Music for change?

Gordon Downie reviews the Reith Lectures 2006, BBC Radio 4, Friday 9am, April 7 - May 5

Gordon Downie is a composer. His latest BBC commission for orchestra will be premiered on Radio 3 later this year.

The BBC's first director-general, Sir John Reith, established the Reith Lectures in 1948 with a view to "advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest" (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith/reith_history.shtml). During the intervening 58 years, we might wonder who has been responsible for determining what is of interest and to what extent public understanding has been advanced beyond that proscriptive ideological and discursive terrain delimited by the BBC's role as official state broadcaster.

A brief tour through previous contributions to the lectures indicates the extent of this terrain. Speaking in 1966, JK Galbraith celebrated the trickle-down theory as a means to humanise and tame capital when he remarked jocularly that "If you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kenneth_Galbraith); whilst his wry dismissal of the socialist project was neatly summed up in his assertion that "Under capitalism man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite" (ibid). More recently, the 1999 lecture offered Anthony Giddens another opportunity to offer his theoretical gloss on there-is-no-alternative by reiterating those capitulatory formulas expounded in his Beyond left and right and The third way.

What these speakers have in common is the erection of political philosophies and socio-economic theories that appease and make an accommodation with capital. Though articulated in a different form, these diversionary tactics are continued in this year's instalment, whilst all three contributions typically gain credibility through association by their inclusion in a lecture series that has also featured, in 1991, an illuminating presentation by the geneticist, Dr Steve Jones.

The biblical overtones of the title of the first 2006 Reith Lecture, 'In the beginning was sound', not only illustrates the general ethos of the talks themselves, but indicates the extent to which music, and culture generally, is surrogate religion, created and/or consumed as a form of refuge or deflection to mask the underlying materialist foundation of those forms of systemic inequality, oppression and coercion that otherwise form the basis of state capitalist power. For Daniel Barenboim, the celebrated classical musician and this year's guest lecturer, "Music is a way to make sense of the world, our politics, our future, and our very essence" (Reith Lecture, April 7).

Like so much cultural production and all religious sentiment, this is meaningless and utterly vacuous. But, given the invited audience's hushed, approving sighs of wonder that accompany such statements, and the popularity of similarly formed expressions and affectations made by maestros on and off the podium, it is clear that for the culturally inclined bourgeois, art transcends objective, material reality. For the caring bourgeois and Radio 4 listener, this really is a way to make sense of the world.

This, of course, is very useful for the music business, whether corporate or academic. It enables the depoliticisation of cultural production and reproduction and its redefinition in terms that drain such activities of those relations of exploitation and expropriation that characterise all economic and productive relations in capitalist society. This enables the kind of scandalous wage differentials and inequalities that exist between maestro and rank and file orchestral musician to be misrecognised and/or justified as objective characteristics of the field, the allocation of reward reflecting the allegedly asymmetrical distribution of that conveniently illusive and mystical commodity, talent.

And it further enables the romanticisation of those slave-like working conditions endured by Baroque and classical court musicians who were forced to churn out ditty after cheerful ditty for indolent, slothful, musically illiterate and exploitative church and aristocracy. Their achievements continue today to fill the coffers of stars of the podium and record companies, and offer an endless supply of analytical and discursive fodder for the bourgeois music academy. And, though their 19th century descendants were in large measure freed from this slavery, the chains were replaced by newly emerging market forces that were in large measure responsible for the virtuoso, pyrotechnical form that much of Chopin's and Liszt's music took: how else could an aspirant but largely uncultivated bourgeoisie be appeased and titillated? This music was the product of fear, not divine inspiration or revelation.

Daniel Barenboim is one of the highest paid musicians in the world, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the highest paid conductor in the US (www.playbill-arts.com). As chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he was paid nearly $2 million during the 2003-04 season, and this is in addition to his directorship at the Berlin State Opera and other freelance work.

But Barenboim does not do it for the financial reward. Reflecting on his new appointment at the Berlin State Opera, he remarked that "I'm not going to Berlin for the money. My contract is less than I would get if I were freelancing there. I don't play music because I need to make money. I could retire comfortably today if I wanted" (N Lebrecht The maestro myth London 1991, p336).

Impressive as his own remuneration may be, other prominent maestros are not far behind, with James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera enjoying $1.9 million, Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony $1.6 million, and Esa-Pekka Salonen of the Los Angeles Philharmonic $1.3 million, to name just a few (http://myauditions.com). "Among the 18 American orchestras with 52-week contracts, at least seven pay their music directors more than $1 million, and three pay their managers more than $700,000" (http://select.nytimes.com).

These rewards are in stark contrast to those salaries endured by orchestral rank and file musicians, whose pay has either stagnated or fallen in real terms. A player in the New York Philharmonic earns just $103,000, whilst their counterparts in BBC regional orchestras earn just short of £25,000. In recent years, unrest over such inequities has led 14 members of the Houston Symphony Orchestra to resign en masse.

But these inequalities are not the kind of facts that fill Barenboim with horror. For Barenboim, real obscenity, he tells us in his second lecture, can be found in the use of classical masterpieces as ambient wallpaper in hotel elevators and television commercials. No matter that orchestras go bankrupt filling the avaricious pockets of jet-setting maestros, what we should really worry about is the use of Mozart to advertise bathroom fittings.

Of course, it is obscene that, for capital, all products of human imagination and intellectual endeavour can be appropriated, commodified, and enlisted in the service of private capital accumulation. But this, it would seem, is not what worries Barenboim. His desire to focus our attention on superstructural epiphenomena like muzak functions to distract us from the true causes of such obscenities, so that the extent to which his profession benefits from them can be obscured by what Marx called "idealist humbug" (K Marx, F Engels The German ideology London 1965, p50).

The real process of privatisation here is the appropriation, exploitation and canonisation of a selective and narrowly defined historical repertoire, a repertoire ideally suited to the exhibition of those reified, show business mannerisms that enable the modern maestro to assert their dominance of the industry. Here, affectation is the physical embodiment of ideology.

So quite what is it that Barenboim and others of his ilk do to command such astronomical salaries, consumer adulation and multi-figure record deals? There is certainly a division of labour within the orchestra that requires different skills and different forms of training and education. But the staggering pay differentials do not reflect this. Within the orchestral world it is very well known that the majority of conductors are poor, or very poor, technicians and interpreters, and exhibit little managerial skill or awareness.

But like music composition itself, conducting is an inadequately formalised skill. We should reflect whether this lack of systematisation is due to the resistance of the medium itself to formal codification, or whether there are vested interests that benefit from its continued definition as something mystical and inherently impenetrable, and thus the product of quasi-religious intervention over which we have no control. By this definition, conducting is something that cannot be formalised.

In consequence, those that do pass the audition by learning the tricks of the trade first hand from already canonised maestros are to be revered and not subjected to customary standards of accountability.

The trick here then is the manufacture of scarcity, and it is why dinner party and interval drink conversations about conductors take a similar form to hushed chatter about rare diamonds and stones, artworks and other commodities whose availability is manipulated in order to control supply. However informally structured it might be, there is here a professional cartel at work, creating and exploiting a monopoly to maintain high rewards by controlling supply.

For Barenboim, music has an integrative, reconciliatory function that is trans-historical and trans-political. Nowhere is this belief better illustrated than in his formation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of both Israeli and Arab music students (two of this year's five Reith Lectures are given in Ramallah and Jerusalem). As Tory politician David Mellor, one of the invited audience, put it to Barenboim, "You obviously see [music] as something that can bring about political change" (Reith Lecture, April 7).

We have witnessed similar, apparently apolitical sentiments expressed by christian aid workers intervening and suffering abduction in Iraq, and perhaps this more than anything else illustrates the extent to which religion and culture function to create a wholly erroneous and dangerously distorted world view and false consciousness.

For Barenboim, placing a Beethoven symphony on the music stands of Israeli and Arab music students makes them all "equals" (Reith Lecture, April 7). That this region is the imperialist playground of the US and the chaos experienced there on a daily basis has its source in the politics of domination and capitalist expansionary drives seems not to have occurred to maestro Barenboim: quite how Beethoven solves this remains unclear.

But, of course, on a smaller scale and in a wholly different context, the symbolic and economic power wielded by Barenboim and his associates is a superstructural reflection of that economic and political power exercised by capitalist states on both a local and global level. This being the case, why bite the hand that feeds you?

Perhaps this would make an interesting Reith Lecture for 2007?