Saturday, June 7, 2014

Music and Narcissism

This is partly inspired by an item in my Friday Miscellanea, the one about the piece by Greg Sandow. His project is to scrub off the taint of elitism and whatnot from classical music, make it more hip and a "contemporary art". All of which makes me shudder. Surely we have enough hip, contemporary music pounding at our eardrums from every street corner already?

I have been thinking about this issue and have concluded that the real cause is the cultural narcissism of our time (the title of this book). I am more tempted to call it "malignant narcissism". I'm sure we have all met people who have no interests outside themselves, who are obsessed with what they wear, what they eat, what amuses them and have a profound disinterest in anything that doesn't seem to concern them directly. They will stop at nothing, no amount of bullying, if they perceive their direct interests are threatened.

I think that in the past the proportion of society that was like this was smaller than it is now as a host of social trends, including things like the self-esteem movement, have encouraged more people to think this way. We don't run into them too often in classical music. In thirty years of teaching I can only think of a couple of students that really manifested it. Something about having to do technique in a disciplined way and practice Bach seems to short-circuit the narcissistic habit of mind. If you have any sensitivity at all, playing Bach seems the musical equivalent of entering a great cathedral: you just know this is a lot bigger than you are!

But now, as classical audiences seem to be diminishing, there is this feeling of crisis, that we simply have to get more bums in seats. If a big swath of society are malignant narcissists, unable to appreciate anything except on their terms, then we will just have to humble ourselves. Traditionally classical musicians, performers at least, had a stance of humility before the music, but now, under the current regime of widespread malignant narcissism, it is the music itself that must be behumbled! Nothing, nothing outside the individual can be allowed to be greater or more important than the individual.

The traditional respect for the music must now be interpreted as a kind of stale elitism and must be stamped out. If the price of this is the diminishing of the music itself, well, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. I love this new kind of aesthetic fascism!


How does this behumbling (a parallel construction to the other fairly recent term "beclowning") work? Greg Sandow provides us with an example in this post titled "A performance for the present day". Here is the program:

Arvo Pärt, Fratres
Nico Muhly, Drones & Violin
Nico Muhly, Drones & Piano
Philip Glass, The Orchards
Johann Sebastian Bach, Partita No. 2 for solo violin, in D minor
Improvisation on traditional Finnish songs
"Note, though, that the movements of the Bach were played all through the program, alternating with the other music, so that the Allemand followed Fratres, and the great Chaconne came just before the Finnish folksongs." (Quoting from Greg's comment.)
Now I have absolutely nothing against the composers here, nor the performers. But what interests Greg is something about the way the music was delivered. He quotes his wife, Anne Midgette, music critic for the Washington Post as follows:
[T[he two musicians brought a sense of such intimacy and spontaneity that a listener felt more a participant than a passive recipient. Each movement of Bach’s second partita, for instance, began as if it were a completely fresh idea that happened to have struck Kuusisto as he stood by the piano. Each progressed as if he were thinking his way through it, musing on what might come next.

What is important here is not the aesthetic qualities of the music, but rather that the presentation "made the listener [feel] more like a participant than a passive recipient". This was achieved by presenting the Bach "as if it were a completely fresh idea that happened to have struck Kuusisto as he stood by the piano". The listener has to be elevated and the music brought down to an almost casual level.
I think that the great pianist Artur Schnabel sensed this coming when he for many years refused to record the Beethoven sonatas on the grounds that someone, somewhere, might listen to them while eating a ham sandwich.
This idea of making classical music hip by means of strange juxtapositions is really popular these days. There is something I really like about it, but something that troubles me as well. I heard a piano concert a couple of years ago that consisted of alternating between Bach fugues and other music both classical and popular, everything from Rameau to blues. What became more and more obvious with each piece is that Bach is a much better composer than any of the others, so, with just a couple of exceptions, I found myself fidgeting, waiting for the next Bach piece. The audience as a whole had quite a different feeling though, I suspect. They just didn't perceive the aesthetic gap between Bach and the other guys.
Another odd juxtaposition was a recent album alternating pieces by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage, reviewed here. Maybe this is a great idea, I haven't heard it so I can't criticize. It is certainly the case that contrasting passages in a single piece of music can have a powerful aesthetic effect. But...
Ok, let's do our own juxtaposition. First, Fratres by Arvo Pärt, then the allemande from the D minor violin partita. You tell me if it works:

Please do tell me what you think. But just one parting thought: isn't the real reason performers are doing this and audiences are enjoying it so much is that it flatters the short attention span of many listeners? More and more used to the three and four minute duration of most pop songs, audiences feel uncomfortable with the longer durations of classical pieces. So just mix up different kinds of music and break long pieces, like the half hour partita for violin of Bach, up into short ones by interspersing the movements throughout the whole program.
Flatter the listener. At all costs.

UPDATE: Just in case you thought I was making all this stuff up about narcissism, here is a pretty good collection of data on the subject.


Nathan Shirley said...

"We don't run into them too often in classical music."

I've run into quiet a few! The term prima donna was born out of classical music after all. But I do understand that what you are getting at is slightly different.

I also agree with most of your post, and have similar reservations about the blog you mention. But there is a sort of elitism that bothers me in the classical world. I'm not bothered in the least by the reverent way some performers and audience members treat the music itself, classical music really needs to be performed in a fine acoustic venue with an attentive audience (Beethoven in a noisy bar, as some have tried, is just a bad idea for so many reasons). What does bother me is how most classical concerts in the US are heavily attended by people who only go to be seen and to look "cultured." This might be slowly improving, but it has really put me off attending concerts. And I perform! It doesn't seem to be nearly as bad in Europe however, perhaps because almost everyone grows up being exposed to classical music, thus classical music as a social status doesn't really work.

Bryan Townsend said...

One that comes to mind is the famous soprano, initials K. B., who was fired from the Met for being just too difficult to work with! No, we are not entirely free of self-centered people in the classical world. But I run into a certain sort, described in the blog, much more often outside of the classical world.

Yes, high art, going to the opera, being seen at cultural events, these are a bit superficial. But I would rather that well-off people did this than spend their money elsewhere!!