In the October 22 issue of The New Republic, Richard Taruskin has a lengthy review article on three books (by Julian Johnson, Joshua Fineberg, and Lawrence Kramer) that address, one way or another, conserving the classical tradition. Taruskin opens his article by raging at the Joshua Bell busking experiment, which well deserved his ire. Those already familiar with Taruskin are rightly wondering whether they should cluster about the authors for support or simply bolt for cover. It’s the latter; Taruskin is at his hilarious, blistering best here, because nothing—so far as one can tell—infuriates him like sacralization and its attendant ossification.
The first order of business is to demolish Julian Johnson’s neo-Adornian screed, which is presented as equal parts aesthetic superciliousness and appallingly arrogant dismissals of popular music. He proceeds to Fineberg, with whom he initially shows more patience but then dismisses with a wave of his hand when he is discovered pitching spectralism, which seems to be more cause—or dare I say pose—than technique or aesthetic or approach or anything else that can be usefully described. He has more time for Larry Kramer, yet still bounces phrases like “Nor is Kramer’s account entirely devoid of vainglory and invidiousness,” “Kramer makes his only—inevitably, ignorant and prejudiced—comparisons between the classical and the popular,” and the rather more direct “this is balderdash” in Kramer’s direction. This is the book he takes the most seriously of the three, and far kinder observations are made, but still—one almost feels the whip-crack. As a friend once said to me, “If no one’s gunning for you, cowboy, you really ain’t nobody.” Cold comfort, but I suppose true. By the time Taruskin described Johnson’s book as “a sort of Beyond the Fringe parody of a parish sermon in some Anglican backwater” …Debbie had to tell me to shut up and stop reading choice phrases so she could work.
The fact is that his turns of phrase make me mad with jealousy. I laughed aloud for five minutes at “The idea that in popular culture production equals consumption was already a canard when it was first handed down from Adorno’s delphic armchair.” Delphic armchair?! I could write for a century and never come up with something that wickedly pithy. The knockout punch follows almost immediately: “That [Adorno’s] followers still parrot him only shows how utterly ideology trumps observation in the world of ‘critical theory,’ of all academic approaches the least critical by far.” Unimprovable, and something I’ve wanted to say for twenty years. Twenty-eight words.
(Tonight my fourteen-year-old son happened to ask about postmodernism, having overheard us mention it in conversation, and he observed that my tone of voice was the one usually I usually reserve for Fundamentalism. I said, “Fundamentalists believe there is absolutely one clear and incontrovertible truth, and they believe it rigidly, dogmatically, and unquestioningly. Postmodernists believe there are no incontrovertible truths, and they believe it rigidly, dogmatically, and unquestioningly.” See what I mean? Lame by comparison: sad, thin gruel.)
I don’t agree with Taruskin’s whole article, by any means. Taruskin is free to dismiss Norman Lebrecht as “a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker” if he wishes (I think Lebrecht’s Song of Names deserves better), but surely Blair Tindall, narcissistic ex-oboist who can’t decide if she’s an oboist, a crusading journalist, or a Bad Girl With A Pen (Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music), merits the same unflinching treatment? Taruskin accords her “the smartest and most constructive take on the situation.” Her book struck me, to the contrary, as an exhibitionistic tell-all (Sex and drugs in surprising locales among musicians! Stop the presses!) by someone boundlessly resentful that whatever myths she internalized as a young person—and there is no indication that some healthy cynicism at a young age wouldn’t have enabled her to prepare more intelligently for artistic life—turned out not to be true. The stew of whiny resentment and confessional titillation had me running for the vomitorium. I never made it past halfway through.
Perhaps the article was so amusing for me because I am in sympathy with the anti-sacralist sentiment: the composers were living, breathing human beings; contemporary musicians of whatever flavor are not only living, breathing human beings but tend to be howlers at the moon and spitters of fire, and no musician I know enjoys the smug, moralizing, clueless blue-hair who pays some bills but insists on dictating, participating, commenting, orating. As a longtime Rock fan, I also share the disgust at those who look down on it while putting classical (or Jazz, or the pop from another [their] era) on a pedestal.
Ultimately, though, this doesn’t take me very far; these are all fairly cheap shots. If the traditional appreesh gambit and eat-your-broccoli approach to classical music is demonstrably counter-, or at best un-, productive, what to do? Of course, that is not the business of Taruskin’s piece, and he doesn’t seem to want to go beyond “keep listening”—not his gig. It’s a subject I continue to think a lot about, though, in measure because of the kind of institution I teach at, in some measure because of my atypical training and route to musicology, and in some measure because what I think is most evident and apparent and interesting, the front door to art music after which you discover everything else, is precisely what very few or nobody at all discuss in terms of music education or appreciation or however you want to put it. So: next blog I’ll try to offer a thought or two of a practical nature, because deep down I don’t think that “just keep listening” answers the call, either, when we are discussing musical repertories a century and more old.