Paying the Fiddler, Calling the Tune and the Madwoman in the Attic

At the peak of its visibility a few month ago Occupy was not only popular, but also fashionable to the extent that hidebound establishment elite institutions were compelled to respond to it.

Among these were arts institutions for whom the sort of cultural relevance which Occupy possesses as well its appeal to a younger demographic, is not just desirable but even necessary. On this basis, it made sense that the most terminally unhip and geriatric of the arts, contemporary classical music, felt some pressure to associate itself with occupy. And it was for this reason that the leading professional advocacy organization for contemporary classical composers, New Music USA, would request an article from me on the relationship of composers to Occupy to run in its online journal, New Music Box.

While I recognized that affinities between a movement of the ninety nine percent and what is, almost by definition, an elitist enterprise would be hard to come by, I was glad to do it wrote a rather long piece explaining more or less precisely that, and submitted it to them.

Things proceeded smoothly-the editors read it, had a few suggestions and corrections, and were clearly excited about it running. One of them described it “amazing” though adding, somewhat ominously, that she was “going to want to give my CEO an early read on it as well, just because of the subject matter/politics involved.”

So it came as no surprise that, in a few days time, I received an email from the CEO in question (who I should mention is an old and close friend) inviting me to chat on the phone about the piece.

Knowing well he had in mind to discuss, I responded to him that it wasn’t necessary for him to take the time out of his hectic schedule to inform me that they could not run the piece. All that was necessary was one or two words of confirmation and he could go back to doing what he does by all accounts exceptionally well: managing to keep an important and vibrant organization afloat during the worst economic conditions of our lifetimes.

He insisted however, and we spent a pleasant half hour covering the expected ground– the unpleasant realities which prevented New Music America from associating itself with the piece I had written. What was particularly problematic was that the piece “named names.” That is, that it mentioned specific benefactors of classical music and the de jure and de facto crimes on which their fortunes were based. Among these, as it turned out, the most problematic was Mayor Bloomberg who was, as was described in the piece, both a generous, albeit anonymous benefactor and at the same time a careful puller of the purse strings attached to his largesse.

My response was that the piece was responsible, sober, and seemingly well sourced and as such would seem to make it fit for publication. But, as we both recognized, that was precisely the problem: Had the piece been a fact-free rant or had it had expressed the same views in the kind of purple prose characteristic of some composers rhetorical style it would have been easily ignored. This would not be so easily confined to the composers’ sandbox, and it therefore had the potential to expose New Music America to serious retaliation from its funders and would raise questions about NMA’s management oversight of its in-house journal.

We concluded our conversation on an additional point of agreement: that their rejection of the piece was itself a demonstration of the central claim that composers remain beholden to their patrons within the 1% whom they must treat with deference. In this respect at least we are not so different from Bach, Mozart, and Haydn after all.


Having my conclusions validated was gratifying; having my work effectively censored was not, but in the age of the internet other publication options were available. One of these was provided by my friend and colleague Kyle Gann who was nice enough to post the piece on his blog, one of the more widely read sources of information about contemporary music. Also, New Yorker critic Alex Ross graciously described the piece as “well worth a close read” on twitter with the result that it would probably be seen by most of those who would have read it had it appeared on the NMB site.

While the piece generated a certain amount of conversation on Kyle’s blog and on a few other locations which linked to it, I was a little disappointed to have received what appeared to be even less response than similar sorts of pieces I have written in the past. Furthermore, even the favorable responses seemed to skirt around the main issue, focussing on whether the money we might accept from this or that foundation was in some sense tainted by association. That was directly at odds with my intention which was not to accuse composers as being morally culpable in the crimes of elites, but rather to focus on the systemic basis which makes inevitable the Hobson’s choice which composers face.

Of course, in the case of New Music Box avoiding the central issue had an obvious explanation, namely, the financial one which they owned up to. But what about rank and file composers? The piece did suggest one explanation for our averting our eyes, that composers have internalized the value system of the elites and are as uncomfortable about being confronted with the rap sheet of financial rape and pillage as the elites themselves.

But while this is part of the story, there is more to be said. In particular, what needs to be recognized is a kind of deep, dark secret within the classical music family which needed to be carefully hidden from the broader public, least they get the wrong idea about who we are and what we stand for.

As alluded to above, for decades classical music has made a herculean effort to deal not so much the problem discussed in the piece, classical music’s connection with elites, but rather with a variant of the problem: its perceived elitism. Despite decades of audience friendly virtuosi and all too eager to please composers, elitism still is seen as woven into the fabric not only of the social circles associated with classical music, but into the music itself. The most conspicuous instance of the latter is academic high modernism whose notoriously disparaging relationship to its potential audience was unapologetically outlined by one of its iconic figures in the now infamous essay “who cares if you listen”.

These and other highly public pronouncements made necessary the decades long campaign of damage control a main current of which involves attempting to shove the high modernist madwoman back into the closet. A recent example of the genre is a widely circulated column by the Guardian’s Tom Service rebutting what he takes to be “five myths about classical music” . As with all such exercises a fair amount of distortion and special pleading is required to make the case for the defense. Thus, the old hobby horse of Milton Babbitt having taught Steven Sondheim is trotted out, with the implication that underneath the rubble of combinatorial hexachordal detritus is a Send in the Clowns struggling to get out. To other audiences, a completely different marketing strategy is rolled out: pieces such as Stockhausen’s Gruppen and Xenakis’s Jonchaies are “signal, culture-changing achievements of contemporary music . . . open(ing) your mind and ears to re-hear the world, to realise the beauty that’s around us in sounds we would otherwise call noises.” To still other audiences, Service celebrates contemporary classical music’s connection to traditional audience favorites such as Ravel and Prokofiev, but then admits that “(t)here’s a good argument that the less you know about Mozart or Schubert, the more directly you can understand the sounds composers create today.”

In short, classical music is a full service shopping mall of consumer preference, offering all demographics a line of product appropriate to their budgets and life style. “All you need is an open mind and open ears” and Mr. Service will find the right model of Sonata(TM) for you.

This is not the first time Madison Avenue techniques have been recruited in service of an Upper West Side product, though their prospects for success are no better now than in the past. The reason is that audiences are, in fact, far more sophisticated than the marketers given them credit for. Many have attempted to engage those pieces or others like them and have not found in them the promised populist bon-bons, but rather something very different, more like broccoli. Whether or not they are familiar with Babbitt’s (or Feldman’s or Schoenberg’s) published statements expressing an aristocratic disdain for an ignorant and uncomprehending public, they are able to correctly infer from the music itself that it is not designed with them in mind-hence Service’s case coming across as applying chocolate covering to a brussel sprout.

This is not to say that there is no place for the musical equivalent of vegetables. Quite the opposite. Rather, any defense of classical music generally needs to start from the premise that there is a place for many kinds of musical expression, only some small fraction of which will be supported within the fatally degraded ecosystem which is the late capitalist marketplace.

But to make this claim goes against many generations of indoctrination into what has become our market fundamentalist state religion. In the absence of massive transformation in public attitudes, a kind of mass deprogramming, observing this and other completely obvious truths will come across as at the least eccentric and maybe bizarre. Or more likely, as Orwell would have predicted, they won’t even be heard at all.

And so the response to my piece didn’t come as a surprise. It was an attempt to insert add a brick onto the wall which Occupy is hoping to build.

A small contribution according to my abilities, as the saying goes; the best I could do under the circumstances.

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