Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Can We Hear Class in Music?

This is a question that I repeatedly ask myself as I think about the relationship between the music we hear and the society in which it’s performed. I started thinking about it again after reading a bit further into the work of János Maróthy, a Hungarian musicologist who specialized in discussing the inherence of social class in music and its history.

I pretty much rejected Maróthy out of hand while writing Dreaming in Middletown, mainly because I wanted to take a more open, cultural approach to music and class than his strict Marxist approach would permit. Also, his historical domain – feudal and proto-capitalist Europe – was quite distinct from the twentieth-century America which I was studying.

But Maróthy is concerned with a problem which faces any musicologist studying how the social is mediated through the musical. The issue isn’t about mapping consumption patterns or taste, or some crude one-to-one congruence of musical type to social group. It’s about how social realities are – what’s the right word here? – immanent, inherent, enacted in music itself.

Maróthy, studying bourgeois music in Europe, described what he saw as certain continuities of style which he felt were linked to the individualist, ego-centred nature of bourgeois consciousness. He saw something in the music, in its predictable phrase periods and its insistence on squareness and closure in its rhythmic and melodic character, that remained surprisingly regular across a fair swath of European history.

Though this is clearly a generalization that won’t hold up in every individual instance, the bourgeois style (mostly clearly seen in song, but also in instrumental concert music and other forms) musically expressed a worldview that stressed order, the security of boundaries, and regularity which Maróthy felt contrasted with the music of the peasant and working class.

Disappointingly, though, the clichés about the bourgeois world creep in: their music expresses the “emptiness” of bourgeois life, the emotionality of the music is described as artificial, full of fake sentimentality and overstated bombast. In his Marxist narrative, it is necessarily so.

But that doesn’t mean that Maróthy is not usefully wrestling with a central concern here, and his work provides a deep and meaningful meditation on the question of how music represents social reality (or rather, how social reality is *embodied* in music).

Maróthy wants to approach musical sound as something more than a system of signs or representations. For him, music’s rhythms and gestures are those of human activity itself, ritualized. For example, he states, “what is actually ‘in’, in a musical process, is neither the ‘meaning’ or some structural analogue of our feelings, neural substrates or the universe but we ourselves. It creates a field of force, in which we behave accordingly, in a real or imaginary way.”

In other words, human activity, and therefore the identities people perform, is inherent in music itself.

Now, this is not an unparalleled idea. Musicologists like Christopher Small, new musicologists like Susan McClary, ethnomusicologists all over the map, as well as some in cultural studies, have said something like this in a variety of ways.

The acknowledged problem with this approach is that the theory connecting music’s sounds with social structures has never been satisfactory. The loose ends were never quite tied together. Richard Middleton, reviewing Maróthy’s Music and the Bourgeois: Music and the Proletarian (1974), noted:

Another problem – one common to all sociologies of music – is the connection of musical technique to social determinant. On what grounds is, say, the bourgeois lyrical song to be related to certain socio-historical phenomena? One can accept so much on an intuitive basis, but when the system is extended into more detailed areas, doubt creeps in.

Ultimately, Middleton points out, the argument becomes circular. The social is inherent in music, because music is a social phenomenon.

Another commentator, Michael Morse, pointed out that Maróthy had other problems, such as explaining how bourgeois music could express a bourgeois class consciousness when the composers and performers of the music were not of that class. It was music for the bourgeois audience, but not made by them. “The tricky part,” says Morse, “is that Maróthy must assign a state (or content) of consciousness to people who not only were unaware that they had it, but who characteristically and vehemently deny that such a thing is possible in the first place.”

Maróthy is one of the few musicologists to really explore the possibility of the immanence of social class in music, and I benefited from using his example to revisit this question about how we can explain the connection between the social and the musical.