When Is A Gig Just A Gig?

Miss Mussel read Terry Teachout’s article on the NY Phil’s planned visit to North Korea with interest that, by the end of the first paragraph, turned to bewilderment. Since there are several points for which Miss Mussel has a contrary opinion, it seems most efficient to respond to each individually.

Mr Teachout begins by saying that North Korea’s lack of electric lights is a “jolting visual metaphor for the dark isolation of an impoverished totalitarian state whose hungry citizens are not permitted to own cellphones, surf the Web or listen to radio broadcasts from other countries.” The following is a similar photograph of the whole earth at night. (click to enlarge)

Using this logic, it would seem that good portions of South America, Canada, Australia, Africa, Russia and China are also are also under the control of repressive, manipulative governments. A case could legitimately be made for some of the areas covered but this guy is about as vicious as a month old puppy. Closer examination reveals that a good portion of the Western United States is also dark, something Miss Mussel was hesitant to highlight out for fear of proving Mr Teachout’s point.

“When I heard that the Philharmonic had been approached to visit North Korea, I thought at once of Van Cliburn’s 1958 visit to Moscow, where he won the Tchaikovsky Competition and taught a generation of Russians that there was more to America than what they read in the pages of Pravda, thus helping to bring about the ultimate collapse of communism. The State Department reportedly believes that a Philharmonic tour will have a similar effect on North Korea.”

The idea that North Koreans, after hearing 120 minutes of Western art music, will suddenly snap out of robot mode and embrace democracy is completely ridiculous, not to mention a mite arrogant. Van Cliburn is no more responsible for the ultimate collapse of communism that the Paul Henderson and the 1972 Summit Series were. Sure, they were significant events at the time, but their overall impact was a drop in a 5 gallon pail.

Greg Sandow is quoted in the article an a bit of further reading reveals that he and the State Department are sharing a hymnsheet. A couple of weeks ago, he wrote that, “if even a few North Koreans can see for themselves what the west is like, and if they can meet some Americans, there’s no telling how deep the effect might be.”

That music will have some sort of effect is certain, whether it has the effect that the State Department et al. is hoping for is another story entirely. Perhaps Miss Mussel shouldn’t be so skeptical. Mr Holland’s Opus, Music from the Heart and Les Choristes have clearly shown us that patience and a few good tunes is all that’s needed to tame the most unruly of children.

Mr Teachout’s next reason why the Phil should not make the journey is that “North Korea [..] does not have anything remotely resembling a serious musical culture–and what it does have is not available to ordinary citizens.

This may be true, but it is relevant? At one time China didn’t either but things are changing. Even in the Western world, which ostensibly has a serious music culture, administrators are bending over backwards to create opportunities for their own great unwashed to bathe in the transcendental waters of art music. Despite this, many still complain the pool is inaccessible.

Mr Teachout also takes issue with the fact that “the apparatchiks who run North Korea’s State Symphony Orchestra “did not appear overly familiar with Western classical composers.” (They go in for folk songs.)

Miss Mussel hates to point out the obvious here but North Korea has been a closed country for 50 odd years. Presumably, state institutions would be created solely to support the government’s ideals. One of the first lessons in the Young Dictator’s Guide to Ruling The World is how easily music can work people into a frenzy (see: Hitler). For that reason alone, the NY Phil invitation is remarkable.

“Should the orchestra of Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein be making music for a man like [Kim Jong-Il]?”

Miss Mussel is not sure when listeners were required to pass a morality test before partaking. Perhaps she missed that memo. There is no doubt that Kim is directly responsible for many horrific things but in the context of his worthiness as listener, it’s completely irrelevant.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that should the Philharmonic choose to play in Pyongyang, it will be doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime.”

Ummm….newsflash: The Juche doesn’t need the NY Phil to legitimize itself. It’s been managing fine since the 50s just like Cuba has kept going despite active American non-support. If anything, the Phil’s visit has the potential to rock the boat. Once one choice is introduced, it is impossible to absolutely control the development of other choices and prevent further devisions. (see: The Reformation)

It’s a bad situation in North Korea, without doubt, but the idea that a good dose of American culture is all that is necessary to sort things out is naive and (here comes the a-word again) arrogant. The problems surrounding the Kim regime are complex and cannot be fixed with a few performances of Beethoven 9. The NY Phil should go to North Korea, play the concert and go home. The State Department retinue would do well to stay in Washington and let this gig just be a gig.

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