R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Greg Sandow declined to approve a comment I wrote on a recent posting of his – which is fine, I don’t think my quickly scribbled paragraph captured clearly everything I wanted to say. Let me try again here.

Sandow writes:

Remember the commandment: Respect the culture we find outside classical music.

and

We’d better embrace the culture we’re in, enjoy our status as one of the many musical genres that give us so much diversity, and tell people not why we’re better, but why we deserve their attention even while they’re giving money to WNYC, so they’ll get the new Springsteen.

Or else we’re going to get very lonely.

Sandow is quite right that we need to take seriously the dominant musical culture – commercial music. Classical musicians need to be knowledgeable about it, conversant with it, realistic about its place in our overall cultural landscape. Frankly, I’m not sure the problem of willful ignorance about pop music is terribly widespread among classical musicians – maybe it is more of a problem among classical fans? I would guess that more classical musicians know something about pop music than the other way around.

But to respect the culture of pop? Maybe the problem is that word “respect”. As much as I enjoy pop music, collect recordings of pop music, teach pop music – I will never “respect” it the way I respect some classical pieces. I think I can “respect” pop music by acknowledging its dominant place on the cultural scene – after all, for the vast majority of the population, music = pop music. And I can respect pop music for the pleasures and meanings it affords.  But I do think that the pleasures and meanings afforded by some classical music are unique. I resist the notion that classical is just another “one of the many musical genres”, as Sandow puts it, a phrase that strikes me as close to saying that all musical genres are pretty great. They’re not.

I used the word “resist” a moment ago. I feel that while a smiling acceptance of classical’s place as “one of the many musical genres” has a certain limited merit, we also need a spirit of resistance regarding the dominant commercial culture. It’s a little like being a locavore instead of accepting the products of corporate agribusiness as the only game in town. To take that metaphor a step further, Sandow’s blog includes a link to a listing of “solutions” to the problems of classical music – one such solution is to emphasize support for local classical music culture. It might be more important to support your local chamber music society than to worry about lining up enough petrodollars to pay for another edition of “Live from Lincoln Center”.

I sometimes feel classical musicians are expected to pay homage to commercial culture in a way that novelists, poets and painters are not expected to. (I say that fully aware that a good deal of  “high” art is very much engaged with pop culture, as is some classical music.) I once heard Terry Gross ask Pierre Boulez whether he liked pop music, and she seemed bemused when he said no. Would she really ask William Gass, for example, which airport novels he esteems?

Sandow’s post talks about a variety of headlines in print media that, like this post’s name, can only be understood with a knowledge of the dominant pop culture. But notice that the headline for an article about Springsteen in the Times yesterday can only really be understood if you know something about Copland.

(alternative post title: “Fight the Power”)

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