Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Joy of Being Irrelevant

Sometimes I think we in the classical music world are not grateful enough for being ignored by society at large. Yes, I know that is a rather different take on things! Usually we pass the time between performances by whining about insufficient government grant money, or not enough ticket sales, or plummeting CD sales and so on. But perhaps we don't appreciate the freedom that being irrelevant gives us.

Let's find some examples. "Society", that is, elected politicians, plus the immense hordes of administrative functionaries, plus various special interest pressure groups, invest a lot of time and a great deal of money in trying to influence the behavior of citizens. The justification for this is that society as a whole has an overwhelming interest in things like the health of the individual citizen, so policy decisions can be made that purport to influence that health in a positive way. This article in the Wall Street Journal describes how this worked in one California city: Soda Consumption Falls After Special Tax in California City.
Consumption of soda and other sugary drinks fell by more than a fifth in low-income neighborhoods of Berkeley after the California city became the first in the U.S. to introduce a special tax last year, according to a study published Tuesday.
The peer-reviewed research is the first to measure the impact of the penny-per-ounce tax. It found that consumption declined 21% and many residents switched to water after the tax went into effect in March 2015, according to the study published online in the American Journal of Public Health.
Apart from the difficulty of interpreting the data (consumers might simply have gone to a nearby town to purchase their sugary drinks to avoid the tax), that all seems good, right? But there are just zillions of government initiatives out there that have, at best, mixed results. Take ethanol, for example. It seems as if, to placate Gaia, a policy has been put in place that forces vendors to blend in a certain percentage of ethanol, largely distilled from corn, into the US gasoline supply. The subsidies supporting this caused enormous amounts of arable land to be devoted to it which in turn caused a considerable increase in food prices. Have a look at Wikipedia for some details.

We could easily multiply examples: the development of technical innovations like AirBNB and Uber have revolutionized travel, but this has been countered by local authorities who want to ban or punish these innovators (through taxes, mostly). You just can't let people go ahead and do what they want, even if it is perfectly legal, because it might not suit our vision of how things should be. So let's put in some rules to protect our traditional supporters: taxi companies!

All right, I confess, I am a bit of a libertarian. Don't judge me! Anyway, I am just mentioning these things to contrast this with the situation for classical musicians. Sure, when we travel we are caught in the same net as everyone, but when we walk onstage we are not hampered and manipulated by a galaxy of regulations and taxes and fees designed to influence or force us to play particular music in a certain way. No, we can just go ahead and play that phrase any damn way we want. These days, with the ideological suppression of aesthetic criticism, we are not likely to get any negative response, no matter how we play. Of course, people can always just stop buying tickets to our concerts.

But "society" seems to have no interest in the aesthetic quality of our lives, though it is obsessively interested in everything else: our consumption of sugary drinks, but not our consumption of sugary music (cough*Justin Bieber*cough); what percentage of the gas in our tank is ethanol, but not what percentage of our CD collection is gangster rap. We can listen to music at home without having to stick to certain percentages of music by oppressed minorities and women (but there is a movement to equalize the number of women conductors vs male conductors, though not, oddly enough women harpists vs male harpists), and so on.

We in the classical music world are experiencing the untrammeled joy of the freedom to play anything we want, any way we want and listen to any music we want. This is the kind of freedom that has been significantly restricted in most areas of life. About the only counter example I can think of (yes, there are always counter examples) is the prohibition on the performance of the music of Wagner in Israel. But it is not illegal to perform Wagner in Israel, it is just considered by a large number of people, musicians and the general public, to be in very bad taste. Read the Wikipedia article for details.

Hm, well I guess that gives us our envoi for today. This is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner with Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper Bayerisches Staatsorchester:

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