Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? (What Happened to the Classical Musician as Public Intellectual?)

Crossposted from SpencerSnyder.com.  Spencer is a very talented composer I’ve known since his birth.  As a thoughtful member of the classical music community, he mourns the lack of even lip service paid by society to classical music.  Gone are the days when Artur Rubinstein, Yahudi Menuhin or Itzhak Perlman would appear on Ed Sullivan, and be heard by tens of millions of Americans at one time.  Maybe coincidentally, that time could also boast of the inclusion of numerous figures from classical music and opera in the ranks of public intellectuals.  Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn and others would accompany their public/political engagement with long interviews in Esquire and Playboy or appear on TV in a cigarette haze with Dick Cavett or David Susskind.  Those days are very gone.  Yo Yo Ma may play the odd inaugural, but who even knows his politics?  Wouldn’t it behoove today’s musicians to speak out, engage intellectually, get their faces in front of audiences younger than Medicare eligibility?

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In 2011, a list of Britain’s top 300 intellectuals was published in the Guardian.  Of those 300, only two were musicians: Brian Eno and Peter Maxwell Davies.  Comparatively, this is a fairly musician-friendly list; most ranked lists of activists, thinkers, individuals who reflect on society – these lists usually leave musicians out entirely.  Despite the notion among musicians that they provide a special and crucial service to the world, musicians have virtually no influence on public discourse.  This is not because they don’t have platforms and it is not because the public will not listen to them.  The classical music elite, the composers and performers with national and international careers, these people leave their notoriety on the table by not advertising their political ideas.  And while avoiding friction by keeping one’s mouth shut may make a career in music or the arts easier to navigate, it also helps to damn music to cultural irrelevance.

This is an issue in classical music specifically, popular music is very open to political commentary.  In a big way classical musicians have yielded any capital they had as public intellectuals over to pop stars and living products.  The people who found fame because they were pretty or had a marketable sound are now looked to for political guidance.  Pop stars whose actual contribution to their own music is dubious – they get invitations to appear or TV and campaign stops.  And we’re not just talking about trotting out celebrities to say nice things about a candidate.  Pop musicians are taken seriously.  Jay Z recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the criminal justice system.

Alan Gilbert revealed his own political reluctance in a 2017 interview with NDR in Germany when he strained to come up with criticism of Donald Trump.  When prompted to give his thoughts on the new president, Gilbert opens with, “Trump yet again.”  Gilbert’s proceeding comments about the mad king were fair but not particularly new, and not even all that insightful.  “I think it’s hard to know sometimes whether this man lies just habitually or if it’s strategic,” says Gilbert, “but he plays on people’s fears.”  Sometimes Gilbert’s eyes rolled up as if to literally reach for a rudimentary gripe. These are the kinds of shallow observations that anyone whose political education is confined to every third episode of Rachel Maddow could make. It is boring, superficial statements like these that betray the intellect of the man as well as the post he holds.

It is all but impossible to find musicians of Gilbert’s prominence who assert serious positions.  Of course there have been some.  Daniel Barenboim certainly is not afraid to castigate Israel.  David Del Tredici’s open homosexuality took a tremendous amount of courage in a time decades before even Democrats stopped saying “marriage is between a man and a woman.”  Leonard Bernstein’s ardent progressivism led to an FBI file more than 500 pages long.  Alex Ross in the New Yorker describes what is probably the silliest example of Bernstein’s scrutiny.  In a letter from Pat Buchanan to Bud Krogh, Buchanan hilariously suggests that they employ a “good Jesuit” to transcribe the Latin text from Bernstein’s Mass to make sure no subversive messages were slipped in.  The idea is that, if Nixon attended, and unwittingly applauded an anti-war message, which would have been sung in Latin, it would be embarrassing.  Sure.  It is nice to know that idiotic concern for potential gaffes is not a new phenomenon, it is something on which politicos have always wasted time.

In actuality no one is literally silent on politics.  They just use platitudes, personal pleas and equivocal language that eludes to the events we are all aware of, but just does not say anything about them.  The rhetorical equivalent to silence. 

For example, take a look at an op-ed in the New York Times by star conductor Gustavo Dudamel who, as far as is possible to tell, has more Twitter followers (800k) than anyone else in classical music.  He addresses the terrible crisis in his home country of Venezuela.  Unfortunately, this op-ed also is a slam dunk of useless language and stupid comparisons.  The most beauty pageant-esque is the comparison of a society to an orchestra, “a large number of people, all of them different and unique, each with his or her own ideas, personal convictions and visions of the world.”  If you are wondering if a hard critique and explantation of Maduro and his attempt to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution follows, you would obviously be wrong.  He instead goes on to excuse himself from those worthy of having a public opinions, “I have fought the urge to enter the political discourse, believing that it was not my role.”  But then, importantly, expresses that there is good demand for his thoughts, “Yet people have tried to read my past actions like tea leaves, searching for deep political meaning.”  This is basically a think-of-the-children plea for peace that has next to no actual substance.  You read it, understand that something terrible is going on somewhere in the world, and move on.  Dudamel omits any detail of actual people, or the origin of their suffering, or even a paint-cracked portrait of a Venezuelan’s actual experience.  His writing achieves the perfect balance of being something ostensibly important, but undeniably ignorable.

What can be deduced is that Dudamel can, at least sometimes, feel the weight of a political situation in the world.  We also know that he speaks up when he thinks a situation is dire.  So does he not think the situation in the U.S. is dire?  Maybe the U.S. just is not as close to burning down as Venezuela and he will write another op-ed about U.S. politics when Trump starts putting arm bands on brown people.  No one can hold it against Dudamel that he has a special place in his heart for his home country, but there is nothing humble or honorable about refusing to join the discourse.

Music history has plenty of political pockmarks.  Dudamel no doubt understands this, but he and people like him betray this history with the ridiculous notion that artists should not be commenting on politics.  Of course we all have the feeling that art and music is above mortal banalities like policy or political bickering.  But no artists muzzle themselves because their concerns for the material world might smudge art’s supernatural purity.  “Not my place as an artist” is just a known, accepted way out of voicing a hazardous opinion.  It is similar to a politician facing a question they do not want to answer and so they wriggle out by saying it should be up to the states to decide.  Everyone from Betsy Devos to Bernie Sanders has used this escape. It is strategic and dishonest.  Maybe in certain instances it is easier to be strategic than honest, but no matter what, we cannot confuse the two.  To even float the idea that it might be inappropriate for musicians to be political is silly and a-historic.  And it reinforces the notion that every cynical business-major has, which is that musicians are at best entertainers and at worst innocents who need to grow up and get real jobs.

Especially considering all those who are definitely not equipped to participate, but who do anyway, every literate person should feel it their duty to say something that needs to be said, even if it is unpopular.  Particularly if it is unpopular.

Even more toxic though is the purely fake political involvement that does not even correspond to a specific situation.  A total waxing-on after the fact. Esa-Pekka Salonen really knocks some platitudes outta the park in a promotional video for the Baltic Sea Festival.  “Now,” Salonen said, “in this complex and potentially dangerous world, it’s so important to have a festival where people can still come together from different parts of the Baltic region.”  But in a world where the Baltic states feel the specter of war with Russia, it probably is not important that, for example, someone from Estonia has the chance to travel to Sweden to see Peter Sellars direct Stravinsky.  At the end of the day, talk about coming together, making music together, breaking down barriers etc., is just the empty language of flyers designed to sell expensive tickets to expensive theaters that necessitate staying in expensive hotels.  This is not at all the same as being politically active or participating in any kind of conversation.  Worse still, it gives one the air of having been politically brave.  One can only hope that Salonen himself knows how truly inapt his comments were.

–It’s not just good for you, it tastes great too!

In order to participate in a conversation one must state an opinion.  John Adams did this with “The Death of Klinghoffer,” his 1991 opera about the hijacking of a passenger liner by the Palestine Liberation Front and their murdering of the 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. For a moment in 2014 opera mattered.  There were protests, media coverage, and Adams was being denounced as an antisemite.  It was great!

Despite ticket sales being distinct from all the other shows, Peter Gelb, whose hallmarks have been fighting the unions and wasting a million dollars on a ridiculous set piece for a cycle of The Ring, expressed disappointment in the opera. He remarked that the ticket losses at the end of the run balanced out the gain at the beginning.  See?  Controversy failed; subjects of debate don’t actually bring people in or generate interest. Of course this is the takeaway from the gerontocracy running an organization like The Met.  Heads of big organizations get spooked when they see the potential to be labeled an antisemite.  Especially old people who maybe aren’t used to being in such a position.  Fair enough.  And since the donor class that gives to The Met is old enough to remember the pre-salinated Dead Sea, Gelb was predictably risk averse. 

Never mind that the added ticket sales very well could have been the new audience that music creators talk about like the holy grail.  Klinghoffer was a huge missed cultural conditioning project.  Most people know opera as something boring that old people watch because of their doddery tolerance for entertainment.  Of course most people have never seen an opera.  They only know it by cultural reference, which is invariably negative.  On an episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon’s phone rings and her ringtone is Ride of the Valkyries.  The sophisticate with whom Liz was having lunch asks, “Oh you like Wagner?”  Liz replies, “no I like Elmer Fudd.”  That line was heard by more people on its original night of airing than the sum of five seasons of Metropolitan Opera goers.

Just like John Adams, many of the most famous musicians care a great deal about politics.  Or at least enough to donate thousands of dollars to candidates.  However, unlike Adams, most seem generally unwilling to advertise their opinions, i.e. use their platform to further their point of view. For example, if Yo-Yo Ma felt strongly enough about Elizabeth Warren to donate $2,500 to her 2012 bid for senate, why did he not openly support her?  I’m sure he wasn’t keeping it a secret per se, but if he gave some impassioned speech about her in 2012 when he was at Tanglewood, nobody seemed to bother writing it down.  Michael Tilson Thomas as well, who has given about $11,000 over the last 15 years to Democratic nominees, sure hasn’t gone out of his way to use his platform to seriously advocate for anyone.  Ditto Thomas Hampson who, save for a few tweets, hasn’t quite qualified himself as an activist.  Despite his seemingly passive quiet, he’s given about $7,000, over many, many donations, to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  It would seem as though he succumbs to an inordinate amount of the shakedown emails from the DCCC.

Renée Fleming however, who gave $2,700 to Hillary Clinton in 2016, seems to suffer just a touch less of that cognitive dissonance that makes someone donate large of sums to candidates but not tell anyone to go and vote for them.  Fleming did actually advertise her endorsement of Clinton in a music video called Fight Song.  The 2016 video, produced by Elizabeth Banks, features about 35 celebrities.  One of those celebrities is opera’s very own Renée Fleming.  She appears on screen from 1:44-1:47.  Literally three seconds.  But despite her embarrassingly obligatory inclusion, she posted it to twitter.  This is her only political tweet to date.

Different professions have different existential threats with different levels of urgency.  For example, one enemy of science is creationism. Creationists operate in the same political avenues as anyone else.  They are actual people one can argue with, vote against, etc.  If you are involved in politics in any way, it is because you have an enemy.  The arts do not have an enemy in the same sense.  There is no face that you can post on your wall to use as a dart board.  The enemy for art music is a bleeding out of public interest. 

But why would anyone be interested in the first place?  Someone who lives their life as if classical music does not exist will not be inspired by hearing a Chopin Nocturne one time at a TED talk so much that they feel compelled to buy tickets to a concert.  When someone who does not listen to classical music all they hear are changes in harmony.  They don’t hear the invention, or the orchestration, or the cleverness of the theme etc.  They hear in broad strokes.  They hear a general sound.  The same sound that they have in pop music.  They listen for that delicious chord change that gives them that little bump of euphoria.  But that’s not how classical music works.  Classical needs to be digested and appreciated.  How many people who, at first listen, hated Mahler, but then came around to understand his music.  This doesn’t happen with pop because that would defeat its marketability. When you play a Chopin nocturne with its poignant chords and chromaticism you are selling it as if it’s pop.  And if it is pop then people don’t need it.  They already have pop. 

If musicians want classical to be relevant, they need to be relevant themselves.  Imagine if a new Death of Klinghoffer came out every other year, and so every other year, every major newspaper had on its homepage an article about an opera that commented on something relevant to real people.  The composers, singers, and directors of those operas would probably start appearing on TV.  Or short of an entire opera just imagine any action or statement that would get Gustavo Dudamel, Renée Fleming, Alan Gilbert or whoever, on a show like Real Time with Bill Maher, Democracy Now, or any popular podcast.

If instead of his tepid response to the Trump question, Gilbert could have said something like, “Trump is a dangerous white supremacist who rather than shake up the system, has instead proven to be the essence of malignant corporatism.”  What if he commissioned a set of pieces meant to mock Trump?  Maybe all the proceeds would go to the Emergent Fund.  Maybe the pieces would be premiered outside of Trump Tower.  At minimum, the classical music community would be engaging in actual political activism. Classical music does not need any more credit card-sponsored music festivals that pretend to be humanitarian efforts.  Classical music does not need another multicultural youth orchestra pretending that kids of various religious backgrounds playing rep together is going to have any material affect on anything.  Classical music needs people who are willing to put some skin in the game.  It needs people who are willing to say things that are unpopular.  And it needs people who are willing to not engage in the kind of trending, ephemeral outrages that amount to nothing but distractions.  This is something that would make classical music relevant and it’s something that would launch this music into the greater dialogue.  Unfortunately, probably, there is no version of this that will ever materialize.  Instead, the big music institutions (and independent companies) will just continue ineffective ways to coerce young people into coming to concerts, while secretly complaining about millennial’s shortened attention spans.

January 31, 2018

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