Monday, October 3, 2011

Democracy and the “State of Crisis” (or lack thereof) of Classical Music

Nicholas Cook’s chapter “A State of Crisis?” does well to question one of the central assumptions we often make about the future of classical music. It seems that cultural commentators wherever one turns are suggesting that classical music is, in some sense, under siege. Sometimes, this is expressed by conservative critics as an intrinsically bad thing, that the greatness of culture is being swallowed by Justin Bieber (or whoever they think currently represents the nadir of culture). Levine’s epilogue of Highbrow/Lowbrow provides some notable examples of such conservatives: Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, as well as William Crutchfield, who claims that classical music “is more accessible than it ought to be already, because we have gone fairly far down the road of cheapening and diluting it in order to make it accessible.” (Levine 1988: 254) At other times, new accessibility and fusion in classical music are hailed as great changes, things that will revive the life force in an otherwise flabby and conservative tradition. In either case, the commentators are convinced that classical music as we know it has reached its endpoint, and can only change or die.

This claim is, as Cook puts it, “too sweeping.” Classical music, and specifically “modern” classical music, may only flourish in certain contexts, “but the point is that in those areas it does flourish.” (1998: 46) We can become so certain that fusion with other forms of music will be the future of classical music that we tend to condemn music that doesn’t choose to reference other genres, calling it conservative and inaccessible. As A.O. Scott suggests in the film articles I cited here previously, this line of thinking is just as narrow-minded as conservative elitism – we end up tarring each other as “snobs” or “philistines”. Around a century ago, many American classical composers were convinced that jazz was the true American idiom, and that national American music must reflect this, creating a brand of jazz-classical fusion. By now, this idea seems at best quaint and dated (American classical music continued both with and without the influence of jazz), and at worst essentializing and racist in its equation of primal expression and pure authenticity with African-American music. There is nothing wrong with fusion as a technique, but there is nothing wrong with working within a set of genres either.

Ultimately, whether we see classical music as undergoing a “State of Crisis” or not comes down to how we define democracy. Democratic political theory has often played out tensions between views of individual or collective freedom. On the one hand, Marx’s view of collective freedom, denied to an oppressed class and then gained through revolution, fits well with our view of Crisis in classical music. Large groups of people have been denied access to classical music, both economically and through cultural capital. The progressive fusion side of the “State of Crisis” mindset holds that we must make music available and understandable to all. Cook’s objection, on the other hand, is more in line with the individual freedom of John Stuart Mill, celebrating eccentricity as the realm of the truly free. Why should there be anything wrong with appreciating a niche cultural phenomenon? If we can throw away holier-than-thou ideas about classical music (an admittedly heavy assumption), can we likewise throw away the idea that everyone must love classical music for it to be viable?

Each of these approaches fails to account for the other. How can we fuse these ideas? Perhaps classical music needs to take its cues from the counterculture movements of the 1960s, which combined socialist-democratic politics with pride in living at the fringes of society. Can we both celebrate holding a minority taste and make our minority more accepting of others? Can we envision making classical music more accessible without aimlessly hoping for the notoriety and sales clout of pop icons?

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