Monday, June 21, 2010

Adventures in the echo chamber

Maybe it's just me, but the world of classical music blogging seems awfully. . . quiet. Of course, the middle of June has never been peak blogging season, but this goes back a lot farther than that - a few months, at least. Blogs where one could once count on an interesting short piece every once in a while - Soho the Dog, Classical Convert, Deceptively Simple - are now rarely updated. Other music bloggers post more regularly, but there seems to be less in the way original content - essays, controversial opinions, expository writing - and more links to YouTube videos, press releases, and Wikipedia. For my own part, the impulse to blog has been pretty weak of late, and it hasn't helped that I'm spending so much of the summer on the road, heading to various concerts, competitions, and conferences. Is this the death of blogging? If blogging is, in fact, dead, would anyone care?

This is less of an issue for me, since I'm a retrograde, anachronistic sort of blogger - my posts here are really short essays, modelled more after William Hazlitt than Perez Hilton. I used to feel guilty if I stopped posting for too long, but I've since thought better of it - anyone at this point who wants to follow blogs has found a decent RSS reader and will probably not even notice if my posts stop appearing in their feeds.

At the moment there are two musical items of interest in my feed reader. The first, from Alex Ross, points me to the fascinating-sounding event Make Music NY, which is proceeding as I write this - a citywide music festival including two renditions of Riley's In C (one on mobile phones) and several works by Xenakis, including his version of the Oresteia, and the epochal percussion work Persephassa, performed on the lake in Central Park. Alas, I am not in New York, and have to satisfy my hankerings for Xenakis with a recording of Keqrops.

The second is the latest salvo from Greg Sandow, who for several months has been posting draft chapters of his forthcoming book on the future of classical music. Sandow's longstanding contention has been that classical music is in trouble - that it's lost touch with the larger culture outside, and that unless we make some effort to reconcile the music we love with the "age of pop" around us, we'll begin to see orchestras and opera houses going bankrupt for lack of an audience.

Sandow is an intelligent writer, and is passionate about the subject; his posts always attract discussion and controversy. I've avoided taking part in his blog comment threads, however, because I've taken part in about half a dozen discussions just like it:
  • As an organist, I'm told that church music has lost touch with the culture around us, and that we need a more contemporary style to attract young people. (The irony is not lost on me that I am always the youngest person in the room during these discussions.) The integrity and unique qualities of church music are pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.
  • As an Anglican, I frequently hear that the liturgy is getting stale, and that we need a more informal and colloquial style of address to attract young people. The integrity and unique qualities of Anglican liturgy are pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.
  • In the broader Christian community, many people insist that traditional Church doctrine has become irrelevant and outdated, and that we must abandon those aspects of Christian teaching - seemingly far-fetched and miraculous stories, or inconvenient moral precepts - that clash with the prevailing ideology of the secular world. The integrity and unique message of Christianity is pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.
  • Many years ago, I used to play PC adventure games a fair bit (remember Myst? the game that made everyone run out and by a CD-ROM drive, but that no-one finished because the plot was poorly paced and the puzzles were too difficult? That sort of thing) and for a while used to frequent a message board dedicated to the genre. And, surprise, the main activity on the message board consisted of arguments between adventure game purists, who insisted that sedate puzzle solving was the essence of the adventure game genre, and a more "open-minded" faction that believed the games would be more popular if they incorporated fast-paced action elements. (All of this is now a moot point, of course, as the games in question back then are now completely obsolete.) The basic point, though, is that the integrity and unique qualities of the adventure game genre were pitted against the tastes of the perceived majority.

These are obvious, perhaps tedious, examples, and I could list others. But why do we have this identical argument every time we discuss any natural or human phenomenon? Why is it always so controversial, and yet so boringly predictable?

The answer, I think, is that all of these debates manifest a general philosophical question: how do we reconcile the universal and the particular?

There are, of course, two extreme examples; on the one hand, you have the post-Kantian, Enlightenment tradition that wants to access universal truths (justice, beauty, truth) through unaided reason. On the other hand, you have the standpoint of radical relativism, which says that there are only isolated particulars, and no universal standpoint from which they can be judged.

But doesn't this amount to the same thing? In practice, don't the proponents of cultural relativism usually turn out to be supporters of abstract schemes of universal justice? The supposed "relativist" begins by pointing out that his opponent's position is contingent and dependent upon various social factors. Since there is no absolute standard of cultural norms, or of ethical behaviour, he continues, the ideal society is one that is value-neutral and utilitarian, using technology and bureaucratic expertise to satisfy everyone's desires equally. What began as an attempt to respect the value of individual cultural traditions ends by creating a uniform society that erases all meaningful cultural differences.

Compare this to the classical music debate. On the one hand, we frequently hear people say that genre doesn't matter - "there's only good music and bad music". It doesn't matter whether you're listening to classical music, or jazz, or top-40 pop, or indie rock, or death metal, or acid punk, because they're all "just music". This is radical universalism. On the other hand, classical musicians are frequently attacked for trying to apply classical standards to other musical genres - the standards of classical theory, we're told, simply don't apply to pop music; the styles are too different. Carry this a little farther, and you have the ethos of CBC Radio Two - musical tastes are wholly relative and arbitrary, no music has universal appeal, and so the national radio broadcaster should serve up bite-sized portions of widely varying musical styles over the course of the day in order that each person in the country should be happy for five minutes. This is radical relativism.

Yet here, too, radical relativism and radical universalism turn out to be the same thing. When the CBC axed its classical schedule, their new programming was supposed to let a hundred flowers blossom, reflecting the enormous variety of our nation's multicultural heritage. In actuality, Radio Two became another unremarkable "adult contemporary" station with an unlistenably banal and unadventurous daytime classical show. If you try to embrace radical diversity without a basic organizing principle to bind it together, you will always end up with bland uniformity.

The solution is a paradox: universal concepts can only be known through particular experiences, cultures, and traditions. Contrariwise: particular cultures and traditions flourish best when understood as part of a larger context, as manifesting universal tendencies and trends.

What does all of this have to do with the future of classical music? Why has this post run so long? Who picked these colours?

My basic point is that any attempt to create a new future for classical music will have to accept the paradox of the universal and the particular. If we try to "create an audience" for fringe genres of music by making them sound more like mainstream pop, we'll get a sort of shapeless musical blancmange that no-one would ever want to listen to. Thankfully, there is no chance of this actually happening: the people involved in indie rock, or contemporary classical, or Quebec separatist rap, are doing it because they love the individual and unique qualities of that style, and think it's best suited to what they want to express. A meaningful dialogue between classical and pop music, therefore, would begin by asking what makes them different, why those differences are meaningful, and how those differences play out in terms of an actual musical experience. If you want to go on an hour-long emotional journey, exploring the possibilities of a few thematic ideas, then a Bruckner symphony is probably just what you're looking for. But everyone doesn't want that all the time, and any musical culture should enable people to have the sorts of different musical experiences that they value most.

I made essentially this point (minus the philosophical excursus) in a comment to Sandow's blog. He and I are in agreement, at least, that classical and pop music have substantive differences. Where we disagree is on how those differences ought to actually play out. I feel that the Western classical tradition deserves special status as the only example of a developed literate (ie: notated) musical tradition, and because its current form is contiguous with the European cultural heritage upon which our current society is based. He places a greater emphasis than I would on the supposed "spontaneity" of improvisation (the improvisers I admire, in the classical and jazz traditions, are in fact quite carefully structured, a trait I try to emulate when I improvise), and his complaint that classical works fail to live up to today's politically correct norms is, in my view, anachronistic and unhelpful. Most problematic, for me, is his frequent comparison of 19th-century virtuosi to today's pop stars, a facile equation that ignores the enormous impact of the mass media, without which modern pop music would never have emerged in anything like its current form. It is unlikely that I will agree with the conclusions he comes up with in his book, but his ideas are still worth considering.

All of this, of course, is just another part of the Concertina Brow agenda:

The Concertina Brow: Defending Legitimate Cultural Particularity Against Relativist/Universalist Homogenization.