Wednesday, April 06, 2016

looking back on some of the polemics associated with not-jazz at Yale and jazz as "politically relevant" over the last couple of years

A while back Robert Blocker had that notice that jazz would not be part of the music program emphasized at Yale.  The case was that the goal was the Western canon and "new music".  Ethan Iverson noted that "new music" probably meant stuff like work by Milton Babbitt (of whose work Iverson is a fan and whose work is ... not high on WtH's favorites).  Iverson presented a case for why conservatories take their conservative route, argued that music students should take what they can, but that the abjection of blues and jazz by Yale was still a huge mistake.  Then again, if anything I wonder if the problem with jazz has been that it has been perceived as being ultimately as elitist as classical music for many Americans.  That's a shame but as I don't listen to the radio the most frequent time I'm apt to end up hearing jazz is as the hold music of America.  I've vented some spleen about that elsewhere at the blog. 
 
If memory serves, Iverson mentioned that if you were read just one commentary on not-jazz at Yale it'd be this link at New Music Box.  An excerpt:
 
...
On the cusp of a new academic year, Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music, offered a resolution destined, perhaps, to become a standard of its kind. Defending (in The New York Times) his institution’s decision to suspend the activities of its jazz ensemble (and its general de-emphasis of jazz in the curriculum), Blocker appealed to categorization:

Our mission is real clear…. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.
This intimation of musical haves and have-nots—placing jazz outside the vale of a posited Western canon of great works, then and now—is dumb in its own way (Alex Ross and Michael Lewanski were quick to point out how and why). It is also wrong on a deeper and more historically populous level. Both Ross and Lewanski make the eminently correct assertion that a curriculum without jazz is poor training indeed for the wonderfully kleptomaniacal repertoire of classical music. But, even beyond that, to promulgate a canon that does not change and expand its parameters in response to performed reality is, I think, missing the point of music, and missing it badly.
...
Connoisseurs may also recall last year’s anti-jazz contretemps, culminating with composer-activist John Halle’s broadside against the current state of jazz vis-à-vis progressive politics, which, on its surface, avoided the high-low divide that Taylor repointed and Blocker tripped over. (Halle’s thesis: “It’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset.”) But at the core of Halle’s article was a related view of score and performance, revealed when he took tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson to task for performing and recording an instrumental version of the old standard “Without a Song”—the original lyrics of which are redolent with, as Halle puts it, “vile Jim Crow racism” (“A darky’s born/ but he’s no good no how / without a song”)—at nearly the same time Henderson was, elsewhere in his music, acknowledging and endorsing the Black Power movement of the 1960s. (“A nadir of obliviousness,” Halle concluded.)
 
What Blocker’s comment, Taylor’s bravado, and Halle’s litmus test all share is the assumption of a kind of one-way street between intent and performance. Halle’s implication is that, no matter Henderson’s intention, the performance is politically regressive because of the original lyrics—to echo Taylor, even a poor work of art, it seems, is a good deal tougher than we assume that it is. Taylor’s confidence that the score can survive any amount of stylistic contamination nevertheless insinuates that performance, the real-world, real-time expression of style, is ultimately secondary. Blocker’s mission statement implicitly posits a musical regime setting the verities of the written-down, published, and academically vetted canon against the presumably more relativistic and transient pleasures of a performed vernacular.
 
The supposition throughout is that the composer’s (or lyricist’s) intent remains paramount, that even a thoroughly transformative performance is still just a reiteration of that intent.  There is another possibility, though: the possibility that, the performance can offset the composer’s intent, simply by virtue of who is doing the performing—and how.
 
***
In other contexts this error seems to be what Richard Taruskin called the poietic fallacy, simply asserting that authorial intent has to overpower any mitigating or countervailing tendencies in perception of the completed thing.  I.e. what an artist like Schoenberg intended is more important than whether an audience "gets it". If in one case the imputation of sin is to the ignorant folly of an unworthy audience in another case the imputed sin is the failure of even a subversive reinterpretation or refraction of content to atone for the political or ideological sins credited to the creator and his/her original intents as defined by the critique.
 
Before we get to the John Halle comments there's a side path to take.
 
...
A 25-year-old graduate student at Northwestern University is making headlines this week in a dispute with his music professor. For his final exam, Timothy McNair "is required to perform three songs at a June 8 concert as part of his music class," a Chicago television station reports. "One of them contains the writings of American poet Walt Whitman." But the student says he won't perform anything that includes the words of  "one of the most historically racist poets of U.S. history" who "called African Americans baboons" and favored suppressing voting rights. Nothing offends him in the particular song he is being asked to sing save the identity of the artist.
 
The song isn't racist. Just the guy who wrote its words. (This surprises a lot of people about  Whitman. But it's definitely true. Here's a treatment of Whitman's racial attitudes and their complicated relationship with his work.)
 
The debate I've followed has focused on whether it would be right to fail the student, as his professor has allegedly threatened, or if he should be permitted to sing something different for the exam. I'll leave that question to folks more familiar with the major, the assignment and its purpose. But I would respectfully suggest that McNair is taking a stand and jeopardizing his academic standing for a terribly flawed idea that would make the world a worse place were it widely accepted.
 
As for Halle's piece, an excerpt:
...
Based on the Left’s long history of embracing jazz and jazz musicians, we might feel we have a dog in this fight. But it’s been years since jazz had any claim to a counter-cultural, outsider, adversarial status, or communicated a revolutionary or even mildly reformist mindset. Any doubts on that score can be answered with a trip to the wall of corporate sponsors of jazz in Lincoln Center, followed by a visit to Dizzy’s Coca Cola club, the center’s flagship concert hall.
 
If the Left is losing its affinity for jazz, that’s not really a problem: plenty of other musical styles can fill the void, and we can argue about whether they succeed in complementing a radical political and economic critique or even whether it’s important that they do so.
 
The problem for jazz is that few on the left, right, or center care enough about it anymore to argue its merits — political, aesthetic, or otherwise. Moyer is an exception: he clearly cares enough to take the time to write about why it fails to move him emotionally and engage him intellectually.
 
He’s right to point out the damage done to jazz by generations of uncritical consensus about its greatness, certified by a phalanx of respectability ranging from musicological mandarin Joseph Kerman and CIA operative Henry Pleasants to civil libertarian Nat Hentoff and black nationalist Amiri Baraka (not to mention the master of triangulation himself, Bill Clinton). The aesthetic status of jazz is reinforced through top-down institutional acceptance: the MacArthur awards, the endowed professorships, the Ken Burns documentary, the massive corporate and nonprofit support, and so on.
..
 
Halle stopped a few steps short of saying jazz might as well be counter-revolutionary.  Elsewhere at Jacobin he's made a case that classical music is a tradition that provides a way to cultivate modes of thought that can counteract the dread conformities inherent in mass produced mass music but people who actually like rock and pop music might disagree. 
 
That kind of indirectly touches on what I've experienced with jazz as the hold music of America.  I could spend a lot of time revisiting rifts between the old and new left on high and low culture but I'm not sure I want to burrow around forever in that.  Menand has written somewhere that the rift between the old left and new left could be described as the new left wanting to embrace their critique of late capitalism while also still holding on to their Beatles albums.  For the old left it wasn't possible to simultaneously affirm the evil of capitalism on the one hand while celebrating mass/popular culture on the other.  A corresponding rift about whether the middlebrow could be considered art at all exists on the right, too, and it's another thing I might leave off (possibly forever) until, perhaps, some other time.
 
One of the potentially fatal pitfalls of art for the sake of art as a dogma is that it insists that we assign a value to art even if nobody's listening to it.  The technological innovations of the last thirty years have introduced ways to access music in ways that make it easier to get but not always easier to monetize.  Paradigms are shifting and all that.  What Scott Timberg's been venting about is how the arts may become the leisure activity of those who can afford it.  It was ever thus, dude.  The arts that have survived long enough to become contested canons have been the arts that flourished in a stable empire of patronage.  Even folk art can fit into this category.  Now by "empire of patronage" I mean simply any socio-economic community that survives long enough for the creation of folk art traditions or more formal art works. 
 
Take the pyramids of Egypt as an example.  Egypt had to exist long enough as an empire for those works to get built.  That was one of Miyazaki's eloquently direct and simple questions about the nature of art in The Wind Rises. No matter how pure we strive to have our art be it can still ultimately be an instrument in the hands of an empire.  It could almost be proposed that the most troubling question inherent in Miyazaki's film could be not "if" artists who create will make work that can be put into the service of an empire but that artists must ask WHICH empire their art will be a reflection of because, ultimately, they won't really have a choice in the matter. 
 
If the death of the author means that a work of art once released into the world becomes whatever its reception history is then art being subjected to the instrumental interests of empires is the only fate art that survives can possibly have.  It can be "more" than propaganda if enough people reach a consensus to that effect but it can't be "less" than propaganda in the sense that it will invariably reflect the aspirations and anxieties of a community that either dominates the "mainstream" or aspires to gain a place of recognition and respect within a mainstream.  Those are the two options, historically speaking, but only those who make it into history even get, often belatedly, the opportunity to ... have that decision made for them. Some have described this as the "winner take all" problem in the arts.  It's always been the case and the other historically notable alternate path to contributing art, music or literature that lingers for generations is the work itself survives but the memory of attribution doesn't. I.e. folk art. 
 
If there's a little quibble to be made with Dwight Macdonald's Masscult and Midcult it's that he could have articulated more forcefully what folk art constitutes in socioeconomic terms.  If high art could be broadly characterized as the art that is made by a famous or known name for financial compensation, folk art could be described as street level, working-class artisanship that is frequently anonymous and that was (this might be the crucial part) done entirely at the artists own time and expense as a leisure activity once the needs of surviving another day or week were taken care of.  We have the technological means to produce and distribute fantastic amounts of art, music and literature but what vocational artists may not be reconciled to is the possibility that this new folk culture may take humanity in the West back to what the situation was before the bubble of the 20th century recorded music industry gave us, a winner-take-all scenario in which folk art flourished because nobody who was making folk art ever expected to be paid for it.
 
Isn't that what art for the sake of art is about?  Or do the artists who might trumpet that axiom suddenly discover that, faced with the prospect of never being able to earn money creating art, it's not what they want their lives to be full of, after all?  Making jazz a revolutionary force in a Marxist paradigm won't bring back to jazz its connection to the popular or the mainstream.  It might already be foundation music in too many respects, the hold music of America.  That's a tragedy but this would seem like a compelling case for jazz and blues (and country) to be taught with the western canon as the western canon in the United States.  What makes the Yale situation so disappointing in terms of musical idioms and traditions getting preserved is that to snub jazz is to snub a musical tradition that is a century old by now and that predates "new music". 
 
But then a careful survey of the history of classical music suggests that the boundaries between "high" and "low" have always been wonderfully permeable.  Of course not everyone on any given side of any of those divides wants the boundaries to be permeable, whether it's on the classical side or the jazz side. 
 
 

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