Occupy Classical Music!

02/16/2012 1:24 PM |

Philip Glass at Occupy Lincoln Center
  • Philip Glass at Occupy Lincoln Center

On the first day of December, the Metropolitan Opera performed Philip Glass’ Satyagraha for the last time this season. Outside, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement—evicted weeks earlier from their home in Zuccotti Park—had gathered for a Lincoln Center demonstration. The opera’s revival was serendipitously timed, as it deals (less historically than expressionistically) with Gandhi’s time in South Africa, where he fought non-violently for the civil rights of Indians and honed the philosophy he would later bring to India. Gandhi of course went on to become a spiritual godfather to subsequent protest movements, including Occupy. The Met premiered Satyagraha this season on November 4, when the occupation happened to be captivating the city.

At that final performance, Glass paid his respects to both his paying and protesting audiences. He took a bow at curtain call, but earlier had been outside with the protesters, addressing the crowd through the human microphone. Some might write off Glass’ appearance in the plaza with cynicism—another member of the celebrity one-percent slumming with the protesters, offering up platitudes of support. But in fact, the Occupy movement has occasioned a small but growing body of literature by members of the classical world, critics and composers wrestling with their art’s place within capitalism, as well as the public’s misconceptions about that art.

Many see classical music, more so perhaps than any other art form, as the realm of a wealthy elite, a stereotype clearly at play in the coverage of a January incident, in which a ringtone interrupted a New York Philharmonic performance of Mahler’s Ninth to the consternation of the audience. “They were baying for blood in the usually polite precincts of Avery Fisher Hall,” ran the lede in the Times. But that’s just a stereotype. My favorite personal anecdote from Lincoln Center is the time I was sitting up in the top rungs of the Metropolitan Opera House during a particularly long Italian opera. Somewhere in the fourth act, two elderly women began whispering. “Would you shut the fuck up, please?” hissed a neighbor.

Obviously, Lincoln Center is a place where tuxedos and gowns are not out of place, and buildings and the back pages of programs bear the name of wealthy financiers. (The New York State Theater, only a few years ago, became the David Koch Theater after a gift from the notorious Tea Party underwriter.) But the idea that the entire institution, and the art it produces, is out of reach to the ordinary New Yorker is a fiction—a fiction, as Seth Colter Walls charged in the Awl in December, devised by purveyors of lowbrow.

At the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of “elitism,” and contemporary classical music’s supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture. They would prefer you not ever cost-compare a Family Circle seat to Satyagraha alongisde a 3D screening of Transformers 3.

The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross would add a few weeks later:

Yes, the most expensive seats at the Metropolitan Opera cost hundreds of dollars, but the highest-priced tickets for big-league pop-music and sports events generally cost far more, and the money in play behind the scenes of such mass-market spectacles makes the classical economy look puny. Bon Jovi have sold their most affluent fans V.I.P. packages costing in excess of eighteen hundred dollars. The net worth of Jay-Z, who owns a share of the New Jersey Nets in the company of the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, is considerably larger than the annual budget of the Met.

But the stereotype has its foundations in truth, starting historically. Beethoven wasn’t peasant’s music. (Though as Ross notes, “classical music in America reached its maximum popularity in the 1930s and 40s, when the country came closer to disavowing the capitalist faith than at any time in its history. One measure of the leveling spirit of the age was that millions across the land could tune in to NBC radio and listen to Beethoven symphonies.”) Most composers no longer have wealthy patrons, at least not directly—the model of subsidies by individuals has been replaced by an institutional, middleman system in which a composer or musician takes a commission from an arts organization, which gets much of its money from corporations and corporate-types in the form of a tax-deductible or status-boosting donation. As the composer John Halle notes in an essay on Arts Journal:

Accepting a commission from or performance by the New York Phil in no way implies that we are sympathetic with [its chairman's] activities—for example, the ‘sales’ of Lehman and Bear Stearns underwritten by the extortion of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. But it does mean that we have an indirect financial stake in concentrating wealth in the hands of one percenters like [the chairman] who provide the ultimate financial basis for our work.

The irony is that these patrons often subsidize radical work, not realizing that aesthetic radicalism often overlaps with political radicalism. “They will open their doors to it and—quite literally—invite us in,” Halle writes. “But when radical style turns into radical substance—that is, when it challenges the economic basis of elite prerogatives and privilege—the one per centers of today, as of generations past, are ready, willing, and able to replace the proverbial velvet glove of acceptance with an iron fist of repression.” In that sense, the one percent is classical music’s supporter, but also its enemy—the facilitator of its expression but also the inhibitor of its free expression. Where should the money come from, then? Walls, when discussing the elitism-fiction of classical music, suggests the state:

Resentment directed toward a class of experience whose accessibility remains a matter of loose suppression is, in turn, the tool of social conservatives who hate public arts funding as much as they dig budget-busting tax cuts for the rich. Were we to realize a more progressive tax code, America might even be able to establish a public arts infrastructure that could more easily do without the ego-boosting contributions from the likes of the Koch family.

Less than a year ago, the conductor Riccardo Muti gave a speech against Berlusconi’s cuts to the country’s arts budget from the podium in the middle of a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Rome Opera. “If we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost,” he said, echoing a line from the opera. It should serve as an example for musicians and listeners around the world: composers, occupy your institutions; conductors, your podia; musicians, your stage; audience members, your seats. The rest of you? Everywhere else.

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