The Struggle of Modern Music

We’re not in the 1890s any more, classical music is fringe today not just because the music changed but because the world, its cultures, technologies, ideologies, attitudes all changed. I’ve said many times before how the decline in the popularity of classical music can be correlated over time with the development of new content delivery systems. First we have the phonograph record, no score or piano necessary, just drop the needle to the disc and it’ll sort itself out. Then we get cassette tapes, a lot smaller, can hold more music, and you can play them on the move in the car or in your Walkman. Then MTV comes along, and hey, now you have something to look at while you’re listening to music at home, like that girl’s buttocks or this guy’s hair — we personally guarantee that you will never again become bored while listening to the hot new tunes.

Let’s break that down in the abstract. These technological developments did the following: removed a huge chunk of effort from the activity, took the activity outside into areas full of distractions, and finally made the distractions normative by incorporating them into standard practice. Classical music, or indeed any kind of music that demands focus and patience to appreciate, saw a gradual decline in popularity because of this, and that’s why people had to jazz it up a little to remain popular in mainstream terms. This climate gives us performers like Liberace and Victor Borge, who took up the challenge of reinventing classical music performance to appeal to a wider audience, they attempted and somewhat achieved this by slashing piece durations, adding flashy visual elements, humour, and a lot of talking points to live concerts. Meanwhile, in the home market, people saw how they could not exactly revitalise classical music but at least make a quick buck off the back of its withered corpus. We got Mozart for Baby, we got Chilled-Out Bach Adagios, we got Classic FM…

The pseudoscientific cachet and/or ease of listening attached to a handful of pieces, and often mere excerpts of pieces, which could be easily and rapidly digested in a number of environments like piped Muzak, Satie’s musique d’ameublemente on a little plastic disc that goes wherever you go, meant that classical music was not only commoditised, taking on in the public consciousness the form of an amorphous blob of pretty tunes, but that it also became entirely relateable via advertising copy. Simple, short blurbs that tell you what the thing is, what it does, and why you should have it, this in turn removes any particular cultural necessity to discuss the thing, because everybody already knows what it is. If there is no culturally valid reason to explore, listen to, think about, or discuss something, then generally the thing in question will not be explored, listened to, thought about, or discussed — it becomes by default the jurisdiction of an elite, in this case a pop-culturally underprivileged elite.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think “modern music,” either in the time of Copland’s writing or in ours, gets or should get the blame for all of this, it’s just what happened. Serialism didn’t create MTV, although this is interesting to consider: if we could go back and tally the total number of videos in rotation over a given time period and how often they repeated, perhaps we could establish some interesting Babbittesque patterns there. The major inevitability of technology is streamlining, making more efficient tomorrow the most common processes of today, for better or worse. This one simple, truly immutable truth, means that we would be having this discussion whether or not composers had desperately clung to a romantic idiom throughout the 20th century. In fact, if that had happened, I think we would probably be arguing the other way, that what classical music needs now is something new and exciting. Hmmm. Those still looking for witches to burn may wish to take up the alleged cause of Ned Ludd, a man whose reputation they will find to be even more coloured by dense and longevitous proliferations of nonsense than that of Schoenberg himself.

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