Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington


Ken Smith
Photo of Ken Smith
in front of “Smoke Free” (1999)
{cigarette butts and wood, 45″x67″}
by John Salvest
(courtesy Rudolph Projects)
Photo by Melissa Richard

A former political journalist turned music critic offers up a HyperHistory uncovering “smoke and mirrors” politics in the American classical music business.

My name is Ken. I’m a recovering addict. I can trace my awareness to the 1988 Convention floors in Atlanta and New Orleans where as a working journalist I first saw thousands like me, high on an adrenaline rush from an endless stream of platform items and camera-ready politicians. You couldn’t even call it substance abuse. There was no substance.

Moving to New York from Washington gave me a new lease on life. Over the past decade music has replaced politics as my chief obsession, and though I will admit to a twinge of nostalgia during the Lewinsky days, my life for the most part has been cheerfully apolitical. My New Republic subscription eventually lapsed and my political news increasingly comes from late-night monologues. And I know I’m not alone.

The thing is, looking around at the music world, I think that’s part of the problem. Musicians are as much a subculture of our society as political junkies, and if locked in a room together they could certainly find common ground. But most of them will never find the same room. Ask a musician to name his state senator and you’ll most likely get the same silence as asking a U.S. Congressman to name his favorite American composer.

Public indifference to concert music is understandable, since non-commercial music has rarely been on the popular agenda. Unlike the Old World, where composers and musicians were for centuries cheerleaders for the state (take a look at the obsequious texts to any Purcell court masque and you’ll see exactly what I mean), American musicians have rarely filled a national function. Concert music, along with opera, has kept itself out of the mainstream, treating itself at various times as (a) an ethnic identification with the old country, (b) a tool for social advancement, and (c) a publicly funded entity like any other deserving minority. American composers, particularly those fringe figures who challenge European cultural heritage, have it even worse–shunned by America’s Euro-centric cultural institutions as well as “democratic” taste. It’s little wonder that Charles Ives remained in the business world, where unlike the music world his innovative mind was treated with the respect it deserved.

But I digress. Music often suffers next to theater, dance and the visual arts on the public agenda because it’s not “about” anything — and when it does become “about” something, it’s usually because musicians have let the agenda be wrested from them. Think of Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait being dropped from the 1953 Eisenhower inaugural concert because of connections to the Communist party. Or to recall a case of musical flag-burning, when a organ student was arrested at my alma mater during the McCarthy Era for playing Ives’ “unamerican” Variations on “America”.

How does music rate on the public agenda in Washington? How political are American musical figures, and do their different roles dictate different agendas? Do conductors vote like corporate presidents and orchestra players like union members, as their roles might suggest? Are neo-romantics composers neo-conservative and serialists communists, making all pitches equally bankrupt, to paraphrase a recent argument in The New York Times? Are music critics and radio programmers filled with liberal bias, or part of the “right-wing media conspiracy”? Do the various music industry handlers — managers, publicists, presenters, etc.– have their own political agendas, or are they just as pragmatic as image consultants on the political stage?

Is it time for “politics” to enter American musical life, or vice versa? And if the word “politics” is too distasteful, lest it evoke either echoes of right-wing filibusters or shadows of cold-war dissidents, let’s call it “public awareness.”

We hear plenty these days about “The Politics of Hollywood,” as a recent panel at New York’s 92nd Street Y was entitled, but what about the politics of Carnegie Hall? Last month, the institution celebrated the 80th birthday of Isaac Stern, who 40 years ago led the rally to save the building from destruction. Even more significantly, the violinist played a major role in the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts, the center of a decade-long Congressional debate in which the musical voice was conspicuously silent. Granted, musicians of Stern’s stature are few and far between, but how hard is it to command a few line items on the national agenda?

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