Marianna Ritchey’s Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era

Marianna Ritchey’s Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era (The University of Chicago Press, 2019) is a well-written, detailed study of how neoliberalism has influenced the way classical music is not only composed, but also, how it is consumed and utilized as a tool for corporate interests. Ritchey, who is an assistant professor of music history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, serves as a knowledgeable source of classical music and how neoliberalism operates in the contemporary experience, not just in the United States, but globally. The book is split into four chapters; each chapter explores a different aspect of classical music in its current state and how it has been impacted by neoliberalism. Ritchey is an astute critic of neoliberalism—readers who want to know what is currently happening in the classical music scene will also get a clear understanding of neoliberalism. In each chapter, Ritchey focuses on a few key concepts of neoliberalism and how they have embedded themselves within the classical music consciousness and are supported by individual composers and music institutions, often in an attempt to refresh the tradition. However, readers will recognize that neoliberalism has had a negative, rather than a positive impact on classical music.

In Chapter One, “Innovating Classical Music,” Ritchey focuses on the neoliberal concepts of innovation, multiculturalism, and connectivity in regards to classical music. She uses the example of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and their performance of classical music composer Mason Bates’s symphony entitled “Mothership.” Bates is considered a savior of the classical music form; he holds degrees from the Juilliard-Columbia Exchange Program and UC Berkeley, is the recipient of a Rome Prize and a Guggenheim, served as one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composers in residence and was the first composer in residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. What is significant about Bates is his composing style. He fuses elements of techno music into his work, which gives listeners the impression that he is updating the classical music tradition. This aspect of Bates’s music makes him attractive to traditional music institutions as well as corporations, who see him as being innovative and appealing to younger audiences. The most compelling aspect of “Mothership” is its use of four soloists who hail from different parts of the world, highlighting the multicultural component of the symphony. Ritchey gives a thorough explanation:

The most celebrated feature of “Mothership” is Bates’s inclusion of four breaks in which designated musicians—representing entities from different alien planets—“dock” with the mothership, and take solos. There are four Docking Episodes in total; two are marked “Rhythmic” and two “Lyrical.” Each episode is preceded by the “docking signal,” a reverberating beep heralding a pause in the mothership’s churning movement forward. Like the orchestra members, the soloists at the Sydney performance had competed for their slots via uploaded audition videos, and the ones chosen represented the project organizers’ commitment to diversity of both the culture and the musical-generic varieties. The soloists—Paulo Calligopoulos, Ali Bello, Su Chang, and John Burgess—were from four different countries, and played respectively a distorted electric guitar, a violin, a Chinese guzheng, and an electric bass.

Multiculturalism is a defining concept of neoliberal thinking. However, it is viewed in terms of promoting diversity rather than as a means to end racism. One of the primary problems of “Mothership” is the fact that in its attempt to promote multiculturalism, it merely reflects Western values. Although the directors of the YTSO project encouraged musicians from all over the world who play nonclassical instruments and nontraditional forms of music to audition, their styles were never intended to be incorporated into the symphony. Instead, a video called “The ‘Internet Symphony’ Global Mashup” was created that featured clips of these musicians’ auditions, giving off the impression that they were still being included even though they were not part of the actual orchestra. As Ritchey observes, “The YTSO performance in Sydney clearly demonstrated the appropriate way for a non-Westerner to participate in global life.”

In this context, multiculturalism becomes problematic because it is applied as a cosmetic solution to a very real issue. This is a problem that stems from neoliberal thinking—it supports multiculturalism as an idea instead of a social issue that requires tangible solutions. This problem is also related to the concept of connectivity, the idea that multiculturalism via technology brings people together. However, Bates’s “Mothership” unintentionally exposes Western biases through its presentation, bringing to light the fact that the neoliberal conception of multiculturalism actually does the opposite: it emphasizes difference, keeping people in their own respective categorical boxes. Ritchey elaborates on the true function of the four soloists:

In the Sydney Opera House, the four soloists who represented aliens were seated far apart from the orchestra, isolated in small individual niches high above the main stage. When the time for their solo approached, the lights went down on the orchestra, and went up on a given niche; at the end of the interlude, the soloist fell silent and was once again shrouded in darkness. In the staging, then, people from other cultures actually aren’t coming together—in fact they remain separate, both musically and physically. This may bring to mind questions of mobility. Who is allowed to freely traverse the globe, and who must stay in place?

Ritchey makes a brilliant comparison between Bates’s “Mothership” and P-Funk’s “Mothership,” explaining that “…where Bates’s is meant to represent all cultures in the universe being connected by technology and classical music, P-Funk’s represents the fantasy of black people using technology to triumphantly separate from racist Eurocentric white culture and forge an entirely new world of their own making in outer space.” This speaks directly to the problematic nature of the YTSO project: diversity is only represented ornamentally. In reality, it is a display of Western white male dominant thinking. Even more problematic is the fact that the classical musicians who won a spot on the orchestra were not financially compensated:

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra project was made possible by unpaid internships and by subcontracting. With the exception of a few star performers like Mason Bates, the orchestra consisted solely of nonunionized volunteer musicians, and instead of establishing a stable orchestral workforce and paying them a salary and benefits, Google identified individual workers in disparate global locations and paid them nothing for a single night of labor.

This is another feature of neoliberalism: non-compensated labor. The idea here is that the classical musicians are being paid with visibility: they are being seen and they are being given the opportunity to showcase their talents on a major platform. This is a defining problem of neoliberalism: it pretends that artistic compensation is a stand-in for tangible compensation in the form of adequate wages. As a result, the goals neoliberalism claims to uphold—innovation, multiculturalism, and connectivity—are riddled with contradiction and hypocrisy. The actual goals of neoliberalism are made clear through the YTSO project: to maintain the ideals of Western capitalism while only giving off the appearance of being progressive and humanist.

In Chapter Two, “‘Indie’ Individualism,” Ritchey explores the Brooklyn “indie” classical artist scene and its relationship to the neoliberal concept of entrepreneurialism. She describes how these artists’ main goal is to push back against modernist classical composers who used the university to shield themselves from the marketplace so that they could make music that was geared toward higher creative goals rather than toward an audience. These “indie” classical artists felt that this was a shortcoming: it meant that those composers didn’t have to answer to an audience; it also meant that they could hide within the university setting and use it to justify their ascetic and elite musical choices. However, Ritchey points out that the “indie” classical artists who were very critical of musical and educational institutions often received funding, support, and employment from these very same entities. The leading members of this group were all educated at elite schools: “[Missy] Mazzoli and [Judd] Greenstein received MMs from Yale; [Nico] Muhly has an MM from Juilliard and apprenticed with Philip Glass; and [Claire] Chase has a BM from Oberlin.” Even more problematic is the fact that “In keeping with the postmodern turn that cultural criticism took in the 1980s, indie classical artists engage with ideas that emerged in opposition to capitalism, but they largely do so without taking capitalism itself into account. Indeed, the indie classical community’s self-presentation, its critical reception, and its music reproduce a new formulation of the individual conditioned by neoliberalism.”

“Indie” classical artists are celebrated (and financially rewarded) for embodying the entrepreneurial spirit rather than for their talents as musicians and composers. In this context, the entrepreneur is problematically defined through the DIY ethic. These artists are perceived as being “indie” because they claim to be anti-establishment and in some cases have taken the initiative to forge their own paths toward success. However, the do-it-yourself concept is much more radical in nature (and much more political) than how it has been perceived through this particular group’s activities. DIYism is closely associated with the punk and indie rock scenes where people create their own networks and kinship groups that are anticapitalist and anti-consumerist. The DIY scene is characterized by musicians who write, record, and distribute their own music, organize their own concerts (often in small venues, local spots, or garages) and maintain a strong commitment to protesting corporate violence (not purchasing their products, working for their companies, or supporting their alliances). This is a far cry from the watered-down DIY ethic that “indie” classical artists participate in. According to Ritchey:

…DIY artists must be able to build a website, read a spreadsheet, manage myriad accounts, found an ensemble, play in other ensembles, network with classical musicians as well as with rock and hip-hop artists, snag opportunities to compose for film and television, attain the equipment and technical skill to record their own albums for sale in the marketplace, and, through it all, make a comfortable living without the burden of an employer or a steady paycheck. In fact, in many respects DIY has simply come to mean “entrepreneurial,” in the sense that it describes people who take care of themselves and are adept at identifying and exploiting opportunities for individual success.

DIY culture is defined by its collective forces, its interlocking groups that all believe in a common way of living that is poignantly against self-interest and elitism. Entrepreneurialism is the antithesis to everything that DIYism stands for. It is focused on individual success rather than collective empowerment. Entrepreneurialism is a feature of neoliberalism precisely because it prioritizes individuals over groups. This is how the free market operates: each person functions as their own “business.” As a result, DIY entrepreneurs are people who only rely on themselves; their success hinges on their ability to master as many skills as possible with the intent of achieving individualized success.

In addition to DIY entrepreneurialism, the “indie” classical artist scene embraces something called stylistic eclecticism. The artist must not only function as their own business, but should also master as many musical styles as possible in order to be seen as an attractive asset. As Ritchey points out:

…for the generation of American composers rising now, smoothly, flexibly, and simultaneously crossing many stylistic boundaries (or at least rhetorically espousing this practice) is fast becoming an urgent market imperative. Accordingly, the number of styles that composers and performers feel they must be comfortable working within has proliferated wildly, well beyond the bounds of what a traditional conservatory education could ever provide.

Ritchey emphasizes the fact that only a small fraction of musicians have the ability to master a plethora of musical styles and it raises questions about privilege (who can afford to get this type of training and what kinds of underrepresented music are being appropriated from oppressed groups who don’t have access to the same type of training). Along with stylistic eclecticism comes the loss of specialty. As Ritchey explains, “…it would mean being a specialist with no specialty—the ideal flexible neoliberal subject—and it could be achieved only via a supremely personalized musical education, one in which every individual musician pursued their own interests outside any kind of established institutional framework.” Stylistic eclecticism reflects neoliberal ideals because it values career-oriented success over specialized artistic mastery; it turns the artist into an all-purpose musician rather than a musician who has mastered their craft through intensive training and experience. Here, the artist does not bring their particular skill set to a group, but rather, embodies as many skill sets as possible so that they may be self-sufficient rather than a specialized member of a collective.

In Chapter Three, “Opera and/as Gentrification,” Ritchey takes a look at The Industry—a Los Angeles-based opera company that presents their operas in unconventional settings—and how it problematizes the role of participatory art and exposes the troubling realities of gentrification, another feature of neoliberalism. There are two operas Ritchey is interested in: Invisible Cities and Hopscotch. Invisible Cities was performed throughout LA’s Union Station while audience members roamed around wearing headphones; for Hopscotch, audience members were taken to different locations around the city in limos where they encountered operatic scenes. These operas were regarded as being innovative for their use of technology by way of corporate support:

Invisible Cities used wireless microphones and antennae in constructing the soundscape its audience heard on headphones, and Hopscotch used an even greater array of high tech, including video feeds, smartphones, and cars themselves. Both operas relied heavily on “technology partners,” who donated equipment and, in the case of Invisible Cities, actually created new custom-built technology for the production (a managed antennae system, designed by the company Bexel). In interviews, Sharon routinely praises his company’s use of innovative technology; in an essay he wrote for KCET’s Artbound blog, he promotes The Industry’s collaboration with the Sennheiser Corporation, which donated headphones to both operas.

These operas were also considered innovative because they proclaimed to be participatory. They were not performed in a traditional opera house, but rather, in public spaces, where they could be seen by a wider audience. However, Ritchey suggests that these operas were not participatory, but instead promoted personalized experiences. For Invisible Cities, audience members were able to view the opera from different vantage points, but they were unable to interact with the opera performers themselves. Additionally, each audience member wore headphones, which allowed them to experience the opera on a private level, and further kept them from interacting with other audience members. For Hopscotch, the participatory aspect included audience members being given cell phones so that they could film the opera for other audience members who were viewing it for free at a location called “the Hub” where the cell phone footage was being livestreamed. Audience members took on the role of the prosumer, a concept borne out of neoliberalism, wherein people produce what they want to consume. Ritchey also notes that “…it is strange that audience members who had paid $125 to see an opera were then asked to produce a document of the event to be consumed for free by others.” Ritchey also points out that the opera could only be seen by a small number of people: “…not counting the nonpaying audience watching amateur cell phone video at the Hub, ninety-six people could see a performance of Hopscotch. By contrast, the LA Opera’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—the kind of traditional venue The Industry is rejecting in its quest for greater accessibility—has a seating capacity of 3,156.”  Tickets were also expensive: “…$125 for a full route and $155 for a route plus the finale, which took place at the Hub. By contrast, the LA Opera—like all traditional music institutions—offers tiered pricing, and tickets can cost as little as ten or twenty dollars.” While The Industry presents its operas as being accessible, innovative, and participatory, in reality they promote a personalized, elite viewing experience for those who can afford it.

Invisible Cities inadvertently exposed the effects of gentrification in regards to Boyle Heights, an area of Los Angeles that has been historically mistreated by the city and primarily consists of Latinx people. The supposed goal of the opera was to show audience members parts of Los Angeles that they wouldn’t normally see in an attempt to perform a social good. But as Ritchey points out, “in its plot and staging it produced Latinx culture as a commodity it could sell to wealthy, outsider audience members.” A part of Invisible Cities was performed in Boyle Heights, an area that has been battling gentrification in recent years. Gentrification is a symptom of neoliberal economics, where urban areas that experience disinvestment due to racism and job outsourcing are suddenly reinvested in once artists and wealthy whites begin to move into the area. As upscale businesses and new housing take root in these areas, long overdue city maintenance is performed and much-needed transit systems are finally constructed. As a result, oppressed populations are pushed out due to the fact that they can no longer afford to live there. Under neoliberal thinking, this is called “urban renewal.” As these areas are being transformed structurally, economically they are creating even greater inequality in terms of who can live in these spaces and who cannot. In regards to The Industry’s planning of Invisible Cities, it is important to note that no effort was made to get permission from Boyle Heights to stage a part of the opera in their community:

To pull off this undertaking, The Industry required the cooperation of dozens of municipal and neighborhood entities, like the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department of Transportation, the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Recreation and Parks, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Home Owners’ Association of the Toy Factory Lofts, new luxury housing in a restored 1924 factory in LA’s warehouse district. Yet although The Industry worked with a wide variety of offices, neighborhood coalitions, businesses, and city departments in planning Hopscotch, the company does not appear to have consulted with the Boyle Heights community. Consequently, residents were surprised and bewildered on October 24 when limousines began pulling up to Hollenbeck Park and people began singing, dancing, and shooting cell phone video.

As a result, members of the community actively protested the opera:

At what proved to be the opera’s final Hollenbeck Park performance, local groups rallied and protested loudly, carrying signs that read “Your ‘Art’ Is Displacing People of Color #AntiGentrification.” The Hopscotch performers soldiered on for a while, but when the marching band walked over from nearby Roosevelt High School and began playing in an effort to drown the opera out, they conceded defeat and left the park, the limousine surrounded by jeering protesters.

In Chapter Four, “Intel Beethoven: The New Spirit of Classical Music,” Ritchey is primarily concerned with how Intel used Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to promote their Drone 100 project. The larger concerns in this chapter also deal with the ways that corporations use classical music in an attempt to claim cultural credibility. This is part of a larger goal within neoliberalism, to seek legitimacy through history:

Since it is impossible to actually identify a time in the past when capitalism generated a better quality of life for everyone in a society, and since God and heaven no longer provide meaningful reasons for participating in capitalism, contemporary neoliberals must look to even vaguer justifications for their economic ideas, finding them in pseudoscientific formulations of human nature.

Classical music, because of its sense of timelessness and its connection to history, is often used by corporations to evoke those same feelings in regards to the products they sell. For instance, Intel commissioned Austrian composer Walter Werzowa (who also created the company’s famous mnemonic tone) to recompose Beethoven’s Fifth for their Drone 100 project, a marketing campaign designed to make the company’s products more appealing to consumers. 100 drones were released into the night sky “into a synchronized formation that swirls and changes color in response to orders given by computers—running on Intel processors—on the ground.” According to Ritchey, “Werzowa simply replaced certain iterations of Beethoven’s motive with the Intel bong. He titled his composition “Symphony in Blue” and recorded it in Vienna with a ninety-piece live orchestra conducted by Claudius Traunfellner.” The recomposed version was also used in an ad that appeared during the 2016 Super Bowl:

The ad—titled “Experience Amazing”—presents a bewildering array of images intercut at lightning speed. In the first seven seconds alone we see a woman jumping off a cliff; a person silhouetted against a galaxy of green lights; a face with a digital web projected onto it; a laptop screen showing a mixing board; a close-up of a microchip; a skateboarder in midair; a close-up of an eye opening and its pupil dilating; a pixelated image of a violinist; a camera’s pulling back to reveal a live violinist standing in front of that image; a robot; a grid of glowing ones and zeros; a person emerging from underwater; a hand holding a microchip; a camera zoom into circuitry; and a sudden wide shot of a space shuttle taking off. There is no voiceover, and very little text. Instead, the images are tied together by the recomposed version of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Ritchey gives a deeper explanation of what the ad is actually communicating:

Significantly, almost all the images in the Intel ad depicts individuals working alone. With the exception of two shots of huge crowds (one watching a fireworks display; one at a rock concert) and one shot of several men playing video games together and screaming, the ad shows nothing but individuals performing tasks alone: one ballerina, one jogger, one skydiver, one BMX biker, one race car driver, one fashion model, one violinist, one face, one hand, one eyeball, one man hunched over in the dark, soldering a microchip.

A major feature of the ad focuses on Hawaiian musician Kawehi, who embodies the entrepreneurial spirit discussed earlier:

She uses Web 2.0 platforms like Kickstarter and YouTube to construct and maintain her career, and does not rely on the support of a label or any other kind of traditional employer. In addition, she uses technology to create innovative new musical sounds without the aid of other people, generating an impression of group music-making by splitting herself into multiple parts—using loops to accompany herself and to play her own guitar solos on top of her own drums and chordal accompaniment, and using a harmonizer to diffuse her voice into a multiplicity of voices.

The goal of the ad is the same as the overall aims of neoliberalism which seeks to place the individual over the collective. What is not shown in the ad is the ninety-piece orchestra that performed the recomposed Beethoven’s Fifth. Collective solidarity suffers under neoliberalism; if people are encouraged to work together and recognize any sort of commonalities or shared struggles, they might begin to see how different ways of living and coexisting outside the prescribed norms of the capitalist free market are possible. Overemphasis on individualism and the devaluing of collectivism keeps the established system in place. As a result, inequality and oppression continue to remain unsolved issues.

Even more troubling is the fact in Intel’s attempt to make their products more appealing to regular consumers, their main goal is still focused on selling technology to the US military for surveillance purposes. To go further, Intel made a promise that their products would be “conflict free” by 2015. In order to produce the microchips, the company requires minerals that come from African countries that have been destabilized so corporations like Intel can have access to their resources. Traditionally, violence and slave labor have been used to extract what is referred to as “conflict minerals.” Corporations like Intel, who preach individualism in conjunction with the societal benefits of technology, are the very same entities that create massive inequality on a global scale (through their products and their unethical business practices). These are the same corporations that rely heavily on classical music to purify their image and justify their immoral decisions: “Consumers are invited to show their disapproval of slave labor, not by protesting the foreign interventions in countries like the DRC, but rather by purchasing the products that those interventions make possible…. Thus, the desire to end corporate oppression worldwide becomes reconfigured as an imperative to purchase the products of those corporations.”

Ritchey concludes Composing Capital with suggestions for how classical music can regain its dignity and reestablish itself as a form of music that is harmonic, organic, and transcendent. Her main suggestion is “to make music that simply can’t be commodified.” This is a big challenge for musicians living under neoliberalism who feel pressured to make music for consumption via the marketplace and it is an issue that stems from oppressed thinking: “If we did not believe that everything is always and has always been changing, and that the only viable approach to this change is to become adaptable, flexible, and self-sufficient, we would be less likely to accept neoliberal facts of life such as outsourcing, downsizing, and the loss of benefits traditionally provided by employers, like health insurance and pension plans.” The keyword here is believe. Neoliberal thinking has conditioned people to accept certain ways of living that aren’t conducive to what it means to be human on a local or global scale. Instead, it keeps people isolated from each other and results in a society that is fragmented and plagued with self-interest. There are two crucial solutions that can easily be enacted by those interested in changing the neoliberal landscape in regards to classical music: deprogram from consumerist mentalities and commit to thinking about music in a more critical light. Rather than regarding music as something to be consumed, it can be enjoyed as a listening experience. It is also imperative to start holding musicians, composers, and music institutions accountable in order to get them to justify how and why they’re making music as well as who they support and why. On a larger scale, as humans, it is essential that we start thinking of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers. Once we do this, it will become more difficult for corporations with neoliberal interests to justify their products or the system that upholds their dominance. Even more importantly, we must think of ourselves as citizens as part of a collective; once we do this, universal concerns about inequality, racism, and sexism will take precedence over capitalistic tyranny so that tangible solutions can be implemented.

February 22, 2021