Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Alex Ross' Concerts of the Year

One of the most interesting writers on music is the New Yorker's Alex Ross who summarizes the year's concerts in this piece. While the topic is supposed to be the best performances of the year, and there is a list of such, he prefaces it with an essay about the political and social relevance of classical music in 2011. Well, ok. He makes the point that the big pop stars are more part of the "1%" than classical musicians.
Pop stars and their parent corporations are the true élites of the cultural sphere, reaping vast rewards from a winner-takes-all system.
He mentions that investigating the sources of corporate support for classical music reveals that much of it comes from places that we now consider unsavory like the financial and tobacco industries. He goes on to cite instances of composers supporting the popular causes of the day such as protection of the environment, being anti-war and civil disobedience. He ends with this:
Over the centuries, classical music has been allied with wealth and power, and it has also caused trouble for wealth and power. Its present marginal position gives it, at least in theory, critical distance from the materialist excess of pop culture—the ruthless equation of monetary and aesthetic value. Tellingly, classical music in America reached its maximum popularity in the nineteen-thirties and forties, when the country came closer to disavowing the capitalist faith than at any time in its history. One measure of the levelling spirit of the age was that millions across the land could tune in to NBC radio and listen to Beethoven symphonies. Are d.j.s blasting Beethoven in the V.I.P. lounges of the Second Gilded Age? Not that I’ve heard.
This is perilously close to proclaiming that classical music is a kind of epiphenomenon of socialism. I suppose I could add more evidence such as the enormous popularity of the symphonies of Shostakovich in the Soviet Union. But while there may be some correlation here, the actual causation seems weak... Those very Beethoven symphonies that Ross cites were the product of an aristocratic society, after all. As was the music of Haydn, Mozart and Bach. Actually, all that we call 'classical' music from the Middle Ages well into the 19th century was patronized by and listened to very largely by the nobility and the elite of the Church.  I would agree with Alex that the "ruthless equation of monetary and aesthetic value" is one of the great problems of popular music today. I just think that this is a problem having more to do with the problem of cultural values in general than with music in particular. The give-away word is "tellingly" because he doesn't tell us what it tells: socialism causes people to listen more to Beethoven while materialist excess causes people to listen to Jay-Z?

Interesting list of concerts, though. The one that I most wish I had heard is Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès performing music of Dowland, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Kurtág, and Adès at Carnegie. Here is Adès' arrangement of the great song by John Dowland "In Darknesse Let Mee Dwelle":

And here is the original:

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