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 himself—shows 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 gratifications—and 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 class—and to the goal-directed mythologies of my own professional class—but 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 exercises—from a book—for 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.