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Classy Music

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Classy Music

Blogger has an occasional bug that doesn't let me attach a tag, but if it did the tag would be "music and politics" because that is a recurring issue. My title comes from part of the post yesterday that discussed a book with the title Class, Control, and Classical Music by Anna Bull. Frequent commentator Ethan Hein had a lot to say spread over several comments so I felt it best to start a new post.

The problem with online discussions is that they often become so far-ranging that they wander into irrelevancies. So let me try and put a focus on this. My sense of the book under review and of the review as well is that they both adopt notions of collective justice stemming, I believe, ultimately from Marxian cultural theories. I believe this is the philosophical background to statements like:

 "...we need to disrupt the aesthetics of the music itself rather than continuing to produce perfect versions of the canonic repertoire. The boundary-drawing that I have described, which safeguards classical music’s cultural prestige, needs to be loosened, and the “treasures” guarded by it must be let out for us to play with."

Ethan assures us that both author and reviewer are dedicated classical music educators and I have no problem accepting that, but I do have a concern that a collective notion of justice underlies statements like this:

“how are musical institutions, practices, and aesthetics shaped by wider conditions of economic inequality, and in what ways might music enable and entrench such inequalities or work against them?”

If you have a collective notion of justice then talking in abstract terms about "conditions of economic inequality" shaping musical institution, practices and aesthetics might seem to make sense. But that is precisely what I question. Justice, i.e. moral desert is not collective, but individual because moral agency is individual. Now of course individuals can band together to achieve mutual goals and these may be just or unjust, but that determination is made in the same way that it is with individuals. Collective guilt or innocence is only present when there is some kind of unity of will and action. It emphatically does not apply to entire races or ethnic communities.

The notion of economic inequality is also a very odd one indeed. Economic inequality is present wherever there is an economy and it is only iniquitous when the result of iniquitous actions. In other words, the fact that one individual has more wealth than another is no indication of guilt unless that wealth was obtained in unjust ways. The great error of Karl Marx and his followers is to say that a whole class of people, like the kulaks, are guilty because they have more than the proletariat. Mind you, the practice of blaming whole groups in society for the misery of other groups has proved enormously useful for unscrupulous politicians, which undoubtedly explains its longevity.

Now it seems that I have wandered very far away from music, but I felt that the philosophical and moral context needed to be established.

It is characteristic of this kind of writing quoted above that moral agency is carefully veiled. For example, the assertion that "music" enables and entrenches inequalities conceals that fact that "music" does nothing of the kind. Only moral agents, people in other words, can enable and entrench inequalities. But inequalities are themselves morally neutral only taking on moral qualities when they derive from morally just or unjust actions. These are simple truths, but ones that the language conceals.

You can see how many words it took to address just a couple of brief statements. Alas, to take up all of Ethan's comments would take many, many posts, but let me look at just one:

"Pretending that music is apolitical, as the academy and performing institutions have mainly done in my lifetime, is itself a political stance."

First let me mention a basic division of labor in music scholarship: there are two separate sections in most music departments: theory and musicology. The terminology is a bit awkward because these two divisions are often found in an umbrella section called "music theory." Music theory, the sub-section, deals with the musical structures qua structures, though in recent years this has been extended to things like the psychological reception of music. But generally speaking everything having to do with the political context or implications of music falls in the realm of musicology. Musicology is sometimes defined as all study of music that does not involve composition and performance, but of course that would include music theory as well! But never mind, practically speaking theory and musicology usually occupy different turfs.

So it would be a foundational practice of music theory to ignore the political aspects of music, leaving that to the musicologists who would be concerned with those things. But both of these roles are scholarly ones and that is an important point. A musicologist would properly concern themselves with the political context, meaning, implications and so on of music. But they would not be an activist. The job of a musicologist might be to look at the history of, say, blackface or just racial or ethnic casting in opera generally and that would likely be a fairly complex project as it would also have to delve into a lot of things like the music and libretto, staging, and so forth. The musicologist might even recommend, for example, no more blackface, but that should be the outcome of research which was itself objective.

The activist phase would come from the producers of opera who might, based on research or simple moral grounds decide no more blackface. This is the way it should work. What I have a problem with is motivated reasoning, i.e. activist scholarship that sets out from the beginning to achieve political goals.



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