Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Music and Cultural Icons

Over at Greg Sandow's blog there is usually a lively discussion going on about classical music and how it is doing in the culture today. Here is his latest post. I made a few comments and the last one was lengthy enough and possibly interesting enough for me to want to put it up here. In the original post Greg is worried that classical music cuts itself off from the mainstream culture and ends with this:
I’ve run into a lot of what I’d call classical music exceptionalism, the belief — so often passionately held — that classical music is special, that U2 may be fine, in its place, but that classical music is something people have to like, that it’s superior to the dross (musical and otherwise) of current culture. Etc., etc., etc.
We can believe that, if we like, but the people we’re trying to reach don’t believe it. To reach them, we’ll have to let them see that we value — not just understand, but value — who they are, and what their culture is.
In response to one comment he said:
speaking now from my experience as both a pop and classical music critic — it’s generally a lot easier, and quicker, to take the measure of a new classical piece, even a long one (40 minutes or more), than it is to absorb a new pop album. The classical piece shows its spots fairly quickly. 
Which I responded to:
Without citing any particular piece of new classical music, it is hard to know how to take this argument. If you are talking about some minimal music, well, maybe. But it seems as if this is a straw man. An anonymous piece of new music, perhaps by a minimalist, versus a classic by Bruce Springsteen. Oooookkkaaayyy.
Let me offer the contrary argument: it is generally a lot easier, and quicker, to take the measure of a new pop piece by, say, Katy Perry, than it is to absorb a new classical piece by, say, Thomas Adès or Osvaldo Golijov. Katy Perry usually shows her, uh, ‘spots’ rather quickly. Isn’t what I just said a truism? 
Greg also made the point that classical music has no "iconic cultural figures" equivalent to, say, Bob Dylan, which I attempted to disagree with, citing Shostakovich among others. While agreeing with me on Shostakovich, Greg responded with this:
But, Bryan, I don’t know that you understand what I mean by an iconic cultural figure, of which there are innumerable examples in the pop music of the last 50s years, and many before that. I can’t blame anyone who loves classical music for — no doubt without meaning to — inflating its depth and importance more than any reasonable logic (and available facts) would warrant. But if you understand the meaning of Dylan, and so many others in pop, it’s hard to say that just because someone is a great classical musician, they’re playing in the same league. Musically, they might be. But culturally, they most likely aren’t.
After some thought, I wrote this comment:
Greg, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to this sooner–very busy these days! But the discussion is fascinating because, as always when people disagree, there is a lot to be learned. What I’m picking up here is a couple of things. First, I usually try to avoid getting too far into sociology and politics. I like to stick to ‘the music’. But, of course, you can’t really do that completely because music, all music, is in the world and has sociological and political aspects–often crucial ones. To go back a bit, yes, you are quite right, I did not understand what you meant by “iconic cultural figure” or, rather, I was ignoring that aspect because it is not purely musical. I do see what you mean. Well, I could pick around the edges a bit. I was around in the 60s, listening and playing music (in the second half of the 60s, at least) and for me the Beatles and Cream were the big cultural icons. Dylan, not so much. My point is just that there might not be universal agreement as to who the big cultural icons actually are. Society is no monolith.But that aside, another way to describe what you call iconic culural figures is to say that around certain figures in music history a mythology has grown up that idealizes and otherwise alters the reality a bit in order to fit a cultural need. Possibly the first figure in music of whom this is true is Josquin des Prez, whom the 16th century idealized. Another was Beethoven, whom the 19th century idealized. Now we have Bob Dylan, whom, out of our own cultural needs, we idealize. As you say, “a great musician isn’t necessarily an iconic cultural figure.” And vice versa, I suppose. Absolutely! Sometimes a great musician may become an icon, or develop mythical aspects, because he or she fulfills a cultural need of the time, sometimes not.Now here is where I come to something that you might find interesting and even useful: in the past, what we now call ‘classical’ music often performed some crucial roles in the culture. For example, Palestrina’s music was a kind of ars perfecta that was a model for the transcendent truth of the Catholic faith against the objections of the Reformation. It was in some ways at the heart of the great tensions in the society of the time. Beethoven’s music, with its revolutionary energy, was entirely in the ferment of the great changes that were happening in European society at the end of the 18th century. And so on…From all indicators, the music that is at the heart of the, well, if not great issues, then certainly the prevailing sensibilities, of the 21st century is pop music. No disrespect intended; by pop music I mean all that music that is not classical or jazz or world music: Katy Perry, U2, Radiohead, Lady Gaga, the whole bunch. This music is the music of our time in a way that Thomas Ades or even Philip Glass cannot be.The reason for this is that there was a revolution in music in the 20th century that you could trace just by record sales. At one point Van Cliburn could outsell Elvis. But very soon the sales of, eg, Beatles albums dwarfed classical music sales. This is important because where the money flows tells us something about where the social interest is. In the past, music was driven, not by commercial sales, but often by the needs of the most powerful figures in the society.In the 15th century certain composers were intimately involved with events central to the culture. In 1453 Constantinople fell, the last bastion of the ancient world and heir to the Roman Empire. In response to this Philip the Good of Burgundy vowed to go on a Crusade. A great banquet, the Banquet of the Oath of the Pheasant, was held and music was a central part of this event, probably including a lament written by Guillaume Dufay. Also associated with Philip the Good and his successor were a number of masses built around the song L’Homme arme written by a host of composers including Antoine Busnoys, an important member of the court. This ceremonial music was hugely important in the culture.
My point is that, if there were a true equivalent today, someone like Philip Glass or John Adams would be writing ceremonial music that would express the central issues and events our our time and culture. Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer and Steve Reich’s 9/11 certainly make an attempt to do so, but while they are artistic statements, they are ones that are contested rather than accepted. I suspect that the reason for this is that contemporary art, including music, has long adopted the posture of being at odds with the mainstream culture. It is hard to imagine a composer now being associated as closely with the powerful figures in society as many were in the past. Perhaps the closest might be the role of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the European Union. One thing we do apparently agree on is that Shostakovich was indeed a cultural icon in the Soviet Union. The interesting questions are why and how. The issues are enormously complex, which is why I usually just try and focus on the music!


RG said...

"Much to be learned" no kidding… wow!

I can't say much about your notes that would avoid flattery.

But your point about the way funding flowed to the arts until broadcast media were invented is more weighty than the context might suggest. The fact that funding to the arts was controlled by the free will of powerful = rich individuals is what allowed or entailed that those same arts have character in a way that contemporary arts funded instead by anonymous "markets" or irresponsible bureaucrats cannot. The cultural context in which Maecenas or the Medici funded arts was manifest in the form of individual works chosen by a taste; whatever is being produced now, in this sense, is unfocussed, weak, and groping. You can't compare a lightning storm to global warming.

Nathan Shirley said...

It's obvious after reading his post and follow-up comments that Greg is in complete denial. And really I don't think he knows what he means by the term 'classical music'.

He does have some good ideas from time to time, but often the comments left on his blog are far more interesting than his posts.

After reading his comments about Boulez, Stockhausen and Schoenberg, I've come to the sad conclusion that he really doesn't understand classical music. I mean how could he, he STILL insists the emperor was fully clothed (even the emperor finally realized his foolishness and covered up)?!

Here is a blog much more worthy of the attention.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks to my commentors for adding considerably. One interesting point: one of the powerful figures of our day, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, has indeed been a patron of the arts. He founded a museum in Seattle that started out as an homage to Jimi Hendrix and is now the Gehry-designed EMP Museum: