The death of classical music, II: On whales and camels

Going off the rails
Norman Lebrecht has a lot of critical insight to share for those who care about the classical music scene (I don’t know if I do, anymore, but I do appreciate people caring). Recently (well, in January anyway — I’m slow) there were reports of railway stations in England playing classical music over the speakers, with the effect that the crime rate dropped dramatically.
“Wonderful! Behold the soothing effect of classical music on the human mind!” We’ve heard it before (“Mozart makes you smarter”, etc.).
Lebrecht comes to a different conclusion:

It works as a deterrent effect rather than a corrective one. Hooligans are not reformed by Mozart, so much as driven away by a noise that is as alien and hostile to their world as whale song to a camel herd.

there is not a jot of evidence to show that music can be made to work one way or other as a force of social engineering. The reports from peaked-cap inspectors at Elm Park, Whitley Bay and Sow Hill, as well as results from Canada and Australia, are anecdotal. They demonstrate only that in a limited area, for a short period, hooligans can be deflected by unfamiliar sounds.

I’m not saying that it may not be a good thing, and neither does Norman, nor the average traveller:

Travellers in musically protected areas say they feel reassured for their safety and culturally enhanced by the accompaniment to their waiting time.

So far so good. Music doesn’t make you a better person. If you like it, it may give you a good time, but the hooligans don’t become better people — they don’t disappear, they just move on to the next station, where there aren’t these strange, non-sampled sounds coming out of nowhere.
But to me, the most important question is: what does this use of music do to us, or to our appreciation of music? It’s related to the question why we don’t just DNA register the whole population — law-abiding citizens will have nothing to fear, and the positive effects are considerable. So why not do it? Well, because —

Music is a vast psychological mystery, and playing it to police railways is culturally reckless, profoundly demeaning to one of the greater glories of civilisation.

That’s why. Music and art are too important to be left to commoditifying and utilitarian officials, because they relate to how we think, and how we think to how we act. I say: musical structures can be meaningful because they resemble a language — the stylized sounds through which we think — and knowing them (and knowing them as such) can give us a glimpse from the outside of how language works, of how we think. But it is also a stylization of how we act: an aestheticization — a systematization into a framework of thought about physical acts — of common actions like walking, breathing, making love: a meetingplace for body and soul.
Now, after this cannonade of simplified aeshtetic theory, answer this: if music is a translation into sound of the patterns and tensions we live by as human beings, what does it do to your breathing (or your love-making) to be constantly surrounded by stylized versions of it, e.g. while you’re running to catch the next train?
I’m not saying the answer cannot be: “It does me good!” I’m just saying that as long as we can’t rule out that the consequences of this light-weight, ill-planned use of the materials of mind and body are potentially disastrous, I’d rather have my soundscape as clean as possible, as the default.
And crime rates? This isn’t a nice and cozy society we’re living in, as a rule, and don’t tell me that a little beautifying, some aural cosmetics here and there, will change that. The grim realities are that “Legalized abortion was the single biggest factor in bringing the crime wave of the 1980s to a screeching halt [during the 90s].” Not Mayor Giuliani’s efforts in New York, but the fact that “hundreds of thousands of prospective criminals had been aborted”, who previously had been brought into this wonderful world of ours. This is the conclusion that the Indiana Jones of economics and statistics, Steven Levitt, has come to in his book Freakonomics. Truly food for thought. Seen this way, legalized abortion is a self-regulating safety valve of a society — a political stroke of genius, albeit unplanned: let the poor buggers weed out their own scum before it even sees the light of day. Perhaps this is putting too much weight on links between socio-economical conditions, abortion, and crime, but at least it puts some huge issues on the table, and and the more I think about it, the more the thought of hearing music in trainstations makes me sick.

* * *

Norman Lebrecht doesn’t like this (ab)use of music either. He suggests an alternative: Look to Finland!

What are the Finns doing right? Every child in Finland is given an instrument to play from the first day at school. They learn to read notes on stave before letters on page. They spend hours at drawing and drama. The result is a society of with few tensions and profound culture. Finnish Radio broadcasts in Latin once a week.

Is it possibly as simple as that? Probably not, but it’s a nice idea.


3 thoughts on “The death of classical music, II: On whales and camels

  1. The problem — as it also came up in comments to “The Death of Classical Music” chapter I — is, of course, that the idea, as it were, of classical music is so undefined, yet in society in some situations (as the mentioned railway station practices) is used as an indicator of an especially soothing, calm, harmonious, “beautiful” kind of music. Taking up Mozart, one wonders if the same effects would be made by playing the judgment scene from Don Giovanni (which would be rather appropriate for the mentioned intention in terms of content — judging criminality…) over the loudspeakers as if they play (which they probably rather would do) the slow movement of the “Elvira Madigan” concerto (no. 21 in C Major K. 467). And – referring back to your first chapter — what if they played Stockhausen or Boulez… which, of course, they don’t. Actually, the effct might be the same, as it would seem to follow from Lebrecht’s analysis, since these sounds would be just as strange to the kind of listening communities chased away by soothing classical music. But, the point is, one probably wouldn’t think of using “that kind of” classical music; which most of all proves that the category “classical music” doesn’t work in such contexts. It probably doesn’t work at all, except as a historical term which we cannot completely disregard simply because it exists in so much commentary that we may still want to comment on.
    I agree with a much more fluid notion of musics. Even so, the social aspects of music life has — historically — created communities of listeners (dispersed communities, of course) which need to be opened and to open up to other communities, the music of which may be just as relevant, provocative, or inspiring for some participants of one community. This has — at least — been my own experience, having grown up in one such musical kind of “community” (that of “classical music” in a “version” including Stockhausen and modernism and even postmodernism, but still within a “classical” tradition. And it’s more difficult to transgress these invisible division lines than one should think (I think), but it is possible.
    Interestingly, Lebrecht’s and Eyolf’s ideas about the problems of the railway “abuse” of classical music seem — in some way — to reflect Adorno’s ideas of “responsible listening”. I don’t really disagree, especially if it mainly is directed towards the mentioned intentions (or the implicitly interpreted intentionality) but I also think one should be careful not to establish a feeling that railway station music (etc.) ought not to be of certain kinds. That might lead to a re-re-(…)-establishing of the division lines between “serious” or “unserious” kinds of music. In a way, I feel, it should be acceptable to misuse all kinds of music, even “classical”. Mozart in the railway station is fine with me, but simply because I like the sound of it, even when I don’t have the time or concentration to listen “seriously”.
    I DO agree with the thoughts about the importance of music, and the difficult epistemological suggestions implicit in your thoughts are intriguing. Precisely therefore, we must not loose the possibility for music ALSO simply to be something we listen to, enjoy, feel we need for whatever reason (or no reason) it might be.
    This is not said against your text, because this aspect IS present in it. I would only question how that aspect relates to the other — and after all more emphasized — one concerning the (structural, language oriented) meanings of music. I may have gone further in this than I can justify, but — then — it’s just a comment, off the bare “top of my head”. Thanks for a stimulating text! Nils Holger

  2. And thanks to you for a stimulating response. Some short reflections: I agree that there shouldn’t be any (artificial, as we both agree) rules concerning which kinds of music may be abused and which may not — Mozart is neither better nor worse than Madonna; but I don’t think “it should be acceptable to misuse all kinds of music, even ‘classical'” — I’m opposed to all kinds of abuse; in that sense you’re right that I’m in agreement with Adorno: in the sense that culture, life, art, are serious stuff (where I disagree with Adorno is in the attitude towards popular culture: I consider that serious stuff too).
    “We must not loose the possibility for music ALSO simply to be something we listen to, enjoy, feel we need for whatever reason (or no reason) it might be.”
    Agreed, but implicit in the ALSO is that music ALSO is something else, or that using it in non-committing ways ALSO has other implications. In this situation, there is a profound difference between using something privately, and forcing something onto others, thereby making the decision “is this good or bad?” for them.

  3. Oh yes, indeed! I am not at all in disagreement with the other “also”. The only remaining problem I think is the concept of “misuse”. I do agree that music is a serious “business” and can be used at several levels; and that there is also seriousness in the non sofisticated or non intellectual uses of music. Absolutely!
    But what does it mean, then, to misuse music. Based on your last comment, I would say, a misuse would be a matter of using music with the object of changing people – ultimately like what happens in “A Clockwork Orange” only with Beethoven there, and with the crucial twist that the use consists in using music which has apparently been associated with violence beforehand (by the way, did Susan McLary get her Beethoven interpretation from Anthony Burgess?) to create nautiousness and thus indirectly lead to the “Mozart result” of the intended railway music (ab)use situation.
    BUT: 1/ I am not sure how easy it is to make delimitations between abuses of music and good or acceptable uses. In extreme intentional situations like the described, it seems easy, but music used in educational, religious edificational and culturally edificational contexts may – in the end – not always be that easy to separate out. 2/ Even the intentions highlighted around the railways station situation would, I assume (or maybe I should rather ask, since I really don’t know) be an interpretation based on an after-rationalization rather than something specifically known about the authorities who decided the use of the music. Or are there really documented situations where authorities specifically have used music with the intention of influencing social problems? If so, I’d gladly agree that it would be an abuse. But what about the parents who believe that it is good for their child to be brought up with a relation to music? I agree with you that you don’t become a better person through music. But then I am not quite sure what a “better person” is, and I can imagine (and probably know or have known) people who would think of music as something that does make you “better” and have used it accordingly. Didn’t Plato think in such terms also?
    In other words, my point is not real disagreement but a concern about the consequences of “seriousness” if it is made into any kind of criterion.
    But I did have trouble with the use of Beethoven in the plot of “A Clockwork Orange” (only glad it wasn’t Mozart…) – that’s not a critique of the book nor the film which – as I understood it – shares that critique.

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