The article lies firmly within the why-kids-today-don’t-like-classical-music genre. And it addresses many of the themes common to such articles. (It’s also a bit of a cliché, as Wright looks to be in his 60s and Barton could pass for 30. Wouldn’t it be fun, for once, to stage a debate between a younger classical musician and an older rocker?)
I say “predictable” because this argument is often trucked out when classical music supporters want to point out that their favourite music is no more costly than some popular entertainments. But this argument is never as effective as those who make it would like to think – because pricey tickets are just one aspect of classical music’s image problem. To those who see classical music as intrinsically elitist, even free classical performances seem remote and exclusive.
So it’s not surprising that Barton also raises other concerns. “Now there is a weird aristocracy of music,” she protests, “where people automatically assume classical music is superior to rock n’ roll. My problem is with the way it is represented and regarded.”
Wright responds by saying that he, personally, doesn’t see music as a “hierarchy.” And he then goes on to argue that there’s good and not-so-good music in all genres, whether classical or hip-hop.
However, this response seems designed to deflect rather than directly address Barton’s concerns.
Barton is making a broad observation about the place classical music has carved out for itself in the world. And she’s right: many of classical music’s supporters have long claimed (implicitly and explicitly) that their music is the best kind of music there is. She traces the origins of hierarchic musical value ranking back to the early days of rock n’ roll (like many rock n’ rollers, she seems to think 1950 was the Dawn of Time), but in fact it goes back much further. And it’s only recently that the “classical music establishment” has made any attempt to renounce this ideology.
Yet in disavowing claims to superiority, classical music has thrown itself into an existential trap. If all musical genres are equal, then why are arts councils subsidizing classical music but not hip-hop? Indeed, the whole edifice of classical music is constructed on an economic foundation of government funding, tax exemptions and other forms of public support. If no musical genre is better than any other, why not just withdraw classical music’s state-sanctioned privileges and let the free market govern the musical world?
I think there is a way out of this trap. Rather than arguing about whether or not classical music is “better” than other genres, let us draw attention to the music’s qualities.
Except in its simplest forms (such as Strauss waltzes), classical music makes demands on the listener that popular musics generally don’t. Classical music often requires a longer attention span than is needed for a three-minute popular song in verse-chorus form. Furthermore, its structures tend to be more elaborate: musical ideas are developed, or may be juxtaposed in counterpoint with each other.
Western classical music is not alone in valuing complexity and elaboration, or in unfolding over an extended musical time frame. These qualities can also be found in jazz, in the ragas of India and in the gamelan music of Indonesia, to name a few other examples.
My intention is not to propose that complexity and elaboration are surefire ways to forge an innately superior kind of music. (If the history of classical music in 20th century demonstrated anything, it’s that over-complexity has a way of falling flat on its face.) But I am proposing that the cultivation of these qualities sets classical music apart from (most) rock n’ roll.
Ultimately, whether a piece of music is long or short, elaborate or simple, what matters most to most listeners is its affective properties. First and foremost, a musical work is judged and valued for its capacity to arouse an emotional response. On this principle, classical fans and rock n’ rollers seem to agree – but they disagree about what kind of music is most affective.
Popular music strives to be affective, to be sure – often delivering its emotional impact in direct and visceral ways. Classical music can be direct and visceral too. But because of its broad in scale and intricate attention to detail, it can also be delicate, tranquil, solemn or any of a hundred other things – within a single composition. It aspires to be sophisticated in this way, and invites listeners to appreciate (either consciously or subconsciously) its subtleties, nuances and shifting layers of meaning.
For classical music to survive in today’s world, it, it will have to get used to co-existing peacefully will all other genres and styles. Claims to musical superiority are counterproductive – they only serve to offend the Laura Bartons of the world, and cause them see classical music as aloof and pretentious.
But at the same time, for classical music to survive, its supporters must be prepared to make a strong case for what makes it special. We should not be too fearful of charges of elitism to speak up on classical music’s behalf.
© Colin Eatock 2012