three press posts: Straw Philistines

This is the final post in a series of three, examining writings about classical music in the British national press, the assumptions on which each article is based, and the ideology that it inevitably reproduces.

The final article I want to discuss was published just today on the Telegraph’s blog. It is entitled ‘At last: the Classic Brit Awards exposed as a sickening crime against classical music’, and it was written by a pianist called James Rhodes.

In this article, Rhodes, taking his cue from Paul Morley writing on a classical site called Sinfini, takes immense pleasure in ‘at last’ laying into the Classic Brit Awards, and classical-crossover music in general. ‘At last’, the Emperor’s new clothes have been vaporised, and ‘we’ can finally say what we feel about this greatest of travesties.

There is so much to say about this article, but I want to state first that I’ve always liked Paul Morley, I think he writes well about pop music in a kind of Romantic sort of way, but I think this kind of commentary shows up the shortcomings of his approach, which for me is an overemphasis on surface analysis at the expense of materialism. As far as I’m concerned, everyone knows the Classic Brit Awards is a massive joke that has nothing to do with classical music. It’s a tool of the pop industry, that makes and promotes pop music of the most populist nature, except that this is pop for old people, not for young people. And the difference is that, being young and able to ‘make’ culture to some extent, or at least actively reproduce it, young audiences can take their pop commodities and run with them, sometimes outracing them and making something new or changing them or co-opting them, or giving them a political purpose. It’s always wrested back from them, for capitalist purposes, but it’s different from classical-crossover pop because the older people just lie down and take it. They don’t feel able to run with it because the whole point of this music is that it’s old and ‘classic’. So it’s totally totally manufactured, with barely any active input from the consumers, and therefore it’s obviously going to be utterly ridiculous. But it’s effectively no different from the ‘actual’ Brit Awards, it’s all capitalist culture industry, it’s all the cynical exploitation of the working classes and the emotionally vulnerable. And the actual ‘pop’ pop makes a lot more money.

I would, with a bucket of Xanax and an obliging shrink, be able to let this go if I felt it were a case simply of naiveté on behalf of the organisers, or indeed even of good intention. But this is not the case. Instead, I am convinced, that what we have here is a purposeful, well thought-out, structured plan to chip away year on year, track by track, album by album at the general public, convincing them over time that classical music really does not distinguish Russell Watson from Caruso.

Nah, it’s just capitalism, mate. And our art should be chipping away at it. (Incidentally, Rhodes’s brand of over-emotive argument (‘It makes me sick to my stomach’) is the kind of commentary that the tabloids use to bemoan certain social situations while completely avoiding the material relations underlying them.)

That the rise of classical-crossover kitsch is ‘bad’ is no great revelation. The most interesting thing about the article is this:

I applaud Sinfini for having the guts to commission that piece – and it is surely no accident that they asked a rock journalist to do it. Most classical pundits would be too terrified to stick their heads above the parapet, given how small the industry is and the knowledge that they would most likely be blacklisted should they come out and criticize the CBAs.

I have wanted to write a piece along these lines for a long time now, but figured (or at least my manager did) it would have made me too easy a target for accusations of jealousy and bitterness, what with me being a concert pianist and therefore, one would think, hungry for a Brit nomination myself.

As far as I was concerned, not only ‘our’ school of anti-essentialist classical critics is fully aware and unafraid of vocalising the ridiculousness of this trend, but the ‘serious’ classical world – maybe not the heads of institutions or the conductors, but surely the composers and performers – is just as free and eager to show dismissiveness or derision towards the Classic Brit Awards. I imagined – perhaps wrongly – that they were totally irrelevant to most people’s view of classical music, off the radar, because they are irrelevant, simply an example of extremely corporate pop music which is only as repulsive as the other most obvious machinations of corporate power. And significantly less repulsive, I’d suggest, than the less obvious, more insidious and sinister ones.

It was interesting to get the background on this James Rhodes fellow, an artist who I wasn’t previously familiar with. He’s not the dour, balding critic or testy, zealous foreign maestro who you’d normally expect to make such complaints in the name of ‘actual music’. He’s something of a performer-brand himself, with a website like a major label singer-songwriter and an album called Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianoswhich is ‘about’ his history of mental health problems, even though it’s really all Bach and Beethoven. There’s plenty of biting point-y things that could be said about this, some positive, some negative, but I can’t help but think that, with his personal-problems-as-marketing-gimmick, he’s not too far off from the kind of thing that he’s criticising. I think plenty of people would see his whole persona as a cynical, distracting stunt to sell the same old music, recorded in the same way, not necessarily performed any better. I’m not saying that’s what it is, I just think it might explain why he felt personally unable to criticise something that’s so criticisable, that demands to be criticised, for political reasons if not for artistic ones. How could any of these people actually maintain that what they were doing was in any way ‘art’, if they felt that they couldn’t criticise the Classic Brit Awards?

So what’s really going on then? Why bother criticising this stuff, ‘at last’? Do the classical guys believe that the kitsch imitation industry are stealing their audiences, and therefore their money? I don’t accept that they actually believe that it’s having an effect on ‘classical music’, which isn’t really a thing anymore anyway. I notice that Sinfini is the product of a former editor of Classic FM magazine (‘so he knows about making classical music accessible‘). Where does Classic FM magazine stand on all this?

For me, I believe it’s all just a deflection, a scapegoating, to stop anyone from picking up on the corporate incursions and extant capitalist (and pre-capitalist) relations which are the ‘life-blood’ (if that term can possibly be used) of current classical culture. Up against the sheer transparency of the classical-crossover industry, anything looks good. So artists like James Rhodes can deflect the critique of the more conservative classical artists, just as these would probably try to deflect my critique, if they cared, which they don’t. And just as Rhodes chastises ‘them’ for hijacking ‘his’ mission, with their ’empty lies about wanting to bring classical music to a wider audience’, I too could chastise Rhodes (and all those cynical institutions who jumped on the alt-classical bandwagon) for hijacking our mission.

Capitalism has its wily ways, and it wouldn’t be too far-out a conspiracy theory to posit that the Classic Brits – and that whole extreme end of populist ‘classical’ music – is so crassly manufactured and baldly corporate in order to draw the mainstream classical world’s criticism, to allow them to feel autonomous and superior even while their culture (along with every other aspect of the public sphere) is taken over by private business. The more absurd populist-classical becomes, the more ‘actual’ classical music can move towards static commodification (as an ‘elite tradition’) while still seeming to be a living, progressive culture.

There’s something way too easy and too cheap in going all-out criticising the Classic Brits. It’s a suspect move. Rhodes tells them: ‘You continue to bastardise and cheapen [classical music] until very soon it will have been eroded beyond recognition.’ I say No, come on now, they’re not your target audience, they just want to be entertained and it’s this or Jessie J, and they’re too old and weary for all that incessant sex and to be honest I can’t blame them. Forget people who are looking for entertainment and pursue people who are looking for art, and finding it in other places.

If classical music is an art form, and not just a self-reproducing, commodified cult edifice, it must see itself as an art form, take responsibility for producing new things and subverting the old ones. I can excuse Morley for his piece, since he comes to classical through the more experimental side of pop, and therefore – for him – the classical world is a big expanse of experimental pop that’s so experimental that it’s not pop. Rhodes comes across as if he’s trying to trash a rival company that’s encroaching on his business territory. His brand is just as manufactured and just as manipulative, that of the ‘great masterpieces’ performed ‘as intended’ – the chance to consume undiluted, uncondescended, ‘actual’ ‘culture’, of the kind that is celebrated by ‘the Gramophone Awards or the BBC Music Magazine awards, the genuine Oscars and Emmys of classical’………

I close this long post with a final quote from Rhodes:

Classical music always used to be the music of the people. It is cheap (there are some incredible box-set bargains around), accessible (Spotify puts almost infinite amounts of classical music on every computer connected to the internet) and can be overwhelmingly, brilliantly, aggressively life-changing for all who listen to it.

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2 Responses to three press posts: Straw Philistines

  1. eidelyn says:

    Paul Morley’s follow up article on the Gramophone Awards, about which he seems to feel in equal parts positive and negative. I really like his negative points (naturally), he states the current limitations of classical music almost perfectly. I also think he’s too optimistic about the genre’s quiet resilience and its supposedly conscious ability to change and progress, but he comes fresh from the (oft-overstated) crisis in pop music, so maybe he needs to see some sort of future hope elsewhere.

    The ‘liquid experimental classical energy’, the ‘quest to make things different, and search out and reflect new worlds and new environments through unprecedented sounds and concepts’: I wish I could perceive all these things in the classical music culture of today. But if these were supposedly what the Gramophone Awards delivered, then I’d wonder whether we were speaking the same language.

    Morley clearly recognises the potential of the music, as I hope we do on this blog, and it’s cool that he wants to turn people on to what I certainly see as the unique strengths of the art-form. But this only means he should be demanding more from them, as someone who should be right at the centre of its audience, not speculating cautiously from the sidelines, as someone who acknowledges that he is still an outsider from their ‘particular club’.

    The blinding lack of new music in Gramophone magazine hurts my eyes.

  2. Joe Bates says:

    Mmm very interesting. I’ve been away from your blog for some time and missed a lot! Your long response to my point on operas and West End musicals looks v. interesting, I’ll give it a read.

    Morely is an interesting guy. I got in a bit of an argument with him a couple of months ago at talk from the Institute of Composing. The panel was convened to discuss changing trends of literacy in music. I had really high hopes as I think it’s a intriguing topic and the panel seemed good. But the conversation ended up being an absurdly simplistic literacy=good, current generation=illiterate and bad. I got pissed off and ended up giving an angry speech from the floor (which was not as coherent as I would like). I thought it was ridiculous for this panel of fifty year olds to be speaking to a room of fifty year olds about a culture that they couldn’t have seemed more removed from.

    I met him and the rest of the panel afterwards and it was a very interesting experience. They all loved being challenged, particularly Paul Morley, but I felt a little patronised – it was a kind ‘isn’t your indignation adorably authentic?’ kind of acceptance. Most of them seemed pretty complacent that their aesthetic assumptions were impeachable.

    To Peter Wiegold’s credit, he’s now convened a further debate panel entirely of young people to discuss such issues. It’s coming up next month and I’d really like to talk to you in advance of it to thrash through some ideas.

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