Saturday, October 02, 2004

Two Class Nation

Friday afternoon, a perfect fall day, the Curtis Institute of Music gave a free concert in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Among the Gershwin, among the Sousa, the percussion students played a Caribbean rhapsody piece. It was nicely done; a fine imitation of what one might hear in the islands, performed by the earnest classical acolytes. What stood out to me was that they were following pages of notes which had to be turned frequently. The drummers performed the piece by the book, without a trace of spontaniety.

I saw several parallels to the literary world.

First, the crowd listening was overwhelmingly upper-middle class: the Clean and the Saved. While it was nice for the classical aficionadoes to take their music from the stuffy concert hall to the public, they weren't much expanding their base.

Second, classical music's audience is from one group-- the top 10%. Does this mark the music and limit its popularity? Classical music has been so happy for so many decades to put itself into a high position above the crowd that it's shoved itself into a safe corner of respectable society; a small space which keeps growing tinier.

One sees the dangers for literature when it behaves the same way.

People who truly love literature have to pull it from the grasp of outfits like THE NEW YORKER with their Festivals appealing to the same kind of genteel crowd-- which give only the ILLUSION of popularity; smug events, lacking real energy, which reinforce the complacency of editors and writers. They remain safe on their island of demi-puppets while the rest of the world drops away. Lit must be wrenched from the clutches of superior outfits like the NEW YORK TIMES, which has books classified not with Entertainment, but Fine Arts; stuck with the antiques and celloists in the section nobody reads.

Literature is presenting to the world, like classical music, the image of exclusivity and refinement, and the snobs who dominate are happy. Their attempts to be popular are laughable. They don't understand the mass of the populace and wouldn't know how to reach them if they tried. Their art has become Dead. They play by the rules, following the prescribed notes with one of them turning the pages.

I left the free concert in the park with these thoughts debating themselves in my head. On Walnut Street a block away two guys played jazz on the street, quite well. (Philly readers of this blog may have seen them.) They had no Institute backing; no unmoving edifice of tax breaks and money. They played for dollar bills and quarters. One flowed unscripted music from a clarinet. The other, a much younger man, played crescendoes on bongo drums. There were no sheets of music in front of him.

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