“[T]he fashionable chatter about the need for greater participation in sports is entirely irrelevant to a discussion of their cultural significance. We might just as well assess the future of American music by counting the number of amateur musicians. In both cases, participation can be an eminently satisfying experience; but in neither case does the level of participation tell us much about the status of the art.”
(Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, p. 208n.)
A few weeks ago at the Mexican restaurant across from the Brooklyn Lyceum before one of the MATA Festival concerts there, I got into a heated discussion with MATA’s board president Jim Rosenfield about how wonderful we both thought the audience was for the concert the previous night. While the sound was not the optimal sound of a major concert hall and the chairs weren’t even attached to the floor, the music was pretty much all we heard that night. No audible rustling, no sudden conversations, no cellphones, and almost no coughing—a rarity in any concert hall these days and a stark contrast to the Argento premiere I ranted about on these pages a while back.
After recounting to him my frustrations with that performance, he referenced The Culture of Narcissism, a 1979 book by Christopher Lasch, which I knew nothing about. My copy finally arrived from Amazon, and I’ve begun reading it voraciously. Lasch paints a bleak picture of The “Me” Generation, which, as I turn each page, seems more and more like the starting point for when paying attention suddenly mattered less. The book is not really about music per se, but music as a cultural phenomenon obviously is affected by the sea change in our society which he is describing.
Eager to find musical connections wherever they may be, I rushed to the index to find a specific reference to music upon finishing a particularly absorbing chapter, which led me to the footnote which I’ve quoted above. I thought it might lead to some interesting discussion here.
I’ve heard it said negatively that the majority of people who attend new music concerts are either composers, performers, or people somehow involved with it professionally. But indeed what if that is not a bad thing? Rock legend has it that while the Velvet Underground never sold a ton of records, everybody who bought one started a band.
I knew a good many people at that MATA concert and indeed the people I knew were invariably composers, performers, or people somehow involved with music professionally. I like to believe that those wonderful concerts could have appealed to a broad audience beyond those people. But if such an event proved to be really meaningful to someone not involved with music, wouldn’t experiencing it make that person want to be involved?
Of course, what Lasch is disparaging is when people are unable to appreciate anything that does not somehow reflect themselves. Mirrors are ultimately less interesting than windows, but perhaps even more exciting than looking out a window is knowing that it leads somewhere else if you make the effort to walk outside and go there.