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.