Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era, by Marianna Ritchey

Andrew Blake explains why Beethoven’s days may be numbered

September 12, 2019
Source: Getty

Neoliberal capitalism has incorporated all aspects of contemporary culture. Classical music, with its emphasis on training and technique as ends in themselves, seems resistant to the ideology of the free market. However, such training now promises entry into a radically unstable world of fierce competition, self-entrepreneurship, and “prosumerism”, in which music is just one form of information controlled by a few global high-tech companies, and musicians are mere service suppliers. Is there a future for classical music in this world?

While composers have engaged with the market for at least 200 years, for much of the 20th century this was at arm’s length. Modernist composers, having rejected the orthodoxies of narrative tonality (to the bewilderment of the general public), sought refuge from market forces: wealthy patrons, broadcasters and universities responded. While similarly controversial modernist art achieved significant sales potential (in neoliberal terms, “value”), modernist music did not, and did not seem to care. Composer (and university employee) Milton Babbitt notoriously claimed that his mathematically generated music could be appreciated only by those trained to listen to it.

In the later 1960s, minimalists such as Philip Glass reacted against this insularity, making music with clearly audible processes, and eventually winning a new audience. A generation on, composers such as Missy Mazzoli and Nico Muhly, who grew up playing rock and hip hop alongside their conservatoire training, courted popularity through electronic beats and repetitive riffs, topped by quasi-improvisatory lead lines: a post-minimalist “indie classical”. Marianna Ritchey perceptively identifies in this music an expressive anxiety that represents the precarity of neoliberal professional life.

The indies argue that their shared eclecticism is the only way to engage younger people with classical music. Neoliberal corporations have responded by commissioning their work. But corporate values go beyond the invocation of innovation. Walter Werzowa’s egregious mash-up of the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with his own four-note ident for PC chip maker Intel, was deployed in Intel’s 2016 “Experience Amazing” campaign. While this might indicate Intel’s wish to identify with the supposedly transcendent timelessness of classical music, Ritchey points out that Beethoven’s music is just as contingent and expressive of its times as that of the indie classicists. Indeed; although Beethoven’s insistence on his music’s independence from patron and audience expectations helped to form “classical music” as a mode of listening, composing and performing, one outcome was the subsidised independence of Babbitt et al.

However, the outcome here is to bring classical music to neoliberal heel. As Ritchey claims, the indie classicists’ work is very like film music, the new paradigm for all composition. Werzowa’s Beethoven mashup was first employed by Intel at a public launch of 100 drones, choreographed in a light show that deliberately emulated Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This aerial light show is matched in Werzowa’s arrangement, which cleverly evoked John Williams’ score for the movie. The “traditional” is incorporated into the multimedia present. Music is no longer to be listened to in and for itself, therefore classical music in Beethoven and Babbitt’s sense is dead. Ritchey’s interesting reflections in the postscript on the future of music criticism, and the potential for music outside capitalism, offer no way back.  

Andrew Blake is associate lecturer in journalism and publishing at the University of the Arts London.

Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era
By Marianna Ritchey
University of Chicago Press
224pp, £74.12 and £24.00
ISBN 9780226640068 and 9780226640235
Published 5 August 2019

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