three press posts: The Ideology of Failure

I’m trying to move away from posts that just involve arguing with opinion articles in the British press. It was sort of interesting, a few years ago, when people actually started discussing (albeit sporadically) the ‘crisis’ in classical music, and the various solutions being posed. But articles in the press can only ever be useful or enlightening up to a point; we can never expect any kind of radical ideas from them, the national press being, by definition, ideological apparatuses of hegemonic thought. Still, it’s sometimes a good way of isolating problematic arguments which can then be categorised or deconstructed. At any rate, there’s been plenty of yammering about the state of classical music in the British press over the last week. This is the first of three posts, covering three pieces from three different newspapers which appear to come from very different standpoints with apparently varying ideologies and assumptions, but they all demonstrate a depressingly limited view of the potential of music.

First of all: ‘Does anyone like modern classical music?’ asked Alexandra Coghlan in the Independent last Tuesday.

This article ostensibly introduces the upcoming The Rest is Noise season at the Southbank Centre. From the title downwards, however, Coghlan predicts, wills and effectively announces its failure. Sure, I have my problems with the season as well, mainly in the fact that it turns what was ‘contemporary’ music into historical music. I know the music isn’t actually contemporary, and modern music is still pretty old, but I see this kind of curation as an attempt to force still-interesting, still-somewhat-subversive twentieth-century music into a historical canon, shaving off any radical edges by showing that it’s really only ‘of its time’. The idea here is that this music is easier to digest when mediated by its historic milieu, when swathed in the cinematic signifiers of a particular (distant) historic event, and this actually goes against any notion of a continuing relevance to our society and culture today, beyond ‘what history can teach us’.

[Such historicising is a wholesale attack on all the music’s autonomy, ‘showing’ that all along this music was only ‘about’ the composer and his/her biography and socio-historical situation. And I know the concept of autonomy has long ago been discredited, and I’ve attacked it plenty on this blog too, but replacing autonomy with safe, boring historicism is just as fallacious. When they are performed, these works exist in our world now – it is our contemporary social relations that they must be seen to deal with – and if we do not actively explore, guide and manipulate the work’s relation to the here-and-now, then we lose control over what they mean. Hence elitism, ‘stuffiness’, classism, irrelevance, etc.]

Having said that I think this season looks to be a lot more interesting and fun than a lot of the other stuff that the big London institutions serve up. Moreover, I think a lot of people will really enjoy it and will go and hear modern music and be ‘educated’, as the organisers would probably have it. Alexandra Coghlan, however, thinks everyone will hate it, and she thinks they’d be justified in doing so.

“Modern music bores me…I hate much of it, and if possible I will try to avoid hearing it.” There can’t be many among us, however open-eared, who don’t share just a little of composer Hans Eisler’s weariness, his suspicion of contemporary music.

She casually labels Berio and Stockhausen as ‘barely-music’, she ladles doubt and disbelief all over the plainest facts surrounding the success of Ross’s book and the recent performance of Nixon in China at the Proms, she goes on and on about the ‘riskiness’ of this whole venture, and the ‘difficultness’ of what it’s trying to do. She basically presupposes an enormous amount of cynicism and disgust from her readers.

Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise defied every expectation and stereotype to find a reading public beyond the echo-chamber of academic enthusiasts.

Her casual combination of ‘expectation’ and ‘stereotype’ is telling here, as her article not only confuses the two but it uses this confusion to stoke up both. It is a very common trope in the mainstream arts press coverage of new music, but at the same time it can be quite shocking in its bluntness. The Southbank Centre, at least, should be appalled at this coverage which is basically telling people that they probably won’t enjoy these concerts, but without any sort of legitimate critical position, on no other authority than a ‘stereotype’.

At points it does seem like she’s almost moving into line with some of the biting point‘s positions. She effectively calls for more works of a political nature, in particular as responses to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It vaguely seems like she’d support the idea that more people should be hearing this music and more contemporary music should be programmed. But her article not only belies these opinions, it actually works to preclude their occurrence.

In The Rest Is Noise Ross quotes Harry Partch – 20th century composer and sometime hobo. “There is, thank God,” he says, “a large segment of our population that have never heard of J.S. Bach.” So can we expect this group of people queuing up in January? I’m not sure we can. But if the festival can target those people who have heard of Bach but never made it quite as far as a concert hall, or even more potently those who know their Bach and their Beethoven but run from anything contemporary on principle, then it can surely count itself a success. “Composers and artists have always taken risks on our behalf,” Kelly argues. “It’s time for the audience to do that, too.”

Apart from the glorious Partch quote, this is all finger-down-the-throat stuff. But I believe that Coghlan’s article illustrates quite effectively the ideological functions of the press on art. She writes from the hegemonic position on contemporary music – ‘it’s difficult and no-one likes it’ – without justifying her individual authority on the subject. In this way, she deigns to ‘speak for’ the consensual public. But she also totally hedges her bets against the possibility of the concert series actually altering this hegemonic view. She is so cynical about the project that she can be seen not only to be protecting herself from the possibility of retrospective error by restating the safe hegemonic view, but also acting to disseminate this view further, working to entrench the hegemony against the concert series and maintain her precarious position of authority.

Of course this happens in the press all the time – this is what hegemony is – but just because it’s perpetual and ubiquitous doesn’t mean we should keep questioning it and attacking it at every level.

[On a related note, she interestingly claims that:

Today we can rejoice in our musical freedoms – state control of classical music in the West is as risible as it is unthinkable.

This is supposed to be flippant, but in reality we can’t forget that there are other ways for the state to control music than Soviet-style censorship. One example is the provision, or non-provision, of Arts Council funding for particular institutions who are prepared to put on particular festivals of particular music in particular ways (hint hint). Another way is surely to collude with supposedly private, independent press organs, who serve the same corporate-dominated capitalist system, maintaining the status quo by maintaining the same hegemonic discourses, which certainly extend to the ways in which arts correspondents report on developments in classical music (hint hint hint hint).]

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One Response to three press posts: The Ideology of Failure

  1. Pingback: three press posts: Cosmetic Fallacy |

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