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

In the last few posts, I’ve given my take on the arguments posed in the Cambridge Union debate: ‘This House believes that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth’. I’ve tried to both answer some of the issues raised by the opposition’s arguments, and to try and rescue the debate from the sense of closure which risks accompanying such a decisive defeat of the motion – the dangerous (but conceivable) conclusion that classical music is in fact relevant and therefore doesn’t need some pretty drastic changes to restore it to some kind of broader cultural value.

If you haven’t yet – WATCH THE DEBATE HERE!!!

S U M M I N G    U P

Proposition speaker 4: Lord Eatwell

  • In general, one should be wary of sweeping generalisations, but in this case it’s justified
  • Any art-form that is no longer living, no longer growing, could never be relevant
  • Anyone who has sat through ‘the sheer agony of so-called modern music’ must know that classical music isn’t getting any healthier
  • It is an artistic mausoleum –  ‘youth and mausoleums don’t go’
  • It has no present and no future, only a continually re-performed past
  • Its ‘moribund decadence’ reaches its high point in opera – more concerned with more and more expensive productions than with the music
  • People go there for status and to be seen, there is no real interest
  • Classical music is not harmless, used for self-identification by the ‘selfish middle classes’, absorbing huge sums of public/private money and starving other living art-forms
  • Vote for proposition is for creativity and progress, for living art-forms and not a snobbish conspiracy
Lord Eatwell’s speech had a lot going for it – his focus on the fact that classical music’s main problem was that it focused on the past, rather than the present or the future, was spot on, and he effectively linked it to the subsequent dispossession of the youth audience. However, he may have been too facetious and too outrageous at this stage in the debate, and effectively undermined some of the good points made earlier:
  • Any outright, and entirely subjective, damning of all ‘so-called modern music’, without proper qualification, would make even the most progressive of classical fans very guarded and defensive.
  • His argument about opera was pitched wrongly, I thought, because the new production elements he criticised (rather than the focus on the music) would be a good example of attempts to try to rejuvenate the art-form to some extent. This in contrast to many orchestral concerts, especially those following ‘historically-informed performance practice’, in which the purpose is to present the music as closely as possible to the composer’s original intentions.
  • WHAT WAS HE ARGUING FOR? Ultimately for the scrapping of the entire culture, especially institutionally where it swallows up public funding. This might seem extreme and pessimistic, but to be honest I think it could – in light of his final declamation of ‘creativity instead of snobbish conspiracy’ – be seen as a thoroughly positive thing. If what holds the current classical culture together is a cynical force – that this music cannot be a living art-form, that it’s OK to let it continue in its petrified state, that the core funds and the core audience for classical music have to come from the re-performance of canonical works in conventional manners – then I think such revolutionary sentiments are by no means inappropriate. If, once the dust has settled, we can still see uses for orchestras and choirs and chamber groups within modern culture, then we can grow those up from ashes, and they’ll have earned their place amongst other contemporary artistic disciplines. Of course, this would probably all seem very extreme for anyone who has any affection for classical music – which presumably was the entire audience, since that’s what would have induced them to come…
  • SPECIAL MENTION for the most vomit-inducing moment of the evening: in reaction to Lord Eatwell’s description of opera as a pointless and anachronistic art-form, a member of the audience pipes up with the ingenious rejoinder – ‘Have you seen the Marriage of Figaro?’. Oo, good point. Well, I guess there’s no point in further debating is there? That’s that. Very good. Case closed. Kinda wish someone had made that penetrating point a little earlier.
Opposition speaker 4: Suzi Digby
  • The proposition’s argument, beneath a lot of rhetoric and posturing, is an empty one. It basically says: 1) Classical music is out of date, 2) It has ‘nothing to say’ to the emotional/artistic concerns of young people today, and 3) It is the domain of a self-serving elite, who are contemptuous of progress
  • These are the arguments of the ‘purveyors of mass-produced plastic culture’, the ‘dumbers-down’, who ‘patronise young people in order to sell them pap’
  • They argue that this music is ‘too obscurantist, too difficult’, and that it has nothing to say that ‘Tracey Emin, Towie or Cheryl Cole’ couldn’t already
  • Great art, however, is about life and death, love and hate, fear, despair and joy, being human
  • The relevance of a great pop song is that you can see yourself in it – it speaks specifically to you
  • The St. Matthew Passion, however, contains the entire spectrum of human emotion
  • We also can’t forget the ‘mysterious relationship of classical music to the soul’, which is ‘beyond simple logic’
  • The body of classical music is a ‘mine of human experience’ which can produce ‘pure gold’, with ‘transformative results’
  • We must be careful of those aspects of classical culture which ‘connive with the X-Factor dumbers down’ and retreat into elitism
  • Voting against the proposition can ‘strike a blow for classical freedom’
I have all sorts of issues with Suzi Digby’s speech, although I think it ends on a good note and that she kind of hijacks the proposition argument, in a way. I’m sure Greg Sandow and Joe Bates would equally like to ‘strike a blow for classical freedom’, all though I’m not sure that in doing so they’d want to strike a blow for the kind of moralist essentialism with which Digby places classical music on a pedestal above all those low culture references which, for her, must constitute the totality of what young people appreciate. Once again, we find an arguer for the opposition hypocritically warning against condescension while at the same time being deeply condescending and actually quite prejudiced:
  • Digby’s major error is that she imagines that classical music has sole access to a number of elevated artistic values which are, in reality, in no way essentially linked to the music itself. She describes a music which, in its peculiar mystical powers, its fundamental humanity, and its emotional depth, is far more profound than anything which young people will have otherwise encountered. The result is actually a kind of cultural bigotry of a colonialist nature, which could easily take on all the racist undertones that such elevation of western classical music very often risks adopting. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out how this is the case.
  • She caricatures all of youth culture by selecting Cheryl Cole and Towie (!) as their representatives, ironically dumbing down in one immense sweep what is in fact an incredibly nuanced and developed culture – the popular culture of British youth – but I have to say that I think she’s also wrong to suggest that it is ridiculous to think Tracey Emin so clearly has less to say to modern youth than Michelangelo. I know personally that I’d much rather go and see an exhibition of Emin’s work, and in the same vein, I think the kind of emphasis she puts on the elevated importance of Bach’s ‘full spectrum of human emotions’ is a massive red herring. The St. Matthew Passion, while potentially a catalogue of different emotional types, is drawn so broadly that the music really has nothing to say about these emotional states, or how we might see ourselves in them. Furthermore, any contemporary meaning that might be found there is fundamentally diluted by its translation onto a spiritual narrative – with its heavy-handed archetypal discourse – which is, by its very nature, obscurantist and unrelatable. The emotions in the Passion, from the perspective of a non-Christian, are entirely misplaced and any empathy which might be left from their initial abstraction is further undermined by this sublimation. I know this might sound iconoclastic, but it is genuinely the way I feel about the piece, which I cannot relate to on an emotional level, and I think it is the reason why the majority of the population doesn’t actually obsess over Bach.
  • This fact should demonstrate the extent to which Digby is blinded by her own personal tastes into objective statements about the respective capabilities of different types of music. Of course classical music is different from other musics. It can do particular things and it is, in its own way, unique. But it is not these qualities which set it apart – that is all a fallacy, the maintaining of which is tantamount to insulting the musical tastes that young people have developed for themselves. Pop music is definitely about love and hate, about fear, despair and joy, and most of all about being human. Pop music is humanity. Classical music has lots of things going for it, but I hardly think it can claim these qualities over pop – especially with reference to much of the ‘great’ canonic stuff which Digby would probably prescribe most readily.
  • Obviously, I cringe whenever anyone mentions ‘the soul’ with relation to art, but as with everything else, Digby’s magnanimous ‘ensoulment’ of only ‘great classical music’ is stupid and, in my personal experience, very wrong.
  • As with Ivan Hewett, Digby attempts to demonise the arguments of the proposition as having some kind of weird, paternalistic motive, denying the stupid youth their souls, or something. She doesn’t acknowledge that these arguments might actually be a call for change, but instead sees them as a kind of entrenchment of a new status quo in which the youth should know to keep their distance from the old people’s music. The problem with both these speakers was that their reaction to these arguments does not tally with the reality. They believe that classical music will always be meaningful to young generations, but they ignore the fact that young people aren’t going to concerts, and that young art fans cannot name contemporary composers or pieces in the manner that they could name sculptors or playwrights. The result is that she refuses to acknowledge a real problem – she actually goes on to perpetuate it – and therefore her calls for action ring false, because she has already stood against the actual calls for change, the arguments for the proposition.
  • WHAT DOES SHE ARGUE FOR? Eventually, for the liberation of classical music from the kinds of performance culture which perpetuates its elitist connotations and alienates certain audiences. And quite right too. But what she doesn’t call for is a shift towards a more contemporary culture, or one which is more involved in the society and the artistic milieu which surrounds it. Instead, examples like the Bach and its ‘universal emotional relevance’ suggest that, for her, new composition is really very unimportant, because the old stuff will always suffice.
  • The reality, of course, is that no-one (apart from Lord Eatwell perhaps) was really arguing against classical music. Everyone involved had a real personal investment in the music itself, and its future. The only difference was that half of them – the proposition – were arguing that the music, and how we see it, has to change if it is to be relevant again to young people, while the other half – the opposition – were arguing how the music is fundamentally relevant to young people, even if they’re failing to access or appreciate it. The debate was flawed because there was a discrepancy in how each side interpreted the impetus behind the proposal. The proposition used it as a launching pad for change – i.e. this is true, so therefore we need to sort it out – while the opposition saw it as an admission of defeat – i.e. this is true, so therefore we should stop trying.
  • In my opinion, you’d need to take such a skewed view of the proposal to begin to argue against it, but at the same time, not even this viewpoint was justified, because the only evidence they could come up with was based on their own personal relationship with this music (in general, ‘I know that this music is universally relevant, so therefore it must also be relevant to today’s youth, because they’re people too’). Arguing on the basis of your own personal tastes should obviously be automatically suspect, but I suppose that – in general – most of the people in the chamber, and probably most of the people who will be interested enough to watch the video online or read this blog, will be able to empathise with this kind of sentiment. That was the main problem, because you are not what is being discussed. And we must stop discussing classical music from the point of view of those who’ve grown up with it or who practice it. We must imagine it as an art-form that we are offering to society in general, without expecting any such ‘personal relationship’.
  • To be fair to him, Hugo Hickson was the only one on the opposition side who didn’t solely rely on his own tastes and his own sense of artistic acuity as evidence. However, his factual examples were woefully flimsy compared to the hard evidence that Greg Sandow and Joe Bates were working with, while I would consider Kissy Sell Out living evidence as the only real ‘first-hand witness’ to the issues that the debate proposition was really supposed to be addressing.
  • The results were as follows: 57 ayes, 365 noes, 88 abstentions. I would hate for this fact to suggest that, in a kind of AV referendum moment, people were really voting against change. I’d much rather feel that people were saying: ‘Yes, classical music could still be relevant, and we should try hard to make it as relevant in practice as we believe it could be in theory’. However, the fact that I think the proposition side were clearly arguing from this perspective – except, perhaps, for Lord Eatwell, who might have eclipsed the rest with his nihilism – should have meant that those audience members who came to that conclusion would have instead voted with an aye, as if to say: ‘Yes, classical music does appear to be irrelevant to today’s youth, what a dreadful state of affairs, how can we change the musical culture to attempt to engage again with society as a whole?’. Or something along those lines.
  • In my opinion, the fact that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth is abundantly clear, not just in the way that today’s youth react to classical music, but also in the substance of classical music as a whole, which seems to try very hard to avoid any semblance of relevance to today’s youth. This is mainly because it is instead trying very hard to maintain its assumed monopoly on the kind of ‘universal’ values which were repeatedly ascribed to it in the course of the debate, which it can hardly maintain if it at any point steps down off its pedestal and attempts to become relevant to today’s youth. I also believe that there is no reason why orchestral music or chamber music or choral music should be irrelevant to today’s youth. They are very flexible media, far more flexible if you remove the arbitrary value systems and aesthetic expectations that have been previously placed on them. You can read more about my specific suggestions for the direction that such a ‘relevant’ classical music might take in our manifesto —–> HERE
  • It is ironic and sad that many of the opposition team were, in my opinion, perpetuating classical music’s express irrelevance to today’s youth within the very substance of their arguments. Their intentions may have been good, but the sense of entitlement – and that moralistic conviction which they feel from their own experience of the music – goes criminally unquestioned, and this is how they manage to be so blatantly hypocritical in what should have been carefully thought-out speeches.
Read a very different take on the debate over at Vocal Futures ——> HERE

I remain fairly suspicious of this organisation, not least at the conclusion of this debate, which seems to have been orchestrated in order that they could see their distinctly Conservative-flavoured agenda for musical reform triumph against some rather more progressive advocators for change. However, judge for yourself and check them out.

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3 Responses to Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Conclusions)

  1. Pingback: Classical Music/Youth Culture: Post-Match Analysis (Round 3) |

  2. Joe Bates says:

    Thanks for this review, the best I’ve read so far (or the most favourable to me: I am, after all, a little biased).

    A few points.

    Firstly, I agree with your points on my omissions. I had, initially, intended to speak about the danger of old music and old listeners to an art form but foolishly decided I didn’t have enough time. It was my biggest regret from the debate, not least because it was the section that contained all my best jokes. I’m slightly more skeptical about the burden on me to produce a constructive alternative. I do, as it happens, have ideas about what I want to do, but I was worried that if I put them forward it would have looked a little, well, arrogant. Given that I was clearly a junior speaker in the debate, I was worried about bigging myself up too much.

    Secondly, some insider info. Lord Eatwell was being facetious – he, like his wife, is an ardent supporter of classical music and Vocal Futures. His speech almost seemed designed to paint the proposition in a particular, satirical, light. I thought it was very disappointing. Kissy was not told about the dress code – I don’t know if this was a deliberate attempt to emphasise his ‘difference’, I sincerely hope not. One of the most striking elements of the debate was the way in which he felt alienated and nervous because of his surroundings. It was pretty depressing.

    Thirdly: Why am I not a genuine representative of the youth? As a 19-year-old consumer of youth culture, I would consider myself a ‘first hand witness’. I mean, I know what you mean. I’m clearly a classical music ‘insider’, and of the socio-economic class that benefits from exclusivity, but I would hope that does not disqualify me from participating in culture.

    Finally, I had a real issue with the use of the word ‘youth’ in this debate. The reality is that it is not just young, cool people that feel excluded from classical music. Classical music is, and always has been, inacessable to all culture, not just the culture of the young.

    Anyway. Lengthy rant over. I hope you enjoyed it all, and would be interested in meeting you some day (we appear to have been to a lot of the same concerts).

  3. eidelyn says:

    Hey Joe,
    So glad you had a chance to read all this, ridiculously lengthy as it is. I totally agree with you on all your points. I think I meant that Kissy Sell Out was more a representative of the active (professional) creators and curators of real youth culture, and a classical ‘outsider’ (and the debate was seriously lacking such ‘outsider’ viewpoints). It was pretty clear that Lord Eatwell was being facetious on reflection – he was unhelpfully hyperbolic and undermined the whole process by constructing a proposition that to many would’ve seemed ridiculous to support (although I still would have voted for it – I wish I’d been there now). Vocal Futures managed to hijack the event as publicity, and I’m still pretty undecided as to how I feel about their project and its theoretical basis. I felt embarrassed at it all, and I think it comes across in the commentary – especially at the fact that they invite Greg Sandow over, who has some very serious views on the subject, and then proceed to simplify and twist the proposition in the summary, so people basically end up voting ‘for’ or ‘against’ classical music.
    Anyway, we all think you did a sterling job, and we’re very proud. We will meet soon…

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