Friday, May 15, 2015

"a disproportionate emphasis on the music of prior eras"

The thing about core assumptions is that we don't question them because we are barely aware of them. They are the ground on which we walk and on which everything rests. But occasionally you stumble over one and become momentarily aware of it. That happened to me reading Alex Ross' recent piece in the New Yorker about the Berlin Philharmonic's search for a new music director. The piece is here. The core of Ross' argument is that the celebrity music director is a kind of messiah, performing the dramaturgy of recreating the great pieces of classical music before our eyes. He says:
Not the least of the challenges that classical music faces is the increasingly unworkable celebrity-maestro model—a twentieth-century mutation, stemming from a disproportionate emphasis on the music of prior eras. It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over. Conductors serve to generate the illusion of novelty: as Theodor W. Adorno wrote, in his “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” the maestro “acts as if he were creating the work here and now.” That top-tier conductors are almost always men is less an indication of institutional misogyny—though that certainly exists—than an inevitable consequence of the play-acting ritual: because the canonical composers are entirely male, so are their stand-ins. The modern orchestra concert is not entirely unrelated to the spectacle of a Civil War reënactment.
If orchestra schedules were tilted toward living composers, there would be less of a need for podium prestidigitation. (I don’t deny that the magic can be real: Furtwängler’s recordings with Berlin are soul-shaking documents, and even as a prematurely jaded teen-ager I could feel the Bernstein spell.) No longer obligated to perform a mass séance night after night, conductors could adopt the role of organizer, instigator, mediator—a role that Alan Gilbert, in New York, has been playing expertly. Likewise, if opera houses were to embrace more contemporary work, there would be less pressure on directors to reinvent “Figaro” and “Tosca.” Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past. Imagine the condition of Broadway if it were restricted to dead playwrights, or of the publishing business if it endlessly repackaged Dickens.
Let's just unpack some of those claims. First of all, is the celebrity-maestro model increasingly unworkable? I doubt that the many fans of Gustavo Dudamel or Simon Rattle or Daniel Barenboim would agree. These artists are celebrities because they are powerfully expressive musicians and that is a "model" that is in no danger of going away. But Ross says this because he has another ax to grind: "It is fundamentally irrational for musicians to play the same passel of pieces over and over." If the falsity of this were not shown simply by his quoting Theodor Adorno in support (someone whose ideology of music is famous for being wrong) then a few simple observations will make it clear. Why do orchestras play music by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and others from previous eras? Ross ends his essay by quoting the 20th century bohemian American composer Harry Partch:
It was Partch who said, “There is, thank God, a large segment of our population that never heard of J. S. Bach.” No one has yet founded an orchestra on that principle.
Ross thinks that this proves his point, but in reality it disproves it rather neatly! Ross, like most progressives, has entirely eliminated aesthetics and aesthetic judgement from his consciousness. He really thinks that the only reason orchestras are in "bondage to the past" is that they are irrational or conservative (two words that for Ross mean roughly the same thing). Ross sincerely believes that if someone founded an orchestra on ignorance of Bach--founded it perhaps to devote to the music of Harry Partch?--that this would be the solution to the "disproportional emphasis on the music of prior eras."

Let me inject a little common sense into this. Orchestras and their management and directors have a keen interest in having audiences at their concerts. Audiences tend to like good music if they have some familiarity with it. For this reason, audiences enjoy hearing music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Mahler and so on. It is good--well, great, actually--music and they have some familiarity with it. They like to hear some new music from time to time, especially if it is not too inaccessible, but they don't want a steady diet of it. And they certainly don't want to hear a lot of the aggressively avant-garde music that Ross and his guru Adorno would advocate. An orchestra founded on the principle of giving audiences a lot of Schoenberg and Partch would be a short-lived orchestra.
Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past.
Yes, it is and, remarkably, this is its strength. But this is only partly true. Is not the world of theater rather strongly based on Shakespeare? Painting and sculpture also are deeply connected to their pasts as well, but it is less obvious because modern visual artists have seen impressive financial success, unlike modern composers. But it is still quite obvious to me that Damian Hirst is far from being in the same league as Rembrandt, which is why people still flock to museums to look at Rembrandts. Just as they flock to orchestral concerts to hear Mozart. Philip Glass has written some pretty good stuff, but he isn't in the same league as Mozart, aesthetically. And neither is Schoenberg. Or Boulez.

This is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Mozart: Piano concerto no. 27 in B flat major, KV 595 with soloist Maria João Pires. The conductor is Trevor Pinnock:



UPDATE: Oh, that core assumption that we are barely aware of? Baldly stated it is that the ONLY aesthetic value progressives like Alex Ross recognize is novelty. New is good. Old is bad. But that collides rather spectacularly with the fact that most classical repertoire is a hundred or more years old (even the Rite of Spring, written in 1913). Just like most great paintings are a hundred or more years old and most great plays are a hundred or more years old. How do people manage to erase this from their consciousness?

6 comments:

cloudpine said...

I enjoy this debate, the avant garde crowd seem shackled by the dusty image of classical music. I would have to agree with you Brian, that the giants of the past will maintain their deserved wide appeal. It does call for a sense of perspective. Stockhausen said music of 400 years ago is still not fully appreciated, and full of mysteries in his interview where Bjork asserted there was no need for Bach or Beethoven to be played. The most important works by Schoenberg or even Boulez have a fine layer of dust themselves! let's try to enjoy it all and consider all of our music very recent in evolutionary terms.

Marc Puckett said...

I admire your patience in dealing with AR's nonsense! The thing about the exaltation of novelty! is that it requires its own priests, doesn't it? Mr Ross isn't just a writer living in the city-- he is atop the hierarchy, or perhaps it is like the ancient Egyptians': he himself, and critics like him, belong to the pantheon along with their elect composers. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Alex Ross provides a wonderful service--just not exactly the one they pay him for. Yes, Marc, part of it is indeed to act as high priest to the avant-garde (and to reassure the Upper West Side that they are cool people who have their finger on the pulse of Now). But the most valuable function in my view is that he blurts out these cultural assumptions in a way that reveals to us what they are.

Thanks, cloudpine, the thing about giants is that they are, indeed, giants! I figure it takes about a hundred years to sort out the gold from the dross. We can be pretty sure now that the Rite of Spring is a truly great work, but it took a while for that to become clear.

Rickard Dahl said...

There’s just so much wrong Alex Ross’ statement that it’s hard to know where to start. Well, one general thing can be noted: I believe that the left in general has gone into an extremist position lately. I think it the economic aspect which the left wing is built upon (which I don’t agree with it but I understand why people might see it as a good thing) receives less attention nowadays. Yes, politicians (on both sides) still talk about economics to a high extent but much of the rhetoric has been moved towards things that can be summarized as identity politics, victim status, throwing around the privilege word everywhere and honestly a big amount of racism and sexism (primarily against white people and men). Ironically many of the people using identity politics and claiming victimhood have upper middle class or upper class backgrounds. Now with that out of the way, lets move into the ridiculous idea of “institutionalized misogyny”.


This idea of course is built upon feminist theory, more specifically the idea of a patriarchy that oppressed women everywhere for many millennia. This couldn’t really be further for the truth. Sure, if we look at overt power it was in the hands of men for a very long time. In that sense it is correct. It was after all the husband/father in the house who was responsible for supporting his wife and children. However, the “patriarchy” (the real one, not the feminist version), i.e. the ruling class, worked for the benefit of the rich men and women. It did not oppress women in general and it did throw countless men under the bus. Many men were sent to fight and die in countless wars (even today that is still the case in many places). Many men had to due to circumstances work in dangerous environments to support their families and build civilization (this is still the case today, although in lesser extent, men still do most dangerous work for the most part and represent almost all of the workplace fatalities). Men were the ones expected to sacrifice their lives for the sake of women (just look at Titanic, in fact more children than women died in that disaster). And the audacity of feminists to claim that men are oppressive beasts that treat women badly despite all the facts contradicting it. In fact women have in-group preference while men have out-group preference (according to a study). In fact many men will instinctively jump to defend a woman in danger without any care for their own safety. Male suffering is mostly ignored while female suffering (no matter how small in comparison, such as cat calling) is getting far more attention. Men don’t hate women, men love women.


No one is holding women back from entering the realm of classical music. Classical music, especially performance of it, is very meritocratic. Either something sounds good or it does not. Obviously musical taste can be seen as a form of bias but it’s still fairly judged for the most part as long as there is a standard for aesthetic judgement. If the goal is to dismantle any aesthetic judgement (as Alex Ross seems to imply) then it sounds as a way to make it non-meritocratic, at least when it comes to composition. It is the same kind of approach the progressives want to take to other areas of life. Recently it was proposed that salary negotiations should be banned because women are worse at negotiating salaries. Another stupid idea they came up with is to ban reading to your children because it disadvantages children who don’t have parents who read to them. Instead of lifting people up they want to force everyone down to the level of the lowest common denominator.

Rickard Dahl said...

Ok, the idea that women don’t want to conduct because most of the music performed is by “dead white males” (maybe not Alex Ross’ exact words but it seems that’s what he’s implying) can mean several things. It seems like Alex Ross’ racism and sexism goes both ways. Not only does he see “white males” as an inherently bad thing but he also implies that women are somehow fragile flowers that are afraid of taking the role of conductor because of these “evil dead white men”. That may be true for some women but I think the reason is more likely that being a conductor is a tough and risky career choice. Countless studies debunking the wage gap have shown that women tend to choose careers that give less money but give more options to have a more balanced life. Well, if women in fact want to see more performances of female composers then they need to step up their game and compose more great music, that's how a meritocracy works.


Anyways, I will play devil’s advocate a bit: Honestly, I actually agree with Alex Ross’ point to a certain extent. The thing is that there’s lots of music composed by smaller composers that surely deserves to be performed (more often). I think the barrier for entry into the mainstream classical scene is simply too high. Alex Ross would like to see more avant garde stuff but the new performed music is usually avant garde anyways. What I would like to see is more balanced (traditional if you will) new music performed nowadays. Music that audiences in general actually like to listen to as opposed to be screechy and dry academic avant garde composed by people like Pierre Boulez or Kaija Saariaho. Ideally we would also have chamber music “bands” consisting of people just getting together and performing newly written music. There are after all far more pop music bands (professional or not) who do just that. That would require that a bigger portion of the population get interested in classical music and learn various classical instruments fairly well. Right now however it is the lowest common denominator (pop music) that is viewed as the highest musical form (at least by the mainstream). On the bright side there are things resources online such as Youtube that allow lesser known composers to post their music and find small audiences (including other composers). To summarize this point: Orchestras and other musical performance groups should find a more balanced way to perform both well-established classics and music by contemporary composers (and not mainly the avant garde variety either).


I could continue but I think this should be enough for now at least.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, I always know what will get you going!

Just one mild caveat: I don't think Alex Ross was at all implying that women don't want to conduct. Just that IF the modern conductor is a stand-in for the male canonical composer, then men are more appropriate. I don't agree with any of that, but I think that is what he was saying.

Identity politics gets so very messy and complicated that even those who practice it get caught in its snares.