Tag: elitism

Elitism and Eclecticism

The New York Times recently published a problematic yet provocative opinion piece by Shamus Khan called “The New Elitists” about the changing tastes of the upper classes. The musical and artistic inclinations of the rich, Khan argues, are no longer characterized by exclusivity, but instead by eclecticism:

Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self… By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today—middle-class and poorer Americans—are subject to disdain.

The idea that elites congratulate themselves on their eclectic tastes, while not recognizing that they are class-determined, is thought-provoking and significant. The reality, however, is certainly at least a little more complicated; for one thing, you certainly don’t need to be painfully wealthy to have eclectic tastes. It’s also extremely rare to find someone who is universally eclectic, as Bethany Bryson shows in her article “Anything But Heavy Metal.” Bryson’s research asserts that, while musical eclecticism does generally increase with education and affluence, certain genres still tend to be excluded:

People use cultural taste to reinforce symbolic boundaries between themselves and categories of people they dislike… Tolerant musical taste is found to have a specific pattern of exclusiveness: Those genres whose fans have the least education-gospel, country, rap, and heavy metal-are also those most likely to be rejected by the musically tolerant.

The specific genre boundaries may have shifted a bit in the 15 years since Bryson’s study first came out, but the principle still holds. There’s another aspect that’s absent from Bryson and Khan’s assertions, however: call it “anything but opera” or “anything but jazz” or “anything but atonal music.” In other words, stereotypically “high class” or “elite” genres also tend to be excluded. (This is vividly and hilariously captured in Dave Soldier and Nina Mankin’s “Most Unwanted Song,” which combines operatic, atonal cowboy raps with children’s chorus, accordion, and bagpipes.)

I bring all this up because in the new music world we often equate eclecticism with accessibility. If we combine “difficult” music with influences from popular music and other genres, the theory goes, we will attract new and more diverse audiences, and shed the stigma of elitism that surrounds new music. But I can just as easily imagine a scenario where the opposite is true: if you demand familiarity with many genres instead of just one, you may actually alienate more listeners than you attract. Clearly, the interaction between eclecticism and elitism is much more complicated and fraught than many people realize.

I struggle with this because throughout my life I’ve internalized the idea that musical eclecticism is important, and something that makes my generation of composers distinct from previous generations. If you were a student composer in the 60s or 70s and you weren’t writing in a style that utilized serialism, chances are things were very difficult for you. The next generation rightly reacted violently against this tyranny and embraced minimalism and popular music as influences. Many composers in this group, some of whom I count among my teachers, rejected serialism and other extreme branches of the avant-garde entirely, believing them to be completely bereft, soulless dead ends. By contrast, many composers of my generation fail to see the contradiction between the popular and the avant-garde. To us, the previous generation had simply exchanged one kind of prescriptivism for another. Not having grown up under any particular kind of aesthetic oppression, anything and everything could be a valid source of inspiration.

Of course, this kind of eclecticism isn’t limited to music. In “Literature as a Mirror,” Kyle Gann uses literary fiction’s obsession with “perfect sentences” as a metaphor for new music’s fetishization for ornate notation. Throughout, Gann mentions David Foster Wallace as an example of a writer who could be utterly compelling or boring, despite writing consistently accomplished prose. Wallace is a particularly revealing example to pick out, I think, since he was clearly engaged in the same kind of self-conscious eclecticism that composers often engage in. I am not sure all of Wallace’s writing has aged well, but I remember finding it exhilarating when I first encountered it. The combination of an outsized vocabulary, convoluted sentence structure, and copious footnotes with colloquialisms, contractions, slang, and undisguised sentimentality—it is clearly an attempt to rejuvenate language in a particular way. But if you are not interested in or not aware of this project, I can see how it would be uninteresting. Perhaps self-conscious musical eclecticism is similar, and as a “project” only speaks clearly to other composers.

The Genius Myth, Part One

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

Dear Reader, indulge me, if you will, in a little experiment. I’d like for you to please imagine a genius, someone named “Smarty.” Picture Smarty on an average day. What does Smarty look like? In what field does Smarty work? In what era does Smarty live?

GeniusChances are that your genius was someone removed from your quotidian experience. If you’re a composer, you probably imagined a scientist from the early 20th century. If you’re a scientist you likely pictured a musician from the 19th century or earlier. Chances are fairly good that you imagined a white male with disheveled hair, unless, of course, your mental image of genius derives from the Road Runner cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote had business cards printed identifying his occupation solely as “Genius.”

If you Google the phrase “contemporary composer genius” your results will include pages devoted to Benjamin Britten, César Cui (?!), John Cage, Bach, Mozart, and other dead composers, with Philip Glass holding down the fort as the only living representative one finds among those determined by Google’s algorithm to be the most relevant. Obviously, this idea of the dead white composer-genius is outdated, at best. Yet it remains pervasive and, as this notion is applied to contemporary music, it remains problematic and unhelpful. I would like to propose shelving the very idea of the genius composer.

When 19th-century composers looked to Beethoven as the embodiment of the musical ideal, they were arguing for the contemporary currency of his rapidly aging compositions. They felt that Beethoven’s music deserved a continuing place in the repertoire, a newly developing notion, since concerts had previously been filled with the newest possible sounds. Their refusal to let the music of Beethoven fade into obscurity—and their revival of earlier composers—led to the development of the concept of a standard repertoire, focused on music of the past instead of the present. This 19th-century vision of the orchestral repertoire remains in place as we move well into the 21st century, and Beethoven’s visage has ossified as the Platonic ideal of the composer-genius.

We love the idea of the genius, of the Promethean figure descended from on high to bring knowledge to humanity. This Übermensch stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate. We embrace this notion because on the one hand it allows us to imagine ourselves as being among the limited numbers of initiates who can be trusted with the arcana, while on the other hand simultaneously absolving us of our responsibility in the matter—it’s not our fault that we can’t follow the meaning behind the music because we can’t all be geniuses.

When we can’t understand the basic elements of the discussion, we also can’t discern the distinction between the sublime revolutionaries and the ridiculous charlatans. In this sense, the label of “genius” can function as a way to dismiss art that we don’t understand. We’re saying that we cannot be expected to comprehend the art that makes us uncomfortable or that stretches beyond our immediate ability to analyze its constituent elements. And if we have no way to enter into a dialogue with these creations, then we cannot be held responsible for the relative value of the work. Therefore when I describe an artist as a genius, I’m telling you that I don’t understand the art and that I believe you won’t either.

This link between the idea of genius and our inability to comprehend the genesis of their creations is why our initial vision of the personification of the genius was someone removed from our daily existence. When you’re a scientist, you understand the work that goes into designing and then carrying out experiments. You have an intuitive sense of the road that one needs to travel to gain the sorts of skills necessary in order to be responsible for a leap in our understanding of the world around us. Similarly, when you’re a composer, you know how much training you’ve undertaken in order to master the ability to conceive of new sounds. When a new theorem or treatment of harmony arises, those working within the field have the tools necessary to assess the resulting work. Of course, even these experts will disagree as to the relative value of these new concepts, but they also will have a basis for considering them as coming from our human understanding instead of springing fully formed from the brain of a god.

I hope that we can emphasize the humanity of those creators who push the limits of our understanding. By doing so, I believe that we will be more inclined to grapple with those issues that push the limits of our mental capacities.