We live in a democratic culture – in so many aspects of our day-to-day existence, there is at least the perception that the majority should rule. This goes for our elections, it goes for artistic trends, it goes for interpersonal interactions — at least in theory.
In the interest of fairness (as well as self-preservation) it is important for the majority to listen to non-majority voices. If a hair more than 50% of a population is dictating the direction for everyone, then a hair less than 50% is required to follow along, and a hair less than 50% can be a pretty sizable group to ignore. I’ve found this to be a particular challenge for newly-minted majorities. For example, when I was younger it was courageous to take a stand against the notion that academic formalism was the only worthy artistic path: it was the risk of voicing a non-majority opinion that could easily be shouted down. Now those courageous souls that stood up to the majority many years ago have become the majority. Unable to adjust to their new roles, they are sometimes guilty of shouting down academic formalism which, in its current non-majority role, needs to be heard. In this new role, these criticisms don’t require courage; they actually amount to inadvertent bullying.
I should insert here that I am neither an academic formalist nor am I one of the few who spoke out against them in their hey-day, so I’m not trying to take sides, just presenting an example of this phenomenon.
Sometimes social media seems designed to reinforce our views within a circle of like-minded souls, which only makes it more challenging to listen to other perspectives.
As for non-majorities (and I’m speaking in a generic sense – any group that is less than 50% of a given population), it seems to me that there is an ideal balance between two opposites that we must constantly strive to attain in a democratic culture. On the one hand, to a degree a non-majority population has to bow to majority decisions, or nothing ever gets done. We see this problem all the time in legislatures: a few members can find ways to block new laws, even if the majority of legislators — and the majority of the population — favors those laws.
On the other hand, it is also very important for non-majorities to make sure that the majority always takes non-majority viewpoints into account in shaping overall direction, even if it means harping on the same things over and over. That’s the balance I’m referring to: the sweet spot between accepting another view and making sure your view is being heard.
Why do I bring this up? Because democratic cultures are forever at a crisis point, with majorities pressing heavy-handed decisions and non-majorities protesting their perspectives. It’s a tough balance to maintain, and I sometimes wish someone would find a better way than democracy to get things done fairly. But nobody has, to my mind, so we have to make it work as well as it can.
In my little slice of the world, I’ve seen so many musical trends come and go over the last fifty years. Few remember the brief era when disciples of Hindemith held sway in the American composition world, ensuring that Hindemithians were first in line for the best academic positions or the top prizes. Seems impossible to believe nowadays, when Hindemith has almost completely fallen off of the radar, rarely mentioned in discussions of the most significant twentieth century music. There is a lesson there: no majority can count on permanence, or even relevance, in the long term.
I’m always impressed with the musicians who step outside of the trends, who keep doing what they are doing, not necessarily in conflict with the majority, but just keeping their voices heard, shifting the narrative in ways both subtle and profound.