Sunday, January 18, 2015

Music and Democratic Elitism

I was going to put this in an upcoming Friday miscellanea, but realized it is worth more extended treatment. In an article about the demise of The New Republic, Sean Wilentz writes:
there is such a thing as democratic elitism, which inheres in standards of criticism and commentary, but which repudiates the idea that only a hereditary elite or educated clerisy could or should get it; and it presents itself accordingly. If bidding interested readers to sophistication and excellence is elitism, make the most of it. The greatest danger to our culture and politics lies in a different kind of elitism, one that promotes a monied elite that ... threatens both the variety and the quality of everything it touches and distributes.
This sentiment is so close to my own that I wanted to share it. I'm sure that Mr. Wilentz and myself do not share the same political values, but I find myself in complete agreement with him on literary and cultural values. Everything I do here at the Music Salon is about attracting readers to sophistication and excellence in music. The main forces opposing I see, in agreement with Mr. Wilentz, as being a "monied elite" characterized by their Philistinism regarding the arts, music in particular.

You might make an argument that it is wealthy patrons that support all varieties of fine arts, but the bulk of their support seems to go to shiny things they can buy like this:

In music the situation is rather the opposite. Instead of it being about unique and expensive objects, it is about a kind of lowest-common-denominator generic sameness. Instead of highly-crafted unique objects, it deals in almost costless digital copies. In a predictable irony, the marketing is all about the unique, soulful individuality of this generic music, communicated largely through the intricate videos:

Also very shiny...

Music as an institution is deeply rooted in our culture, though seemingly threatened by powerful economic forces. But the benefits of both a musical education and of the simple enjoyment of great music are longstanding and not likely to disappear soon. We have many fine orchestras, many fine musicians and composers and there are venues for these artists. But the surface of the musical world is so dominated by pop music in all its manifestations, that it is probably right to worry. In the 19th century there was a great expansion of the number of people in society that had some sort of musical education and understanding. Since the Second World War, with the triumph of pop music, there seems to be a shrinking of this proportion. Fewer and fewer people study piano and violin and know how to read music and perhaps (though this is not a certainty) audiences for classical music are older and older.

The recording business seems to be particularly threatened as nearly every classical music label is losing money and more and more, as large companies buy out smaller ones, it seems as if the new CEOs of the music divisions are more and more Philistine in their outlook. These Philistines sometimes present themselves as pragmatic saviors of classical music, but only on their terms of course. One figure that might stand for many is Max Holechairman and CEO of UMGI (International division of Universal Music Group). I previously wrote about his influence here. I don't want to single him out, as I suspect his attitudes are widely shared amongst record company executives. They are facing a difficult environment. But, just as Mr. Wilentz observes regarding the demise of The New Republic, this kind of elite "threatens both the variety and the quality of everything it touches and distributes."

Is someone like Max Hole, whose career was largely spent working with pop artists like Simply Red, likely to really sense the difference between an artist like Khatia Buniatishvili, who does all those things he thinks are important, like present a strong and passionate visual experience to the audience:

and the rather less visually-appealing, but a thousand times more profound musicality of Grigory Sokolov:

But I'm sure I have made these points before! I want to return to my opening, where Mr. Wilentz is arguing for standards in criticism and commentary. I am quite convinced that there are a great many people who, if they just had a bit of an introduction, a guide, to classical music, would derive huge enjoyment from it. What they need is informed commentary and criticism, which is one of the things I try to do here at the Music Salon, of course. But what I, and Mr. Wilentz, find deeply troubling, is that this kind of commentary seems to be fast disappearing from its traditional home in higher-quality magazines and journalism. I often comment sardonically on the quality of writing on music that we find in the mass media. Instead of helping, it is most likely harming the possibility of introducing people to better quality music.

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