Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Elitism shmelitism

There's a hot topic under discussion on the music blogs today, with Alex Ross taking issue with AC Douglas (who I've just discovered and added to the Blog List) - re whether classical music is inherently 'elitist'. ACD says it is, and shouldn't pretend to be anything else. Rubbish, says Ross.

Question: how can an art form take a stance? It can't, because it can't talk, it can't think, it can't inherently do anything except be itself. In music's case, all it does is make sounds. It is the people who create it and surround it who take the stances. There is nothing inherently classist about any sound that can be heard by any human ear.

Nope, it's people who are patronising - people in the music business who consistently dumb down by talking down to what ought to be the audience. Witness the Bocelli recording that fished for pearls in Starbucks last week. The notion is being perpetrated in the music biz, and especially the recording industry, that there are vast strata of society that don't see themselves as posh enough to listen to classical music and it therefore has to be dolled up to be 'accessible', with bad voices, pop-like arrangements or 'family concerts' where you have to sing along with a Blue Peter presenter.

It's pretty indisputable that when people do get a chance to hear real classical music - usually on the TV - they often find they like it. Remember Nessun Dorma and the World Cup? What about the Handel in the Levis ad? What about Hovis and the New World Symphony? If you put the real thing in front of people, they respond. The assumption, though, tends to have been that you mustn't put in front of people something that they mightn't like. Funny, I don't happen to like violent films, rap, game shows, reality TV or even, really, football, but people put these on my TV all the time with equanimity. I'm audience too, but nobody has ever asked what I want to see and hear.

ACD makes a good point, which rather echoes mine in my last entry: you have to catch kids young if you're going to help them love music. Because if you don't, they will go to school, where plenty of elements will put them off music for life. First - in the UK - a culture of British amateurism and widespread bad teaching. Second, playground bullies who will punch any musical kid to pieces for being what used to be called 'cissy' (is it still? dunno) and tell them classical music isn't cool. NB, playground bully in question will never have heard a note of it, but after that, you've had it.

Third, said playground bullies of the 60s and 70s are now running the country - especially, from the look of it, Scotland, where the recent fiascos around Scottish Opera are turning music into pure class warfare, which is the daftest thing I ever heard (and has resulted in Classical Music Magazine printing the word "f***ing" uncensored for the first time, in a quote from composer James MacMillan saying exactly what he thinks of it all). If anything can cross divides and bring people together, it's music. Where exactly do the playground bullies and British amateurs think that today's iconic tunes come from? Do they know that someone had to write 'Jerusalem' - someone named Hubert Parry? Do they know that that march tune from Bridge on the River Kwai that everyone can whistle in their sleep was written by a composer named Malcolm Arnold?

True elitism in music, however, comes from establishments that for decades have been promoting music that even musicians can't stand. If we had a modern-day Brahms writing symphonies with which people could identify and by which they could be uplifted without wincing in physical pain at the noise, things could be very different. Instead, they stay away from new music because they know it's going to sound vile. Sometimes word gets out about a truly communicative composer who strikes a chord among listeners - John Adams is a case in point. But when the musical establishment has spent more than 50 years ramming 12-tone music and heavy-duty modernism down people's throats, while crushing underfoot anyone who tries to write listenable music, is it surprising that music has an elitist image?

Sibelius was so depressed by this attitude that he wrote nothing for decades. I reckon Sibelius is the greatest symphonist after Mahler, but even he was silenced by the establishment. Imagine what we have lost as a result. It's truly horrific, the number of gifted, communicative, heartfeeling composers who have sunk into depression, decline, film studios, the back rooms of the Beeb and probable alcoholism as a result of people in the establishment decreeing their work too accessible. Again, it goes back to the playground, where the bullied kids, who end up running music while the bullies go into politics, are now determined to get their own back. The battle continues.