The Sound of Hesitation

As Paul Mattick used many beautiful musical metaphors in his editorial text introducing Field Notes (see Rail, April, 2014), I could not resist using one as well. What I want to express with this title is the sense of hesitation, indecision, demurral which is the predominant feeling of my generation, the 30-somethings, about living in our political system and economy. I was looking for a title which might condense the feeling of this “eerie social calm,“ as Mattick put it, “as society’s wealth continues to flow from the 99% to the 1%.” The sound of hesitation is the soft irritating noise, the quiet tinnitus always audible at the back of our heads, which we try to charm away. Press your ear against your cellphone charger and you will hear it. It’s the standby noise of the T.V. set that accompanies our feeling of loneliness and disillusion when we turn off the T.V. and are staring back at the black screen.

We are expecting the catastrophe to come, one way or the other, but we are unable to set a utopian idea against the complex global problems of our time. It is generally agreed by all layers of society that we can’t continue to do what we are doing: destroying our planet, allowing the gap between the rich minority and the poor majority to grow, etc. While we argue about the scale of the coming catastrophe we still try to find places within the current system, to our best possible advantages within our small social environments. These social environments are different, and our personalities and value systems differ, but, at the core, our egotism is the same. We all want to save our own butts first.

I want to argue, and this might be congruent with the reader’s own experience, that there are very, very few people who are intrinsically nothing but good and fortunately equally few who are nothing but evil. Most of us are somewhere in between, and that means nothing else but looking for one’s own interests in the first place. How fiercely we enforce these interests, either hidden or out in the open, depends mainly on our origin and education. The strategies, values, and beliefs are different, but at the bottom there is little difference between a middle-class do-gooder, a manual worker, a punk musician, a Wall Street manager, or an academic intellectual. Everyone is looking for his own interests and advantages within his particular environment and peer-group; whether this involves being popular or being an outsider depends on the particular self-image.

I think awareness of this is something that became a given for my generation and explains, at least partially, the political passivity of the younger generation. The experience of the failure of the great political utopian systems, like Communism, and the selling-out of so many “revolutionary” movements, like the hippy generation in general, and the left and green political parties (and, lately, even the greed of some former alternative Internet companies) killed our beliefs in any kind of revolutionary attitude. Now we always expect self-interest behind the good intentions. Our generation doesn’t believe any more in any superiority of any group over any other group. We don’t believe in enemies anymore, somebody we have to fight against, except the enemy within ourselves.

I don’t think you need a degree in psychology to put yourself into the shoes of someone who knows that he owes his success and excessive amounts of money to the exploitation of others. Denial is a very strong feature of the human experience, but you cannot be profoundly happy and fulfilled living with this knowledge. People experience happiness mostly in relationships with each other, and honest giving and sharing nourishes relationships. The rewards of success, in the sense of winning competitions over others, offer only supplementary satisfaction, and one that builds walls between oneself and others. Within the unfolding dynamic of capitalism in the 21st century, on a global scale, success is increasingly achievable only if you are willing to have blood on your hands.

To get a sense of the destructive dynamic and logic of our current system you have to look at the fringes of society. The worst-off people are low-educated workers, as is obvious to all. Less visible are other groups which come from the highly educated middle-class. One such group, to which I belong, is freelance classical musicians. (I received artistic diplomas in cello performance at the conservatories of Graz, Austria, and Cologne, Germany. A specialist in Early Music, I received a masters degree in Historical Performance at Juilliard in New York.) The vast majority of freelance classical musicians where I live, in Germany, live in relative poverty. At €11,500 ($15,554) a year, the average income of a freelance musician in Germany is even lower than that of visual artists. I found a list of 100 average incomes of employees in different kinds of jobs, published in a German newspaper. In comparison to these, my last year’s income put me in 99th place, earning less than a chambermaid, far less than a bricklayer, only a bit more more than a hairdresser.

This is interesting, because classical musicians, by their social provenance and self-image, still belong to the stratum of academically trained middle and upper-class people. These musicians sit on stage in chamber music groups or orchestras and provide the soundtrack for a wealthy bourgeois audience, with which they share the level of academic education. But many, maybe most, people in the audience earn more money per hour than these musicians earn in a whole day. And the rich C.E.O., watching the beautiful baroque opera production, might earn more money per hour than the musicians in the pit earn in a year. I wouldn’t care much about the C.E.O. if I would be able at least to live a decent life, pay my rent, eat, and feed my children—whom I can’t have, because I can’t afford to. The “free market” in Germany has paid a baroque musician the same amount of money per day—€150 ($202)—for the last 30 years (a day including six hours of rehearsal).

Well, as the capitalist ideology says, if you don’t have enough success and don’t earn enough money it’s your own fault—you are a loser. You didn’t work hard enough, you aren’t talented enough, etc. What, you made it to the top of your field and are still struggling? For 10 years I have played with Concerto Köln, one of the most famous baroque orchestras in the world, everywhere, from Carnegie Hall to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. As a soloist and solo-cellist I play concerts with stars of the conventional classical music business, such as Daniel Hope, Viktoria Mullova, and Edita Gruberova. On nights when I play with them, these stars are earning between 100 and 500 times as much as I do. Again, you could say, why don’t you become a star yourself? This is like telling everybody who works for a company, “Sorry, I know you can’t survive with your salary, but all of you should work hard enough to become C.E.O.s. Until you have achieved that goal, we will pay you very little money, but we give you the opportunity to promote yourself. Keep believing and working hard and be thankful for all the opportunities that we provide. If you don’t have the success you want, you should consider counseling or participate in an esoteric self-empowering course. Still not a C.E.O.? Well, take more courses, try harder!”1

This cynical capitalist logic is well established in the freelance world of art and show business. People in these fields are very easy victims for extortion, because artists and musicians like what they are doing and believe that they are living their dreams. It’s probably more difficult to tell a plumber to work for almost nothing, selling him an underpaid job as a great opportunity to promote himself. Actually, playing classical music (maybe with the exception of being a soloist or conductor) has very little to do with “self-fulfillment,” “living one’s dreams,” “becoming a star,” and all the other show-business promises. Playing classical music requires a very high degree of self-discipline: you have to be able to manage and maintain your craft on a very high level, you are a small cog in the machine, your strongest skill is your adaptability, and you perform—wearing unsexy clothes—unglamorous music of dead composers for a nearly dead audience.

Why should all of this matter to the reader who is not a freelance classical musician? Because, although this group of musicians is hit harder by the unfolding dynamic of global capitalism than workers in many other middle-class jobs, your field could be next! At the fringes of middle-class professionalism, the decline and impoverishment of today’s freelance musicians is like a seismograph which clearly shows the tendency of today’s capitalism. It’s only a question of time until other middle-class professionals slip into the poverty already shared by millions of low-skilled and unemployed workers. Must we wait until the vast majority of people are poor and all the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1%?

A second question is a cultural one. Do we want to live in a society where no artistic or cultural endeavor can exist which doesn’t either reach a mass audience or meet the needs of the top elite of the rich? Classical music (particularly music written before 1800) is by its nature less adaptable to the predominant system of show business and consumption. Think of the music of J. S. Bach: it’s pretty much the opposite of the music featured on the T.V. show The Voice. Yet a lot of people feel that our culture would be poorer without the music of J. S. Bach. Do we want to accept a system that allows only a very narrow spectrum of culture, only the stuff that supports the music industry? In fact, classical music was never sustainable in the free market, but was always supported by rich individuals, the church, or the state. Pretty much every famous artist or composer always had support from one or several of these patrons. If these resources fail to do the job today, what can take their place?

If the division between losers and winners produced by the current system becomes too obvious, the danger arises that the losers may start to work against the system and finally try to destroy it. Modern capitalism tries to avoid this outcome by calming and diffusing the disappointment and anger of the losers with the help of consumption, entertainment,2 modern addictions, empty promises of rising up to the top (the American Dream), and abusive use of religion and nationalism. This is how the “eerie social calm” of our Western countries is maintained. This “peaceful” status quo has a very high cost: people are lonely, depressed, addicted to one thing or another, and under high social and financial pressures. Our society is sick.

I can see three scenarios for the future: 1. More or less, we continue the status quo. The winners of the system enforce exploitation and the destruction of the planet only to the extent it won’t threaten the system as a whole. Maybe, the modern homo economicus is smart enough to know where to stop, so as not to risk losing everything to a revolution. 2. The dynamic of capitalism is pushed to the extreme, producing major natural catastrophes, wars, and violence leading to totalitarian systems, producing conditions reminiscent of the first half of the 20th century. 3. We stop wasting our energy fighting each other, and look instead for new ways to solve our problems by creating systems which protect us from each other and ourselves and nourish a prosperity to everyone’s advantage. We use our intelligence and our big computers to create really fair systems for interacting with each other, radical meritocracies where everyone is acknowledged for his and her contribution, even the smallest. Transforming the American Dream and transforming our self-interest driven mentality also means transforming national interests and reaching out to all people on this planet.

A lot of people agree that we shouldn’t be so egotistical. For instance, there is a movement of small businesses trying to produce fair products and treat all their employees with respect, paying them a fair salary. This is great, but the effort taken to market the Fair Trade logo suggests that the motivation is more about taking advantage of a particular niche market than about a real commitment to fairness. A real breakthrough requires that we go down this road all the way. As with lying, you can’t be a little bit fair: either you are honest or you aren’t, and either you are fair 100 percent, or you aren’t. 

In order to improve our lot, we have to be willing and able to let go of the urge to take advantage of others. The problem isn’t the fact that we are mostly egoistic and self-centered, but that we have created systems that nurture our egoism, instead of helping us to overcome it in order to be successful all together and fulfilled as human beings. The paradigm of 200 years of industrialized capitalism, ingrained in us, is not easy to break up. On the other hand, 200 years is a short time in the history of mankind and contemporary capitalism is not a law of nature, but a pretty young and partially dysfunctional system. It’s time to take an important step farther!


  1. Amusingly enough, students at Juilliard take in these capitalist slogans. Failing at the free market, classical musicians are leering at the pop music business and try to apply similar marketing strategies, hoping to learn from this field how to successfully sell oneself. Classical musicians look ridiculous posing like sexy pop stars—and, anyway, it doesn’t work: the classical music business is still in decline, despite bare legs, photo-shop, and wind machines.
  2. Everything, including every “critical” word, that doesn’t provoke actual structural change is part of the same stabilizing game of entertainment; “critique” is a great business model for your educated target audience, one followed by Michael Moore and thousands of artists.


Leonhard Bartussek

LEONHARD BARTUSSEK is an Austrian cellist and composer. He is developing a radically merit-based music service website.