Saturday, February 19, 2011
Against the Normative Order
One of the persistent arguments for the western "classical" musical tradition has been that it has a certain caché or benchmark status, marking a form of cultivation, in which listening and performing discipline, knowledge of the tradition as a larger whole and within a historical/cultural context, and the complexity or sophistication of the music itself have been valued highly. Forms of this argument frequently appear in pedagogical contexts, and often in a popular (and highly questionable) form, from the listening-to-Mozart-makes-smart-babies fad to the recent "Chinese mother" furor. Ultimately, this argument is an argument less for the particular musical tradition than for the broader cultural tradition around the music and it skirts around aspects that have contributed to the prestige which are more social that materially musical in character: the status of the opera visit, the importance of continental European immigration to the spread of the tradition, etc.. While the sophistication of the music and the level of skill required to play and listen to it (at least at a technical level) remain constant, I think this argument has weakened considerably with time and weakened to an extent that the principal argument for the tradition, as well as for its descendants (yes, even experimental music) is a no longer sustainable status as a normative form of musical production and aesthetics, but as the exception which challenges the current normative order. A "death of classical music" will happen everytime classical music ceases to be an experience extraordinary to the music which otherwise dominates our everyday experience of listening. We have to do a better job of communicating how extradinary, how strange, beautiful and, yes, difficult this experience can be, from the uniquity, vitality and risk of live performance, the precise, strange, and archaic labor of a large ensemble performance (isn't the orchestra the only form of labor-intensive 19th century European production still in use?), to the profoundly unusual use of shared-time a concert represents, and certainly to the virtues of novelty and variety, however subtle, that only a new musical work can express, once or (sometimes) on renewed acquaintance.