Music and Class, a talk by Susan Alexander-Max

This post was contributed by Dr Nathalie Wourm, a lecturer in French Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of European Cultures and Languages and co-director of Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community (BRAKC)

Susan Alexander-Max is not only a PhD student here in the Department of European Cultures and Languages at Birkbeck, she is also a renowned musician, a fortepianist and clavichordist. Susan is also the founder and director of The Music Collection, a gathering of world famous musicians dedicated to the performance with authentic instruments, of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and their contemporaries, around the fortepiano. It was a pleasure to welcome her for a talk on music and class, as part of the seminar series organised by Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community.

Susan’s PhD in French studies focuses on writer Marcel Proust, and his relationship to music. Here, she combined her interests, to provide examples of the discussion of class taking place in music, from Molière to Beaumarchais, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Proust, and film director Alain Resnais. But the premise of her argument centred around two famous works, ‘Summertime’ by George Gershwin, and John Cage’s 4′33″. Susan started by “performing” 4′33″ in front of a silent keyboard and empty sheet music. The sounds heard by the audience at 43 Gordon Square were numerous, from the loud tick tock of the room’s clock, to the buzzing noises of the projector and computer, to the outside sound of ambulance sirens and students chatting on the pavement. The point was made; the deconstruction of preconceived views of what constitutes music is at the source of Susan’s argument that music is classless, but that defining it is what creates boundaries and social divisions. Other examples of the deconstruction of music were taken from Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Michael Haneke’s film Caché and were convincing in showing how blurry the limit between spoken language and song can be, or between everyday noises and the playing of instruments. In that sense, Susan argued, defining what is and what is not music is an artificial exercise. The bourgoisie use their definition of music as a tool to isolate themselves from the rest of society. Susan’s talk was topical, as it is only a week ago that, in The Guardian, Daniel Barenboim was criticising ‘the traditional training of musicians in conservatoires around the world, accusing them of isolating young performers from the realities of politics, ideas and history.’ Barenboim claimed that he wanted to be ‘a terrorist for music education’ (The Guardian, 25 April 2012).


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