How do you define a musical snob

Musical snobbery

William Ortiz:


One must acknowledge that historical accident that happened a little over five hundred years ago, namely the arrival of the European in America, without denying the great part and importance of Iberian culture for Latin American culture. If today Latin American culture has names and surnames, if today we can confirm that there is a guide that connects us all with the so-called "Latin American" peoples, it is thanks to the presence of Iberian culture in our geographical area. A new civilization was born out of the metamorphosis and synthesis that resulted from the mutual relationships between the natives, the Peninsulans and finally the Africans. It emerged from the extraordinary symbiosis of mutual discovery and encounters that contributed to the forging of a culture with its own profile, a culture that today defines us as part of that conglomerate of peoples called Latin America.

As for Puerto Rican culture, it is important to emphasize that, as negative factors in Spanish colonial heritage, we have suffered the ruthless whip of the extermination of our native people, as well as their inferiority. We have suffered from the whip of authoritarianism, clericalism, militarism, racism and finally cultural elitism. Especially with regard to music, the establishment of this cultural elite thinking is largely due to the Spanish conquerors and colonizers, who not only infected us with their diseases, but also brought an allegedly higher musical culture in the name of Christianity and who ignored or rejected the native culture. Over time, after evolution and synthesis, the upper and middle Creole layers have used this European musical culture as a tool to assert their own "status quo".

The maintenance of this snobbery (the snob already has an attitude of superiority and despises everything he considers inferior) is the work of various social factors. One of these factors is music education. The tendency to idolize the music and composers of the past is a cultural phenomenon that we inherited from Europe. For example, one must reassess the "music understanding" class, where students are taught - perhaps unconsciously - that the only legitimate music is that of the past. Many of these educators have no understanding of new music and, be it serious or entertaining, have no interest in it. They are snooty of any music that is not a recognized "masterpiece", and even more so if it has not been composed by a deceased European.

Whatever the pedagogical shortcomings in the subject of "understanding music", it is very successful as a market strategy. Instead of examining the music as such, the "trainers" in music understanding attach great importance to reputation and personality: the great composers, the great interpreters. The aversion to modernity, to contemporary culture, produces an endless catalog of goods: the well-known masterpieces that can be ruminated indefinitely. The result is a manipulable audience for concert and chamber music, if only the music is famous, old and European.

This process of deification has divided music into holy and sinful, high and low. Symphonies are locked in a reliquary to be worshiped by a privileged but passive audience, not a diverse and responsive audience. This calcified rite of today's concerts with an artist who is far away and a complacent audience is also a legacy of this snobbish development.

Another aspect that has contributed to the persistence of this situation can be found among the professionals of the music themselves: the critics, the conductors, the musicologists and the orchestral musicians. How often have we heard people say after a concert: "It was interesting" or "I don't know if I liked it because I don't understand anything about music" or "I like music but I don't understand contemporary music" , and so on. The idea that music has to be understood persists, although no one knows exactly what is to be understood. Understanding in this case presupposes a meaning and not a definable structure. Therefore, the audience has generally given up their own opinion and independent thinking and left this task to the experts. Public opinion is easily manipulated by the power of a music critic's word. So it has become a bad habit to look for sophisticated reasons for the music instead of just enjoying it. In reality, the critic is interested in preserving European aesthetics and technology in order to assert his own status and reputation as a "connoisseur" of good music. Even more, he was able to convince the audience that it must be like that. What matters is the opinion of the critic, what the audience believes is not important. Usually this type of confirmation is not enough to keep the musical snobbery we suffer from alive.

There are really only two types of music: well-made and badly-made music. The rest is a matter of personal taste. The only criterion that comes into consideration has to be artistic quality and not necessarily popularity or reputation. If we like to believe that concert music has the noble task of transcending the dichotomy of privileged and oppressed, of high and low, of rich and poor, of you and us, this belief could be very salutary in averting pride, in other words to get down from the pedestal, to come out of the ivory tower. One should seek the way to the musical primal instincts of normal mortals, from which music springs, for and through which music is made, and without which one cannot exist. It seems to me that many professionals in the field of concert music have lost touch with the tastes and realities of the people. Perhaps because they underestimate it, for example in the sense of popular superstition that classical music has a higher priority than popular music from the start.

If an art is to be truly contemporary, it must have the cultural power and support of the society that produced it. One of the peculiarities of Latin American society is the habit of our intellectuals to always reflect on culture in European terms, as if culture were exclusively synonymous with European tastes and European achievements in music, the visual arts, and literature. It is understandable that a composer who tends to think abstractly would want to stay within the framework of the European tradition, since the great names and masterpieces in history are associated with this tradition. Perhaps he thinks his status and reputation as a "serious" composer will be jeopardized if he renounced that tradition. The historical concept, which assumes that all music is a product of individuals outside of space and time, and that society has little or no influence on it, helps to distort this reality. The reality is that music cannot exist without an audience. Music history is the story of composers and works that have become famous in one way or another. All crises in western music history are crises that can be traced back to the relationship between producers and consumers. Essentially, there have been conflicts between complexity and simplicity. Indeed, one can see this vicious circle of periods of complexity and simplicity throughout the history of music. A very simple music means no challenge to the listener and loses interest. Very complex music is frustrating for him and he also loses interest. In my opinion, complex music is not much better or worse than simple music. The trick or idea is to find the center point.

As a composer, I've always been interested in relating my music to life around me. How to achieve this integration in today's society with new technological and scientific achievements and new social problems, that is the challenge. What is not needed once and for all is the snobbery that undermines any attempt to unite our fragile and fragmented musical culture.

I wish that a new type of musician would now emerge: a free thinker who accepts, admires and validates all of the inspiring and creative sound potential; a musician who does not take the juxtaposition of high and low culture as a starting point. This will allow us decency and truth in order to attain beauty wherever it may be without hiding this freedom from others.

© 1995, William Ortiz

In: MusikTexte, Nº 61, Cologne, October 1995 (translation from Spanish: Graciela Paraskevaídis)