Western Culture and Boredom

In a previous post I discussed the bias that many westerners have against the western culture of the Middle Ages. (See Article Here). In today’s post I will expand on this idea and offer my perspective on the current western cultural attitude respective of history in general and the effect that I believe it has had on the western classical music tradition. I would like to start with a quote by Todd Aglialoro, the author of a recent blog post that I read. I believe that he hit the nail on the head even though he wasn’t talking specifically about history or music. He identified the phenomenon in question as a type of cultural boredom. “Fifty years of imbibing multiculturalism, relativism, religious indifferentism, and every other sort of –ism aimed at untethering our culture from its foundation, has left us in a posture of weary disdain for our Christian, European patrimony, and a reflexive preference for anything foreign to it.” In other words, people today are bored with (even ashamed of) western culture.

 

This boredom has created a rush to embrace anything that is exotic or avant garde and conversely there is a tendency to condemn anything that is in-line with traditional western values. Consider the popularity of eastern trends such as yoga, martial arts, tattooing, and unusual piercing. I do not mean to criticize these practices as much as point out their importation into western culture. I live in an urban area and there are many eastern people (particularly Muslim and Hindu women) who wear traditional clothing that reflects their heritage. This style of clothing is not “modern” and has no doubt been “in style” for many hundreds of years. Western concepts of style, on the other hand, change every year (every season actually). The clothing and fashion industry in the west since the end of the nineteenth century is far more reflective of a highly class oriented capitalistic ideology than traditional western ideology which was far more egalitarian in the sense that (with the exception of governmental personages) the majority was essentially equal in social status. Moreover, the modern westerner, although very open to the idea of non-western traditions, is generally quite hostile to the idea of adherence to a purely traditional western ethical standard. Suggesting that women should wear dresses, that men have a responsibility to be the sole provider in a household, or that a woman ought to stay home to raise children is of the utmost offence in our society even though this is the traditional western view. There seems to be the general perception that western culture and values are simply incomplete or even perverse. Western culture then is considered old fashioned, and western culture that has imbibed enough of the exotic or avant garde to no longer be recognizable as truly western culture—and therefore can be tolerated—is “in style” or modern.

 

I now move on to an anecdote that illustrates part of this cultural phenomenon. I recently met with a bride at whose wedding I was to be the organist. She asked me if she could have her wedding service played on the piano rather than the organ. I was happy to oblige her and told her so, but asked if there was a reason she didn’t want organ music at her wedding. She told me that the organ was very old-fashioned sounding. I cheerfully explained that it would not be a problem and we proceeded to select music, none of which was traditional sacred music. Here’s the point. I have no problem with her musical selections and choice of instrument. I thought them very appropriate for a wedding. I certainly did not mind accomodating her preferences in music, however I did take note that she too had fallen prey to the notion that we must avoid association with the past. As she said, she didn’t want something old-fashioned in her wedding. What she really meant (perhaps without realizing it) was that she didn’t want anything associated with traditional western European tradition in her wedding.

 

This leads us to the main point of this post, which is to discuss the impact that this mindset has had on western classical music. As a piano teacher, I have seen the decline in interest of playing piano music from the western classical tradition, and as a church musician I have seen the infiltration of the exotic and modern into Christian and Catholic liturgy. For example, if you visit any sheet music shop you will find stacks of classical music around the perimeter of the room on bookshelves. In the front and center of the room you will find any number of popular sheets by Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, et al. These are sold at huge markups and are marketed to their target audience (kids and teenagers) by very colorful cover artwork and glamorous shots of the celebrities. Few if any of these sheets are actually put to use. Most of them sit on the bookshelf at home. “One day I’ll learn this,” say most of the music students who own them. Additionally, few people today are enthusiastic about the great music masters of European and American history. Even in the 1980s you could still find Horowitz’s records alongside those of Elvis Presley and Madonna, but today these must be special ordered or purchased on iTunes. The Church has likewise experience a shift in the type of music used for worship. We have gone from Gregorian chant to the great monumental works of Palestrina, Bach, Vivaldi, and Bruckner and finally to repetitive four-chord songs by a guy in ripped jeans. All in the name of being hip, current, or up-to-date. Music in the church has ceased to function as an integral part of the sacrifice but instead functions as a lure to coax the reluctant into one’s gathering or as selfish entertainment because church would be too boring otherwise. (By the way, this is not a criticism of so-called Contemporary Christian Music, but rather a criticism of the modernist spirit that says that we must constantly have that which is new or different because that which is old is spent, archaic, or boring.)

 

Why is this? I believe it comes from an incorrect understanding of what our history represents. Students (of all ages) see history books and pictures of historical figures and their reaction is to shrug, roll their eyes, and dread the endless memorization of names, dates, and places. What most people fail to realize is that the foundation of our culture is built on the events that occurred in the past. When one attempts to remove a brick from this foundation, there is a necessary collapse. For example, the modern popular music that we today enjoy is only understandable as music within the context of our music’s history. If you took someone from a remote isolated island village and brought them to the West and let them listen to Michael Jackson’s music, there would be little-to-no reaction. They would not necessarily have a negative or positive reaction. They would have no concept of what they were hearing. Only with explanation and/or education would they finally realize that they were hearing what westerners identify as music. Only then would they begin to recognize rhythm, melody (assuming they could make sense of our twelve-tone tuning system), harmony (the presence of one or more notes simultaneously), or meter (time signature for you music students). Therefore, it is only with the full development of the western music phenomenon up to the present era that the popular music we hear on the radio means anything to anyone. If we ever take these components for granted, we risk losing the very reason for our music’s existence, and within a generation or two, music would evolve (or possibly devolve) into something quite different. As I have stated in other posts, I believe that we should embrace our history and develop our inherited culture rather than trying to stifle it.

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