…thinking about the emergent protest happening in New York City, Occupy Wall Street. It all started with a colleague and sometime acquaintance of mine, Loren Loiacono (Twitter: @lorenlo), posting a link to Gawker’s article about the protest movement. Of interest is the video of life in the camp in Zuccotti Park:
Those who know me know that I abhor politics, which might be one of the reasons that I haven’t been able to get my mind off of the subject (I really oughta be composing right now, but this seems to be all I can think about at the moment). #OWS has been criticized for not being focused on a single issue, and for not aligning itself politically. I have always found traditional politics to be a very sophisticated form of distraction for people: we’re so busy reading, watching, and listening to whatever political crisis is being pumped through the airwaves that we fail to see that the sides look eerily alike, and that their messages are generic enough to be repeated over and over without any real progress for one side or the other. Rich people are the voices of both parties. What’s interesting to see is that this movement is largely (although not totally) about separations in socioeconomic status.
As a classical musician, issues of class weigh heavily on me. Classical music has always been associated with the wealthy, or at least with those of the uppermost class. It had always been thought of as “intelligent” music, and not intended for “regular people.” There has always been a popular music, in various forms, throughout the years, designed to be relatable/palatable to the unwashed masses.
Anecdotally, I like to say that during the 1960s, popular music started to become, for lack of a better term, elevated (I also like to say that The Beatles ruined classical music, but that’s only when I’m feeling cynical). Suddenly, the masses created meaningful music for themselves, which made for a dodgy situation for classical music. Classical music, which had always been archaic, no longer had a premium on intelligence. And classical music has struggled to find its position in the world ever since.
What strikes me as interesting that we think of the vast majority of popular music as corporate, meaning that it has “sold out,” or that it is designed to reap profit from the aforementioned unwashed masses. It isn’t designed to be meaningful, it’s designed to fill the radio silence in between ads. It keeps people shaking their ass in clubs, buying drinks, buying CDs, and it’s very good at its job. I know hundreds of classical musicians who, although being surrounded with the “smartest” of music, still can’t resist the urge to dance to Ke$ha. It’s a contradiction that many don’t think much about.
When I look at classical music being composed today, it’s music that is very far from corporate music. It is small-batch, localized, and usually without a slick veneer of marketing. Ironically, the classical composer working today resembles the protesters in Zuccotti Park much more than any music more widely available (and, ironically, much more than some of the music that they may be listening to during the breaks in protest). As a group, we’re unfocused, apolitical (except those who aren’t!), and unable to be pigeonholed, packaged, marketed, or sold. In this way, I feel a certain kind of solidarity with the people in the park, fighting the tendency toward homogeneity, and playing toward the sound byte, and the lowest common denominator.
What we need is a way to advocate for ourselves as a group, to show these people out there that we are making music that is like them; unique, complex, and not simply a repetition of our past incarnations. In an unlikely twist, classical music has the potential and opportunity to be more relevant than it has been in at least a century.