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Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value
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76 of 81 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
This is a courageous book to write in the current anti-intellectual climate. Julian Johnson flies in the face of the prevailing winds, not just in popular culture, but in much academia today as well. What Dr. Johnson says, essentially, is that the trend of seeing so-called "high culture" and particularly classical music, as elitist, as exclusionist, is itself actually elitist. He reasons that people or organizations that set themselves up as today's cultural arbiters are in fact exclusionary, because they are determining what is right for the public, what they desire. It's far more than just a clever contrarian argument. Johnson gets to the core of classical music, its essence, what makes it different from any other music in history, by discussing how it is put together, how it develops, how it works through time, and then shows how these techniques are not present in today's popular music, which rely instead on simple, short repetitions to create and reinforce a mood, a moment, a feeling. Thus, he argues, pop music is more about feeling, about gratification of the senses, about "taste" and subjective preference, while classical music, from a musicological point of view, has traditionally measured greatness by how the individual work exceeds the expectations and limitations of the form in which it is set. Classical music's tension is (generally) in this structural conflict between the formal and the individual, whereas pop music's (generally) is from the personal reaction the listener has to the textures, sounds, and lyrical message, conveyed through repetition, circular (non-developing) structures, and novelty of sound conveyed through electronics more often than not. And there is a difference, as he points out, between novelty and originality.

What all this means is that classical music has a unique value as a cultural artifact that today's musics, no matter how different they try to be on the surface (with new synthesized sounds, new volume levels, new extraneous gimmicks such as costumes and props), cannot convey. He insightfully points out that often the most advanced technology is used (under the banner of progress) to create the most rudimentary of song forms and structures, and that people are responding to the surface "lust," the sheen of the sound world, rather than intellectually to the construction, the stretching and reevaluating of boundaries. We come to the ironic realization that technologically-crude music made hundreds of years ago is actually more "cutting edge" than the most advanced pop manufactured on synthesizers and computers, because (although he does not quite say this) technology does not replace the human intellect, but it *can* allow it to hide behind a curtain, much like the old man at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

The overall excellence of the book doesn't stop Johnson from making some serious missteps. Like many pro-classical writers, Johnson sees all marketing and image in pop music but misses the considerable marketing and image-making in the classical music industry. Such passages as "The emphasis on the surface of things [in pop music] is essentially inhumane. It is pornographic because it fetishizes the materiality of human existence and denies the spiritual personality that vivifies it from within. Perhaps my use of the term 'pornographic' seems inappropriate and sensationalist in relation to music." In a way, though, there is a *little* bit of a distinction between the fetishisation found in pop music vs. that of classical. As a general rule, the objectification in the latter tends to be imposed on the performer against their will by the recording or promotions company. Of course one can point to the Karajans and Pavorattis, but on the whole classical performers have been dragged into the marketing aspects of classical music--at least, until very recently. Pop music, on the other hand, has thrived on the packaging from day one, with plants in the audiences to scream and jump up and down for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. And while the portrait of the artist as a hipster of sorts goes back at least as far as Franz Liszt, it has been taken farther by marketers in the last 30 years than any classical artist ever dreamed possible.

Still, Johnson keeps trying to tie classical music's value to some sort of humanitarianism (both unnecessary and naive, in my opinion). On p. 8 he makes one of the book's oddest statements: "Those who devalue art today point out that only in the last few hundred years has our society privileged certain works and activities as art and promoted them to an almost sacred status. But it is no coincidence that this has taken place at the very time that the rationalization of human life--both private and public--has severely threatened the idea of individuals' value by making them dispensable units in a quantitative system." Despite the admitted evils of modern mechanization, I've never read anything in history to indicate that we valued life more in the past than we do now. And I feel the author gets carried away in the "commoditization" of classical music, making the silly statement that packaging has made all music "the same size and shape," i.e., a CD jewel box. How is this different than 60 years ago, when Glenn Miller and Arturo Toscanini were "commoditizised" by identical-looking 78 records?

Johnson isn't completely against today's pop music (I won't call it contemporary or modern music because it is not, except chronologically, as Johnson shows). As he says at one point, "We need to dance as well as be still." But the culture that promotes only dancing, that views any dissent as to the value of dancing as elitist, that condemns that which it does not understand, has never taken the time to sample, and is hostile towards because of imagined cultural baggage, is elitist, closed-ended, and tyrannical--ironically, the very things many of today's young people consider classical institutions to be.

Johnson's discussions about the obsession today with the surface sheen are curious and interesting. Of course, as anyone will quickly point out, superficial populist music has always been among us, and for that matter has always been dominant, at least in terms of sheer number of listeners. The difference, I think, which I don't feel he hit hard enough, is that prior to mass consumption of recorded music, made possible by changes in technology, sociology and psychology that today's listeners only dimly grasp if at all, this populist music was recognized for precisely what it is, diversion with a surface-sheen. Today's popular taste-makers have held this simpler, less-developed music up as Art, or at least serious cultural material. Most of today's taste-makers in the mainstream industry, which boils down to marketers, really (most of whom are in their 20s, and regard The Beatles as ancient music--my injection, not his) say music evaluation is at best "a matter of opinion," and at most, classical music is a despotic artifact of an age no longer relevant. And he says that's nothing more than willful ignorance, one that media outlets and even academic institutions are willing to go along with, for the sake of the all-mighty dollar. Although I would have liked to have seen a deeper examination of this capitalist viewpoint, I am still pleased that books are starting to deal with this obvious-but-ignored issue at all. The same liberals (and conservatives for that matter) who find all sorts of objectionable matter in TV programs, newspapers, and billboard ads give rock music pretty much a free pass. Somehow Calvin Klein underwear ads damage our youth's fragile psyche, but music whose themes and images involve rape, bestiality, murder and mayhem do not. Hmmm...

So why am I withholding the final star? Because in the last few pages he blows it, lapsing into the very sort of subjective rationale for his musical preferences I was cheering him for avoiding. I agree the best of what we call classical music is more complex, more subtle, more existential, and of greater value than "popular culture" for those reasons. However, he then starts giving analogies between the smooth intricacy of the string quartet and the intricacy and smooth functioning of a democracy. He sees direct parallels between one's advanced musical and one's advanced political and civic choices, and argues implicitly that classical music is good for civic harmony. Well now, some of the most fervent classical artists and audiences who ever lived were in Hitler's Nazi Germany. 'Nuff said. Here and throughout the book Johnson seems to think that good art makes for good human beings. Obviously it's never that simple, much as we would like it to be.

But despite a few blemishes, the book is very worth reading. It's refreshing to see anyone tackling these issues at all, and Dr. Johnson tackles most of them with considerable insight.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover
First off, this is not a an academic or musicological book. But it is a very thoughtful one. It felt like a grouping of essays from which one could base discussions.

During this last paragraph of this book I was reminded of Wynton Marsalis' comment in the Ken Burns Jazz documentary that, Beethoven does not come to you, you have to come to him. Johnson seems to be expressing that classical music requires determined effort to truly appreciate.

I personally came to classical music from the standpoint that a good deal of effort is put into creating it and much of it require virtuosity, so surely a good deal of insight can be gained from it, as long as one puts forth the patience and can maintain some modesty towards it. At the very least, it should be respected. Classical music requires that you don't use it as mood music, but that you earnestly devote your attention and immediate focus to it.

In the final chapter, Johnson goes on a bit more of a modern society rant. e.g. Television being the antithesis of classical music in that only the most minimal involvement is required to absorb its full meaning.

Although he makes some decent arguments for setting classical music apart as mindful art music, there are errors in his logic/proofs. Surely some Satie, Chopin, Schubert lieder, and works of Bach are no different from our songs (lieder) of today of a similar ABA structure. Though he used Beethoven's Fifth as a example of the discursive quality of classical... it would be hard to lose the argument if all classical music were as potent!

Self-referrentiality, also, was a component of his argument for classical, yet Jazz and Hip Hop are loaded with it. Jazz has its references to bop, dixieland, cool jazz, free jazz, etc. I think it is hard to see some Hip Hop being respected 50 years on when every other line makes a soon-to-be-outdated pop culture reference. (But then Beethoven and Mozart used Janissary music references - pop culture in their time, yes?)

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great morsels in here, like his reference to the popularity of the fade-out as the "solution" to the lack of denouement in pop songs. I also appreciated his reference of the polarity of modern life: think hard at work so you can come home and turn off your brain via TV or the Spice Girls. Rarely do we budget our meager free time towards leisure activities requring mental effort.

While his overall argument has its foibles, myriad directions are delightfully taken that would otherwise be ignored in a less thorough and less entertaining survey.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Johnson embarks on what is actually a very challenging subject. This is a stimulating and a provoking text, in which a sensible and cohesive argument is set out (very occasional slightly silly parodies aside - i think the other reviewers may not understand the slight toungue-in-cheek nature of some of these). I would very definately reccomend this book for anyone interested in music, culture, art and people!
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Julian Johnson confronts the complex issue of the value to society of art music -- and the differences between art music and popular music. Although densely written (this is not a book for skimming, nor for light reading), I found the book compelling and cogently argued. Johnson tries to define the relationship between art music and our human qualities -- and argues convincingly that there are real differences between popular and serious culture, and that those differences should not be minimized in the name of political correctness. It is not easy to summarize the book, because of the complexity of its subject and the depth of his argument. But anyone with an interest in the place of classical music in our society today should read this.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As someone who stands out for having no interest in popular music and a love of classical music, I was overjoyed to discover this book. Finally, someone out there who finds current trends in music as depressing as I do, someone who is willing to defend classical music from the myriad of charges against it (and there are certainly many).

I was surprised by Johnson's approach. I was expecting something comparing the complexity of classical music to popular music when I first heard about it. Nonetheless, I was surprised and pleased to see that Johnson followed a more philosophical approach, focusing on the purpose of classical as compared to pop. Specifically, Johnson argues that classical music is important because it represents art rather than mere entertainment.

Although I found it to be a very good book, I withheld a star because it does have some shortcomings. It is a very short read and I think it would have been better if it went into more depth on issues it only touched on. Johnson notes that rock music is quite rhythmically impoverished and that popular music relies on decidedly archaic harmonic language, for example. These are very good points, but he does not elaborate on them as much as I hoped he would.

I would have also liked to see his take on the various forms of jazz and progressive rock that I often see cited by those arguing in favor of popular music. Many seriously argue that they constitute art on the same level as classical music. Given that, it seems unlikely that a staunch fan would find this case for classical music particularly convincing. Though Johnson makes a good case that there is more than taste at work, I fear that alone will do little to save classical music.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
It's quite clear that Julian Johnson has a deep understanding and appreciation of Classical Music. It is equally obvious that he doesn't have a clue nor does he seem to care about "popular music." It would probably help if he were to better define what he means by "popular music," but throughout the book you are left wondering if he is just targeting manufactured pop acts like the Spice Girls or if he would extend his critique to jazz greats like Miles Davis. Because Pop music is set up as the enemy in the book this kind of clarity and specificity is needed, but as it stands we just have a mushy straw man critique that may or may not apply to huge swaths of music, both trivial and timeless.

Johnson constantly accuses pop music, and it's listeners, of a huge host of things that upon examination don't really hold up to scrutiny: If pop music is all about fads and fashions why do pop acts from the Beatles to David Bowie continue to capture the imagination of new generations? If listening to music for a sustained period of time is so foreign to pop music how come groups from the Dave Matthews Band to Tool continue to have devoted audiences who will sit for hours enraptured not by the show so much as the music, if pop music is supposed to lack discursive movement and complexity then what does one make of King Crimson or Radiohead? The list of exceptions to Johnson's trite dismissals is too long to be overlooked and it's what makes a book that could have been a positive affirmation of Classical Music a mostly useless and shallow rehashing of the old Classical vs. Pop Music debate.
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Format: Hardcover
Julian Johnson is a lecturer in music at the University of Oxford; he has also written Classical Music: A Beginner's Guide (Beginners Guide (Oneworld)),Mahler's Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies, and Webern and the Transformation of Nature.

He wrote in the Introduction to this 2002 book, "This book is about the value of classical music... it is about its apparent devaluation today and the consequences of its current legitimation crisis... It addresses questions not just about music but about the nature of contemporary culture... my main point is that while some classical music can and does function as popular culture, its ... makes a claim to a distinctive value because it lends itself to functions that, on the whole, popular music does not... classical music is distinguished by a self-conscious attention to its own musical language." (Pg. 3) He adds, "Central to my argument is the distinction between the process by which value is conferred on music and a broader sense of values... My suggestion is... that we frequently identify with music whose value-position objectively contradicts that which we claim in other spheres of life---such as ethics, politics, or education." (Pg. 7-8)

He asserts, "Music-as-art, at its best, is thus redemptive: it gives back to us a sense of our absolute value that a relativist society denies... The enactment of musical artworks requires a letting go of the immediacy that runs counter to the everyday. But its reward is that we are thus enabled to participate in a process which the everyday prevents... Music-as-art ... [involves] us in a process by which that self comes to understand itself more fully as a larger, trans-subjective identity. In this way the value of music-as-art is essentially ethical." (Pg. 9)

He contends that "Classical music... cannot be understood in the terms of popular culture. It is concerned wtih details of its musical language and inner musical form to a degree that popular music is not." (Pg. 46) He points out that "Live performance ensures that we accord a certain primacy to the musical work by forcing us to give in to its temporal processes. Recorded music reverses that equation by allowing us to subordinate the music to the demands of other activities..." (Pg. 54) Later, he observes, "Only recently have we collectively reduced music to the question of immediate pleasure alone, such that choosing between different musical types is no more significant than choosing between different flavors of ice cream." (Pg. 86) Still later, he argues, "music's place in cultural history is eclipsed by the overwhelming insistence on its function as personal pleasure---a problem that French, history, or geography do not face." (Pg. 118)

On a political level, he notes, "Why is participation in classical music elitist? Because only parents with sufficient financial capital and a certain educational background are likely to fund and encourage their children to participate in it. State education policy thus reinforces the social divisions it pretends to oppose." (Pg. 119)

He says, "The spiritual element of music is therefore not some mystical essence or secret ingredient ... by thinking the material elements of the world, it spiritualizes them." (Pg. 71) He concludes, "Not only does music offer the possibility of transcending daily life: it offers... a reshaping of those categories... When we leave the musical work and return to daily life, we have tasted a different way of being, a different perception of the world. Potentially, this leaves us marked by the experience. It subsequently produces an altered perception of the world." (Pg. 129)

This is an excellent meditation and consideration of many issues affecting classical music, and will be of keen interest to anyone similarly concerned. (If you like this book, see also Why Classical Music Still Matters)
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Very intelligently written, at times slightly uneven in quality and occasionally redundant. In my case, I was glad to find someone who shares many of my thoughts (and knows how to put them in writing so well). Probably the best book on the subject. It doesn't contain much preaching or educational "advice". The writing is dense and initially seems very complex, but it is not. It is a rather straightforward read. Some personal preferences of the author are a little too obvious (e.g. dislike of Romanticism etc.).
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7 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
No better reply to this book is available than Richard Taruskin's article in The New Republic, where the argument in Johnson's book is shattered to bits, but I do have some points to make. Academics like Julian Johnson have been lamenting a percieved decline of "good" music since the fourteenth century, when Ars Nova began. We can find such laments in all periods. It's seems that what's truely new will always have an ability to provoke such things, regardless of how much historical experience we might have.

The author (who is also a composer,) belongs to the so-called "avant-garde," now a reactionary, exclusive group stuck in an anti-social aesthetic that's more than 60 years old, and immersed in aimless experimentations that have done a lot to estrange people from classical music. For the "avant-garde," how a piece sounds is the least important things, the most important things been how it looks on paper and what "idea" (extramusical, of course) is beyond it. Emotions and imagination have no importance. To say that a piece like "Fur Alina" by Arvo Part is a hundred times more "avant-garde" than a piece by Stockhausen or Boulez from the same period might sound unbelievable. Such things take time.

I had the same snobish attitude before, but I can see now that there's much great music that doesn't necessarily have the same aesthetic that classical music has. According to Johnson and those who think in the same way, 95% of music is garbage, that is, all popular music, folk music, and classical music by "post-modernist" composers like Glass, Part, and Corigliano. This is a painfully erroneus, and I can only agree with how Taruskin put it: "I will pray for the salvation of their souls."
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21 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Unfortunately, time does not permit me the luxury of the in-depth critique that this important and useful book does indeed deserve.Perhaps I shall be able to return to this task in the not-too-distant future, in order to do the critique detailed justice, following the shining example of fellow-reader John Grabowski.
But I believe that it may be fairly written, in brief, that while
the defense of the wonderful Western classical or art music tradition is a necessary and noble undertaking, it is almost impossible to divine defender Johnson's soul through his too-thickly-textured intellect. Thus, if the work is meant for the cognoscenti, the author has the ear, so to speak, of those most sympathetic to his sometimes slightly-tortured arguments. But if it is meant as a paean unto THE WORLD AT LARGE, including the dubious as well as the barbarians at and inside the gate, Defender Johnson has created an uphill battle for himself -- for the simple reason that THE WORLD AT LARGE, including the dubious and the barbarians at and inside the gate, cannot and will not be persuaded or convinced by argument overloaded with sophisticated intellect but woefully empty of the kind of good-old-fashioned passion which is the very hallmark of the beauty which he seeks to preserve, protect, and defend! { I hope my quasi-Teutonic sentence structure here hasn't been overly-influenced by the mode of the book itself! }
If the text were only imbued with the spirit of the title -- direct,engaging, challenging, alive -- well, then, we might have a five star special on our hands. But alas, I fear that the work,
with whose major premises I wholeheartedly agree, will not have the reach that a defense of this precious tradition ought to have in its very real hour of need.
That's tragic -- and frustrating.
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