From Phil over at Dial “M”:
Here’s the Dial M thought for the day:
The aesthetic ideal of pop is the perfect realization of the expected pattern.
Because of this, he goes on to say, “pop is a classicizing aesthetic, not an innovating, modernizing one”. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining the enduring popularity of Mozart.
Hey, wait a minute—isn’t Phil talking about American Idol? Same difference, I say: the main reason Mozart still packs ’em in, relatively speaking, is the main reason people can’t seem to get enough of the not-terribly-suspenseful “suspense” dished out by Simon Cowell et al. You see, they’re both a lot like a detective novel.
In his witty essay “The Myth of Superman” (reprinted in The Role of the Reader), Umberto Eco has a fascinating digression about detective novels.
The reader of detective stories can easily make an honest self-analysis to establish the modalities that explain his ‘consuming’ them. First, from the beginning the reading of a traditional detective story presumes the enjoyment of following a scheme: from the crime to the discovery and the resolution through a chain of deductions.
Eco points out that this particular “iterative scheme” includes not just the basic outline of the story, but a “fixed schematism involving the same sentiments and the same psychological attitudes”—returning characters show little emotional development from story to story. What’s more, the habits, preferences, and recognizable tics of the characters are also part of the scheme: Sherlock Holmes’ pipe and violin, Nero Wolfe’s orchids, Lord Peter’s incunabula, etc. Such props and mannerisms let us “find an old friend in the character portrayed, and they are the principal conditions which allow us to ‘enter in’ to the event.”
The attraction of the book, the sense of repose, of psychological extension which it is capable of conferring, lies in the fact that, plopped in an easy chair or in the seat of a train compartment, the reader continuously recovers, point by point, what he already knows, what he wants to know again: that is why he has purchased the book.
Eco compares this with eighteenth-century popular fiction, in which “the event was founded upon a development and the character was required to ‘consume’ himself through to death.” This was the preferred entertainment for a time in which ideas of class, morality, and tradition were fixed, unchanging, and continually reinforced. People living in a society of such constant, redundant messages had no need of redundancy in their fiction. Goodbye to all that, though:
In a contemporary industrial society, instead, the alternation of standards, the dissolution of tradition, social mobility, the fact that models and principles are ‘consumable’—everything can be summed up under the sign of a continuous load of information which proceeds by way of massive jolts, implying a continual reassessment of sensibilities, adaptation of psychological assumptions, and requalification of intelligence. Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.
Which is as sensible an explanation for the modern popularity of Mozart as any I’ve ever heard. People whose societal expectations have been continually upended crave redundancy, and eighteenth-century classicism, it seems to me, provides more opportunity for experiencing redundancy than any other “serious” musical genre. In comparison with the Baroque, it’s more regular in its phrase length and more digestibly discrete in its form; unlike Romanticism, it’s less liable to sonic novelty and more formally well-behaved. Themes come and go on schedule, cadenzas crop up right where they’re supposed to, and that familiar 6-5 trill brings every V-I cadence satisfyingly home. And Mozart’s talent was uniquely suited to the style. Bernard Shaw once quipped, “If it hadnt been for this cursed dexterity of his, Mozart would have enlarged music more than he did; for when there is no cliché that will serve he produces something new without effort.” Not just a Shavian paradox: it was the struggle to avoid such clichés that led less fecund composers like C.P.E. Bach towards more experimental forms and harmonies, which has relegated them to curiosity status, while Mozart still reigns supreme. (Can you make this argument for other canonical composers? To a certain extent, although I think Mozart works the best—and he’s also the most popular. Coincidence?)
So the next time I’m rolling my eyes at the nth variation on the thematic scold that modern music is too cerebral, too complex, “too much head and not enough heart” (love that one—think those people would want their doctor to adopt a physiological concept that outdated?)—in their view, not Mozartian enough—I can remind myself that the complainers simply don’t want the same musical experience that I do. I want to be excited, challenged, exhilarated, and changed; they want the experience of knowing what they already know, of having an idea of an orderly universe summarized and confirmed. (In the Idol universe, that order even gets confirmed by popular vote.)
Let me be clear: I’m not making a value judgment. People want what they want. Sure, I believe that listeners who go to a concert hoping not for surprise and wonder, but for its absence, are shutting themselves off from an awful lot, but what do I know? The popularity of a host of cultural artifacts mystifies me. But at least you can’t accuse American Idol of false advertising: the very season-to-season premise of the show, in fact, trumpets its own redundancy and predictability loud and clear. Whereas composers and musicians are working overtime to conjure up wonder and mystery for an audience of which a significant portion is just sitting around, waiting for that great “Elvira Madigan” theme to pull into the station again. Is there another medium that has this much disconnect between the intent of the producer and the expectation of the consumer? It’s like we’re selling them Henry James and they think they’re buying Tom Clancy.
What does this mean for the music of our own time? Well, if Mozart’s popularity is really due to his comfortable redundancy, then there’s no hope in convincing those Mozart listeners to embrace new music, be it tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist; its very newness, its inherent unpredictability, is what is objectionable. “Modern music” is now more deliberately audience-friendly than it’s been at any time since Mozart’s, and that hasn’t translated into a bumper crop of converts. (And don’t start arguing that atonality somehow scared everybody off for good sometime between the Kennedy and Nixon administrations. Was there ever a time when “difficult” contemporary music even came close to making up a majority of any mainstream classical ensemble’s repertoire? Besides, this is America—we don’t make decisions based on anything that happened more than five minutes ago.)
On the other hand, the forces that cause people to scamper back to the sonic safety of eighteenth-century Vienna may be waning. My generation is one of the last to have to make the transition from the pre-computer industrial age to the present information age, with all the insecurity that accompanies such disruptions. The present generation is growing up surrounded by a sea of information, and doesn’t seem to regard it with any great apprehension. The sheer number of new musical genres and sub-genres that have sprouted across the digital landscape would seem to confirm that redundancy is becoming less and less important as an entertainment value, or, at the very least, that there is room in the culture for a near-endless variety of different redundant schemes. Combined with lowered barriers to production and distribution, it’s a good time to be writing just about any kind of music.
Will Wolfgang be cast aside in this brave new world? Nonsense. I rather think that people will learn how to listen to him the way he meant: not focusing on the redundant aspects of his music, not taking temporary comfort in his similarities, but becoming alive to the invention he brings to each new piece, the subtle ways in which he toys with form and harmony and expectation. And once he’s hot again? I can’t wait for Zauberflöte night on Idol.