Sunday, 18 May 2014

After the Music: Smelling the Privilege

I love music. I don't know why really (but isn't that true of most things - or people - we love?) My parents are not musical - only my grandmother played the piano, but rather badly. But my mum did recognise my passion and sent me to various piano teachers (most of them dreadful) from the age of 6. I eventually did quite well, although not without hiccups, and with fairly frequent changes of teachers. As I got better, so music became a kind of ritualised practice which everyone in the family got used to. I think that you need this ritualised practice for things to really work. It's something that's I've tried to instil in my daughter, and in many ways she is luckier than I was.

I'm very glad that Martin James Bartlett has won Young Musician of the Year (see He's a wonderful pianist, and I look forward to hearing more from him in the future. But something bothers me about this classical music charade. It is the sheer exhibition of privilege and the inability of serious music making to excise itself from exclusive public schools and shed-loads of money which galls. Evelyn Waugh apparently complained that when travelling in a standard class rail compartment that "you could practically smell the poverty!". Well, with Young Musician, you can really smell the privilege. Is this taking music seriously? No, I don't think it is - but there are deep problems in trying to unpick it.

Of course, when we talk about music in this context, we are talking about a set of practices which are, mostly, no more than 300 years old - which would take us back to Bach (Bartlett really showed his mettle playing Bach). That's not a long time. The ontogeny of this music has been laced with privilege and patronage from the beginning. But music itself takes us beyond privilege and patronage: Great music points us towards injustice, poverty, suffering. The elite like to look down the abyss from a safe distance! Some artists, on the other hand, have to go right down there to see the thing as it is. It hasn't just been Orwell who was Down and Out in London and Paris...

What does taking music seriously mean? I don't think it means making a nice noise. Although nice noises are good now and then. It certainly means opening our ears. It also means opening our hearts. But I think it should also mean political radicalism. You cannot really open your ears or open your heart and tune out injustice or ones own complicity in that injustice. That's merely performing a service to the sound-material, but not the social-material which gives the life to the sound. Beethoven quartets brilliantly played to a packed Wigmore Hall full of people paying a fortune for their tickets is hollow Beethoven.

Of course, what's worse (and even less serious music) is pandering to popular taste (I think I'm with Adorno on the pathologies of the culture industry) But the deep problem is that we think music is only about sound. For the Greeks, it was about the Muses in general. Indeed, if this broader idea of music has any equivalent today, it is not what happens in the concert hall (beautiful though it is).

It is probably what happens in the classroom. 

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