Friday, March 25, 2016

an old link in which Ted Gioia converses with himself about the dangers of critics who write for each other rather than the public and play the prestige game

 
Of course, you probably think jazz writers are the good guys here? I only wish that were true. Jazz critics are key factors in educating the audience and keeping the art form healthy. But critics need to realize that their main responsibility is to the audience. Not to their friends among the musicians, or to other critics, whom they try to impress. How many jazz writers today really demonstrate that commitment to the audience?
 
A half-century ago, the critical function got corrupted. This happened around the time art critic Clement Greenberg found that he could make his name and reputation by jumping on the bandwagon for Jackson Pollock.

What was so wrong about that?
Nothing was inherently wrong about it—at least at first. But the rules of the game changed, and critics learned that they could enhance their reputations if they were the first to jump on the next new thing.
 
Critics have to make choices. Do they write about the serious artist who is quietly building a body of outstanding work over a period of years? Or do they constantly jump from fad to fad, trying to pinpoint what is going to be hot during the next six months. I would suggest that a critic frequently must make a choice between these two goals. Either you focus primarily on work of the highest quality, or you try to anticipate the next flavor of the month.
  
"Did you ever have to make up your mind," as the old song goes. Many critics eventually decided to do the thing that enhanced their own reputation the most. Guess which choice they made.
 
You make it sound so bad.
In truth, the jazz critics handled this dilemma better than critics in other art forms. At least for the most part. Jazz has always prided itself on judging music by how it sounds. But that isn't always the case in other forms of music. I recently met a scholar who had written a paper on John Cage, and found that it caused some controversy, because he analyzed Cage's music on the basis of how it sounded, rather than on the basis of its "compositional strategies."
 
How strange, that a music writer would get called to the carpet for paying attention to the sound of the music. Isn't music all about how it sounds? Yet this tells you something about the state of mind across the fence in the world of contemporary classical music. Fortunately things never got quite that bad on the jazz scene. The jazz critics still listen to the music, for the most part, and are influenced by what their ears tell them when they write their reviews. Of course, that begs the question of how much they hear . . .

Sorry to cut you off. But does it really matter what the critics say?
It certainly does. When critics try to impress each other, rather than fulfill their responsibility to the audience, the audience feels shortchanged. And, eventually, the audience shrinks.
  
How often have you bought a CD because of a critic's recommendation, only to find that it was almost unlistenable? More often than you want to admit, huh? If you are a dedicated fan, you might keep on buying more CDs even after that experience. But many intelligent members of the general public, who might have become serious jazz fans, got turned away by this corruption of critical standards.
 
Reminds me ... Gioia's not just blowing smoke with that story about an analysis of music that might not deal with how the music actually sounds.  This has been a concern among music scholars and pundits for about half a century or so. 
 
MUSIC, THE ARTS, AND IDEAS
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 292-293
...
To put the matter briefly, insofar as total serialism lacks compositional (as distinguished from systematic or precompositional) redundancy, it cannot be analyzed, nor can it be described either in terms of simpler structures or in terms of common practices. All one can do--and it is significant that this is what has been done--is to exhibit its systemic, precompositional materials. [emphasis added] The situation is concisely, if somewhat vitriocally, summed up by T. W. Adorno: "One can not reproach the critic with not understanding these recent products of rampant rationalism, since according to their own programme, they are not to be understood but only to be demonstrated. Ask what is the function of some phenomenon within a work's total content and meaning and the answer is a further exposition of the system."
Of course total serialism isn't even remotely the same as what Cage was doing in terms of philosophical approach.  Total serialism and chance may have both embraced an anti-teleological practice and ethos but the way they aimed to implement that differed.  Of course for the untrained and uneducated listener it might seem impossible to distinguish between a work of total serialism and a Cage piece.  That's unfair but this is one of those weekends where I don't want to belabor that point.  Gioia's observation is that when members of the critical establishment decided to play the prestige game they betrayed the public good and even if you disagree with that point it still seems that it's a point worth bringing up.
 
A compositional strategy can be a super fun thing to discuss.  Haydn's monothematic approach to sonata forms is wonderful, for instance.  J. S. Bach's monothematic fugal approach is also something fun for me to read about.  What can be lost in academic discussions of how advanced certain forms and techniques could get is that there were expressive goals in mind.  Haydn heard music that bugged him because he heard a composer flitting about from tune to tune or from riff to riff and nothing lodged itself in the memory.  If you can't even remember what you just heard how will it touch your heart?  So Haydn, I would argue, had what you could polemically call a pop musicians sensitivity to and respect for the cognitive bandwidth limits of his audience.  Using his considerable experience and technique to serve up something fun for his audiences is one of the things I admire about Haydn.   
If critics within mainstream journalism could be said to have sold out to the prestige racket it could be even worse in formal academics.  Gioia has raised a question about why some are so sheepish about the possibility of musical universals.  The aims toward which this quest could integrate into traditional liberalism and humanities doesn't seem that hard to infer.  Or, I could put it in more Christian confessional terms, if there's no slave or free; Jew or Greek; male or female then we could (oh, yeah, I actually explicitly put it this way a few years ago) say there's no high or low, no indie or mainstream, no art or pop if Christ is reconciling all things to Himself and to God the Father.  This could even potentially play into certain academic arguments about whether race is a social construct or not and what that has to do with music.  If there's no such thing as race apart from language games then there's no black or white way to play an augmented sixth chord that derives from any essential nature.  That could mean that if Bubber Miley took up a Chopin riff that's fine and that if Eric Clapton makes a bunch of music inspired by Robert Johnson that's fine, too.  We seem to have this history where whites and blacks can borrow from each other's musical histories and we're often okay with it if we sense that there's genuine affection, care, and respect for the traditions. 
 
George Walker's never played what he or others would describe as jazz but thanks to the inveterate advocacy of Ethan Iverson I'm happy to report I like Walker's piano sonatas. 
 
The shame of jazz not being part of the musical canon to me is that anyone who spends some time on the history of Baroque music might well know there were a number of traditions and styles and that you'd have to learn more than one.  I've said this before but I see no reason why music students shouldn't learn both the "art" music and the "pop" music traditions as being complimentary idioms.  That a bunch of dead white guys in Europe pulled this off centuries ago during a time when they were trying to kill each other over territory disputes could be a potential guide in the 21st century in another hemisphere. 
 
There just doesn't seem to be any "need" for us to not cultivate a love for Haydn and Stevie Wonder at the same time.  I think musicians have been doing this for a couple of generations.  When I read that quote attributed to Jimi Hendrix about how he aspired toward a Handel, Bach, Muddy Waters flamenco sound I agree that that sound sounds worth pursuing.  Sign me up.  I believe that a fusion of 18th century contrapuntal techniques and blues licks is workable, even if it may take twenty or thirty years of steady experimentation and connection to the different musical traditions to get to that point.  If critics can play a harmful role it's  a harm comparable to scholars, of defending the little fiefdoms of punditry more than a quest for a shared world of beauty.  There are scholars and critics who are mainly interested in defending their own turf and jargon rather than making a case for how we could move forward.  They may not realize it but that's one of the values of arts criticism, in a tradition of arts criticism these kinds of things can at least come up for discussion. 
 
If the academics and journalists want to continue turf wars about style and appropriation it may be left to musicians to keep experimenting with formal fusions and the composer guitarist Leo Brouwer has said that musicians have pretty much been doing this regardless of the calcification of academic/critical concerns about bracketing styles off.  I don't know that we really live in an era of pastiche so much as we live in an era in which practical musicians with interests in egalitarian and reconciliatory aims have been seeking for successful fusion. It's possible to aspire to successful fusion from any given side of any conventional divide.  Jazz musicians can draw inspiration from classical music.  Classical musicians can draw inspiration from popular music and this isn't odd, it's more like the whole history of music in the world.

No comments: