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William Ortiz:

Musical Snobism


We have to recognize that historical accident which occurred more than 500 years ago: the arrival of the European in the Americas, without denying the great contribution and transcendence of Iberian culture to Latin American culture. If Latin American culture today has a proper name and surname; if we can declare that there is a common bond that unites us as Latin American people, this is due to the presence of the Iberian culture in our geographic space. Out of that transformation and synthesis which occurred through the interaction of native Americans, Iberians and later Africans, a new civilization is born, product of the extraordinary symbiosis of mutual discovery and the encounters which have contributed to the formation of a culture with its proper profile, which today defines us as part of that conglomerate of peoples known as Latin America.

In what concerns Puerto Rican culture, it is imperative to point out the fact that, as negative aspects of the colonial Hispanic heritage, we have had to endure the scourge of the merciless extermination of our indigenous population as well as its inferiorization. We have had to endure the scourge of authoritarianism, clericalism, militarism, racism and, by consequence, cultural elitism.

The establishment of this cultural elitism, specifically the musical, for our purposes, is due in large degree to the Spanish conquistadors and colonizers that in addition to transmitting their diseases, transplanted a supposedly superior musical culture in the name of christianity, ignoring and/or negating the native culture. With the passing of time and through evolution and synthesis, the Creole upper and middle classes have used this European musical culture as a tool to maintain their own "status quo".

The perpetuation of this snobism (since a snob is one who maintains an air of superiority and underestimates what he considers inferior), is the working of various social factors. One of these factors can be found in music education. The tendency to deify the composers and music of the past is a cultural phenomenon that we have inherited from Europe. Therefore, we should re-evaluate music appreciation courses which instill in the student, probably unintentionally, that the only legitimate music is that of the past. Much of the educators of these courses do not understand and do not have any interest at all in contemporary music, be it concert or popular. They raise their noses to all music that is not a certified "masterwork" and even more so if it is not written by a dead European.

Whatever the pedagogical deficiencies of music appreciation courses, they are extremely successful as a marketing strategy. Instead of focusing on the music itself, the "educators" of music appreciation pay attention to reputation and personality: the great composers, the great interpreters. The antipathy towards modern and contemporary culture maintains a permanent catalog of merchandise: familiar masterworks that can be recycled without end. The result is a manipulable public for symphonic and chamber music, just as long as the music is famous, old and European.

This process of deification has divided music into holy and malicious, high art and low art. Symphonies enclosed in a reliquary to be venerated by a privileged but passive audience, instead of a diversified and demonstrative audience. This calcified ritual of symphonic concerts, now-a-days in the Americas, with an aloof artist and a complacent audience, is a legacy of this developed snobism.

Another aspect that has contributed in perpetuating this situation could be found in the music professionals themselves: orchestral directors, musicologists, critics and classical musicians. How many times have we come out of a concert hearing people say: "It was interesting"; or "I don’t know if I liked it, but then again I don’t know much about music"; or "I like music but I don’t understand contemporary music", etcetera. The notion persists that music is something that has to be understood, although no one knows what exactly it is that you have to understand. Understanding implies in this case meaning and not some definable structure. Meanwhile, the public, in general, has renounced any opinion and has stopped thinking for itself, delegating that task to the professionals. The word power of the professional easily manipulates public opinion. The attributing of pretentious reasons for the music has evolved into a bad habit instead of just simply enjoying the message. Actually the professional is interested in perpetuating European aesthetics and techniques in order to maintain his status and prestige as "connoiseur" of good music. And even more so they have convinced the public that this is the way it has to be. What counts is professional opinion - it does not matter what the public thinks. Under normal conditions this type of endorsement would not be sufficient to maintain the musical snobism we are afflicted with.

In analysis there exist only two kinds of music: well-made music and badly-made music. The rest is a thing of personal taste. The only criteria that should be considered is artistic excellence and not necessarily popularity or reputation. If we would like to think that concert music has the noble commendation of transcending those dichotomies of privileged-oppressed, superior-inferior, rich-poor, they-us, it would be healthy indeed to avoid pretentiousness. The road to the basic musical instincts of the ordinary mortal should be sought. That human being from whom music is derived, for whom and why it is created and without whom it cannot exist. It seems to me that the experts of concert music have lost contact with the tastes and realities of the people. Most likely for considering these inferior - something that has been perpetuated by the popular superstition that classical music is by definition superior to popular music.

If an art is to be truly contemporary, it has to have the cultural force and support of the society in which it was born. One of the peculiarities of Latin American society (until recently) is the habit of our intellectuals to think about culture in European terms, as if culture were synonymous with European taste and achievements in music, art, literature, et alii. It is only natural for a composer who tends to be cerebral to prefer the continuation of the European traditio; after all, the great names and masterworks of musical history are associated with that culture. Perhaps he thinks that his status and prestige as a "serious" composer is endangered if he rejects that attitude. The historical concept that partakes in the premise that all music is the product of individuals, out of time and space, with very little, if any, influence from society, adds to distort reality. In actuality, music cannot exist without an audience. The history of music is the history of composers and compositions that have become known and loved in one way or the other. All the crises in the history of Western music have been based on the relationship between producer and consumer. In essence, there have been conflicts between complexity and simplicity. In fact, throughout the course of the history of music we are witness to cycles of periods of simplicity with periods of complexity. Simple music ceases to be a challenge to the listener and looses its interest. Complicated music may frustrate and likewise the listener will lose interest. As I understand it, complex music is not inherently better or worse than simple music. The trick or idea is to find the golden mean.

As a composer, I have always tried to relate my music to life about me. How to achieve this integration in today’s society, with new technological and scientific advances and with new social problems is a challenge. What we definitely don’t need is any snobism to undermine whatever intent there is to unify our fragile and fragmented music culture.

I would like to think that today there has evolved a new kind of musician. A free-thinker that accepts, admires and gives validity to all sonic resource that has the potential to inspire and create. Musicians that do not base their aesthetic considerations on high culture versus low culture. This would permit honesty and truth - to seek beauty where ever it is - without denying this liberty to others.

© 1996, William Ortiz

In: World New Music Magazine, Nº 6, Cologne, September 1996.


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