Tuesday, August 14, 2007

On Slow Culture

I like this from Matthew Guerreri very much. A great addition to the debate that actually sounds like it is asking some new questions.

I often think that maybe classical music hasn't gotten smaller, the world's just gotten bigger. And classical music, i.e., a sort of music and a practice of experiencing it figured out when the world didn't have so many people in it, therefore has some natural limits on its ability to maintain the market share it did in 1860. And, as Matthew and others seem to be pointing out more and more lately...that's OK.

It gets me thinking, though, about that mid-century golden age of modern classical music appreciation that serves as the benchmark for the classical music debate. We seem to spend a lot of time thinking back to that period, when the country waited with bated breath for the next Saturday Met Broadcast, when opera stars made the cover of Time Magazine, when NBC devoted more energy to a symphony orchestra than it did to Fear Factor and its imitators, and wondering: what's wrong with us today that seemed to work back then? We're not talking about hundreds of years ago...in Bavaria...when people had no electricity. The country looked more or less the same, yet it actually seemed to give a damn about art music and serious culture. Pretty soon otherwise rational people are feeling warm and fuzzy towards the Eisenhower era, while the Sandows of the world are using it as a cudgel to justify just about anything in the name of putting butts back in the seats and slowing classical music's long cruel slide from the relevance it used to enjoy. It's not a pretty state of affairs.

So here's my armchair cultural historian take, intended to at least start parsing out how we ought to reconcile ourselves with the nagging questions raised by that mid-century classical music heyday. In short, I think that period, as tantalizing as it sounds sometimes, should be seen as an aberration rather than the norm. Back in the day, what we might call "art music" and "popular music" both subsisted on live performing traditions, and, as such, more or less co-existed in their separate spheres as defined by experience, setting, class, what have you. The great breach which upsets the order of things is, of course, modern recording and distribution technology. The short song form and malleable structures which figure large in popular music forms collide with new technologies favoring discrete packages, easy recognition and rapid stylistic assimilation. A truly viable product for the new media is born.

And what of the mid-century heyday? Perhaps it was nothing more than a lag period during which this process took place. The pinnacles of recorded music, hybrid popular music forms like rock and R&B, had not yet been reached, and those guiding the industry were distributing the old music through these channels because people wanted it and nothing better had come along.

If that sounds like snark, it shouldn't. The radical break in music precipitated by modern technology is a simple fact, and it has produced its own tailor made art forms which have great virtues. But 'proving' that certain styles of music and musical experiences are now inferior or irrelevant because they have trouble competing with musical mousetraps designed specifically with world domination in mind just makes no sense.

And if that's true, then the takeaway should be that the "classical music problem" isn't a problem with classical music, per se: it's a bigger problem for all music still firmly rooted in the pre-mass media performance traditions attempting to compete in the 20th century information universe. The immediate issues are genre specific to be sure, but the overriding challenge is the same.

Now, that doesn't mean I think classical music and popular music don't have their differences. Call them what you will, there are clearly some broad differences in the character of the listening experience and the nature of intellectual engagement entailed in classical and, say, the blues. All I can say is that anyone who would argue that those things are equal must not care very much about the unique qualities of either. And to be sure, when talking about the practical question of how you keep a tradition alive, there is a resource question. You're probably not going to do struggling Bluegrass traditions any favors by consolidating banjo faculty, whereas losing Juilliard, Eastman, and Curtis would leave a substantial void in the classical world.

But in the end, is the music really so endangered? I suspect the contractions we've seen in recent years, far from heralding the coming disappearance of the tradition altogether, were more likely the final death throes of that mid-century moment when the classical tradition found itself grafted wholesale onto the emerging modern media universe. And besides, its not at all clear that the net gain in classical enthusiasts hasn't been positive--it stands to reason that more people have heard Brahms 3rd in the past decade than heard anything by the man while he was alive.

If the gains don't seem to be keeping pace with the total universe of music listeners, or don't live up to some mythical period when 'everyone' listened to serious music, then so be it. But its time to start thinking about this process as moving toward some sort of natural rate of engagement rather than a descent into oblivion. Partisans and Sandows of the world alike need to realize that "the music isn't for everyone" doesn't mean its elitist, or that everyone should know better, or that its suffering from some massive and elusive failure in appeal. To a large degree, those are just the breaks for an art form built for personal experience trying to make it on a planet which has figured out ingenious ways to circumvent the personal experience.

So what is to be done? As far as changing attendance patterns, concert formats, programming, etc., I don't think there's terribly much we really can "do". We can innovate and try to tinker here and there, but in the end the serious music tradition will be based on whatever it has always been based on in one form or another, and there's just no way around it. It will evolve in whatever way its adherents decide is most conducive to that experience.

In thinking about how to make a functional rather than value driven distinction between the classical and modern pop tradition, I keep coming back to the idea of expropriating the term "slow culture". I like the analogy with the 'slow food' phenomenon, and its distinction between food production as it has been more or less throughout history and food production as it is in the modern era of industrial agriculture and mass processing; you can extrapolate a lot of positive and negative conclusions from there, but the fundamental point is purely about the mechanism of production.

And that's where the slow culture idea comes in handy. As Matthew's post points out, while most sensible people have figured out that arguing aesthetic value is a dead end, we're still trying to wage proxy debates about value using circumstantial evidence and half-baked economics to figure out what is 'in demand'. Slow culture makes the simple point that 'demand' for art is a relative quantity in an information landscape where different art forms operate on wildly different scales.

Update: Since I got called out on "there are clearly some broad differences in the character of the listening experience and the nature of intellectual engagement entailed in classical and, say, the blues" above, I feel like elaborating a bit. To be honest, I never understand why such a sentiment is so problematic. I'm not denying that there are true experts and devotees for music genres besides classical, nor am I denying that any one of these traditions involves opportunities for intellectual depth as rich as one wants it to be. Either of those claims can be disproved instantly. But that's why I said broad and not absolute differences.

There are good reasons why copious program notes at a punk show would injure the experience rather than enhance it (not that anyone's clamoring for punk to change its performance practices, despite its slide from relevance), just as there are good reasons why those notes are now deemed a welcome and essential addition to the modern classical concert. And there are reasons why people like to listen to Beethoven in as close to dead silence as possible, while people generally like to listen to blues in a crowded bar, and listening to it in some antiseptic concert hall just feels weird.

"Intellectual", which I suspect is the word which causes the real offense here, isn't supposed to be a sneaky value judgment. It denotes a specific kind of artistic experience, and in some contexts it has its place more than others. I mean seriously...does the intellectual wing of popular music really believe people want to experience it in the same way that people want to experience Beethoven? So sue me, but I think the primordial appeal of popular music is precisely its immediacy, its power to effortlessly evoke memories and emotions, its ability to tell stories. That's its folk heritage. By contrast, art music's primordial appeal is its range of ambiguity, its perfectly contrived effects, its technical depth. Yeah, of course there are exceptions, and people do what they want, but why is it a crime to say there's some kind of general distinction here? That way of thinking seems to go against everything in front of our eyes, and everything we know about the motivations of artists who actually created the music in question. Am I missing something?


Anonymous said...

Well put, Alex.

It's so exhausting to compare what seem like apples and oranges. I know that in this instance art and business were backroom f-buddies (for lack of a better term) only recently being brought into the shaming light of last call..

Market, shares, subjectivity, expression. (Tilts head).

Yet they have always managed to get along. And say what we might about "fast culture", it is very expressive and the response to that can only be subjective.

What we don't have any more today than we did in the "golden mid- 20th century" is a legitimate response to the "degeneration" of popular art.

"Pop" , by its very nature, is merely reflective . And just as the old music masters criticized the "femininity" of florid song versus the solid "masculinity" of monody at the dawn of our own beloved art, so is criticized now the tuneless violence of hip-hop.

What the entire human response to artistic experience comes down to is, in my humble opinion, "Yes" or "No thanks". Why attempt to raitionalize a knee-jerk reaction?

I do like Rossini and while I'm not rabid for it, will probably one day find myself liking more expressionism. Some people will call me a Philistine for not caring that much about the Second Vienese School right now, but it is just my subjective response. A willingness to spend time with scores and become more acquainted with the music would (of course!) enhance my appreciation of the form, but it doesn't change the fact that this is just not where my heart is. Right now.

And my willingness to expand and grow into that school and other unfamiliar areas doesn't make me a more valuable human being, but it does make conversation at cocktail parties easier. It also makes it much harder to fit in at the bowling alley.

Pick your poison and stick to your guns, I say. Even if, as Emerson might bring up, you decide tomorrow that this gun doesn't fit your lifestyle anymore.

Andy said...

I often think that maybe classical music hasn't gotten smaller, the world's just gotten bigger.

I think there is something of a parallel in the world of sports. After the World Series each year, there is almost always a report that the games had lower ratings than previous years. That's because in the 1960s and 70s when there were only 3 available channels, it was easy to get a huge rating. Now with hundreds of channels and one for almost every niche interest, ratings are lower because there are more choices. But overall baseball is doing fine, and has record attendance.

Alex said...


A good point and another place where I find the fast/slow division helpful. The polarization problem in art (or music at least) actually looks a lot like the polarization dynamic in politics: sure, there are some actual hardliners out there who truly favor one side to the exclusion of the other, but the vast majority of people fall somewhere in between.

For instance, even though there are about a billion pop songs I would listen to before I would ever put on Rossini again (we would have to find something else for JDF to do, of course), Rossini gets lumped in their with the rest if I make the case for classical music.

But I'm not really advocating for Rossini at all, but rather for the kind of music Rossini represents, which I feel is at a general disadvantage due to its reliance on live experience, its greater length, and the fact that it was made in the 19th century.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Marc took the "word" out of my mouth. Well, I was actually going to write "Brava -- you go, girrll!"

If only all discourse on such an important subject to me could be on this level. (I mean his, not mine, of course.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Great postings, and those tomatoes are glorious.

JSU said...

I agree, not least because I've been making this point for years... :P

Henry Holland said...

Late to the party as usual --to be honest, I got tired of clicking on Wellsungs for days at time without any new posts that I fell out the habit and WAIT! don't hit me! I'll be good! I promise!-- but I loved this post, it articulates what I feel about this subject perfectly. I especially love this:

So what is to be done? As far as changing attendance patterns, concert formats, programming, etc., I don't think there's terribly much we really can "do"

People are always talking about getting the music out of concert halls and taking it "where the people are" and I just shake my head at the naivety of it. It works for Matt Haimovitz doing Bach solo cello suites but I've yet to see one single proposal for how to have a full orchestra do Tod und Verklarung in a Lower East Side club.

As for "people should be able to talk/walk around/chat on their iPhones/drink loudly" kind of "hey, let's turn Symphony Hall in to the classical CBGB's", I think that's totally non-negotiable. People should be prepared to sit in a chair without a ton of fidgeting, be totally silent (I know from experience, sometimes you simply can't help coughing during the pppp parts of pieces) and NOT FREAKING TALK TO YOUR COMPANION. To do otherwise impinges on people who want to concentrate on the music.

Yes, there's work than could be done on the hoary old curtain raiser (i.e. the place to foist off "new music" because it only lasts 10 minutes) > concerto > intermission > big piece format and I certainly wish concerts were longer, but that's just tinkering really.

So often, it becomes a debate between box office receipts and cultural relevance. To be blunt, I care about the former, as that will allow institutions I patronize (the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera, and once in a while, the symphony or opera companies in San Diego, San Francisco or New York) to continue to present the niche stuff I like (120 piece orchestras, plink-plonk music) while paying the bills with another revival of the wonderful La Boheme and Beethoven's 5th.

Some people will call me a Philistine for not caring that much about the Second Vienese School right now

Wow, do people still really do that? I mean, I have more recordings of Pierrot Lunaire than anything by Haydn, Mozart and Brahms combined, but I thought that sort of thing had died out in the 90's for the most part.

Andrew, good analogy with baseball, I think that's very appropriate.