Tuesday, February 11, 2014

High-brow Music

Last week I put up a post Definitions of "Classical" that attracted a lot of interesting commentary. Some of that commentary dealt with what was considered "elitism" and what that meant in musical terms. I would like to look at it from a different angle today: just what does contemporary elitism look like?

I think I have found the perfect vehicle to use to get us started. The White House is welcoming French President François Hollande to a gala state dinner today. This gives us the perfect opportunity to look at the nature of elitism as it is practiced now. France, of course is the exemplar of an elite culture as, historically, French cuisine, art, literature and music have all been celebrated as models of high art and culture. So what will this homage to the French President display? Lots of quite obvious elements and one element that is, to me, glaringly discordant. Here is the link to a news story on the event. Read the whole thing and see which element you find that does not fit with the others.

Let's run down the list:

  • Garden-party tent on South Lawn, despite it being winter (a display of technological mastery)
  • Greeting in Blue Room furnished with early 19th century furniture made in Paris ("Paris was the center of high-style culture," White House curator Bill Allman told reporters.)
  • the interior of the tent will be a homage to a famous painting by Monet: "transformed into a spring-like scene inspired by Claude Monet's Water Lilies paintings, with quince branches in full bloom, irises, blue agapanthus and lilies."
  • the menu will feature things like caviar, quail eggs, dry-aged ribeye and "Hawaiian chocolate-malted ganache, fudge made from Vermont maple syrup, and puffs of cotton candy dusted with orange zest" for dessert.
  • the after-dinner music will be performed by "soul singer Mary J. Blige."
So, can you spot the discordant element? Apparently most cannot because all this was put together by people who specialize in events for the elite. Yes, of course this is an elite event as every element signals. Not just the fact that it is a state dinner, but every individual element is a marker of an elite occasion. The hosts and guests are among the most powerful people in the world and everything is crafted to harmonize with that.

The discordant element, for me, is of course the music. Here is Mary J. Blige:


That is the very first item that comes up in YouTube, so I didn't select it especially. It is generic to an extreme. Typical soul diva singing just like a hundred others, slo-mo sequences with black and white to indicate, what, seriousness? Not the thousandth time you do it. Generic accompaniment with synthesized hand-claps on the backbeat. Aerial shot of the Chrysler building in New York. This is generic commercial music with a generic commercial video just like every other one.

But every single other element in this state occasion is individual, specially-chosen and an outstanding exemplar of design, art or cuisine. The music is generic and ordinary.

So, as I am coming to see it, the fundamental problem for those of us who love "classical" or "concert" music is that there has been a basic failure of aesthetic taste on the part of our social elite. What used to take place was that high-brow critics informed us as to what high-brow taste was. "Thou shalt enjoy the symphonies of Beethoven and his ilk" and we listened and did so and it was good. But then the critics of the critics came along and told us that Beethoven was merely a symbol of the hegemony of Dead White Males and we should not "privilege" his music (or any classical music). All music is equally valid, so if we want to enjoy pop music, then So Be It.  What seems to have happened is that while this message was probably directed at the middle-brows, the high-brows were also listening, so they, that is, the elite, stopped thinking like an elite when it came to music.

The odd thing is that the elite still seem to think like an elite when it comes to visual art. Damien Hirst can pickle a shark and stick it in a tank and sell it for millions of pounds, but classical music is perceived as having no prestige value apart from how many copies it sells. Notice in the above example of the state dinner how Claude Monet is privileged by being honored in the decor and the arts of design are also mentioned in a privileging manner. But the music is ordinary commercial pop. In a different world the French President François Hollande might have been honored with an after-dinner concert of music by his namesake François Couperin, one of the jewels of French music:


But no, we have Mary J. Blige instead.

Comments, thoughts, digressions?

UPDATE: This might be overkill, but it makes the point more strongly if we keep everything the same, but change a different element to be discordant. Imagine the state dinner with everything the same, except with classical music after dinner. But imagine the dinner itself consisting of the culinary equivalent to Mary J. Blige: MacDonald's hamburgers, french fries and coke. Or what if instead of the 19th century French furniture in the Blue Room, there were white plastic garden chairs? Use your own imagination to redecorate the tent in the most generic manner.

UPPERDATE: The seeming difference is that the guests at this high-tone affair get to see the musical artist in live performance instead of video like the rest of us. But as this live performance will necessarily lack all the technological wizardry that goes into the video and soundtrack, one wonders if it will indeed be all that special...

10 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Heh, it's pretty terrible that classical music is so ignored nowadays. I mean, they had everything right except for the music. Mary J. Blige when they could have Perotin, Machaut, Couperin, Lully, Rameau, Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Faure, Satie, Debussy, Boulanger, Ravel or Messiaen for instance. I think Satie would be a great choice, his music is not only great but quite suitable for a dinner atmosphere. Didn't Satie himself play at dinners (maybe in bars or whatever)? The Sarabandes for instance maybe. But basically maybe a combination with piano music by Faure, Satie, Debussy, Ravel etc. Would just require a pianist and a well tuned (no pun intended) piano.

Bryan Townsend said...

Amen! And one wonders what Hollande's own musical taste is. But I cannot find out from a cursory web search.

Anonymous said...

I've lurked about this blog for quite a while and have a great deal of appreication for the quality and frequency of the content you post, but I've begun to feel some degree of grating when it comes to your perspectives on what you call 'pop.' You outline a lot of fundamental qualities that distinguish "popular" music from "classical"...whether mode of distribution, compositional mindset, aesthetic value, etc. If it comes to 'pop' as a subsect, a slither of contemporary music that constitutes the majority of today's radio airplay - then yes, I agree with you. But I can't help but feel a bit uncomfortable when you post these transcendent works by Ravel and Haydn, but treat the pinnacle of non-classical music as groups like the Beatles, as if it was a temporally perfected form that soon fell off to commerical drudgery and profit motive. I feel like post-1980, it's really hard to draw a line between classical and popular and folk music in any substantial sense...things are too blurred. There are groups employing modern ideas and forms, selling it for profit as a studio project, but composing it with the mindset of a classical composers - aesthetics first, image last.

Just take a listen :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDN5QJ4C-_o

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIQ32MSo1jM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7qbpFUabN0

Bryan Townsend said...

I do take your point, but I notice you aren't actually disagreeing with anything I said about Mary J. Blige. You just want to point out that there is this huge area of music out there that does not fit into the usual commercial pop categories and that even partakes of some aspects of classical music. I'm in complete agreement. But I don't have the large amounts of time available to explore it, especially as it is hard to identify and is not associated with any particular institutions. In addition to the ones you sent, I could mention an Australian artist I ran across last year: Packwood, who does some very interesting things. I guess you could call all this "alternative" or "independent" but those terms are also used to apply to a lot of very uninteresting music. In my occasional forays into YouTube, I mostly turn up the predictable or just bad. It is not so easy to find the good musicians. But in the classical world, there are channels and venues that help you to find the outstanding artists. Take for example, the superb violinist Hilary Hahn whose recent CD I am listening to. I heard her name many times in the right places before I decided to investigate for myself. And contrarily, I know to avoid Lang Lang because of the information that came through similar channels. But with that large terra incognita of unusual music that we don't have a name for? It is hard to sort out...

Ian Schlup said...
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Bryan Townsend said...

That seems a fascinating path to take to get to Arvo Pärt! I confess that during the 80s I was a big fan of the Talking Heads.

Ian Schlup said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Townsend said...

Debussy and Ravel were the first generation of composers to deal with the characteristic problem of post-Romantic compositon. That is, of the two paths taken, they represent one, the transformation of traditional harmonic resources. Their music is always tonal, but, as you say, subtly and enigmatically so. The other path was avant-garde modernism that sought to do away with tonality. This is the one taken by Schoenberg and his pupils and the post-war generation of Stockhausen and Boulez. The composers who followed in the path of Ravel and Debussy were Stravinsky, Britten and others. Of course, it was much more complex than that, but this is the general outline.

Rickard Dahl said...

Is modal music, as in not based on minor & major scales (i.e. traditional tonality), for instance a piece in dorian mode (not necessarily in the same scale all the time, maybe going between different modal keys like C Dorian & G Dorian), still tonal? Well, it sounds like you're proposing that at least. As I understood it, Ravel & Debussy relied more on modality (including non-church modes) but their music is still tonal, as opposed to "atonal" a la Schonberg.

Bryan Townsend said...

If you see two very broad categories, viz, "tonal" and "non-tonal", then music that is often called "common-practice" tonal music, which includes the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and is what you are usually taught in harmony class (it also includes Bach) is the model. But the general category would also include the modal music that is also related to a tonal center. So "tonal" would include various kinds of music such as modal and whatever it is that people like Shostakovich and Britten are doing. Non-tonal music would include the serialists and people like Stockhausen, Boulez, Carter and others not counted as serialists, but who are certainly not writing music that could be called tonal.

There are many ways of being tonal and many ways of being non-tonal. I think the fundamental difference is the amount of dissonance and whether it is ever resolved or not.