Populism and Elitism, pt. 1

Posted: October 15, 2016 in Artistry, Blogroll, Classical Music, Culture, Debate, Music, Sports
Tags: , , , ,

See this exchange where Neil deGrasse Tyson chides Sam Harris for failing to speak to his audience in terms it understands:

The upshot is that lay audiences simply don’t subscribe to or possess the logical, rational, abstract style of discourse favored by Harris. Thus, Harris stands accused of talking past his audience — at least somewhat — especially if his audience is understood to be the general public rather than other well-educated professionals. Subject matter is less important than style but revolves around politics, and worse, identity politics. Everyone has abundant opinions about those, whether informed by rational analysis or merely fed by emotion and personal resonance.

The lesson deGrasse Tyson delivers is both instructive and accurate yet also demands that the level of discourse be lowered to a common denominator (like the reputed 9th-grade speech adopted by the evening news) that regrettably forestalls useful discussion. For his part (briefly, at the end), Harris takes the lesson and does not resort to academic elitism, which would be obvious and easy. Kudos to both, I guess, though I struggle (being somewhat an elitist); the style-over-substance argument really goes against the grain for me. Enhancements to style obviously work, and great communicators use them and are convincing as a result. (I distinctly recall Al Gore looking too much like a rock star in An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe it backfired. I tend to think that style could not overcome other blocks to substance on that particular issue.) Slick style also allows those with nefarious agendas to hoodwink the public into believing nonsense.

A contrasting elitist argument is offered by Roger Scruton in an article at the Future Symphony Institute entitled “The Post-Modern Ear” in which Scruton argues that a deep schism between popular music and art music (“classical music” if you prefer) erupted in the middle of the 20th century. A rift had already existed for centuries between folk/dance music (often stemming from oral traditions) and more serious music (typified by the emergence of the professional composer in the 17th and 18th centuries), with so-called “light classical” occupying a happy middle ground. Divisions became truly exceptional nearly 100 years ago. I read Scruton’s article when it came out some months back (it conspicuously lacks a date) and am well-qualified to understand its argument. However, I suspect that Scruton’s text is for most people like reading a legal document, such as a software license agreement or insurance contract. Most of us skip over them even if we can penetrate the legalese. On balance, I quickly go out of my depth reading biological, chemical, and electrical jargon beyond the college 101 entry level, though I understand overarching principles pretty well. I also don’t code, which is quickly (if controversially) becoming central to modern curricula.

The article came to my attention again in a blog post at Slipped Disc (not recommended or linked, since the author/blogger is notoriously prone to error and clickbait) about the 40th anniversary of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. In the comments there, John Borstlap provides this quote from Scruton’s book Aesthetics of Music:

“A cheap and primitive piece, not for a classical music audience but for people whose ears are muddied by pop music, its body starved of rhythm … We should not be surprised if this new audience prefers easy homophony to complex polyphony, endless repetition to continuous development, block chords to voiced harmonies, regular beat to shifting accent, and boundless chant to bounded melody. For such are the expectations fostered by popular culture. Nor should we be surprised if the new audience is animated by a religious longing, while being unable to distinguish the religious from the religiose, content with a sentimental image of a faith that, in its real version, stands too severely in judgement over the postmodern world-view. Such an audience finds in the morose spirituality of Gorecki the perfect correlative of its musical taste. For his is serious music, with a promise of release from the alienated world of populair culture, yet composed as pop is composed, with monodic chanting over unvoiced chords. It is as though serious music must begin again, from the first hesitant steps of tonality, in order to capture the postmodern ear.

If that paragraph makes any sense to nonmusicians (including self-taught musicians and even those whose conservatory or music school education is limited to the typing-monkey approach favored for training performers), I would be surprised. Yet it makes perfect sense to me, and I agree with its findings. Borstlap (a pedant in his own right) goes on to relieve some tension by observing how Scruton is actually optimistic about Gorecki because his symphony is a bridge between the high academic style of composition typically found in concert halls and light classical works more amenable to those whose ears have been flattened through exposure to omnipresent popular musics specifically because bridge works attract the “post-modern ear”:

… music is nothing without an audience, and that … audience must be discovered among young people whose ears have been shaped by the ostinato rhythms and undemanding chord grammar of pop. To offer serious music to such an audience you must also attract their attention. And this cannot be done without rhythms that connect to their own bodily perceptions. Serious composers must work on the rhythms of everyday life. Bach addressed listeners whose ears had been shaped by allemandes, gigues and sarabandes — dance rhythms that open the way to melodic and harmonic invention. The modern composer has no such luck. The 4/4 ostinato is everywhere around us, and its effect on the soul, body and ear of post-modern people is both enormous and unpredictable. Modern composers have no choice but to acknowledge this, if they are to address young audiences and capture their attention.

This reminds me of an obsession with audience building that is central to a classical music blog I used to have on my blogroll — long since gone after the blogger succumbed to his own virulent elitism. That long view is suitable when training student audiences, I suppose, but entirely misses the point when speaking of mature audiences, those beyond the age, say, of 25. For anyone paying good money for a concert, the experience and works on the program are for their own sake, that is, for immediate enjoyment. No one attends with the idea that being there serves future developments in the art any more than a sports fan attends a baseball game to help his team get to the World Series. The concert/game is to be enjoyed right then and there. Similarly, no one patronizes a new retailer (such as Amazon.com years ago) with the aim of eventually making it profitable. No doubt one’s enjoyment is enhanced by long and deep acquaintance with the history of the game or music, but that’s not a prerequisite. Indeed, except for the most committed sports superfans and classical music aficionados, such learning is passive if it takes place at all.

I also don’t understand Scruton apparent attempt to talk people out of liking what they like. I learned years ago that people identify strongly with their musical tastes. What’s the point of disabusing them of something they like? Further, classical music (and jazz) is more nearly an acquired taste, not nearly as immediately accessible as popular music. Scruton’s appeal to complexity is not quite the same as embodying greater sophistication or beauty, and indeed, he offers his own criticism of hypercomplexity in music, characterizing one particular development in music history that received undue support and attention as “random outbursts that could be described, without too much strain, as groans wrapped in mathematics.” (Gotta love that phrase.) In that regard, how does Scruton reconcile the exquisite beauty and runaway popularity of, say, minimalist composer Arvo Pärt? As the old saw goes, if such simplicity were so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it? A useful comparison might also be made of American composers Samuel Barber and Aaron Copeland. The former is formidably complex and intellectual in style yet far less effective than the latter, especially in his populist works. Still, room on concert programs exists for both.

Scruton seems to me stuck (though not wholly so) in a mindset I ranted about here, namely, a theoretical approach to music borne out of too much education and too little relevance to the concert-going public. Classical music is a high art and thus inherently self-selecting. When selection proceeds according to arcane formulations and heedless abstraction distanced from the audience it pretends to serve, it signals the triumph of ideology over actuality. This approach has already, over the course of the 20th century, made modern composition into a bad joke for all but a very few — those true artists who have ignored or superseded fashionable academic ideology and sought real connections with audiences. They are exceptions for whom we can be thankful. The others chasing only the prestige of their peers (including panel judges for meaningless awards) will (rightfully) continue to be ignored by the public.

More in part 2 in relation to politics (ugh!) to come.

  1. leavergirl says:

    I disagree with the criticism in the vid above, in part. What often happens in these interchanges is that the person on the other end is not trying to understand; they are fighting against what your own understanding is, and what you are conveying. These are two very different approaches to human interchange. If someone is in it to fight you, even if you made your words angelically perfect, they would still come up with another fallacy, or another subterfuge.

    It’s pointless and foolish trying to get better and better at communicating when the other person is intent on fighting you. Lost effort — unless you choose to fight back.

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