Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Classical Music Invisible?

I've talked a lot about the neglect of aesthetics, about the commercialization of music, about the coarsening of popular taste and what really is going on in classical music. But I just ran across something that really brings it together: in the mainstream culture of our time, classical music has become almost invisible! Every year for the last few years, the New York Times Magazine has done a little montage honoring musicians who have died in the past year. Here is the link. The montage includes Etta James, Dave Brubeck, Davy Jones (of the Monkees), Levon Helm (of the Band), Donna Summer, Ed Cassidy (of Spirit), Greg Ham (of Men at Work), Ravi Shankar and on and on.

Do you notice anything odd? Alex Ross commented as follows:
the magazine has a thing against classical music; with the exception of David Mason, the trumpeter who played on "Penny Lane," no Western classical musician has appeared in these compilations.
 He says this is "particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter." And I would add to that Gustav Leonhardt, also a gigantic figure. Ross says the magazine's position that ""these are artists who have affected popular culture" doesn't hold water as Fischer-Dieskau has sold ten million records!

I would go a lot further and point out that a criteria such as "artists who have affected popular culture" is a weaselly one. Big deal! When they are honoring drummers from obscure bands from the 60s like Spirit and ignoring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elliot Carter and Gustav Leonhardt, they are aggressively denying the real wellsprings of Western music. This is fundamentally vicious, in my view. As ugly as a taxi-driver refusing to pick up a black fare in the days of the struggle for civil rights. That might seem an odd comparison, but it is characteristic of oppressive regimes to make their opposition seem invisible. Sometimes this is physical as in the people "disappeared" in Argentina a few decades back, but it is even more effective to simply deny some people a voice. Don't let them appear on television, don't cover them in the newspapers. This, along with arrest on false charges, is how the Chinese authorities have been handling Ai Weiwei.

It's not just the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal is also reluctant to cover much classical music. If an article on a classical musician does appear in the mainstream media, it is dumbed down to the point that we might as well be talking about a pop musician. Have a look at this article on Canadian film composer Mychael Danna in the Globe and Mail.

If I set out to construct a strategy to wipe classical music off the map, I doubt if I could come up with anything more destructive than what is really going on.

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