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Subject: "Anthony Tommasini is Wrong If...."
From: Genevieve Castle Room <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Genevieve Castle Room <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Thu, 3 Aug 2017 23:48:15 -0400

text/plain (117 lines)

A recent blog entry by Bryan Townsend.

A commentator alerts me to a piece by Anthony Tommasini
the New York Times on Trump's comment on the symphony. I appreciate the
heads up as I quit reading the New York Times back when snarky political
commentary started creeping into the Travel and Food sections. I have
already talked about Trump's defence of civilization in his speech in
Warsaw in a couple of posts, but let's see what Mr. Tommasini has to say:

>During one riff, Mr. Trump extolled the richness, history and, indeed, the
superiority of Western culture. “We write symphonies,” he proudly
proclaimed, as if to prove his point. Many commentators seized on the line
as a clue to the president’s thinking, his “white-nationalist
dog-whistling,” as Jonathan Capehart, a columnist at The Washington Post,
bluntly put it. But the president’s smug invocation of the Western
symphonic heritage also pressed a sore spot for me as a music critic.
Nothing impedes the appreciation of classical music — and keeps potential
listeners away — more than the perception that it is an elitist art form,
that composers throughout history, and their aficionados today, uniformly
consider it the greatest, loftiest and most ingenious kind of music. Few
classical music fans, in my experience, argue that the Western symphonic
repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or other types
of Western music.

It must be a terribly awkward position to be in, to have one's career
devoted to the critical appreciation of classical music but to have one's
soul riven by doubt as to its quality:

>"Eleanor Rigby,” I’d argue, is just as profound as Mahler’s “Resurrection”
Symphony. But the Mahler, scored for large orchestra, chorus and two vocal
soloists, is a whole lot longer, lasting more than 80 minutes. You have to
have a penchant for hearing large-scale structures unfold over relatively
long periods to appreciate classical music, though this can be an acquired
skill. It’s this large-scale quality, the sheer dimension of expression
that the master composers strove for, that makes classical music different.
This doesn’t mean it’s superior.

What would make it superior, one wonders? Better choreography?

That is just the kind of absurdity that we children of the 60s have been
indoctrinated to accept without question. It reminds me of the silliest
thing my professor said in Philosophy 101. We were talking about time and
he said, with a completely straight face, that whereas humans perceive time
as a linear continuum, for dolphins it is an expanding spiral! Honestly,
how would anyone know!?!?

What Mr. Tommasini and many of his colleagues seem to have are some
deep-seated neuroses about art, history and certain words. As an important
part of their role is to educate and shape taste, even though they might
deny it, this makes it difficult for them to say good things about
classical music. It is long and requires focus, therefore more difficult to
appreciate than, say, Eleanor Rigby. So if it does not offer a depth of
aesthetic experience commensurate with the greater challenge, then why
bother? Why indeed!

I think the problem is that the intellectual elite of our day, which
certainly must include Mr. Tommasini, have instilled in them a certain
ideology that commits them to a profound guilt about Western Civilization.
Part of this is an egalitarian ethos that erases all standards of taste and
quality. This is an unquestioned assumption that, if you sincerely hold it,
causes you to say that Eleanor Rigby is just as profound as Mahler's
Resurrection Symphony. Or, my favorite example, that Justin Bieber is just
as profound as Bach. Lady Gaga and Franz Schubert. Hey, we could go on all
day. This, by the way, is what we in the philosophy biz call a "reductio ad
absurdum <>."

Here is another manifestation of the ethos:

>Few classical music fans, in my experience, argue that the Western
symphonic repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or
other types of Western music. But with just three words Mr. Trump
buttressed this unfortunate perception. Did he mean that Beethoven’s
“Eroica” Symphony is simply greater than, say, an Indian sitar master
playing a classic raga? Or an exhilarating Indonesian gamelan ensemble?

Well, few classical music fans that are as deeply indoctrinated as Mr.
Tommasini, certainly. But whenever I see judgments like this I strongly
suspect that the author of them knows very little about North Indian music
nor Javanese gamelan. There is a fundamental difference between the way
those musics are composed and performed and the Western tradition in music
which takes on very different and much more profound aesthetic challenges.
Frankly, the doctrine of multiculturalism is pretty much a lie.


I see Bryan's point about all this but can't entirely agree with it
either.... One of the great traditions in Western thought is skepticism and
it's natural that some of that skepticism will concern... Western thought
itself.  "Classical music," like everything else is both a real thing and a
collection of unexamined beliefs including long, complex works and artless
Schubert dances as well as ghastly art songs by people we've never even
heard of... So much of the music we like best engages complexities,
ambiguities, and plays with notions of meaning, so taking strong stands of
issues that need to be delicately teased out eventually produces
knuckleheaded viewpoints of the kind offered by Tommasini.

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