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Score Another For The Philistines

Posted by acdtest on January 24, 2004

Score Another For The Philistines

The murderous onslaught on high culture by the philistine horde continues, the latest salvo proceeding from the venerable New York Times as outlined in an interview with New York Times Book Review executive editor, Bill Keller.

The nub of it:

He [Keller] promised “dramatic changes” in the Sunday section [of the Book Review] now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom.

And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world,” Keller says. “Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.”

What’s more, if you’re perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we’re told. After all, says Keller, somebody’s got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

Charming.

Idiots.

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Posted in Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature, Print Media | Comments Off on Score Another For The Philistines

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Posted by acdtest on January 13, 2004

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

ots of play has been given this post by weblogger Michael of 2Blowhards contrasting the professional movie- and book-persons’ view of trash and art generally, and in the books world in particular. The post is of ghastly length, but still interesting reading written as it is by a long-time professional observer of the arts biz, tendentiously biased though his views may be.

As an indefatigable cheerleader for all things pop cultural, and a hater of all things even marginally elitist even though himself a ressentiment-saturated crypto-elitist, it’s not surprising Michael’s post is a thinly veiled if uncharacteristically muted advocacy of books valued by pop culture, and one which makes the contrasting observation that professional movie people — whose business is, after all, rooted in trash — are, generally speaking, free and open-minded sorts accepting of both art and trash and well able to laugh at themselves, and professional book people, generally speaking, uptight, long-faced, unreasoning enemies of trash who take themselves way too seriously.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the comments thread attached to Michael’s post; a thread some 86 messages long at last count, and consisting of thoughtful and fairly lengthy comments by readers responding to Michael’s call for “any thoughts about what a more down-to-earth and pleasure-centric view of reading-and-writing might be like” (nice touch, that), and for a ‘fessing up to “any guilty reading-and-books secrets” his weblog’s visitors may have.

In that 86-message-long comments thread, the majority of commenters standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael’s take on things (Michael is forever saying or implying he encourages discussion and debate, but what he’s really on about, always, is soliciting agreement with his own views), there were but two clearly dissenting voices.

Said commenter Ulf, bravely:

Living, like I do, in the ultimate low-brow city, Las Vegas, I nonetheless would consider myself a book person, having worked in NYC publishing before moving here.

I admit that I’ve read very little genre fiction or whatever you want to call it. But not really for snobbish reasons, I’ve tried, I really have, but more often than not I find such books unintentionally funny, when the author threatens to trip over his own sentences.

To me, the real pleasure in reading is a pleasure of language, which is probably why I read a great deal of poetry. Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of fabulous living or recently deceased poets whose work seems to bring the kind of pleasure many who posted here are looking for. Why are they not buying that stuff? And they aren’t since contemporary poetry sells about 500 copies on a very, very good day.

To plug just a few: Fred Chappell (also a fine fiction writer), Kelly Cherry, James Merrill (who died too young), Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hartnett and Tony Hoagland.

The pleasure of a well-written sentence/stanza far outweighs any need for literature to represent reality as I see it. The most fabulous fiction writer of the last couple of decades was W.G. Sebald, whose books, difficult though they may be, I challenge anyone to put down unfinished? I once found myself re-reading “The Rings of Saturn” three times before moving on to the next book, all within a few days.

The genre fiction I’ve tried to read has just not had that kind of pleasurable effect on me. My last attempt was “The Da Vinci Code,” surely a popular book by anyone’s standard, and I found myself laughing so hardily at the awkward prose and repetitive cliches (not to mention inept descriptions) that I could not follow the story for very long. I eventually gave up on the thing about 200 pages in.

And, just as bravely, commenter Jason followed with:

I happen to enjoy reading the New York Review, Proust, and Faulkner — so I guess that puts me in the books category. Not that I don’t also enjoy lighter fare like campy films, blithe.com, and fun short fiction. But there’s something deeply satisfying about rich, finely crafted prose that the cheap shit can’t replicate. Trashy novelas may offer ephemeral pleasures. Great novels stay with you. I find lines from Baldwin or even Kirk Vardenoe coming back to me at random points in the day. They speak to something beyond the immediate circumstances of their construction, they achieve something higher and purer. In short, they offer the reader wisdom, not just pleasure.

I absolutely agree that postmodern literary crit is pontifical dreck. And self-consciously “literary” fiction is unbearable. But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I’ve found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary.

The ratio (2/86) is about what would be expected in a matter such as this, but still encouraging. It suggests the poisonous pop cultural tide has not totally succeeded in overwhelming appreciation of what’s genuinely important, worthwhile, and, yes — Michael’s tendentious insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding — “pleasure-centric” in literature.

A small encouragement, to be sure. But an encouragement nevertheless.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature | Comments Off on Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Malaprop

Posted by acdtest on January 5, 2004

Malaprop

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.

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Music | Comments Off on Malaprop

Death Knell

Posted by acdtest on January 3, 2004

Death Knell

orman Lebrecht, one of our finest and most perceptive classical music critics, declares the year 2004 the classical record industry’s last. And the reason? According to Mr. Lebrecht,

[The] rhythms [of the classical music recording industry] were disrupted, distorted and ultimately destroyed by digital recording, which delivered sonic utopia and exposed the flaws in the process. Attentive listeners were able to hear underground trains rumbling beneath Decca’s Kingsway Hall, and botched edits in supposedly authentic performances. Digital clarity revealed the artificiality of recording, the fundamental fakery of producing an inhumanly accurate replica of all-too human music. As the digital sheen wore off, so did the sales.

Strikes me as a stretch, although I’m willing to concede it may be part of the reason, but surely not the central part. A glimmering of that central part can be discerned in statements such as the following, which today struck me in my daily quick survey of the blogosphere, even though, per se, they’ve nothing whatsoever to do with classical music.

• Ten is such an arbitrary number, isn’t it? And ranking is so elitist. So let’s just list the best movies I saw in 2003.

• [N]ot all art originates as popular art, and not everything from the past that we consider high-cult today began life as popular art. Shakespeare and Mozart, sure.

• I’m blogging from the apartment of ________, who is sitting in her Eames chair (yes, she has an Eames chair!), looking shockingly beautiful as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two twang away on the stereo (didn’t I tell you she was cool?).

• An encounter with a great work of art is nothing more than that–it doesn’t teach us anything, and it doesn’t “show us the way”, it simply provides us with evidence (just as a meeting with an exceptional person does) that there are other minds in the world–and man, that’s enough for me….

• The old [arts] hierarchies don’t yet seem to know it, but their days in the sun are numbered — though my bet is that the Defenders of the One True Faith will go on proclaiming their vital importance and prophetic stature even as tidal waves sweep over them. They’ll cling to little bits of sand and rock and wonder why no one’s paying attention. Answer: because the world has discovered that it prefers to get by without the interference of self-important clowns.

• It’s been said before, and it’s been said before that it’s been said before, but it hasn’t been said enough: SON HOUSE was one of the most wildly inventive and brilliant musical geniuses of all time.

• Just as I object to a work of literary modernism such as James Joyce’s Ulysses because it announces on every page that it is something new and daring and that the reader must take notice, I object to a modernist building like [a certain] chapel by Mies van der Rohe, which does its damnedest to tell us that it is not a chapel but rather a thoroughly modern building designed by a thoroughly modern architect.

I could adduce dozens more examples like these, but the above are enough to make the point.

What’s that? What do statements made by morons have to do with this business?

But that’s the point. Indications to the contrary notwithstanding, they’re not statements made by morons, but by intelligent, educated, and for the most part cultured people. And those statements are all reflective of the current cultural Zeitgeist; a legacy of the ’60s, and one that has been sounding the death knell for all the high arts, classical music very much included, for almost three decades now. And although a death knell, it’s been heard by most who ought to have known better (viz., intelligent, educated, cultured people such as those represented above) not as a death knell, but as a clarion voluntary heralding a new, welcome, and desirable equalitarian embracement of all art — high and low, great and trashy — without distinction.

No, I’m not going to embark on a(nother) fulmination against such wrongheaded, woodenheaded, purblind idiocy. I’ve done my share of that on this weblog; some will say more than my share. Truth be told, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that, indeed, “[t]he old [arts] hierarchies[‘]…days in the sun are numbered,” and that no amount of fulminating will stem the progress of the vulgar, undiscriminating, populist tide. At this stage the best one can look forward to or hope for is that the murderous assault on high culture will not destroy it utterly, but merely drive it underground till, in the cyclical nature of cultural history, its time again comes ’round.

Too bad I won’t be around to witness that.

But perhaps my children’s children’s children will.

UPDATE (3 January at 1:11 PM Eastern): Weblogger George Hunka of Superfluities comments, supplying examples that, chillingly, tend to reinforce Lebrecht’s dire prediction.
UPDATE 2 (6 January at 2:37 PM Eastern): Weblogger and print journalist Terry Teachout of About Last Night takes (huge) exception. I would only point out to Mr. Teachout (who, it seems, has some problem referring to me by name rather than by name of weblog) that the distinction (or, rather, lack of it) is not between The Long Goodbye and The Great Gatsby; not between Armstrong and Copland; not between Astaire and Balanchine, but between, say, any Stephen King or John Grisham opus and anything by, say, Fitzgerald or Hemingway; between (insert name of punk rock group or C&W opus here) and, say, Copland or Ives; between Riverdance or (insert name of dance number from any current Broadway musical here) and, say, Balanchine or Graham. In short, not the distinction between the popular and the exclusive, but the distinction between trash and art. I trust Mr. Teachout (for whose writings I’ve a great deal of respect as indicated previously on this weblog) gets the distinction. Nice attempt at a finesse, though.
UPDATE 3 (6 January at 5:49 PM Eastern): More bad news, and more confirmation of Lebrecht’s doomsaying, as reported by weblogger and print journalist Greg Sandow of Sandow.

Posted in Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Death Knell

Christmas Then And Now

Posted by acdtest on December 21, 2003

Christmas Then And Now

often wonder this time of year whether my perception of the Christmas season over the last three decades or so is peculiar to me, or is in fact a perception in accord with the reality of the thing. The Christmas season has forever been my most favorite time of year, and the one (and only) time I wished I were a Christian rather than a Jew. Sounds strange, even disingenuous, I know, coming as it does from a deep-in-the-marrow Jew and atheist such as myself, but it’s true nevertheless. Until age thirty or thereabouts most of my Christmas seasons were spent — strictly voluntarily and non-professionally — singing in, and at times helping prepare, various church choirs for concert engagements in churches around the city as well as for special Christmas services in their home venues. The season has always been for me a time of music, both in fact and as manifest spirit, and so it seemed for most of the rest of America, Christian and non-Christian alike. For the better part of the last thirty years, however, the season’s manifest spirit, as expressed not only in music-making but in all manner of public celebration, has, as a national affair, gone largely AWOL.

That lamentable disappearing act occurred by degrees over the years; quietly, insidiously, almost surreptitiously. In searching for an instigating or animating culprit for that slow dissolution one might, for instance, imagine pointing an accusatory finger at the season’s increasingly crass commercialization. But Christmas has always been commercialized to greater or lesser extent. The season’s tradition of gift-giving fairly guarantees it. And while it’s true that the season’s commercialization has never been so openly, shamelessly, and ferociously pursued as during the post-1960 decades, it seems to me that commercialization is not the culprit. Indeed, commercialization was largely responsible for making the season the national celebration it used to be.

Another suspected culprit at which one might imagine pointing an accusatory finger is that poisonous excrescence known as PC. As always, whatever it lays hands on — even if only fleetingly and peripherally, to either admonish or caress — is to some degree destroyed by its touch, and the public expression of the Christmas season — the outward manifestation of its spirit — was certainly no exception. But that outward manifestation could, I think, have survived whole even PC’s malignant touch were it not for another, contemporaneous postmodern development.

Over the past three decades there has taken place worldwide what might be called The Great Wising Up; a phenomenon almost wholly attributable to the inexorable forward march of technology, especially as it has impacted communications, and the easy and light-speed-fast dissemination of information and knowledge. Hardly a bad thing, you might argue, and I’d certainly have to agree. Nevertheless, for the nonce at least, there’s something quite bad about that phenomenon; the same sort of bad that typically obtains when a life-long pauper, through a windfall not of his own making, suddenly finds himself filthy rich. Through lack of experience, and therefore understanding, he simply has no idea how to manage or even deal with the windfall beyond the knee-jerk response of squandering all or the bulk of his newfound wealth freely and wantonly, with little serious thought given to how it might best be used for his own long-term benefit.

All by itself that would be bad sufficient, but with The Great Wising Up came also a dangerous species of hubris; one that glories in debunking and devaluing the immaterial — all that’s impalpable and unkickable; a relentless demythologizing of all mythologies. And the manifest expression of the spirit of the Christmas season was among that hubris’s very first casualties. Over the past thirty years that manifest expression has been in the process of dying a slow and drawn-out death. Although its lingering shadow may still be generally discerned for the week or so prior to the 25th of each December, it’s but its shadow only, growing more pale and ever more faint with each succeeding year except within the circles of those devout Christians for whom nothing would be capable of dissuading the full and public manifest expression of the season’s spirit for the season’s full term. For we nonbelievers and non-Christians, however, who for an entire month each year (beginning just after Thanksgiving) used to be able to bask in the reflected glory of that manifest spirit courtesy of its ubiquitous and inescapable pervasive public expression, it’s gone missing; passed on perhaps forever.

I for one mourn that passing, and wish things had worked out differently, but know that such wishing is but a futile exercise. So the best I can do now is to try each December to make that spirit manifest in full for myself alone for the entire month through music alone. It’s not quite the same as experiencing that spirit communally nationwide through music and public celebration as in times past, but there’s nothing for it, and so it will have to suffice.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted in Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Christmas Then And Now

A Modest Proposal

Posted by acdtest on December 15, 2003

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Opera, Theater, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on A Modest Proposal

The Classical Music Concert

Posted by acdtest on December 11, 2003

The Survival Of The Classical Music Concert

s someone trained as a classical musician who was almost virtually raised in a concert hall (Philadelphia’s Academy of Music), and for whom live orchestral and chamber music concerts were the mother’s milk of his youth, I find just the prospect of the diminishment or, worse, eventual demise of the live classical music concert to be a thing unthinkable. Or rather, a thing I’d rather not have to think about. As matters stand today, however, there’s nothing for it for someone such as myself but to think hard and long about it. Live classical music concerts (the unadulterated sort) are, nationwide, slowly dying out for want of enough audience to adequately support them except in our largest metropolitan centers, and even there the going today is fairly rough, and bound to get insupportably rougher unless a viable solution can be found for the growing problem.

Did I say problem? Why a problem? I mean, if the market can’t support the live classical music concert perhaps the thing has outlived its pertinence and importance for our cultural life, and ought to be permitted to go gently into that good night spared the always humiliating if heroic last-ditch efforts to provide it synthetic life-support. As print media cultural critic and weblogger Terry Teachout says (and I here conflate three quotes from two of his weblog pieces, here and here):

• By the mid-Sixties, it was possible to purchase high-quality [recorded] renditions of virtually every important piece of classical music composed prior to 1910. Similarly, good-sounding hi-fi systems had become cheap enough for anyone to own. An entire generation of music lovers thus became accustomed to experiencing classical music not in the concert hall but at home. As the Horowitzes and Bernsteins died off, these listeners began to question the need to attend any public performances of the classics, whether by callow young artists or by middle-aged celebrity performers who had already committed their repertoires to disc one or more times….

• [A] piece of classical music is infinitely more important than any possible [single] interpretation of it, and once a half-dozen first-class versions are available on CD, the marginal utility of hearing an additional one, whether on record or in person, becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns. Therein lies the problem of the [live] classical concert. Believe me, I treasure the “communal aspect” of art, so much so that I go out of my way (and my apartment) to experience it four or five nights a week. […] But I no longer feel any compelling need to regularly experience it in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than I feel the need to own another recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, no matter how good it may be.

• I no longer go to hear the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, for example. I’m sure they play well, but I simply don’t feel the need to see them live. I have more interesting things to do with my evenings. Similarly, I haven’t been to a single classical concert at Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher Hall all season long-and I’m a middle-aged listener who loves classical music passionately. Granted, I’m just one person in a big city, but if I’m not going to classical concerts, who is? And who will?

Terry certainly has several excellent points, and one hesitates to argue against them, as well as against someone of Terry’s wide professional experience and knowledge. But casting prudence aside, I feel constrained to argue against both.

First off, let me provide some further personal background the better for you to judge what I have to say.

I’m old enough to have been present at the birth of hi-fi in the ’50s, and its subsequent development into stereo in the ’60s. I immediately became what’s (politely) known in the trade as an audiophile, and at one point in my life invested more than $30,000 (1980 dollars) in a new sound system which comprised the most accurate electronics and loudspeakers available at the time, all of it installed in a room acoustically designed (more mega-$$$) to permit it to operate at its utmost potential. And so I’m hardly one to pooh-pooh recorded performances. I love them. I cherish them. I couldn’t imagine life without them. Lots of them.

But a recorded performance is a musical experience quite different from the musical experience of a live concert performance. As good as recordings and audio equipment may be today, they cannot reproduce in a home environment the sound of the very same music performed by the very same artists at a live concert in a concert hall, even a lousy one. It’s not that sonically one is necessarily better than the other (although given the quality of the typical home stereo system, and the typical acoustics of the home listening environment, live is light-years better). It’s that they’re two different sonic experiences, and therefore, and more importantly — much more importantly — two different musical experiences. One hears the music, qua-music, differently in a live performance, and so experiences it differently as a consequence. That hearing cannot be experienced via a reproduction no matter how good it may be in both recording and playback, although an experienced and long-time concertgoer may unconsciously “graft” the live hearing of the music, qua music, onto the hearing of the music when experienced via a reproduction, and imagine he hears in the reproduction the music, qua music, as he hears it in live performance.

But imagine is the operative term here. It’s but an illusion; one that requires a long-time experience of live performance to create and maintain, consciously or unconsciously.

I’ll not pretend to know why it is that one hears music, qua music, differently live versus recorded, or in what, precisely, in physical and psychological terms, the difference consists. I know only that the difference exists, and that it’s substantial, musically. And, pace Glenn Gould, one should never forget that music’s fons et origo is the sound of the music live. Always. (I, of course, speak here about music written for acoustic instruments. I cannot speak to the case of music written for electronic whatevers as I’ve no interest in, or concern for, such music, and therefore little experience of it.)

All by itself, the above should be enough to counter Terry’s contention vis-à-vis recorded versus live performance. But there’s more.

Terry declares he “no longer feel[s] any compelling need to regularly experience [music] in the form of routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire, any more than [he] feel[s] the need to own another recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, no matter how good it may be.”

If one were inclined to be unkind in the matter, one might suggest that Terry has grown a bit jaded musically concerning the standard classical repertoire; a not uncommon condition of residents of our great metropolitan cultural centers, New York City in particular.

Well, I’m not inclined to be unkind, and so I’ll suggest more gently that I think Terry has grown a bit myopic concerning this matter. Very few persons in this country outside our metropolitan cultural centers have ready or frequent access to live classical music concerts of any kind, much less live classical music concerts performed by first-rate ensembles in a first-rate concert hall, and therefore will rarely have the opportunity to experience what Terry takes for every-day granted. It’s for those persons, the overwhelming majority of Americans, not to even speak of those not yet born, that live concert performances of classical music — even “routine live performances of the standard classical repertoire” — must remain an alive and healthy enterprise.

And how is that to be accomplished in today’s unsympathetic, even hostile, to classical music cultural environment? Well, I can say with absolute certainty how it must not be accomplished. It must not, in any circumstance, be accomplished by “a loosening of the definitional boundaries around ‘classical music’,” which is what a study on the matter quoted by Terry suggested be done to help classical music concerts stay alive. As Terry correctly divined, that phrase is merely “a euphemism for playing fewer classics and more pop-style fare,” and that’s deadly for classical music whether live or recorded. I’d go even further and say, as I have previously, that (and I here quote myself)

[I]t’s nothing short of depressing to observe that, virtually without exception, [those concerned with preserving classical music in this country have] pursued a model that’s not merely wrongheaded, but positively suicidal. That model, in keeping with the rabidly populist and promiscuously equalitarian Zeitgeist of our era, and using promotional techniques employed in the world of mass entertainment, has at its core the concept of reaching out to The People. Or using less euphemistic and less charitable terminology, the concept of pandering to the proles. While such a concept is perfectly appropriate and spot-on right in the world of mass entertainment, it’s an ultimate kiss of death in the world of classical music for the very simple and should-be (but astonishingly, largely isn’t) obvious reason that, much as one wishes it were not the case, classical music is not, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever even marginally be, an object of mass or even widespread appeal no matter how vigorously and assiduously it may be promoted. Classical music is, by its very nature, a fundamentally elitist enterprise, and should never be viewed or promoted as anything other.

Having said with absolute certainty what must not be done, can I say with absolute certainty what must? I can, and have — for the long term.

But that strategy is impossible and totally useless unless classical music concerts survive long enough to make the implementation of such a strategy feasible. And that survival requires a short term solution, an immediate short term solution, and I’ve none that I’d be reckless enough to risk setting forth publicly. Let’s just say that when it comes to generating short term loot funding for live classical music concerts, the tactics I’d be willing to engage in would make Al Capone look like an Italian gentleman and a wuss.

But that’s just me. Perhaps others have a more, um, gentlemanly short term solution that would be equally as effective.

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Music | Comments Off on The Classical Music Concert

Nicolas Gomez-Davila

Posted by acdtest on December 8, 2003

Nicolas Gomez-Davila

ave y’all ever heard of the Colombian philosopher Nicolas Gomez-Davila (1913-1994)? Me neither. But mathematician Nikos A. Salingaros has. Regular readers of this weblog may recognize Dr. Salingaros’s name from several prior articles of mine wherein I savaged him and his dense, convoluted writings in his capacity as self-styled and self-appointed architectural theorist.

Well, Dr. Salingaros may know diddly about architectural aesthetics, but he apparently knows a first-rate philosopher when he comes across one. Dr. Salingaros has posted on his website, along with his own brief introduction, a sampling of Gomez-Davila’s aphorisms in English translation, and they’re radiantly illuminating. They remind one of nothing so much as the aphorisms of the great Nietzsche in their trenchant, vivisectional commentary on society and culture, and in their brilliance of language (at least in Dr. Salingaros’s translation). I urge you to give them a read.

(Thanks to 2Blowhards for the link.)

Posted in Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Nicolas Gomez-Davila

A Postmodern Director Speaks

Posted by acdtest on November 24, 2003

A Postmodern Director Speaks

t will come as no revelation to any regular reader of this weblog that I’ve here often expressed my extreme displeasure with — my contempt for — so-called Eurotrash productions of the great Wagner masterpieces and other masterpieces of the stage by other creators, and laid the impetus for such at the feet of self-involved, self-serving directors who thought their “vision” more important and more pertinent than that of the geniuses responsible for the creation of those deathless masterpieces. It never once occurred to me, however, that the motivation for the outrageous vandalism and displays of the grotesque “vision” of those directors could in fact have stemmed from basically well-intentioned if egregiously wrongheaded, self-delusional thinking on their part. Seems I perhaps may have been a bit shortsighted in the matter generally.

Or was I?

The breakthrough in my thinking on Shakespeare [writes stage director Michael Bogdanov] came with a lavish production of Romeo and Juliet in 1974 at the newly opened Haymarket Theatre in Leicester….

[…]

In rehearsal the story had been coming over hard, clear and very exciting.

[…]

When the production moved from the rehearsal room and arrived on to the stage, somehow the clarity and the hardness, the linear quality of the story, had gone. What was more, audiences weren’t responding to either the production or the play. At the last moment, after the very final preview, I cut the whole of the end scene, where the Friar recaps the story for the benefit of Escalus and, after the death of Juliet, I switched to a press conference around the unveiling of the two gold statues that Capulet and Montague erect to the memory of each other’s child.

Rock music built to a climax during a blackout and, when the lights came up, the entire company was assembled in modern dress in front of Romeo and Juliet, now dressed in gold cloaks and masks standing on the erstwhile tomb. Muzak played: “Fly Me to the Moon” . . . Escalus, the Duke, read the prologue as an epilogue from a cue card, as if inaugurating at an unveiling ceremony. The main protagonists were photographed in front of the statues, shaking hands, the Nurse holding up a rope ladder, Escalus attempting to bring about the familial reconciliation with a three-way hand clasp. The smile of Jimmy Carter handing over the presidency to Reagan.

The transformation had an extraordinary effect. People in the audience shouted, people walked out, people cheered, people bravoed, people booed, and I thought: “For three hours they have been bored out of their minds and suddenly something has challenged them. A moment of real theatre.”

The above was taken from a reprint in The Guardian of a discursive, edited extract from Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut, by Michael Bogdanov, published by Capercaillie Books. On reading it, one hardly knows whether to laugh, rail, or weep. “Suddenly something…challenged them. A moment of real theatre”(!)? What is that? Some sort of joke? Is Bogdanov being self-delusional, simpleminded, or just plain lunatic? Or is he simply self-servingly offering up a veiled apologia for his own self-involved, self-serving corruption of a masterwork?

Seems to me that any honest, conscientious director who found that when his production of a work by Shakespeare (Shakespeare, for chrissake!) “moved from the rehearsal room and arrived on to the stage, somehow the clarity and the hardness, the linear quality of the story, had gone…[and] audiences weren’t responding to either the production or the play,” would look for the fault elsewhere rather than come to the astonishing conclusion that Shakespeare or his centuries-acknowledged, timeless and universal masterpiece was somehow at fault for not speaking to a contemporary audience. After all, we’re here talking about a play that in its unadulterated form has captured the imagination and riveted the attention of countless numbers of audiences for more than four centuries now. What strange and anomalous circumstance could possibly account for its sudden failure to do so at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester in 1974?

Golly. That’s a tough one to suss out. I’ll take a stab at it, though, by suggesting that perhaps the failure was neither Shakespeare’s nor the play’s, but entirely that of the director and his actors. I mean, that doesn’t sound an at all unreasonable suggestion, does it?

Well, perhaps to Mr. Bogdanov it would.

We’re in mortal peril today, boys and girls, of seeing, at the hands of such as Mr. Bogdanov, the disappearance of all that’s important and meaningful in our great legacy of stage masterworks from times past. By the attempts of such auteurs as Mr. Bogdanov to peddle their own piddling and inconsequential “vision” at the expense of those masterworks, and in place of the vision of their creators, and by their resorting to mass-market prole pandering to attract a larger audience for their productions, we’ll not have to wait for Armageddon to bring an end to our great legacy from the past.

Should we be even the least bit concerned about that? I mean, they’re only entertainments, after all.

Uh-huh. And the blood that courses through our veins is merely a salty, liquid reminder of our unimaginably ancient ocean-borning, and nothing more.

Should we be the least bit concerned?

Not exactly.

Afraid is what we should be. Very afraid.

Posted in Cultural Commentary, Theater | Comments Off on A Postmodern Director Speaks

Hierarchal Sobriety

Posted by acdtest on November 18, 2003

Hierarchal Sobriety

K. I confess it. My repeated references on this weblog to pop trash are but a rhetorical gesture; a raw, slap-in-the-face device intended to get one’s attention in the spirit of that seemingly deathless exhortation urging one to “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Confronted on a daily basis with the pervasive, ubiquitous, and enthusiastic acceptance of the artifacts of contemporary popular culture as embodying the normative aesthetic of our age, not only by the masses but by the cultural elite as well, one can perhaps be forgiven for resorting to such desperate measures. Desperate measures for desperate times, after all.

While by and large I’m hardly fond of the artifacts of contemporary popular culture — most of them empty of substantive content, and aesthetically vulgar or vapid beyond tolerance — I’m not in the least prevented thereby from recognizing the aesthetic value inherent in the best of them, even though not to my tastes. While I’ve, for instance, a hearty appetite for classic (New Orleans) jazz, I’ve little taste for the contemporary sort. Strange to tell for a trained musician, I don’t really understand it, can’t get my mind around it. But neither my distaste nor my lack of real understanding prevents me from recognizing instantly that the best of contemporary jazz possesses genuine aesthetic and musical value. Ditto, mutatis mutandis, and for another instance, the best of contemporary art (painting).

Truth be told, my real objection is not to the artifacts of contemporary popular culture per se, but to the growing absence of a fundamental aesthetic distinction and hierarchy of aesthetic value between such artifacts and the artifacts of high culture (typically so-called to distinguish it from the popular sort). In my view, and contrary to contemporary thinking, there is such a distinction, a very real one, and no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting the two can be erected except on the merest technical and taxonomic grounds.

There is no aesthetic continuum connecting a Warhol and a Rembrandt although both are technically and taxonomically works of art (paintings). There is no aesthetic continuum connecting the haunting “Eleanor Rigby” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” although both are technically and taxonomically songs. There doesn’t even exist an aesthetic continuum connecting so excellent an example of popular music as Bernstein’s overture to the Broadway musical West Side Story and, say, the overture to Der Freischütz although both are technically and taxonomically introductory music to a largely sung stage work. (I’ve here, on the popular culture side, adduced popular culture “classics” as examples even though strictly speaking none belong to contemporary popular culture.)

In each case, although technically and taxonomically the same, the contemporary popular culture and high culture artifacts inhabit two separate realms, and can no more be compared on the same aesthetic continuum than can the proverbial apples and oranges be compared on the continuum of things-that-one-can-eat-that-grow-on-trees.

So what is it that constitutes the separation between the artifacts of the realms of contemporary popular culture and high culture; a separation so marked as to preclude any meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting them? I suspect the full answer to that question would require a book-length treatise to define and argue convincingly, and I’m neither inclined nor competent to even attempt such a thing. Instead I’ll merely risk the suggestion that what separates the artifacts of the two realms is embodied in the matter of transcendence, an admittedly highfalutin, high culture term, and one referring to what is itself an aesthetically and philosophically slippery concept.

But we won’t let that little consideration stop us from plunging ahead.

The singular hallmark of all artifacts of high culture is their aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture which produced them, and even of their very selves as works of Art. And that singular hallmark is what’s singularly lacking in all the artifacts of contemporary popular culture, their singular hallmark being an aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining.

Please note, I did not say all the artifacts of high culture lack entertainment value, nor that all such are transcendent. Clearly, only the greatest are. Rather, I said that, in themselves (as distinct from the intentions of their creators), their distinguishing characteristic is that they have the quality of aspiring to transcendence. That quality is unmistakable, and can be sensed almost palpably even in, say, the simplest cassation of Mozart’s even though Mozart himself intended such merely as an entertainment. Or, say, the sketchiest sketch of Michelangelo’s even though the artist himself may have just been idly doodling. There can be no meaningful aesthetic comparison of works that occupy such a realm with works that occupy a realm where their just as unmistakable and almost palpably sensed quality is their aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining. The former seem to be saying, “I am what I will be. Take me or leave me”; the latter, “I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Love me.”

Well, there’s surely nothing wrong about a work whose principal signal is that it merely wants to be popularly entertaining, and I don’t mean to suggest there is. What I’m suggesting is that, as there can be no meaningful aesthetic continuum connecting such works with works whose principal signal is their aspiration to transcendence, we drop the currently fashionable postmodern fiction that the works of both classes are fundamentally equals in the hierarchy of aesthetic value, and differ only in their details. Seems to me no more revolutionary or reactionary a suggestion than suggesting, say, that we drop the currently fashionable and comforting if manifestly false multicultural notion that all cultures differ only in their details, but are otherwise of fundamentally equal value.

In short, all I’m suggesting is a return to hierarchal sobriety.

And now that I’ve outted myself on this matter of contemporary popular culture, it seems I’ve also cleverly managed to dispossess myself of a useful rhetorical locution.

How very careless of me.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Cultural Commentary | Comments Off on Hierarchal Sobriety