Some thoughts on classical vs. popular music from pianist Peter Donohoe

The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.

The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.

I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).

 

The following is Donohoe’s response:

This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’

It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.

However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.

By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?

Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.

 

The following is part of my response:

The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:

‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’

Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.

 

‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”

And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’

Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.

 
‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?

Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’

Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.

 
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’

Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.

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Call to speak out on bullying and psychological/emotional abuse in music

In the last few weeks, more stories of sexual abuse in musical education, including new convictions, have come to light – I will be posting a summary of these later. But the subjects of bullying and psychological and emotional abuse, whether in musical education or the wider musical world, are easily sidelined and viewed is marginal in this context. They are not, and can be just as damaging as sexual abuse. A respected journalist in whom I have 100% faith will be preparing an article or articles looking at this wider and neglected (in part because not directly criminal) issue. I am posting this to invite anyone who would like to talk about this, either in terms of their own experiences or of things they have witnessed, or general perceptions, to contact me on ian@ianpace.com . Absolutely confidentiality is guaranteed, and will be guaranteed if you seek to talk to the press on the subject.

There are too many ruined lives, wasted careers, cases of depression, self-harm and even sometimes suicide because of the callous and malicious acts of others who are protected by the aura of the classical musician. Please help to raise public awareness of these things, in the hope that in time there will be real pressure for change.

Emotional abuse is not always recognised for what it is, and there has been much less attention paid to it in an educational context. Here is an important article considering the subject, and here is an earlier scholarly article. On bullying at work, I recommend this site, this and this; and see here for bullying from teachers. The subject of bullying in the classical music world has hardly ever been addressed seriously; here is an interesting online discussion on the subject.


The whiter-than-white world of published British composers, and some wider thoughts

Following my last post on the British Composer Awards and race, I thought I would investigate figures for published British composers. For this I have drawn upon the catalogues of all but one of the major British publishers – Boosey & Hawkes, Faber Music, Music Sales, Peters Edition, United Music Publishers, Universal Edition and University of York Music Press. Reasons of time have meant I had to omit Schott Music for now, as their website does not separate out contemporary composers from everyone else from any era, whether composer or author, who has composed a work, authored an instrumental tutor, played a part in making an arrangement, and so on, producing a list with many hundreds of names through which to navigate. I have limited this study to living British composers – in the sense of being British-born or having adopted British nationality. I have also omitted composers who have only had the odd work published, the majority of their work being self-published. The following results emerge:

Boosey & Hawkes
10 living British composers, all white

Faber Music
There are five sub-categories:
House Composers: 14 living British composers, all white
Educational Composers: 16 living British composers, 15 white.
Film/TV Composers: 15 living British composers, 14 white.
Music for Now: 13 living British composers, all white
Rock & Pop Composers: 5 living British composers and two outfits, all white.

Music Sales
32 living British composers, 30 white.

Peters Edition
9 living British composers, 8 white.

United Music Publishers
9 living British composers, all white

Universal Edition
3 living British composers, all white (they have published some others in the past, who have now withdrawn their scores)

University of York Music Press
25 living British composers, 24 white.

Out of a total of 151 published living British composers, all but six are white. This constitutes a figure of 4%. Of those six, two are educational or film/TV composers. Only three British-born composers who are not of white origin are published. This constitutes a figure of 2%. According to the 2011 census, 12.9% of the British population do not belong to the ‘White’ category, so the ratio for published composers falls very significantly below that in the wider society.

I would not wish to single out publishers for particular censure, but would argue these figures are symptomatic of a deeper issue. From an informal survey to myself of published composers in other European countries, the situation is little different there, including in countries with significant ethnic minority populations. The world of contemporary composition (including, it would seem, more commercially-oriented composition) appears to be one of the ‘whitest’ fields around, certainly compared to some other artistic disciplines (compare published novelists, for example).

An argument I have already begun to hear since my last post is that which maintains that there is really little interest in contemporary composition outside of white communities (except perhaps amongst some East Asians) and so the current situation is merely reflecting the reality. But this is not so far from similar arguments relating to gender, based upon the fact that composition courses are frequently disproportionately male as well (certainly compared to courses in performance). That argument was the basis for complacency with respect to gender, and it is just as complacent with respect to race (and class, about which it is harder to come up with hard figures, but where I suspect the situation might be equally if not more problematic, and more so today than at a time when composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies or Brian Ferneyhough were able to make a career).

In university music departments at which I have taught or guest-taught, there can (sometimes) be an ethnic mix not so far removed from that in the wider society, and on many courses students are required to study at least some composition. It should at least be reason for concern and questioning that such a tiny number of these ever emerge into the professional composition world. In other fields, there might be concrete action involving educational programmes to try and persuade some young people from minority backgrounds that such fields should not be perceived as essentially for whites-only, just as there have been initiatives to encourage women composers.

Furthermore, the fact that commissioning and programming policies, and principles of public subsidy in general, vastly favour musical work clearly located within white European art music traditions (as witnessed in terms of musical style, instruments used, type of concert settings employed and associated rituals, and so on) also serve to lend music traditionally belonging to the white middle- or upper classes a level of state-sanctioned prestige which is not generally available to other traditions to anything like the same degree. Something of this issue informed the petitions and counter-petitions about the commissioning policies of the organisation Sound and Music which took place in early 2012 (see this link for the original petition (speaking disapprovingly of how SaM ‘has pledged to
continue promoting ‘Electronic and Improvised; Noise and Art Rock; Notated and Modern Composition; Sonic Art; Multimedia and Cross Art Form; Jazz, World and Folk; and Alternative Rock & Dance’’ and this for the counter-petition).

The very concept of ‘classical music’ (a tradition in which, of course, I am myself as a musician and academic deeply emerged, and would hate to see fade from public life), as distinct from other genres and traditions (the term as used in the West does not generally incorporate other non-Western forms of musical high culture, which are sometimes elsewhere called ‘classical’) needs to be re-considered, and the relationship of new composition to this tradition similarly questioned, at least in terms of aesthetic priorities. In many ways the product of a variety of late eighteenth-/nineteenth-century trends – including nationalism and consequent need to frame national musical traditions, responses towards (and frequently against) the growth of mass culture as a consequence of expanding cities and new lower middle classes, decline in feudal institutions such as had previously supported art music – the concept of the ‘classical’ in music has deep resonances both of class and of race.

For music belonging to or relating to this tradition to continue to be something worth supporting and defending in a modern multicultural world, and it not to decline into something irretrievably archaic, requires in my view that we begin to address seriously the ways in which it has been connected to other forms of social exclusion and discrimination. There is absolutely no reason why musical work considered to be ‘art’ (as opposed to entertainment, for all the problems inherent in this opposition), in terms of being exploratory, challenging, demanding, aesthetically refined or otherwise distinctive, and so on, should be any more associated with Western high cultural traditions than any others – and the frequent conflating of the classical/popular dichotomy onto that of art/entertainment only serves to feed misapprehensions in this respect. But with a widened concept of ‘art music’, inevitably that more traditionally considered ‘classical’ may have to share some subsidy and other resources with work from other traditions – and the targeting of large sums towards traditional concert halls and series, opera houses, and so on, for new commissions, may also have to be rethought. To some extent this may be happening to a small degree (including with organisations such as Sound and Music), and musical education has for a few decades gradually started to catch up with major curricular questions for the discipline in a multicultural environment. But a wholesale re-negotiation of policies concerning subsidy and institutions would likely meet with fierce resistance from defenders of traditional notions of classical music, and probably indeed also from many musicians who personally benefit from the preservations of those values and institutions. I would however personally welcome and urge reconsiderations in this respect.

Once again, it is possible that I may have made a few errors in my data, and would welcome any corrections. I hope at some point to add some figures from Schott to the list for the sake of greater completeness.