Thursday, March 9, 2017

Snobbism and Classical Music

I didn't have a "snobbism" tag until I created one for this post, but I'm sure the subject has come up. It is an awkward theme for me, because I suspect myself of snobbism sometimes. Here is a definition:
the double inclination to ape one's superiors, often through vulgar ostentation, and to be proud and insolent with one's inferiors. 
Well, that certainly sounds like a bad thing! But what is the difference between this and, say, admiring the work of outstanding composers? If I think Haydn was pretty great, in what way is this "vulgar ostentation"? The definition seems to recall an historical epoch when the middle class was trying to creep into the upper class by imitating their tastes. Does that go on any more? Last I checked, the tastes of the upper classes seem to revolve around Beyoncé. I suppose there was a time when nice middle class families had their children take piano lessons so they could lord it over the poor kids down the street. But isn't that all in the past?

Perhaps not, as I just ran across a blog post criticizing some typical snobbisms of today:
When people get rich, they shed their skin-in-the game driven experiential mechanism. They lose control of their preferences, substituting constructed preferences to their own, complicating their lives unnecessarily, triggering their own misery. And these are of course the preferences of those who want to sell them something. This is a skin-in-the-game problem as the choices of the rich are dictated by others who have something to gain, and no side effects, from the sale. And given that they are rich, and their exploiters not often so, nobody would shout victim.
I once had dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a fellow who insisted on eating there ... Dinner consisted in a succession of complicated small things, with microscopic ingredients and contrasting tastes that forced you to concentrate as if you were taking some type of exam. You were not eating, rather visiting some type of museum with an affected English major lecturing you on some artistic dimension you would have never considered on your own. There was so little that was familiar and so little that fit my taste buds: once something on the occasion tasted like something real, there was no chance to have more as we moved on to the next dish. Trudging through the dishes and listening to some b***t by the sommelier about the paired wine, I was afraid of losing concentration. I costs a lot of energy to fake that I was not bored. In fact I discovered an optimization in the wrong place: the only thing I cared about, bread, was not warm. It appears that this is not a Michelin requirement.
I have had that experience: a gourmet menu with wine pairings that was excessively complex and stressed externals (number of courses, variety of unusual ingredients and so on) rather than a couple of dishes prepared with real skill and attention.

There is a great deal of snobbism driven by commercial considerations. When people achieve a certain level of affluence they want to show it off in some way. As he says, they lose control of their actual preferences, replacing them with constructed preferences that ape their superiors. What do really rich people eat in restaurants? And the bonus is that you can lord it over the people who can't afford it.

Does this actually happen in the music world? There are a lot of things mitigating against it. For one thing, music for several decades now has been taken over by a very powerful populism: rock, pop and other genres all stemming originally from the music of the people: blues, jazz and country. Classical music, the music of the European aristocracy transplanted over most of the world by now, is pushed into a fairly minor niche these days, sociologically. If you try to lord it over someone by mentioning your taste for classical music, they are likely to laugh in your face! Though the other day a business client asked me my taste in music and just for fun I said: "agonized Russian modernism!" She replied "like Shostakovich?" So that was rather nice. But normally you are going to get perplexed confusion or a chuckle.

Here is my experience: there is a lot of false ostentation being flogged in the marketplace these days and a lot of people can't tell the difference. The difference with what, you ask? With genuine quality. Yes, there is such a thing, though there is certainly an ongoing effort to smudge or conceal this. People really are out there trying to sell you stuff that really isn't worth it and this happens on all levels from a Snapchat IPO that is likely a bust, to a poor quality hamburger at your local fast-food outlet, to a cheap pair of shoes from China that wear out in a couple of months, to a glitzy special menu at your local pretentious restaurant. We encounter poor quality every day.

But we also encounter high quality, though less often. That pair of Italian shoes that were comfortable, looked great and lasted a long time, that Canadian mining company whose shares just kept going up and up, that piece of technology that worked really well and didn't cost an arm and a leg, that great little restaurant that always had good food at a good price, and on and on. Quality and price are often not correlated. I used to delight in searching out wines that were really excellent and cost less than ten dollars. That was a lot more satisfying than paying too much for a disappointing premier cru château.

There can be false ostentation and insolence in classical music, of course. Just look at some of the publicity for solo artists and conductors. The audiophile who always mentions how much he paid for his speaker system is another example. But we also have unassuming artists of high aesthetic quality. Preferring to enjoy what they do is hardly vulgar ostentation, is it?

So I guess what I am trying to say is that you can genuinely prefer classical music without being a snob. All it really costs you is the time to sensitize yourself to a certain kind of musical quality. You don't have to spend a lot of money and you certainly don't have to lord it over other people. Though the urge to turn them on to a particular composer is always a lurking danger!

For our envoi today, let's listen to something by John Dowland, the great English lutenist at the end of the Renaissance. This is the "Tremolo" Fantasy played by Nigel North:


Marc Puckett said...

Very good! I live on an income that by some government or economic measures is 'near-poverty' but, given the wonders of contemporary technology and the marketplace, I can listen to music of high excellence, performed by the greatest artists living and of previous generations, at an affordable cost, more or less whenever I like (which last is a privilege formerly reserved to the greatest of the world's great). Mass this and mass that, though-- so many people seem to be convinced that insertion into a 'fairly minor sociological niche' (by whom? and why ought one to care for their opinion?) is a fate worse than death, not to know who Bruno Mars is, or Emma Watson, or any of those Kardashian people. The concept of 'genuine quality' serves as the bridge between myself and many of the folks I relate to each day: we may not value similar music, e.g., but we share an understanding that some is better, and that some performers are better-- although moving much beyond an acknowledgment of better/worse is a challenge, often enough.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, viewed from some angles, this is the golden age of music. You don't have to become adept at an instrument to be able to hear the riches of the repertoire, you don't have to be part of a circle of aficionados, or a friend of a nobleman or even purchase a ticket to a concert. You can listen at home to CDs or stream the music. It's astonishing really. But are we grateful? Heck no, we still complain all the time!

Will Wilkin said...

Like Marc's described above, mine is also a genteel poverty, with live classical music several nights a week, mostly for free or at student (of life) discounts. And my luck also brings me free Met Opera "Live in HD" tickets a dozen times a year. Privately I am indeed a musical snob in the sense of avoiding most popular music as crude and boring. But having taste is not really being a snob, which means one thinks they are better than others. We are all idiots outside of our specializations. At least I know I know virtually nothing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Poverty is underrated!

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan I might compare poverty to fasting. Both are aspects of asceticism which, following very different dynamics, can have both healthful and spiritual benefits. Spiritually, asceticism can bring focus on the deeper things of importance, such as love, contemplation, awareness, nature and all aspects of our environment. Many of the diseases of civilization can be traced to a glut of nutrients and stimulation, much of which is "junky" and brings inflammation, be it autoimmune or psychic. A little poverty can be detoxifying if properly managed and not abject.

The problem with everything I just wrote is I'm often stressed over money and the social stigma and personal shame of being a "charity case." And there are a few things I would do with a lot of money. Perhaps being rich would make more difficult to avoid the problems of "toxifying" through overmuch, but wouldn't it be tempting to take on the spiritual challenge of seeking proper austerities within the expanded range of possibilities wealth would afford?

Bryan Townsend said...

As a struggling classical musician for much of my life, I very much appreciate what you are getting at here. Poverty enables you to focus on things other than material possessions and issues. If you don't have a car, you don't have to worry about a fender-bender or getting your oil changed. If you don't have a brokerage account you don't have to worry about where the Dow is going or what is happening in the bond market. Instead, you can spend your time and energy on playing or composing music, on painting or on spiritual pursuits.

On the other hand, as you say, if you don't have any money, then it becomes a big problem!! I think we all find the kind of balance that we can live with.

Will Wilkin said...

Regarding the take-over of music by popular music, without knowing where Nigel Kennedy is going, one can only suspect we're losing a great violinist to popular music, perhaps in search of commercial "success" (money)? I don't know his music much, but I always enjoyed the 1 CD I have of him playing the fabulously virtuosic concertos by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, recorded in 1992.

That article also has a link to an earlier one, describing Kennedy's wide range of musical tastes beyond classical.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have written about Nigel Kennedy before on the blog. Just use the search widget to find some posts.

What I hear, when classical and pop get fused in some way, is that the most transcendental part of the music gets eliminated in favor of a glitzy surface: costumes, presentations, light show, hyped biographies, fawning publicity pieces, all the things characteristic of current pop music. My feeling is that if you want to really get into the heart of the music, the first thing you do is eliminate all of that!!

Will Wilkin said...

I totally agree, Bryan. Even 35 or so years ago, as a teenage into rock, I was already serious about music and recognized MTV as a bad thing very soon after it first came out. Aside from the spectacles of Kiss and Alice Cooper, music was NOT about appearances but rather about sound and spirit. Increasingly since then, popular music seems to be more and more about the sex appeal of the "artist" and the weird electronic sound effects that replace instrumental ability.

Bryan Townsend said...

We have a few survivors like Bob Dylan, but that whole generation of artists who were "popular" but still focussed on the music rather than the glitz are largely gone.

Anonymous said...

Popular Music in the West over the past 50 to 60 years has achieved something I've always found ironic: the crafting of an identity connected to rebelliousness and risk-taking, even as the musical elements employed - clear tonalities, simple harmonies, predictable meters and rhythmic stresses, reliably periodic melodies, etc. - are deeply conservative, and within the context of much 20th and 21st century Western Art Music, downright reactionary. If we were to identify which of two young musicians was following the more unconventional, "alternative" path, and our choice was between a 15 year-old classical oboist and the guitarist of the same age, who's in a metal band, choosing the oboist would be obvious. It seems to me rather basic that popular music has always been essentially conservative; because if it wasn't, it couldn't develop a broad enough audience to deem it popular.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very cogent observation! There was an article in the Globe and Mail a few years ago about the conservatism of pop music and I did a post on it: