Mandarin culture-blogger AC Douglas is back on the warpath with a new site. He takes issue with quasi-populist ideas that I’ve lately purveyed in the New Yorker, and which have animated Greg Sandow’s writing for years. Classical music, ACD says, is by nature an elitist art; it can’t pass itself off as something for the masses, any more than an aristocrat can pass as a redneck. (His metaphor, not mine.) This neo-con position is enjoying a late surge in classical circles. A while back I was talking to a brilliant young composer who told me flatly , “If we don’t say our music is better than other music, then it is doomed to die.” Kyle Gann, on his blog, quotes a 22-year-old composer who promotes a “New Elitism” — “somewhat more broad-minded than the past one, but not as all-inclusive and allegedly populist as post- modernism claims to be.” Snobbery with a knowing smirk.
I won’t address this mindset head on, having already done so at length. Suffice to say I don't recognize its mode of listening, which seems to require a feeling of superiority as part of the aesthetic experience. If you’re worrying about how your music ranks with other people’s, I wonder if you’re actually listening at all. We’ve been trying the holier-than-thou gambit in American classical music for more than a century, and while it has sucked up big donations it has backfired time and again with the general public. I’ll use a very crude metaphor. You go to a party where you know no one. Do you go up to someone and say, “I am the finest individual in this room, and everyone else is fundamentally uninteresting”? It might work if you say it with the right crazed conviction — if you are Gustav Mahler or Arturo Toscanini, say — but chances are that you will leave as friendless as you came, with people whispering “Who’s that creep?” behind your back. Better, perhaps, to say something smart but lively, leading others to conclude on their own that hey, this guy is more interesting than Bill who is talking about spackling. You embody quality, you don’t announce it.
Culture doesn’t work that way, the Elitists might protest. CM must advertise its greatness. It is a Great Tradition that needs to be Maintained. I’m willing to admit that populism has its limits: if you go in front of a roomful of kids saying, “Hey, this dude Beethoven was one wild and crazy homey,” they’ll see through you. But you can celebrate Beethoven’s genius without necessarily suggesting that he’s better than Beyoncé. He's in a different world: so paint that world as vividly as you can and show how it invades your own. I’m imagining another objection: Isn’t pop music boastful beyond belief? Didn’t Chuck Berry advance his agenda by singing, “Roll over Beethoven”? Shouldn't we fight back? Well, as Susan McClary points out, the full line is “Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” which is a somewhat more suggestive and inclusive message. In any case, Chuck Berry is boasting that he’s more fun, and he has the riffs to prove it. The crux of the classical boast is: Can we back it up? Just how goddamn civilized are we? The experience I described in "Listen To This," of meeting a bunch of punk-rock DJs who were more cultured than I was, destroyed that assurance in my mind, and I’ve never felt the need to get it back.
Maybe ACD and I can agree on this formula: If classical music is absent from your life, then you are missing out on something huge and grand. What unifies us, I hope, is the urge to tell the news about this music, which, for all its elitist trappings, occupies an underground position in contemporary culture. I sometimes don’t mind seeing pop music take a little pounding, because, for all its regular-folks veneer, it is the Establishment, and it has major smugness issues of its own. (The only people who seemed really incensed by my piece were pop snobs who didn't want me venturing outside my culture ghetto. Within CM it was much less controversial than I'd expected.) I like reading ACD because I sense the passion behind the words — and people respond to passionate messages, even if they leave a bitter taste. The ultimate enemy is the sort of passive, neutral, vaguely fatalistic thinking that has driven major classical insitutions for too long. I expect we can also agree on that.