Many years ago I wrote a little blog post titled “Classical music sucks: just ask the people paid to promote it“. It seems just as pertinent now as it did then. Just last month this little post attracted the canniest piece of comment spam I have received to date:
Hi. I can tell this website caters towards the urban community.
Next Tuesday Radio 4 will broadcast a programme titled Who Killed Classical Music? The BBC seem to have forgotten that Norman Lebrecht published a book with the exact same title in 1997, as he’s not mentioned anywhere in the programme blurb. I’m sure he’ll remind them shortly.
A cynical observer may suspect that Lebrecht’s book turned out to be an opportunistic piece of publishing ephemera which failed to offer any satisfactory answers, but let’s assume instead that the BBC is genuinely ignorant and is tackling the old chestnut in good faith. Let’s see what they’ve dug up:
The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?
Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising ‘Serialism’ where melodies were no longer allowed.
It’s hard to believe that composers like Prokofiev (and Alexander Goehr, Tansy Davies and others) knowingly signed up to contribute to a show with such an inane premise. Or is it? The spiel continues:
Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers – including Gabriel himself – is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.
“Is music an art form? Or is it all just showbiz?” Morton Feldman’s question remains eternal. Never mind painting or sculpture, Christopher Nolan talking about his latest goddamn Batman movie wouldn’t take such a dismissive line towards
the wide range of cinema that “strayed too far” beyond its traditional roots in action, spectacle and broad melodrama. No other art form has so many of its practitioners going out of their way to tell how badly it sucks and isn’t really worth your attention.
Just yesterday The Guardian reported on a concert where the audience was deliberately groped and pestered throughout:
while the Phaedrus Ensemble got stuck in to Debussy, the audience were blindfolded and fed different sensory experiences in parallel with the music: fizzy pop and cola bottles for the effervescent second movement and fingers scampering up your arms in tandem with the first violin, then as the music changed, a scent-soaked silk scarf flickering across your skin, and hands laid on to give a sensation of pressure or relaxation. It’s a thoroughly entertaining experience.
As an experience it seems uncannily similar to Umberto Eco’s tour of the wax museums of California, where he saw reproductions of the world’s most famous artistic masterpieces: a full-length, three-dimensional Mona Lisa sitting for her portrait, the Venus de Milo in flesh-coloured wax, complete with arms. The museums wanted to give you more than the art, they wanted to show the real-life models “as they would have appeared” to the artists who immortalised them. Eco observes that for these add-ons to work, the art being so “enhanced” must first be idolised, an object for uncomprehending reverence. As such, the art is rendered meaningless in itself and so reduced to kitsch.
In the music world of today, those philistine hucksters encountered by Eco have been promoted to curators at the Louvre. Here is a genuine classical music experience! It must be good because it doesn’t sound like classical music! It must be good because it needs other sensory input to improve it! The music we are giving you sucks so hard we will do anything we can to hide it!
Composers, musicians and concert promoters are falling over themselves to denounce the qualities in music that led them into their love of music and their careers, with all the authority of a TV chef reassuring viewers that he never cooks with vegetables. Their fumbling for inclusiveness result in a presumptive orthodoxy of Boulez-like proportions.
Like that bit from Greg Sandow I quoted back in 2005 says,
This is yet another way in which classical music is drained of all meaning. Who cares what Shostakovich really is? It’s classical music! It’s a celebration! It’s big, grand, and colorful! Can anyone imagine talking about any other serious art this way?
79% of those interviewed agreed that Britain has become a ‘surveillance society’ (51% were unhappy with this).
YouGov / Daily Telegraph poll, 4 December 2006.
I didn’t see all of the London Contemporary Music Festival. On Saturday night I was at the South London Gallery for a talk by Thorbjørn Reuter Christiansen about his father, Henning Christiansen. As part of the evening Christiansen showed the video of Bjørn Nørgaard’s Horse Sacrifice. I didn’t see the Sunday night performance at the LCMF of Philip Corner’s Piano Activities either. A cultural editor at The Guardian called the dismemberment of a piano “ugly” and “a violent act”, but when I compare it to Nørgaard’s ritual slaughter and dismemberment of a horse I can’t help but think Ben Beaumont-Thomas is being just a little bit precious.
I didn’t want to write about the Guardian article, because the arguments it purports to raise seem to originate only at the service of a fundamental dishonesty, typical of the lazy, pernicious attitude so much of the media takes towards what passes for “arts journalism”: that nothing is a worthy “story” unless it can be codified as a Scandal, a Controversy with two sides, For and Against. The Guardian presents itself as one of the more ‘cultured’ newspapers. The LCMF presented two weeks of free concerts with a wide range of music. None of it was reviewed by The Guardian until it’s outburst of righteous indignation over a “morally dubious” artwork.
I find myself writing about it because friends and others have been discussing some of the issues raised, but so much of the article’s argument is specious. The tone of outrage, swiftly followed by a disingenuous insistence that the whole affair is so passé, really while still obviously worked up about it is a pattern familiar to anyone who’s read critical reactions to Olympia, Ulysses, 4’33” or The Naked Lunch. Beaumont-Thomas’ third paragraph begins “While censoring them would indeed have been wrong,” and you can probably guess the tone of the rest of that sentence. It is the argument of a critic who wishes a troublesome artwork would Simply Go Away. A similar attitude can be observed in music writers who express exasperation that people persist in playing Cage and Stockhausen even though the personality cults that supposedly sustained their careers have ended.
The common misunderstanding to all these works is that they were created simply to shock, and that once the shock has faded the work itself should dissipate, too. Many such pieces do indeed lose their relevance over time, but the fact that Piano Activities was programmed as part of a serious concert of music, fifty years after its composition, should tip off a cultural editor that there are deeper issues for consideration here. Beaumont-Thomas attempts to dismiss the presentation of the piece as “utterly conservative” on the grounds that it is “decades” old. Possibly, but it is not as conservative as the mindset that assumes anything more recent than Mahler but older than the new Daft Punk album has nothing to say to the world today.
For all its posturing, too often The Guardian displays a philistinism little different from that of the Daily Mirror when it belatedly noticed Carl Andre’s pile of overpriced bricks. Beaumont-Thomas has his own little if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon moment when he rails at “welfare cuts, permanent environmental change, information overload, banality” as the real enemies de nos jours against which the Festival directors should devote their energies. It is a simplistic idealism which which can easily entice the enthusiastic into endorsing a new Zhdanov doctrine. No time for ballet, Comrade, the people of Maidstone need compost toilets; they just don’t realise it yet.
I just read back that last sentence and thought it might be excessive; but then I checked Beaumont-Thomas’ article again and noticed that he thinks the Corner performance was “indulgence bordering on immorality”. Remember, he’s talking about a piano being dismantled at a free concert held in a car park in “one of the most deprived areas in London”. Outside the car park, in the High Street there are kids paying through the nose for designer streetwear endorsed by Lil Wayne. On the Guardian website you can read the breathless coverage of the relative orgy of consumption that is Glastonbury, with a headline act as old as Piano Activities itself. The inverse snobbery is palpable. To use a very Guardian analogy, Beaumont-Thomas is criticising benefit scroungers while ignoring corporate tax avoidance.
(On the other hand, I had to laugh when I read “destruction is a privilege and comes from a position of luxury.” Practically every Guardian editorial on the subject desperately wants to convince us that it’s precisely the opposite.)
Since we’re talking about morality, this game of motes and beams played by Beaumont-Thomas, particularly as it purports to consider a wider social and economic context, is an intellectual sin; but not nearly so great a sin as the theme that runs through his article. “While censoring them would indeed have been wrong,” he can think of an awful lot of reasons why it might have been right. It’s a paradox that with the proliferation of debate through social media, accusations of “shutting down debate” are increasingly common. Yet this is precisely what the Guardian critique attempts to achieve: it doesn’t argue the merits or demerits of the Philip Corner piece (seriously, Philip fucking Corner is the ugly face of materialist excess!), it argues that it shouldn’t have been done at all. While claiming a wish to open a debate on what the piece means, he diverts discussion into a tedious argument over why we should be allowed the debate in the first place.
Like I said, I really didn’t want to write this; I wanted to write about the music I actually did hear at LCMF. Luckily, that can wait until another time, as the music won’t be going stale in a hurry.
I’ve been doing boring music stuff the last few weeks but on the weekend I did make it to the concert of Cornelius Cardew’s late music at Conway Hall. This was the music he composed while an active member of the Progressive Cultural Alliance and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). I was going to write a little something about the concert tonight so I looked up the RCPB(ML)’s website, which had a link to the flyer promoting the gig.
Instead of the flyer, I found this:
The front page article links through to a statement by Chris Coleman, the National Spokesperson of RCPB(ML). It contains such shameless statements as:
Comrade Kim Jong Il has led the Korean party and people in continuing to build the socialist society of their choice, in the most trying circumstances, and defending the sovereignty and independence of the DPRK, while ceaselessly striving for the peaceful reunification of the Korean people by their own efforts.
In my last Cardew article I linked to the party’s website with the phrase “wrongheaded political project”. As I feared, I was being too kind.
The statement is then followed by the official DPRK statement, reprinted in full without qualification or comment. It is accompanied by pictures which make it look like a copy of the Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things blog, without any sense of irony, humour or self-awareness. It is full of sentences such as “Kim Jong Il possessed of personality and qualifications as a great man on the highest and perfect level was an outstanding thinker and theoretician who led the revolution and construction along the path of steady victories with his profound ideologies and theories and remarkable leadership.”
It was this that reinforced the tragedy of Cardew’s life. Regardless of the qualities of his later music, he made himself into a humourless, clueless, brainless agitator utterly lacking in awareness of both the evil he promoted, and how transparently ridiculous his efforts appeared to the people he most wished to save.
This was the front page of the paper last week.
Finally someone’s paying attention to this doctor’s advice.
This was almost going to be one of those “Great Moments In Art Criticism” posts.
“For me the Turner prize is a hit-and-miss affair – there are years when it actually seems important who wins and years when I honestly couldn’t care less. This year, I care because Mark Leckey is on the shortlist.”
— Jonathan Jones, “The Turner should go to Mark Leckey”, The Guardian, 13 May 2008.
“Leckey won a Turner prize in 2008, which goes to show you should never take these awards too seriously.”
— Jonathan Jones, “Mark Leckey’s art creates noise without meaning”, The Guardian, 23 May 2011.
Jones’ latter review is so vituperously negative (he compares Leckey to Gordon Brown, which is just plain mean) that maybe, just maybe, he should have mentioned his dramatic change of heart. The comments section, usually a desultory place peopled with commentators who don’t seem particularly interested in art, has come alive. Comments both for and against, amongst the usual dross, make some fascinating points on the current state of art and art criticism.
Jones himself responds frequently, steadfastly refusing to admit he made a basic error in interpreting one of Leckey’s works and offering unintentionally hilarious ripostes such as “It was 2008! Why would I refer back to it?” and the Mugatu-like “I have put my views of art across in such contexts as a Turner Prize jury. Have you been a Turner judge? So where do you come off so high and mighty?” Eventually, Mark Leckey himself comments, along with other critics, all of whom predictably end up wallowing in self-pity. Why did all this anger and sorrow suddenly burst forth?
Stephen Potter famously observed that the role of the critic is to convey to the reader what a splendid person the critic is, and that “you must never praise or blame two weeks running.” In his initial praise of Leckey, Jones begins by announcing “I’m a natural fan. I can’t stand indifference.” – and so smartly allows himself intellectual room to praise or blame at will. Regardless of the quality of the art, the critic must alternate praise with blame; their career depends on it.
Car journalist Jack Baruth recently described at some length the necessity of what he calls “the wobble”. Praise every car and you appear a corporate shill; slam every car and you appear apathetic.
A successful automotive journalist doesn’t fall into either of the above traps. He wobbles. He creates what Jimmy Page called “light and shade” in the body of his written work…. Every autowriter with ambitions to be something more than a low-paid PR agent needs the wobble. Credibility, success, a fan base, a recognized name. The wobble giveth, and it taketh away.
The motoring writer’s dilemma is that for the past 20-odd years all cars have been, fundamentally, the same. The car-buying punter no longer has to choose between one model that has disc brakes and no heater, another with a heater and chronic rust problems, or a third with bucket seats and a tendency to flip over and kill you. Baruth’s article explains how a car journalist tries to find or make “the wobble”, and sometimes gets caught out.
Of course, for any of this car talk to be relevant to Jonathan Jones, modern British art would have to be somehow comparable to the car industry. The latter has large financial investments riding on the steady production of homogenised product, largely devoid of any extreme highs or lows of user experience, whereas…
This evening I’m off to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Brian Ferneyhough, including the first British performance of his large work Plötzlichkeit, as part of one the Barbican’s Total Immersion days. Unsurprisingly, the BBC has been cross-promoting it through one of their news and current affairs programmes.
What is a surprise, however, is that the time dedicated to interviewing Ferneyhough and discussing his music on the Today programme yesterday seemed to strongly suggest to listeners that this was a concert they should stay away from. The Rambler has an insightful analysis of what happened on the show (followed by a good debate in the comments).
In summary: Ferneyhough’s music is sinister, pointlessly difficult, causes stress and sounds a bit like farts…. this is not responsible arts journalism at any time of day. It’s deliberately and offensively misrepresentative. It doesn’t promote the music, it doesn’t increase understanding, it doesn’t even offer a moment for people to make up their own minds (three minutes of just the music would have at least done that). It simply builds walls, closes ears and reinforces prejudices.
It’s infuriating, but hardly surprising any more, that mainstream media is so hopelessly crap at arts reporting, even on Radio 4 and other outlets that present themselves as more intellectual. If they can’t frame the story as a controversy or scandal (whether it is or not), the journalists are at a loss as to whether they should approach their subject as a case for uncritical boosterism, adversarial inquisition, or quirky human interest. The last case always involves some degree of condescension, and Today’s treatment of Ferneyhough was no exception.
Why does arts reporting so often fall into this charade? The immediate impression is the same one given by politicians and certain business leaders, that they need to be seen as “one of the people,” and in doing so find themselves pandering to a lowest common denominator, becoming a patronising charicature of their supposed inferiors. On further thought, the position of a broadcaster like Radio 4 is closer to that of Hollywood film studio execs and millionaire movie stars, who regularly turn out “heartwarming” films about smalltown folks who come to the Big City to find success and fame, before learning the truth that the true happiness they seek can only be found back home living an ordinary life, free of glamour or wealth. You do not want this, they say. Do not pursue the dreams we have achieved. You’re better off the way you are now.
I doubt the people who make the Today programme live glamourous, millionaire lifestyles, or even that they like Ferneyhough; but I bet they go to the theatre, museums, concerts and art galleries. You won’t see news reports on whatever latest production of Swan Lake, Mozart recital or gallery opening might be. Instead, when the arts are reported at all, it’s a scandal or a freakshow. This is culture. You do not want this. Best to leave it alone.
I wasn’t going to bother writing about the lame decision to change the rules of Scrabble to allow proper nouns. As half-arsed publicity stunts go, it’s only slightly more devestating than if the makers of Monopoly grandly announced they were rewriting their rules to allow players to quit when they get bored.
But now I’m thinking they’ve got a point. The makers of Scrabble have twigged that a fundamental aspect of the game has changed. This isn’t about giving Stoopid Kids These Days the edge – it won’t: you play Xzibit, I play Xerxes (and Xzibit).
The thing is that modern-day Scrabble is played by people who can access the OED on their smartphones, not to mention various online anagram tools. Letting in proper names brings back a lost fundamental of Scrabble: arguing. Arguing over who is or is not sufficiently famous to justify the latest mangling of “Brittany”. Convincing people there really is a Greek island called Aeaea. Debating which variant spellings of Mxyzptlk are canon. Like all authentic grassroots games, nothing is certain and it all ends in bickering, resentment and tears.
I’m breaking my impromptu holiday from blogging to pass on the sad news that Thomas Angove, inventor of the wine cask, has died at the age of 92. Not since the inventor of booze itself has one man advanced the science of getting an entire nation so drunk, so quickly, at so little expense. A large part of the art world will be forever in his debt.
Three quotes from Harry Halbreich’s sleeve notes for the album Iannis Xenakis: Chamber Music 1955-1990:
Kottos for cello (1977)
Later, the music returns to extremely high registers, the toccata proceeds with double stops, but after a short recall of the opening sounds, the piece unexpectedly ends by dissolving into gossamer glissandi in the highest register.
Embellie for viola (1981)
And the work ends in the same manner, slipping away to the extreme high glissando harmonics on the edge of audibility.
Tetras for string quartet (1983)
The eighth section, a metrically complex tutti, leads to the ninth, which serves as a coda and which, after a display of strength in tremolos, dies away in a surprising manner with pianissimo glissandi.
It’s the last day of the English football season, so The Guardian is giving minute-by-minute updates on its website, tracking the fates of teams facing relegation. Naturally, reporter Scott Murray is decribing the action through an extended conceit of likening the tail-end of the Premiership season to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (with some John Cage coming in for stoppage time), right down to the concluding section of his epic opera cycle Licht: “Sunday Farewell”.
(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)