Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 3)


‘This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth’.

The third speaker for each team must have had the biggest impact on the voting audience. Greg Sandow‘s argument was the strongest for the proposition, and a very serious overview of the genre’s problems, while many of the crowd were presumably present to hear Stephen Fry – ‘national treasure’ and Cambridge icon – give his opinion. I’ve heard Fry debate before and been much impressed, but I have to say that on this occasion his eloquence fails to cover up a very flimsy argument, based on a bizarrely narrow personal view of classical music and an embarrassing exhibition, despite his protestations, of a condescending attitude towards other musical traditions.


R O U N D    3

Proposition speaker 3: Greg Sandow (composer/blogger/academic)

  • Creativity is not encouraged in the American music schools in which he has taught, while El Sistema criminally fails to give players a chance to compose or be otherwise creative
  • The ideas combined in the proposal are: is classical music relevant?, could it be relevant?, and should it be relevant?
  • The decline in young concert-goers since the ’60s, and resultant aging of audiences, shows that young people aren’t interested any more
  • Music students say their friends won’t go to their concerts, and there’s a general revolt against the teaching of classical music in humanities courses in the USA
  • It could be relevant as part of ‘a balanced cultural diet’, including new/old, western/non-western etc.
  • Classical music has drifted away from the mainstream of culture
  • It does not represent, reflect or embody the racial/ethnic/cultural diversity of our world, neither does it gender equality
  • Pop music is a far more creative field. Artists are freed from conventions and can do what they like
  • Classical music is not a contemporary art. Compare with theatre, in which there are some old works performed, but the focus is on new ones
  • El Sistema is a social programme which would have succeeded whatever medium it involved – the giving of something to the very needy
  • Hip hop is a better example of an impoverished, marginalised group doing it for themselves
  • Should classical music be relevant? It isn’t necessarily ‘improving’ – it’s been traditionally more racist than the rest of contemporary society, and it was fine with the Nazis
  • Why do we insist? One good reason – because we love it. One bad reason – because of a sense of entitlement or privilege to it, therefore ‘it must survive’
  • This is the greatest obstacle to the future of classical music, because it prevents itself from seeing the rest of the world/culture/society as its equal

Sandow gives an excellent overview of his very extensive opinions on the subject, although the fact that he has talked and written so much about it means that his points are sprawling and come in a torrent, rather than wheedling around one idea like some of the opposition speakers do. His seriousness and sincerity worked well after the slightly too humble levity of Kissy’s speech – a genuine advocate for change must speak earnestly, while one who ridicules change, like Ivan Hewett, can talk with humour and irony (which is, however, often more attractive to an audience). Some things:

  • In the end, his speech was too open-ended, because of its large remit, and because the issue of ‘should it be relevant’ was answered ambiguously and with shades of mistrust which might well have not gone down as well as all the rosy apostrophising of the opposition. It’s annoying however, because behind the doomy nature of his talk, there is a far greater passion for the future of classical music then there is behind the opposition’s suggestion that ‘everything’s ok – someone somewhere will always be listening etc’.
  • Stephen Fry will later talk of a lack of imagination in separating classical music from its connotations and backgrounds. However, Sandow’s continuing call for creativity, which is a key concept throughout his work, is a far more powerful appeal to imagination. While Fry asks for the imagination to hear a piece as the composer might have heard it two-hundred years ago, Sandow calls for the imagination to see an entire culture transformed. To imagine connections to a centuries-old tradition is far less creative and constructive than to imagine a new tradition which represents and explores our modern world to such an extent that even the youth, who have known only the most contemporary of worlds, are excited by it.
  • Sandow, in his appeal to political representation as well as to contemporaneity, sensitively represents the young audience as a group who already have their own principles and deserve – not the improving ‘great art’ of yesteryear – but a culture that respects these modern principles, and their own desire to take their place in society seriously.
  • When he talks of entitlement and privilege as the greatest enemy of classical music, behind these should be seen all the kinds of essentialist assumptions that Ivan Hewett presented as fact in his argument. Privilege suggests that you needn’t earn something, that you don’t have to put effort in or engage with anything in order to be given it. The opposition speakers all make out that, by sharing the privilege of experiencing classical music with the theoretical youth in question, they are being benevolent. In reality though, they are being terribly patronising, most of all to believe that this youth group wouldn’t immediately see right through such an empty basis on which to maintain an artistic culture. A young audience would only be inspired by seeing a tradition that actively engaged with its socio-cultural surroundings – that created, and composed, and went out and investigated, and experimented and represented. Classical music has done this in the past, but at the moment, convictions like those of Hewett and Fry get in the way of what should be the obvious imperative for such an attitude.
  • What does he argue for? That we acknowledge that the reason why we might try to rescue classical music is because we love it, and not because it is good or improving or deserves to exist, or that we’re entitled to it or kids need it to understand real profundity. He also suggests that, in order to interest the youth, classical music must move towards being a contemporary culture, and that it should come into line with other areas of society in terms of socio-political representation. Most of all, he argues for a creative approach to every aspect of the culture, how it could develop, and how relevant and integrated it could be within society as a whole.

Opposition speaker 3: Stephen Fry (media personality)

  • He is not against popular music, or trying to prove its inferiority
  • We should celebrate the ability to like different things concurrently
  • It is a ‘misapprehension on your part’, ‘a failure of imagination’, and ‘snobbery’ if you think classical music is irrelevant to you
  • Young people’s musical culture is more snobbish than any other
  • He too has contempt for the ‘fusty, dusty world of classical music’. Instead, music to him constitutes ‘a personal relationship with some of the most extraordinary people who have ever trodden this planet’
  • Contrary to the ‘elitist’ idea – Beethoven was a revolutionary, Mozart died a poor man, but they both had ‘something to say’ and ‘all it requires is that you listen’
  • ‘Dancing is a communal way of enjoying yourself, for the purposes of getting off your tits and having sex’ … ‘that is why humans dance’. Listening is quite another thing
  • Story of Handel – he ran out of money, his music became unfashionable, but when he found great success with the Messiah, he gave it all away to a children’s hospital. He was a ‘huge-hearted man’ – ‘listen to his music and you hear it, it calls across the centuries’
  • People aren’t taught how to listen. There’s a higher price, though, on the ‘seductively difficult’ – like the difference between ‘a cheap prostitute’ and ‘a French woman with much less make-up’. ‘You get love from beauty’
  • Consider the concerto – listen to it as ‘an argument between an individual and society’ – a dynamic like nothing on earth. Do we deny this to today’s youth?
  • Why should we presume to know what’s good for them?
  • Do youth not deserve to hear ‘the highest calling that we have, which is love, hope, triumph, magnificence? All these things are apparent in [classical] music’
  • If you don’t have the imagination to ‘blow the dust off the wigs’, you don’t deserve any kind of music

The fact that so much of the above has been directly quoted should hopefully illustrate some of the tone which I find so objectionable in Fry’s argument. I find it a totally bizarre one, most powerfully in the whole Handel digression. I think Fry is probably fairly alone in finding the fundamental power of classical music to come from some kind of historical-biographical impulse. Why he thinks that paying tribute to the relics of historical philanthropists is reason enough for classical music to be relevant to anyone is quite confusing. And then he repeats the pitfalls of Hugo Hickson by going on about learning ‘how to listen’ and how the youth ‘deserve’ to hear concertos, and then having the nerve to question those who ‘presume to know what’s good for them’. As if we all know deep down what’s good for them, and that the only thing between classical music and its hoardes of potential hoodied fans is Greg Sandow and the drafters of the debate proposition. Some more points:

  • Nobody present seemed to note the immense hypocrisy of Fry when he promises not to defame dance music, and then goes on to claim that it is only good ‘for getting off your tits and having sex’ – moreover, that you don’t ‘listen’ to it. Most outrageously of all though, he presumes to state categorically that ‘this is why humans dance’, after very specifically stating that he can’t dance and therefore knows nothing about it.
  • The dichotomy of dancing and listening which he seems to have got from the movie Running on Empty – as if River Phoenix has said that ‘you can’t listen to Madonna’ – is totally stupid anyway. Dancing, for anyone who is really into it and doesn’t just do it when they’re dragged to the cheese night with a gang of drunk mates, is all about listening. It’s about physically listening with your whole body, pre-empting the track’s structural flow, immersing your whole being in its texture, reacting and changing as it develops. It is a deep listening experience, a fact that perhaps only a failure of imagination would prevent one from appreciating.
  • But even if it wasn’t, the idea that people don’t listen to dance music is ridiculous, and it is made all the more embarrassing – in a night of many such embarrassing moments – by Fry’s opening statement: ‘Dubstep is my life.’ This presumably self-deprecating joke, which served the purpose to completely divorce Fry from any kind of connection with the group being discussed, and effectively exempt him from comment on the proposal, is specifically stupid because he happens to reference a dance style that marks a particularly strong return to the importance of focused, headphones-on listening in electronic music.
  • Pop music does have its elitism and its snobbery – this isn’t really a big problem I don’t think. The problem with classical elitism is that it transfers connotations of socio-economic and political elitism which have nothing to do with the music itself. However, while Fry might seek to dismantle this, his claim that classical music alone accesses ‘the highest calling’ of love, hope etc. – while pop music, presumably, he compares to a ‘cheap prostitute’ – is nothing if not snobbish. I don’t know who Stephen Fry is to dictate what ‘the highest calling’ is, but I do know that love for one thing is much more the domain of pop than classical music. Classical music treats love, in a way that Ivan Hewett would celebrate, as an abstracted thing, all primary colours and simplification. Pop, however, has over the years performed the most minute investigation of every tiny facet of the experience of love and all the genuine complexities with which it exists in the real world – as a bizarre chemical/social/psychological phenomenon – rather than in the all-too-common, boringly abstracted, ‘spiritual’ realm of perfect classical love. The same would, I’m sure, be true of many other supposedly ‘essential’ classical topics. This is not what young people are missing out on.
  • The real failure of imagination is, as I’ve said before, with Fry and his fellows. The whole ‘powdered wig’ distraction is a conveniently simplistic caricature of a much deeper and more problematic issue, which is the essentialist tendencies around classical music and meaning which Fry actually embodies.
  • Who should presume to know what young people ‘should’ listen to? Surely only young people themselves, right? Everyone else can merely guess what they might like, but Fry doesn’t in any way answer why these young people, who are apparently so deserving of concertos, aren’t railing against the system with the Emperor Concerto on their ghetto-blasters/iPhones, rather than Rage Against The Machine, or Public Enemy, or Crass, or even B-B-B-Bob Dylan.
  • What it really comes down to is Fry being defensive at the very idea that his music, with its universal message and high calling, might be seen as not being relevant to anyone. He leaps to the protection of those damned to a socio-cultural group to which such noble works might not be relevant, as they are to him. He completely absconds from any discussion of music as a contemporary art-form, just as he absconds from the idea that classical music culture might want to take steps towards being more accessible to young audiences. He also seems to have no interest in an art-form through which you can hear and interpret your own lived experience, your own culture and heritage, and the expression of truths that are explicitly tangible to you. In this I would say that, as a choice for speaker on this subject, he’s not only grossly unrepresentative of the demographic being discussed, but he’s also quite unrepresentative of most consumers of art.
  • What does he argue for? He seems to be arguing, in a similar manner to Hewett, that young people should be allowed the privilege of not being told that classical music is irrelevant to them. In this way, they will naturally be drawn to it eventually, and on finding it, will fall in love with it because of all its essential greatness. More than that though, he puts the ‘imaginative’ onus on the young people themselves. They must have the power to ‘blow the dust off the wigs’ themselves if they are to deserve his philanthropic music, there is no suggestion that the dust might be blown off those wigs for them…
It seems:
  • that none of the opposition really take much time to argue with the points put forward by the proposition team, which is a little strange because – as the opposing team – they should be doing more ‘destructive’ than ‘constructive’ arguing. Instead, it feels like a ‘pro-classical reform’ team against a ‘pro-classical music’ team. The proposition argue the reasons why the musical culture is no longer interesting the audiences, and how this might be changed, and then the opposition just argue about how great classical music is, so there’s no real clashing of points. (This may well be an issue with the proposition and its wording.)
  • that Cambridge students would woop with wild admiration whatever rubbish Stephen Fry came out with. The youth have spoken – they choose Fry.
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One Response to Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 3)

  1. Pingback: Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 2) |

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