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Wednesday, August 03, 2005
It's About Time: A (Rather Long) Case Study of Classical Music and the Media

Last Week's Time Magazine article on the Marin Alsop/Baltimore Symphony flap was interesting in several ways.

First, it was clearly more of a gender equality story than a classical music story -- even the title seems to be a pun on Virginia Woolf's _A Room Of One's Own_. I don't have a problem with that focus -- gender equality stories are important and newsworthy, and the appearance of resistance by the orchestra to the idea of a woman conductor. (however valid that impression might or might not be -- the only concerns raised by the musicians were valid musical and technical concerns, but of course they also wouldn't be so dumb as to come out and say "we don't want a woman") makes coverage of this story from that perspective valid. And surely orchestras can and should do a far better job of achieving gender equality. It is interesting to note, however, that this article, at 991 words long, is the longest classical-music-oriented article since a 1190 word article in October 2003, which is really about the new Disney Hall.

More interesting than the gender politics, however, is the self-mocking: Grossman makes fun of the American Media's relationship with classical music. "The changing of the guard at an orchestra, even a top-flight outfit like the Baltimore Symphony, isn't usually a matter of widespread interest--it's not as if Alsop were dating Tom Cruise or anything. . ." The romantic gossip about Hollywood celebs is more inherently newsworthy than the hiring of a new conductor by a major orchestra, unless there's some additional hook -- in this case that "Alsop will be the first woman ever to lead a major American symphony orchestra" and she was challenged by the instrumentalists. Then, three paragraphs later, "In 2003, Gramophone, the big classical-music magazine published in Britain (they have those over there), picked her as its Artist of the Year." I'm not arguing, as some might, that classical music deserves or has a right to more media coverage than it gets (much as I would appreciate more coverage), but I find it interesting that Mr. Grossman is so scornful of our media's lack of coverage. This attitude is all the more powerful knowing that Grossman is not a Classical Music Critic, but a broader cultural critic who seems to focus mostly on books and video games. And he's pretty good at it, if I recall his previous columns accurately. So thanks, Lev, for arguing for better coverage of classical music, even though it's not your field.

Back in the day, the article on Alsop would have been written by a classical music critic -- a couple of years ago it would have been Terry Teachout, and for many years before that Michael Walsh -- but as far as I can tell, Time no longer has a dedicated Classical Music Critic. Unfortunately, while Grossman does a fine job with the facts, from his very first sentence ("Most children have to be dragged to the symphony.") he continually reinforces the harmful stereotype that classical music is elitist.

In paragraph six, Grossman wraps up his description of Alsop with "She can even be heard, on occasion, to utter the phrase way cool," which is worthy of mention only if he assumes that conductors are too hoity-toity to stoop to such colloquial speech. To his credit, he follows the "way cool" line with a quote of Alsop saying "There's this whole archetypal image of what a conductor is, this inaccessible person with an accent and an ascot. . . This is the age of collaboration rather than autocracy." Good for Alsop to be working to dismantle that stereotype, but Grossman places that whole paragraph in the context of Alsop as "new blood and a new direction," which implies that the stereotype is valid and that the following description is how Alsop breaks the mold.

The most painful moment, though, is at the beginning of the fourth paragraph: "For an art form devoted to exalting the human spirit, classical music is plagued by painfully unenlightened gender politics." I've already addressed the gender equality issue -- my real problem is with the first half of the sentence. "Exalting the Human Spirit" is one of those nice-sounding turns of phrase that doesn't really mean anything but comes laden with powerfully elitist baggage. It sounds like classical musicians and composers are extra special because they are pursuing a great and noble goal, while other artists are merely providing vulgar entertainment for the unenlightened. For the most part, the people who believe that classical music does occupy an aesthetic high-ground are either already fans or are actively disinterested in "high art;" and the people who don't believe it hear "exalting the human spirit" and are confirmed in their worry that classical musicians are arrogant, self-important, elitists.

I single out this article not because it's unusual (it's not), but because it was recent and thus is convenient. I don't mean to pick on Lev Grossman, who is not really part of the scene, and doesn't know any better, and neither do his editors -- he is reflecting the stereotypes of the culture at large, as is most of the rest of the media. To offer another example from Time -- in December of 2002, Richard Corliss, also not a Classical Music Critic, wrote a lengthy article, most of which is actually quite good, on the Broadway production of La Boheme. The subtitle of his article is "Yes, it's an opera -- but wait! Keep on reading." His first paragraph explains that he has never liked opera, but when he was young he enjoyed some "light-classical" pieces. He concludes the paragraph with "The point is that the Child Corliss could respond to certain elevated music forms, just not the one where fat people caterwauled in a foreign language." Classical Music, then, is "elevated" but regular people don't go for "elevated." This opening, along with a number of other comments, make clear that he wishes people were more aware of classical music, but as so many writers do he wants people to be more aware because it's good for them -- part of "musical literacy." That the kids might actually end up liking it is treated as a means to an end. So he ends up reinforcing the beliefs that, in part, keep people away to begin with.

Marin Alsop is right -- those stereotypes no longer hold. But since most people get access to unfamiliar parts of the culture through the media, as long as the media keeps reinforcing the stereotypes they will remain dominant, and outreach efforts but the classical community will appear as attempts either to "civilize" the "heathens" and recruit more elitists, or simply to maintain a population of ticket buyers who will subsidize our lifestyle.

As I said before, I won't claim that the media has an obligation to cover classical music more than it does -- the argument that the media does have that obligation is fundamentally elitist, and I'm interested in undoing the "classical music and musicians are elitist" stereotype. I will say that if the media chooses to cover classical music it has an obligation to base that reporting on the realities of classical music rather than the stereotype. The best way to do that is to hire actual Classical Music Critics to cover Classical Music.

Our job as members of the community, then, is twofold: stand up to the "elitism" narrative when we see it in the media, and try to help the Classical Music Critics who haven't drunk the elitism kool-aid get into the shrinking number of music critic posts.

Update: Drew McManus at Adaptastration has an excellent post on Joseph Horowitz's comments during a WAMU show on classical music. By convenient coincidence, Drew covers some very similar territory to this post.

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