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A Low Point for High Culture

by James Lileks

Anyone who wanted to feel old, fusty, cranky, and despairing of the end of High Culture could scan recent cultural news and feel as if he had clambered into a handbasket and boarded the high-speed rail for Hades. Example A:

The Seattle Symphony performed a version of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s rap classic  “Baby Got Back.” 

It is not my place here to detail the catalogue of Sir Mix-A-Lot, except to note that his other hit, “Put ’Em on the Glass” — a deathless exhortation encouraging the placement of mammaries on a hard, transparent material — is unlikely to be scored for full orchestra. If he’d composed “Baby Had Back, but She Done Went on Atkins,” it might be played by a chamber orchestra, seeing as it would concern a subject not philharmonic in its dimensions.

Lyrically, it concerns the singer’s physical preference in a mate. To paraphrase: The object of my affection has myriad attributes, but I cannot utter a falsehood: Her fundament is not only capacious, it ranks the highest among the attributes I prize.

Or, as he puts it: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” Well, no one was asking him to. He’s not under the hot lights with someone working his kidneys with the spine of a phone book. In fact if there’s one thing you can note about modern culture, it’s the ease with which people confess these things without inducement.

Many have responded to critics of the concert with an eye roll: Lighten up, it’s just fun. True. And like much modern fun, it is vulgar, low, and common. The fellow who arranged the event is Gabriel Prokofiev, and if you’re wondering: Yes. Grandson. He composes both orchestral and electronic music. From his blog about the performance:

It opens with a declamatory introduction, with big orchestral outbursts inspired by the rhythms of some of his most famous lines of rap performed orchestrally. For example, from Posse on Broadway, there is “I’m the man they love to hate, the J. R. Ewing of Seattle.” Then his infamous line: “I Love Big Butts” . . . which becomes a central motif in the work, at times becoming an insistent haunting call.

An idée fixe, then. A leitmotif. We are not so far from the greats after all.

It’s the latest example of a post-’60s belief: pretending high and low culture are not points on a continuum, but occupy the same spot. Classical music wasn’t “relevant,” because modern youth, the most terribly important generation in the history of the species, could not be expected to listen to anything that did not directly affect their emotional state and limited apprehension of Western Civ. So rock was pronounced a serious art form, instead of the peppy popular warblings of some jolly buskers.

Some rock bands stepped up to fill the assumptions: Procol Harum cut an album with an orchestra; Emerson Lake & Palmer recorded a piano concerto and toured with it, much to the dismay of the audience, which had come to hear the Aaron Copland covers. Focus, a bunch of hairy Dutchmen with classical pedigrees, hit the airwaves with “Hocus Pocus,” a tune noted for wordless manic yodeling, but the lead singer also released a solo album consisting of classical flute pieces. It would not be inconceivable at a concert for someone to shout “FAURÉ’S PAVANE! YEEEAAAAHHHH!!”

Anyone who listened to “progressive” rock expected complex, ornate pieces with baroque details and fleet-fingered virtuosity. For a while it looked as if rock could take up the mantle dropped by the modernists, who had retreated into screechy angular din that sounded like mating calls for Cubist donkeys. It was melodic, complex, had enough angst for the adolescents and complexity for the grad students. And it was awesome if you were stoned. But Bach it was not.

Which brings us to Example B: Over in Colorado, once a state you associated with cowboys, oil, rugged terrain, and flinty folk who could smell snow a-comin’ down the pass, the Colorado Symphony had a “Classically Cannabis” event last May. Reefer and Bach.

What’s the prob? Why, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was based on Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater,” in which the narrator gets loaded, dreams he murdered his beloved, observes his own guillotine execution, then attends a witches’ orgy, which is pretty METAL, dude.

Granted. Hector probably wrote it hopped up on goofballs, but it is difficult to appreciate his work under the influence of opiates, and surely more difficult to play it. Although someone who has ingested lots of meth could probably play John Cage’s “4′33″” in under two minutes.

Putting the “high” in “high culture” will not be the end of the Republic, but if orchestras want to perform in a smoke-choked hall it’s an admission that modern audiences cannot be expected to appreciate a symphony with a clear mind, but must be eased into an appreciative state with chemical assistance. Because the glories of Beethoven’s Ninth are just missing something, really.

Granted, sometimes when you’re listening to a Philip Glass piece, feeling as though you’re being pecked to death by starlings, a glass of wine would be nice. But in general the classical repertoire isn’t about enhancing consciousness, it’s about explaining it. Orchestrating funky-bumpy rap does not elevate the common, or popularize the venerable tradition of massed instruments performing complex works of timeless entrancement. It signifies exhaustion of serious people and serious art.

Oh, they said that about Gershwin, bringing jazz to Aeolian Hall, and now we worship “Rhapsody in Blue.” True. But do you know what the difference is? No? Then you’re just the sort of person they’re looking to entertain.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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