By Neil March
Recently I found myself unable to resist wading into a message thread on another Social Media site. The thread was kicked off by an eminent music academic for whom I had great respect querying the fuss about Prince (whose untimely death the previous day had led to such an outpouring of grief and tributes). After observing with horror how a significant group of exclusively white, highly educated academics lined up to belittle Prince’s contribution to the evolution of modern music from increasingly absurd and ill-informed positions and how familiar intellectual snobbery and elitism were dressed up as progressive ideological reasoning, I felt compelled to intervene. I was glad I did.
Nevertheless the experience provided a reminder for by no means the first time of a problem I have observed time and time again in the unreal world of Academia over the past decade. Namely the considerable distance between the ideas, prejudices and assumptions of academics (certainly those involved in music and the arts) and the outside world. Worse still, it was a reminder that those charged with delivering music in higher education are collectively so ill-equipped to attract and engage with a more diverse audience of potential students in terms of ethnicity and social class.
I am not advocating a dumbing down of musical study or academic interests but it is time for the arts intelligentsia to accept that their notion of what is radical, ground-breaking and an alternative to an aggressively commercial mainstream is outdated and outworn. For example the composers whose ideas developed out of the Integral Serialism and Indeterminacy of the nineteen sixties may have offered an exciting new perspective forty-five years or so ago but their almost fetishistic obsession with form and structure and their reliance on traditional acoustic instruments points to the past, not the future. They may believe their music is an alternative to the classical mainstream but, in truth, it is Uber–Classical. Moreover it speaks only to a shrinking base of Eurocentric intellectuals and means nothing to anyone outside their narrow world.
The rhetoric from this elite of academics is that of the far left and yet they appear to have forgotten that one cannot claim to speak to or for the masses without being prepared to engage and communicate in ways that are understood by those whose ideas they want to affect. In any case, that left wing agenda in itself represents a past that most of us have no interest in returning to and means even less to the younger generations of creative people who could and should be attracted into higher education.
The harsh reality is that the world has long since walked away from these hackneyed ideas of radicalism and the apparent sense of superiority displayed by this group of academics could not be more misguided. They can sneer all they want at popular culture and attempt to write it off as the consequence of us less educated folk being brainwashed by a culture that is symptomatic of and the embodiment of Anglo-American Capitalism. But we do live and work in such a world and, hard as it may be for them to appreciate, it may just be that we have ears and can hear that Prince’s music is a great deal fresher, funkier and more communicative than that which they would prefer us to follow.
In conclusion, what this experience demonstrates is that, for the attitudes and outlooks of those delivering music education to graduates and post-graduates to not only change but to be capable of attracting the kind of diverse vibrant audience that it currently alienates, Universities and Conservatoires need an intake of academic staff whose knowledge, experience and interests are much broader and more relevant to today’s world.
One obvious barrier to such progress is the influence the existing elite still have over the appointment of new staff. Perhaps that would be helped if firstly the decision-making process was less weighted in favour of the status quo and secondly if music departments stopped stipulating in job adverts that candidates must have a level of lecturing experience and published works that only those already in that world have any real hope of matching. It will be a long and frustrating process but it is one that has to happen if the situation is going to change for the better.
This post was originally published on the Sampler hosted at soundandmusic.org and written by Neil March, Composer & Head of Demerara Records, Author of Trust The Doc and Moderator & Reviews Writer, Fresh on the Net .