Cultural Catastrophe

A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me what I studied while I attended university. I responded that I had primarily studied symphonic music composition and music theory. This same person then asked me what the word symphonic meant. As my heart sank silently inside me, I very politely provided an explanation of the adjective symphonic, while at the same time my mind was quietly reeling from the implications of such a level of apparent complete and utter cultural and musical ignorance.

The implication was that this person was completely unfamiliar with the universe of symphonic music, or “classical” music is such musical artistry of the highest order is all too often mischaracterized. I then patiently stated that the term symphonic is the adjective form of the word symphony, meaning music written for symphony orchestra, or more generally and accurately in the tradition of music written for the instruments of the symphony orchestra. Having to utter such words was quite a sad cultural experience.

However, it has been apparent for quite a long time that Western culture has devolved into a vapid wasteland of near complete cultural and artistic illiteracy. Apparently this nearly complete cultural illiteracy extends into nearly every aspect of the human experience. It seems that these days the average person’s cultural and artistic awareness doesn’t extend much beyond the pabulum fed them via their giant flat screen televisions by the corporate mass media propaganda machine, the insipid commercial pop music they hear on the radio from time to time and then download from Apple’s iTunes (from Apple reaps most of the profits, not the musicians), and from reading a likely less than yearly trash novel someone suggested they try because it was on the New York Times bestseller list. The giant wall mounted flat screen television as government propaganda intravenous feeding tube, was foretold with nearly prescient accuracy during the long ago 1960s in the movie version of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, in which the average non-reading human subject of that novel’s totalitarian government controlled society had flat screen televisions that accurately resembled today’s real life HDTV flat screens.

Contributing to this cultural catastrophe, for quite some time it has been apparent that public high schools are giving diplomas to people who can’t even perform basic tasks like conjugate verbs correctly, who don’t know the first thing about grammar in any event, and who couldn’t solve an algebra equation if their lives depended on it. Western culture is suffering from more than just a massive oligarchical wealth gap, it is suffering from an education gap, a knowledge gap, a wisdom gap, a perspicacity gap, and equally importantly, an extreme acculturation gap. On even the relatively limited plane of musical history, the average person has never really heard much of the foundations of the great common practice musical eras, from Bach, to Haydn and Mozart, and then Beethoven the great revolutionary, then followed by the romantics Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, who beckoned forth the likes of Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, and Mahler, before the early twentieth century sprung forth not just revolutions in every other aspect of the human experience, the multiple musical revolutions that inspired the works of Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin, and then the Viennese Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, until even their ideas were cast aside as a free for all of thinking and invention brought the unlimited range of expression and combinations of expression that inspire the music of our current young century, where anything and everything is surely possible, even if few people may ever know that such fantastic musical creativity quietly flourishes only for an infinitesimally small audience of its connoisseurs.

However, such a mundane moment as one in which someone has to ask what the word symphonic means, implies that on a broader cultural level, something as catastrophic as some scientific claims about global warming has already happened. One deeper implication is that there isn’t even much point in trying to start much of any sort of conversation with such an average person. They don’t even have the vocabulary necessary to begin any sort of meaningful discourse about anything concrete, much less about the conceptual and the abstract. Beyond vocabulary, such people probably lack familiarity with even enough significant cultural symbols and metaphors to have the ability to establish mutual cognitive cultural congruence in a conversation.

Hopefully all this doesn’t sound like a gripe. It surely is a form of lamentation. It is as though what was once culture, not in a snobbish sense, but from the perspective of individual creative people who devote their entire lives to artistic endeavor, exists only by the support of some metaphorical form of life support machinery, gasping its last breaths. Despite such an experience, it seemed like the only reasonable response to such an experience was to walk away and get back to creative work, any form of creative work, with an assiduous focus on ensuring that every creative moment is fully informed by a deep respect for the depth of science that bolsters every form of great artistic endeavor.

Marilyn Perry