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Oxford prevails over UAA in debate about music

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 7, 2015

I don't like to hear people argue, but on April 30 I made an exception and joined several hundred other Anchorage residents at the match between the Oxford and UAA Seawolf debate teams. The ground floor, at least, of the Discovery Theatre was full for the fundraiser and there must have been some genuine interest in the motion: "This house believes classical music deserves no support beyond that which the market will provide."

Attendees were invited to use their mobile devices to disclose their opinion prior to the proceedings with the results displayed on a screen behind the competitors. At that time 27 percent favored the motion, 60 percent opposed it, the rest were undecided.

The Oxford team presented the side in support of the motion. Matt Handley said that while government generosity was good, when it is spent to support someone's hobby it goes too far. Using money that belongs to all to prop up the pleasures of a few is wrong in principal. While classical music is losing its audience, even with government handouts, the audience for popular music is growing without them. It's a relic from a bygone era and "a story the poor can't believe."

UAA's Jonathon Taylor responded in opposition to the motion. Live art cannot be duplicated and it inspires young people, he said. It's not that the poor "can't believe" its message, but that they are priced out of the process by the very market forces mentioned in the motion, forces that have "sounded the death knell" for concert music. Classical music keeps us in touch with the best of our history and our humanity, he said, and knowledge of classical notation and performance skills is needed to train musicians in all genres.

Fiddlesticks, responded Oxford's Carin Hunt. "Taylor Swift didn't need any training" to become a successful musician. "She just had to lose her boyfriend." To prescribe notions of "higher culture," she said with sarcasm, is tantamount to kings and popes dictating taste. "It's not about culture, it's about elitism."

Matthieu Ostrander countered for UAA, noting that more than 100 youth orchestras in Venezuela involving 250,000 students is hardly elite. But he conceded that classical music isn't always popular, nor does it try to be. It hovers to one side, a repository of intellectual capital, enduring over time. "When classical music tries to be popular, it ceases to be classical," he said.

The celebrity judges now had a chance to chime in. Washington Post critic Anne Midgette noted that in America, symphonies and opera companies receive so little government support as to be invisible. Good, replied Handley, keep it up.

Cellist Zuill Bailey asked the contestants to define what they meant by classical. They admitted it was a definition they'd struggled with. When Bailey likened classical music to fine cuisine as opposed to fast food, Hunt retorted that she found comparing jazz to fast food offensive.

Singer-songwriter "Hobo" Jim Varsos cited his own experience in the music business in observing, "Being hungry makes your music better." If the state was going to fund classical music, he asked, why not fund folk? Why not? the UAA team responded. "In Alaska the government will fund anything."

Around this time a soprano in the balcony whom I could not see began singing something about how she loved music and wanted it to be state funded. It took a minute before moderator Steve Johnson, the Seawolves' coach, could quiet her -- perhaps with assistance from ushers or some of the audibly annoyed patrons who had paid $20 to hear people talk about music, not make it.

Taylor wrapped up the debate for UAA, stressing that the market is what has led to stratification of audiences and government funding could make the unique wonder of classical music more of an equal-opportunity experience. It should be preserved for the same reason we preserve different languages, he said, a potent point but perhaps made too late in the contest.

Handley had the final words, repeating that state funding was bad for art, that only the market could push it in new directions, "like improv opera," he quipped, gesturing to the balcony from which the soprano had sung.

The judges split 1-2 in favor of the motion, Bailey's being the only vote for the opposition. Midgette said she was personally inclined toward government funding of music, but felt that Oxford made the better case and that UAA's arguments were tired and predictable.

The audience voted one last time and the final result was 43 percent in favor of the motion and 51 opposed. This significant shift in opinion over the course of an hour gave the win to Oxford, decisively.