I take my identity as a scholar very seriously, not just in my work, but in my life. When I am confronted with evidence that contradicts something I believe to be true, I should not ignore it. Though it would comfort me to look for other, different evidence that would confirm my previous worldview, that’s ultimately bad practice for a historian. I’m still trying to make sense of the information we received last week, and this blog post is part of that.
A few weeks ago, I received a message from reader Kenichi Ikuno on Facebook. He sent me a link to a blog post proclaiming that “Modern Classical Music is Dead,” and feminism killed it. He thought it would be a good addition to my ongoing series on snobbery, since the author, Max Roscoe, repeatedly asserts the superiority of classical music (up to a certain era) and supports his opinions with assumptions not supported by history. Normally, that is ideal fodder for this blog!
Yet as I considered how to approach a blog post on this, I decided that I probably wouldn’t touch it. Roscoe accuses Social Justice Warriors (or SJWs) of forcing people to pretend they like ugly music. I tend to ignore people who consider “SJW” a pejorative, as they use it as a catch-all label for “people who speak out about opinions different from mine.” They’re usually set in their opinions, particularly those that affirm white, male superiority, and they certainly wouldn’t be swayed by a female academic.
The blog’s founder, Roosh, is a major figure in the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) culture, which tells men that the best way to convince women to have sex with them is to assert dominance over them (and if she doesn’t respond to that tactic, she’s not a woman you’d want to have sex with, anyway). I became aware of Roosh after his comments about the mass shooting that occurred at UCSB while I was a student there. His blog is extremely popular among Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), who have a history of abusing people who disagree with them. Criticizing them carries a real risk of being harassed, doxed, or worse.
I didn’t want to go kicking a hornet’s nest.
After last week, though, I realized that I can’t keep ignoring opinions like Roscoe’s. He’s expressing beliefs that reflect the way our culture views classical music, and he’s not alone in that respect.
In his post, he claims that modern music is dissonant and forgettable, destined not to last. He elevates Beethoven as the ideal composer, an opinion shared by many who have never even heard of SJWs, PUAs, and MRAs. He connects dissonance to feminism and other progressive movements, claiming that they want us to accept ugliness as beautiful.
|Ahh, Beethoven's Fifth. So relaxing!|
If Roscoe wishes to consume music in this way, that’s his prerogative. He’s certainly welcome to dislike some styles of music. But his opinions are not facts and do not determine the value of ALL music. His assumption that “Classical music is beautiful,” leads him to believe “Therefore, music that is not beautiful has failed to be classical music.” To him, music (like a woman) exists to please him and others like him. His opinion is the only opinion that matters because he believes it to be actual reality. This is why he views feminism and most postmodern philosophies as dangerous—they challenge his authority to determine reality. To him, they are lies because they deny what he believes to be a fundamental truth of existence.
Note his invocation of mathematics as the basis of tonality, proof that consonance is more beautiful than dissonance. This is a common tactic, and I even see some music theorists teach their students that ratios are the basis for harmony. What’s often overlooked is that the math doesn’t work out. As a string player, I’m intimately familiar with the Pythagorean comma—tuning fifths to a perfect 2:3 relationship means that eventually it will not line up with tuning octaves to a perfect 1:2 ratio. The distortion is perceptible even across the four strings of a viola, so we must account for failure of mathematics to conform to our concept of tonality whenever we tune our instruments. Mathematics alone is not the basis of beauty.
Elsewhere, I’ve mentioned how, even in tonal music, consonance and dissonance depend on context. I consulted an ethnomusicologist friend of mine, Jason Busniewski, for non-Western uses of dissonance, and he sent me a fascinating link to Bulgarian singing, which embraces dissonance. He pointed out that Balinese gamelan purposely uses dissonance to give the sound a shimmering quality, and that the scales of Javanese gamelan have no relation to the overtone series aside from the presence of octaves. He also sent me a video of traditional Irish music, which historically used notes in between the twelve notes of Western tuning for color. These examples demonstrate that “beauty” is not a universal constant. Roscoe’s sweeping statements about music reveal his ethnocentrism. It’s not that he would deny that these examples exist, but he would probably say they are inferior to Western classical music, as John Halle strongly implied in his post on Musicology Now. It is uncomfortable to point out the assumptions of white supremacy that underlie many conversations about classical music, but they exist.
Roscoe’s charged rhetoric makes his post easy to dismiss, but his opinions are not limited to the MRA and PUA communities. Take, for example, British music journalist Norman Lebrecht. He is a prolific blogger, posting several times a day with news about the classical music world. Some of my colleagues refer to his blog as a tabloid (and they won’t be happy that I’m giving him extra attention), and his provocative posts earn him that reputation (for example, here and here). Nevertheless, he’s an influential voice in the English-speaking classical music community online, and he reaches an audience whose love of classical music forms part of their identities (as it does for mine).
Lebrecht’s blog skews conservative, with a major distrust of multiculturalism, feminist musicology, and other progressive philosophies. A site-wide search for the phrase “post-modern” reveals that he often uses it as a pejorative, an indication that things are not as good as they used to be. His audience also tends to be socially conservative—check out the comments on this post about women conductors: “I’d feel very awkward if I have to watch a standing woman’s back for 2 hours at such close distance.” This is a community of mostly white men who view themselves as the norm in the classical music community, with people of color, women, and liberals as outsiders. To them, it’s not even a matter of opinion; they believe it to be objective fact.
I would prefer to think that the classical music community—as I had assumed about the country prior to the election—is mostly like me: progressive, intellectually curious, and welcoming of differences. The election suggests that many people in this country also see people of color, women, and liberals as outsiders in society, reminding me that many classical music lovers likewise do not see the world as I do, and I’m being intellectually careless when I ignore that.
In a previous post, I reflected, “One of the uncomfortable paradoxes of classical music is that, while musicians skew liberal on social issues (at least in my experience), a not-insignificant portion of the audience is socially conservative.” My point was to show how music history has been shaped by conservative tastes, leaving out unsavory parts because they make people uncomfortable. People want history to conform to certain expectations because it helps them make sense of their world. It’d be too easy to call this a conservative trait, but my surprise over the election reminds me that this is true of people all over the political spectrum.
As someone who studies the nineteenth century, I often encounter statements and incidents in which people I otherwise admire act in a way I would find deplorable today. For example, I’ve praised Clara Schumann for being a badass, but she and her husband also made several anti-Semitic comments about their friend Felix Mendelssohn (although comments like that today might get you appointed senior advisor to the President). It’d be easier to ignore that aspect of the Schumanns, but as a scholar, I understand that history has no obligation to conform to my expectations.
So, where do we go from here? My goal with this blog is, as it has always been, to reveal ways in which the popular stories surrounding classical music are inaccurate, and to explain why people prefer to believe the myths. This means questioning assumptions and facing the possibility that we may be wrong. I also hope to show what is lost when only a narrow demographic writes the story, as has been the case in music history for generations. I am not looking for history to vindicate my political convictions, but I hope that how I practice history—on this blog and in my scholarly research—can be a way to put my politics into action.
Special thanks to Kenichi Ikuno for sending me the link, and to William Cheng, Felicia Miyakawa, Jason Busniewski, and Andrew Dell’Antonio for their feedback on the many drafts of this post.