Monday, September 12, 2011

Responding to Highbrow/Lowbrow, Prologue & Ch. 2

A few thoughts regarding Highbrow/Lowbrow:

The only book available at the Coop when I went was the Cook, so I read some of his Very Short Introduction while waiting for Highbrow/Lowbrow to arrive from Amazon. As a result, my thoughts on Levine are very colored by Cook.

Hierarchy of composers over performers

One of Cook’s arguments suggests that much of the hierarchies in our current musical categories turn on valuing the composer over the performer (the performer is, in turn, more valued than the listener). Music history texts focus primarily on composers; when performers are mentioned, it is often to criticize their overuse of artistic license or meaningless virtuosity. Likewise, singer-songwriter "authenticity" in rock is more highly valued than cover bands or pop singers (e.g. Madonna, Spice Girls) who do not write their own material (Cook 1998: 12-14). Cook’s point nicely complements Levine’s description of the “sacralization” of American musical culture from the 19th to the 20th century. Perhaps the best example of this is when Levine contrasts Jullien’s gargantuan symphonic shows with the Germania Musical Society style: “There were musical groups… that strove to concentrate on the music rather than the performance.” (Levine 1988: 110) Levine doesn’t deconstruct his use of the word “music”, but it is meant as “the music itself”, that is, the pure artistic vision of the composer. According to the Germania Society, the artistic greatness of the composers they presented were far superior to any performers’ contribution. Also see Henderson’s criticism of the Metropolitan Opera (p. 103), in which he claims the public was more interested in seeing a “hotch-potch” of opera stars than in the music they were singing.

Sociology of the arts and its influence on Levine and Cook

However, it is also clear that many things changed in academia in the 10 years between Levine and Cook, especially regarding the influence of sociology on musicology. I was surprised by how timid Levine sounded in his introduction, being sure to include a caveat: “My own interest is not in attacking the notion of cultural hierarchy per se. Obviously we need to make distinctions within culture.” (Levine 1988: 7). I was surprised considering that it had been almost 10 years since Bourdieu’s La Distinction was published. Clearly, Levine’s line of thought on hierarchy and art has powerful allies in the sociology world – why does he seem so defensive in the prologue?

Perhaps Bourdieu only really became an accepted part of the canon in the years between Levine and Cook. Cook is clearly very influenced by both Levi-Strauss’s structuralism and by Bourdieu. The linguistic side of structuralism comes through in Cook’s section on “Words and Music”: “The values wrapped up in the idea of authenticity, for example, are not simply there in the music; they are there because of the way we think about music puts them there, and of course the way we think about music also affects the way we make music.”(1998: 14–15) Likewise, Cook’s analysis of cultural or aesthetic “capital” of music suggests his indebtedness to Bourdieu.

What about pops orchestras?

One last quick criticism of Levine (perhaps not so much a criticism as what I think is an interesting omission): Levine suggests that the medley style of orchestral concerts, combining Beethoven symphony movements with vernacular song and opera arias, was lost in the process of "sacralization." In many ways, it was. However, that American tradition is still very much alive in orchestral pops concerts that crop up all over during the summer months. The musical selections at pops concerts are similarly eclectic, and the audience is large and heterogeneous. Apparently, we actually have held on to a part of the 19th century musical culture.

Edit to this section: looking over the chapter again, it seems that I have misrepresented Levine's argument regarding the effect of sacralization on pops orchestras. He does in fact mention the Boston Pops, claiming that it was created as a way of segregating this type of eclectic performance from the "serious" regular season symphony concerts. I think he accounts for pops orchestras very well with this argument. I withdraw my previous criticism. Still, it is interesting how the pops concert genre has persisted in its popularity today. In spite of a century of change in popular musical taste, these concerts still include many popular forms of the 19th century (19th century song, marches, opera aria, symphonic excerpts) alongside 20th century music (pop songs, film music, music of American composers such as Copland or John Williams).

Thanks for reading!


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