So Colin Eatock has announced he's drawing back from classical music criticism.
I only heard of Eatock literally today as he announced he was setting criticism aside. That may be an indicator of how peripheral classical music criticism and writing has become.
The observation that the First, Second and Third worlds of classical music map out in a way that's not the same as the usual first, second and third world has to be borne in mind. Canada and New Zealand are "third world" in Eatock's taxonomy by having basically no composers as part of the Western classical music canon.
It's possible to be born in classical music's First World and still be completely unknown. I doubt any guitarists are going to rush to perform or record the French composer Aubert Lemeland's Duo Variations for viola and guitar, op. 77, even though it's a beautiful piece because it's scored in D flat major, which is basically kryptonite to too many guitarists. Not that I can just "tell" a viola and guitar duo that they should record Ferdinand Rebay's Sonata for Viola and Guitar and Aubert Lemeland's Duo Variations as a backbone for an album of music (maybe throwing in Adler's Into the Radiant Boundaries of Light) ... but there's some gorgeous and inventive music for viola and guitar out there.
Eatock raised a point that I've seen made by Kyle Gann, too, that popular music is, in fact, the new hegemonic music.
It’s perhaps difficult for someone immersed in the culture of classical music to see the oldness of the standard repertoire as problematic. Yet almost nothing composed in the last fifty years has been integrated into the standard repertoire. As such, the classical canon today is a kind of museum of musical values from bygone eras. And while this museum culture may appeal to those who are historically inclined, for people today who have little interest in the past (a considerable chunk of the population), it’s a problem. Musical values have changed substantially in the last century.
I’m not here to rant about popular music, or denounce rock and roll as the Devil’s music. On the contrary, I grew up with plenty of popular music in my life, and I still enjoy it. But what concerns me is the hegemony of pop music, which has, I think, had a profound effect on the way people listen to classical music – indeed, on their ability to listen to it. People who have heard nothing but popular music all their lives (again, a considerable chunk of the population) will, of necessity, develop certain assumptions about what music is “supposed to” sound like. Someone who only knows a repertoire of three-minute Top 40 songs in verse-chorus form may find a lengthy, textless orchestral work daunting and interminable. Someone weaned on percussive rock or rap music at high volumes may hear a string quartet as feeble and wimpy. And someone who admires the “natural” voices of Bob Dylan or Tom Waits may experience Plácido Domingo as artificial and overwrought.
There are those who say that what’s needed is more music education programs, with a classical emphasis, in our schools. I’m certainly not opposed to this, but I fear that such efforts often create an academic aura around classical music that serves to further separate it from the “real world.” (This is the sorry fate that has befallen the art of poetry.) The goal should be to bring classical music back into the everyday lives of everyday people.
Musicians, educators, concert presenters, and all others involved in the promotion of classical music need to take a hard look at the cultural messages that may be undermining their efforts. It’s worth remembering that the division of musical cultures into “high” and “low” – separating the classical from the popular – was largely an invention of the classical music world itself. This kind of thinking has a long history, but it was only in the twentieth century that it coalesced into a rigid ideology of exclusion.
It’s time for classical music to finally get over the idea that it’s not merely different from, but opposed to, other musics: that classical music and no other kind is “timeless,” “universal”, and “great.” This, in and of itself, will not solve the problem of getting people to appreciate (or even sit through) a Wagner opera. But it would, at least, bring classical music back into touch with the values of the contemporary world. If classical music today finds itself isolated on the wrong side of a cultural Berlin Wall, it’s a wall that it built itself. We need to demolish that wall, if we are to convince the world at large that classical music should and does have a place in the contemporary world.
What's interesting about this proposal is that a lot of its practical application seems to hinge around dismantling the ideological legacy of German idealism, which has started to seem like a theme running across all of arts criticism in the contemporary Anglo-American scene. Michael Lind has a piece that's more direct and explicit about the exasperating long-term legacy of the German Romantics and German idealism on the way we think of the arts, art innovation, genre and craft. David P Roberts has no less than three books that grapple in different ways with what he considered to be Adorno's weakness of being emotionally and ideologically trapped within "the long 19th century" and this despite Adorno's advocacy of 12-tone composition and Beckett--Adorno still felt like a Romantic against the depredations of modernity and his dismissal of Stravinsky's "masks" as inauthentic revealed the ultimately Romantic disposition swirling behind the off-putting academic jargon and anti-capitalist writing. Stravinsky's problem was that he embraced a relentless rhythmic dance musc that abjured "interiority" and the subjective listening experience in which listening happens in linear time and this as distinct from experiencing music as a kind of space. But that whole era of listening as a cognitive paradigm is, arguably, shifting.
The ascent of rock or pop isn't the only variable to consider, though. Another shift that probably bodes ill for classical music as conceived within the ream of German idealism and its legacy, and those who advocate for the musical canons formed within the wake of those legacies, is that the 20th century is less the century of the symphony than the century of the song. The art of a fusion of text and music, often with wildly ironic and disorienting juxtapositions has been with us for a century. We have ourselves an era inw hich a Baroque doctrine of the affections has been jettisoned in favor of music that can be so at odds with the text that you can get, to pick a non-random example, a calm string quartet accompaniment via synthesizers for Stevie Wonder's "Village Ghetto Land". The contrast between the ostensibly aristocratic and white style of the string quartet in the background while Wonder sings about urban squalor is pretty obvious to just about anyone with even a modicum of musical literacy. This doesn't mean Wonder's necessarily "arguing" across the board that classical music has no populist elements. This is still the same Stevie Wonder who sang Schubert's "Ave Marie", after all.
But in a way that gets to one of the larger points that have been made within and about the classical music scene. We have someone like Stevie Wonder performing Schubert and ... where's the turn-around or the mutuality of the hat tip?
Eatock in his signing off from classical music criticism put it this way:
I believe that our culture (and by “our culture” I’m talking about North America, and perhaps also Europe, to some extent) has undergone a fundamental shift. Expertise is no longer much valued in the cultural sphere; rather, it seems that the currently prevailing belief is that any one person’s opinion is as good as any other’s. Furthermore, if critical judgements are acknowledged at all, they are the judgements of the masses, expressed in economic terms: what is best is what sells the most.
There are some determined “elitists” who steadfastly oppose this trend. I wish them well, but I’ve come to the conclusion that to stand against this sea-change is to defy the incoming tide, as King Canute once tried to do. And even Canute knew when his feet were wet.
As a profession, classical music criticism emerged in the early 19th century and remained an esteemed aspect of musical culture to the end of the 20th century. It had a good run. But to cling to the idea, in the year 2018, that music criticism remains somehow relevant, and to soldier on with it, is to behave like a child clinging to a much-loved but hopelessly broken toy who refuses to throw it away.
The "long 19th century" has been over for quite some time and the art of music has evolved in ways and into idioms and genres for which the 19th century's Western symphonic canon and chamber music scene may or may not play as prominent a role.
But that hardly means that classical music is dying. For one thing, choral music hasn't exactly gone away and vocal music saturates the airwaves by way of song. For another, admitting a bias here as a guitarist, the guitar literature has exploded with a variety and vitality that would be worth scholarly examination of the musicology mainstream could be bothered to recognize it in ... maybe any way at all. Kyle Gann went so far as to suggest "make way for the guitar era" a few years ago ... but we've been in the guitar era for about a century.
This is a subject I've been mulling over for years because it does seem like there's plenty to write about but it does not mean that mainstream music journalism is writing about the stuff that is out there to be written about. To pick my non-random example of late, contrapuntal cycles for solo guitar are out there to be written about and for the most part nobody is writing about them so ... I've taken on that project. In that sense my impression about the journalistic scene to do with classical music is not so different from the impression I had about the journalist scene on the subject of what is now the former church Mars Hill, that there were platoons of journalists and writers who "could" have written in a more informed way than they were setting their minds and pens to on the subject(s) at hand but that they didn't want to and that, more often than not, because they'd already made up their minds for or against rather than digging a bit.
So if I see that there isn't anything out there in music journalism or classical music criticism discussing ways in which guitarist composers handle sonata forms and fugue what do I do? I write about that stuff myself.
The crisis of the institutional press with respect to arts criticism is that without institutional focus there is, in a sense, no "culture" out there to be discussed and that may be a crisis not of culture itself but of the nature of institutional press coverage or monetization issues. Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar have been in print for more than a year but I haven't seen any long-form analysis of his work ... besides mine. I've seen some shorter reviews and that's something, but considering that this is a cycle that is published by a guitarist I would have thought there would be more coverage about that.
So in all sorts of ways it's tough to know for sure if it matters that mainstream classical music criticism withers on the vine. it's also tough to know whether or not bloggers who write about the local new music scene aren't simply doing for free what journalists would have been expected to do in the past. Is the monetization of the coverage by an institution really the most salient thing to be said about arts journalism? Possibly ... in the sense that a ne Slonimsky Leixcon of Musical Invective would only have teeth based on the contrast between an institutional condemnation by a vituperative music critic on the one hand and the assured historic emergence of canonic repertoire as a contrast on the other; nobody would make a new version of Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective based strictly on Youtube comments putting down music and musical performances.
Richard Taruskin, of course, has been beating the drum that the gap between the academic canon and the repertoire canon has become far too large in the last century and that people listen to rock and pop and other forms of music because it speaks more directly and pertinently to their actual lives and this is not necessarily even the fault of classical composers across the board. Shostakovich managed to become part of the canon, after all, as has Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
I might contest the Second World taxonomy on the issue of a lack of A-list composers. Sweelinck is a fine composer but not a fine composer on the basis of German idealism. The idea that the UK is in the "second world" on classical music has a lot to do with German idealism and put-downs about the English being a nation of shopkeepers but there's no reason for me to not regard William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland and Henry Purcell as superb composers. But, again, they don't necessarily rate in terms of the 19th century ideals of autonomous music, symphonic music, instrumental grandeur and notions of interiority and all that. Drop the expectations of German idealism and the freight of the New German notions spanning Hoffman through Wagner through Schoenberg and beyond and Byrd and Tallis can be considered unparalleled masters within their respective idiom.
Over the last twenty or so years I might have been able to get the impression that old approaches to composition like sonata or fugue are "obsolete" in light of 20th century innovations. But I never took at face value those kinds of assertions. There's also no reason that a sonata form or a fugue is inimical to vernacular or popular music. There's every reason to imagine that you could take the principles of invertible counterpoint and write a fugue for pedal steel guitar or slide guitar. It's just a matter of going out and doing it and seeing what works and what doesn't. There's every reason to believe ragtime and sonata form can be synthesized at the level of the syntactic scripts and the nuts and bolts of the style. But so long as musicologists fixate on delineating the boundaries of genres and enforcing racial and racist purity narratives about this music being "white" and that music being "black" or vice versa or about this music being inauthentic and that music being authentic based on what are all too often patently bigoted extra-musical narratives then musicologists are going to be adversarial to what seem like the most overdue and interesting possibilities of musical exploration. That there are genres with identifiable traits and "boundary markers" is no reason to assume these boundaries are impermeable and a good deal of music criticism and music journalism traffics in the assumption that the boundaries are impermeable and the checklists non-negotiable. Maybe the checklists are non-negotiable but the boundaries are permeable.