Elitism and Eclecticism

The New York Times recently published a problematic yet provocative opinion piece by Shamus Khan called “The New Elitists” about the changing tastes of the upper classes. The musical and artistic inclinations of the rich, Khan argues, are no longer characterized by exclusivity, but instead by eclecticism:

Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self… By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today—middle-class and poorer Americans—are subject to disdain.

The idea that elites congratulate themselves on their eclectic tastes, while not recognizing that they are class-determined, is thought-provoking and significant. The reality, however, is certainly at least a little more complicated; for one thing, you certainly don’t need to be painfully wealthy to have eclectic tastes. It’s also extremely rare to find someone who is universally eclectic, as Bethany Bryson shows in her article “Anything But Heavy Metal.” Bryson’s research asserts that, while musical eclecticism does generally increase with education and affluence, certain genres still tend to be excluded:

People use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike… Tolerant musical taste is found to have a specific pattern of exclusiveness: Those genres whose fans have the least education-gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal-are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant.

The specific genre boundaries may have shifted a bit in the 15 years since Bryson’s study first came out, but the principle still holds. There’s another aspect that’s absent from Bryson and Khan’s assertions, however: call it “anything but opera” or “anything but jazz” or “anything but atonal music.” In other words, stereotypically “high class” or “elite” genres also tend to be excluded. (This is vividly and hilariously captured in Dave Soldier and Nina Mankin’s “Most Unwanted Song,” which combines operatic, atonal cowboy raps with children’s chorus, accordion, and bagpipes.)

I bring all this up because in the new music world we often equate eclecticism with accessibility. If we combine “difficult” music with influences from popular music and other genres, the theory goes, we will attract new and more diverse audiences, and shed the stigma of elitism that surrounds new music. But I can just as easily imagine a scenario where the opposite is true: if you demand familiarity with many genres instead of just one, you may actually alienate more listeners than you attract. Clearly, the interaction between eclecticism and elitism is much more complicated and fraught than many people realize.

I struggle with this because throughout my life I’ve internalized the idea that musical eclecticism is important, and something that makes my generation of composers distinct from previous generations. If you were a student composer in the 60s or 70s and you weren’t writing in a style that utilized serialism, chances are things were very difficult for you. The next generation rightly reacted violently against this tyranny and embraced minimalism and popular music as influences. Many composers in this group, some of whom I count among my teachers, rejected serialism and other extreme branches of the avant-garde entirely, believing them to be completely bereft, soulless dead ends. By contrast, many composers of my generation fail to see the contradiction between the popular and the avant-garde. To us, the previous generation had simply exchanged one kind of prescriptivism for another. Not having grown up under any particular kind of aesthetic oppression, anything and everything could be a valid source of inspiration.

Of course, this kind of eclecticism isn’t limited to music. In “Literature as a Mirror,” Kyle Gann uses literary fiction’s obsession with “perfect sentences” as a metaphor for new music’s fetishization for ornate notation. Throughout, Gann mentions David Foster Wallace as an example of a writer who could be utterly compelling or boring, despite writing consistently accomplished prose. Wallace is a particularly revealing example to pick out, I think, since he was clearly engaged in the same kind of self-conscious eclecticism that composers often engage in. I am not sure all of Wallace’s writing has aged well, but I remember finding it exhilarating when I first encountered it. The combination of an outsized vocabulary, convoluted sentence structure, and copious footnotes with colloquialisms, contractions, slang, and undisguised sentimentality—it is clearly an attempt to rejuvenate language in a particular way. But if you are not interested in or not aware of this project, I can see how it would be uninteresting. Perhaps self-conscious musical eclecticism is similar, and as a “project” only speaks clearly to other composers.

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11 thoughts on “Elitism and Eclecticism

  1. Jacob

    Complicating things further is the fact that within the genres of popular music — including the “derided” ones like metal, country, and rap — there are “lowbrow” strands and “highbrow” strands whose respective audiences don’t tend to overlap. For example, Seether vs. Dillinger Escape Plan, Sugarland vs. Crooked Still, Pitbull vs. El-P, etc. It seems that nowadays, when taste exclusion occurs, its more likely among these “brow” lines than along genre lines. I think it’s much more common to find someone who likes Xenakis, Meshuggah, Feist, and Wilco (all considered highbrow in their respective genres) than to find someone who likes John Williams, Katy Perry, Aesop Rock, and Lucero (mixtures of high and lowbrow).

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  2. Thomas Patteson

    Thanks for another great essay. Eclecticism is without question the new dogma, which is not to say it’s without value, but only it too, is ultimately only a style. Much the same could be said of the position of “interdisciplinarity” in academia: the most interdisciplinary work is often the most forbidding.

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  3. Alex Temple

    I don’t think that most composers who draw on aspects of popular music do it in order to make their music more “accessible.” As far as I can tell, most of us do it because it’s part of our experience as listeners. I know I’ve spent countless hours listening to pop music of many genres and periods, just as I’ve spent countless hours listening to notated music of many genres and periods, and both experiences have had a huge influence on how my musical imagination works. In other words, it’s not that I’m putting pop music into my work — it’s that I’m not deliberately taking it out. And the idea of purging all pop-culture influences from all my music is about as appealing as the idea of purging all words with Anglo-Saxon roots from my speech.

    I don’t think it’s true at all that deliberately eclectic music is of interest only to composers. Just look at the enormous amount of pop music (broadly defined) that uses polystylistic techniques, from experimental bands like Mr. Bungle to the last couple of OutKast albums. I see where you’re going with the David Foster Wallace analogy, but what makes his work difficult is the complexity and length of his novels, not the fact that they draw on multiple writing styles. [i]Dracula[/i] is stylistically eclectic too — it’s constructed as as collection of newspaper reports, diary entries, ship’s logs and so on, including a couple of long passages in working-class London dialects — and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that it’s an impenetrably esoteric novel.

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    1. Isaac Schankler

      I think you’re absolutely right that it’s equally contrived to excise influences from your music, and that eclecticism is found in a lot of places other than new music. One thing that’s missing from what I wrote is an exploration of the different kinds of eclecticism, because there so many ways to approach it, with different aesthetics, purposes, and meanings.

      I do believe that the David Foster Wallace-style eclecticism, what I tentatively called “self-conscious” eclecticism, is a distinct breed and akin to what I often see in new music (including my own) — a very self-aware sort of conflation between “high” and “low” forms that is more than a little bit show-offy. I used to find it to be the most interesting thing about Wallace’s writing, and now I think it might be the least interesting. I’m starting to feel the same way about music that does the same thing, like a lot of Zorn’s more aggressively eclectic music, but I’m not sure if it’s a product of my age or a product of feeling like that “project” is over and that we need to move on somehow.

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      1. Alex Temple

        Maybe it’s just a product of you having had your fill of a particular kind of art and getting sick of it. I actually just read Infinite Jest last summer, and I found much of it moving, fascinating, evocative and funny, so count me on the “let’s not end this project yet” side. Actually, I think the whole “project is over and we need to move on” formulation is very problematic no matter what it’s applied to. It’s really no different from how Adorno and his disciples talked about tonality.

        That said, I do agree with you that eclecticism isn’t enough to carry a work of art by itself. What makes Infinite Jest a great novel rather than merely an exercise in cleverness is that DFW has an incredible understanding of human emotions. That’s also why, as I said in that big Twitter conversation last week, I’m not very interested in Jeff Koons’s use of cheesiness: there’s really not much there besides the basic idea of recontextualizing kitsch.

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  4. Alex Temple

    I should add: I actually do want my music to be “accessible,” if that means “able to be appreciated and enjoyed by people who aren’t part of the New Music scene.” But in my experience, accessibility has more to do with rhythm, syntax, density, clarity of gesture and clarity of form than with the variables that people usually have in mind when they talk about eclecticism (mainly harmonic language and timbre).

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  5. Phil Fried

    “..To us, the previous generation had simply exchanged one kind of prescriptivism for another…”

    Yes I agree with this. Yet its this tidy narrative of musical history that simply does not convince. Did Brahms compose music in a popular style? Yup. Plenty others too. Also these folks were successful in the popular music field. Not just successful in the new music community.

    Perhaps it seems that recently the American classical music and opera world is turning its back on the trained composer. So perhaps the mask of a popular musician will suffice for all of us to survive.

    So music, that can have no particular meaning other then the editorial supplied by a curator, the question of whether a work is eclectic or not, though moot, may be crucial.

    Also

    Any causal visit to a High School lunch room will reveal the truth of Bryson. I myself have been pointing this out for years. As for Khan this shows that in America no delusions are more beloved than self delusions.

    Phil Fried, No Sonic prejudice

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  6. Joelle

    Loving the Bryson article. Thanks for sharing. Though in your last paragraph I think you are perhaps confusing your definition of eclecticism by equating it with post-modernism.

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  7. JAH

    I got into Wallace’s writing only in 2008 or so, when I read the first ~200 pages of Infinite Jest. Then life happened and I didn’t get a chance to start over and plow through the whole thing until 2011. I read about 30-40 pages/day and loved every bit of it. Afterwards I watched/listened to various interviews with Wallace (he did great interviews; the best are the few he did with Michael Silberblatt on Bookworm, which can all be listened to for free on the Bookworm web site). One thing I recall him saying is that he was basically a realist struggling to be realistic in a culture in which genuine expression is seen as cheesy and sentimental and only irony (i.e. the negation of expression) is taken seriously. The eclecticism in his work, I think he says, is simply a reflection of the times (i.e. the only way he can see to be realistic).

    To me this is borne out in reading his work, with the exception of The Broom of the System, which does sometimes read like a romp through style and language. Infinite Jest and The Pale King (haven’t read any of the short stories) feel more genuine, and the stylistic shifts feel more like means to an expressive end rather than part of an aesthetic project.

    I recently read both volumes of David Cairns’s wonderful Berlioz biography and the stuff in the second volume about L’enfance du Christ and his struggles with Wagner (and necessarily Liszt) touch on the same topic. After L’enfance Berlioz received praise from some of his fiercest past critics, including Fétis, who praised him for having moved past the vulgarity and grotesqueness of earlier works. Berlioz insisted that this was nonsense and that the restrained style of L’enfance was simply the best means to that particular dramatic end, and that he had not rejected any of what he had done before.

    The same attitude is expressed in his rejection of Wagnerism. Berlioz couldn’t sign off on Wagner’s vision because it was too prescriptive and detached from the demands of the individual work. He felt that it treated certain styles and dramatic approaches as abstract projects to be pursued for their own sake, rather than as variables that are contingent upon the dramatic situation. Even in his orchestral music, I’ve never gotten the sense that Berlioz was inflating the orchestra just to do it, as some sort of abstract timbral project. He was always trying to accomplish something poetic and had to break new technical ground to do it.

    In this area I think Wallace and Berlioz are similar. They both commanded very large orchestras, which others often accuse(d) them of using gratuitously, but which to them (from what we gather) seemed essential for the expressive task at hand.

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  8. Kira

    Hi all,

    I found this piece quite intriguing. The literature analogy and mention of “ornate notation” was one part I could easily relate to, being someone that tends to stick to some less than trendy positions when it comes to music. (CDs and concept albums forever!) I don’t know if I necessarily agree with everything said -not because of anything Schankler wrote specifically, but more so just the position of what we’re calling an “elitist” based on the collective thoughts and research of the indivuals in this essay. It seems one qualifying characteristic leads into another but with so many exceptions to the qualifiers themselves, (declared by the elitists,) it’s harder to see what the real concrete point in calling yourself such, really is. As far as Mr. Schankler is concerned, very articulate and strong piece. I enjoyed reading.

    I elaborated on my thoughts with a piece on my site here: http://nice-dice.blogspot.com/2012/07/eclectically-selective.html?m=1

    Feel free to read and let me know what you think of my position on this discussion.

    Best,
    Kira

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