Tuesday, August 30, 2016

lectures from Kyle Gann and Kevin Volans on the role the Western powers bankrolled the arts

before getting to the meat of this, a HT to Ethan Iverson.

I finished reading the William Robin dissertation this week, which I'll get to mentioning further along this post.  For now, we'll start with something Kyle Gann said in a 2013 presentation to set the stage.


The term "American music" is devoid of specific connotative content today, even if we limit it to composed music in the concert tradition. If it means music made by Americans, Americans today come from all over the globe - and some whose ancestors were born there are working in global traditions. The American educational system pretty reliably exposes young composers to analysis of European modernist masterworks; jazz harmony; musical software; indigenous innovators such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Conlon Nancarrow; and a number of third-world musical traditions, most notably Indonesian gamelan, West African drumming, Japanese gagaku, and Indian classical music. In addition, young composers absorb pop music and mass culture on their own. From this increasingly de-centered pedagogic tradition, they are understandably flung in all directions, flowing into a sea of aesthetic proclivities with myriad flavors but few demarcations or distinct categories.

This absolute openness in terms of aesthetic choices contrasts markedly, though, with drastic limitations on what kind of visibility or impact the composer can expect to achieve in American society. The increasing power of corporations, and their decreasing sense of social responsibility, have created a very different atmosphere from the one I remember growing up in. Major record labels used to promote new music as a public service through the 1960s and '70s, but the corporate-friendly Reagan years made any such altruistic principles a thing of the past. Corporations now so heavily push only kinds of music that can be easily categorized and that return a reliable profit that the amount of public distribution accorded new classical (or postclassical) music has decreased to a trickle. I remember clearly that around 1973 European record labels such as Deutsche Grammophon quit marketing their records in the U.S. because they considered it a losing financial venture, and thus we quit being apprised of the latest new music from abroad.

In addition, the fall of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War brought an era of abundant arts funding to an end. In the 1950s and '60s, the CIA funded the presentation of much American music and art in Europe in order to make a public case that a capitalist democracy could stimulate as good or better artistic production than socialism could. With the fall of the Soviet Union it became no longer necessary for the U.S. government to compete to prove that it could be a cultural success. [emphasis added] In addition, right-wing politicians - who always need an alleged enemy to scare the population with - turned their malevolent attention from communists to artists, and produced propaganda to the effect that artists were elite and immoral snobs undermining our family-oriented ethics while living off the public dole. As a result, government arts funding was greatly curtailed, especially for individual and innovative artists, and rerouted toward large public institutions of the most reliably conservative tendencies. Initiatives for cross-cultural exchange dried up. Opportunities to showcase American composers in Europe became rare, as did opportunities for European ensembles to play in the U.S.

That's from a November 13, 2013 presentation Kyle Gann gave.   A more recent presentation is from the composer Kevin Volans. 

The title of the presentation is a quote from Morton Feldman that's easy to work out from the link itself:


Feldman made that statement in 1984. [see the title "If you need an audience we don't need you"] That was when Thatcherism or monetarism was really taking root. The year before, Thatcher had privatised public services and sold off council houses, reaping £47 billion for the economy. In 1987 she denied the existence of "society" (saying: "...who is society? There is no such thing!") and her slogan "value for money" began to be applied to the arts - translated as Bums on Seats. Sadly, she and her followers seemed to lack any understanding of what the arts were. She saw art as upmarket entertainment, an upmarket consumer product, a notion that became so entrenched that not long ago, in the late 1990's Thatcher's ex- Minister for the Arts in Britain and later Chairman of the Arts Council of England, Lord Gowrie, said, in defense of opera: "It's not entertainment for toffs, it's entertainment for all!" Wrong. It's more than entertainment. Opera offers an insight into the complexities of the human psyche - it is a metaphor for, or an exposition, even, of our own personal dreams and nightmares.

The point I would like to make is that New Music as an art from the beginning of the 20th century survived either as a very private practice within a small circle of aficionados, or with massive government sponsorship.  [emphasis added] It is expensive, and it is a great luxury. Only wealthy countries can afford music as an art. And they did spend money on New Music. In a big way.

West Germany put its money behind Stockhausen, building him a geodesic dome to his specifications for Expo 70, where over a million people attended live concerts of Stockhausen in 26 weeks. (Making him the most successful 'serious' composer in history). [for those who haven't read it, a possible clue why Cornelius Cardew published the book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism in the 1970s?] This matched Xenakis's Polytopes, the first a huge 1967 installation in the French pavilion in Montreal, and other different but similarly elaborate and costly installations in Persepolis, the Baths of Cluny in Paris, and Mycenes. There were rumours flying around that the Cluny installation had cost the French Ministry of Culture as much as the Eiffel Tower in real terms. (I'm sure this is untrue, by the way). Then they built IRCAM (the institute for the research and co-ordination of acoustics and music) at the Pompidou centre to Boulez's specifications. And then the West German government commissioned a large work from Stockhausen for the American 200th Anniversary celebrations, and so on ...

Like the CIA involvement in Abstract Expressionism, governments got behind these large scale works because they were intended to show off the artistic superiority of the West. And they took huge state investment.

But this all changed in the 1980's. State sponsorship began running out - with the decline of communism, the Cold War running down and the re-unification of Germany (in 1990) there was no need for the West to prove anything and Germany at least needed all its resources to finance the reunification process. The governments pulled out of music in general and New Music in particular and business moved in. [emphasis added]

And then the rot set in. Serious music began to be marketed as entertainment. Upmarket entertainment.

I do not believe that popularising art creates a public for serious work. There is no 'trickle down' effect.

Business is the enemy of music as an art. It's all about budget and returns. And its influence is all pervasive if not always obvious.

Serious composition is not a business. It is a vocation. A career is a side effect of this vocation.
 The norm nowadays is to produce little pieces of under 10 minutes, very often under 5 minutes. This is another byproduct of the so-called music industry. The most obvious difference between 'serious' music and 'popular' music has always been duration. 'Serious' music composers always wrote works on average of over 20 minutes. This requires a more complex and taxing technical ability than writing 5 minutes. Writing a 5 minute piece is frankly, a piece of cake. The difference between writing that or a work of 90 minutes is like the difference between designing a 2 bedroom cottage or a 60 storey skyscraper.

What both Gann and Volans have pointed out is the close linkage between certain kinds of avant garde art (new music aka new-music) and the sponsorship of the state.  Both chart the start of a decline the fine art sort of music with the onset of Reaganism and Thatcherism and the lack of continuing investment on the part of corporation into music and art that was, let's just put this in the bluntest possible way, designed to demonstrate the inherent superiority of the Western non-Communist way of life by endorsing the kinds of music that pissed of Soviet aesthetic ideologues committed to Socialist Realism. 

But what Volans seems to have regarded as a net positive, Western German state backing of work created by Stockhausen, Cornelius Cardew seemed to regard as a sign that Stockhausen was serving the imperialist West and pandering to the self-satisfied ruling class. 

Gann's comment about how right-wign politicians began to target artists might be a point that could be expanded--it's not as though we didn't have that period in American history where writers and artists and musicians were suspected of being communists and grilled about that.  We probably know at least a little about the McCarthy era, for instance.  When the Berlin Wall fell and as the Soviet Union was collapsing there were people on the right who feared Reagan would be swayed into a false sense of security by the apparently declining Soviet bloc that could still have a few dirty tricks up its sleeve.  If anything Gann may have undersold the extent to which those who were on the alert against the influence of communist and Marxist ideas in the arts never stopped being sensitive to that stuff. 

In both cases it seems a foregone conclusion by Gann and Volans that it was a bad thing the United States and other Western nations stopped backing art that was often fringe imply because the Cold War was over, because "we" had proven the superiority of our cultural approach and thus no longer needed to keep bankrolling the kidn of music that was never hugely popular.

Volans made a point about how art is a vocation and a career is a by-product.  Okay, if art is seen as a vocation of a patently religious kind then we could propose that those in it for functionally religious reasons are making art to be able to make art.  Why would the state need to be brought in to sully that with money? 

Gann, for those familiar with his decade of blogging, is emphatically against the idea that the pop/art music divide should be considered binding.  It's preferable that the styles of music and their respective practitioners learn from each other.  If the fine arts get mediated by state institutions like schools, then, it makes sense to urge schools to promote musical life and culture; a case could even be made that music education could have a simple role in reminding people what is and isn't public domain.  Ours may be the first era in history in which our popular culture at large is mediated almost entirely through recordings that are under copyright and bring with them all sorts of license-for-use restrictions.  While some would argue this means we should relax the copyright regime that is, arguably, the lazier and more ignorant approach in terms of educational cultures--another possibility is to encourage people to make as much derivative work and experimental creation from the public domain as possible. 

And if there's a reason among many I'm glad I never ended up in grad school studying music it's that, as Gann has complained, actual musical analysis seems to have taken a distant backseat to identity politics narratives. 


I've been waiting for that book about Ives' Concord Sonata to come out for years but that's not important right now. :)

I've been catching up only a little on analytical treatments of music and how things like gender studies and identity politics can be brought to bear on music through things like critical theory.  Some of it is fascinating stuff and yet even among the more readable stuff there's this vibe I get.  I dont' mean analyses of guitar sonatas by Sor or Giuliani or direct and blatant advocacy for Nikolai Kapustin's experiments in a fusion of contrapuntal technique using riffs inspired by Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.  Naw, that's interesting stuff.  No, what I mean to get at is that in the 21st century in the United States it can seomtimes seem as if there's a subtext to Americans using critical theory to discuss how all artis political while they have the privilege of writing about privilege in relationship to academic empires.  It's that it can sometimes feel as though to this non-academic sort (by profession if not disposition) that what we're looking at is a kind of sclerotic academic culture in which its adherants are working desperately to convince themselves and each other that by dint of having participation in a higher educational system in a nation state that can blow up the world with atomic weapons that they are not in some sense either already part of the naton's ruling class or aspirant strivers toward participating in that class.  There, that's a possibly Cardew-worthy way of putting it.

As I've been reading through Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music (it's five very big volumes even if the type is large), I'm struck by the consistency with which each era of patronage had its empires that were the necessary socio-economic preconditions for the arts that came up from within those imperial contexts.  Americans in the academy seem determined to not concede that the academic world of the United States is no less a part of the military-industrial complex as anything more officially recognized as the military-industrial complex.  Or we could call it that academic-industrial complex.  Plenty of people can get advanced degrees for which there may or may not even be jobs outside the academy and someone like Volans can argue that what new composers need is more education.  Well, if composing is something that can be taught.  Even if I think it can who's to say that the price tag learning such craft is worth it through institutional means as we see them today? 

If it's about vocation and only secondarily, if you're lucky, about career, then perhaps what we need here is not more money for a vocational set which seems to presume its own legitimacy independent of pedagogical roles (which could be inferred (perhaps incorrectly ) from Volans but not from, say, Gann, whose role as an educator and semi-contentment actually being in academics may be awkward but is consistent)).  What we may "need" is the re-emergence or consolidation of amateur musical cultures.  We have them, it's just that they may not be recognized by academics as something to study. 

In his survey Music in the Baroque era: From Monteverdi to Bach,  Manfred Bukofzer pointed out that seminal figures in the early Baroque were not the vocational musicians but aristocratic amateurs, musically educated enough to experiment but not steeped so much in the idioms of the time to be put off by thinking of something as "not music". 

Now if academics and advocates of new music want to have priestly roles, as it were, priestly roles within an academic and general secuar context, I suppose it makes sense that the scries and artists of ourage are not so unlike the literate and artistic elite of earlier years.  it's one thing to say that people invented religions to control the masses and another thing to consider what sorts of cultured educated monied elites did that, because if you try to translate that kind of invective into the present then it could conceivably look as though what vocational artists want is to be the priests who run things again and get to tell soldiers who deserves to live of die like what may have been the case in the Bronze and Iron ages. 

When artists and poets muse upon how soldies may not know what cause they fight for it's pretty hypocritical--in the years I've talked to artists about why they do what they do and to soldiers about why they do what they do the soldiers usually had clearer explanations because they knew what their orders were and because they had to know because their job officially involved the potential to ruin lives.  Artists ... artists generally couldn't explain why they do what they if their lives depended on it. 

"I have to" from an artist isn't any more cogent than it is coming from a soldier, is it?

If there's a thing I didn't learn back when I was in college I kind of wish had been covered it's the simple observation that is key to understanding Miyazaki's film The Wind Rises, that the Pyramids were made with blood and sweat and sacrifice to celebrate an empire. Jiro devotes himself to making something beautiful laboring under the illusion that purity of vision could at least potentially exonerate him from the nature of what he was designing.   Cardew may have been on to something by pointing out that a lot of what passed for new music in his day was, when you boiled it down to who was paying for it and asking that it be written and defended, was the work of a leisure class presented for the delectation of the ruling class.   If the moral failure of the right with respect to the fine arts is that they left the market to decide and the market decided the fine arts weren't worth much, it may be the left has not reconciled itself to the reality that what it misses these days are the good old days when the great empires of the Western world in the paradoxical heat of the Cold War, wrote the checks for their gravy train. 

To get around to the Robin dissertation on indie classical, the very very short synopsis of it is that the indie classical scene in New York was, for a time, taken to be a revitalizing movement that could spark new life into classical music by being more like, well, indie rock.  Robin proposes that it was more likely a bubble and that the crucial shortcoming in the indie classical discourse was that the participants and observers bought into the idea (as I read the dissertation, at least) in the promotional copy that proposed that indie classical transcended genre and that it was independent of the strictures of academic culture without fully acknowledging the extent to which it was dependent on academic institutions for its existence. 

Which fits perhaps too conveniently into my solidifying theory that we have a lot of people who can afford to go to liberal arts schools to study the arts and are trying to find some way to convince themselves and each other that they are making art that is socially responsible in some way and that this means neither that they are serving the ruling class or, worse yet, demonstrating they are part of the ruling class because they have the leisure from which to have considered being vocational/professional musicians. 

It was kind of startling and a little depressing to read Robin's dissertation because Robin laid out a history of a record label I'm not sure I'd heard of before.  I suppose you lose track of indie classical music if you'd ever been keeping tabs on it before when what was formerly one of the biggest megachurches in the United States steadily implodes in your proverbial backyard and you've been documenting it.  But I guess that's the thing that I noticed myself noticing, that if the indie classical scene was in New York or a few places well to the east of the Puget Sound it wasn't something I was going to manage to keep track of, not when I felt obliged to document the life and times of Mars Hill in ways I believed the mainstream and independent press had been missing out on.

So I'm slowly catching back up to arts coverage stuff.

But it seems as though having never been a career musician there's things that are hard to ignore in reading stuff written by musicians and by musicians about musicians.  Or journalists.  When Scott Timberg had that line that if we're not careful the arts will become a luxury or the domain of a leisure class it just seemed as though he was forgetting what people on the old left and right already knew, that the arts have always been the work of a proverbial leisure class. 

Volans could mention that the CIA backed avant garde art but ... if we get to pick between the Central Intelligence Agency and Columbia Records or some alternative wouldn't the non-CIA alternative be preferable?  That would seem to go triple for anyone with moderately progressive political views but even a conservative might feel that way. 

It seems as though one of the threads I'm seeing in educators and vocational artists who have more high-end output and high-end taste is this conviction that the empire should do more to promote artists, that the empire should support artists.  But as both Gann and Volans noted, as the Cold War wound down the United States stopped throwing money into the kinds of arts institutions it used to throw money into.  Richard Taruskin's fifth volume in his Oxford history opened with the early observation that too few histories of the arts have fully accounted for the impact of the Cold War and the patronage dynamics within that historical moment for how and why we got the arts we got.  If you attempt to separate our collective nostalgia for Star Trek from its Great Society era optimism that we would not, as a species, nuke ourselves into oblivion and that the values of secularism and liberalism and progressive thought would inevitably prevail against our lesser nature then, well, that's almost like proposing that there's a way to appreciate a Jackie Chan film even if you choose to studiously ignore all the stunts.

Lamenting that governments don't do as much as they used to support the arts since the Cold War ended might be underselling the simple observation that to the extent that avant garde art was promoted by Western states in the Cold War there had to have been some propaganda-based reason for that.  I mean, sure, if you sincerely believe life is better here in the West for all kinds of reasons then express that in whatever art you make ... but the lament that institutions rooted in the United States government or another nation state aren't writing checks so that you can do that ... that seems to forget that artists have served empires and not the other way around.

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