A Brief Point on the Culture of Disposability in Music

While I am busy preparing a goddamn huge essay series for publication on this very blog, it strikes me that I haven’t updated since before Christmas, and Christmas was a whole lifetime ago. If I am to make a go of actually connecting with people on the internet through this venture, I can’t very well leave it for months at a time like I used to, so here’s a little something that maybe a reader, if I have readers, could chew on in the meantime.

In the ongoing sex scandal bonanza (I resisted the hideous “sexscandavaganza”, but there it is anyway) the world of classical music has not gone unscathed. James Levine and Charles Dutoit, both for rather different reasons, have been in the firing line. Levine’s abuses of young boys has been, apparently, common knowledge for a long time, an “open secret” that may have been for the New York opera scene the equivalent of the ogreish Harvey Weinstein’s litany of offences in Hollywood. David Hurwitz, critic for Classics Today, has published an editorial musing on the wider implications of the recent revelations.

The article is fairly brief and to the point, but I thought I would summarise, by way of quotation, Hurwitz’s view, for the sake of having the thing I’m commenting on inline with the comment itself.

“Why should it be so easy to dismiss and discard artists of the caliber of Levine and Dutoit (if indeed that turns out to be the final word)? […] I believe the true reason for the disposability of even major artists today is classical music’s dirtiest secret, one so shocking that few dare utter it. Here it is: None of these people matter. After all the hype, the publicity, the PR bubbles touting their uniqueness, they are still playing the same music as their colleagues, any one of whom is ready, willing, and able to replace them on a moment’s notice. Who cares if there’s one less? If they are narcissistic enough to believe the myth of their own importance—well then, more fools them. The show will go on regardless, and we needn’t shed a tear.”

It seems to be true. Standards are better than they used to be, which means you get what you pay for in a live performance or recording more often than not, but the other side of that is sanitisation—what we gain in reliability we lose in variety. There are no Mengelbergs or Scherchens or Klemperers or even Bernsteins out there any more, what we have instead is a lot of very good but highly similar talents which, were it not for their having different names and faces, you might barely be able to pick and choose between. When there is such consistency, such uniformity intra- and inter- all these conductors it makes me think that perhaps they’re preparing the way for automation, the whole thing becoming so homogeneous that it can safely be handed over to AI. Maybe that would eventually encourage a reassertion of belief in the importance of the individual talent, but who knows? Most of us are content to have things the same way every time, possibly because most of our listening time is not in concert but at home, with a captured moment that is exactly and absolutely recreated in every detail each time we hit the play button. The live experience may be under some pressure to play straight to the expectation that this is natural, and so a certain amount of artificiality must be exercised in order to please the audience, which in turn reinforces the expectation. There is something of an assembly line or fast food feel to it, every Barbie doll, every Big Mac, every Beethoven symphony the same, and that’s how we like it.

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