Saturday, January 4, 2014

How I Got Over

by Robert Fink

A complicated skirmish over musical form under capitalism appears to have broken out recently amongst the leftist intelligentsia. The opening provocation, from The New Republic, was an attack by Mark Oppenheimer on the social-climbing strain of current arts education. Opposing the legions of Brooklyn Tiger Moms, this mellow Alterna-Dad prefers to take his varied aesthetic pleasures, as did Kant, without conspicuous utilitarianism, and sees no reason other than pure elitism to prefer classical arts training as enrichment. (“I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ ‘Ho Hey’ on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.”)

To anyone watching the spread of Venezuela’s El Sistema model, which proposes group instruction in classical orchestral music as a panacea for all the world’s ills, this seems like a gentle and salutary reminder. There is nothing that special about classical music, is there?

Ker-POW! The swift, sharp counterattack came, not from the right, where one might expect a defense of traditional culture, but from the left, from a new magazine that clearly seeks to earn its rather alarming title, The Jacobin. In it, John Halle, a composer and professor at Bard College, unleashes a sort of Red Terror on behalf of classical music. Oppenheimer’s cultural slackness is a symptom of the “rot” creeping down from the 1%, from those self-satisfied members of the plutocracy who have abandoned all sense of noblesse oblige, who no longer even pretend that they feel an obligation to provide philanthropic support for non-commercial art and music. (He is thus complicit with the slow death by lock-out going on at the Minnesota Orchestra.) The neoliberal emphasis on “fun”the scare quotes are Halle’s, worthy of the ascetic Robespierre himselfshows the corrosive triumph of hip consumerism and instant gratification even within the professional classes. Let the little kids “jettison instruction in Mozart sonatas in favor of the three-minute rock tune, campfire singing and ukelele strumming.” Après nous, le déluge!

Having kicked the hornet’s nest, Halle and his editors no doubt enjoyed the ensuing swarm of splenetic comments, which largely boiled down to impassioned defenses of various Afro-diasporic musics and angry denunciations of Halle as a racist who championed “old white people’s music.” He had no problem swatting these away; as he noted, not one commenter had engaged with the central claim of his piece, which was that Western classical music was not just a different style of music, but a completely different medium than popular music, characterized by its literate infrastructure and a unique extensional concept of form:

These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences.

This is an old, old claim about the “great works” of classical music: it is no doubt congenial to a socialist critic because it springs from the same Hegelian worship of telos, the quality of goal-direction, that gave rise to Marxist theories of class struggle. This is the basic ideology of nineteenth-century theories of musical structure, from Hanslick’s “tonally moving forms” to what influential theorist Heinrich Schenker later worshipped as the Tonwille, the “will of the tones” traced out by the progress of an organic masterwork. It was still in force in 1959 when Leonard Meyer argued that all great music was a complex play of information, of expectations interlocking with gratificationsand that the best music, like the highest civilization, was that which delayed gratification the most. (Thus Beethoven was better than Debussy; and Debussy infinitely better than, say, “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers.)

Halle can attack me as a traitor to the working classand to the goal-directed mythologies of my own professional classbut as a working musicologist, I no longer steer by this myth about the special nature of Western art music. Let me be very clear, so that the Jacobins among my readers can relax: I’m not thereby placing musicology in service to the position that goal-direction is culturally oppressive, like the “petit bourgeois moralism” that the Man uses to keep us all down.

That would be falling in line with what Alex Ross rightly dismisses as “pop triumphalism.” The reality is less triumphant, but more disorienting:  if classical music is equated, as in Halle’s argument, with the entire literate musical tradition of the West, then, after some decades of looking, I can find no special musicological correlation between classical music and some essential quality of having goal-direction. And popular music, in all its complexity, is not reducible to some vast, formless plateau of present-ness, either. The perception of goal direction in music and musicians is a contingent, multifarious, culturally-specific phenomenon, and it does not, to put it bluntly, track with the presence or absence of melanin or the possession of a No. 2 pencil and some five-lined paper.

Music historians know that the Western literate tradition is filled with three-to-five-minute songs, mostly religious ones but some about love, from Dufay to Duke Ellington. The idea that there was some meaning in music alone just because it was written down would have been ridiculed by most Western intellectuals before the late eighteenth century; they considered the patterns of instrumental music as pretty interior decoration, no more readable by listeners than a Paisley tie. The American popular music tradition bears the deep imprint of African-American slave religion, especially its coded musical language of spirituals, hymns, jubilee singing, and gospel. It is thus pervaded by the teleological drive for salvation as liberation, “How I Got Over” its most important lesson, right behind “You Can’t Always Get What You Want (But Sometimes You Get What You Need).”

The game is almost too easy: a fifteenth-century motet by Ockeghem is goal-directed, but the ensemble rocking a twentieth-century Pentecostal church service is not? The gospel choir will sing longer, stronger, and build to a musical climax that will take your head off. (And drive you to put $20 in the collection plate.) John Cage, because he wrote his music down, is a carrier of middle-class values, while John Coltrane, who practiced scale exercisesfrom a bookfor hours at a stretch, is not?

Huge swaths of so-called classical music are less goal-directed than the typical pop song; plenty of so-called popular music has no words, and is carefully constructed in performance to build musical tension and release over spans longer than the typical romantic symphony movement. The visualization of evolving sound forms that once demanded four years of music theory, or an engineering degree, can now be achieved by a curious teenager with freeware apps on her iPhone.

So here is a musicological PSA: be immediately suspicious of any musical insider who informs you that he can reveal to you the deep structural “secret” that makes one kind of sonic experience, one kind of music making, absolutely different from all the others. There is no such secret. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. (Oh, and by the way, this Secret isn’t real, either.)

I am not a pop triumphalist, but I recognize the real danger in making cultural arguments for art music that depend on the claim of absolute structural difference between popular and classical repertoires. These arguments, the people who make them, and, unfortunately, even people who try to invert them, reproduce the basic logic of the “one drop” rule: they convert a spectrum of analytical browns into a false binarism of black and white, in order to privilege one term over the other. However strategic it may seem in the heat of argument, this teleological essentialism is not a functional defense of anyone’s music.

Robert Fink is Professor of Music at UCLA, where his work examines music since 1965. A popular lecturer on campus and off, he is author of a study of minimalism called  Repeating Ourselves (University of California Press, 2005). The—wonderful—working title of his next book is Beethoven at the 7-11: Classical Music in a Post-Classical World.


  1. Nice Bob. I see this all the time in my own academic circle--the orchestra is more important than the wind ensemble, which is more important than the early music ensemble, which is infinitely more important than the Afro-Carribbean ensemble and why is that group now doing global pop instead of traditional Ewe drumming with costumes? Oh dear.

  2. Music is a cultural product. As far as we know, all human cultures (and perhaps a few non-human ones) have produced something many people on the planet would call music. If you want to understand those cultures, it helps to understand their musics (or near-musics). To argue that one kind of music (in this case, western classical instrumental) is superior to all others, is to argue that the culture that produced it is superior to all others. (Can you say "colonialism"?) But even then, one supports that claim by judging it according to the values inherent in the tradition being supported. If one were to judge western classical instrumental music by the values of Karnatic music, for example, western classical instrumental music would come up short.

    Bottom line: If one's system of values isn't capable of accounting for the value in all the world's music, it's of limited usefulness . . . and is usually a reflection of one's limited education and knowledge. Do the fieldwork.

  3. Not sure I entirely understood the esoteric nature of the argument. However, examining musical comparisons outside of a culturally specific context becomes irrelevant. Elitist standards attributed to music become meaningless. Tuvan 'throat singing' ensembles may conform to different tonal scales of reference, and are indeed as dissimilar in terms of cultural reference as to for example Vivaldi's 17/18th choral works. While western ears might recoil and baulk at the strange harmonic tones of the Tuvan throat singing tradition. Were a Siberian herdsman to hear Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, he would probably be (right in) in thinking it was created for boys, castrated to prevent their voices from breaking. The Siberian's revulsion would however have the greater significance, as in terms of the humane practice of the culture, it shows quite which complies to standards of morality. Unless it’s considered that genital mutilation is an acceptable practice, it thus exemplifies quite how distasteful it can be to base ideals of sophistication and elitism towards precise standards of musical structure.

    1. Interesting. So you reject ANY notion of music for music's sake, and believe than any judgement that attempts to situate itself outside culture is worthless. Formality is always at the service of society. Further still, you go on to condemn music that puts formality over what you call "humane practice". But isn't considering "humane practice" self evident guilty of that very same error of trying to judge from an absolute viewpoint? I believe all judgements inherently imply an absolute viewpoint of one sort or another. Judging is an instrument vital to human societies. We obviously can't escape the values ingrained into our culture so I'd say attempts to transcend culture from within culture are also a sort of human necessity that can't be overlooked. "Unethical formalism" therefore, can not be so readily cast away in favour of a musical practice that complies with moral standards. With this argument we imply that the music of a people is only as valuable as the "people themselves".

  4. OK, there are probably no musicologists who would disagree that there is plenty to study in all types of music. But it seems to me that Halle's talking more about the macroeconomic situation, and he's made an important point. It may be a bit on the scaremongering side, with his talk of being able to "survive the century" (there does seem to be a lot of apocalyptical talk out there these days), but: the talk is very real in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where the demise of the Minnesota Orchestra is playing out before our eyes. Are we really comfortable with the "crude market fundamentalism" that Halle sees at work there? I don't think it's unrealistic to answer the "what will be next?" question with a look to the NEH and the NEA, which are very much on the chopping block in Washington. To say nothing of the market-forces challenges facing higher education funding across the nation. I for one am sorry to see crude market forces take such control over the community in which I live.

  5. I second Bob Judd's comment and I would like to add that in his post Robert Fink seems eager to take a red herring and run with it without really addressing the primary issue raised by Halle: that the ideology of market fundamentalist is ultimately at odds with the long term preservation of not only classical music, but of any type of cultural heritage which does not cater to the supposed needs of the market – I say supposed because there is plenty of evidence showing that market fundamentalists are perfectly happy with government subsidies when these suit their needs (see big banks, fossil fuel industry, private military contractors, industrial farming, and so on).

    In my opinion, Halle dwells on classical music primarily for two reasons: firstly, because he is responding to Oppenheimer and secondly, because he argues that the preservation of what he calls the classical music medium requires a particularly onerous (i.e. unprofitable) infrastructure due to the primarily written nature of classical music.