As it happens, I’m actually pretty lousy at keeping up with what is presented by ‘the meejah’: so sick am I of being lied to by state-corporate news sources (the modern BBC being a particularly flagrant offender) that I mostly follow the so-called ‘alternative’ media — sources whose agenda isn’t being set by people with a commitment to imperial war, legalised larceny and environmental destruction. (It’s just a personal thing: your values may be different.)
Having said that, I do read the state-corporate stuff when people forward it to me — which is why one of this evening’s emails is responsible for prompting this posting. In fact, I owe a little ‘thank you’ to the friend concerned, as it’s jolly unlikely that I’d have seen this item had he not sent me the link — the reason for that being that the piece is in the faux-left, pseudo-liberal Guardian, which I despise for its pretend radicalism and its genuine elite-serving conformity.
Reluctant though I am to direct traffic to the paper’s website, you can see the article by clicking on this panel:
The reason I’m talking about the piece is that it connects with this blog’s developing thread about the ‘functional extinction’ of classical music — as well as with the question of what (if anything!) can be done to prevent (or at any rate retard) our art-form’s decline to a level of social and cultural marginality that will place it somewhere between women’s football and classical Latin. (No disrepect to female footballers or their fans is implied: I’m on your side.)
The relevant bit of the article’s text is as follows:
On a recent Friday night in Manhattan, around 20 people and one terrier gathered in the living room of an Upper East Side apartment to listen to a string quartet perform Beethoven, Ravel and Tchaikovsky.
The guests sampled cheese and wine – several had brought bottles to share – and asked strangers: “Is this your first time?” Four young musicians took their place with their instruments in the centre of the room while everyone else sat with crossed legs on the floor rug. When the sound of an outside siren hurtling down Park Avenue finally faded away, the performance began.
There are similar events to this performance, organised by Boston-based chamber music concert community Groupmuse, happening in New York, San Francisco and four other cities every week: intimate shows taking place in living rooms of all shapes, sizes and levels of cleanliness, a paradoxically homely and exciting alternative to traditional theatres, concert venues and comedy clubs.
And it isn’t limited to classical music. […]
My friend sent this to me because he thought I’d consider it a good thing that chamber music is being played in people’s homes. After all, that’s how chamber music started — and what the classical masters such as Haydn and Mozart envisaged: it’s only our own rather perverted concert culture that imagines ‘chamber music’ to be four people sawing away in the Purcell Room in an attempt to hit the back of a hall that seats 370 people…
And he was right — but only up to a point. You see, I have objections. My friend expected me to find in this article a possible means of escape from what I see as our repertoire’s death-spiral. In fact, I view the article and its contents as just another manifestation of the problem.
To see what I mean, you need to consider something that the article itself very revealingly conceals: money. Such concealment is perfectly standard for the Guardian, of course — at least when it’s in ‘lifestyle’ mode: columnist Polly Toynbee may use their pages to talk about our Establishment’s war on the poor and disadvantaged — but as soon as her turn as resident fig-leaf is over, we’re back to celebrating money and the making of money and the spending of money. (Hell, this loss-making rag has advertising space to sell: you think it’s going to be ‘compassion’ all the way through? The ‘compassion’ is to soften you up; then they sell you a gadget, a holiday, or an invasion — with all guilt removed. What do you think a newspaper is for…? News…?) As a result, the twin issues of wealth and payment are things that Darryn King’s piece obediently renders completely invisible: not only is there no indication of whether, how, or how much anyone gets paid, but you have to spot for yourself the fleeting reference to ‘Park Avenue’ — and do your own work finding out (if you didn’t already know) something about property prices and incomes in Manhattan’s ‘Upper East Side’…
I leave it up to you to imagine what kind of wealth- and income-bracket a city-dweller has to be in to be able to offer a domestic space big enough to hold 24 people, four music stands and a dog, and still have bowing room to spare — and not just in Manhattan, either. And whether the host is willing and able to pay a thousand dollars to a worthwhile quartet and then admit friends and carefully vetted strangers for free, or recoups the cost by taking fifty bucks from everyone who comes, the fact remains that what we are seeing is not any kind of widening of the cultural franchise: it’s another suicidal turn towards exclusion, barrier-creation, stereotyping and — in a society of massive and increasing inequality — the elite appropriation of yet another resource that should be an entire population’s automatic social possession. Thus it is that the kind of great art that ought to be shown on Sesame Street becomes a little bit harder to see from anywhere other than Wall St.
The way I interpret a development such as that described in the article (really a piece of vapid ‘advertorial’, rather than an article proper), is to see it as evidence of the art-music repertoire reverting to a state in which it is the court music of the super-wealthy. Celebrating chamber music’s triumphant entry into plush private apartments is a sign of its re-possession, its re-gentrification — and, if you’ll allow me to notice, its re-whitening: take a look at the photos on the Groupmuse site and count the non-Caucasian faces. (And when you’ve done that, go again through the whole article and pick out the lines that are really elite media code for the pleasures of ‘de-plebification’…)
Yes, we need chamber music in people’s homes — but it needs to be done the way I’ve done it, not the way it’s described by the lifestyle gurus of the Guardian — a paper desperately pinning its hopes for survival on reaching a wealthy US readership and the US advertiser base that will cater to it. For the benefit of the benighted souls who don’t read, learn and memorise my columns in Musical Opinion, here’s a brief mention of myself in an old paragraph on the rescuing of the classical repertoire though the encouragement of ‘grassroots’ domestic performance:
Pardon the burst of self-advertisement; but the simple fact is that you won’t see ‘the UK’s leading left-of-centre broadsheet’ soiling the minds of its elite readership with discussion of anything so culturally democratic and egalitarian…
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