It’s fun to laugh at snobbery. So fun that’s it’s easy to forget what an insidious effect it has on classical music. Last week, the 2013 Proms programme was published, leading to this bizarre response from Stephen Pollard in the Express, who argues that the whole two month festival is fatally compromised by the inclusion of a single event featuring urban music.
Pollard voices opinions about the relationship between classical music and other styles that we rarely hear, but that inform the thinking of many in the classical music world. He argues that rappers and DJs are not “real musicians”, because they lack “years of practice”, “skill”, “intelligence” and “a basic concept of genuine music”.
Classical music continually finds itself on the defensive. Perhaps that’s fair, given that it must defend a still-generous public subsidy denied to almost every other genre. A sense of self-worth is crucial, and so we collectively and unconsciously fit together all of the reasons we think classical music is great into a matrix of value judgements. Those in the know share these values, so they don’t often get discussed, but they revolve around the facts that classical music is: notated, professionally produced, intellectually challenging, and, possibly most importantly, part of long, long tradition.
But look what happens when they are applied in the negative to other musical styles. It is easy to find any other music wanting if these are your only value criteria. And looking at them in the abstract, there is nothing self-evident about these value judgements. Notation has an important function in the music that uses it, but that function stops short of elevating the resulting sounds above other musical discourses. The professional status of classical musicians has its artistic benefits, but in social terms it can be seen to distance, even insulate, the culture from the society it ought to serve. And as for historical continuity, any young German or Austrian composer will tell you that working within a culture so saturated with great historical figures isn’t exactly conducive to creativity.
An idea of cultural superiority pervades the classical music world, and although the arguments above give some idea of the values that are seen to elevate the music, the reasons why it even needs to be elevated remain obscure. At one end of the spectrum it might be rationalised simply as personal taste, but that seems like dangerously complacent thinking when at the other end we find a range of unpleasant ideas about cultural supremacy.
Fortunately for us, many musicians in recent times have addressed these issues head-on. John Cage is perhaps the most important example, a composer who wanted us to think differently about music, so took a few key pieces out of that matrix of assumptions to see how the rest would fare. His introduction of chance into both the composition and performing spheres reduced (I’d hesitate to say removed) compositional decision making, setting his music adrift from intentionality and historical continuity.
All this began in the 1950s, but it’s still controversial, not least because of the uncertainly it introduces into the status of the music that most of us would like to continue thinking of as ‘classical’. Earlier this year, the composer Daniel Asia wrote an article for Huffington Post in which he rubbishes Cage’s legacy. The article generated a lot of debate, with Tim Rutherford-Johnson among the more articulate and perceptive critics of Asia’s argument (his articles on the subject here and here). But I’d like to suggest that Daniel Asia did John Cage a favour. Reading Asia’s comments it is clear that Cage’s music offends his traditional views of what music is. And so all those underlying assumptions come to the surface: Cage eschews harmony which “has been central to Western music for over a thousand years, and it is one of the glories of Western Civilization”. “...melody or motive is rarely present.” And his music fails to engage the mind.
How perfectly Daniel Asia encapsulates the thinking that John Cage sought to move away from. In doing so he demonstrates exactly why Cage’s music is so important. Cage himself said little against traditional musical values (the quote that “Beethoven was wrong” is a rare exception), he just wanted to show that an alternative was possible, an alternative way of thinking about sound and an alternative value system for treating it as art. Many have accepted his invitation, but the radical sound art that has since resulted, all the happenings and gallery instillations, sit apart from the classical music world, and rarely seek its approval, or even its money.
And when they do seek its money there’s hell to pay. Last year, Norwegian avant-garde improvisational music group Supersilent toured the UK on funds from the Arts Council. Norman Lebrecht protested that they didn’t deserve the money because...they don’t rehearse. Of course, that is exactly the point of an avant-garde improvisational music group, but as far as Lebrecht is concerned, musical value is dependent upon (presumably amongst other things) serious rehearsal time.
Clearly, there is no point in trying to adjust the values that we think make classical music great. All those notions of depth, sophistication, insight and even authenticity have accrued over a long period and stand up well on their own terms. But today there is a lot of music at the edges of what we consider classical, and some of it is out to challenge those assumptions. More importantly, most music today is not “classical” in any sense and is produced and enjoyed by people who have no interest in classical music’s value system. The whole idea that classical music is superior in any sense to any other music is a shaky intellectual construct at best. Most in the classical music world are intent on preserving that belief, shared within the community, if not beyond. Paradoxical thinking is required to maintain the logic of the argument, but classical music as a culturally-superior art form remains a viable concept. But if commentators are intent on bolstering its status by reversing its values and then projecting them onto other musical traditions, it doesn’t stand a chance.