Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Creation of Musical Taste

I have said many times that the contributions of the commentators to this site are invaluable. This is especially the case when they disagree with me! A case in point is a comment left by an anonymous commentator on yesterday's post: When the Best Music of the Year Isn't. The part of the comment that I want to mention was this paragraph:
Also, considering that the vast majority of the West no longer cares for classical music outside of a niche and popular music has long since won out among the ordinary masses, for you to paint this as an “progressive bubble” media versus ordinary people reverses the actual state of things. If newspapers started giving classical music more attention rather than less, most ordinary people would complain about the media serving elitist interests. I love classical music myself, it’s why I follow this blog, but the battle for cultural supremacy has been lost, and its your pop-listening neighbours, friends, and family on the other side of the lines, not faraway "progressives".
To which I replied:
I'm glad you are pushing back on my analysis, though. But I think that what the reality is, is likely different from either my view, which is, frankly, speculative, and from your depiction which is the more conventional wisdom. Who is right? Perhaps neither of us. But I have seen so much distortion of the truth in the mass media over recent years, that I think it is prudent to question it.
Perhaps we are dealing with a phenomenon similar to "preference falsification" where people tend to go with the flow, except for, as you say, a tiny minority. Perhaps popular music looms so large because a small, not a vast, majority pushes for it to be heard in public places. I don't know. But I certainly don't trust the mass media view.
As to cultural supremacy, well that is the question! That is a pretty loaded phrase, but I like it. If it were a fair contest between Beyoncé and Bach? Hmmmm...
This raises some interesting further thoughts that I would like to explore. And yes, by all means, comment!

We have to step back a bit, I think, and look at the history of cultural trends over the last several decades. In an essay in his recent collection, Richard Taruskin quotes from an essay by Rousseau on how Poland could resist being absorbed into Russia:
National institutions: This is what gives form to the genius, the character, the tastes, and the customs of a people, what causes it to be itself rather than some other people; founded upon habits of mind impossible to uproot...
Taruskin describes this as the "seed of modern Romantic nationalism" but it is rather more than that. After all, the analysis would be the same whatever distinctive social group we are describing: the ancient Greeks or pre-Columbian Aztecs. It is the idea of national institutions that cultivate the particular character, tastes, customs and habits of mind that is perhaps new. We owe to the French Revolution the idea of a nation promoting a particular set of characteristics in its population. We owe to people like Antonio Gramsci the idea of a subversive movement within a society promoting a new set of characteristics to overthrow the cultural hegemony of the older culture.

This is only part of the picture, though, as we can see in the history of music in the 20th century. The 18th century in music is largely a history of the tastes of the aristocracy and their ascendence over the tastes of the Church. The 19th century was a complex tapestry of elements: there was the vast influence of 18th century music, especially by composers like Mozart and Beethoven, but there was also a new kind of music, such as that composed by Schubert, that explored the psychology and inwardness of the emerging middle class. There is a huge amount of research still needing to be done in this area. Other important currents were realismo or verismo in art and opera and nationalism.

In the 20th century the situation became still more complex as added to all the above qualities (all of which continued in the 20th century) were others which included avant-garde movements that were intent on wiping the slate clean of all tradition and influence. The trend of the de-priviledging of the tastes of the aristocracy in favor of those of the middle class continued as the tastes of the lower classes, marginalized and "ordinary" people came to the fore in the vast upwelling of popular music. Though this began early in the century with ragtime, blues, and dixieland jazz, it only became culturally predominant after the Second World War when figures like Elvis Presley and the Beatles began selling records and attracting audiences far greater than any classical musician.

I think there is actually a complex of things going on of which not the least is the great energy and spirit of popular music. Just look how powerful the expressivity of the blues has shown itself to be. The Rolling Stones' newest release is a demonstration:

But along with the purely aesthetic elements are also social and economic ones. One mechanism whose effect is often under-rated is that of the shaping of taste through mass media. As pop music came more and more to dominate the airwaves, it tended to crowd out everything but the most mainstream genres. Pushed to the sidelines were ethnic genres like polka, complex stylistic ones like jazz and ones tainted with privilege like opera and classical music. These mass network effects feed on themselves: as fewer people are exposed to classical music because it has been crowded out, fewer take music lessons, fewer buy CDs and fewer attend concerts.

This is an on-going process. It is really only in the last few decades that classical music has started to lose its grip on higher education. Popular music and jazz are studied not only in specialist music schools like Berklee, but in most university music departments. But classical music is rather tenacious. People, and in vast numbers, still go to symphony, opera and even chamber music concerts, though they sure don't buy as many CDs as they used to. What is often over-looked is that pop music sells a lot fewer CDs as well these days. What we need is a really accurate accounting of how much classical music is streamed versus other kinds of music. It might also be worth noting that, according to Billboard, the biggest selling CD of 2016 is the big box of Mozart, 200 CDs released on the 225th anniversary of his death.

Two other things that are misunderstood or underestimated are the fundamental differences between classical music and other kinds of music. If you only understand classical music as an economically tiny niche in the vast goliath of pop, then you are missing a lot about the aesthetic and historic aspects. Bach is deeply rooted in Western Civilization in ways that Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or even the Beatles will never be, no matter how powerful their current appeal is. The other thing is that trends shift and the perennial truths of aesthetics never entirely go away. We are not condemned for the rest of eternity to the ubiquitous presence of the drum machine backbeat.

The other day I played some music for an acquaintance. First a Prokofiev piano sonata (No. 6 first movement) just to break the ice. Then some Rameau in the stunning performances of Grigory Sokolov and finally Steve Reich, all of Music for 18 Musicians. This person had no previous significant exposure to classical music. She just loved the Steve Reich. What is happening in that music, as Reich himself has mentioned, is that he is managing to bridge the gulf between where pop music is and where classical music is.

I think that in all places and times there is pop music, the music of everyday in easily absorbable styles, and there is what we call "classical" music these days, which is the music of transcendence and contemplation. These two basic approaches are constantly fertilizing one another. The rude energy of popular music is often sublated into classical music as we see in Beethoven's marches, Haydn's minuets in gypsy style and in the rhythmic foundation of Steve Reich's music. Influence can flow the other way as well, as we see in those 60s and 70s experiments with concertos for rock band and orchestra and in the many crossover acts of today.

The situation where pop music has dominated to the extent that it nearly exterminates classical music from the public space is a badly distorted one. I have no doubt that the pendulum will swing back to the historic norm which is one where each kind of music has its own important role to play.

This is Steve Reich's The Desert Music:


Anonymous said...

I wonder why you think that Steve Reich belongs in the classical music tradition any more than Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus does? I think I can easily show why Stravinsky and Ravel claim the same lineage as Mozart and Schubert. But I don't see how Mingus/Davis/Coleman belong in a separate category from Reich/Glass. I think to call contemporary music classical is a misnomer. It used to be that classical music was distinguished from pop music by its sophistication, but late Coltrane is vastly more sophisticated than Reich's music, so the old framework is no longer valid.

Bryan Townsend said...

The problems with the term "classical music" have been explored at length in posts going back a few years at the Music Salon. It is a very misleading term, but the replacement ones, such as "art music" or "concert music" have their problems as well. What we call "classical music" has quite a few different lineages. Steve Reich, for example, has mentioned that his music owes something to the organum of Leonin and Perotin. That is quite different from what we usually call the classical music tradition. Also, Richard Taruskin has shown at very great length and detail how Stravinsky's music relates to the Russian traditions, rather than, say, Schubert.

I am the furthest thing from any kind of expert on jazz, but I think most listeners would say that Reich and Glass are in a very different category from Mingus, Davis and Coleman.

But I would love to hear your argument as to the way in which the later music of John Coltrane is "vasty more sophisticated" than that of Steve Reich!!