Sunday, April 29, 2018

more post-Lamar Pulitzer stuff, a Washington Post piece on what classical musicians can learn from the Lamar win and a rebuttal by John Halle about how these kinds of pieces deliberately misread defenses of the literate idiom of music writing

Over at The Washington Post there's a piece on "What the classical-music world can learn from Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize". Alyssa Rosenberg interviewed Alex Temple on the recent award and there's just a short excerpt we'll look at:

The contemporary classical world’s relationship with prizes is complicated.  Plenty of people don’t care about the Pulitzer, and it’s been criticized as a way to give a “lifetime achievement award” to someone who really should have gotten it for a more important piece years ago. (See: both Ornette Coleman and Steve Reich.) That’s why the shift toward younger composers like Du Yun and Caroline Shaw in the last decade has sparked so much controversy. And that trend is also in play in the reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s win.
But there’s also the fact that, if you win the Pulitzer, commissions start flooding in. Your ability to get a university job skyrockets. I remember there was a faculty opening at Stanford last year, and someone on Facebook said wryly, “well, that’ll be a nice opportunity for someone on the Pulitzer shortlist.”
That's not necessarily true, as an interview in the Washington Post of the African American composer George Walker established not that long ago.
Walker’s winning piece, “Lilacs for voice and orchestra,” used the words of Walt Whitman and was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1996.

How did the Pulitzer change his life?
“I got probably more publicity nationwide than perhaps any other Pulitzer Prize-winner. But not a single orchestra approached me about doing the piece or any piece. My publisher didn’t have sense enough to push. It materialized in nothing.”
So, no, in fact, it's not a given that simply winning a Pulitzer leads to more commissions.  Even if we're looking just at articles published in the Washington Post the claim that if you win a Pulitzer you can get more work as a musician is not a given. 
There's been a tendency for those who are excited about Lamar's win to present skepticism about that win in terms of reactionary politics.  However ... John Halle's not exactly to the right on politics at any level but has expressed reservations over the last ten years or so about the expanded criteria for the Pulitzer prize in music.  The argument was not that music not written in traditional notation was in any way bad music, but that composition as a literate discipline was what he thought defined the nature of the prize.  In other words, expanding the definition of what kind of music could win could cater to new and economically viable forms of popular music that might be great music but that the tradition of writing music down on a score for others to interpret gets sidelined in the process. 
So ... Halle has a response to the article, and notes that Temple was at one point one of his students.
... The ostensible subject involves a few composers objecting to the Pulitzer prize for music having been awarded to rapper Kendrick Lamar. These provided the opportunity for Rosenberg and a former Yale classmate (1) to engage in frenzied, ritualistic savaging of what might be called composer-bros, “white people from privileged backgrounds” whose veritable essence is assumed to deprive them of the capacity “to wrap their heads around Kendrick [Lamar].” Lamar is, according to them, “dealing with topics they don’t necessarily want to look at, in a way that’s simultaneously unflinchingly direct and also very complex and layered.”
“They” in the previous sentence is taken to indicate those excluded from the woke multiculturalist circles inhabited by Rosenberg and her interlocutor who somehow survive the extreme violence of their self-administered pats on the back on display here.

Returning to the planet earth, it is not only members of this post Yale social club who are able to appreciate the virtues of Kendrick Lamar. In fact, many of the composers they are condescending to insist on Lamar’s musical brilliance and cultural significance albeit while expressing reservations about the Pulitzer board’s decision. (2) That there is absolutely no contradiction is a matter of elementary logic: as anyone who has made a hiring decision knows, the question of whether X is highly skilled at or even brilliantly qualified for Y is entirely independent of whether X is an appropriate choice for Y.

Furthermore, even if it were the case that certain composers actively dislike Lamar’s music and have cast aspersions on his musical competence their doing so would say precisely nothing about their underlying attitudes. To take one obvious example, the manufacturer of legendary Republican hit pieces Lee Atwater had a profound affinity for African American music and musicians, sympathies which easily co-existed with his promoting a dogwhistled racist agenda. To infer substantive political content or commitments from affective aesthetic preferences is a fool’s errand.
Footnote 2 refers to this piece, which we'll quote at more length.
Taruskin is making a more limited observation that print music culture appears to be incapable of further growth, renewal, or development. The evidence for this is, if not conclusive, at least by this point more than a little familiar. Most conspicuous is the fact that the great majority of “composed” music which is regularly performed, whether operatic, symphonic, chamber, choral, or solo, is drawn from a small geographic area around central Europe within a narrow historical period. Only a vanishingly small fraction of new works, including those premiered with much fanfare by orchestras, trumpeted by publicists, and hyped by some critics, have managed to gain a place on the carousel which defines the standard repertoire of literate musical culture.

Also familiar are the explanations for the inability of the “literate musical tradition” to make itself relevant to the wider artistic and intellectual culture. These, which have themselves become a permanent fixture of critical commentary, generally conclude by fixing responsibility (or blame) on composers incapable of producing music which engages concert audiences or on the widespread and increasing musical illiteracy of audiences themselves. The result, according to John Harbison, has been a widespread inability to comprehend any musical utterance more sophisticated than “gesture at its most generalized and inarticulate” and, with this, a predictably impoverished climate for the diffusion and acceptance of literate music.

While I will not exclude either of these explanations, I will suggest a more charitable one here which is to note that the prevalence of aurally transmitted music and the widespread appreciation of its virtues has meant that both audiences and composers have expectations which can’t be met by music transmitted from composer to performer via the print medium. It is not possible to achieve the frenzies of activity, the extremes of density, nor the near-optimal matching of musical material to instrumental capabilities inherent in the process of trial and error, improvisation, and recording studio cutting and pasting which defines the creation of most contemporary music. Nor, as Taruskin suggests, are the unlimited sonic resources, the absolute rhythmic precision, and extremes of speed, frequency, and amplitude possible within the digital realm accessible to composers working within the print music medium.
If literate music is to survive, composers, performers, critics, and audiences need to recognize that notation, like any other medium, has limits as to what it is able to communicate. Perhaps these limits are arbitrary historical relics of a pre-mechanical age. If so, there is no significant aesthetic benefit to be gained from the substantial investment in time, money, and education required to maintain an infrastructure supporting “literate” music. And, if this is the case, we are indeed at the end of an epoch. While, as Schoenberg famously suggested, there may be numerous tunes in C major remaining to be created, perhaps there are no more tunes to be written in C major.
But if Taruskin is right, it needs to be understood that the shift which we are now witnessing is something quite radical and possibly unprecedented. The collapse of “print culture”, after all, entails much more than the passing of a musical style: it entails the extinction of a musical medium. Styles, even the most sophisticated, productive, and refined, have a natural lifespan, and their demise is not necessarily something to mourn. The extinction of a musical medium—a means for transmitting musical ideas within a variety of styles—is something far more significant and we need to recognize that when this occurs it will usher in a very different musical world to that which we are accustomed.

The demise of musical literacy does not mean a non-musical future but rather an intensified form of certain musical realities which we are experiencing now, and for this reason, the general outline of a non-literate future will be familiar. One aspect, however, will be conspicuous to some of us, at least: the absence of a corps of musically literate instrumentalists capable of producing minimally acceptable renditions of composed works. With the decimation of the educational and organizational infrastructure necessary to produce and sustain these forces, the eventual disappearance of European canonic works from the concert stage will become inevitable.

Whether we mourn, celebrate, or are apathetic to the prospect of the absence of the style of music associated with literacy, namely what tends to be called “classical” music, this is, conceptually at least, a separate question from the future of the literate tradition. To draw a partially relevant analogy, the demise of the epic poem, the sonnet, or the audience for serialized fiction did not mean the end of literacy; when these and other forms of literary expression have gone into eclipse, literacy itself continued to flourish and even expand within other literary forms. Those periods in which literacy itself went into eclipse most notably in parts of Europe during the Middle Ages and more recently during the Taliban era in Afghanistan are understood to constitute cultural catastrophes, resulting in profound constriction of intellectual life and rational discourse.

The demise of musical literacy, while not a cultural catastrophe, nevertheless constitutes a significant cultural loss. The eventual disappearance from public life of compositions from Josquin to Ligeti—surely intellectual achievements of the highest order comparable to those in other disciplines—by any reasonable standard, amounts to cultural impoverishment, more or less analogous to the closing of several of the world’s major museums. But perhaps more significant than the disappearance of an entire class of works, the demise of musical literacy will deprive us of the means for examining musical thought, both within literate music traditions and also, through transcriptions, in non-literate musical media. Notation provides us with a language with which to describe musical structure, to identify specific locations within pieces, and to characterize precisely the compositional techniques on which they are based. Within composed works, scores and sketches make it possible to track the trajectory of a compositional idea from its inception to completion and thereby provide a window into the mind of the composer which is unique in the arts. The end of a print music culture means the end of what has for centuries constituted serious discourse surrounding artistic creation.
Halle raised a point later in his long piece about how one of the disadvantages of literate (written) music may be that it doesn't keep up with popular trends but that that disadvantage has an associated strength, music in what Richard Taruskin calls the literate tradition can survive and continue to be played, and Halle noted that this music can survive in ways that music from non-literate traditions may not or cannot.  The score on your bookshelf will last as long as the book does but a CD can eventually failto play.  A digital download album can accidentally be erased and, sure, you can get iit back from the cloud but when you stop to think about what a cloud "is" this is not necessarily a more secure or permanent form of transmission or storage than a printed book.  There is a prestige in traditional modes and means that still can't be replicated in other contexts.  Lamar's Pulitzer win is what it is because the Pulitzer is what it is.  If it meant nothing no one would be excited or angry that he was awarded it. 
Now my own impression and conviction is that the literate and non-literate musical traditions in the West have become too balkanized and that, as Taruskin noted early in his sprawling Oxford History of Western Music, to write a history of the literate music tradition can never assume anywhere along the way that literate and non-literate musical practices and traditions are not constantly and continuously interacting; the problem is, of course, that when you take up the project of writing about the history of music in the literate tradition all you have to work with is confined to the written traditions.  Some of those people who are angry that Lamar won the Pulitzer can argue that what he does isn't music with a tacit or explicit understanding that only music from the literate tradition should be considered for an award like the Pulitzer.
In drastically different ways composers in the literate tradition ranging from Bach to Haydn to Dvorak to Stravinsky to Bartok to Charles Ives to Villa-Lobos and Shostakovich have all found different ways to incorporate what would very broadly be known as folk materials into their written scores.  The interaction between what's proverbially known as "high" and "low" has been steady throughout the history of the Western literate musical tradition.  The problem in the last two centuries, as I have been reading on music, is that advocates for the high and low as they understand them tend to get into purity politics stances and it may well be that I'll conclude that German idealism played too big a role in that kind of cult formation.  Or perhaps there are Anglo-American variants of that kind of thought.  Art is art and pop is pop is the conclusion, whichever side of that duality people may land on.
So perhaps Lamar winning the PUlitzer can be both good and bad, good in the sense that a practitioner of what is now recognized as the most popular musical style in the industry is getting recognition, bad in the sense that the literate musical tradition has been sidelined along the way to awarding this artist this particular prize. 
Halle's rebuttal to the Rosenberg piece was interesting to read. He laid out that to argue that people who defend the literate music tradition as having value to being against popular music is as hard to take at face value as the assertion that people who would vote for Sanders rather than Clinton are "Bernie Bros" who resent women, which Halle points out because he's noted that Rosenberg was part of such a journalistic gambit.  Halle opened his most recent blog post with an observation that people who voted for Sanders were voting for Sanders rather than necessarily only voting "against" Clinton, let alone any women and people of color who endorsed her.
We seem to live in an era in which populist ideas, ideals and populist goals seem to be construed in the most pejorative possible light, mainly because of who is currently the president of the United States.  But at this point a popular repertoire canon in classical music, i.e.all those works in the Western tradition that can get played to death or in uninspired ways, can be construed as a good and not just a bad.  There is some beauty and value to a Beethoven symphony even if it's played to death and the cult of art religion elevates it above and beyond the good that some of us can take to reside in the work.  It's possible to de-elevate the Western literate musical tradition without denigrating it.  Bringing Beethoven's music down to a healthier level, in which it is not required to or asked to play a quasi-divine or literally divine role in giving meaning to human experience, is not rejecting the Op. 111 piano sonata as having no value.  My own sympathies are with a revival of Haydn as a composer whose relationship to vernacular and academic music al traditions seems more pertinent to our era than Beethoven's legacy as mediated by 19th century German idealism.  But that's just my feelings and thoughts on the topic.  Mileage will no doubt vary. 
But I want to suggest that a post-Beethovenian purity politics for the high and low has gotten as balkanized on either side of the high and low divide as it is perceived to be on the other.  It's not a surprise to me that the kinds of people who contribute to New Music Box tend to assert that genre doesn't exist because If you can go to the schools the people at NMB tend to go to it's appealing to imagine that if genres dont' apply and are only things record labels came up with you can convince yourself your music transcends the limits of genre.  That's almost like saying skin color shouldn't matter, which is paradoxically not what any of the contributors to NMB would be likely to say (not even Halle). 
I have already argued at some length over the years that recognizing that the boundaries between musical styles and forms are permeable is not the same as denying that any such boundaries even exist.  It's possible to go from early 19th century guitar sonatas into ragtime and back by understanding the parameters of each of these style.  Within the high and low domains of musicology, for want of any better or more appropriate set of terms, these historiographies and taxonomies are easy enough to do.  What doesn't tend to happen as often is to explore the ways in which high and low intertwine.  It is, of course, written about.  I'm starting into a book about Bartok, nationalism and his use of folk music and of 19th century Hungarian art music.  Bartok's a case study of how synthesizing high and low influences is part of the literate musical tradition.  If this is less apt to happen now in the 20th through 21t century in classical music that is probably more a reflection of problems in academic pedagogy and the purity codes in and out of that domain. 

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