The end of hegemony

Here’s the second statement I promised, outlining where classical music currently is. It’s from the extraordinary musicologist Robert Fink, who explodes with ideas, and connections between music and the rest of the world. (See, for instance, his book on minimalism, Repeating Ourselves). Here I’ll quote from Robert’s paper “Elvis Everywhere: Musicology and Popular Music Studies at the Twilight of the Canon” American Music, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Summer, 1998), pp. 135-179). This paper was delivered to an audience of pop critics, and academics who study pop music, and it’s mainly about the role of musicology in the present situation, and especially in the study of pop. It ends with some characteristic fireworks about “Hound Dog,” the Elvis song, leading (no surprise from Robert) to an unexpected, staggering conclusion. (Anyone with access to J-Stor can search for the paper online.)

In the course of all that, Robert has to say where he thinks classical music stands. And this is what he wrote. Note that — almost prophetically — he wrote it almost a decade ago, when hardly anyone in classical music (except maybe for Robert, Susan McClary, and a few other musicologists) was having the discussions we have in this blog:

Unfortunately for [all of us] making our living off that classical canon, its hegemo­ny over musical culture is gone. What does it mean to say the cultural authority of the classical music canon is gone? Indulge me in a very synoptic overview. Since about 1830 or so we have lived in the West with a quite circumscribed repertoire of so-called Classical Music. Obviously not everyone lis­tened primarily to this music–that was a large part of its class ap­peal–but almost everyone accepted that Beethoven was Music the way the Mona Lisa was (and still is) ART. From the late nineteenth century to about 1965, canonical European concert music occupied a secure–if hard-won–position at the top of a generally accepted hi­erarchy of musical culture.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me point out that this relatively brief moment of classical music hegemony was hardly a “Golden Age” of natural cultural creativity and utopian relations between composers, performers, and audiences. Most of the canonical pieces that it en­shrines were written well before the mummifying hierarchy of taste solidified around them. Even during the final middlebrow paroxysm of classical music canon worship (ca. 1930-60), many commentators saw how canonic power was being deployed as much to discipline the disruptive forces of modern mass culture as to preserve and trans­mit a unique cultural heritage.

In its heyday, this classical music canon had two secure domains: first, a performing canon of masterworks, centered in nineteenth-centu­ry Romanticism. This was art music for the masses, the repertoire of the conservatories, the big symphony orchestras, and the opera hous­es; “great” music hedged around with powerful social mystifications like genius, transcendence, and autonomy. Second, an avant-garde can­on, also hedged around with powerful social mystifications like ge­nius, transcendence, and autonomy. This was the realm of difficult and intellectually challenging “modern music,” not much listened to outside of small coteries and (by the end) university music depart­ments, but possessed of tremendous cultural authority.

Both these domains are in the final stages of a thirty-year collapse as we speak:…for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, neither the performing canon…nor the avant-garde canon…has any real authority in American culture. The cultural evidence is simply overwhelming, as the following quick survey of musical current events circa 1997 demonstrates.


[F]or the first time, the production and consumption of contemporary art music has broken quite free of institutionalized classical music. It is the classical avant-garde (the oxymoron is telling) that is “entrenched in old, superstitious ideas.” That composers and critics within the academy are largely unaware of this development can only be charged to myopia. It may come as a surprise to those enmeshed in campus compositional politics, but the intellectually adventurous are not sitting around in coffeehouses complaining that the continued dominance of high modernist ideologies within aca­demic music departments has alienated them from serious contem­porary music. They have plenty of avant-garde music in their lives. It’s just not “classical.”

No, I’m not talking about people who think Kate Bush’s lyrics are “deep,” or the amateur musicologist who has a catalogue of every extended jam by Phish. I’m not even concerned with the graduate stu­dent who can tell you how the Talking Heads act out the dissolution of the subject in postmodern society. I’m talking about people who will buy (and listen to) a fifty-five-minute collage of radio speeches in German; who will sit in the audience while their favorite band “plays” by attaching a contact microphone to an industrial belt-sand­er; who regularly consume huge stretches of dissonant, often achro­matic sound, pulsed or pulseless, screamingly loud, vanishingly soft–contemporary music that would have the audience for the Oregon Symphony tearing up their seats and throwing them at the stage.

It has been years since a musicologist’s search for interesting con­temporary art music recordings (and there are so many of them now) could responsibly stop with the classical bins. You won’t find Glenn Branca’s mind-bending symphonies for massed electric guitars in various temperaments there; nor will you find the dissonant high-fre­quency assault of John Zorn’s Kristallnacht, built upon layer after layer of sampled shattering glass, so literally excruciating that the composer warns it may cause nausea, headaches, and ringing in the ears; and don’t expect to find any of John Oswald’s CDs there, even though he has worked with the Kronos Quartet, and though his Plexus album purees Top 40 hits into insanely precise digital collages that make Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia look like a child’s puzzle. Today, serious art music has to be tracked down all over the cultural landscape: the grit­tier end of the new age; the spookiest and most ethereal corners of ambient; the most uncompromising slabs of hardcore and techno; and, sometimes, the least academic products of the university new music ensemble. As you explore this postmodernist, postclassical explosion of sonic creativity, you will be rubbing elbows with fans and fierce partisans who will not necessarily share your interest in Bach, Beethoven, Babbitt–or academic musicology.

This is the quiet, hopeful truth behind sensational announcements that “classical music is dead.” Classical music institutions like symphonies and record labels will continue to function, and many people will derive pleasure and meaning from the composition, performance, and consumption of classical music. But both classical music canons, performing and avant-garde, have lost their roles as cultural valida­tors; they have lost control over what is defined as “art” music. The ultimate result is a fundamental decentering–not just of avant-garde or institutional authority, but of music culture in general. No longer is there classical Music-with-a-capital-M and its “Others” (such as jazz, pop, folk); the canon of Western classical music is now just one among many, and not the most culturally prestigious anymore, at least in America. Other canons are forming busily, and other kinds of music are making credible plays for the top of the taste hierarchy. These days, Wynton Marsalis might persuasively nominate pre-bop jazz as the most “classical” American style; a baby boomer, following his sixties idols Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, might counter with Mississippi Delta blues. Ask any streetcorner Goth, or an East Village performance artist, and they’ll tell you that boomer nostalgia sucks; the most cul­turally challenging, sonically difficult styles of contemporary music are techno, ambient, and (for the really arty) industrial.

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  1. says

    I thank Mr. Fink for giving some credence to ambient music. It is my favorite. I like to think that Holst might have been pointing in this direction in the last movement of The Planets (?). Then there is Wagner’s very ambient beginning to Das Rheingold. Just wonderful.

  2. Paul A. Alter says

    I’m sorry. Sincerely. I don’t mean to be the consistently argumentative one. But, my reaction to this is “so what!”

    Who gives a hoot whether classical music is top dog or just one more form of music! It doesn’t matter. I just want to be able to listen to music that does to me the things the Steinmetz says it does (see previous topic) and have some reassurance that it will continue to be played.

    As to the stuff discussed here (and I mean no disrespect by “stuff”), it has already found a wide listening audience. Just watch any space or horror or suspense movie, and you will hear many forms of avant garde music.

    It’s been like this forever. Oscar Levant discussed it in “A Smattering of Ignorance” when he told how Hollywood composers eagerly latched on to the new, avant garde classical scores as they were published and adapted such styles to motion picture scores.

    I don’t like an extremely high proportion of this music as music for listening, either in the concert hall or home. But I have been moved by it when it accompanies the heroine as she descends into the mysterious cavern, or some such.

    And, honestly, I mean no disrespect.

    Why do we give a hoot as to the social status of classical music? We know it is good; we know that we need to listen to it; we know that the overwhelming majority of the population have an antipathy toward it ranging from neutral to highly negative. Our mission is not keeping up with the Joneses, it is ensuring the continuing existence of classical music.

    On the day that people stop needing music of any kind, we will admit defeat and give up. But so long as people need music — whatever the genre — and will gather together to hear it, we will know that there is a place for “classical” music.

    We can’t all marry the most popular girl in the school.

    Oscar T. Grouch (aka Paul)

    Oscar, keep these comments coming! You’re not a grouch. You’re full of passion, and I love that.

    And actually I think — here’s some good news — that most people don’t have any antipathy towards classical music. Maybe some people are a little afraid of it, but I can’t remember meeting many people — or any people, really — who disliked it. Going to classical concerts is another story. The classical music world, as we know it today, is hard for many people to penetrate. But they like the music just fine.

  3. says

    Fink is a lot right, in terms of the level of exploration that goes on in the underground electronic music scene. There’s also a resurgence of low-fi experimentation going on in NYC (see Nick Hallett at

    However, there is a need that classical music (in any sense) fulfills that even the most experimental electronic or noise artists don’t fulfill. Although those concerts can be pretty pretentious occasions; thirty people crammed into a room staring at someone on a laptop who’s peddling out a drone for half an hour and everyone’s forcing themselves to stay and watch and pretend they know why this has any value at all; mostly I would imagine people think they’re cool just for being there.

    It is seriously problematic that distinguishing good electronic or ambient music from bad electronic or ambient music can be all but impossible, as was the case with serialism. There still isn’t a compass for determining value in these arts (unless you ask an insider) particularly in our ability to evaluate the artist’s actual skills as a thinking musician since the terms or so different , often crossing the border into non-classical.