Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Present at the Creation

When Heather Mac Donald’s piece “Classical Music’s New Golden Age” came out in the summer edition of City Journal, I tweeted it enthusiastically. Articles like this are one of the reasons I’m a City Journal subscriber. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded with doom and gloom predictions about classical music’s future, it was refreshing to read to a contrarian perspective as a corrective. As a bit of a contrarian myself, I can especially appreciate this. One need not believe that the article is in fact literally true in order to enjoy the different point of view.

This piece prompted classical music writer Greg Sandow to pen a series of rebuttals (see here, here, here, here, and here). Sandow was obviously irked, and his tone shows it. I thought perhaps he’d taken Mac Donald a bit too literally.

Then it turns about that she took herself a bit too literally too. Not content with 7,000 words in print, she responded to Sandow’s series with a 5,000 word online diatribe titled, “The Unsustainable Declinism of Greg Sandow.”

But that’s mostly for another day. What I’d like to discuss are some of the reasons that Mac Donald gave for being so insistent this is for sure a golden age, which, believe it or not, is a topic relevant for cities. Among her reasons:

1. We have access to far more classical music today than ever before. While previous generations where limited to a narrow slice of the repertoire or only current hits, we have instant access the best of all of Western music.
2. There are more orchestras than ever, more people studying classical music than ever, and we spend more money than ever on it.
3. Musicianship today is a level of technical excellence never before seen.
4. Performers today have stripped away the tendency of previous generations to alter or bastardize works to suit contemporary tastes, and have instead have recreated music in line with the composer’s intent, the way it was originally intended to be heard and as close to the way it originally was heard as we can make it.

While one might possibly quibble with these, I’d have to agree with them. And in that regard today’s musical world is far healthier than many might give it credit for.

But abstract these to generic propositions, and one could make an argument that today is a golden age of pretty much anything. We’re fortunate to live in a wealthy, mostly peaceful and free society, one that values inquiry, and in which we have tremendous technology and techniques available at our disposal far exceeding those people of the past ever dreamed. I dare say its true that we have more of pretty much everything, more people studying everything, amazing technical excellence in every field, and incredible scholarship about how almost everything really was in the past.

Consider philosophy. I can instantly download a vast array of works from the entire history of human kind, not just in the Western tradition but any global tradition. Where once philosophy was the pursuit mostly of the leisured classes, today it is accessible to all. There are probably more students than ever. And we probably know more about Plato and Aristotle than they knew about themselves.

So ask yourself: is today a golden age of philosophy? Or of literature? Or of religion? Or of art? Or of food?

By Mac Donald’s criteria I think we could probably answer Yes to all. So in that sense I think what she’s actually doing is making an observation about the times we live in rather than a particular point on classical music.

And it’s a valid point. I must say, I’m glad to be alive today. It doesn’t take much consideration of what people lived like and what they went through even a short time ago to make me thank God I’m alive right now. While the future could get better I suppose, now is still pretty darn good, the present economy notwithsanding. This is clearly a special epoch in human existence to date.

Now back to the question. Whether one judges this a golden age must depend on what you value. Do you value being able to consume the best of what the world has ever produced with a few clicks of the mouse? Today is your time.

But will anyone tomorrow in retrospect judge this age, or any age of consumption, a golden age of classical music, philosophy, etc? It strikes me as very unlikely. Presumably, by Mac Donald’s standards, tomorrow will be even more golden, so today will rapidly lose its allure.

No, when we think about a golden age in the past, we think of the time in which those greatest of works were produced. We talk of the golden age of Athens, when those most primal works of western civilization were created. Would you rather be here reading Plato talk about Socrates, or would you rather have had a front row seat at his trial? Or, perhaps yet, would you have rather have been engaged on the field of battle, to have been one of the participants of those great debates on the ultimate questions of human existence, to strive to be one of the names written in the history books?

Would you rather applaud politely at the end of yet another perfect modern performance of Beethoven’s fifth, or would you have rather been in Vienna with Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Schubert and the rest? Do you want to listen to authentically performed early music, or be the composer future generations are still admiring, listening to, researching, performing hundreds of years hence?

Which era is likely to be judged the most golden, the one where the great works are consumed, or the ones where they are produced?

There’s a word for civilizations that featured an excess of luxurious golden age consumption at the expense of creation: decadence. And few decadent eras had staying power in history, except as bywords.

Fortunately for us, our creative energies are alive and well today, in areas ranging from technology (where it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest this is an Athenian era) to popular music. But not in classical music. Indeed, the rise of imitating as perfectly as possibly, even slavishly so, the styles of the past proclaims our own lack of cultural self-confidence in the field.

Today may perhaps be a golden age, but that all depends on how you define it, and what your own personal ambitions are. We’ll see what the future holds, but I am pleased to see that contemporary composers are increasingly creating works that you can actually listen to again, so let’s hope for the best.

The applicability to cities is obvious. Do you want to be in the place that is already at its apex or at the place where the seeds of tomorrow’s great cities are being sown? I’m always struck walking around cities seeing the bronze statues of heroes and great leaders past. Who, I wonder, will merit a statue tomorrow from our own generation?

If you want to enjoy the best a contemporary American city can offer, then San Francisco is your place. I’ll admit, it’s my favorite city in the US. But I don’t imagine that if I moved there (as opposed to Silicon Valley) that I’d get to witness any great historical happenings, or play any role in defining even that city’s urban future, much less creating America’s next great metropolis.

For those who want to consume urbanism, move to San Francisco or someplace like it. For those who, like the cathedral builders of Europe, want to be a part of creating history and a legacy for tomorrow, even though that might not be recognized in their lifetime, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

How do you define your own personal golden age? That is the question.

Topics: Arts and Culture, Urban Culture

14 Responses to “Present at the Creation”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Anything that makes Heather MacDonald stop spreading racist lies about minorities and immigrants…

  2. I’ll add that when it comes to things I don’t know much about, I’m happy to consume. Urbanism, nice place to visit. I might even like to live there someday.

    Classical music? Queue up some Mozart and I’ll try to get some work done in my headphones. Piano concertos make nice background music. But find me some compressed versions so I don’t have to keep adjusting the volume in my car.

    Open source software? That’s different.

    I’m constantly amazed at the history I’m witnessing all the time, today. I’ve made a few tiny contributions of my own.

    Functional programming? It’s changing the world for the better and it keeps not going away.

    I guess the saddest part is considering that there may be a technological age coming where we will have captured today’s technology in bronze, but lost the will to make anything really new.

    I hope not.

  3. Jim says:

    Great thought provoking stuff. Do you ever realize that you are amongst history’s greatest while in their presence? While listening to Socrates, did the people present actually think that he would go down as one of history’s greatest philosophers? Creative greatness is always viewed in retrospect. In today’s 15-minutes of fame celebrity culture where everyday someone is labeled a genius in the moment, how will we know if what has been created is comparably great. The genius label has been reduced to mere marketing, rather than realized proclamation.

    We have more knowledge at our fingertips than at any other age in history, but how I wonder much wisdom do we actually have because of it? How is having access to knowledge actually helping to change the way we create or solve problems? Much of the great work of art is forged because of limitations rather than excess. The fewer the resources, the more stretched for creativity the artist. With everything at our fingertips in the Western world in particular, will there ever be any great works of art produced that can rival the “greats.”

  4. Jim, it reminds me of Bruce Mau’s question from Massive Change (though perhaps it did not originate with him): Now that we can do anything, what is it we should do?

    We do have so much power today, it becomes ever more impossible to be impressed. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be impressed by an engineering feat again, for example, given today’s technology.

    There’s a recurring science fiction theme of the civilization that became so advanced it went into terminal boredom and elected to re-primitivize itself (Cordwainer Smith’s “Rediscovery of Man” being perhaps the classic example).

  5. Mike says:

    At the risk of sounding like I’m repeating Jim, no one will know whether we are in a great era or a decadent era or neither until long after we are dead. A “great” in any field is one whose work has staying power long after his or her death. So by definition, we cannot know whether anyone now alive, in any field of endeavor, is great.

  6. Seth says:

    Bravo Mr. Renn. This is why I continue to read your work. I am convinced you are one of the very few “enlightened” urban thinkers who receives media attention (if there are any others at all), and I don’t mean to flatter you. Your breadth of knowledge and understanding of our civilization’s patrimony puts you above and beyond any other “prominent” urban thinker today. And your concerns are particularly American with respect to our tradition of ordered liberty and self-government.

    In his highly acclaimed miniseries “Civilisation”, Kenneth Clark dealt with all these issues: cultural confidence, decadence, Golden and Dark ages, the great cathedral builders, and the human endeavors that define civilization. He said of civilization, “I’m not prepared to define it but I know it when I see it.”
    Two must watch clips:
    A snippet:
    The entire miniseries:

    But to answer your question about my personal golden age, I’d have to ally myself with the cathedral builders. That’s where vitality can be found. Anyway, aren’t the goals of enlightened urbanism similar to those of the cathedral builders? Isn’t our task as seemingly Sisyphean?

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    Mike, I just can’t agree with your blanket denial. Some greatness is obvious in its own time. Many “greats” in diverse fields are recognized when alive and/or working.

    Examples from the sporting world: I’ve had the privilege of watching Peyton Manning play football live for the past 12 years. His greatness is obvious. He changed the way American football is played. I’ve had the privilege of seeing Michael Schumacher and Jimmie Johnson and Mario Andretti drive racing cars. I never saw Richard Petty drive. But for all, their greatness at the height of their careers is (was) obvious.

    I had the privilege of living in Columbus, Indiana among the obviously great works of obviously great (and then-living) architects.

    Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller were acclaimed as great in their own fields and in their own time. And they are still regarded that way. Today it’s Gates and Buffett.

    Many great political leaders and historical figures have been so recognized in their own day, and probably more so in this era of “instant analysis”. So far, the contributions (or horrors) of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler have all been recognized in their own time.

    I’d argue the opposite of you: because of the widespread dissemination of information today, it is much more possible to measure greatness (and horror) as it is happening. (Is there any question that the unspeakably horrible atrocities of nineteen men on 9/11 changed the world?) We all can see and compare and judge.

    Perhaps you were confining your remarks to the artistic world, where sometimes it does indeed take decades (or centuries) to reach consensus on what’s part of the canon. But even Beethoven and Mozart were recognized as masters in their own day, as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were in my day…the Golden Era of Rock and Roll.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Chris, you’re making Mike’s point for him. All of the people you mention were recognized well after the fact. Ford and Edison took time to get recognized; back when they were making their most ingenious inventions, they were obscure. Bill Gates became a celebrity in the 1990s, about 15 years after he’d made his main contribution to computers (namely, MS-DOS); in computer time, it’s an eternity. So few cared about Hitler until WW2 started that after the war, the FBI considered everyone who started criticizing Hitler before 1939 to be a socialist. FDR was popular in his time, but he had to face a lot of hurdles, primarily from within his own party.

    This after the fact tendency is especially true in culture, where it’s harder to point to measurable success to shut the Inmyday critics up. Thus there’s always a large neurotic contingent of people who think the past was better. Today we think of the Beatles as great, but in the 1960s, people thought of them as youth-corrupting trash. This has not decreased since the spread of the Internet: cultural critics like Camille Paglia attack Lady Gaga with exactly the same tones as they did Madonna in the 1980s and the Beatles in the 1960s.

  9. Alon, I think the effect you and Chris describe is reputation. Reputation is clearly a lagging indicator. Often people have already done their best work by the time they are recognized.

    But every generation has people of high reputation. The question is whether anyone will care about the Beatles 200 years from now. I’m not saying they won’t. But that’s a question history will have to judge. Many extremely famous and critically respected people fell off the map. Even many people we respect today have gone through cycles of popularity. Mozart was out of fashion for some time, for example.

  10. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, all the folks I mention were still living when the “tag” of greatness was placed upon them because they changed their field of endeavor. A few years or even a decade or so during a person’s life for major accomplishment to be recognized is an insignificant amount of time in the broad sweep of history.

    Aaron, there is no question today (almost 50 years later) that The Beatles and the Stones changed popular music. There was no question at the time, either. Likewise, there is no question that Einstein changed physics and astrophysics, that Keynes changed economics, that Gates has driven massive change in productivity and the world of work.

    Those people’s accomplishments are not merely current reputations. They are clear inflection points in the history of a field of endeavor, “golden moments” if you will; they have been marked relatively contemporaneously and in most cases rewarded with honor and/or fortune. (I suspect Sir Paul might concur.)

    I’m no more prescient than your average well-educated person, but I think there is no denying that great ideas, great people, important events and turning points can be and clearly are often recognized in their moment by large numbers of people. Such a current consensus, in its telling and retelling, forms the basis of subsequent historical accounts and analysis.

  11. Jarrett says:

    Magnificent post. I riffed on a small issue raised by the reference to San Francisco, here:

  12. Jarrett says:

    But also, and parethetically, isn’t this claim odd?

    4. Performers today have stripped away the tendency of previous generations to alter or bastardize works to suit contemporary tastes, and have instead have recreated music in line with the composer’s intent, the way it was originally intended to be heard and as close to the way it originally was heard as we can make it.

    I have the greatest respect for period music ensembles, but even my friends in that business wouldn’t make such a blanket statement. All performance is re-interpretation that must engage with the audience today. If you can construct an audience that wants to engage with historical accuracy, that’s great, but reducing musical performance to historical accuracy is like reducing architecture to historic preservation. There are many other definitions of success in music, as in architecture.

    As someone who studied theatre for many years, I’m almost sure you don’t want to see/hear a historically accurate Shakespeare production, where everything had to be screamed because the audience was chattering all the time. Nor might you enjoy a Mozart opera in a period theatre, where your expensive seats may not have a good view of the stage because, after all, you’re really there to see and be seen by the royalty in attendance.

    If historical accuracy is the only ground of legitimation, we’d better all get behind Antonin Scalia’s vision of the Constitution.

  13. Sometimes I think that classical music fans will never think that it’s in a golden age unless it’s more popular than Justin Bieber. But then a lot of them would probably say that the popular stuff isn’t REAL classical music, and define themselves into a dwindling elite again. So it’s probably impossible for classical music to ever have a golden age.

  14. Jarret, I suggest reading up on Historically Informed Performance for more background on this:

    Not everyone believes in trying to replicate the past. That’s just one strand. But fidelity to the composer’s intent is generally a higher priority than in many times past, when performers, conductors, and publishers took quite a few liberties with the printed score.

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