It all began when Ferguson created an audio-visual collage called “The Music They Made.” (See here.) It’s a clever compendium of musicians who passed away in 2012 – including Whitney Houston, Earl Scruggs and Ravi Shankar.
Ross calls this oversight an “insult,” and uses his blog to launch a “protest” against this state of affairs. (See here.) It’s particularly disappointing at this time, says Ross, because both Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter died in 2012.
Ferguson responded with a posting of his own. (See here.) After offering his respects to Ross’s contributions to criticism and scholarship, he sets him straight on what “The Music They Made” is all about.
Ferguson writes: “The unspoken (and rather obvious, if you ask me) criterion to inclusion is that these are artists who have affected popular culture.”
Much as my own personal sympathies lie with Ross, I have to admit that Ferguson has a point about classical music’s lack of impact on popular culture. Even in New York City, the “capital” of classical music in North America, you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of people in 1,000 who could tell you who Fischer-Dieskau was. And for Carter, there would only be a few in 10,000.
As I see it, what the Ferguson-Ross debate is really about is a struggle over the word “music” (used without qualification) itself. Ross points out that “The Music They Made,” really ought to be called “The Non-Classical Music They Made.” Ferguson replies that it’s “obvious” what kind of music he’s talking about. When he adds that the culture’s general ignorance of Carter is “much to our impoverishment,” it’s hard to know whether he’s being sarcastic or not.
In an ideal world, everyone would be careful to specify what kind of music they mean when they use the word “music.” Things would be clearer – and there’s also an implicit politeness in acknowledging that the music you like isn’t the only kind of music in the world. It’s a small thing, but it’s a sign of a well-developed Weltanschauung.
However, that’s not what most people do. I’m reminded of how the Blues Brothers movie poked fun at musical closed-mindedness: when the brothers show up to play at a redneck roadhouse, they ask the bartender what kind of music is usually featured there. “We’ve got both kinds,” she replies. “We’ve got Country and Western.” (See here.)
And it’s especially not what most people in classical music do. The classical music world’s fondness for calling classical music simply “music” – as though it were commonly acknowledged to be the only music worthy of the name – is a marvel to behold. (After all, even King Canute knew when his feet were wet.) Throughout the 20th century, classical musicians did their best to marginalize any kind of music that wasn’t classical, claiming “mainstream” status as their unique cultural property.
We lived by the sword – attempting to cut popular music down to size – and now we’re dying by it. (Or, at least, we’re feeling its sharpness against our skin.) Why should pop music critics embrace classical music? What has classical music ever done to support their musical values?
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The very concept of a musical “mainstream,” is misleading, majoritarian and hegemonistic. It’s about time we all wised up and understood that some music is broadly popular, some music is enjoyed by small groups – and it’s all music.
There are lessons to be learned here, for both Ross and Ferguson. It will be interesting to see who’s included in “The Music They Made” next year.
© Colin Eatock 2013