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The Two-faces of Classical Music: the Bureaucratic Tyranny of Music Schools

(Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music)

“The reasoning has nothing whatsoever to do with functionality; indeed, it has nothing whatsoever to do with viruses or health safety. The reasoning is about symbolizing conformity to bureaucratic rule.”

This month at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM), two students were placed on disciplinary probation for not wearing masks. At first blush, this may seem a necessary and just procedure in response to a violation of school policy. But given a moment’s consideration, the details are so contradictory and incoherent that the incident becomes yet another stunning revelation of the brokenness at the center of universities nationwide: bureaucratic tyranny. Isolated incidents, like this “Bizarre and Tragic Tale of the Two Maskless Musicians,” as we might title it, are not themselves cause to signal the apocalyptic trumpets and prepare for the end of time. However, we should not be misled by their seeming banality, either. They are, rather, like kicking over a stump and finding the squirming maggots, the hollowed dust of corroded wood, and the veins of fungoid disease that has seeped down into the roots and, indeed, throughout the entire forest. These isolated incidents are like singular stumps, and the rot we find is radical and widespread—an ideological pandemic affecting the life of higher education. Consider the following tale an epidemiological case study:

The two students were sitting, maskless, in one of CIM’s concert facilities, Kulas Hall. Kulas Hall seats 535 audience members; however, in this case, there were only 12 others. The two maskless students were sitting about 20 feet distanced from the other students. While it is school policy that masks are required in the hall, it is also school policy that wind players may perform maskless in that same space. And not merely as soloists, but in orchestras. In orchestra concerts, when the stage is occupied by more than 30 musicians in close quarters, wind players are allowed to blow freely through their instruments.

These are not the only instances where CIM policy blatantly contradicts itself. There have been other examples of incoherence. as well. For instance, CIM published a video on April 23rd of its president making an announcement, maskless, while standing in the school hallways.

Incensed at the blatant hypocrisy of these policies, coupled with the draconian manner of the administration’s enforcement, the two students attended a performance in Kulas Hall as free-facers, while making sure to sit at a safe distance. As a result, one faculty member refused to enter the 535-seat concert hall, despite the physical distancing, despite being fully vaccinated, and despite the other acceptable and contradictory incidents of masklessness. After the performance was over, the students heard that the faculty member contacted the school administration demanding that the two students be expelled. Consequently, the administration summoned the two students to a meeting with the school’s deans, where they were placed on disciplinary probation. (Any further incident of masklessness will mean expulsion or suspension, and may already mean the removal of financial aid according to bureaucratic whims.)

Any reader considering these details will be baffled as to the logic (or illogic, more like) motivating such flagrant bureaucratic hypocrisy. They must ask themselves the following questions:

How can an audience member—at a physical distance of some 20 feet from anyone else—deserve disciplinary action for being maskless, while in that same hall musicians can perform on wind instruments, maskless, and not only be green-lighted by the school but publicly broadcasted and given school credit? Why can there be 35 audience members permitted in the hall for orchestra concerts when the stage holds 30-plus musicians, but only ten audience members permitted when the stage holds only one? Why are all audience members required to wear masks but many of the musicians are not?

The reasoning behind this hypocrisy emerges most clearly in the following policy: During orchestra concerts, wind players are required to wear masks—with slits cut in them.

Why would this be? It is unnecessary to even point out that a slitted mask is less than functional—quite the opposite, as it only calls more attention to how effectively unmasked the wind players truly are. (It is useful to keep in mind that a wind instrument—a flute, an oboe, a horn, a trumpet—is essentially a Coronavirus (COVID-19) projectile weapon, launching particles into the air like a minigun.)

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The reasoning has nothing whatsoever to do with functionality; indeed, it has nothing whatsoever to do with viruses or health safety. The reasoning is about symbolizing conformity to bureaucratic rule. A slitted mask is entirely useless, but it is a signal of conformity that must be enacted to demonstrate obedience. The school bureaucrats are implicitly saying:

“You may not be maskless if you are sitting in the audience at a physical distance of 20 feet from everyone else, and if you do so, we will place you on disciplinary probation. But you can be maskless in that same room, at that same time, while playing a wind instrument and closely surrounded by 30-some other students. Why is this? Because we say so. And you must conform to our contradictory dictates or be punished.”

It is no coincidence that just last year CIM published a document of moral-conduct guidelines, in which the school unveiled a new online system of “incident reporting.” This is now a common amenity at universities. Using this system, students can anonymously submit reports on their fellow students who violate the moral-conduct guidelines. Guidelines such as these, of course, now include things like microaggressions and “hate crimes.” Furthermore, the document dictates that, in regard to these violations, intention does not matter. If one has been reported for a “hate crime” or microaggression—even if one did not intend to commit this offense—he is considered guilty regardless. Students at CIM are not only given the opportunity to snitch on each other in a manner, not unlike Soviet informants, they are encouraged to do so. (And, certainly, masking violations are included in this.)

It is nearly a cliché that emergency powers seized by government tend invariably toward abuse, if not tyranny. Bureaucrats well understand that they cannot control a person’s thoughts; however, given power and opportunity, they can control what one does, what he can say, and how he does and says. There is little distinction between controlling a person’s actions and speech and controlling his mind. As Dostoevsky writes, “Words are not yet deeds.” And we might add, “Thoughts are not yet words.” A mind cut off from speech and action is no free mind at all.

It is also important to note that the contradictions inherent in the abuse of bureaucratic power (like the masking incidents described above) are not at all incidental. Indeed, such hypocrisy is of fundamental necessity to the abuse itself. This is why both irony and contradiction are iconic characteristics of the Stalinist regime of the 20th century. As Theodore Dalrymple explains, the purpose of such propaganda “was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity.”

In other words, in order to force a people into conformity, one must break their will. And, in order to break their will, one must force them to affirm what they know to be false or contrary to reality. This is how one not only controls their actions and speech but also their minds: their sense of what is real. To this end, masking-requirements offer school bureaucrats the perfect opportunity to accomplish precisely this. They establish pointless orders that must be obeyed—on pain of disciplinary action and the removal of financial aid—for the mere purpose of coercing obedience. That this obedience is like the humiliating dance of a marionette, and that the bureaucrats buffoon themselves in the process—this is all a necessary part of the charade. In other words, the bureaucrats are hypocrites, but that is also precisely the point.

This is why dissent takes the form of mere common sense. Perhaps that means simply saying: “Excuse me, but aren’t masks with slits in them rather useless?” But the price of this dissent, the price of voicing common sense, is incurring bureaucratic wrath. In today’s case, the tale of the two free-facing students, the price of common sense means “disciplinary probation”—the ever-impending threat of expulsion at the whims of the puppeteers.

The other price of dissent—perhaps more painfully paid—is loneliness. One might think it would not take much courage to point out the obvious. But within a totalitarian regime, only a rare person will dissent from blatant lies. Everyone else will shun them. And shun them not because they necessarily disagree—remember this is not a matter of logic, or truth. They will shun them only to maintain the illusion of peace and complacency, by accommodating hypocrisy.

Imagine a man dissenting in Stalinist Russia. Who is to say what may have been the catalyst, but at last he is driven by the absurdity of his world to dissent—perhaps only passively, merely by not affirming lies. Immediately the man is opposed by his friends, who have long pledged loyalty to the truth (in secret), but now turn on him:

“’How dare you cause all this drama!’ they say through their masks. ‘Sure, you’re living for the truth, but you haven’t done so at other times! Now it’s all pointless. Just look how inconsistent you are, conforming one moment, dissenting the next. You’re basically a hypocrite! If you’re going to dissent you should do it at some other time, when you won’t cause any mayhem! Why couldn’t you go quietly to the magistrates with your complaint!’”

What is the man to do? Is he to slip on the mask of conformity, back to the safe anonymity of the crowd where no one bothers him because his existence is blank? If he is true to his spirit, and if he is wise, he will leave the crowd to seek out better “friends,” humans who have faces of their own, who will not give him up in his hour of need, in his moment of truth.

(His two-faced friends do not say all this because they have more faith in the integrity of their magistrates than in the man, but because “going quietly” preserves their illusion of complacency. We must feign to love our tyrants, after all, as one loves a big brother.)

Once all of these bureaucracies inevitably crumble under the weight of their own lies, and once the smoke of war clears over the rubble, what will remain is what has always remained: the immutable truths of human nature. Indeed, truth itself might be understood as “that which remains.” It remains when all the fashions of human cunning fade, as they must. Lies are either smoke that pollutes the air or masks that cover the face of truth. In the end, their role is merely theatrical.

At one time, classical music was a shining emblem of “that which remains.” It was, as Mahler famously said, “the preservation of fire.” And because of this, institutions of classical music (like CIM) were called conservatories. Today, that is an ironic term. The bureaucrats at the helm of these institutions no longer care about what remains; instead, they plan to craft what will be. So they enjoin us to “be on the right side of history” because they believe history can be slanted in the direction of their lies. They speak of the future of classical music, while they make a mockery of the remnants of human dignity before them.

What does this tell us, but that great renovation is necessary? That the rubble of these dilapidated once-conservatories must be reconstructed stone by stone? This is not to say hope does not exist. But until Mahler’s fire is reignited, the concert hall will remain a place cast under a shadow, where it is shameful even to show one’s face, and where music itself is reduced to a debasing performance of bureaucratic exercise.

Justin Hall is a writer, cellist, and host of The Notion Club Podcast. He studied music performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and his current work explores issues of musicology and philosophy, with a commitment to identifying and celebrating the true, good, and beautiful.

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