Thursday, August 28, 2008

Being Such an Elitist You Won’t be Satisfied Until Everyone is Elite. by Anthony McCarthy

One of the more irrational ideas that has become commonplace is that a passionate interest in what’s called classical music is a sign of snobbish elitism. Even when someone is advocating the wider encouragement of all classes of people to try classical music, the charge of “elitism” will follow. It’s a funny kind of elitism which insists on the right of all people to have access to high art. You’d think it would be obvious that it represents the exact opposite, radical populism.

Maybe its because there is, in fact, a snob audience for classical music who consider it their property, or at least their exclusive franchise. Anyone who has worked in classical music will have run into them. Some who aren’t musicians imagine that one of the greatest pleasures of being a musician, practicing, is the worst part of it. Actually, speaking for myself, it is the after concert reception that is the most brutal form of torture inflicted on musicians. The snobs who frequent and often are the reason for those events can be some of the most trying and obnoxious people in the world and you have to experience them at a time you are absolutely demolished by the experience of performance.

And there have been artistic snobs within classical music, though almost never have they represented the greatest figures of all, the great composers. Just about every really great composer was familiar with folk and popular music around them. They clearly listened to it and many of them explicitly incorporated it into their music. It’s always been that way, from Dufay to today. Jazz, even before it was jazz, absorbed the attention of composers from Brahms through Schoenberg. Stravinsky would never have composed the music he did if he hadn’t been aware of jazz and there are not many American composers who haven’t been thoroughly immersed in jazz. I’ve hardly ever met a good classical musician who didn’t have the highest respect for the great jazz composers and performers. Jazz composers have also composed very fine “classical” music.

And artists in other genres of music have certainly been interested in classical music, which has often stretched the limits of musical resources farther than their own idioms. Even many pop musicians, sometimes even the most banal of those, have enriched their music by borrowing or stealing from what classical composers have invented. The borrowing back and forth in what is called “country” music goes to the start and finds some of it’s clearest traces in the familiar suites of Bach and other baroque era composers and fiddle tune collections.

Just about to a person, the people I’ve known who have worked in classical music have been from the middle and upper middle class and just about every one has been on the populist side of the left. Some excellent classical musicians have had parents who worked in what would be considered menial jobs, a lot of them worked menial jobs themselves. The disadvantages of not starting out with good teachers due to lack of money is the real limiting factor for many people who would like to work in classical music. Unless people without money have parents interested in music and able to sacrifice and an unusual amount of drive, the disadvantages to them will be a roadblock to their achievement. But advocating that children be provided as good a basic musical education as possible will get you the “elitist” label faster than advocating the use of public money for a kitschy ornament for a little used venue. Isn’t it interesting that advocating tax breaks for the wealthy is unlikely to get someone called an elitist by the media.

You get the feeling that a lot of the pegging of classical music to elitism is done through the ignorance of people who don’t know the first thing about classical music, a lot of whom seem to be in charge of programming at public radio and TV stations. Since most of those I’ve met have been social climbers it’s possible that they deeply want to believe that “serious” classical music is beyond their audience’s attention span.

Or maybe they rely on those marketing surveys which should be banned by statute and charter for any public broadcasting medium. There was one I read about which seems to be responsible for the reduction of public broadcasting’s classical music programing into a manifestation of what Virgil Thomson called “the music appreciation racket”. The results are eternally repeated chestnuts and banal alternative offerings that are offensive because they achieve bathos through boring inoffensiveness. I’ve heard rumors that the disappearance of vocal and original instrument performances from some public radio stations are due to this kind of survey. When’s the last time you heard Bach that wasn’t played on a piano on your local radio station?

I once heard a program director who was outraged when someone said that the purpose of his station was to educate, something that is explicitly stated in their mission statement and, I’d guess, the excuse for the deductibility of donations to them. God help us if someone should learn something new from listing to public radio. Like just about all of what passes as contemporary culture, it’s practice is to confirm existing experiences and stereotypes, not to challenge or overturn them. But that will get me on the pathetic state of the “avant guard” again. “Posterior poseurs in pursuit of patronage”, would be more accurate. So you see that is a topic relevant to a discussion of American public broadcasting.

The descent of the news programming in public broadcasting into establishment babble has matched the destruction of its music programming. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence.

Maybe it’s because I was forced to go to so many of those after concert receptions. I’ve had my elbow rubbed by rich snobs, I’ve had my ear chewed by them. I’ve had to smile and answer them without having heard what they were saying. With few exceptions, I’d rather practice music with a rowdy bunch of public school students. You’re more likely to find someone who’s listening for the first time and having their imagination kindled. The experience I got as a teenager hearing, my first hearing Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, the clarinet after the introduction the non-stop compulsion to listen and pay attention to the very end, the amazing audacity and daring of it. The memory of that still raises my hair and makes me know life is worth the effort after more than four decades. It has dragged me out of low spots any number of times. That kind of experience is the birthright of every human being.