Yearly Archives: 2011

A Journey to the End of Taste: Part II

This is the next entry in a series of conversations with my good friend Eric Benson at Inverted Garden.  You can read my original post here and Eric’s response here.  Prompted by Carl Wilson’s “A Journey to the End of Taste“, Eric and I are trying to untangle issues of taste, venue and class as they relate to classical and jazz music.

What drew me to classical music?  It’s hard to say for sure.  As a young child, I loved rock music, especially Elvis, The Beatles, and Nirvana.  I spent many hours singing along with their songs, but I also played a stringed instrument (the viola) in school, and I started to develop a taste for, and an imagination about, the music we played in orchestra.  My mother was an appreciator of classical music if not an avid listener, and with the tapes and records that she kept in our basement, I got into the habit of listening to classical music at home.

I was about 12 or 13 years old when I got hardcore into classical music.  I learned later from my composition teacher in college, Easley Blackwood, that this was a very common age for such a pronounced taste to develop.  He said that it was usually prompted by the performance of a Big Work – something like Beethoven’s 9th or Verdi’s Requiem.  I can’t pinpoint my interest to any single event or piece, from that point on, classical music was an all-consuming passion for me.

In 7th and 8th grade, I felt a certain reluctance to divulge my taste in classical music to my peers.  Though my taste seemed perfectly natural to me, I knew that it was not exactly normal and that it would cast me as a bit of an oddball (as if I needed any more help with that).  I can even recall one of my friends telling me to keep it a secret, because classical music wasn’t cool.  I guess that says something about classical music’s place in a society based entirely on social capital.  Or maybe just something about a bunch of lame suburban middle-schoolers c. 1995.  [Eric: Were you ever reticent as a boy to out yourself as a jazz aficionado?  My guess would be not.]

Even in the world of average, ordinary adults, classical music doesn’t always hold a lot of social capital.  In fact, it often doesn’t hold much social capital in the world of literate, sophisticated adults.  These are the so-called “culturally aware non-attenders“: people who read contemporary literature, dine out, frequent museums and art house cinemas – but steer clear of the concert hall.

These are, ostensibly, the kinds of people that Greg Sandow has been talking a lot lately about in his posts on outreach in classical music.  He notes that we tend to focus a lot of our efforts on underserved communities, mainly comprised of ethnic and cultural minorities.  But, he asks, why not spend more of our time trying to recruit people “like us” who would be a more obvious target demographic?

Mr. Sandow’s goal may be to ensure the future of classical music, but I think there’s more behind this notion: namely, a desire to inflate the social capital of his own taste among his peers.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that – in fact, I’d say it’s as natural an inclination as you’ll find – but perhaps this says more about where classical music IS than where it’s headed.

Musical taste sits at this weird nexus of personal feeling, universal aura, and the social friction in between.  On an individual level, we each enjoy “our” music viscerally, deeply, emotionally.  Carl Wilson makes sure to point out in his book that musical enjoyment is a very real phenomenon.

Ironically, it’s because of this palpable, physical experience of enjoying music that we assume our music should – nay, must – be enjoyed the same way by other people.  Music is one of those rare media that really can break the boundaries between peoples’ souls and shed light on the experience of what it actually feels like to be someone else.  (David Foster Wallace always talked about this phenomenon with novels).

But this can create a frustrating dissonance when other people don’t share our passions and proclivities.  I have seen people get their feelings sorely hurt when their friends mock their taste in music – or even hint that they might not share them.  Musical taste seems to require social validation like few other brands of taste.

I think I got off topic there (or maybe on)… so, why do you like jazz?  I’d say it’s just because you like it, because it makes you feel good.

But if I were to play Dime Store Psychiatrist (and isn’t that really the point of this entire series?) I might look at it this way: you grew up New York City, but you lived in a Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side, and you attended an all boys private school.  So despite the fact that you were in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, your person experience of growing up in New York wasn’t all that much different than a boy growing up in, say Leonard Bernstein’s New York of the 1940’s.

In other words, by sheer coincidence of birth, you became part of the one demographic that still held onto the romanticized view of jazz clubs as louche dens of cool.  Not to mention, the only demographic for whom such connotations even held any appeal.  Where else were you going to get your kicks and establish your independence?  Your taste in jazz is merely a manifestation of half a century’s worth of cultural boundary crossing.

A brief response to your claim about classical music institutions: It’s true, we classicists do have a leg up on you jazzers, in that our institutions have clobbered the public with the idea that classical music is somehow good for a person, and that classical concerts are somehow enriching.  We even send our school kids on field trips to the concert hall.

It seems to me like a big problem with jazz is that it’s neither promoted as being “good for you” nor is it commonly viewed as being “bad for you”.  Would you agree?  I’d also like you to imagine an elementary school field trip to a jazz club matinee and what the educational benefit of that would be.

Pirate Jenny

OK gang, it’s time for some Halloween fun: which of these five fabulous divas makes the best Pirate Jenny?

1. Lotte Lenya

2. Nina Simone

3. Marianne Faithfull

4. Bea Arthur

5. Hildegard Knef

Before you cast you’re vote, I would just ask that you not to be swayed by the fact that three of these ladies have videos, one is singing in German, and one is singing an alternate (and far superior) translation of the text.

Only an evil genius would pit these ladies against one another.  Happy Halloween.

In other news, I’m I’m busily assembling a new recording of a new piece I recently composed. It’s a cantata, a setting of the 46th Psalm using the rare and beguiling Young’s Literal Translation.

Making a recording takes a lot of money, so I’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to try and raise some funds.  Perhaps some of my readers would consider kicking in.  I’d certainly be grateful, and at the very least, you’d get your own mp3 copy of the piece!

Here’s the link: Recording of Psalm 46, a new cantata


Björk just released the album credits for Biophilia, her latest album, on her web site.  As I postulated in my post about the new work, Björk was indeed the impetus behind all the musical elements on this album, having written the brass, choir, and organ arrangements herself, and having done the lion’s share of the producing.  That’s not to take anything away from her numerous collaborators, whose contributions were clearly invaluable.

One of the interesting things I learned from reading the credit roll is that Björk came up with the concept (if not the execution) for all of the newly invented musical instruments on this album except for one: the Sharpsichord:

The Sharpsichord, also known as the Pin-Barrel Harp, is the invention of an English musician and engineer named Henry Dagg (duly credited on, I might add).  He invented the instrument for a folk music sound installation in Kent, after which it seemingly had no further use, and could no longer stand to live in the out of doors.

If you’ve listened to Biophilia as many times as I have now, the sound of the instrument will no doubt be familiar from the song “Sacrifice“.  The instrument is basically an enormous, many-geared music box that activates a set of harp-like strings, and, strangely, has a sort of shamisen-like vibrato.  It’s shocking that this instrument wasn’t custom-engineered for Björk, given that it incorporates all of her favorite things.

Here is Mr. Dagg himself performing on the musical saw with sharpsichord accompaniment.  I’m hard pressed to think of a stranger music video on the internet.  His eyes tell the whole story:

A Journey to the End of Taste

This is the first installment in a co-blogging project with my friend and fellow blogger Eric Benson at Inverted Garden.

The first thing Eric and I have decided to do is a book clubish reaction to Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, which you won’t have to have read to follow along, but which would be well worth reading for your own enjoyment.

The premise of the book is this: Carl Wilson is a rock critic who sets out to examine the elusive concept of Taste – what it is, how we form it, and how it has been analyzed by various philosophers and sociologists over time.  Mr. Wilson uses his personal aversion to the music of Céline Dion as a case study, examining just what it is that’s so inherently distasteful to him (and many others) about her music while her many millions of fans live and die by it.

Now, Eric’s sphere is mainly Jazz, and mine is mainly Classical, and we’re trying to look at what might link the two and where they diverge.  I’ll start off with a commonality: both genres share a general lack of public interest.  [If you need proof of this, note that the same lame public radio stations tend to play both.  And folk.  But that’s another story.]  As such, people involved in both genres tend to think/worry/bother a lot about the public’s taste, since we’re always looking to convert new followers (with missionary zeal, in the case of the classical establishment).

Here’s a quote from the book, in which Carl Wilson discusses some ideas of the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu:

One of Bourdieu’s most striking notions is that there’s also an inherent antagonism between people in fields structured mainly by cultural capital and those in fields where there is primarily economic capital: while high-ranking artists and intellectuals are part of the dominant class in society thanks to their education and influence, they are a dominated segment of that class compared to actual rich people.  This helps explain why so many artists, journalists and academics can see themselves as anti-establishment subversives while most of the public sees them as smug elitists.

People go to hear live classical music for a lot of reasons: because they love it (what we might call pure taste); because they want to be seen loving it (social capital); because they want to be seen (economic capital).  Allow me to explain those last two: the social capitalistas seek to gain status in society by embodying an image of genuine Lovers of Art.  These are the people who go shh! The economic capitalistas go because the symphony hall and the opera house are socially acceptable meeting grounds for their particular set; music is an afterthought, and it does no good or damage to their reputation whether or not they appreciate it.  These are the people being shh!ed.

[BTW, when you are a master of the half-turn, as I am, there is no need for audible shh!ing.]

Institutions talk a good game about trying to build new audiences, but few are willing to take any risks that would alienate their reservoir of financial support, which includes both the economic and social capitalistas.  Of course, what these institutions really want is to keep doing the same thing and have droves of people love it for the very same reasons they do.

Alex Ross had something interesting to say about this:

[Classical music] exists off the radar screen of the major media. It’s actually kind of exciting when you think about it. If I were in the business of marketing classical music to younger audiences, I’d make a virtue of this. Classical music is the new underground.

One thing I don’t understand is why more classical institutions/musicians won’t capitalize on the growing sonic connection between “indie” music of various sorts and their own.  String arrangements have been all the rage for at least 10 or 15 years, and lord knows Sufjan has gone a long way to popularizing the oboe.  Shouldn’t classical musicians be making a huge virtue of the fact that tons of young, educated, musically interested people are primed to listen to acoustic music-making like never before?

This is getting long, and I’d like for Eric to jump right into the conversation, so I’ll end with a Charlie Rose style question for him:  Jazz has a much larger swath of the population who stand to gain social capital from an appreciation of the genre than does Classical, largely because it’s more fetishized as a commodity.  Elderly black people in the suburbs and the Williamsburg-Wicker Park-Silver Lake set can make their friends think they’re hip when they play Miles or Ella at their backyard picnic.  Yes?