Goodbye 2017, a year of peril and madness

If nothing else, 2017 tested one’s ability to live by rule that one doesn’t speak about politics or religion in polite company.

I’ve struggled to come up with some New Year’s thoughts this year because, frankly, it feels a little absurd to be talking about favourite concerts and exposition repeats (you should take them) when the political situation in my country is in a state of unprecedented decay and depravity. The biggest question of 2017, for the whole world, seems obviously to be whether America’s self-inflicted wounds are going to be fatal or not. That this moment of grave historical peril is happening is doubly infuriating because the threats and challenges that threaten to destroy our society, the international rule of law, and the ecological balance of the planet are pretty well-understood and relatively easily addressed. And yet, with the world’s dominant nation run almost entirely by a kleptocratic cult led by a mentally impaired, orange-faced comb-over fascist, it has been a year in which it seems virtually every political decision has been calculated to inflict maximum harm upon humanity at home and abroad, and on the planet. It gives me no pleasure to say I saw Trump’s election coming (I was pretty roundly shouted down by my FB friends when I called it back in August of 2016), but I honestly don’t know what comes next. The fact that we managed to completely botch our responses to the last two major challenges we’ve faced, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, doesn’t exactly bode well. If President Obama had taken even one serious action to address the systemic causes of the 2008 crash, we wouldn’t be where we are today, so this is not a one-party problem.

For all the madness, corruption, idiocy and disregard for common sense and human decency that has dominated our politics this year, one gets the sense that we are astride a knife-edge moment in human history, ready on one side, to plunge into an abyss the likes of which we haven’t seen since the last World War. And yet, there are reasons to be hopeful- this year’s orgy of evil seems to have triggered a new political awakening which could turn our politics away from the cynical consensus which has dominated both American parties and spread across much of the world for the last forty years. The fact that the widely feared and expected sweep of Europe by other neo-fascists didn’t materialise after Trump’s election ought to be a source of real encouragement. Voices on the right and left calling for real political reform are louder than in a generation. A new, more hopeful, era could be just around the corner. Or it could be totalitarianism and mushroom clouds this time next year. The stakes are terrifyingly high, make no mistake. If we don’t change course, dismantling great universities, selling off our National Monuments, and even taking away health care from millions of people will seem like quaint worries.

I am quite sure that 2018 is going to be the most important year in our lifetimes- it will be a tipping point for good or ill. Turning back the forces which have consumed our nation and which threaten all of humanity will take an act of political will the likes of which our country has never delivered before. We’ve proven pretty good at decisive wars, but pretty bad at decisive political action, but the New Deal and Trust Busting of Teddy Roosevelt offer useful models. The majority of Americans who want to live in a tolerant, healthy, productive society will, in the next eleven months, have to overcome the political power of the oligarchy, the ingrained cynicism of the corporate media, vast corruption in the management of elections nationwide by state and local governments, and a networks of courts co-opted by corrupt know-nothing judges put in place to protect the interests of those who have hijacked our nation. As 2018 begins, the most powerful political force in the world is a party which doesn’t believe in science, facts or the rule of law. And the opposition party is corrupt, cynical, ineffectual and divided. Anything could happen.

In such perilous, grim and dangerous times, what is the point of being a musician? Does music have a place in an age of apathy (I could write a book about cultural apathy in the modern age) and despair? History teaches us that in dark eras, music matters more than ever, but is our current music industry fit for purpose? Can we rise to the occasion and make a difference to the world through profound, honest, original and outward-facing music as Copland did in the Great Depression or as Shostakovich did in the Battle of Leningrad? The forty-year fight to keep the musical lights turned on in an era of ever- shrinking revenues has meant that as a sector, we seem to have long since given up the fight to make the case for art music’s inherent, intrinsic value to humanity. There was a time, not so long ago, when the notion that art and entertainment were fundamentally different things (with significant areas of overlap) was not a controversial idea. No more.Money and popularity have become the only accepted measures of importance. Nowadays, art has to fight for survival in the commercial arena on the same terms as corporately funded junk culture.  And junk culture it is. Pop music and rock, which gave us so many creators of genius in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, comes into 2018 eating its own rotting corpse, recycling decades old clichés when it can be bothered to reach beyond watered-down cover songs. When American threatened to rip itself to pieces in the 1960’s, it wasn’t the next Copland who gave the nation the right songs for the time, it was Jimi Henrix, The Doors, Richie Havens and the rest of the Woodstock crowd. I don’t think the poet of our generation is going to emerge singing Madonna covers on America’s Got Talent.

The music world at the end of 2017 feels hugely enfeebled.

Again and again this year, I have found myself thinking that the common thread running through discussions about (classical) music and audiences, music and identity politics, and music and media is that, as a sector, so many of our colleagues have completely lost faith in music itself. Many of us seem to have given up trying to create the conditions for engaged and focused listening grounded in the belief that music affects us most deeply when we listen to it with the most intensity. Instead, we’ve staked our future on projections, promo videos, audience banter, clapping between movements, sycophantic embrace of pop culture, interdisciplinary work, box ticking, celebrity culture, marketing claptrap and identity politics. The idea that one could simply hear a piece of music and be moved deeply by it without any additional stimulus seems to carry no water at all. It’s no secret that art music of all kinds (including jazz, folk, rock and world music) faces huge economic challenges, but I have yet to see any proof that our wholesale embrace of bullshit and gimmicks as balm for all our ills is helping us build the audience of the future.

The great irony of the cultural (or anti-cultural) moment we find ourselves in is that this loss of faith comes at a moment when the creative side of classical music is in a golden age. There is so much fantastic music being written these days in so many styles that it is simply staggering. Likewise, there is a tidal wave of renewal and innovation tearing through the industry that has nothing to do with bullshit, entertainment or celebrity. A whole new generation of orchestras, ensembles, festivals and presenters are finding ways to delivery sensational performances of hugely innovative programs full of honesty and originality. If we could find a way to properly reward and support real innovation across the sector, just think what we could achieve. It remains a source of grave frustration that the kind of investment that would actually make the most difference to our art form (reliable small and medium sized tranches which can support a working framework for emerging and growing organisations) remains the hardest to come by. In my experience, the best work in the industry is being done in the most challenging circumstances. It is much the same in pop and rock- there is a generation of hugely gifted players and songwriters out there who have exactly zero chance of any of their music ever making it onto corporate radio or making any sort of profit from record sales. That seems an insane state of affairs, but we live in insane times.

I’m also a staunch believer in the importance of big institutions. It just saddens me that so many of them are so paralysed by groupthink and complacency. We can take comfort from the fact that the biggest of them all, the Berlin Philharmonic, has hired a new Principal Conductor on the basis of his musicianship and is doing such interesting and innovative work to engage with new audiences worldwide. The tale of several American orchestras which have risen hugely in artistic achievement only to crash into financial crisis is deeply worrying- when society ceases to support excellence, we are all at risk. The two major international conductors whose careers have capsized recently in sexual assault and/or harassment scandals are representatives of a whole generation of maestri who came of age in an era of easy money and unchecked power. Where conductors like Barbirolli and Solti had to help re-build their orchestras from scratch in the 1940’s and 50’s, this generation now finishing up got handed the keys to the family Bentley when they came of age and never had to worry about where the next tank of petrol was coming from for the rest of their careers. They took that metaphorical car on a free-spending generation-long joyride of forgettable recordings and middle-of-the-road concerts, and we now find our industry more or less out of gas and stalled on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with a battered Bentley with a backseat full of empty beer bottles.

If my generation, and that of my students and younger colleagues, has inherited an industry weakened from poor internal leadership, and trapped in a social context in which educational and cultural tends have been charging in the wrong direction for forty years, we can at least take comfort in the fact that history gives us a chance to show our mettle by having the courage to find a way to restore and reform our art form. We need not feel sorry for ourselves when we see what previous generations of musicians have done during times of war, economic collapse and oppression since the beginning of history. It’s been worse before and will be better again, barring a mushroom cloud over North Korea. In the last generation, it was the Bentley that mattered, in ours, it’s the petrol- our creative energy, our moral force, our communicative urgency.

On the day after Trump’s election, the group I was with cancelled our rehearsal. None of us could face trying to find the energy to make music at such a horrible moment. The next day, though, we came back to work, and by the end of the first hour, we all felt quite a bit saner. That first hour was conducted in monosyllabic style, but the end of the day, we were speaking in sentences. So it has continued for the next 13 months. With so much at stake in the world, being a musician can feel like an indulgence, and yet it is music and my family which has gotten me through 2017, and I expect I am not alone. And when being a musician means you can be part of bringing a piece like Philip Sawyers’ Third Symphony to life, a piece which seems to so powerfully capture the sense of dread and rage so many of us feel about the state of the world today, but offers an ending that is hugely hopeful and defiant, our work feels far less indulgent. Art helps us in ways both tangible and mysterious, conscious and subconscious, to make sense of the world and to make sense of ourselves. All humanity has really ever had going for it was science, education, art and love. If we’re going to get through 2018, it will take a lot of all of those, and we artists have a big role to play in keeping this historical moment from being humanity’s “going out of business” sale. To all my friends and colleagues: let’s go out there and find and make the music which will help save the world.

Good luck to us all.

 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Goodbye 2017, a year of peril and madness”

  1. Mogulmeister

    This is a truly profound essay. And you’ve written what I’ve been saying to friends and others. The fact is, had Obama responded to the 2008 economic disaster with prosecutions and imprisonments, and real financial and other reforms rather than just the watered-down version (which was still useful), Donald Trump would not have happened. And there are many other mistakes Obama made which led us to the illegitimate orange-haired pretender.

    I’ll just speak personally here. What sustained me through this period was Bruckner’s music, and friends. After the stolen election results were clear, the only music I could take in was Bruckner’s 8th. To my ears, it speaks of a world fundamentally dislocated and off-kilter, and takes us on a journey to centered-ness and ultimately a triumph of the good. And you’re right, the Resistance is the only true source of comfort now, dragging along the Democratic party in its wake. But there are reasons for optimism. I’ll take it.

    Thank you for such a wonderful essay. It has deeper insights than the writings of many people who do that for a living.

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