Saturday, 26 May 2018

New musicology

On the classical music website 'Slipped Disc' (Norman Lebrecht) a review appeared of a new book in the category 'new musicology', a self-claimed description by its adherents which suggests that musicology as we knew it, is now something of the past and thus outdated, and that this new way of treating the 'science of music' is better embedded in the concerns of our time. Which are these concerns, as specified by new musicology?



I wrote the following comment:

To demonstrate where the thinking in this review leads to, here is a recent production - including CD - of a classical (! sic) music ensemble consisting of excellent musicians, who have fallen for the views as exposed in this 'new musicology':

"American Mirror reflects on the coming together of cultures in our society, which consists of many generations and descendants of refugees, slaves, and immigrants, and how intercultural collaborations are essential to the well-being of American society."

"Hope. Courage. Solace. Joy. Togetherness.
What do you hear reflected in this musical mirror?
American Mirror is worth a listen because:
- it will make you dance. (And maybe cry a little.)
- Derrick has his finger on the pulse of today's zeitgeist, and synthesizes this musically in beautiful, sincere, toe-tapping, unpretentious, and highly original ways.
- Salastina audiences begged for this recording to happen.
- LACO audiences gave 'From Here A Path,' the other piece on this album, a standing ovation two nights in a row at the premiere live performances this past weekend. How often does that happen to a piece of new music?"


And how does this reparative music sound?


No doubt it will temporarily repaire some social problems, bringing people together who need to be brought together but who are hopefully entirely unaware of what classical music, or even serious art music, could possibly be. As music, it is primitive, to say the least, and thus unintentionally patronizing towards the audience to which it is addressed - 'you are only good enough for this stuff'. Who wants to be 'repaired' by something so amateurish? Who wants to be treated by an illegal surgeon, or by an amateur dentist? We expect high quality skills for such professions, why not for culture?

Behind this 'new musicology' lies a particular vision about the nature of classical music which reveals grave ignorance, and that is the motivation of protests against such nonsense as can be seen in the comment section of SD.

How can objections against the instrumentalization of musicology be 'conservative' and 'parochial'? or merely be 'paranoid scholarship' (as described in the review)? It sounds like the accusations of  'formalist' or 'bourgeois' under the Soviet regime - talking about paranoia. Under the influence of PC culture, any professionalism is attacked because of the unfair exclusion of incompetence and nonsense, which also has the right to be heard, seen, and listened to, as if the internet is not enough.

It is sufficient to have a look at this 'movement's' godfathers:

Susan McClary looks at music as if they are social weaponry and compares the 1st mvt of Beethoven's 9th symphony with cumbersome rape.

Pierre Bourdieu sees music as merely being an 'instrument' of social distinction and as a weapon in the class struggle, the art form being annexed by the bourgeoisie in its ongoing attempts to suppress the proletariat, and the notion of 'high art' as a mere flimsy invention in this struggle.

All such thinking is by people who have only a vague idea of what classical music is, and try to use it as something it clearly is not, thanks to its nonconceptual nature. When they hear, say, a Mahler symphony they can only think: oh, the poor masses who are dominated by this patriarchal, white supremacy cult. No doubt many people who don't get the art form, think this way, and this 'new musicology' wants to make a career out of such incomprehension, surfing on the waves of populism. If they would have a better understanding, they might feel urged to find ways of making the art form more accessible for people who don't understand it, which is something very different from trying to force it into alien contexts.

Which does not mean that the observed social and cultural problems in Western society don't exist. But to think that classical music can only be useful in community building if it is degraded to the lowest denominator, is a serious misunderstanding - surely the art form can contribute to healing on whatever level, but not in such simplistic, unthinking and ultimately destructive way.

Maybe this would help to understand what classical music is - not a weapon in class struggle but an alternative world of experience to compensate for the often rude reality of life, in the widest sense:

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Addendum  28/5/18:

Musicology consists of  three different but interconnected territories: 1) the structural analysis of the notes; 2) biographical and historical research; and 3) the editorial research and analysis concerning textual correctness and sources (Urtext business etc.). The early music movement added another layer of related activity: how to use the results of these 3 types of research into performance practice. So, 'true musicology' has no need at all of marxist politization or 'queer theory' or 'feminist musicology' because such aspects are already treated under the umbrella of the above-mentioned territories of research. The difficulty with marxist, feminist or queer approaches is that the entire field is approached through an a priori political lens, distoring the material. It is turning a scientific subject into a political instrument. That is what is wrong with Cheng's, McClaron's and Bourdieu's approach: they have a political agenda and that is very clear from their work. They don't try to understand the subject but want to use the subject for an agenda which lies outside the subject.

For instance, it is perfectly clear within normal musicology that female composers - who have been very rare - did not get much chance to develop, as distinct from female painters, and digging-up some forgotten female composer from the 17th century will make the point, but that does not mean that suddenly the importance of the work of this composer should then be pumped-up to mount a defence of emancipatory freedom. That would be a subject for politics, not musicology. Historical research is meant to understand how things have been and why, which is trying to be objective and understanding. That is - in all historiography - already difficult enough, as our gaze is always influenced by our own historical position (which is shown by books about music history which get more confused and unbalanced the nearer the narrative approaches the date of the edition).


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