The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Thu, 16 Aug 2012

Nobody mourned

Philip Hensher's recent article in the Independent was recently trended into my view. It made me angry. This also isn't the first time I've reacted this way to the arrogance of a small but vocal minority of those who identify their interest as being in “classical” music. So, there's nothing for it but to write this angry blog post in response.

What makes me angry? It's the appropriation of terms like “art” and “music” to refer solely to what suits Hensher's preferences (which he modestly equates with “civilisation”); insistence on partitioning music into “classical” (good) and “pop” (unspeakably awful, by implication), and conflation of art with technical skill.

I'm sure Hensher is not as stupid as his writing suggests. He is aware of the false dichotomy he is disingenuously constructing by contrasting “great classics” with “passing rock bands”. It's one of many tricks he uses to paint his own ilk as the poor, helpless, wise, persecuted victims. This feigned-injury self-righteousness really gets up my nose.

But aside from this distasteful rhetoric, the article reports an interesting phenomenon. Certainly, there is less popular familiarity with classical music than ever. I have no doubt that attendances and orchestra numbers are down all over the shop. But this decline does not mean that anything is dying. The fact is that Hensher's preferred musics have long enjoyed a subsidised mindshare owing to the kind of education he is demanding should be resumed---“an appreciation of the classics”. The classical tradition necessarily developed within the aristocracy. It requires expensive instruments; its technical demands require expensive training; its written tradition, which is seen as a defining characteristic, requires expensive education. The upper-crust heredity of our governments and education policies have ensured that until recent generations, “their” music was what “music” meant in school curricula, and in “respectable society” generally. This subsidy has ended, and the phenomena Hensher reports are perhaps a consequence.

With this loss of subsidy, Hensher is bemoaning a reality that has long been faced in all art forms not supported by such institutional measures. This reality for any art is that most people don't pay any attention to it, and certainly don't appreciate it. Even worse, considering music at least, what the majority of other people choose to listen to is clearly not very interesting. If only these people could be given a proper introduction! Then, surely, their lives would be improved! It's a tempting position, and I have felt the same on several occasions---in my case, a sudden impulse to purchase a sackful of Astral Weeks CDs and hand them out to random passers-by or, at least, anybody who expressed an interest. But there is a non-sequitur in this: just because there might be some music that a given person might come to appreciate vastly more than whatever mass-market pap is within easy reach, does not mean that Hensher's preferences, or mine, are likely to be ones that person shares. We have no right to impose our tastes on them, however much reward we personally have found in them.

If anything is worth adding to a school curriculum, it's the existence of a mind-boggling depth of output in music and most other forms of human culture. Even highly educated people often don't seem very aware of just how much really amazingly good music is being made and has already been made. Quite the opposite: people seem to doubt the value of music that they haven't heard of. As a result, they don't bother listening, and the cycle continues. I'll wager that most people who are interested in music have, during the formation of this interest, had their minds boggled by the realisation of how unfathomably much great music is out there. It continues to boggle mine. Making sure that every schoolchild is confronted with its bogglingness doesn't seem unreasonable. (Ironically, this enormous depth seems to elude Hensher, who only knows about the existence of classical music and whatever he understands by “pop music”.)

So, that's one curricular change. Next, it might seem tempting to try to teach something about how to listen to music. I reckon most people who are interested in music can remember going through a learning process of this kind, most likely by getting into a virtuous cycle of challenge and reward. The challenge is discovering new, “different” stuff to listen to, and the reward is discovering, after some perseverance, that you really love some of it. Tempting as curricularising this process is, I can't help feeling that this is not a journey for everyone. It's time-consuming, and is generally a solitary path. I think it's something only done properly by those who feel driven to do it. So, my feeling is that education can't do much beyond promoting cultural curiosity and an awareness of the riches to be mined; mining skills are teach-yourself.

There is a strange contrast between the learning process I just described, and the typical discourse on classical music. The latter, as I perceive it, has a huge element of “received wisdom”. Indeed, the fact that even ardent proponents like Hensher seem to revere the big-name “classics” rather than having their own favoured niche compositions. Are the “classics” really the best that the classical tradition has to offer the listener? I am sceptical about the extent to which a lot of ardent classical fans have ever really challenged themselves, as opposed to sticking with apparently respected, respectable “classics”. But it is the same with anything: there are mainstream crowds, and then there are hipster crowds; genuine independence of thought is at best rare and, to be honest, a myth---no human is immune to groupthink altogether.

There is more than a shred of truth to the idea that the narrow-minded conception of “music” or “art” among self-described appreciators of classical music alienates others from pursuing an interest in these musics. It's easy to trawl the web for people who share Hensher's interests and who come across, like him, as a mixture of upper-class twit and pretentious would-be intellectual. The comment section underneath Hensher's article, and the Wikipedia page about “Art music” and also the amazing talk page for the same all convenient honeypots for those of Hensher-like opinion. If I want to go and see classical music, putting up with these people would probably not be a price I'd want to pay.

The aforementioned Wikipedia page is particularly telling, because it turns out that what Hensher calls “art music”---an obnoxious enough label---others have the temerity to call “serious music”, “proper music” and “erudite music”. The talk page, in particular, seems to be ruled with an iron fist by somebody called Frédérick Duhautpas. Some faintly naive users put forward composer after composer as test cases to question the meaningfulness of the “art music” label, and Duhautpas bludgeons them with appeals to the authority of all-knowing musicologists who have probably never heard (or heard of) the music in question. If they have not spoken it, so it cannot be. The heart of the problem is that there is no intensional definition of “art music” By keeping the definition extensional, “art music” becomes---like aristocracy---a club into which only the chosen are ever accepted. This is practically the definition of elitism.,/p>

The closest Wikipedia gives to an intensional definition is that attempted by somebody called Catherine Schmidt-Jones: “art music” is “a music which requires significantly more work by the listener to fully appreciate than is typical of popular music”. So, where does that leave the atypical popular music? On that, she has also expounded as follows. “Popular music is, by definition, music that appeals to many people. You don't have to know anything about music to like a pop tune---it's ‘catchy’”.” This of course commits the novice and glaring error of failing to distinguish between “pop” and “popular”. But the more intriguing property of this statement is its corollary: that anything that is too subtle for mass-market success is automatically “art music”. If this was Schmidt-Jones's intention, then I tentatively salute her. But somehow, given the appalling ignorance of her pop-versus-popular slip-up, and the ugly generalisation she puts forward with it, I doubt this is what she meant. In any case, neither Hensher nor Duhautpas would agree.

(For me, “popular music” has always meant “music of the people”, and has nothing to do with popularity. In other words, folk music is the only true complement to the classical tradition, in that it is a musical culture propagated through precisely the complement of the aristrocracy, meaning through ordinary people. If you doubt the completeness of this analysis, I wouldn't mind hearing counterexamples. It's of course worth remembering that rock & roll owes its origin to the folk songs of African slaves and to the blues of the subsequent generations. In other words, “folk music” and modern Western “popular music” share the same root. Hearteningly, this interesting article suggests that my definition of “popular music” was once shared more widely.)

There is an interesting converse case to consider with Schmidt-Jones's “listening effort” definition. Surely “great classics” often rely on catchy tunes too? Does this make them “pop” and not “art”? I would be amazed if “classics” like Hensher's favourite Beethoven's Seventh exceed the complexity of the median record in my collection---a collection which, if you haven't guessed, doesn't contain very much that Duhautpas would call “art music”.

I think it's time to coin a new term. We want to exclude the made-for-marketability stuff that purports to be music, whether it's Katherine Jenkins or the latest X-Factor winner, and include any music made as an act of artistic endeavour---whether using classical modes and classical instrumentation, or the most modern and other-worldly sounds and structures, and regardless of technical complexity. Betraying my love of Malaprop and Del Boy, I'll go with “propular music”, for now, but send me your suggestions.

Even better: rather than trying to shore up arbitrary boundaries between musics---an elitist activity if ever there was one---why not just lump it all together? From the 20th century onwards, classical and folk traditions have become so hopelessly intertwined that there is no point trying to unpick them in any recent music. Why not embrace the melting pot? Fortunately, this spirit is at least somewhat alive within the very BBC competition whose apparent lack of profile Hensher laments. Lucy Landymore won her regional final in 2010 with a great performance of Zappa's The Black Page no. 1. Zappa is noteworthy as a composer of some highly complex popular music; of course, Frédérick Duhautpas vociferously denies his work is “art music”.

I only say “somewhat alive” because the BBC competition no doubt has some room for improvement in its attitude. I'm sure it's still run by people with similar mindset to Hensher's. Would an arbitrarily stellar-to-die-for performance of some technically simpler piece have won the same acclaim as Landymore's mastery of the Zappa/Bozzio drum solo? Of course not. These people are not impressed by music that isn't technically super-complex. Remember: you have to spend a lifetime learning “the art”! That's what Hensher thinks anyway, but he really needs to learn the distinction between art and craft. Much as I admire Zappa, instrumental complexity is not necessary for good art---it's just the way it comes out of some people, including that crafty Frank.

So much for the BBC's Young Musician of the Year competition. In the “other world”, of those happily stating a penchant for popular music, there is no such sniffiness. My first introduction to Erik Satie's Gymnopédies was a recording by Mercury Rev in one of their Peel sessions. Apparently they just felt like recording it. It didn't raise any eyebrows. My two favourite contemporary radio DJs, Gideon Coe and Tom Ravenscroft, have both featured pieces from the classical tradition on their programmes on occasion, when they happen to have discovered something they liked. David Byrne, one of my favourite music bloggers as well as a favourite musician, has a great TED talk wrote a great TED talk about performance spaces, which takes in the whole gamut spanning Gregorian chant, Wagnerian opera, CBGB punk and lots more. All these people think nothing of it. It's all music, after all.

If Hensher wants his preferred new composers to find an audience, and the concerts he prefers to keep happening, some of this inclusive spirit would not go amiss. I would suggest he stops mourning, starts opening his ears, and loses the persecution complex. Education can't force people to appreciate art, but perhaps it can make sure they know it's out there. Too many “art music” enthusiasts don't know the half of it.

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