The Elvis-from-Andover Syndrome
newmusicbox October 26, 2007

One approach to this question about aesthetic distinctions might be to examine the ironic dichotomies between elite education and aesthetic egalitarianism. To start, on might read Malcolm Gladwell’s interesting article “Getting In: The social logic of Ivy League admissions” (The New Yorker, Oct. 10, 2005.) It touches on numerous social theories surrounding elitism and egalitarianism. You can read it here.

The Ivy League plays an enormous role in creating and defining new “classical” music in the USA , so the concepts of elitism in these schools are worth examining, especially in relation to the egalitarian philosophies of postmodernism. How can these elite music schools, many of which favor postmodern philosophy, de-center aesthetic authority and move it toward more egalitarian standards centered in popular culture? In short, how do you resolve the inherent conflict between academic elitism and aesthetic egalitarianism?

Is postmodern philosophy in elite musical academia like saying we’ll find the next great rock star among a group of Elvis impersonators at Andover ? Or are great rock and pop stars usually individuals with strong roots among the common people who form mass markets? Are the best rock artists more likely to come from Princeton , or from some place like Cal State Fullerton? Or even more likely, not from a university at all?

If most successful “classical” composers started coming from places like Fullerton , wouldn’t elite academia quickly abandon postmodern philosophy because it would represent a genuine loss of power and status? Isn’t it the actual purpose of academic postmodernism is to affect egalitarianism, and not to really create it? What is postmodern art without its irony of affectation, its dislocation of style?

Many modernists used elements of jazz in “Third Stream” music, but they never abandoned an ethos that classical music was still relatively distinct – even elite. It was the perceived difference between jazz and classical, including concepts of status, that gave Third Stream music its meaning. See Igor and Lenny get down and low.

Postmodernism is different. It asserts that the distinctions between low and high culture are largely meaningless. So how do we define the goal of university music departments, especially in elite schools? Are they to produce rock-and-roll Ph.D.s that will appeal to the masses? Might we term this postmodernism’s “Elvis-from-Andover syndrome?

Or if synthesis is the goal, how is this done, when the beginning premise is that the distinctions between genres are illegitimate? To put it metaphorically, how do you create a good salad dressing if you fail to recognize the meaningful differences between oil and vinegar?

Classical music has always been a bastard. There was never any sense in claiming it had some sort of purity. But if we refuse to see its distinctions, do we paint ourselves into a philosophic and aesthetic corner?

William Osborne

Friday, October 26, 2007, 11:55:11 AM