Sunday, August 3, 2008

Literary and Musical Classics

Norm Geras cites a rather odd-sounding comment on classics made by Susan Tomes:

Loving Shakespeare may be a charming trait, but loving Bach marks you out as a nerd.
Maybe in Britain that's true; here in the USA, loving Shakespeare tops out at nerdy but mostly consigns the party to bleaker categorizations: elitist, snob, or heavens forbid, intellectual -- and I'm not even listing the homophobic entries. Tomes continues:
I've asked myself why classics of literature and of music should be so differently regarded. And I feel I have an inkling. Only in music do the classics have to compete with a vast, loud, hugely commercial popular field. It shouts so loud that it is difficult for quieter or older music to make itself heard. Nothing comparable exists in plays or books. Yes, there may be texts, emails, magazines and newspapers of immense variety. But crucially, they are all silent. There is no way that a form of literature can actually shout louder than another or drown out another's voice.
It's the business of silence and loudness that makes this claim hard to puzzle out. Surely Tomes isn't claiming that Lil Wayne or Coldplay are literally playing so loud that we can no longer hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, right? I can, however, see some validity to this on a figurative reading of drowning out: as in, we are constantly awash in music (over the radio, in the background if not the foreground of film and television, in retail settings, and so on) and most of it sounds closer to Coldplay or Lil Wayne than to Mozart or Bach. Therefore our musical vocabulary is biased strongly toward the contemporary stuff that Tomes finds deficient. And maybe, on this reading, she is on to something.

... or so I was prepared to evaluate her claim until I read the next sentence:
The classics of music, which do not use amplification, are struggling to survive.
Really? This is about amplifiers? Um, no I don't think this is a matter of decibels.

Still, there's something here. What is not being amplified -- to use the word figuratively -- is the connection between contemporary and classical music, and the means of making such analyses: steady declines in formal music education leave us less and less able to make sense of music. Young people come to schools with a large mental inventory of music, and that inventory expands as they navigate popular culture, but little or nothing in their formal schooling connects that musical inventory with the classics. It is less and less possible even to be exposed to the musical classics in formal schooling, and so they drown by fiat.


Martin R. said...

I'm not entirely sure in what world Susan Tomes lives. I agree with the sentiments of her argument but find her expression of it at odds with reality.

Take, for example, her claim that nothing comparable to the conflict between classical and popular music exists for plays and books. On the subject of plays, has she never heard of television? How much Shakespeare is getting a regular airing on television (how much Pinter or Chekov (Anton not Pavel) for that matter)? Not a lot, I would argue...even, and indeed particularly, in Britain. Theatres need to compete to get people away from their televisions and they don't do this by putting on Aeschylus or a run of Restoration Comedies, they do it by putting on popular musicals with, if at all possible a cast of people purloined from the world of film and television.

Books too have a comparable problem. The marketing around the execrable Harry the Potter series did little for the sales of the classics of literature, I would argue (and, no, Lord of the Rings, isn't a classic of literature). Books are aggressively marketed (and constructed) to get on the elite best-sellers list. If you're not on the list then you won't shift enough copies. We are also seeing, even here in the UK, the biggest factor that determines whether a book is 'good' or 'bad' (i.e. will sell by the bucket load and get on the list or be remaindered within 2 weeks) is the endorsement of feckless television celebrities who apparently host daytime television chat shows. Good literature is being swamped by the business of book selling – trite rubbish meets the criteria for success more than anything with more inherent artistic merit.

You are right, this has nothing to do with decibels (I’m pretty sure that certain passages of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring could give a lot of popular music a run for its money on the decibel levels, for instance, and those cannons in the 1812 are none too quiet either), it is about exposure. Popular music is thrust upon you (like television and best-seller books), but you need to spend some time and effort to discover classical music (like good plays and literature). You are unlikely to stumble into the works of Rameau or Monteverdi just by sitting still and accepting what is coming out of your television and popular radio stations.

Dale said...

Excellent points, Martin. I know that when I survey the reading material of the people riding the commuter train with me -- a cross-section that captures, in Lisa Simpson's memorable phrase, "the poor and very poor alike" -- there's little Shakespeare to be seen. In fact, I don't think I've seen even a single person with a work of Shakespeare in my several years of public transit. What I see is Dan Brown, more Dan Brown, the Bible, still more Dan Brown, true crime junk, romance novels, and down from there. Certainly the Harry Potter scat is well-represented.

Some read newspapers, and that's as high on the brow as it gets.

And for what it's worth, Stravinsky rocks.

Shawn (A New Atheist) said...

I think she makes an interesting point about Classical Music. It has lost cosiderable ground in the North America. And I do believe that most do prefer amplification. The louder the better to the masses. But classical music is too mature for the masses. This age that is obsessed with visuals has no symapthy for acoustic sounds. Great composers like Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky and Sibelius have infintely more depth than megadeath or Madonna. People watch their music now. Or they want instant music on an iPod or music in the background while they pound on their keyboard. Not that I don't listen to music while I type. But its music appreciation and understanding thats missing. Our Attention Deficit Disorder Society just hasn't the time to spare. How much they miss!

Dale said...

Shawn, you're right. It's a shame what people miss when they miss out on classical music. But since you mention it, I actually think the practice of playing something in the background while typing/web surfing/doing whatever is not such a bad way to pique interest.

Thanks for stopping by.