Following the Classical Script

Through Salon.com, I was turned onto an article from Jay Rosen’s blog Press Think about the Master Narrative in journalism, a term borrowed from literary criticism. The Master Narrative is the big, behind-the-scenes story that generates all the other stories, that structurally contains them, but that is itself almost invisible, rarely examined, assumed without being acknowledged. His example in political journalism:

In standard coverage of political campaigns, where one goal is always to appear nonpartisan and above the fray, the master narrative has for a long time been winning – who’s going to win, who seems to be winning, what the candidates are doing to win, how much money it takes to win, how the primary in South Carolina is critical to winning and so on….

Most people who pay attention to politics know that candidates who cannot win are safely ignored by the press until they threaten to affect the outcome. Then they become part of the story because they fit its terms. Winning, then, is the story that produces all (or almost all) the other stories; and when you figure in it you are likely to become news. This is a relatively non-partisan, apparently neutral, sometimes technical and of course reusable device, easily operated, and it maintains an agreed-upon narrative, which then maintains the press tribe as one tribe. In this way, master narratives resemble myths as anthropologists understand them.

Like journalism, music has its master narratives, and I can use this idea to describe the predicament I and the music I love are in vis-a-vis the musical culture at large. For instance, we have a great endemic crisis concerning the imminent death of classical music. The focus of this story is inevitably: the orchestra. Look at Arts Journal: every music writer here is focused on the orchestra except me. Here and in a hundred other newspapers and magazines, the death of classical music and the death of the orchestra are treated as coextensive.

Like the political narrative about winning, this one carries a certain unreality for me. Most of the composers I know and admire have written very little orchestra music; typically a piece or two (I’m thinking of Eve Beglarian, Bernadette Speach, Mikel Rouse, Dan Becker, and many others). Most of them write mostly chamber music, unless their work is primarily in electronics. Even if all orchestras disbanded tomorrow, 98 percent of the rather diverse spectrum of brand new classical music I cover would continue to exist as it exists now. Even John Adams, perhaps the most successful orchestra composer of our time, has admitted publicly and repeatedly that most of the good music being written today isn’t for orchestra.

And a few years ago I was on a panel at Chamber Music America, just at a time when there had been a spate of articles about the death of the orchestra. It was clear that chamber music organizations did not share the orchestras’ sense of doom, and when Mark Swed, speaking for chamber ensembles on the panel, said, “I don’t feel any sense of crisis,” the audience burst into applause. Classical music exists in many forms, at many venues, on many levels, with many audiences, but in terms of the journalistic Master Narrative, its health is solely and exclusively gauged from its own most inefficient, resource-intensive, financially precarious organization, the orchestra.

Judging from the current health and optimism of many chamber music organizations, and from the fact that so many hundreds if not thousands of composers get by without orchestral performances, it is entirely plausible that the orchestra could die as a public institution, and classical music continue to exist and even thrive. But no one ever says that – it’s not part of music journalism’s Master Narrative. And no one ever looks to young composers, or to chamber music organizations, for evidence as to whether classical music is truly likely to die.

(For that matter, only last year when I was writing the script for the American Mavericks radio show on MPR, I contacted the American Symphony Orchestra League to get dire statistics I could quote about the death of the orchestra. As it turned out, of the 15 orchestras that had famously folded in the 1990s, 14 were back in business. Ticket sales were up all over. I was being a good boy for once, trying to follow the Master Narrative, but got tripped up on the facts. According to the Master Narrative, apparently, an orchestra’s bankruptcy is Big News, but its resuscitation merits barely a mention.)

Another Master Narrative has posited an unacknowledged end to the history of music. The history of music is understood as a series of great patriarchal figures, each of whom extended the musical language further toward abstraction and complexity: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez. No dot dot dot to follow. Classical critics and academics will get momentarily excited when it looks like some youngster is going to extent that modernist line another inch or two – Brian Ferneyhough with “the new complexity,” for instance, or Thomas Ades. But it never lasts, because that direction of history is played out. By the rules of the Master Narrative, it doesn’t matter how good a composer is: if he (and I mean he) is not going to extend the line of patriarchs in the direction of further modernity, then he’s not worth taking seriously – and if he does, he’s too elitist. For some reason the Master Narrative has made an exception for a trio of publicly successful composers – Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams – and then drawn the line. There are no important young composers anymore worth keeping an ear on, and there aren’t going to be any more.

And so in academic departments and newspaper music sections, you find people still making a big deal about Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez as though they were, not revered old men whose cards have been on the table for decades, but The Latest Thing. The composers that music writers and professors get excited about – Ligeti, Boulez, Berio, Kagel – are the same composers my friends and I were excited about in college, 30 years ago. What about the important composers born after 1940? Well, mmm, ahem, uh, you know, there aren’t any, really. Any composer still trying to extend the 12-tone tradition is old-fashioned, and if he’s not trying to extend that tradition, then he isn’t really great, is he? Catch-22. And gee, by the way, it’s really pop music that’s important now, isn”t it, and classical music is dying anyway, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to invest any interest in some new composer when the whole field isn’t going to last. Except no one says this, everyone just acts as though it’s true without admitting it.

So this is why I’m the Dennis Kucinich of music criticism, because I won’t talk within the Master Narratives. In our respective fields Rep. Kucinich and I don’t want to preserve the status quo and tinker with it, we want to tear it down and replace it with something better, and that’s too radical, so no one will pay any attention to us, except maybe anecdotally. Whatever insightful, even revolutionary truths we might express will be ignored because, 1. Kucinich isn’t going to win anyway, and 2. no great young composers are going to be acknowledged anyway. To prove that none of the 40,000 composers working in America today is writing music that could last would require lots of research, lots of critical examination and thought. Luckily, the Master Narrative assures us that this is not necessary, because any greatness out there would have spontaneously appeared by now, despite critical and institutional neglect. (Sort of like the crusader’s cry, “Kill them all, God will recognize his own!”) According to the Master Narrative, the history of classical music had come to an end anyway, the great line of composers is over – how fitting, how convenient, that it and the orchestra, and therefore classical music itself, all died at the same time. Is this really true? Or does it become true just because everyone conspires to write as though we’ve all now assumed that it is true?

Is there really no great music written any more? Is classical music truly about to stop being played and listened to? Or is this just the script that those in power have agreed to follow? Does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people follow it? And what do they get from following it?