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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Music, Culture and Distinction

As you can probably guess I've been spending time  reading the literature on cultural consumption. It's entirely possible that I have not been reading the right bits of it, but one of the things I'm missing in what I have been reading is any sense of process. To explain, forgive me if I lapse into the autobiographical again. 

For anyone born after, let's say 1900, there is one central fact about our cultural lives, the influence of  popular commercial culture delivered by the mass media: radio, cinema, TV, tabloid newspapers. This is part of everyone's cultural diet. It is the  given for everybody on  top of which other cultural tastes and preferences get added. You don't have to choose commercial culture, it is just there in the background all the time and there is bound to be some of it that you like at some point in your life. You simply can't avoid consuming it without going to enormous lengths (a couple I knew used to keep the TV in a cupboard so that they would have to make a positive choice to watch something, but they were in many respects quite exceptional). The question then becomes, how are the cultural omnivores created?

I don't think the answer is very deep: some are born to it and others have to seek it out. If there are alternatives to pop culture available in the family home then you have a wider range of things to choose from and some of them will stick. If, as in my case, there were few non commercial cultural resources then the problem becomes, how to find out what there is out there in the big wide world? You can only express preferences among the set of things you know about.

I learned nothing about music in school. For three years we had something called music lessons, but they were taught by a  borderline psychopath.  Mostly we sat in silence for fifty minutes because somebody had peeped their recorder at the wrong time causing the "teacher" to fall into an uncontrolled rage and the suspension of the lesson. In a rational system this individual would have been fired (or sectioned), but he saw his time out to retirement and strangled the musical experience of generations of pupils.

Another possible source of musical insight could have been church. If you are an Anglican then you have exposure to a rich fund of liturgical music. We though were non-conformists and although there was something called the church choir - a handful of warbling middle-aged ladies  - it didn't inspire me. I think there might once have been a performance by a visiting choir of that mainstay of middle-brow church music, Stainer's Crucifixion but that was about it.

As I've mentioned before Alan Freeman's Saturday afternoon radio show gave me an entre into a certain type of popular music that one wouldn't hear on the regular Radio 1 shows or more to the point Housewives' Choice which was what tended to be on in the background in our home. It seems to me that this and analogous shows functioned  like Alice's rabbit hole. You could fall down it and be taken to another world. I find this a persuasive argument for the retention of  nationwide public service broadcasting. It may be true that in our new digital media world there is so much more choice and opportunity, but existence of the material is not the same as having someone regularly pointing you in the right direction.

Also important for me were two  record stores within a 10 minute walk from my home. They were both essentially little corner shops with racks of vinyl, but two things were crucial. Firstly you could spend a long time  browsing and secondly they played music. I can still remember standing in one of them in 1977 and hearing the Clash's Career Opportunities. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before and I knew a new age had dawned! These guys were singing about me and kid's like me living in the grimy streets of English towns not in sunny California.

The local Carnegie library was another possible source of musical intelligence. They had just started to lend vinyl, though there was, at least for my pocket, a fairly hefty charge. I think I must have borrowed a few albums, but what I mostly remember is that every time I looked in the LP rack there was a copy of John and Beverley Martyn's Stormbringer that nobody ever seemed to borrow (perhaps somebody on the library staff thought they should support local girl Beverley Kutner!). I had no idea who John Martyn was or what kind of music he made. From the fact that nobody borrowed it I inferred that it must be rubbish! Without any sense of direction taste formation is just a process of serendipity.

By the time I got to university I thought I had popular music sorted. I also had a guitar and that focused my attention on a particular sort of acoustic music with the illusion that if I listened hard enough and practiced long enough I might be able to play like John Martyn. In fact my talent barely stretched to a ham fisted imitation of Loudon Wainwright III, but that is another story.

Classical music was still terra incognita. I literally hadn't a clue, but decided I wanted to find out, simply because, like Everest, it was there. So in the vacation between my second and third year I again went to our local library and borrowed vinyl more or less at random (I was now a bit richer as in those halcyon days students were entitled to social security during the Summer vacation and the idea of finding a job in Coventry in 1981 was, to put it mildly, ludicrous). This was an awfully big adventure, but if you don't know where you are going it's best just to set off and see where you end up. I still have a few of those recordings, copied (illicitly) to  cassette tape and now digitized. Some Mozart piano concertos, Purcell songs, Bach Violin Concertos and a brand new boxed set of Haydn string quartets. Somewhat bizarrely Haydn featured again that year in my musical education. The local Anglican church (a  fine 14th Century edifice) hosted an amateur chamber orchestra performance of Haydn's Seven Last Words and together with a couple of friends who were equally keen on self-improvement I went to my first classical concert.

And now another factor became important. Girls. In my social circle there were girls who either were studying at the music schools, were keen amateur performers or just knew about 'proper' music. This  introduced me to a social life in which going to concerts was just the natural thing to do. For a while I had a girlfriend who was a very good piano player and I have a fond recollection of going with her to a Murray Perahia concert at the newly opened Barbican. I was, of course, playing well out of my league, but it was fun while it lasted, my musical fumbling comically mirroring my sexual fumbling.

My interest in Jazz really came much later and was facilitated by one thing, having money in my pocket. Once I  had a job I had money to spare. I was renting a friend's apartment in a West London suburb right on the edge of civilization. It was a lonely place and a lonely time, but again I was lucky. The 'village' around which the suburb had grown had a record shop and a bookstore. The bookstore had a few books on jazz and the record store had a few recordings. Every Saturday, after doing my Waitrose shopping I had a punt and spent a few pounds on Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and  Oscar Peterson.  I just bought on spec and found out by trial and error what I liked and didn't like. It made the week-end interesting. You could say it was the transformation of one sort of capital into another, but that would just be trite.

So I wasn't born a cultural omnivore. I had to choose to become one and I had to have lucky breaks and the financial resources to take chances. In retrospect what I was doing was simply trying to make my life more interesting, to add savour and variety to what I had inherited - the commercial popular culture that everyone gets as standard. It was all about having life and having it more abundantly. What it wasn't about was making cultural or social distinctions. I doubt if any of my friends, colleagues or acquaintances had the faintest idea of my musical tastes and I certainly knew little in detail of  what they listened to. As I by then was moving in a  middle-class environment where some kind of generalized omnivore taste was standard it is difficult to see what kind of status advantage I could possibly have gained from advertising my musical preferences. It would have been as odd as proclaiming to all and sundry a love of HP sauce. Which is not to say that sometimes you aren't startled by the cultural preferences of people you think you know, like the eminent and highly cultured professor of sociology who once told me that he couldn't see the point of poetry. I suppose it's mildly shocking, in the same way that I'd find it odd if somebody told me that they didn't like chocolate. But I didn't think any the worse of him.

1 comment:

Primula Monkey said...

"What it wasn't about was making cultural or social distinctions.... it is difficult to see what kind of status advantage I could possibly have gained from advertising my musical preferences".

Off the top of my head and in reverse order re: status advantage, the interwar Glasgow Labour movement and the appreciation of, participation in and production of classical music via various Socialist music societies and choirs was self-consciously about establishing and projecting the respectability (and consequent political credibility) of those involved.

Music and social distinction - for a modern Glasgow example check some of the derogatory comments beneath this video.