The gulf of difference between the places represented here could not be wider. To the left is Westminster Abbey in London, England, which I traipsed by on a jaunt to London in May of 2016 after completing my undergraduate degree. Westminster Abbey is distinct in its Gothic grandeur, in its twin spires piercing the grey London skies. The building to the right, however, is more perplexing. The parched red earth suggests a place far off the “beaten track,” so the well-known travel saying goes. The forlorn tire weighing down the corrugated tin roof and the trash dotting the background suggest a place a little less developed, a place so very far from London. Taken almost exactly one year after my London excursion, this photo emphasizes the remarkable poverty I encountered in The Gambia, West Africa while briefly volunteering in the United States Peace Corps.
I chose these two wholly disparate examples of local architecture to illustrate, in a rather striking way, the contrast between so-called “high” and “low” culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, high culture suggests “highly refined artistic or intellectual achievement; the manifestation of this in art, music, literature, etc.” (OED Online 2019). Perhaps to the imaginations that dreamed Westminster Abbey into reality, my Gambian abode would signify the complete antithesis to high culture, a dwelling void of artistic refinement. To the more critical, less forgiving eye, this traditional Gambian home could also indicate a lack of intellectual accomplishment, the kind of intellectual rigor needed to construct a majestic Gothic cathedral.
Yet herein lurks the critical issue at hand. In polite conversation, it would be rather outrageous to measure the merits of everyday Gambian architecture against one of the defining landmarks of a fully-developed Western European city. The definition of high culture, rather problematically, seems to privilege refinement of taste in art, literature, music, and so forth. However, “refinement” in this context seems to connote “superior.” Such categories are wholly subjective: what is the measure of refinement? Ascribing the labels of “high” and “low” culture in this architectural example also points to a second key problem. In deeming this example of Gambian architecture “low culture” when pitted against Westminster Abbey, one risks further marginalizing the cultures, nations, and individuals like the Gambians who do not have access to the resources that could “elevate” their cultural products.
Simply put: debating between “high” and “low” culture inevitably creates a hierarchy of value. In this hierarchy, one piece of art — be it a painting, piece of music, a building, or a novel — may fail to achieve a particular aesthetic standard. Consequently, it is deemed “lesser” than another work that more effectively represents these subjective categories of taste and refinement.
The contrast between structures I encountered in my travels to London and The Gambia, therefore, illustrates the critical issues that surround discussions of high and low culture. To introduce a different example and a Canadian paradigm, I turn my attention to noteworthy twentieth-century Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. Heralded as a child prodigy, Gould made headlines for his virtuosic musical ability as well as for his unorthodox methods. Despite frequently turning to the musical oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, Gould was remarkable for his technical precision yet simultaneous disregard for the aura of the classical pianist. As the above photo illustrates, Gould often hunched over the keys, absorbed in the melodies his hands created. Gould was also known for humming or singing along to the pieces he played, which further emphasizes his distance from the erect, poised standard of classical piano performance.
At the outset, Gould seems to embody the tension between high and low culture. Gould not only toured the world performing classical piano music — the works of Bach and Beethoven themselves suggestive of a certain “refined” standard of music, particularly in the 1950s when Gould was ascending to fame — Gould further cultivated his public presence by engaging in intellectual activities such as writing essays and producing a documentary for the CBC entitled “The Idea of North.” However, the image of Gould seems to possess a certain “devil may care” quality. In photographs, his clothes appear habitually rumpled with rogue curls escaping the standard 1950s gentlemanly coif. From a contemporary perspective, Gould’s image seems antithetical to the “accepted” image of the poised classical pianist, appearing more aligned with the artists ushering in the controversial new genre of the era: rock and roll.
According to Graham Carr in “Visualizing ‘The Sound of Genius’: Glenn Gould and the Culture of Celebrity in the 1950’s”, the “growing multimedia network of communication” (8), particularly the use of photographs in marketing, enabled the rise of the celebrity, a trend that Gould capitalized upon. For Carr, “Gould’s celebrity reflected the ‘structural interrelatedness of intellectual and popular culture and the degree to which young musicians of all types had become part of a shared media discourse” (8). Carr attributes Gould’s meteoric rise in the 1950s to his utilization of the “shared media discourse”, or a marketable image captured by photographs and records, to frustrate the inaccessibility of classical music. Essentially, Gould seems to embody both “high” and “low” culture, signifying the possibility that such categories may not be as rigid as many may have initially believed. Consequently, Gould’s induction into the realm of “celebrity”, of “popular culture”, despite keeping a foot in the seemingly elite world of classical music offers the potential for the disparity between “high” and “low” culture to break down.
However, I find that the mutability of Gould’s persona ultimately re-co-opts Gould into the world of an inaccessible “high culture.” Specifically, it is when Gould drifts into the realm of the “public intellectual” and begins to cultivate a more cerebral public voice that he becomes a troubling figure. Gould retreated from the sphere of performance towards the end of his career. Instead, Gould privileged recordings of his music over live performance, as electronic media, in his view, returns art to a “pure, ideal” state (“The Prospects of Recording” 115) by enhancing the artist’s ability to perfect the piece. On the one hand, studio recordings democratize access to performance-based art forms like music, particularly works, like classical music, that orbits within the “high culture” universe. However, if artists privilege “perfection”, does genuine, organic creation become the sacrifice of this pursuit? Furthermore, it would seem as though striving for “perfection,” as Gould advocates in his rejection of live performance, the trappings of “high culture” become even more apparent. In pursuit of the perfect piece of music, artists such as Gould only create works that are highly filtered and refined, and thus more aligned with the aims of the world of “high culture.”
Lindsey Stirling live at the Hammersmith Apollo (photo from theupcoming.co.uk)
In 2010, a twenty-three-year-old amateur violinist named Lindsey Stirling entered the popular televised talent competition, America’s Got Talent. However, Stirling was eliminated from the competition, deemed “‘not good enough […] to get away with flying through the air and trying to play the violin at the same time'” (Varga 2014). Today, Stirling makes her living as an independent recording artist with several awards and international tours to her name, due largely in part to her active social media presence. For Stirling:
My big goal was that I wanted to be someone who was pioneering the way for the independent artist with this new [social media-fueled] model, and [show] that you could cross over from YouTube and be seen as a new artist. I wanted to be an artist who helped bridge that gap (Varga 2014).
Like Gould, Stirling demonstrates a notable command of a classical instrument. Like the piano, the violin is an instrument that the wider public may typically associate with the world of orchestras, intricate symphonies, and classical composers. However, Stirling’s poise is articulated in a wholly creative and unexpected way. Stirling flits across the stage in outlandish costumes, combining a lithe style of dancing that mirrors the unique melodies she composes. Visually, Stirling presents herself as a chimera of steampunk, ethereal, and fantastical aesthetics. Stirling defies the standard definition of the violin player through the embodiment of her music, which she self-produces with highly stylized music videos on her YouTube channel. Her music often hybridizes musical genres, combining the more classical strains of the violin with the contemporary rhythms of dubstep music. Amidst the stunning visuals and unique sounds she creates, Stirling smiles playfully at her audience, coyly inviting them to enter into her world.
While Gould’s foray into writing, documentary production, and so forth solidifies his status as a public intellectual, Stirling lacks this diversity of activity which frustrates the likening of the two. However, Stirling’s palpable creativity and skill with a classical instrument indicate a dynamism that draws her into the realm of the intellectual. Simply put, composing, arranging, and performing musical pieces to the level of quality Stirling produces demands intellectual rigor. However, I believe that Stirling’s canny “intertextuality” (Carr 33) in the cultivation of her aesthetic, her sound, and her celebrity presence while keeping a foot firmly rooted in the classical tradition of violin playing signifies her deft manipulation of the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. Rather, in hybridizing musical genres and disseminating her work on public platforms like YouTube, Stirling achieves a balance between these two distinct measures of cultural value in order to begin breaking them down. Essentially, Stirling democratizes classical music for the wider public and curates an easily accessible “celebrity” persona (Carr 33) while simultaneously upholding a highly stylized, intensely rigorous mode of playing compatible with the standards of traditional classical music performance.
In his “Advice to a Graduation,” Gould urges his audience to “remain deeply involved in the processes of your imagination” (7). When Stirling floats across the stage like the fay creature of contemporary music, one can only wonder at how Gould would have interpreted Stirling’s celebrity presence and musical aptitude. Perhaps Gould would have admired someone truly heeding his advice, whether intentionally or not, in an effort to truly explore the depths of her imaginative force.
Carr, Graham. “Visualizing ‘The Sound of Genius’: Glenn Gould and The Culture of Celebrity in the 1950’s.” Journal of Canadian Studies vol. 40, no. 3, 2006, 5-41.
Carroll, Jock. Glenn Gould. Date unknown. The Star, thestar.com/entertainment/music/2016/09/06/glenn-gould-foundation-triples-prizes-seeks-government-cash-for-its-nobel-for-the-arts-wells.html.
Cavalensi, Arianna. Lindsey Stirling at Hammersmith Apollo. 2019. The Upcoming, theupcoming.co.uk/2019/10/15/lindsey-stirling-at-the-eventim-apollo-live-review/.
Gould, Glenn. “Prologue: Advice to a Graduation.” The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page, Vintage Books, 1990, 2-7.
Gould, Glenn. “The Prospects of Recording.” Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Cristoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Continuum Publishing Group, 2006, 115-126.
“high culture n.b.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2019, oed.com/view/Entry/86850. Accessed 6 February 2020.
Varga, George. “Lindsey Stirling bows way to the top.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, 13 May 2014. sandiegouniontribune.com/entertainment/music/sdut-lindsey-stirling-interview-2014may13-htmlstory.html.