The Maestro-Industrial Complex

Re. my last post, on the general inadvisability of copping a superior attitude (or “topping it the nob,” as Jack Aubrey would put it), a few thoughts:

1. In the comments, Bob posted the following apt quote from Richard Taruskin, who is writing here about Leonard Bernstein leading a triumphal and rather orgulous performance of Beethoven 9 after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

What did it mean, playing Beethoven at that time and in that place? As if the East Germans did not also have their Beethovenfests. As if the high culture and all its icons had not been exploited by every dictatorship (and every commercial interest), used as a bludgeon to beat down spontaneous (popular, counter-) culture and sell every consumer product.

The true musical emblems of that glorious moment were the guitar-strumming kids in jeans atop the wall playing a music that would have landed them in jail the day before. They were the ones who symbolized Freiheit. What did Beethoven symbolize? Just packaged greatness, I’m afraid, and all that that implies of smugness and dullness and ritualism. Just what the revolutions of ’89 were revolting against.

And that is why classical music is failing, and in particular why intellectuals, as a class, and even the educated public, have been deserting it. The defection began in the sixties, when all at once it was popular music that engaged passionately–adequately or not, but often seriously and even challengingly–with scary, risky matters of public concern, while classical music engaged only frivolously (remember radical chic?) or escaped into technocratic utopias. By now, the people who used to form the audience for “serious” music are very many of them listening to something else.

2. Sara Haefeli writes that each year she plays a hiphop track in class, and each year one of her students shouts “that’s not music”! Writes Sara,

Every year I think, “This might be the year that this doesn’t work any longer,” but it has yet to fail. So even though there are a number of academics who might be preaching a moralizing message of Great Art, they are preaching to a largely willing audience.

My own experience is, most of the classical performance majors who take my music history classes at the Jacobs School have a pretty open mind about what kind of music they will listen to. (They probably wouldn’t have chosen to take my class otherwise.) But even so, few of them question whether art music is inherently superior to all the other stuff I throw at them. It’s not like they make a big deal out of it, but they have a legitimating narrative quietly running in the backs of their minds, too: it’s OK that I am taking years of my life and 10Ks of debt with indifferent chances of ever paying it off in order to study this challenging and basically unpopular music, because it is a higher calling, and a better, more important kind of music, than anything else. The superiority of classical music legitimates my choice to study it. Some of them just don’t want to have a conversation about where classical music sits in the contemporary cultural landscape, because it’s hard enough to do what they’re doing without people telling them it doesn’t matter as much as they thought.* And there always one in every crowd who gets militant on the subject of classical-music supremacy and does that thing Sara writes about — demonstrating public ridicule of what is taken to be unworthy music.

And I’m not saying they are necessarily wrong**; it’s just that this approach won’t actually enlist anyone into the art-music cause. It doesn’t help. It’s emotionally satisfying, a way to get revenge on a creeping feeling of uselessness (which you must feel from time to time, let’s face it, if you work in the arts in the US, if only because you are constantly being told you are useless). And everyone you know — all your colleagues in your FB and Twitter feeds — will applaud your defiance of the general low standards. You are saying what everyone is thinking. But then it’s preaching to the choir, isn’t it? What I’m writing about here is the creation of a self-sustaining feedback loop, a closed circuit of classical performers, scholars, college and nonprofit-arts administrators, students, and critics. And what runs endlessly through this circuit is a narrative of classical music’s superiority. This is what I mean by “classical music culture”; for years I have informally called it “the Maestro-Industrial Complex.”

What is the Maestro-Industrial Complex (MIC)? It is a self-reinforcing culture of classical music, narcissistically besotted with a faded image of prestige and power and insulated from outside critique by its institutional structures. Think of it as a kind of software — a set of ideas, images, stories, memes, habits of mind, habits of being, “structures of feeling,” etc. — that is run by the hardware of institutions. The institutions are conservatory and university music schools, symphony and opera halls, museum music series, journal publications, and the like. The emotional groundtone of the MIC is a Romanticism of pleasure and power.

What do I mean by that last clause —  “a Romanticism of pleasure and power”? There’s a moment in the MST3K episode with the Mexican children’s film Santa Claus where we see the luxury penthouse of the rich family (the poor-little-rich-kid in the story just wants his Mom and Dad for Christmas instead of all his fancy toys) and one of the bots says “Is that Van Cliburn’s apartment”?


It’s one of those perfect MST3K moments of humor grounded in American cultural esoterica. How many people got the joke, I wonder? You would need to be aware of (1) Van Cliburn’s improbable 1958 fame as an American Sputnik, and (2) the overstuffed, luxurious, ripely sentimental, massively retro (like, 19th-century retro) flavor of Cliburn’s general gestalt, reflected in the vignettes in Joseph Horowitz’s The Ivory Trade and indeed in Cliburn’s own style of pianism.*** Somehow, the rotting-fruit aroma of classical glam that stuck to Cliburn has remained in memory just enough to register as an MST3K joke. (My colleague Michael Long has much to say about this kind of thing.) In any event, if I try to imagine what the MIC would actually look like, I think of something like the above picture: overstuffed red-velvet armchair, neo-classical statuary, a piano with a huge vase of white flowers (I hope they’re orchids — that would be perfect), the dusty time-out-of-time feeling where it’s always 1958, forever. Within this plush hall the power of the classical musician is unbounded: he is a mage, a sorcerer whose hurled left-hand octave thunderbolts hold his audience in thrall. It’s a preserved-in-amber picture of the classical musician at the last moment of his unquestioned cultural dominance, at the absolute pinnacle of public legitimacy. Pardon all the masculine pronouns, but it’s usually a “he,” isn’t it? A man of power, the Maestro, part Cagliostro and part Vincent Price.****

To be clear, there are very few (especially nowadays) who actually try to be that guy. There’s not that many guys trying to be Bob Dylan, either. Those kinds of outsize personae exist mostly in the realm of shared myth. We can draw warmth and energy from myth, but the power of this particular myth is waning. We are worshipping a minor deity who no longer answers our prayers.

*Though this is never my point. Playing classical music matters just about as much as it’s possible for anything to matter. But this has nothing to do anything being “higher” than anything else. I will pick this up again in a later post.

**I’m not saying they’re right, either.

*** Which BTW I really love.

****Come to think of it, this mythical locus of the Maestro-Industrial Complex bears a more than passing resemblance to the Onion’s Metal Council, which “meets annually in its majestic hall atop Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to discuss metal affairs” and which keeps a “list of true metal acolytes engraved in medieval calligraphy on gleaming pages of steel.”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to The Maestro-Industrial Complex

  1. Mark says:


    Two questions if I may:

    1. Would you agree with me that “Pelleas et Melisande” is the finest and most addictive of all operas?

    2. Does it mystify you that it has never had the impact nor the popularity of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss?



  2. Pingback: Pop Culture, the Classical Musician, and Everything | Dial M for Musicology

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