Why can’t we have this kind of debate in American newspapers? Why does American critic and satirist Joe Queenan have to file with a British newspaper to write like this? The way things are going with American media, we need to start thinking like this.
You’d think newspapers would be a natural place for it to happen. You’d think newspapers, the big daily ones, not the small weekly ones, though we’re doing the best we can, would be leading the way in offering points of view on all things cultural, even the smallest of cultural niches like new classical music. In yesterday’s Guardian, Queenan wrote a long piece about just that.
His point? After a long time listening to it, he can’t really see the point anymore. In contrast, Guardian critic Tom Service says that Queenan is full of hot air, that there are plenty of audiences for new classical music, whether Queenan likes the music or not.
With newspapers evolving to the web, this kind of debate seems natural.
From Joe Queenan’s “Admit it, you’re as bored as I am“:
I started listening to classical music when I entered college, aged 17. Because of my working-class background, “serious” music was important to me – not only because it was mysterious and beautiful in a way the Rolling Stones were not, but because it confirmed that I had cut my ties with the proletariat and “arrived”. Over the years, this sense of membership of a cultural elite has evaporated: after attending roughly 1,500 concerts in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Paris, London, Berlin and Sydney, I no longer believe that fans of classical music are especially knowledgeable – certainly not in the way jazz fans are. American audiences, even those that fancy themselves quite in the know, roll over and drool like trained seals in the presence of charismatic hacks phoning in yet another performance of the Emperor Concerto. The public likes its warhorses, but it doesn’t seem to care how well these warhorses get played. They are particularly susceptible to showboaters like Lang Lang and Izzy Perlman and Nigel Kennedy; they turn out in droves to hear Andrea Bocelli warble his way through the Shmaltzmeister’s Songbook. These people may think they care more about music than the kids who listen to hip-hop, but I’ve been eavesdropping on their conversations for 40 years and the results are not impressive. They know that Clair de Lune is prettier than Für Elise, that Mozart died penniless, and that Schumann went nuts. That’s about it.
From Tom Service’s “Why Joe Queenan is wrong about new classical music“:
The problem is that Queenan seems to equate a composer making a “breakthrough” not with whether audiences actually go to hear this stuff – they do – but whether he likes it or not. If he doesn’t get on with it, that’s fine, but it makes the argument a soupcon self-aggrandising. And although he holds up the audience as the final, great arbiter of whether music survives or not, there’s some interesting language about the people who go to classical music, who are either “trained seals” or “brash young urbanites”. I’d be worried about sitting next to him at the Royal Festival Hall.
So, on to audiences. This is the biggie, Queenan’s clincher. From the way he writes, you’d think that any promoter putting on – shock horror! – a piece by Stockhausen, or even – perish the thought! – an all-Stockhausen concert, would be biting their nails in anticipation of a gaping void where an audience should be, and a hole in their finances that they would be paying off for eternity. In Queenan’s fantasy-land, perhaps this is what happens. But it’s simply not true in reality. At the Barbican and the South Bank for the last 20 years, Stockhausen concerts have packed the place out. And not just with “brash young urbanites”, either, but with people whose interest in contemporary art, in electronics, in pop, in sound-art, in architecture, makes them want to experience Stockhausen’s soundworld in the flesh.