Sunday, October 28, 2007

The State of Classical Music

I was originally led to "The Musical Mystique," Richard Taruskin's New Republic article about classical music, by Robert Archambeau. Now Kyle Gann has also posted a response to Taruskin, too. The article, and both responses, are well worth a look for anyone interested in classical music, but they are also worth consideration by those who are interested in the state of poetry today (or jazz or other aesthetic interests somewhat out of step with the mainstream), mutatis mutandis, of course (I hope I'm getting the Latin right there).

I'll quote two bits from Taruskin here:

1. "To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity." No holds barred there! (I wish my students were willing to take bold positions like that—yes, I am spending the weekend marking student essays.)

2. The books he reviews end up being "unlikely to help solve classical music's most pressing problem, which is the problem of audience renewal." A question: is that also poetry's "most pressing problem?"

Kyle Gann downplays his paraphrase of Taruskin, but he also says something worth quoting at length:

"In my callow youth I was a proponent of the view Taruskin attacks, a real Adorno-ite, art-is-good-for-you, pop-music-dismisser. I'm stubborn as hell, and yet I got over it: why can't other people? One of my best assets, I think, is a strong sense of musical reality, which I attribute to having been deeply exposed to music before I could talk. And even though I grew up rather shockingly distant from my generation's beloved rock 'n' roll, my sense of reality told me fairly early on that there was nowhere to draw a line between the pleasure I got from listening to, say, Bruckner or Feldman, and the pleasure that I got from the occasional Brian Eno or Residents song that I was driven to listen to over and over again. And I slowly realized that I didn't get that pleasure from listening to, oh, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, or Carter's Second Quartet, which I did out of a rather pious sense of duty and a feeling that they would build character. And then, of course, the new music, or Downtown music, or experimental music, or whatever delicate euphemism you terminophobes want to apply to the music that I wrote about at the Village Voice for 19 years, was a repertoire dedicated to plastering in the gigantic crack between pop and classical. Some of that music was more conventionally entertaining than other pieces, but there was no way to deeply appreciate that music and pretend that art and entertainment were separate human activities. I can boast a virtuoso range of ways to be entertained, but any music I'm not entertained by I quit listening to, no matter how highly ranked it is in the history books."

"A virtuoso range of ways to be entertained": something to aspire to. — In poetry's terms, both those who call for accessibility and those who call for difficulty (each to the exclusion of the other) obscure what they have in common: that each group is looking for entertainment. The accessibility people want to be entertained in one way, the difficulty people in another, quite different way—but they share their desire to be entertained by poetry.


Donald Brown said...

"To cast aesthetic preferences as moral choices at the dawn of the twenty-first century is an obscenity."

Something about that bothers me. Perhaps it's the fact that a moral dictum ("is an obscenity") is being assigned to the act of conjoining aesthetic preference and moral choice, as in: you can't attach moral choice to an aesthetic preference, and I can condemn that practice from a moral position. Deeply suspect. Then again, one could argue, "obscenity" does not connote "moral condemnation" but rather aesthetic condemnation, so then we get: it is aesthetically displeasing for you to conjoin aesthetic preference to a moral choice. That's less obnoxious, perhaps, but seems to entrain circularity: it's not just bad aesthetically to make aesthetics moral, it's also bad morally.

So I actually would rather my students didn't begin essays with internal contradictions they haven't resolved, so as to seem, um, rhetorically Adorno-esque?

Andrew Shields said...

A nice reading of the tensions in that sentence!

The problem my students have, though, is that they would prefer not to take any positions at all. I'd rather have them make a bold, risky, internally contradictory claim like that than read yet another essay that avoids making any claims at all, apparently on the grounds that to make claims is to risk offending people.

Donald Brown said...

ah yes, that is the problem with student papers, understandably so (they don't want their grade to suffer because they backed the wrong horse). But how do we convince professionals to avoid making, "bold, risky, contradictory statements" that are simply rhetoric?