A Fashionable Chatter

A Fashionable Chatter

“[T]he fashionable chatter about the need for greater participation in sports is entirely irrelevant to a discussion of their cultural significance. We might just as well assess the future of American music by counting the number of amateur musicians. In both cases, participation can be an eminently satisfying experience; but in neither case does the level of participation tell us much about the status of the art.”

(Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, p. 208n.)

A few weeks ago at the Mexican restaurant across from the Brooklyn Lyceum before one of the MATA Festival concerts there, I got into a heated discussion with MATA’s board president Jim Rosenfield about how wonderful we both thought the audience was for the concert the previous night. While the sound was not the optimal sound of a major concert hall and the chairs weren’t even attached to the floor, the music was pretty much all we heard that night. No audible rustling, no sudden conversations, no cellphones, and almost no coughing—a rarity in any concert hall these days and a stark contrast to the Argento premiere I ranted about on these pages a while back.

After recounting to him my frustrations with that performance, he referenced The Culture of Narcissism, a 1979 book by Christopher Lasch, which I knew nothing about. My copy finally arrived from Amazon, and I’ve begun reading it voraciously. Lasch paints a bleak picture of The “Me” Generation, which, as I turn each page, seems more and more like the starting point for when paying attention suddenly mattered less. The book is not really about music per se, but music as a cultural phenomenon obviously is affected by the sea change in our society which he is describing.

Eager to find musical connections wherever they may be, I rushed to the index to find a specific reference to music upon finishing a particularly absorbing chapter, which led me to the footnote which I’ve quoted above. I thought it might lead to some interesting discussion here.

I’ve heard it said negatively that the majority of people who attend new music concerts are either composers, performers, or people somehow involved with it professionally. But indeed what if that is not a bad thing? Rock legend has it that while the Velvet Underground never sold a ton of records, everybody who bought one started a band.

I knew a good many people at that MATA concert and indeed the people I knew were invariably composers, performers, or people somehow involved with music professionally. I like to believe that those wonderful concerts could have appealed to a broad audience beyond those people. But if such an event proved to be really meaningful to someone not involved with music, wouldn’t experiencing it make that person want to be involved?

Of course, what Lasch is disparaging is when people are unable to appreciate anything that does not somehow reflect themselves. Mirrors are ultimately less interesting than windows, but perhaps even more exciting than looking out a window is knowing that it leads somewhere else if you make the effort to walk outside and go there.

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7 thoughts on “A Fashionable Chatter

  1. vinsterrific

    Witness American Idol.

    What’s it about? You ‘n’ me showin’ the world that we are artists one and all.

    True, some greats have come out of the workforce, but, some of these kids don’t quite understand when Randy says, “It was a little pitchy…” Pitch? Most of their training is singing along with the radio.

    Not to engender snobbery here, as I said, already. Elvis and Nancy Wilson had day jobs, so did Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane – Charles Ives and others from the Classical World, so, yes, indeed, we are all artists. But, AI is particularly popular because it is about you and me, not so much about the music.

    Unfortunately, many jazz audiences also have become a “musicians only” phenomenon as well. It’s music about music and not so much about relating to the audience – or so the potential audience seems to feel.

    Sad, but, the Public have trouble relating unless there’s some eye-candy or pyrotechnics, theatrics or lyrics they can dig or directly relate to. How many people saw Sweeny Todd, the movie, for the gore, not the score?

    One good thing about AI and So You Think You Can Dance is that it does show that it’s not just all fun – there’s hard work and sweat and thought behind it, as well (hopefully). Something all of us can relate to.

  2. William Osborne

    “In both cases, participation can be an eminently satisfying experience; but in neither case does the level of participation tell us much about the status of the art.”

    Christopher Lasch’s statement would be more convincing if backed up with some sort of statistical proof. It seems counter-intuitive to me. I think if we had more children in school band and orchestra programs, and more amateur musicians, it would greatly improve the general musical culture of society and create a wider appreciation for classical music and many other styles. Even if those children and amateurs were “narcissistic,” at least they would be doing something more intelligent than watching television.

    William Osborne

  3. vinsterrific

    Mr. Osborne is absolutely on the money.

    The “I can’t relate” problem is because of a total lack of exposure to the Arts.

    I once played saxophone at a wedding ceremony.

    I was amazed that one young person came up and needed to know what the instrument was!

    A saxophone – not a harpsichord or a lyre.

    Every school kid should have the chance to hear a live orchestra.

    That should be an integral part of every education.

  4. rtanaka

    I don’t think anybody really has any problem with people forming their own niche groups — if composers want to write for each other that’s fine, but I think that in the long run the artist should be able to figure out who they are doing their art for. Lot of the angst and bitterness I’ve witnessed from artists over the years seem to come from them projecting unrealistic expectations onto the reception of their work. Everyone wants to be “that” composer who pretends to not care about what people think yet still gets adored — oh, if only it were true!

    I’ve said this a million times before but I think it’s worth repeating because it’s an advice that I’ve recieved from a teacher that has proven itself extremely useful — think about who you’re writing for. Yourself? Your friends? Your parents? The general public?

    What’s amazing is that, provided you’re being honest with yourself, a lot of things seem to fall into place once you have a general idea of the above. Then it’s mostly about communication and less about competition…I can tell you that the money ain’t good — the least you could do is make the process meaningful in some way.

  5. rtanaka

    Also, the fact that there are so many amateur musicians is a good thing — art has always been a luxury of sorts, because the level of time and money it takes to become proficient at an instrument is a very large investment that a lot of people simply can’t afford. Performance standards have sharply risen over the last Century or so — industrialism and modernization helped to raise people’s standards of living, and a result, there’s more music around. More performers, good ones and bad ones.

    Course the problem with classical music is that, as the name implies, it’s always been restricted to certain class sects, and this is something that Will is always ranting about. Genre’s are often defined by their instrumentation, but instruments are often chosen for deeply personal reasons. Can interest in classical music be fostered by simply forcing little kids to play violin? Will their interest last all through their adulthood if they’re not doing by their own choice?

    Because the instrumentation of classical ensembles are often so fixed and rigid, if people don’t take interest in the instrument itself there’s probably not much hope for creating a lasting relationship with the musical process. Say, where can you get lessons in electric bass in the classical community? There are a few, but not many — most of them are either teaching jazz or pop. We talk about bringing more people into the cause, but I think it will be extremely difficult unless the medium learns to become more accomidating…

  6. CM Zimmermann

    Finland and Venezuela
    Lasch’s comment really hinges on how he conceptualizes the ‘status’ of an artform. Sure, on a literal/technical level, we cannot assess the strength of an art form using quantifiable criteria. But, it does not seem that Lasch’s statement is making this point. Finland and Venezuela are obvious counter-examples.

  7. William Osborne

    There might be correlations between the strength of classical music and the number of people in a society who have learned to play orchestral instruments. If a large number of people play the instruments, its increases the pool of talent from which the best players can be found and developed.

    I have thought about this because of my dealings with the Vienna Philharmonic/Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Austria’s population is only 8 million. Since the VPO has traditionally excluded women, the population from which it can draw talent is reduced to only 4 million. This is a very small number by international standards for world class orchestras. The problem is further compounded because over 60 percent of the instrumental classes at the University of Music in Vienna are women. In addition, some of the orchestra’s instruments, such as the Vienna horn and the Vienna oboe are only played in Austria, so it is not possible to import male talent. And to complicate matters even more, the Vienna Philharmonic refuses to hire non-Caucasions, even though almost 50% of the students at the University of Music are foreigners, and the largest group are Asians. The Vienna Philharmonic will not be able to maintain it standards unless it changes its employment policies, because the artificially restricted gene pool from which it draws its talent is not large enough.

    For another example, Germany has about 23 times more orchestras per capita than the USA. Can you imagine what would happen if our available orchestral talent was reduced 23 times through employment dispersion? Our top orchestras are very good because they have so little competition for obtaining the very best musicians. If we had an orchestral landscape similar to those in Germany or Austria, we would need to at least quadruple our number of music school graduates to even meet the basic needs. In terms of available talent, numbers do make a difference in the overall status of an art form.

    William Osborne


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