Footnote to MUSO

In a comment on my last post, someone I respect says something that of course I should have expected–that MUSO, the magazine I praised, makes “classical music about the sex appeal of young performers.”

Now, that’s not all the magazine does. As I pointed out, it supports new music, putting a composer and a new music ensemble on the covers of the two issues I’ve seen. But the comment isn’t completely wrong. MUSO likes good-looking young classical musicians, which, when I think about it, is part of what I meant when I called it a “real” magazine, meaning a magazine that looks and reads like all the magazines we see about more popular subjects. This kind of reality–looking like we belong in the mainstream world–is important to classical music, I’ve long thought.

But of course there’s a downside. Make us part of the mainstream world, and we’ll share the mainstream world’s problems, including too much emphasis on good looks. Yet I think we need to do it, even in spite of this danger. For one thing, it’s impossible to be completely pure. Theodor Adorno, somewhere in his book Minima Moraliasays that even people who object to the dominant and crippling trends in society are themselves crippled by those trends, and I think that’s true. If you try to purge yourself completely of any concern for looks, you’ve made overreacted, and made yourself inhuman.

Second, classical musicians (maybe in part because of the situation I’ve just noted) don’t care enough about how they look when they perform. They don’t look pure, or artistic; they just look boring, and seem as if they don’t care about their audience.

Third…well, here’s an experiment. Pretend Britney Spears is a classical musician. She’s still a bimbo, still shallow, still annoying, still hypnotized by silly surface values. But if she (with all her silly fame) were a classical musician instead of a pop star, what kind of world would we be living in? Clearly a world in which classical music was very popular. And would that be a bad thing? “Oh, yes, it would be horrible, all these silly people getting all that attention.”

OK, fine, maybe that’s the human condition, silly people getting attention, but…classical music would be popular! Wouldn’t we like that? Wouldn’t that be a good thing for serious classical musicians? In a world where classical music was wildly popular would have much more scope than they do now.

(One of the things I learned when I worked in pop music: In a huge market, even the fringes are huge.)

People who think we can get more attention for classical music and also save it from mass-market silliness are asking for something impossible–they want classical music to be somehow exempt from the human condition. It’s not going to happen. And in past generations, and past centuries, when classical music was much more central to cultural life than it is now, it had both popular and serious aspects, and the popular side of it suffered from whatever silliness was going on at the time. In fact, I’d say that you can’t have a thriving serious activity without rooting it in a popular version of the same thing. There wouldn’t be serious pop music–there wouldn’t be Neil Young or Elvis Costello–if there weren’t mass market pop.

So anything that helps classical music get more popular might be a good thing. And from that point of view, MUSO does something important–and, given everything serious that’s in the magazine, does it better than some people might expect.

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  1. says

    I”m with you Greg; I like to say that black and white is for dead composers, and for living composers, dress up! I was a founding member of a group called the “Composers in Red Sneakers” where if you wore red sneakers you got in free. Some of our performers just couldn’t break the habit and it was a hoot to see them playing in black and white with red sneakers. Gotta start somewhere…

  2. David Cavlovic says

    I beg to differ in one important way: a bimbo is a bimbo is a bimbo. IF classical music were so popular as to have a bevy of Ashley Simpsons or Britney Spears, NONE of them would have the depth and intelligence, assuming they retain their vacouous mentalities, to even begin to plummet the depths of Gurre-lieder, or George Crumb, or Nancarrow, or Heinrich Issac, or anything other than Charlotte Church-esque repertoire. Imagine the Simpson’s lip-synching Marie in Wozzeck!


    A BETTER image would be to hope for the likes of Björk (not a hard stretch, by the way), or even Alicia Keys championing the cause of Music of Substance.

    Well, sure. I agree. But that was exactly my point! If there was a popular wing of classical music that didn’t have any intellectual substance, we’d be in great shape. That would — if history is any guide — just about guarantee that the serious stuff would circulate more widely than it does now.

    This isn’t a new situation. In the early part of the 19th century, when the term classical music first was used, people like Liszt, Paganini, and Rossini were thought about as brainless as Britney Spears is now. All Italian opera was put into that category — which, believe it or not, was called “popular music.” The serious people were Mendelssohn and Schumann, Schubert, Berlioz, later Brahms and Wagner. And of course they weren’t nearly as popular as Rossini (who was by miles the leading composer in Europe).But the existence of a huge music scene, fueled by the emerging middle class, provided a market and a cushion for the serious musicians, who played a far bigger role in the serious culture of that time than anything in classical music plays in our culture today.

    Which I guess is the point. For me, we’ll never have a serious classical music world that plays any serious cultural role until we also have a bimbo classical music world. Though quite honestly, I don’t see that as Charlotte Church. I see it as a top orchestra playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto for the 1818th time, with a simpering, preening, gorgeous soloist. Which happens right now, but doesn’t reach any large audience.

  3. D. Hines says

    As a young classical musician, I think that Muso is the stiff shot of Vodka that Classical Music Needs. If I recall correctly, its not published by a USA company, but by a company in England.

    I myself amd 27, and an accomplished African-American Female pipe Organist. One of the things in my field that has set me apart and sometimes risen hairs is the way i dress when I do concerts. But most people usually are refreshed that someone so daringly walks out to an Organ console in a Mini Skirt and a haltertop.

    if we are going to get classical music out to this generation we must stop the tuxes and tails, stop holding applause until the end, start talking with audiences, and beig more realistic. Its what works for this generation. For me, especially as an Organist, my dream is to restore the Organ to its high position among American Musical Culture by doing innovative performances with other fine and performing arts. Often when i play for audiences that are close to my age or younger, they are so inquisitve. Younger audiences of classical music are note the type that want to sit and read books abour it: they want to know from the performer. And sometimes, yes, they will be completely unaware of what terms to use (ie that stick thing the guy uses to keep the band in beat)

    When is Muso going to interview Cameron Carpenter? I say keep it up, Muso. We no longer want to see classical musicians in starchy clothes. half the time their wearing Ecko, Fubu, or Deisel.

    And you’re the stiff shot of vodka this discussion needs! Thanks.

    And thanks for mentioning Cameron. He’s a dynamite organist, with some spectacular ways of presenting himself. The season before last, he gave one recital for a large audience wearing a suit for the first half, and a gown (which he designed himself) for the second half. MUSO should feature both of you together!

    One thing Ms. Hines helps us with — younger people may see this situation in their own way, which is part of what MUSO is about. (And yes, it’s a British magazine, but they’ve started a separate American edition.)