Monday, October 2, 2017

Are They Sincere?

Being just a tad cynical, I look at some of the things people in classical music say these days and ask myself, could they possibly mean what they are saying? Or are they just very heavily indoctrinated? It is hard to tell sometimes. One does get the feeling that a lot of people in arts and entertainment adopt a set of conventional pieties just to signal to their fans that they are "good people." This kind of behaviour has been given a name: virtue signaling:
Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group. The term was first used on the blog LessWrong in February 2009, and then incorporated in 2010 within the framework of signalling theory to describe any behavior that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious. Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterization by commentators to criticize what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action.
Sometimes virtue signaling is done in an attempt to atone for imagined sins, as it seemed Ted Gordon was doing over on the Musicology Now blog when he wrote:
"As scholars, we must think seriously and carefully about what we mean when we talk about "classical music"--and how to remain vigilant against the promotion of "Western Art Music" in the name of "Western supremacy" built on hatred, fear, and bigotry."
Oh yes, classical music, the very fountainhead of evil!

But in other contexts, it seems that the act of virtue signaling is used as an aggressive marketing tool. This piece, over at HuffPost, is not a parody: Orchestra Moderne NYC Is Ready To Tackle Social and Political Issues; First Stop—The Immigrant Experience. One almost expects to see a photo of the double-bass section out defending "undocumented" immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement SWAT teams! Here is how the article puts it:
When Amy Andersson returned to New York after several years conducting concerts across Europe and North America, she founded Orchestra Moderne NYC with a very clear mission: to create an orchestra that is fully integrated into the life of New York City and fosters a collective understanding of political and social trends.
“Thinking about the many orchestras I’d conducted, I realized there was a glaring lack of diversity among the players,” says Andersson. “They’re not reflecting fully the communities they perform for. There’s a disconnect there. Now is the time and New York is the perfect place to create a new orchestra that reflects diversity and performs music that’s culturally and socially relevant.”
This is the usual checklist: diversity (check), collective (check), reflecting the community (check), socially relevant (check). Here is how the conductor sees it:
"This is a perfect opportunity for classical music to shake the dust off its programming and become an active, viable part of the community. By taking a stance on social justice and doing a program on immigration, I hope we’ll encourage other orchestras to be movers and shakers.”
I think I see what is going on. This is a new orchestra in town. Obviously they aren't going to be in the same league as the New York Philharmonic, or most of the other dozen orchestras based in New York City. So whaddayagonnado? Distinguish yourself in some way. The other guys are mostly promoting their programming, conductors and soloists, so the Orchestra Moderne needs a schtick. Virtue signaling seems the way to go. It's a contemporary, stylish way to promote yourself. "Fight the power!" I guess this works as the New York concert-going audience are pretty well indoctrinated themselves!

I think this can only really work if you are seriously hypocritical, though. A good orchestra has to be anything but diverse, socially relevant and reflecting the diversity of its community. The community does not consist of highly-talented and disciplined musicians; it does not consist of people that spend all their time practicing music and rehearsing. An orchestra is a body of select musicians trained to play together under the direction of a conductor. That doesn't sound like any community I am aware of! Oh, they mean a diversity in the orchestra that reflects the racial makeup of the city. Is that true? And does the orchestra have the same percentage of undocumented immigrants that the city does? We are not told. Instead, we are treated to the usual buzz-words and clich├ęs.

My favorite part of articles like theses is the underlying subtext of moral superiority: shake the dust off your programming you establishment classical music institutions! Get with it! We aren't as accomplished as you guys, but boy, are we ever in tune with the "collective understanding of political and social trends."

They don't mention too much in the article about the actual music, but one featured composer is Steven Lebetkin: "Lebetkin’s musical goals are to reach a broader set of audiences through using traditional compositional techniques in western music and the joyous interplay of classical music and modern day cultural media, and to bring to non-musician audiences what makes music beautiful and timeless. He is a classically-trained composer with a gift of melody for commercial music, songs, and orchestral works."

His Violin Concerto will be premiered in the concert on Saturday. Here is the first movement of his Piano Concerto:

I was going to eschew comment, but this reminds me of a quote from Samuel Johnson when presented with a manuscript by an aspiring writer. His evaluation: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."


Marc Puckett said...

I made the mistake earlier of watching the first couple of minutes of an eight minute long video about Brexit at the Guardian featuring Jacob Rees-Mogg etc. They captured quite accurately what I think goes on-- the childish partisan sloganeering of the prog activists and the insouciant pretense at moral superiority and political rectitude of the journalist. For all I know JRM made a fool of himself later on but the G. lost its opportunity to show me that.

Bryan Townsend said...

I find most news and interview videos to be unwatchable for those reasons.