Lately, I have been…

…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:

Right Here All Over (Occupy Wall St.) from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.


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.


  3 comments for “Lately, I have been…

  1. 10/09/2011 at 3:42 pm

    Really? You don’t hear the neo-Romantic drivel being performed by orchestras coast-to-coast as being corporate!? Wow. Alas.

    At any rate, I find this blog entry to be full of generalizations, one of which is this idea of “small-batch” Classical music and your characterization of Ke$ha, for instance. While it may not be traditionally “motivating” or “deep in meaning”, I find it to be extraordinarily revealing of our times. Ke$ha, Snoop, Britney, Lady Gaga can be as associated in the following manner: “drunk”, “pothead”, “slave (to music*)”, “purposefully flamboyant”, respectively … and each of them do it to escape from some form of their reality: “waitress”, “ghetto childhood”, “corporate childhood”, “cultural oppression”. In every case, these artists make their own declaration against a system, even if it’s not direct protesting … and then the culture-at-large dismisses their “escape measures” as the outcries of an entitled cluster of generations (Gen “in-between”: 1976-1982 and Gen “Me” 1982-Present).

    You have interesting points, but are just so quick to dismiss the “music of the masses”.

    Finally, your last statement, “In an unlikely twist, classical music has the potential and opportunity to be more relevant than it has been in at least a century.” begs the question: WHY would it be so? I’ve written papers on this topic and delivered at colleges across the US. You can listen to the first portion of it on my website … but in a nutshell, there exists an inverse colliery between what is “artistically relevant” (as per a very precise set of conditions not set forth by me) and what is “culturally relevant”.

    Maybe I’m a cynic, but I’ve seen and heard things out of our “world of composers” that make me shudder because of their unapologetic hubris and disregard for anyone other than the composer and the composer’s reputation. Anyone telling you differently is a liar.

  2. 10/09/2011 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, Brian. I appreciate your concern regarding my language pertaining to the “music of the masses.” I agree that one can glean important cultural and anthropological ideas from mass-culture music, although I would insist that this culture and the very archetypes that it embodies is highly controlled (and in large part, contrived) by large corporations seeking profit. I don’t question the artfulness of popular music, but I do question the motivation of its purveyors. As for the “neo-Romantic drivel,” there is a continuum of taste and talent in all art. Nobody has to like everything they hear!

  3. 10/11/2011 at 8:52 am

    One COULD say that -as I do – that ALL music that carries a label is the response to market stress. Beethoven 5 will always overshadow Crumb “Night of the Four Moons” because of said market influence. After all, which are you more likely to buy: a Hillary Duff – oops, I mean “Hahn” – interpretation of Brahms’ Violin Concerto OR John Everyguy and his realization of Berg ‘s Violin Concerto? Or even that same match up ad they’re both playing the same piece?

    People are creatures of habit. They’ll take the “guaranteed” version of anything over the untested – bit equally valid – interpretation.

Comments are closed.