Quotation of the day

“Those who maintain, or, more commonly, just assume, as adherents of western classical music tend to do, that their own [musicmaking] is in its very nature superior to any other, can only mean, finally, that they believe themselves, by virtue of the culture to which they belong, to be inherently superior to all others.”

Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue

[And if this seems too strong, just restrict it to classical music vs. pop.]

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  1. Max Scheinin says

    Asserting something with self-righteous conviction doesn’t make it so. The onus rests with Small — and, since you’re implicitly endorsing his belief, at least insofar as the (idiotic) “pop vs. classical” argument goes, with you — to explain why people who believe that “western classical music is in its very nature superior to any other” are bigots. I’d be really surprised to see it successfully done.

    Please note: I myself am not making any comment on the point of view that you and Small are objecting to, so please don’t start arguing that the best pop is just as complex and challenging as classical, etc. In this case, that’s a dodge. I’m challenging you to actually engage the absurd statement that belief in the superiority of a body of music is equivalent to belief in the superiority of the culture/ethnicity/sex and whatever else of those who created it.

    So, Max. What do you think is going on when someone says — and we hear this all the time, these days — that classical music is losing ground in our culture because younger people have short attention spans?

    That statement goes well beyond praise of classical music. It says a lot more than just, “one of the good things about classical music is that it evolves over long spans of time, and that’s rewarding to follow.” It says that there’s something wrong with people who don’t follow these long spans of time — that, in fact, they’re incapable of doing so. To say that someone has a short attention span isn’t exactly a neutral comment.

    There’s a booklength argument for a point of view like this one — Julian Jameson’s book “Who Needs Classical Muisc?” It’s just about a tirade against a culture that devalues classical music, and the people who accept that culture. Jameson would probably be surprised to hear that he’s smashing other people with his comments, but when you add up all his arguments, you’d end up thinking that rational thought and serious emotion aren’t possible in our culture, and that classical music is a force against those horrors. And then what are we to think of people who listen to pop music? They’re infantile idiots. I don’t have the book with me as I’m writing this, so I can’t quote any of the places where he says just about this, in so many words, or else implies it so strongly that there’s no escaping his meaning. If we challenged him on this, he’d probably say that he didn’t mean any criticism of individuals, that in fact he knows people who listen to pop instead of classical music who nevertheless are quite intelligent and reasonable, etc., etc. But still he’d have to think that something’s missing in their lives, and that, too, is a criticism, even if it’s a milder one. They haven’t reached the potential they might have, not just as listeners to music, but as people.

    Christopher Small elaborates at great length of his point, as you’ll see if you read his book. The book is a systematic, and deeply humane, comparison of western classical music and African-American music, both historically and in the present day (well, the mid-80s. when he wrote the book). Small has quite a lot — and it’s eye-popping, sometimes — about the parallel denigration of African-Americans, and of their music.

    I can do some of that myself. It’s quite amazing to read descriptions of black Americans and their culture in political books from past eras, like (to take just one example) Bryce’s “The American Commonwealth,” a standard text from the early 20th century. African-Americans are in plain terms described as people with wonderfully happy personalities, but no depth, no great intelligence, and not much ability to reason. He doesn’t talk about African-American music, but nobody reading that is likely to get the impression that this music would go very deep, either emotionally or culturally.

    Now jump to the ’50s, and a silly rock & roll novelty song called “Stranded in the Jungle.” It was sung by some black group, and it offers a funny but shockingly stereotyped picture of Africa, depicted as a savage land full of cannibals. Of course nobody can miss the implied cultural critique — “we’re better than them.”

    And now jump to yet another, and much more famous, iconic representation of black “savages,” the original “King Kong” movie, dating from the 1930s. The black tribe on Skull Island are wildly, savagely primitive, and we can not only see that in their behavior, but we can hear that in their music, which is represented as nothing but a crude, repetitive drumbeat. What we’ve come across here is, implicitly, the critique of African music that goes along with the pervasive notion that used to be accepted almost uncritically in the west, that African culture is primitive. African music was known to be based on rhythm. And so it was assumed that — because by western classical-music notions, a music based on rhythm alone is primitive — the rhythms have to be primitive rhythms. Which of course is exactly the reverse of the truth.

    You can find judgments of this kind in many places. Berlioz somewhere describes a performance of Chinese music that he heard at some kind of exposition in Paris. He just laughs at it. The silly Chinese — they’re so primitive that they can’t even sing and play in tune. Does anyone think this can be separated from the general feeling back then, in Europe, that European culture was far superior to the cultures of the rest of the world? If Berlioz didn’t believe such a thing, well, I’m not going to say he couldn’t have made his criticism of the music. German musicologists, after all, studying medieval music a century ago, laughed at composers like Guillaume de Machaut, treating them like children who didn’t understand harmony. But these same musicologists, if you talked to them about medieval cathedrals or St. Thomas Aquinas, would surely have granted that medieval culture wasn’t wholly ridiculous. In Berlioz’s case, though, you don’t see him wondering — and he was quite broadminded, by 19th century standards — that since the Chinese have great painting and great philosophers, maybe something was wrong with his judgment of his music. Maybe there was something he just didn’t understand. His immediate jump from “this sounds silly to me” to “it really is silly, and the people making this music don’t know anything” really wouldn’t be possible without an implicitly negative view of their culture.

    Max, I’m certainly not saying that it’s not possible to prefer one kind of music to another, without implying a devastating critique of the people who make that music. We might just be expressing some personal preference. For instance, I don’t much care for meringue, but I’m open to the possibility that I’m missing something about it, and I’m certainly not saying that Dominican culture is infantile. (And that, by comparison, Puerto Rican culture must be more highly developed, because I like salsa better than meringue.)

    Or someone might, with deep experience of a culture, say that its music wasn’t its most highly developed expression. In that spirit, I’ve read a Chinese cookbook, written by Chinese-Americans, that states outright that desserts are not a very highly developed aspect of Chinese cuisine. Nobody is going to accuse those authors of some prejudice against their fellow Chinese.

    Maybe the question to ask, when someone offers a blanket criticsm of some genre of music, would be something like this. Is the criticism stated in terms that could just as well become a critique of the culture that produced the music? Does the person making the criticism stop to make a distinction between criticizing the music, and criticizing the culture? Does he or she stop to consider ways in which the culture producing the music is healthy, and that the music — whatever faults might be found in it — reflects that health?

    Returning for a moment to the classical vs. pop debate (if that’s the word for it), do we ever see classical music’s defenders, when they launch their assaults on pop, stop to consider anything about pop that might even vaguely be healthy?

    Here’s one last example. I know a jazz writer, quite a famous one, who hates world music, or at least did 20 years ago, when I’d see him fairly regularly. He especially hated African music. Once he launched on a tirade against some writer who’d said good things about African music. “African music!” this jazz writer said, raging. “Those pygmies and their five-note scales!” After a few minutes of this, he’d demoted them to four-note scales.

    Isn’t it clear that this is aimed not just at African music, but at all of African culture? To reduce an entire continent to “pygmies,” and to use the word as a term of abuse…it’s unmistakable.

  2. Henry Fitzgerald says

    If I think that one kind of music is superior to another kind (and only lunatics would think that no kind of music is superior to any other), then do you also tend to think that the culture that produced the superior kind of music is superior to the culture that produced the inferior kind of music? Well, ex hypothesi, the former culture is superior in at least one respect: it has produced better music.

    Is the musically inferior culture inferior in other respects as well? Certainly we’d be making fools of ourselves if we assumed that musical superiority meant superiority in all respects… But note what’s really happening with the bigots who make this leap: they don’t think jump to the conclousion that some aspect of African culture is inferior because of a blanket denigration of Africans; they acquire a blanket denigration of Africans because they note, perhaps falsely, but for honest reasons, that some aspect of African culture is inferior.

    Or to put this psychological tendency in more positive terms: it’s only natural to have a tendency to think better of the Germans for having produced good music, or of the Italians for having good food, or of the Chinese for having fine calligraphy. But what’s going on is that people are admiring the Chinese because of their calligraphy.

    Small may be saying something compatible with this in the rest of his book, but without this context, he seems to be saying that a belief in the superiority of a certain kind of music is rooted in a sense of personal superiority. This is absurd. I did not write the classical canon myself; I feel, if anything, a sense of inferiority in its presence; I could never have written it. And it’s not even that I admire the music because I feel that this culture (that of turn-of-the-19th-Century-Vienna) is my culture. If I choose to identify with this culture it’s because I admire the music – not the other way around.

    Very thoughtful, Henry. I’m glad you posted this.

    I suspect it’s very complicated to figure out why any of us hold the opinions we do, especially when we’re making cultural judgments. Preconceptions, maybe unconscious ones, play such a big part.

    And how do we decide that one kind of music is “better” than another? Here’s a paradox. You say you’re not making a cultural judgment. But without grounding in the culture that produced the music, you might not be able to judge the music fairly. Some kinds of music — traditional African music, for instance — function in their culture very differently from the way any of our kinds of music function. African music also depends on a subtle rhythmic sense that few people in the west have developed. So if we hear African music, what are we hearing? Probably not what Africans hear in it. So when we say we like turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese music better, we may only be saying, in the end, that we’re in a better position to understand it.

    So, one last thought. Henry, you say you feel humble before the classical masterworks, because you couldn’t possibly have written them. As a composer, I feel the same way. But on the other hand, quite honestly, Henry, I could very likely teach you to write music in their style. It might take a while. You might feel at first that you couldn’t do it. But most of the skills involved with classical composition are in fact teachable (counterpoint most notably; you don’t even need an ear for music to learn how to write it). So, if you were a reasonable student, and worked really hard, there’s no reason in principle that you couldn’t write an opera comparable in length and complexity to “Der Rosenkavalier.” I’m not saying you’d reach anything near Strauss’s quality, let alone his genius. And the orchestration would be particularly difficult for you, because to really learn orchestration, you need practice hearing your orchestral scores played. Still, at least in principle, you could write such a piece.

    But I doubt you could join a group of traditional African drummers, and participate in what they do. Neither could I. We couldn’t hear the rhythms. We’d have to have learned them as children. Or maybe I exaggerate — maybe there are a few examples of westerners learning to join in that musical culture. But you’d have to learn things about music — as would I — that you’d never even remotely thought about before. So in that way, despite your humility before western musical classics, music of a non-western culture is actually far less accessible to you, and might, in all honesty, call for just as much humility.

    I know one situation, involving very well known people, in which a classical star proved entirely unable to learn some of the simplest things about playing pop music, and, at the same recording session, someone from the non-classical side of the fence, a very skiillful musician, proved quite unable to learn some simple classical principles. A lot depends on where you start from.