Greg Sandow — that unrelenting, wolf-in-sheep's-clothing, mortal enemy of classical music and cheerleader for pop culture trash — posts an eMail from "bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, [and] speaker" (as he bills himself) John Steinmetz in which eMail Mr. Steinmetz mounts a sober-sounding but subtly sophistic argument to explain why classical music has lost its high-pedestal status in our culture. It's because it no longer meets our culture's needs. "[O]ur culture has changed, as cultures do, and its musical needs have shifted," argues Mr. Steinmetz.
Mr. Steinmetz continues,
If classical music's ability to speak for the human spirit once appeared unlimited in scope, now the music appears to have limitations. It may not speak for everyone; it may not speak about everything. We can still admire, appreciate, and love classical music, and support it, while also seeing that it does not quite fit society's current self-perception and that it ignores some important issues.
So, it's a failure of classical music, not culture's failure, is it?
And in what ways has classical music failed?
Here are a few ways in which classical music — the music itself, not its mode of presentation or its role in society — has, through no fault of its own, fallen out of step with current values. While humanity struggles to rethink our relationship with the rest of nature, classical music, with its focus on human emotion, is mostly silent about that crucial current issue. While our culture is working to shed old baggage about gender, classical music narratives often emphasize a triumph of "masculine" energies over "feminine" energies. (Even music theory uses gendered language like "feminine endings" — see Susan McClary's wonderful books for more on this. In keeping with its predominant musical values, composers, conductors, and other power figures in classical music are still mostly male.) Recent thinking about community and interdependence does not fit well with classical music, which instead provides wonderful expressions of individualism while relying on hierarchical musical structures.
Classical music's emphasis on momentum — its special ways of mobilizing harmony toward a goal — biases it toward narratives about motion and development, and weakens its ability to provide other kinds of essential narratives.
On reading this, one struggles to keep reminding oneself that Mr. Steinmetz is here writing in dead earnest, and not in his self-described capacity as satirist, here engaged in deftly skewering some of the Left's most mindless utopian and equalitarian shibboleths; a struggle made a bit easier once one learns that Mr. Steinmetz is a born, bred, and still-resident Californian ("born in Oakland ... grew up in Fresno," and currently resident in Los Angeles), the only surprise being he matriculated and graduated California Institute Of The Arts, and not UC Berkeley.
But let us move on.
In his essay, Mr. Steinmetz enlists a metaphorical argument that analogizes the truths of Newtonian physics to the musical needs of the culture that revered classical music, and our contemporary culture's musical needs to the truths of the physics of relativity. We've progressed, you see, from Newton's limited truths to Einstein's cosmic ones.
The shift [in culture's musical needs] reminds me of the change in physics in the early 20th century. Before that change, Newton's laws appeared to be universally true. But discoveries by Einstein and others made it clear that Newton's laws apply only to certain phenomena. The status of Newton's laws changed. We still can feel awe at Newton's achievement, we still learn his laws, and they still are very important, but we now see that these laws are limited in scope.
Newton's laws are part of a larger picture.
Uh-huh. Well, if Mr. Steinmetz insists on using that metaphor, it would better have been used as a metaphor for the music itself rather than for the shift in musical needs from an earlier culture to a later. In that former capacity the metaphor would, of course, need to be reordered 180 degrees to reflect the reality of the matter which is that our contemporary music has regressed to Newton's limited truths even in the face of music having earlier — much earlier — already discovered and held within its grasp the cosmic truths of Einstein.
But be that matter as it may, Mr. Steinmetz wants to assure us he's not dissing or dismissing classical music.
Classical music, like any music, reflects the values of the culture that produced it. It's no surprise that it embodies some attitudes that now seem out-of-date while at the same time expressing values many people still care deeply about. Just as Newton's Laws say crucially important things, classical music still has a lot to offer.
Abiding human values dwell in that music, along with great richness and beauty. But classical music does not, and cannot, tell us the whole story of human experience or even the whole story of our own culture. It cannot live at the center any more because we are too aware of the multiplicity of culture; there is no center now.
Mr. Steinmetz at least got that last right. No center now, most assuredly. And we're paying for it — in spades. A brilliant and prophetic thinker a century-and-a-quarter ago used a metaphor to address a question of quite another kind, but as a metaphor it's applicable to the instant question under consideration as well. For I put it to you that if Mr. Steinmetz can blithely invoke Newtonian and Einsteinian physics metaphorically in support of his argument, I may be permitted to similarly invoke Nietzschean thought against it.
The madman jumped into [the midst of the jeering crowd], and pierced them with his glances. "Whither is God?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while? [...] God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. [...] What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us?