I am always suspicious about generalisations, and the people who make them.

So Gareth Malone’s comment below made me immediately sceptical:

"I firmly believe that classical music is best. End Of. It's better than the rest, I believe. It's more complex. It's got a richer history. And It's just great. There. I said it. It's better than folk. It's better than drum 'n' bass. And it's better than rap  - er - isn't it? I think, I think.. What do I know, I'm just some guy off the telly [...] I suggest that we send a message of confidence to the public about classical music [...] Just letting people know that we lead the world in this."

Not just because I think he is wrong on the facts, but because of the sheer ambition of his logic. He is highly unlikely to be right simply because, if his comment is correct, there is just so much music in the world that ‘classical music’ (whatever that means!) has to be better than. Can he be serious? Yes, it seems.

Let’s start with the language analogy. When we first begin to learn about music, we perceive that there is only one language - ours. We are excited by its expressiveness and the potential it gives us to communicate, to feel the feelings of others and share ideas. It feels natural, inevitable, like there is no other way - we are enthusiastic. And that’s a good stage to be at.

Then one day we learn that our language is one of thousands across the world, and, as with Empire, we discover that simply shouting louder in our own language does not help us to get through to others who do not speak it(!). And indeed they feel disrespected if we do. We discover there are things we don’t know. And this should make us humble and more respectful of others’ music, especially when we don’t understand it. That stage is further down the line.

In my world these days, I deal a lot with ignorance and prejudice - racism, ageism and homophobia. Here, you learn quite quickly that all understandings, however deep, are partial. There are always other paths, and that’s ok. I love the Indian music that I know, know something about improvisation and modes, but would never claim to understand it or generalize about its value. That’s OK too, and, I would argue, most musicians and listeners are in that position about most music most of the time. What’s not OK is to assume that your own path is the only one, and to pontificate about it disrespectfully, when you don’t have experience of the paths of others.

Also, in fighting prejudice, it helps to be specific. You can be against gay marriage in principle, until it is your son that wants to get married. So I find it hard to believe that there is not a single piece of jazz, musical theater or pop music that he means something to him, or that he at least likes on a deep level. Which means he has not been listening carefully. Or that he lacks the openness and curiosity essential in iPod-based eclectic 21st Century professional musicians, if they are not to miss a trick or two. All of which make him a lesser musician - more inexperienced, less skilful at spotting musical elements that work well.

Then there is relativism. I hated Sibelius until a friend of mine who is deep lover of it sat me down and said, ‘Listen to this, it’s fabulous.‘ (Thanks, Kevin!)  Knowing what to look in unfamiliar music is a skill you can learn.

I was brought up firmly in the same tradition as Malone. And I agree that the best of ‘classical music’, some specific individual texts, are to me great too. Truly great, magnificent, well structured, some of the best music ever written. (Incidentally, what about all the less great ‘classical music’ that didn’t survive after it was written?) I can point to it, and say why. I also know well the ways of liking classical music, the things to look for that lead to those dangerous conclusions about how some music is ‘great’, absolutely and without question or contextual thinking.

But I also know for a fact that there are so many other things to look for in other music: other musical structures; other ways of proceeding as a musician; other ways of approaching an audience; other places to hear music; other things you can use music for.  Both jazz and classical music have value. But if you look for the things that make classical music valuable in a piece of jazz, you are bound to be disappointed.

Malone reminds me a bit of Wynton Marsalis in the late ‘80s, when he was going around making generalizations about jazz as the music of the ‘Negro’, and as exclusively embedded in the culture of the African American populations of the US cities.

Again, breathtaking generalizations, born out of a strong passion for his own culture. Again, self publicity. Again, not quite ready for prime time, because at the time he largely ignored white American jazz, the European jazz tradition, the South African jazz tradition, the New Zealand jazz tradition ... He knows a little better now, though Jazz at Lincoln Center still has its biases.

So as Carlos Lopez-Real, my friend, fellow-musician and thinker said today on Facebook,  ‘Very disappointing.’ Quite!

Charles BealeComment