December 15, 2005

my love is bigger than your love! SING IT!

You know, just when you think that the idea of the classical music snob who disguises his contempt for lower-class music as amused tolerance is nothing but a strawman, along comes a blog post like this one from Alex Baker. Alex Ross, who linked to it (and highlights a very perceptive phrase about what's sapping classical music's cultural power, "a wave of anti-intellectualism from the right combined with a wave of antagonism towards the western tradition from the left"), writes "yawn on the pop-classical wargames." But I can't quite leave my reaction to Baker's post at a yawn.

For instance, Baker writes:

My mother was telling me stories she heard recently about how Evgeny Kissin, during the intermissions to his recitals, finds a piano backstage and continues practicing--this, a man who has probably practiced no less than 4 hours on any given day in his conscious existence. This makes me impressed by Evgeny Kissin, and the monomanical devotion that classical artists have for their craft. But I don't want to hear that this is what Bono does backstage during U2 halftimes. The man is a rock and roll star. He should be blowing lines or doing groupies or solving African poverty or something. I have no doubt he's an extremely talented musician and he writes very good songs, but the two just aren't comparable in terms of infinite technical craftsmanship, NOR SHOULD THEY BE.

So, wait: why don't you want to hear it? If a rock musician is monomaniacally devoted to craft, does that mean he or she doesn't count, somehow? Is the idea that all popular music ought to be totally spontaneous, proceeding from "talent" that doesn't take any effort to hone, and not from, say, artists working incredibly hard to make something that's meaningful and powerful, even if it comes off as effortless? (Do you think U2 just kind of show up at the recording studio every couple of years, grab some instruments, flick on their innate star quality for a couple of hours, and then go home to count their money?)

A little later on, Baker writes:

If [Sandow] thinks rock music is all about an authentic passion that somehow eludes classical music, I would invite him to come to one of our many fine clubs in Williamsburg and prove to me that 50 percent of the experience isn't just feelin' cool and enjoying the ambiance of the other dour hipsters. Live music is a social experience and it comes with a healthy dose of superficial environmental factors that have little to do with the actual music. That's fine. But let's not pretend like people that go to rock music don't have their own petty reasons for doing so. I mean...please.

This is one of the most tedious (and nonfalsifiable) my-taste-is-better-than-your-taste arguments: "you can't actually like that stuff, can you?" (Extra points off for that sneering apostrophe.) People's aesthetics come from all sorts of places, but bad faith is not generally one of them--especially among people who actively seek out music in performance. Tu quoque at best.

One thing I often find odd in conversations like Sandow and Baker's is discussions of how the "classical tradition" (equated with, inevitably, all of its institutions) can, or should, be saved--the tone is generally one of trying to preserve the Library of Alexandria from Visigoths, or woodworm, or something. Baker, very smartly, suggests considering it a "tradition in flux." But painting people who admire music outside of that tradition and those institutions as Visigoths and woodworm might have something to do with their antagonism, or (more likely, and more to the point) their indifference.

Posted by Douglas at December 15, 2005 1:22 AM | TrackBack
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