January 18, 2009

Mousikē is Dead: Classical Music and Its Public

One big problem with discussing the future of Classical Music is that many of us yawn all too often at the very status and significance of the classical. It is an unfortunate laziness - make no mistake about it – because without having to think about and articulate the evolutionary complexities of all-things Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, & Co., and what it actually is we want to rescue from inching ever closer into the proverbial historical dustbins, it will be nearly impossible to understand not only our hopes and expectations for "the classical" in the future but also what it is in the world that is content to easily get on without it, and what it is we may even want to embolden amidst increased budget cuts and a hyper-mediated world which grows more perilous by the day.

Because on the face of it, as Greg Sandow, music critic for The New Yorker has often stressed, if merely a semiotic device and marketing term, all things “classical” are simply too staid, uninteresting, and antiquated to be of serious relevance to the general public. (If it’s not too much of a stretch, my readings of Tocqueville tell me that Americans, in particular, with their middle-class aspirations and firmly held resentments have inherent difficulty recognizing anything class-oriented other than as a political anachronism.) I know, of course, it is easy to cast blame at the Great Unwashed, or at least at the failing system of public education, for not having either the interest or ability to appreciate, you know, the stuff of Genius, much less something as simple as ordinary talent. But this understanding is way too easy. If we dare ask instead whether fault can be laid gently at the feet of what many in the West flippantly dub “serious music” itself, (i.e., at the musicians themselves, and those who staff its myriad bureaucracies and sell it to the public,) then how can we not answer affirmatively? Indeed we must acknowledge that classical music has not just sought separation from all things ordinary and “popular” but fetishized its own distinction and autonomy from the adjacent Fine Arts – even when accompanied by them. And so, ironically, while any great musician will remind us time and time again that it ain’t just the notes and beats, he or she will also probably also seek refuge by retreating into what Hegel once referred to in his Lectures on Aesthetics as music’s “formal inwardness” – and, with any professional luck, within the insular and over-bureaucratized sanctuaries of Conservatories and concert halls.

EUREKA! No wonder “classical music” has the unmistakable atmosphere of being fussy and cold. Just look at the crowds come, gaze with their ears and eyes, and go. You see, Romantic inwardness renders “relevance” a nagging issue. Thus there is little imagination. There is little public discussion about programs. It is sooo unsexy, old-fashioned, and thoughtless. Technical execution is demanded over creativity and daring. There is too much distance. Uptown bubbles are simply excessively formal in appearance AND substance. Indeed the hard truth is that the real problems with classical music are hardly nominal, nor are they even one of marketing strategies and “appearance;” they are much more profound.


Classical idioms, whether in architecture, literature, philosophy, or education, all have some general affiliation, (at least in the West,) with ancient Greece. While it can be said that such references are also made to more “stylistic” manifestations or “looks,” such as in specific paintings, fashions, or interior designs, classicism also tends to evoke the general aesthetics of balance and symmetry, as well as pristine and concise technique ostensible of some “timeless” validity or value. It is also in various degrees mimetic – either of some form of “beauty” and perfection, or, as its critics would graciously contend, haplessly of the past itself period.Since the principles of the classical are also codified in some previous epoch, the connotations, (like it or not,) will seem inherently conservative. Thus often conjured in the democratic mind are “traditional” and “serious” as well as “uppity,” “elitist,” or “bourgeois” for its remove from the primitivism of more “popular” genres.

Yet there is something also perplexing about the C-word within the context of Western music. As anyone who has taken a sophomore music course knows, the moniker casually refers to The Canon of Western music from about the time of Bach through the first half of the twentieth century. Thus we reserve it to group together Mozart, Berlioz, Hindemith, Carter, maybe even John Williams, et. al. Yet even more narrowly we also say specific styles and techniques, say those of Mozart and Haydn are “classical,” while those of Beethoven straddle the fence to Romanticism, with Wagner and Debussy pretty much on other parts of town while the Second Viennese School occupying a different universe altogether. The important point in all of this is that although these more specific designations pertain to particular time periods and composition practices, such as harmonic technique, they also tend to discourage, if not obfuscate, the larger and more generally encompassing meaning of the tradition of “classical music,” (i.e., from Bach onward through today,) and the predicaments of its repertory status today. And it is to this broader and more public, (and thus more democratic,) meaning that should concern us.

The important point: by constricting the development of even this tradition solely within the terms of compositional technique and theoretical syntax, as musicologists are prone to do, we conveniently sidestep the importance of “extramusical” factors, such as Occidental history and culture, political ideology, advancing technologies, and, of course, rampant commercialism. Thus we are discouraged from ever thinking outside the box of compositional structures, i.e., "the music." We are discouraged from simply inquiring, say, why, in this day and age there are no electronic instruments in orchestras, as if instrumental technology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could speak to us indefinitely – as if musical instruments should ever become ends in of themselves. Niether do we seriously ask why young musicians must slave-away at vocational schools, and compulsively obsess over their “technique,” without ever delving into the writings of an Aristotle? Or a Boethius? Or a Max Weber for some of the deepest insights into modern rationalism and the secular age? Or a Freud? Or a Hans-Georg Gadamer? In short, why have we inherited and taken upon us these aesthetic values? As Estelle Ruth Jorgensen puts it in Transforming Music Education, (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003),

The story of Western classical music has been told principally in regard to the specific styles that characterized music of a particular time and the people who made it. Less has been said about the social process of musical transformation, about how and why music changes in the context of its practitioners and public, and why some music has been preserved more or less unchanged for long periods of time while other music has changed rapidly. (p.78)

The point is not simply that music should be more interesting and “relevant” when studied outside the institutional cloisters of academies but that the uncertain future of The Canon, as it is composed, sold, and performed in haute uptown bubbles, could also very well be signs of greater changes underway in the late-modern West in general. Indeed this theme was made explicit in the final pages of Paul Henry Lang’s Music in Western Civilization, published in 1941, where the author lamented “the dissolving of the human being in the mass apparatus of life, in machinery and bureaucracy,” as well as the loss of the good old days during the time of Beethoven when the public “was much more receptive to new ideas than later generations.” In the twentieth century, Lang continued, “public concert life, accepting the prevailing system of capitalism…developed into a major industry with international ramifications that rivaled the metal or textile industry.” (p.1026-1030) Lang injected political language into these final pages, referring to the deleterious impact of “collectivism” and “the masses,” (as well as to Spengler’s “fanatically cruel and brilliant book, The Decline of the West,”) insisting at one point that the challenge met by “artistic creation” required “positive mental forces” and the “greatness” of “the modern creative artist” to “overcome the volcanic upheaval of the time without being consumed.”

Let us say, in conclusion, that those well-rehearsed lectures on the Grand Crisis in Western Music, having commenced in the early twentieth century when The Golden Age of tonality, i.e., “the common practice,” which for some reason began around the time of Bach happened to confront its beta noir, “modernism,” (as distinct from modernity,) are grossly inadequate. Perhaps with just a smidgeon of hyperbole, a suitable analogy here could be listening to liberal partisan hacks disputing conservative partisan hacks within the narrow ideological confines of realpolischtick. As Jorgensen’s remark reminds us, the crisis confronting us cannot be left to musicians alone to debate through their composed works or even within the formal confines of music theory no matter how accomplished or capable they may be; historians, social and cultural critics have also something important to contribute. As evidenced from Lang’s remarks this concern should not exactly be news; yet too many musicians continue fiddling away regardless.

Coming soon: Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works


Anonymous said...

I am really into the Lydia Goehr book...I am thinking about the influence of Romantic ideals now on musical performance and how it affects the relationship with the audience. Or the influence of Romantic ideals as we've chosen to adopt them. I would like to talk to you about the Lang quote and how the "dissolution" of the human into machine has twisted around those ideals into something else. I don't think we care at all for human existence at this point except for the ways in which it might resemble a machine. That strikes me as the reverse of the Romantic ideal but we seem to see our ideals as Romantic. Or is the inevitable conclusion of that line of thinking? And it the next step after that Nationalism? Also where is my friend Heidegger in your thoughts?

Pietro de Simone said...

I think you're correct to call out my broad brushing of Romanticism, particularly when it comes to its embrace of the arts, and of Nature, as well as the congregating of artists, musicians, poets, and the like to aesthetically realize that embrace... all idealized best perhaps by the Gesamtkunstwerk. Lang actually described the period as the "dynamic era of action and organization, which tried to seize upon and unify everything...the urge for binding, for union...and love of friendship." Indeed and art and politics...

But Lang also emphasized Romanticism's "extreme subjectivism" and its "cult of the ego" which, as I read it, mirrored perfectly the "inwardness" described by Hegel. Thus the inner, withdrawn dreamyness of the Romantic self, (contrary to Lang's hopes at the end of the book and more in line with Goehr,) INADVERTENTLY fostered "the machine." That's the Romantic tragedy. Sure the self's other-worldly longing for Nature, for the Infinite, was certainly a reaction to rationalism. But it still put the self, (or at least its potential) clearly at the forefront. Nature was to be accessed through the withdrawn self; thus it was all inevitably mystified through fantasies, symbols, etc. as well as romanticized, while the actual intensity of the experience would be reflected in the flight from, (in Heideggerean language,) worldliness.

I know I probably butchered a few things and here but that's where i was trying to go with the post.

Emily said...

Aha. Well I wasn't exactly calling you out on anything but I'm glad that you answered. I've had the same notion for a while. But how much does the development of technology have to do with the inadvertent development of the machine? Or technological development an inadvertent development itself?

Pietro de Simone said...

I guess my views regarding technology are pretty simple and fatalistic. "The machine" has simply taken on a life of its own, it dominates us and everything in its path...as we despair over trying to keep up with it at every turn, ("interactive",) modeling ourselves after it even. I suspect that since Nature will always remain in some guise, whether in the wild or foreign, retooling will be continuous, Progress an imperative. Of course in certain practices, (say, in "classical music",) technological instruments seemed to have reached the end of history. Indeed the stradivarius and vocal fach, as examples, are historical products; yet they are hardly considered "period instruments" but instead carry their own intrinsic rationalization, i.e., "aesthetics." I am not necessarily critical of this rationalization at all; but i do find it interesting. The same could be said for natural acoustics and temperament, I think.

But I haven't addressed your question satisfactorily, I'll have to think about it more.

Pietro de Simone said...

So on one hand aesthetics can be said to be a reaction to the ordinary banality of our perfunctory "machine" existence, a desperate plea for "beauty." And yet around this aura resides its own bureaucratic core...even "technological" dare I say, as evinced by the intense disciplinary training, professionalism, and hierarchies.

Last thought, at the risk of sounding glib beyond words: Romanticism and "psychological" chromaticism.

Pietro de Simone said...

Its now 6 months after the initial post. I'd like to add a few new thoughts that have been kicking around in my head.

So, at the risk of over-simplification....

Romanticism was pretty much an outgrowth of the self turning inward that had already begun centuries earlier. It sought to connect with or tap into some greater or more intense realm, reality, or Nature. Thus the resort to the purity of dreams, the occult, fantasy, passions, the psyche or "soul," etc which could be accessed or discovered or somehow analyzed in an Absolute sense via introspection, i.e., turning the self inward away from what can otherwise be referred to as the world, the mundane. Hence the flight into abstractions and the Absolute, (sorry to be redundant.)

But, to stress it again, it wasnt just that the artistic self turned inward but that aesthetic language become more abstract, more detached, and more objectified.

In music, this meant incredible advances in treating music, and thinking about music, as autonomous structures distinct from the world. A la "Absolute music." The modern retreat from the world led the objectification of the world, as seen in the technology and rationalism. It also, I have been trying to argue, led to the uptown bubbles musicians and other aesthetes have retreated into.

Finally, what does all this mean for the theatrical craft? How has stage-craft lived through all this? There was a definite change over the centuries from the gestured commedia dell'arte-esque styled performance to a more internallly aware, and a more "rational," (at least in a Weberian sense) style of acting. "Characters" no longer meant stock gestures and types which we today consider just corny but "individuals" with an internal existence and complexity of their own. As quintessentially Modern, their emotions, their dreams, their desires, their schemes, and ploys developed. They pertain obviously to nineteenth century drama and in the cult of the Genius... but, again, they also existed in embryonic form centuries earlier.

Today the incredible mediated environment we live in, and also have become inside of us, and has rendered all this stuff, Romanticism and the cult of the Great Artistic individual, passe. Have we somehow regressed into acting out "grand" gestures we see and hear in medias? Out of our own anxieties? Out of our own loss of individuality?

Pietro de Simone said...
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