Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Jazz at Yale (or not) various people sound off on whether jazz is/should be in the Western canon and whether it's neutered itself from having any political viability
Ethan Iverson also links to a few features on George Walker, whose string quartets and piano sonatas I've been listening to thanks to the blogging Iverson's done at Do The Math.
John Halle's title for his piece at Jacobin telegraphs a bit.

While the decisions people make over at Yale about whether or not jazz counts within the Western canon is not a decision I have any influence over, the permeability and synergy of all musical styles influencing each other seems beyond dispute. Earlier this year I blogged about how it only takes a little bit of listening and observation to see how you can transform themes from early Romantic era guitar music into the kinds of riffs you could hear in a ragtime for piano a century later. Kyle Gann has blogged about how one of the pitfalls of musicology and music education as academic activity is that the teachers tend to teach the music that makes it easiest to understand abstracted forms rather than what was actually going on. 

One proposal as to how and why that happened was that the 19th century theorists and music historians tended to simplify the forms and styles as molds into which things could be pressed rather than as thought processes--if the 18th century composers made use of fugue and sonata as a kind of musical thought process 19th century theorists transformed these things into scholastic models and molds.  Eventually, a century later, scholars emerged who had time and energy and the will to make a corrective gesture. George Oldroyd, for instance, in the Technique and Spirit of Fugue, could point out that a fugal subject for which Bach would provide a tonal answer might be one for which Handel would provide a real answer. The idea that there was even a "form" for a fugue would be to misunderstand the nature of the art.

Academics with ideas to defend tend to double down on those ideas even when they may or may not connect to music at large. Some ideas survive thanks to the academy even when they don't add up.  In his monograph on the narratives of David in the Old Testament canon Jacob Wright pointed out that there are a lot of scholars who sincerely think the whole aim of the OT canonical narratives was to whitewash the legacy of David. Wright wrote quite a book to show that the only reason that theory keeps any traction with those who actually know the primary sources would be the weight of academic tradition. There's no way to read the account of how David did nothing to right the injustice of what Amnon did to Tamar and think that that narrative's sole purpose is to vindicate the reputation of David. That was not the way despots in ancient near eastern empires tended to work. Thanks to academic inertia and defending ideas once formulated, the notion has taken hold.

A comparably ridiculous idea is that you can teach the Western canon of music in the 21st century while pretending jazz hasn't become part of it.

But schools can only cover so much and if schools are really in the tradition of teaching students to think critically then the tools of criticism and analysis can be applied as readily to an episode of My Little Pony as to a sonnet by Shakespeare. Sure, you could say that one will yield different results and interests and mileage varies from person to person but that's not the point.  In theory an academic life can give a person the intellectual tools and foster the intellectual interests to take either the MLP episode or the Shakespearean sonnet and bring the same care and interest to both enterprises.

Then again ... some folks are suggesting lately that with endowment being in the zone of 24 billion dollars Yale could ostensibly afford a few things, right?

No comments: