From the inquisitive “Is Timid Programming Classical Music’s Biggest Threat?” in WQXR to the damning “America’s Orchestras are in Crisis” in New Republic, discussions of programming repeat an alarming diagnosis: performing groups choose repertoire from a rapidly shrinking list. The Republic’s Philip Kennicott thinks that managements cater to a caricature of an elderly audience who only wants to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “Many in the managerial class… care deeply about the rich, variegated, and complex history of classical music, but can find no practical way to offer that history to like-minded patrons,” he writes. “There are fewer and fewer safe pieces,” Opera America’s president Marc Scorca said.
What qualifies as safe? Beethoven’s Fifth will do, but what about Symphony No. 2? Can a Nielsen symphony take the place of Sibelius 5? Discussions of programming can quickly become charged with unsupported claims, so, in order to form a more detailed picture of one performance culture, I examined the mainstage concerts of 16 orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 2016–17 season, tallying more than 300 entries in a spreadsheet. The results? Whether ranked by number of unique works performed or by number of appearances, the most-represented composers were Beethoven (27 appearances of 14 unique works) and Mozart (22 appearances of 20 unique works). Trailing slightly behind were Verdi and Brahms, Shostakovich and Mahler, and a smattering of Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Copland, Stravinsky, and Haydn.
Now as a guitarist I suppose I might as well put my cards on the table and say I think Kyle Gann undersold things when he proposed that we "make way for the guitar era" because the 20th century was the era of the guitar, especially if we stop looking at the Western canon in terms of the symphony or the string quartet and look at the Western musical world in terms of popular music and vernacular styles. It was the guitar era and stopped being the guitar era within the first decade of the 21st century. Gann later went on to publish another post about how that guitar era he thought he was seeing emerged, GAMA.
Long-time electronic composer and general Downtown raconteur Tom Hamilton sends me an interesting fact in response to my perceptions of the guitar’s takeover of the composing world:
In 1995, an industry group called the Guitar and Accessories Marketing Association (GAMA), along with the NAMM and MENC, started a launched a program to train teachers to start guitar programs in middle and high schools. That group estimated that by 2001, over 200,000 students have learned guitar in school, and over 38,000 students bought their own guitar. They project a trend that by 2010, will have over 1.5 million students learning guitar in school programs, and over 300,000 students purchasing guitars. And that’s just through one school-based program! My observation is that most guitarists learn through woodshedding and private lessons without any institutional structure at all.So no wonder young guitarists seem to be coming out of the woodwork: it was a calculated industry initiative! Tom also notes that when he was in school (and he and I are roughly the same antediluvian age, struggling together to figure out these youngsters), guitarists had to major in piano and take guitar lessons on the side. Bard, I might note, and to brag about my own institution for a moment, allegedly boasts the country’s oldest college guitar program, begun around 1968 by our cellist/guitarist Luis Garcia-Renart. Perhaps that’s why, to this day, a good half of my students are guitarists.
I skipped the "Mostly Mozart" programs because I'm honestly not much of a fan of Mozart. I adore the music of Haydn, for instance, but even though I like some later Mozart I've found I have more fun with some later Clementi opus numbers than with the usual Mozart pieces. It's not that Mozart wrote bad music or anything, it's just that I'm as vaguely indifferent to Mozart and his cult in comparison to Haydn in a way similar to how I'm vaguely indifferent to the perfection of Palestrina compared to the music of William Byrd. But I admit to having anti-Romantic convictions and sympathies, so I'm not on board with art-genius cults that got formulated from the 19th century onward, a cultish mentality that spreads all over Western arts. I'd probably be able to enjoy Kubrick films half as much more if Kubrick fans didn't venerate him the way Wagner fans venerate Wagner.
In a time when people are concerned about toxic populism (and at this point we don't really need to rehearse the script for that here in the United States), I don't think an endorsement of the liberal arts should be construed, at any level, as some kind of healthier or saner alternative. Arts funding in the conventional sense has been subject to a variety of crises. Either there's been concern the NEA might get gutted or that even among the traditional arts organizations and subcultures distribution of funds is unequal and unfair. Debates about just how white, male and dead so many of the canons are doesn't have to be seen as merely an outgrowth of some kind of cultural Marxism. If arts funding such as it has been tends to just re-entrench a status quo of an arts canon that will leave no room for work from you or me or living artists we know then how beneficial is the arts funding culture to anyone who is not already a star? That's not a denial of the value of arts funding, it's a question about whether or not some of the crises associated with the arts are coming at a time when, across the Anglo-American world, there's been room to ask just how elitist arts institutions can become and have become in a few cases.
Given how recently he died, that Shostakovich has become canonical within symphonic literature is instructive. Considering that he's 20th century and that, in Western cultural terms, he was a Soviet composer who was on the "wrong" side in the Cold War, the adaptation of a legend that Shostakovich was a secret anti-totalitarian dissident might tell us less that this was the case (not to rehash the Shostakovich wars all over again) but that Shostakovich's music was popular enough in the West that that story of secretive dissidence became a powerful narrative through which to legitimize enjoying the music of Shostakovich in Western cultural terms.
But what that baptism of the music of Shostakovich as the work of a secret dissident suggests is that even in a realm of scholarship as seemingly disconnected from political histories as musicology would have seemed (sarcasm warning), is full of attempts to praise or damn the work of a composer in terms with what is known in Christian punditry terms as ... worldview.
That gets to a little piece at The Davenant Institute that's handy for this particular question.
Yes, there's something bad about worldview formulations and questions when they get handled in a routine way. It's why, on the whole, evangelicals need to break free from an often slavish invocation of categories introduced in the Francis Schaeffer and van Til way of ... engaging culture. I've written about this in the past by comparing the condemnation Francis Schaeffer made of the music and thought of John Cage to the condemnation of the same made by Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury--the Marxist Maoist criticism of Cage and his music ended up reading as exactly the same in essence as that of a conservative Presbyterian, that man as man cannot live by these ideas and ideals espoused in the art.
Or, to invoke David Martyn Lloyd-Jones a bit, the communist and the capitalist are equally sinners before God so there's no good point in deciding that only one of these groups of people need to hear the message of Christ preached to them. Merely being anticommunist does not make a person a Christian even if Western cultural inertia might lead people to imagine this is the case in a Cold War context. But, obviously, we're no longer in the midst of the Cold War. I've got a variety of issues with critical theory as the darling of the privileged elite who can afford to wax eloquent about how all art is political as a bromide for getting more cultural support or funding for their own artistic ventures while forgetting that the history of all elite art and vocational art is essentially a history of vocational artists serving empires, but not everything I've read from people associated with the Frankfurt school is all bad. That's for later. But ... since Quincy Jones did that bananas interview I can touch on one of those ideas in a sideways way.
Do you hear the spirit of jazz in pop today?
No. People gave it up to chase money. When you go after Cîroc vodka and Phat Farm13 and all that shit, God walks out of the room. I have never in my life made music for money or fame. Not even Thriller. No way. God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money. You could spend a million dollars on a piano part and it won’t make you a million dollars back. That’s just not how it works.
Is there innovation happening in modern pop music?
Hell no. It’s just loops, beats, rhymes and hooks. What is there for me to learn from that? There ain’t no fucking songs. The song is the power; the singer is the messenger. The greatest singer in the world cannot save a bad song. I learned that 50 years ago, and it’s the single greatest lesson I ever learned as a producer. If you don’t have a great song, it doesn’t matter what else you put around it.
What was your greatest musical innovation?
Everything I’ve done.
Everything you’ve done was innovative?
Everything was something to be proud of — absolutely. It’s been an amazing contrast of genres. Since I was very young, I’ve played all kinds of music: bar mitzvah music, Sousa marches, strip-club music, jazz, pop. Everything. I didn’t have to learn a thing to do Michael Jackson.
Musical principles exist, man. Musicians today can’t go all the way with the music because they haven’t done their homework with the left brain. Music is emotion and science. You don’t have to practice emotion because that comes naturally. Technique is different. If you can’t get your finger between three and four and seven and eight on a piano, you can’t play. You can only get so far without technique. People limit themselves musically, man. Do these musicians know tango? Macumba? Yoruba music? Samba? Bossa nova? Salsa? Cha-cha?
The irony of Quincy Jones saying that the art of music depends on what we colloquially know as the left side of the brain even within pop music that's so savory is that Adorno (he of the Frankfurt school) damned all popular music across the board as not even being art, as a thing that was (besides not even being art) only able to peddle what someone like Girard might have called mimetic desires. Not that high art was much more than a manifestation of the oppressive bourgeois ruling caste. The trouble with Adorno's criticism of high and low alike is that, to tersely summarize the Roger Scruton case against Adorno, Adorno's damnation of Western civilization had only a will-never-exist utopia as an alternative. A David P Roberts from-thesis-eleven criticism is that Adorno and Horkheimer were so sweeping in their condemnation of the dehumanizing trends in modernism of the enlightenment they damned the concept of civilization itself in the process, and revealed that they were paradoxically as trapped in the mentalities of the long 19th century as the reactionaries they set themselves against. Even from within the realm of the left that a good deal of Adorno's condemnation of jazz and popular music comes across in the 21st century as both elitist and racist can't actually be evaded by just insisting that Adorno hadn't heard any of the good jazz yet. Even in "On Jazz" Adorno's dismissal of even Ellington was swift and sweeping. Adorno's biggest fans have to contend with Adorno appearing to believe that the tonal vocabulary of Romanticism was so dead that not even black guys could salvage it by reformulating it into jazz.
And yet Jones could say that the problem with popular music today is there aren't even any songs any more, that people forget that the left side of the brain has to be involved. Adorno damned Hindemith as being a reactionary composer but even Adorno could grant that Hindemith, reactionary and regressive though he was, was at least a competent musician, and that someone like Bartok came closest to charting some kind of middle path between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Adorno was concerned, besides with the idea that capitalism ruined all of society, that the Romantic era mythology of the seat-of-the-pants genius destroyed a capacity to think about art as a mental discipline and craft. That Jones could make criticisms of contemporary popular music as someone who worked in popular musical styles for decades that resemble the core of some of Adorno's critiques of popular music swims in irony, both because Jones echoes a critique of Adorno's about popular music but in a way that grants the capacity for art within popular idioms Adorno was unable to grant was even possible.
There's been stuff incubating that I want to write about but as with so many projects I try to tackle in my writing, things are complex. I haven't been as prolific a writer in the last few years as I was earlier and some of it is just things in the offline world happen. I'm also composing a couple of projects in terms of music and incubating a couple of writing projects while having all that real world stuff that happens happen from time to time.
I haven't felt like really writing much about the passing of Billy Graham. I don't subscribe to altar calls, I reject revivalism as a form of nationalist civic religion masquerading as a concern for genuine Christian life and practice. I am not much for the syncretism of Second Great Awakening methodologies filtered through integrated multimedia propagandistic techniques being a form of evangelism--I can't altogether shake the sense that Graham's legacy was preaching to the nominal and strayed rather than making bona fide never-before-been-a-Christian converts. It's not saying he wasn't a believer in Christ or anything like that. I'm suggesting that by making Graham a spiritual hero we may have praised the potency of his public methodology at the price of considering whether that methodology could be construed as the best manifestation of Christian thought and practice.
If Graham's legacy has bad points in terms of being a public figure there's a sense in which a Jon Stewart or an Amy Schumer as a public figure who agitates a point of view with the presentation of an inform-the-public person their legacy is closer to a Billy Graham than a Walter Cronkite. If an editorialist at Teen Vogue thinks it's great to tweet that Graham will/should burn in Hell then she's showing that William Wallace II antics are not solely the domain of stunt jobs by preachers. But thanks to worldviewism of the progressive or reactionary kind, these sorts of stunts can be justified in the minds of those who deploy them as a proof of righteousness. I've had my differences with all sorts of people writing at this blog but I try to be careful to not dehumanize them. I also try to be careful to make it clear that in the world as it is we need not only fewer guys like Mark Driscoll from the proverbial religious right doing William Wallace II stunts, we need fewer guys like Dan Savage in his tenure at The Stranger, too.