Equal But Separate

The classical music world is, for the most part, totally stuck-up. And it doesn’t look like anything is going to change the situation. For starters, these elitists can’t even admit that they have a problem: it’s called a superiority complex people. If only we had the resources to reach out to these unfortunate souls snared by the perfunctory trappings of contemporary classical music—see, even the term “contemporary classical” is oxymoronic. Pfft, oxymoronic, further evidence that these folks actually prefer multisyllabic words and confusing idioms. Reality check: Classical music is not inherently superior to all other genres of music.

Classical music’s canon is garnished with way too much esteem. Its self-important vibe completely overshadows its actual lack of substance. This year everyone is busy celebrating Mozart’s 250th birthday. C’mon, have you actually listened, I mean really listened to this stuff? It’s downright trite. It’s almost comical to think about the droves of tuxedos and gowns piling into concert halls everywhere for a little Eine kleine nachtmusik—uh, I mean Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, Koechel 525. And the masses are expected to venerate this music and blindly worship it, no questions asked. Okay, while we’re at it, let’s make Lindsay Lohan the honorary president of Mensa.

Can all this exaltation be residual from the days when little Wolfie composed for kings and royal occasions? Music is often used as a status symbol, especially today, but even the cultural significance of the sounds that hip-hop once implied is fading fast. Eventually, the music is removed from its social context. People move on, except for those stubborn connoisseurs of classical music, all the while thinking they know better than everyone else. Get a clue.

Music, regardless of when it was written, is benign until listeners create a collective mythology for it. We know all too well the image “classical music lover” conjures in our collective unconscious. But when it comes to the bottom line, I just can’t buy into the idea that the music of Brain Ferneyhough is any more or less significant than the music of Justin Timberlake—who, by the way, sang “If I wrote you a symphony just to say how much you mean to me, what would you do?” Awe shucks, Justin. There’s no need to do that. That’s so 250 years ago. Maybe we’re all in need of a public service campaign aimed at undeifing classical music. Perhaps some day soon all music will be on a level playing field, where it belongs.

6 thoughts on “Equal But Separate

  1. davidcoll

    but theres always gonna be these guys who are stuck up. If its not for reasons of snobbishness/delusions of the past glory of classical music, then its going to be the painfully blunt record executive who says its all about making money.

    Unfortunately i think the most commonplace way for people to create what you call “a collective mythology” is when its pushed down their throats by those who have the money, those who control the media.

    how is this different than viennese courts? i don’t think its much different.

    For just this reason i think its worth placing a little more hope in something like ferneyhough’s music, (among many many others of course)….we all place our own value on things-but the difference is how we treat these values- for once, not as commodities.. even if there is an idea/delusion of social change behind the music, the thing is that the source of the music reflects these different values.

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  2. Matthew

    If you compare pretentiousness across classical and pop genres, I’d say it’s a statistical dead heat. Have you read some of the blather over at Pitchfork? Have you somehow missed stumbling over the 387 shelf feet of fawning Beatles hagiographies at whatever conglomerate drove your local independently-owned bookstore out of business? Have you noticed how carefully (and comically expensively) people dress to go see the Arctic Monkeys? (Honestly, classical audiences are lazy by comparison—all they do is throw on a suit.) All my life I’ve heard about how pretentious classical music is, but frankly, I think rock and pop have been giving us a run for our money for, oh, about 30 years now. And they’re allegedly the ones having fun.

    Sure, there’s a small minority of rock musicians who can compare with the best of classical music. Fripp and Ferneyhough? A toss-up. Brian Wilson and Ferneyhough? Gotta go with Brian on that one. But Justin Timberlake (or any other TRL flavor -of-the-month) and Ferneyhough? Ferneyhough is more interesting, more meaningful, and, yes, more entertaining. (And I don’t even like him that much. Except for that piccolo piece. That was pretty cool.) And it’s easy to trot out K. 525 to make fun of. It’s dinner music. But how about Figaro? Giovanni? The last few symphonies? Any rock or pop music coming remotely close to that? I don’t think so. And show me any rocker who’s trying to come close, and I’ll show you the most pretentious album of the year. (Cough, cough… Ecce cor meum… cough, cough.) Classical music lost the corner on snobbery a long time ago. Stuck-up hipsters are still stuck up.

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  3. dalgas

    I’d swear we’ve gone around the “pretentious/elitist” merry-go-round here waaaay more than once already.

    Yep, you think the whole scene around classical is insufferably stuck-up, willfully obscure, anti-populist, etc. etc…. But as Matthew stated so well, classical music hardly holds the corner on that market. The real problem with your line of argument through this great leveling and sweeping away (shades of the Cultural Revolution, and on the 40th anniversary, no less!) is that applies to everything.

    Including your own work (which I’m not unfamiliar with & happen to enjoy); while it’s just as significant as Mozart and Ferneryhough, it also has no claim greater than Timberlake and Lohan. And it’s every bit as “elite” and stuck-up; played to a small cabal with their own proscriptions, actively ignored or avoided by the vast majority of people, across the cultural spectrum.

    If there’s no signifcance, everything is significant. If everything’s significant, nothing is significant. Your Yang lost its Yin.

    Steve Layton

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  4. JKG

    Superiority complex…
    Yep, some people got ‘em. Fortunately for those of us who have enough personhood to see through the veneer, elitist attitudes say more dubious things about the carrier than they do about the purported victims. That’s why I use a measuring rule concerning “how” my music affects folks – to help rein in any self-delusions which would get in the way of my becoming a more effective communicator. The rule? If a child or plumber (et al) cannot appreciate the beauty of what I’ve written, then it’s not good enough for me either. Go ahead, call me populist – so what?

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  5. Matthew

    Also
    Something very important I forgot to mention in my last comment (I was running out the door on the last one): musicians themselves are rarely anywhere near as pretentious as the critical exegesis that springs up around the fruits of their labor. I know very few classical musicians that are snobbish about rock and pop, and vice versa. I mean, we’re passionate about our likes and dislikes, but those ignore all boundaries. (It’s my own experience that jazz has the greatest incidence of genre snobs among practitioners, but they’re still a minority.) The question is: is it our job to somehow dampen down the pretention? Given the amount of nonsense that gets said/written on all sides of all aisles, I would guess that my eyes hurt from rolling as much as Randy’s do, but as David points out, there will always be those who, for whatever reason, feel the need to assign pedestal height based on style and/or age. I don’t think that’s something that composers or performers have a whole lot of control over.

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  6. Figaro

    Oh PUH-LEEZE
    Once again, here we have the mewling of post-modern solipsism, the narcissism of the historical moment, masquerading as responsible and discerning artistic judgment. Sorry, folks, all artistic expression is not equivalent. Could Justin Timberlake write the multimetric finale to Act I of Don Giovanni? Are comic books equivalent to Joyce’s Ulysses simply because some people don’t understand Ulysses? Is hip-hop as dense in thought and implication as the poetry of John Donne, Robert Browning, or Gerard Manley Hopkins? Is a prefabricated home architecturally equivalent to the cathedral of Chartres? Is a garage band as suggestive of sounds beyond hearing as Debussy’s La Mer, or Beethoven’s late quartets? Are computerized paintbrush program art equivalent to the brushstrokes of Rembrandt or Van Gogh? No, no, no, no, no, no. If you or your Justin Timberlake or Timberlake analogue could write a triple fugue, or Gurrelieder, then your argument might have gravity. The snobbery argument is not the issue, it’s a red herring, a straw man. That argument is the last refuge of the mediocre. Great art IS superior. What is inferior is its reception and understanding– particularly by postmoderns who believe that somehow if they pronounce that there is no qualitative difference between a great symphony or opera and some downtown noisemakers, then there isn’t. Sorry. There is– whether or not you like Mozart. The charge of “elitism” or “snobbery” purports to level the playing field but only advertises the parochialism, jealousy, and puerile, superficial sensibility of those making the argument. Let’s get real. Hamburgers are not foie gras, whether or not the king eats foie gras.

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