I think you and your readers at sequenza21 will like this piece we just published, by Richard Taruskin: It’s a provocative argument that the dire situation in which classical music finds itself is being made even more dire by the sentimentality and unreality of some of the music’s most ardent defenders. Here’s a link.

Barron YoungSmith

The New Republic

16 thoughts on “From the Old Mailbag”
  1. Or, think of when you first heard the first piece of music that took your breath away. It changed everything, didn’t it? You couldn’t have explained just what had happened but you knew it was important? It made you a composer?

  2. No. But I did find the philosophy of Alain Badiou very helpful to understand this idea better. According to Badiou, truth is a process of the unfolding of universal values, that do not yet exist, but that come in existence gradually through a “fidelity” to a “truth process”; and according to him, truth can happen in four domains: love, science, (emancipatory) politics and art. Now the reason you can’t “define” truth is that truth is always like the axiom that you add to the situation – the situation as it is right now, and the language as it is right now, doesn’t have the means to talk about this weird notion that you have to add to it. So truth, if it occurs, is something like a gradual unfolding of a broader perspective which adds in a fundamental way to life-as-we-know-it. And such truth processes can therefore never be “defined” or “proven”; instead, they’re brought about by “events” that are felt as breaches and that somehow indicate what was lacking in the situation as we knew it. To embark on this event-inspired truth process requires something of a leap of faith. The belief that such things are possible – that it’s possible to find new ways of looking at things that actually change your idea of reality – is what’s important in truth, and so it’s more or less the opposite of defining, because you always define things in terms of what you already knew. If you’d like to read more about Badiou’s system, I recommend Being and Event, which was translated not too long ago, for a very technical exposition (he bases his whole approach in mathematical set theory!)

  3. Samuel– If you’re still out there (I realize this is a pretty old thread at this point) can you define what you mean by “art’s claims for artistic truth”?

  4. Robert – I think though, honestly, if the music is good enough people will show up. I’ve seen people trek miles into nowhere to hear great music. The ugly truth this poses for the classical world is that the music (performance or composition) is just not good enough. It has to reach out to more than just the 2% of the population that already buy into it.

  5. Yes,snobbism in classical music is bad.But even worse is the
    reverse snobbism against it which is so prevalent today.
    Many people unfortunately accept the myth that classical music
    is stuffy boring and”elitist”.And political correctness tells people
    that they should never listen to music by those terrible”dead
    white european males”.Such stupid notions close people’s minds.

  6. Well, people, yeah, but I’m not people. Anyway, please note that I’m making (or want to make) the distinction between ‘accomodating’ composers and composers who write in the style they need to write in, which turns out to be somehow popular. Popularity as such is not yet a disqualifier.

    Furthermore, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that the idea of artistic truth is useful; but the nature of such a truth will make it so that it simply ignores any institutionalisation, whether it’s some institution of “the academy” or some institution of “the audience”, and at best uses those elements from whatever institution that happen to be integral part of the vision.

  7. Samuel Vriezen wrote: “You may laugh all you want about the “German romanticism” of this French-Greek composer, but in comparison to the music that it led to even the slightest amount of realist market accomodation must appear simply sterile.”

    I can tell you from first hand experience that’s far from being true. I’ve been to a lot of ‘accomodating’ concerts that have played to the audience AND lifted them to a state of greater consciousness. So why can’t music that falls under the classical label do the same? Lift people to this state AND get beyond 2% market share? It’s possible to do.

  8. Taruskin presents an entertaining rebuke of snobbishness, which unfortunately degerenerates in a very simplistic opposition between “German Romanticism” and realist accomodation to marketplace reality. Sure, academically supported romantic positions may be artificial, to the point of seeming contrived or even disingenuous – but anybody who would think that the opposite, the market (and in the era of Halliburton I refuse to write “free market”) should be any the less artificial, let alone disingenuous is simply delusional.

    A critique of the problems of institutionalization with its dangers of snobbery may always be vital, but it would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater to deny art’s claims for artistic truth. These are _independent_of_ (i.e. neither positively nor negatively correlated with) the market’s claims on art, which are not about truth but merely about survival. Consider: the alternative for snobbishness, for Taruksin, would be ‘accomodation’. For composers, this means ‘adopting more “accessible” styles’. And sure, there are some composers with very decent chops who seem to write in something you might consider a more or less “accessible” style. However, I’ve yet to come accross a composer who has _decided_ to accomodate by _changing his style_ whose music I find quite as exciting as that of Xenakis, who had the following vision of what music should do: “It must aim through fixations which are landmarks to draw towards a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous, and perfect. If a work of art succeeds in this undertaking even for a single moment, it attains its goal.” You may laugh all you want about the “German romanticism” of this French-Greek composer, but in comparison to the music that it led to even the slightest amount of realist market accomodation must appear simply sterile.

  9. Taruskin: “There are two ways of dealing with the new pressure that classical music go out and earn its living. One is accommodation… The other way is to hole up in such sanctuary as still exists and hurl imprecations and exhortations.”

    How’s that for incredible lack of imagination and spectacular false dichotomy? As I see it, musicians are finding many creative ways of adapting, and I wouldn’t insult most of them by calling them ‘accommodating.’ It’s such a poor metaphor that you need to run miles away from the framing of this argument before anything interesting can even be said.

    I haven’t noticed a dying classical music around the house lately. Taruskin sure seems to have issues with it, though, and even hungrily searches out books that discuss it in the terms that he supposedly despises.

    If Virgin records (as opposed to symphony orchestras, who aren’t really choaking out that much opportunity in “the market” [whatever that is], but rather are only hogging all the NEA funding) went belly up tomorrow, that would be the removal of a major impediment to the livelihood of both ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ musicians (and ‘other’ musicians), which would allow them to go their own wonderful ways. Is Pearl Jam going outside of Ticketmaster an accomodation? Rather than accomodate number crunchers and executives, classical musicians also need to work to destabilize the music industry status quo, whose rules are currently stacked against them. Having “in house” CDs is a good step, for example, but so is the proliferation of chamber ensembles that are agile enough to play in a variety of venues more often than the SOs with more rehearsal time… there are lots of different problems to address in music today, which are individual and only consitute a larger mass-problem if you stack the numbers that way. Of course people need to find solutions to financial pressure, but I think if people decide that the solution is to just play all Aphex Twin arrangements all the time, people are still going to prefer Aphex Twin. It may be that Symphony Orchestras need to change but if they do, they also need to get in where they fit in.

    At any rate, it’s going to take more than ‘accommodations’ or ‘imprecations’ to do anything worthwhile. So Taruskin is of no help to us; I’ll leave him to his invective and false moral/financial crises.

  10. I think a great article. Classical music, like jazz, is getting smothered by the people who claim to love it the most. Who can deny this?

  11. I printed it out, so my ref. won’t match yours. Heading for bed, so brief:

    1. Ent./pleasure: p7. One graph begins, “The reason for denigrating pleasure…” Go from there.
    2. Wagner/class.: p8. Entire section, esp. following 2nd Wag. quote, w/ graph beginning “Wagner’s rhetoric, lacking the Arnoldian…”
    3. Rac/fasc.: pp.7-8, how he leads the 2 together by quot. Johnson then Wagner.

    The whole p.7-8 is grim. Downhill from there. Further comments in my blog tonight.


  12. Dennis — Can you offer a specific quotes to back up your claims?

    What are the entertainment/pleasure strawmen?

    Where’s the Wagner reference conflated with classical approaches?

    What quotes suggest that the people he’s criticising are racist and fascist?

    I didn’t get what you got from the article, but I can’t make counterarguments without knowing what specifically you’re objecting to.

  13. It’s actually dreadful — he makes the same kinds of non-sequiturs as he criticizes. Just read the section where he mixes entertainment and pleasure, sets up a strawman, and knocks it down.

    I don’t disagree with his point, but there he is flogging old Adorno again, as if one can encapsulate half a century into a philosopher-composer who worked hard mostly to aggregate others’ viewpoints as if they were his.

    He does conflation of classical approaches with Wagner, throwing down great swaths of quotation to suggest, well, you know, all those classical people are really elitists and why, how convenient, their racist and fascist, too.

    Taruskin makes the same character of argument as Paul Cantor or Bill Bennett make, disguises it as a review of three books and, of course, allows himself to sidestep offering any sort of solution.

    Whether or not he nails some of the crappy attitudes, he engages in the same seedy behavior.


  14. This is actually a pretty kickass article, IMNSHO. I started working on a response yesterday expanding on one area that Taruskin glosses over, and I’ll try to have it finished in the next couple of days.

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