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.