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"We Are All Mozart"

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the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   November 2, 2006   next

There's a really big problem in nonpop. The proverbial elephant in the room or the six-hundred pound gorilla. It's big, it's bad, and it doesn't smell very good.

It's élitism.

Snobbishness, classism, élitism -- these have provoked passionate arguments among composers, listeners and musicians, a passion that for some inexplicable reason has boiled up again in several online communities. On one side of the argument are what I'll call the Zennites (after the mindreading eternals of Space 1999), those who believe that all music is equivalent for someone, that the simplest modulation is a work of art and the most expansive Mahler symphony no more than a big bundle of simple actions. On the other side of the argument are the Bennettens (after William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues), for whom art is finely classifiable from trivial to great, with a strong culturo-moral absolutist component.

For purposes of discussion, it's worth taking these opinions on their face, that there is no built-in hypocrisy to these beliefs -- that the Bennettens really aren't secretly racist or xenophobic and that the Zennites make conscious personal choices of taste.

In each subgroup of élitists is a rulebook. The rulebook includes a dress code, appropriate responses to the music, the manner of presentation. There is a rigorousness of dress for a 'classical' concert (among audience and musicians) and an equivalent rigorousness at a jazz, rock or country music concert. It is not a uniform so much as the one standard deviation in which the audience reveals itself. The cowboy hat will be as discomfiting for a concert of J.S. Bach as will formal evening attire for Willie Nelson. Times have softened the dress codes, but the true afficionado will be self-marked by a visual style. Responses to the music run from the constant interruption of the rock event through the overlapping applause for jazz solos to carefully timed final ovations (and silence between movements) for classical nonpop. And the manner of presentation moves from the extreme and sometimes explosive pop act to the rigid order of appearance, tuning and playing at the symphony. (The very moment that this sentence was finished there arrived a post from Eliot Handelman asking, "Is clapping at someone still a relevant response? What should applause transmute into?")

What so far? Rituals surrounding the art. Here's a story. The New Jersey State Museum was known for the elegant hosting of its art receptions, and as a member of the museum's board in the mid-1970s, I was expected to attend them. Caviar and pâté were not part of my gustatory world as a young & poor composer, the board's token artist sitting beside the likes of Malcolm Forbes, Douglas Dillon, and Glenway Wescott. In fact, all I had for footwear was a pair of bedroom slippers. Most of the food was extraordinary, I was perpetually hungry, so attend the receptions I did. One evening, at a reception for some hyper-realistic sculptor then in vogue, I decided to become a sculpture, perhaps in league with another (the memory fails). Food in hand, I (or we) stood against various columns in stone stillness until half-paying-attention socializers would examine the realism we represented. When they looked away, we would change pose and lock in the new one. The sensory apparatus of those half-paying-attention guests would almost catch the shift, and it would impinge on their coherency (already somewhat diluted from the free-flowing alcohol ... it was the 1970s, remember, before the New Puritanism arrived) and disturb the easy flow of conversation. But the ritual demanded attention to the Work of Art. In turn we would be examined by the meandering guests. During that entire evening, the ritual demanded attention and was respected.

This is significant especially in the so-called 'high arts' because they have evolved a judgment-averse atmosphere, a Zennite sensibility inside a Bennetten hierarchy. Here's more. Concerts often break down, but the indomitable ritual on both sides of the baton is inviolable. A pianist gets lost in a score, blundering along with effluvial runs and pseudo-modulations, but the conductor does not stop and they attempt to synchronize on the next best cadence. An ensemble crashes insensibly through a composition from the very first measure, but continues stoicly to the end -- and accepts the applause from listeners who had no sense of the wreckage that had been committed in the name of art. A performance is brutally mediocre yet the audience jumps to its feet, remembering their image of the piece and not what they actually heard.

The élitism revealed in these examples is not in the artwork, but in the social surround. The art itself, deeply embedded as it has become in the social surround, is accorded a place of honor and stability because without it the entire context for the classical concert experience rots away. It is as if jazz lost improvisation, rock lost social commentary, and country lost regret. They would be as Hershey's Kisses to the world of confection.

Let's rope these dogies now. If the nonpop world, in particular the classical concert, is seen as élitist, whence comes the perception and how is it changed? The perception derives from the mannerism of classical presentation -- not just the rulebook, but also the gombah missing from these events. For example, there's the little things: Keep the tux, but who wants to hear tuning? Come onto the darn stage ready to play, and get right to it. But the real issue afflicts all musical forms, the deep-down belief that we-are-the-truth. We speak to real people in country, we are the rebellious truth in rock, we make masterworks in nonpop.

Don't chalk me up as a Zennite, even though I'm at home with Xenakis or Jeff Buckley or the Chieftans or Braxton (either one) or Jo Stafford (as herself or as Darlene Edwards) or Ockeghem or Staind or Kalinnikov or Jane Siberry or Zappa or Stockhausen or Furious Pig ... you get the idea. What drives my interest and where I discover music that can be internally tiered in a Bennetten kind of way is that packing together of compelling ideas, the accompanying demand for the effective expression of those ideas, the pressing upon the limits of the artist's technique, and the demand that I listen.

It's bound up in that last one, isn't it? It's what gives the nonpop musical artform its greatest vulnerability -- that it dare impose itself upon our limited reservoir of effort as drained as it is in these distracted, postmodern times. The educational system has presented few tools, the musical world is too busy marketing for our attention, the artists are so self-involved and in desperate fear of being eclipsed before they can be heard, and a contemporary sense of just diversity coupled with a discriminating act equated to an act of meritless and unjustified judgment has debilitated our will and exposed a rawness that reveals the Zennite way as the most comfortable, the safest, and the least responsible. From Times critic to Top 40 (automated) programmer, the path can be made wide and unerring and we become observers of the surrounding wonders without ever becoming involved in them. Whether it's the Grand Canyon or the Grande Pièce Symphonique, we just want a show.

The artwork that does not require of us, that just stands there at the reception as we dribble the wine and masticate the pâté, is the ideal artwork -- alive or dead, it leaves us be, permits us a state of forgetfulness and does not trouble the waters of our lives. The artwork that demands, that grabs the senses and leaves the ears seared and the eyes ringing, demands we move beyond ourselves and into not only its world but into a world beyond the borders of our skin. It is the very definition of élitism to insist, to require, an action when it demands, "Come to me!" It publicly shames, exposes ineptitude, lack of knowledge, absence of depth, weariness of demeanor, laxness of spirit, and waste of innate human ability.

So élitism bifurcates into a social behavior and into quest, adventure, and challenge. The former has become the opaque veil over the latter, away from which one can retreat to the safety of the plastic cup of chablis, pointing.

Hanging pans

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