Musicological Observations 5: Musical Crossover and Academic Interdisciplinarity (and Philip Clark)

A talk given by the critic and composer Philip Clark published online around two weeks ago (‘What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?’) has received much praise, and deservedly so. I should here declare an interest: Philip is a good friend, several of whose piano works I have played, with whom I have organised concerts, and who has also written about my own work; furthermore, I played at his wedding. So I am far from an impartial judge of his writing (though we have major areas of disagreement, not least on opera or Adorno), but I am confident I would feel the same way if I did not know him personally.

Most striking to me in Philip’s article is the following passage, with which I wholeheartedly concur:

Julian Lloyd Webber, now principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music, spoke recently of how we should consign ‘classical music’ to the dustbin of useless phraseology and – again – his use of language is revealing. ‘Musicians need to think outside the box and push boundaries, to work cross-genre with rock or jazz musicians, or be experimental,’ he said.

Putting aside that middle-management speak about thinking outside boxes, the very idea that suddenly you can ‘be’ experimental as a lifestyle choice is as dubious as the notion that you could suddenly have a sense of humour – or speak Japanese. Because to experiment with music in any meaningful way, you need to have a deep understanding of how it operates technically and emotionally.

What I’ve called in my writings ‘pretendy’ classical music serves up the spectacle of classical music – you see an orchestra or an ensemble on stage, you see opera singers producing vaguely operatic sounds as they open their mouths. But invariably tepid cross-over projects exist precisely because musicians have failed to grapple with the big questions at play here. Fusions of minimalism, ambient electronica, pop structures drizzled with world music ‘flavas’ – Karl Jenkins, Max Richter, Ludovico Einaudi, Roxanna Panufnik – have become a ubiquitous sub-genre with relevance to the future of classical music only in the sense that EL James is relevant to the future of the novel. No boundaries are being pushed at all. Instead, this is a corporate, boardroom idea of music designed specifically to shift units of CDs.

This is what few commentators have bothered to consider when lauding anything ‘crossover’ – that simply dabbling in a genre, extracting a few superficial stylistic elements in the manner of a tourist, does scant justice to a music which is sophisticated, skilled, historically varied, and with its own intricate social and cultural history. Many of the composers he mentions (and others) who plunder jazz for a bit of exotic colour are not significantly different to nineteenth-century orientalists who found the odd scale with augmented intervals, static harmonies or added chromatic notes in melodic progressions, would suffice to signify ‘the East’ and all it meant to a colonial mindset.

This is significant because Philip is a major writer on jazz and free improvisation (and a very talented improviser himself) as well as a writer on classical music. And it is because, not despite, this that he becomes so impatient with those who claim ownership of musical traditions with which they have only a passing acquaintance, but which he knows intimately.

But reading this again made me think about the relationship between ‘crossover’ music and the ubiquitous buzzword ‘interdisciplinarity’ in academia. I have written critically about this latter term before, arguing that in the case of music, research and funding pressure to demonstrate interdisciplinarity frequently has the musical content of the work as the first casuality.

There are however problems of a slightly different nature, as with musical crossover. There has undoubtedly been important scholarly work undertaken by social/cultural historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, physicists, even economists, on music, yielding insights and perspectives unlikely to have been attainable by many musicologists. But those doing these have a highly skilled and specialised training and expertise in those disciplines; in some sense they take music as their object, but rarely investigate sounding music to the level of close engagement one would expect of a musicologist. This is not a criticism; it is not what they are trained to do, and their attentions are better spent on other aspects of music’s social situation, physical properties, the wages of musicians, and so on.

I have spent a lot of time reading a large amount of historical scholarship – and especially a lot of historiography – and political theory in particular. I would like to think I have a reasonable grounding in historiography, after studying it for over ten years, sufficient to be able to think and write intelligently on the historiography of music, but this has been hard coming, and I know those engaged with historical writing at the centre of their work will always have a more intimate form of engagement. Similarly, others bring a long-term study of literature or philosophy or other things to bear upon their writing on music, with fruitful results.

But what I see in terms of much box-ticking ‘interdisciplinary’ work is much closer to what Philip describes in music. Much of this involves a handful of token references to one or other fashionable thinker (at various points it has been Jean Baudrillard, Mikhail Bahktin, Gilles Deleuze, and more recently Bruno Latour – see also this post with Judith Butler’s response to blanket application of canonical theorists). These are usually derived from secondary or tertiary literature, rarely entail an independent critical perspective on these thinkers’ work, let alone any familiarity with the wider critical tradition surrounding it. This is just scholarly tourism, a type of ‘fusion scholarship’. A handful of platitudes from an introductory cultural studies primer do not indicate a scholarly engagement with wider issues of culture, nor do a few tawdry mentions of some 25-year old work of sociology mostly disregarded now by sociologists in light of subsequent research make one into a sociologist.

To adapt Philip’s words: a musicologist cannot quickly become a philosopher or a sociologist or an historian any more than they can speak Japanese in the same amount of time. And tepid interdisciplinary projects exist precisely because musicologists have failed to grapple with highly developed scholarly and critical apparatuses in other disciplinary fields. Fusions of ‘bluff your way in sociology/cultural history/philosophy/etc’ with music have become an ubiquitous scholarly sub-genre which may win plaudits and advancement for their authors from others who either know no better, or are engaged in a comparably cynical game themselves, but are relevant to the future of musicology only in the sense that Katherine Jenkins is relevant to the future of opera.

Genuinely expert and skilled interdisciplinary work is important, and all scholars should read widely around other disciplines. But let us stop pretending musicians can become qualified to work within another disciplinary field without an extended period of study, any more than a cultural historian can quickly gain expertise in neo-Riemannian analysis when they approach it with little if any analytical background. Except to naive readers, a decorative smattering of terms from Deleuze does not a scholarly work make.


2 Comments on “Musicological Observations 5: Musical Crossover and Academic Interdisciplinarity (and Philip Clark)”

  1. There’s plenty to admire here, both in what you have written and in Philip Clark’s piece to which you draw attention, not least the passage that you quote in italics.

    One small issue that I’d take with Clark’s view is whether Lloyd Webber’s desire to “consign the term ‘classical music’ to the dustbin of useless phraseology” is quite as far from his own thinking as seems to come across at first reading; yes, the commodificatory aspects of certain ways of presenting ‘classical music’ are indeed all too often commercial-agenda-driven rather than in the interests of the music, its performers and listeners or indeed anyone at all other than those with the relevant agendas. Clark is also right to note that people cannot simply “think outside the box” in the sense of being able to engage at the drop of a hat with musics other than those to which they’re already accustomed (an unfortunate misunderstanding on Lloyd Webber’s part), but the abiding impression is that, by deprecating the term ‘classical music’, Lloyd Webber is sensibly trying to distance himself and his readers/listeners from the pervasive and divisive élitism that arises from the all too widely promoted notion that “classical music’s for the nobs” and that something has to be done to address this (by those with the agendas, of course – who else?!) – but, in so doing, Lloyd Webber appears to have missed part of the point. What dismays me here is the extent to which and the ways in which people are being discouraged from thinking for themselves and listening with their own ears, as indeed they are in many other walks of life.

    I find myself in agreement with all that Clark has to say about insidious “crossover” practices as a wilfully mind-numbing influence (my words, not his), not least in their cynical plundering of available musics on a pick-’n’-mix basis for the purpose of providing material, diluted to the point of utter insipidity, geared to misleading the unwary and inexperienced listener; Sorabji for one would have been 100% behind Clark’s statement about the pseudo-“orientalists” of the past, as his writings demonstrate.

    I also identify closely with what you yourself write about scholarly researches into aspects of the practice and reception of music by those whose disciplines are other than musicology, yet to your observation that “in some sense they take music as their object, but rarely investigate sounding music to the level of close engagement one would expect of a musicologist” – with which I agree – I am inclined to add that even some musicologists seem not to engage sufficiently with that “sounding music” to the extent of ensuring that their professional activities include not only concert/opera-going and listening to recordings/broadcasts but also actually performing, conducting and composing/improvising; certain branches of musicology seem to have rather more of a capacity than others to encourage, wilfully or unwittingly, such distance from practical musical reality, in the sense that, within them, musicological practice appears almost to have grown into a persuasion in its own right – indeed, the much-vaunted “academic interdisciplinarity” to which you refer might even be regarded as an unwitting breeding ground for this kind of outcome.

    Your terms “scholarly tourism” and “fusion scholarship” are very much of the essence in what you also rightly note as the invariably platitudinous origin of these essentially casual skim-readings of what is in reality a very large and profound subject indeed; their manifestations seem to me to constitute the academic equivalent of the soundbite. You write that “fusions of ‘bluff your way in sociology/cultural history/philosophy/etc.’ with music have become an ubiquitous scholarly sub-genre which may win plaudits and advancement for their authors from others who either know no better, or are engaged in a comparably cynical game themselves, but are relevant to the future of musicology only in the sense that Katherine Jenkins is relevant to the future of opera”; in this you have eloquently at a single blow hit several rusty nails on what’s left of their heads (and what is it with the name Jenkins?! – the 17th century John of that ilk must be turning in his grave!).

    To return to Clark, I am totally with his observation that “because we live in a culture…where visual stimuli are in the ascendant, sometimes at the cost of sound…sound is [widely regarded as] no longer enough” and “that sound can be judged as sound – that music is a worthy pursuit in and of itself is, in the most extreme cases, being casually dismissed [to the point that] classical music now must aspire to offer spectacle – whether a particular piece can take it or not”. In going on to bemoan Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s assertions that “musicians need to speak to audiences, to explain how a 90-minute Bruckner symphony hangs together” and that “it’s all about communication”, he exposes another current phenomenon whose origins seem to be in the notion of “everything but the sound itself”. While admitting respect for Nézet-Séguin as a conductor, Clark rightly deplores the belief that part of a performer’s duty is to tell his/her audiences all about what they’re about to hear and, much as I likewise respect Mark Elder, I am dismayed that he, too, is resorting to this; the likelihood that neither conductor intends to behave in a patronising manner in so doing is no excuse for drawing attention to themselves as verbal “ambassadors” rather than simply raising their respective batons and conducting what’s on the programme. Some 95 years ago, Delius complained in print about music that either required, or was thought to require, some kind of verbal explanation to bolster it was probably not good enough to stand on its own two feet as it ought to have been designed to do, but what he didn’t consider when writing about this (not that I’m criticising him for such an omission) was the situation in which musical intermediaries (i.e. the performers) allow themselves – or come to feel that they’re expected – to be goaded into thinking that what they’re about to perform is somehow incapable of telling its own story without their prior verbal intervention without which their audiences won’t otherwise get it.

    So much else that Clark writes, not least with reference to the wide-ranging music that falls under the general description “jazz”, also makes excellent sense. As with Lloyd Webber, though, I’m not sure that his disputing of Lebrecht’s argument that labelling of music can be destructive and misleading is quite right, really; what he (Clark) clearly aims to do is draw distinctions that exist but not in ways that are either divisive or might risk conveying to some the impression of mutual exclusivity as an acceptable phenomenon rather than the myth that it is.

    However, his statement near the close that “classical music ‘still has an image problem’ I find chillingly dystopian, the implication being that classical music will only stop having its image problem when it learns to conform to the fickle whims of fashion and of the market” again has much going for it. Again, Sorabji’s chapter Although no longer in the fashion in his 1932 book Around Music might suggest that he was already concerned about such a phenomenon in the first half of the last century; likewise, his chapter titles (and I refer here specifically to titles rather than detailed content) Attitudes of mind towards music and An enquiry into the claim that public taste in music has improved (also in Around Music) and Sentimentality and contemporaneity: with especial reference to music, The decline of music and musical taste in England and Modern popular music as part of a plan for progressive besotment (if perhaps you substitute “public music making” for “popular music” in this context) in his 1947 volume Mi Contra Fa might be seen as suggestive of some kind of confluence of thinking with what exercises some people today and to which Clark has eloquently and pointedly given voice.
    But I still question whether the nub of this issue is that ‘classical music’ really does have an “image problem”. If so, why? Any such “image problem” is not inherent in, or otherwise ascribable to, the music itself but to those who foist it on such music for their own purposes; indeed, I would almost rather suggest instead that the “image problem” belongs not to ‘classical music’ but to those who seem intent on marketing the idea of that “image problem” because they believe that it suits the pursuit of their cynical agendas to do so. I hope that this doesn’t sound like splitting hairs; it’s not intended to do so!

    I’m not convinced by Clark’s implication that all music needs to “push boundaries” at all times; I cannot now recall Schönberg’s precise words on this but their gist was that composers, whether conservative or radical, should believe wholly in what they do and why and how they do it and not be deflected from it – and I think that such a view was intended to express the idea that there’s room for both kinds of composer.

  2. […] Musicological Observations 5: Musical Crossover and Academic Interdisciplinarity (and Philip Clark)  (1/11/15) […]

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