practitioners) who should know better. Sometimes with much hand-wringing and other times with told-you-so schadenfreude and glee, the rumor goes that high-minded, experimental classical composition went to the university to die. These 20th century composers, shielded in ivory-tower tenure contracts and "who cares if you listen" attitudes, managed with one hand to push the frontiers of the avant-garde and with the other fend off all but the most curious or hipster of classical audiences.
The rumor isn't entirely wrong. A century after the Second Viennese School was hailed as the next big thing, no orchestra director in his or her right mind would expect to sell out an atonal program. Of course, the box office is only one measure of success. The real contribution of the great modernists and experimentalist composers — working in era driven as much by concept as craft — might be better measured in ideas than canonical masterworks. Those ideas have found their way into popular culture even if their compositions haven't.
Take this YouTube video that surfaced on the front page of Reddit earlier this week:
The video is an homage, by Chicago composer and video artist Patrick Lidell, to composer Alvin Lucier's 1969 piece I Am Sitting in a Room. Lucier's original piece uses two tape recorders and, as his "instrument," the room in which he sat. The composer recorded a short narration and then played that back from one tape recorder to another. Each repetition resulted in a slow and steady degradation until the only sound left was the haunting natural resonance of the room. What is remarkable about the video might not be that a 21st century video updating of Lucier's piece exists, rather it's that it appears to have achieved some viral status.
Lidell's video has well over a half-million views on YouTube. On Reddit — a message board community that curates and arranges top content based on the populist upvotes and downvotes of its international assortment of users — the video gathered nearly 2,000 comments and 19,000-plus upvotes in less than 24 hours. Not all commenters understood the historical homage to Lucier, but with jargon like "experimental minimalistic tape music" stripped away, they responded overwhelmingly to the concept.
What might be most striking is that on Reddit — the Internet's beating pulse for bizarre and creative viral content — Lucier's concept seems almost tame. The 2:45 video has been appropriately condensed from the original 45-minute piece for the TL;DR era (for the uninitiated, that's "too long; didn't read"), but the average netizen is unphased by what was once shocking to audiences.
Now that the sounds of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring are familiar, we look back with bemusement at the patrons who nearly rioted at the work's 1913 premiere. Likewise we might smirk at harmonies that have been common for a few hundred years but were once considered "devilish." Perhaps, then, it shouldn't surprise us that the ideas of 20th century heretics have filtered down comfortably into the 21st — even if they still are a hard sell in the concert hall. Like the unwearable creations of haute couture designers that are eventually adapted into clothes found at Target, even outlandish musical ideas can be reinterpreted and reworked eventually into more palatable forms.
To hear Lucier's original I Am Sitting in a Room, which is a strange and visceral journey worth taking at least once, click below. Fair warning: patience is both required and rewarded.
Ricky O'Bannon is a freelance music journalist living in Los Angeles.