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Posted by acdtest on January 5, 2004


eblogger Stirling Newberry of Symphony X, a lover and proactive champion of classical (i.e., serious, or art) music, has posted an entry that unwittingly sabotages the very thing he ostensibly champions, and perverts and subverts the place (the preeminent place) of classical music as an art form. In his confused and egregiously wrongheaded if well-intentioned piece, Mr. Newberry begins by saying,

Imagine living in a culture where you can’t read the rules that other people follow: that is most people’s experience with music, they are, truly, illiterate. Which is why the project of “literate listening” is essential: classical music’s power comes from its literate nature[!], it is an art form by and for those who can read[!]. Absent the component of connection to forms, architecture, structure, self-similarity, development and growth – absent the language itself – classical music is merely organized sound which imparts little more advantage than any other kind of organized sound[!]….

All this is so perverse, and so in error, one has some difficulty knowing where to begin countering it.

“[C]lassical music’s power comes from its literate nature”(!)? Lordy! What an idea. For the receiver, that’s precisely where music’s power does not come from. Of all the arts, music, classical or other, is the one art that does not depend on the literate, but produces its magic — its full and fully coherent magic — sans any intervention by our rational or literate faculties. That singular power is precisely what Walter Pater refers to in his trenchant observation that all art aspires to the condition of music.

Which is not to say that one’s appreciation and understanding of music would not be deepened by a knowledge of its special language. Such knowledge, and the ability to read a score, will certainly deepen one’s appreciation and understanding of music at the intellectual level, and that makes such knowledge desirable, but by no means required or even necessary to appreciate and understand music at the level at which all music is best understood; a level accessible to all with ears to hear.

Mr. Newberry then wades into deeper, more treacherous — and more sinister –waters.

The problem [of the decline of classical music] is deeper, and simpler to describe – it is the abdication of activity to mass culture. People – even people who like high art – expect someone “out there” to bombard them with choices which they “make”, selecting what they like. Classical music is, ultimately, a participatory activity[!], and will suffer in any environment were participation is not part of the core of values that a people, culturally, have.


The solution is not to war against the tides, which come and go, nor rail against the temporary fancies of the moment – but to take the powerful intellectual capital[!] which classical music has, and use it to create pressure and movement. It is to create music, to create understanding of music, to reach for, as Schumann put it “a new and more poetic age” where the language of music is natural to describe events, architecture, ideas, and history. When people can, without conscious wincing, use phrases such as “tone poet” or draw philosophical ideas from musical events[!] – then we will be on the road to recovery.


[B]y using the changes in society and technology, it is possible to create force which moves the larger world. Most people aren’t hostile to change, they simply don’t even know what to do, they will flow along lines of organization, if those lines are created for them. They will awaken and find that they have more energy and more ideas, and a larger, more open world. They will feel more alive.

We can give this to them, this gift of a larger life, or rather – we can help them give it to themselves. It is this that will remake classical music in the image of a new idea, because the old will have to change as radically as we ask others to change – and it will begin to remake society[!]. The ability to deliver force is out there, and we have it in our own hands. Organization is so rare, belief, real belief with depth and desire so hard to find, that even a few people can make it happen, and create order where it seemed there was none.

This is a secret of classical music. Classical music allows people to perform and produce results[!]. And that is the first step to changing the society out there[!], to change classical music from being reactive and reactionary[!] – and thus unhealthy – to being aggressive in pushing its message outwards, and thus forceful, filled with what Machiavelli called virtu and healthy.


This idea, if adopted…will allow classical music to…go from nothing to the ability to change the world[!].

[all emphases mine]

One looks for evidence of the rhetorical in all this, but in vain. Those confused and malaprop ideas and words were intended in dead earnest; ideas and words not merely worthy of a politician, which would be more than perverse enough, but of a crypto-tyrant, or worse, a social engineer; ideas and words so mind-bogglingly squalid and perverse in terms of classical music that one is struck dumb merely reading them, especially coming as they do from an ostensible champion of classical music. Had Mr. Newberry set out to write an article whose intent was to put forward a plan to deep-six acceptance of classical music forever in a free society he could have done no better.

I’m hoping that Mr. Newberry was dead drunk, or under some other duress, when he came up with those ideas and wrote those words, and will now make haste to delete them, and post in their place something useful, constructive, appropriate — and sane.

UPDATE (8 January at 3:39 AM Eastern): Stirling Newberry responds.

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