Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wiping my Brows

Looking at yesterday's post, with fresh eyes, I realise now that there are aspects of it that are pretty unclear. Rambling is an occupational hazard in blogging and I see that I'm pretty guilty of it.

I should also point out that this analysis works a lot better in North America than it does in Europe, and given much of what I'm getting at is North American, I'm not even going to begin transposing it to a European context.

I feel I'm carrying the "brow" heuristic too far, but it seems to be working and it's kind of fun, so (again, my apologies to Joshua Glenn, any errors in my analysis that refer to "brows" are mine and neither his, nor Russell Lynes', nor Hazlitt's...

So, what was I trying to get at yesterday? Some theses (feel free to disagree).

1) The idea of "classical music", as popularly conceived by both classical music lovers and those uninterested in classical music, is premised today on the idea that classical music is a form of highbrow culture. This is false. It is, with some exceptions, a predominantly middlebrow preoccupation, as much as indie rock, techno or jazz are today.

2) For all kinds of reasons, such as the development of recording technologies and the ensuing commodification of musical tastes, a bifurcation emerged which posited classical music as "highbrow" and popular music as "lowbrow", and while these on some levels reflected social and economic stata, they were also tied heavily into the marketing of music in the early 20th Century (for see Caruso).

3) At some point during this time, a cognitive dissonance emerged in people who enjoyed classical music. On the one hand, they enjoyed classical music, which, from a broad cultural perspective, was seen as elitist and highbrow for marketing reasons (I believe this in part to be because classical music was, generally more expensive to produce and lent itself less readily to the recording technologies of the time - a jazz standard could be made to fit on a single side of an LP- a Beethoven sonata, was not so forgiving), and so classical music lovers identified themselves as "highbrow".

However, given the middlebrow weight of interest in classical music, the middlebrow desire to impose their values on the highbrow and lowbrow populations led to the emergence of the desire to proselytise classical music to the lowbrow, chastising them for their lack of self-improvement. At the same time, the "highbrow" were chastised for not listening to popular music, a situation which sounds strangely familiar, doesn't it?

4) This has led us to where we are today, which is that we have a false dichotomy between high and middle in the bulk of North American classical music culture, where people identify themselves as highbrow but, for the most part, behave like middlebrows.

OK, I think that's clearer than yesterday. I suppose the question remains as to whether or not this is a good or a bad thing. I instinctively want to say it's a bad thing, but I'm not fully there yet, because I do enjoy the idea of exposing people to Beethoven and Bach even though they may not think they'll like it. Why?

Because that's how it happened with me. But then maybe I was destined to be a highbrow...I kid.

1 comment:

K Syer said...

Good topic. Just a few ramblings. I would agree that, in the present context, classical music appreciation is, in fact, middle brow if by that we mean that it is about the middle class who are its greatest consumers. However, perhaps we should establish what exactly middle brow means. Are middle class and middle brow synonyms? Maybe, maybe not.
Alternatively, what is elitist? As far as music appreciation is concerned, does the available of a particular type of music determine its level as high, medium or low culture? If so, virtually the entire history of the Western music tradition is available to a listener with an iota of interest no matter where one lives. In your point number one you seem to be identifying middle brow with middle class and I agree that classical music appreciation is a middle class pursuit.
I think rather that the amount of effort one needs to put into something has a direct bearing on one's enjoyment when it comes to music appreciation. And if one has invested the time, interest etc. in deepening ones level of involvement in classical music the rewards are exponentially increased. In the case of classical music, reading the history of composers, singers, forms, etc. deepens the level of enjoyment that one can experience as well as listening to multiple version of a particular work. This allows one to discern one’s own individual taste and leads to a sense of belonging or participation in the fortunes of the art form. To be of this cabal of cognoscenti which, I agree has been marginalized at CBC Stereo, has many rewards. Radio pleasures are, however, diminishing.
The dumbing down of CBC radio and its justification that all music is equally valid is rubbish. CBC Stereo taught me about classical music in the 1980sn and I will forever be grateful for that. Neophytes today do not have that gift anymore. Toronto’s CJRT’s Records in Review program was a great educational tool as well. I have been in Ottawa for 20 years and I have never forgotten it. All this to say that middlebrow has levelled the possibilities for deepening an emotional experience vis-a-vis classical music. It is being choked off at the roots. This isn’t just to say that classical music has a strangle hold on profound musical experiences. A Callas Lucia or a Flagstad-Melchior Tristan can be equally as profound an experience as a Thelonious Monk Prestige recording or a Coltrane classic quartet recording. But opportunities for profound listening are being stifled on public radio who would like to hear their Canadian content pop/alt-country whatever. My jazz and opera examples noted above each require work in the behalf of the listener to have a deep experience/communion with the work. Maybe that is the key, no one wants to work for their pleasure.
Classical music production in the 20th century is responsible for its own predicament. They went down a path where the listener wasn’t interested to follow. And you are probable onto something regarding the identification of Boulez and company with classical music is not the traditional view where classical music is Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. Boulez and late Coltrane alienate. Sorry for the ramblings.