Monday, November 7, 2016

The Apocalypse is Nigh!

No, I'm not making a reference to tomorrow's US election, why do you think that? Rather I just ran across something that illustrates how our culture is fragmenting. Music can be an indicator of this. For example, on Slipped Disc I ran into a link to a music quiz:
Pit your brains against Jeremy Paxman’s University Challenge questions.
Ok, no idea who Jeremy Paxman is nor what the University Challenge is, but hey, I'm game. I rather like music quizzes as you can see if you follow those links. I even like to throw in the occasional pop question, just for fun. But what did I discover when I followed the University Challenge link?

  1. a pop music question
  2. a current literature question about pop music
  3. a pop music question
  4. an electro-pop music question
  5. an Albert Einstein question that almost was about classical music
  6. a classical music question!!
  7. a pop music question
  8. a pop music question
  9. a jazz music question
  10. a pop music question
I had to take the test as the only way to reveal the next question is to answer the current one. There were only two questions (nos 5 and 6) that had anything to do with classical music and I got both those correct. All my other answers were random as I hadn't the slightest idea. By sheer chance I also got number 4 correct, so, 3 out of 10! A pop music enthusiast might have gotten seven or eight out of ten, which was the desired result, I assume.

And this is a University Challenge? The thing is that there was a culture, which seems to be passing rather quickly these days, in which some knowledge of classical music was assumed for every educated person, while pop music was assumed to be too ephemeral to be worth knowing about. But now classical music is a tiny minority interest of no particular aesthetic heft or prestige about on the level of polka music or virtuoso accordion playing. But that is only from one point of view! From another point of view every major city in Europe and the Americas has an active symphony orchestra and there are quite a few chamber music series. A few major cities have opera companies. All these give frequent performances, often to sold-out audiences. But the existence of this classical music world is more and more a puzzlement to the mass media and mass culture generally. It still exists, though, which is why I say our culture is fragmenting because there are huge segments of our public culture for whom it does not or only scarcely exists.

The thing that deeply concerns me, and this does relate a bit to the impending election, is that there are vast and powerful forces that are working very hard to frame everything that we are required to think and required to not think. Music is just a tiny microcosm. But the idea that certain kinds of culture and certain kinds of ideas must be promoted while others are suppressed is manufacturing history rather than allowing it to take place. It reminds me of the Battlestar Galactica slogan in the opening credits: AND THEY HAVE A PLAN! That is, the cylons have a plan. The whole series descended into absurdity, but that ominous slogan echoes.

Yes, someone, or a whole bunch of someones, does indeed have a plan and they are executing it bit by bit. A great deal of what I consider to be the crucial elements of our civilization seems to be being put on the discard table, preliminary to being cleared away entirely. Classical music and traditional aesthetic objects generally, history, poetry, philosophy and so on are all on the list. I'm sure you can make your own list. It wouldn't bother me so much if I didn't see the clearing away project to be entirely disingenuous. We are, I suspect, being lied to on a grand scale and constantly presented with falsehoods in order to manipulate public opinion. If a particular fact or event does not fit with the desired narrative then either it is not reported at all, much as classical music receives less and less profile in the mass media, or the truth is distorted out of all recognition.

But here is a ray of light that I find encouraging. The movement of mass media online has opened up the possibility of public commentary on the narrative. There are many, many occasions when a particularly biased story is answered by hundreds of comments that disagree strongly and present a more accurate version. You might check the Globe and Mail's comments for some examples. Of course, they are trying to figure out a way of preventing this while still pretending to have open comments and they close comments entirely on controversial stories.

I won't end this with one of my famously difficult quizzes--we are stressed enough! So let's just have some good music. This is the Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, op. 14 by Beethoven, played by Grigory Sokolov in a recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in 2002:


Anonymous said...

University Challenge is an interesting example as, and this speaks to your broader point, it has become increasingly less 'cultured', if you will. Classical music questions replaced by the popular, questions on history and literature and the like are fewer while scientific questions become more frequent. I suspect this change is evident in other more high-brow quiz shows. BBC Radio 4 has a fun music quiz programme called Counterpoint, for example. I listen to the older episodes (1990s and early 2000s) and it's about 80% classical music, and not at all easy. The last series (this year) was evenly split between pop and classical, and somewhat less challenging. (Still, it's a fun listen.)

The BBC's lingering Reithian principles might mean it's still a bit better than elsewhere, but its best programmes are clearly giving way. I'm not sure if you're at all familiar with any of these programmes, so I apologise if I'm boring you, but I expect similar examples would include Mastermind, which has a specialist round, the subject of which is chosen by the contestant, and the very logical and pattern/maths-based Only Connect. It would seem that the threat is twofold: popular culture and the sciences (probably because the sciences are so non-political, so one is able to be uncontroversially elitist about them; but they fall short of Reithian values, in that the sciences aren't cultural unifying and don't have a 'high moral tone' to speak of; Faraday does not stir British passions like Elgar, say). I'm starting to think there's perhaps an essay waiting to be written on this!

Bryan Townsend said...

Slugging, your comment was so interesting I wanted to mull it over before replying--and then I ended up not replying at all. There was that pesky US election to distract us!

Thanks for the insights. I think that the CBC in Canada has been declining similarly, perhaps without any of the Reithian principles you mention (I had to look him up!).

Just one thing: yes, there is a general shift from history, literature and high culture generally to science. But I question most vigorously the idea that the sciences are non-political! Yes, that is the popular conception, but I think that the sciences, certainly as they are presented in the mass media, are very political indeed. They are a chosen avenue for political actors precisely because they are perceived as non-political hence The Simple Truth! A politician will say that 99% of scientists agree on climate change but the facts are wildly different. Economics are another field in which simple data and statistics are massaged to an extent that is astonishing if you dig into it.