Saturday, September 15, 2018

links for the weekend, whether there's really science in the social sciences; hero worship in music (Bernstein); and the managerial uses of type-testing

Over at Mbird there's some mention of the relatively years-long running "replicability crisis" in the social sciences.

This reminds me of how, decades ago, I met a fellow in college who was pursuing a psychology degree because he felt it would be a way to help people.  I asked him what he thought of it in terms of being a science and he cheerfully said, "Oh, it's not a science at all."  "Really?" I asked, "how do you mean it's not a science?"  "Well, social sciences don't have any scientific laws.  All the natural and hard sciences have those. Psychology doesn't even have one."   

So why study it if it's not even a science?  To help people.  That was an interesting and memorable take on the social sciences I have rarely come across and while I have no doubt there are people who would contest the assertion, the replicability crisis as it's known in journalistic and editorial coverage, seems to fall well short of such a point blank reappraisal of the social sciences as not even rising to the level of science.

But it would seem like a necessary point of consideration.  Take Kahneman and company's concerns about the limits of sampling bias, take Haidt and company's observations about the inherently "WEIRD" skew of American social science as skewing wealthy, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (and the 'w' could also occasionally be read as "white" depending on ZIP codes) and you can get a sense that if there's anything weird about the replicability crisis it's that the true scope of the crisis has been downplayed across the board--the crisis is presented as the replicability itself of the major studies rather than the more foundational crisis of whether that crisis gives us reason to doubt that there's as yet any real science in social science as a field.

I've written about this off and on over the last five to ten years.  I even wrote a haiku on the topic

social science is
statistics in the service
of stereotypes

What may seem like science within the field can look like the deployment of statistics to reinforce stereotypes outside the field.  How do stereotypes play out?  Well, one of the ways they can play out is that someone like Leonard Bernstein can be regarded as heroic for being progressive even if he turned out to be verbally abusive later in life behind the scenes.  In the sense that any hero can simultaneously be a monster this is hardly a surprise.  I had a little haiku I wrote about that, too ...

heroes are monsters
whose use for a cause outweighes
their well-known vices

But the thing that seems ineradicable about humanity is hero worship.

Alex Ross on Leonard Bernstein and musical hero worship and how there won't be a Bernstein for our era because ours is a different world and ...

not that you asked but this is my blog, after all, but I thought Mass was mostly stupid.  I'm not exactly a hater of Bernstein.  The Chittchester Psalms are actually pretty good!  I sang them in choir when I was in college.  I had more fun singing Durufle's Requiem but then I can also freely and happily admit I like a lot of music by Paul Hindemith!  Maybe I should joke that the kinds of musicians who admit to liking the music of Maurice Durufle and Paul Hindemith are not necessarily concerned about whether or not they are thought of as the cool kids?

Classical music won't get another telegenic superstar like Bernstein.  Or it may be that these sorts of personalities end up capturing our collective attention whether or not they should more because of "us" than just because of "them".

John Gray has some variations on a theme.  That there is a kind of liberalism that is no longer liberal in methods is probably a conservative axiom by now ... I tend to think these days of Jacques Ellul's comment that once democracy has stopped being a method of governance and is transformed into a way of life or an etiological myth it is going to become as totalitarian as any other more officially totalitarian ideology.  What we've been seeing in the vitriol between blue state and red state could be thought of as an intra-liberal conflict where two competing definitions of what the Western liberal legacy and order is supposed to be are at odds. 

over at The New Republic J. C. Pan has a piece on the "tyranny of personality tests"

A thumbnail sketch is that Merve Emre has a book that discusses the emergence of the personality testing industry; it's roots in Jungian theories; and its connection to a managerial-corporate interest in making sure the right cogs are hired into the production machinery of the contemporary West.  This is not to say there's no room for the other use for personality tests, finding ways to see how you and X don't get along and what may possibly be done to improve social and filial relationships but it seems from the review (and from what I've read of Emre's work directly) there's likely a current of observing that the less corporate-centric uses to which people put an MBTI toward don't change the managerial means and ends of the MBTI legacy itself.  Writing as a Seattle resident I think I could jokingly attest to just how far-reaching these kinds of things became when I heard Mark Driscoll extolling a book about "love languages" and how there are five of them and learning which ones you and your spouse prefer can help your marriage.  But then lazy quips about how self-help books dont help withstanding, Driscoll seems to have put out a few books that, if you stop and think about it a moment, are basically self-help books themselves.

Pan seems more incredulous as to the basis for the four categories than seems persuasive.  It's not that difficult to think of the four temperaments (choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic, right?) or how in Greek philosophy there were speculations about whether the cosmos was ultimately an iteration of air, water, fire or earth.  That's where The New Yorker, for instance.

It was around the year 400 B.C. when the Greek physician Hippocrates first tried to break humanity into “types”: the sanguine ones were hearty, governed by blood; the melancholic ones were of the earth, filled with black bile, colder and clearer-headed than their blood-fuelled brethren; for the choleric ones, the bile was yellow, resulting in a fiery volatility; the phlegmatic ones were of the water, brainy and rational. A scholar, depending on his age, was likely melancholic or phlegmatic. A lover or adventurer was probably sanguine; a bad-tempered rebel rouser, choleric. The model allowed for ease of explanation and categorization: instead of talking about individuals as such, it was possible to lump them according to temperament, and to explain the behaviors of entire groups at the same time. And if you knew how to classify yourself, of course, you could explain your own feelings and actions.

We’ve progressed well beyond the four humors in the two thousand-odd years since Hippocrates, but we still haven’t satisfied the urge to discover ways of sorting people into personalities and types and, in so doing, predict how they might act in specific situations. During the First World War, psychologists, led by Robert Woodworth, tried to systematize that urge, asking would-be soldiers to answer a series of questions to see how battle-worthy—or, conversely, how prone to mental problems and conditions like “shell shock”—they would be. The results proved popular enough to fuel a host of other self-assessment measures in the scientific community—and, inevitably, to spill over into popular culture.

Leave it to Menand to point out that the greatest weakness of the MBTI is that it is a test completely incapable of accounting for self-deception.  Menand also juxtaposes an MBTI personality type description with a description of a zodiac sign as a temperament indicator.  Menand also takes some time to point out that the last sorts of people who should be complaining (at all, let alone vehemently) about people-sorting and people-assessing tools are educators.  There's no point in damning the MBTI as some rote and possibly inaccurate tool for assessing people if your day job is in any way related to education.

Sure, Jungianism may be a bit ... mystical in some ways but there may not be much mystery to developing quadranted taxonomies to assess and explain why people seem to be different.  Some people don't liek being subjected to personality tests because they believe that misreads who they are or they believe that people can change.  I'm ... doubtful about how much people an change in a lot of things in life.  But then I also think most people in the United States live so comfortably within the constraints in mind and body that they have they usually don't stop to think about what those constraints may be.

If you'd like to read an excerpt of Emre's book, which, of course, is the news peg for the previous links ... head over to The Baffler for "Hitler ENTJ".

in the domain of what some have called a "supermyth"

In the past few years, the social sciences have been rocked by a “reproducibility crisis,” in which once-bedrock findings in psychology, nutrition science, and other disciplines have failed to replicate when tested. Lieberman and Schatzberg believe the same “publish or perish” incentives that drove that crisis also explain the vibrator story: Its success, they write, “serves as a cautionary tale for how easily falsehoods can become embedded in the humanities.”

“People are not rewarded for checking previous work,” Schatzberg said. “They’re rewarded for coming up with sexy new research findings. That’s true in the sciences, but it’s also true in the humanities.”


There's a strand in contemporary thought (maybe in "any" contemporary thought) in the West that makes a point of pursuing the abjection of the past.  It's not that the "Dark Ages" were less worth living in than the era in which people christened that period of Western European history the "Dark Ages", it's that people who dubbed that period so found it hard to imagine that life would have been worth living in such a time and place.  That sciences in general and social sciences in particular have been deployed in the defense and deployment of hard bigotries with a patina of scientific rationality doesn't seem like a point that can be readily contested.  Yes, when the scientific method is employed by the cumulative scientific herd long enough there's a self-correcting capability in it but the replicability crises seem to invite a question as to whether that's what has been happening in the social sciences and whether that is what "is" happening. 

To suggest that social science has not shown itself to be science in any meaningful sense of the term (capable of formulating actual scientific laws and basic replication of results) isn't being anti-science.  It takes an ideological move to insist that skepticism about the replication of results in the social sciences is even potentially anti-science. 

For those who may recall the Kennewick human skull case from the Pacific Northwest a few decades ago there was some joking and discussion about how the skull (which was described as a Caucasoid skull) ended up in Kennewick.  Well, there's a mystery of how such an ostensibly non-Native skull ended up in the Pacific Northwest if the assumption is that the land bridge is the way people ended up in the North American continent.

But ... not everyone subscribes to the land bridge hypothesis and ....

It doesn't seem hard to imagine that the "land bridge" could involve island hopping.  The "coastal migration" theory ...

Eventually, the scientists did get a legally approved (though very brief and highly constricted) look at Kennewick Man, and what they learned is truly amazing. Based on the shape of his skull and other features, they theorized that he or his forebears may have been Asian coastal seafarers. They may have journeyed by boat along the south Alaskan shoreline and ultimately all the way down the Americas, hugging the coast and living off kelp, fish, sea lions and the like.

This is the "coastal migration" theory of the peopling of the Americas, which suggests that a wave, or waves, of people traveled and lived along the Pacific coast long before other travelers chased herds of tasty mastodons and mammoths across a land bridge into Alaska.

It may be a limit of memory but I dimly recall the Native American author Sherman Alexie riffing on Kennewick man theorizing from the scientific community with a question--why was it that the non-whites were thought to have used a land bridge if as soon as a possibly white man's skull was found, of course they sailed (or paddled).  There's since been reason in the last twenty years to doubt how "white" that skull has turned out to be. 

Not being of purely white nor purely Native American descent one of the things I've observed with slowly growing frustration has been the extent to which white progressives and white reactionaries/conservatives love to scapegoat each other for a cumulatively racist history but ... that said ... there's no good reason to want the slave trade or slave systems of the Native American tribes to be brought back ...

and simply invoking that some white people fought to end slavery in the American Civil War won't suffice.  The United States fought to preserve the Union but that's not necessarily the same thing as fighting to end slavery any more than claiming to secede for the sake of states rights is any more historically or intellectual honest about what rights reserved within what states were considered at stake.  The older I get and the more I read some of the debates that have been held about the North vs the South in the American Civil War the more I can appreciate the American Indian relatives who said, "well, son, the American Civil War was about how the white racists from the North fought the white racists in the South about how to treat black people and once there was some kind of decision about that they all agreed that the thing they should be doing is killing off the Indians."  This did not mean there were no people in that war whom a person could not respect, admire, or consider historically beneficial to non-whites ... but it did mean that where American Indians were concerned it was a dubious point to consider either the North or the South the "good guys" about race. 

But that stereotyped script has been part and parcel of white progressive and reactionary polemic in the century and a half since the Civil War transpired. 

Alan Jacobs with a short overview/question about the core of the Avital Ronell case

Avital Ronell is “original and inspiring.”

I’m sure. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Her “mentorship of students has been no less than remarkable over many years.”

I will gladly take your word for it. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

She is “a powerful, radical, queer, feminist, professor who has always spoken out for the marginalized in society.”

Okay. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“It’s not the same thing to accuse a male person in power versus accusing a woman. It’s just not the same thing, because we’ve got a culture and a very long history in which males were dominant and abusing their power.”

I concede the point. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

“People know that she is very friendly and open and crosses traditional boundaries in relationships with her students.”

Duly noted. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?

Ronell “is a walking provocation for a stiff Politically Correct inhabitant of our academia, a ticking bomb just waiting to explode.”

This could very well be true. But did she sexually harass her graduate student?
So what’s this little trip down memory lane all about? Just this: my realization that I have had none, absolutely none, of the experiences that, everyone says, are intrinsic to the career of a graduate student. (See this essay by Corey Robin, for instance, or this one by Chris Newfield.) No passive-aggressive games, no assertions of power, no building-up-and-then-tearing-down — not even anxieties about whether my advisor is writing me a strong enough job-recommendation letter. I already had a job, though I wasn’t sure that it would turn into a tenure-track one.


Academic celebrity soaks up blood like a pair of Thinx. A letter to NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, a draft of which leaked in June, argued that Avital’s “brilliant scholarship” qualified her for special treatment. The 51 signatories included giants of feminist theory like Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak, as well as my department chair — and the professor who emailed to “encourage” me to play nice with Avital. (Butler has since issued some tepid regrets.)
Meanwhile, on social media and on their blog, the queer-studies scholars Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam dismissed the blowback against Avital as neoliberalism meets sex panic meets culture clash, straight people apparently being unable to decipher the coded queer intimacy of emails like “I tried to call you a number of times, unfortunately couldn’t get through, would have liked to leave a msg” [sic]. 
That Avital’s defenders are left-wing academic stars is not particularly surprising if you’ve spent much time in the academy. The institution has two choices when faced with political radicals: Ax them, especially if they are graduate students, or promote them. Make them successful, give them awards, power, enormous salaries. That way, when the next scandal comes along — and it will — they will have a vested interest in playing defense. 
This is how institutionality reproduces. Even the call to think critically about power becomes a clever smoke screen. There is a whole dissertation to be written on intellectuals using the word neoliberal to mean “rules I shouldn’t have to follow.” “If we focus on this one case, these details, this accuser and accused, we will miss the opportunity to think about the structural issues,” wrote Duggan. This was code. It meant, “You can talk about structural issues all you want, so long as you don’t use examples of people we know.”
In a milquetoast take for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen applauded Duggan as a model of “academics doing their job: engaging with things in great complexity.” Of course power is messy. But there is no complexity in studying forests if you can’t recognize a tree from a few feet away. This is not wisdom; it is an eye complaint.
Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital — or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god. 
In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.
But when I read this paragraph I thought of something, something regular readers of this blog might guess even before they finish reading said paragraph:

Avital conducts herself as if someone somewhere is always persecuting her. She learned this, I imagine, in graduate school. No woman escapes the relentless misogyny of the academy. The humanities are sadistic for most people, especially when you aren’t a white man. This is understood to be normal. When students in my department asked for more advising, we were told we were being needy. “Graduate school should destroy you,” one professor laughed.

You don't have to learn how to behave this way in a graduate school.  Megachurch preachers pick up a comparable persecution complex from within their own guild.

What seems completely in doubt to me is that if women were to dominate the higher educational system that any of the abuses considered endemic to it would go away, even slightly.  The solution (if there is one at all) would not be to get rid of higher education.  Now maybe the only reason Alan Jacobs never came across the things that many authors have said are rife within the academic might have something to do with cisgender heteropatriarchal white male privilege.  Maybe ... although ... to go by the reports of how Sherman Alexie behaved over the last twenty years the "white" part might have to be optional.  The situation with Ronell as reported in back and forth suggests that the "hetero" part might be optional, too, as well as the "patriarchal" because if Ronell did what she's been accused of it's hard to append "heteropatriarchal" as a category of what she did unless we want to bathe in systems theories ... . Cisgender ... can probably stay.

Maybe the writings and public statements of an Avital Ronell are important because while she says things that offend and upset people she's offending and upsetting the right kinds of people.  She's part of a group of people that don't get a fair shake in mainstream media r are considered a small segment of the modern American populace.

The trouble is, having observed the last twenty odd years of what was once called Mars Hill this is exactly the same kind of script that a mark Driscoll could use and that, most certainly, those who have defended him continue to use.  This script of persecution is a flexible one.  Depending on how you parse terms a "real" evangelical is a rare thing these days ... but it's not clear to me that a real evangelical and a real progressive have to be different when the issue is wielding institutional power and halo effects to cow underlings into submission.

What their respective ideological stances can permit is a swift no true Scotsman elimination of anyone who might be identified as harming people with the help of institutional norms, formal and informal power, or cult of personality.  That seems to be the greatest and grandest use of ideologies, ensuring that whatever "we" do isn't abusive while pretty much exactly the same social dynamics (let alone social media behavior) is abusive when it comes from "them".  The more years go by and the more I read about the academic world I once aspired to get into but never managed to join the more I'm grateful for the work of the academics whose work I read and respect, but the more grateful I am I never ended up in that environment.

Jacobs' question remains regardless of whether or not Ronell has a provable track record of speaking up for or about the marginalized.  If there was something I saw regularly during the Mars Hills days, to put it in rather blunt terms, people inside of insular communities that see themselves as marginalized despite powerful internal dynamics of social control can see themselves as victims even when they don't treat people well.  There could just as easily be a cult of personality around a Ronell as a Driscoll. 

pending musical projects

The Koshkin project has ... obviously ... stalled.  It stalled at a place you might predict it would, where there's no video performances and where a guitarist has to start playing through the published scores.  Having composed two dozen preludes and fugues for solo guitar myself it's not that I can't play fugues for solo guitar, it's that I keep biting off more than I can chew with writing projects given a full-time ordinary day job, and I can't say I've resisted the urge to compose as much as I can this year.  There's times when you write about music and times when you write music.

So the Koshkin project is still underway.

But I am really, really tempted to just officially shift gears and write about the Gilardino guitar sonatas.  There doesn't seem to be enoguh English-language discussion about guitar sonatas.  There are some fine treatments in the English language about Sor and Giuliani.  I've linked to those dissertations in the past.  There's an interesting-looking Spanish language treatise on the Ponce sonatas I mean to look into.  English language long-form analysis of non-Spansih and non-Italian sonatas ... that's another matter.  So I am also tempted to dig into Matiegka and Molitor because Bohemian guitarist composers hardly get any love in English language settings.  I mean ... I can't say as I blame guitarist who don't like MOlitor's sonatas or consider them hackwork.  Yes, yes .. but isn't it a joke among musicologists that musicologists love writing about kleinmeisters?  Well it couldn't get more kleinmesiter (if "meister" can even be used) than late 18th and early 19th century guitarist composers, can it? 

The prevalence of Type 2 sonatas in the early 19th century guitar sonatas would seem to vindicate the five-types taxonomy of Hepokoski and Darcy. 

But, anyway, the Gilardino sonatas beckon for analysis and I might just have to switch over to that. 

Those and the Bogdanovic guitar sonatas. 

But I do feel bad that I've let the Koshkin project get fallow after so many months.  At best i'd have to set aside time to blog through just one prelude and fugue a week ... which I'd meant to do but other things in reading and writing and researching come up. 

a few stories from The Atlantic on how and why American college has become so expensive and a case for ho and why "free college" is probably not going to happen

I've written this any number of times and discussed this with friends, but I still think that revitalizing the "unskilled" labor force should be taken up.  After twenty some years in the post-college world I have reached a point where I advise younger friends to not go to college not because I stopped believing in the value of education but because the expenses seem too high for the payoff in the work force.  I know there are any number of reports that say college degree recipients earn more in the long run but the conflation of this with the education itself rather than considering the entanglements of socio-economic status or class seems to be all too easy to just skip past.  I've siad this any number of times in the past, too, of course, that the educated seem to find it easy to imagine that the "one percent" is only ever an indication of a financial elite rather than a cognitive elite.

some thoughts on the disease of Millenial Whooping Cough in popular song, a purely theoretical challenge to New Complexity composers as to what they could do with the Millenial Whoop

There are those who have written about the Millenial Whoop before, and I think of it as Millenial Whooping Cough, a disease that has infected popular song in the last decade more generally but the last five years even more.

It is possible to write a song that is almost half-composed of Millenial Whoops.  It's not just a matter of the formally recognized Millenial Whoop itself.  Once you identify the steady oscillation between the fifth and third degree of the tonic scale of any given popular song as the Millenial Whoop it becomes apparent that you can compose a song that's by majority of melodic lines composed from this Whoop.  Two of the most memorably egregious examples of this trope are from the Lumineers.  I have heard these two songs a lot on the radio in the last two years and they are probably the best examples of what I call Millenial Whooping Cough.

ho hey

The anthemic bid starts immediately with the marching "Ho! ..... Hey!" syllables.  I have to grant that since the days of U2 there's white guy bands that insist on soaring inspirational anthems.  I have U2 albums up through The Joshua Tree so I am not against this sort of soaring inspirational pop song writing on paper.  "Where the Streets Have No Name" still holds up for me.  But the thing is, at the risk of simplyfing U2 songs across the board, Bono uses the whole scope of his range in the macrostructural aspects of any given verse or chorus.  What he has not necessarily done (at least circa the first decade of U2) is do something I hear more in recent pop songs, a mumble-core declamation of the principle subject of melodic interest followed by a more bleating/wailing transposition of the idea into a higher register, almost invariably the higher adjacent octave.  We'll ... come back to this.

Now ... The Whoop happens in the 5-3 shifting in the backing vocals in the chorus.  Now I hate this song for a variety of reasons but that Whoop is one of the more prominent reasons.  Another reason has to do with the mumble-core first verse that shifts to a more nasal, histrionic delivery in later verses an octave higher.  That's a trope that goes back to the days of Kurt Cobain, though, where mumbling the first few lines and then wailing or screaming similar lines on the same melodic gesture an octave higher is taken to be an increase in passion.

Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright © 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 346
... Just as stylistic pluralism among compositions is related to an absence of belief in long-range, linear historical processes, so eclecticism--pluralism within compositions--can be related to the weakening of interest and faith in long-range design. Thus uncertainty about the future reaches down to the realms of the aesthetic, calling into question the possibility, perhaps even the desirability, of long-range goals. One corollary of this is that syntactically structured forms and hierarchies characteristic of tonal music will be less common. Instead, forms will tend to be what I have called "statistical," and hierarchies will be continuous and emergent. Statistical structures, which are based on the action of the secondary parameters of music (for example, timbre and tempo, dynamics and register, beat and contour), depend less on privileged learning than do syntactic ones.

Beneath the surface, the National’s work is full of moves like that. But I still dislike the surface. I dislike the traces of a British accent in Berninger’s rich baritone (he’s from Cincinnati). I dislike the midrange restraint of most of the melodies and the sleepy midtempo pace, making it artificially thrilling when things pick up at all—as when drummer Bryan Devendorf kicks the march beat into double-time, two-thirds through the new album’s first single, “Sea of Love,” though Berninger carries on the same oh-so-stately procession. Most of all, I dislike the way many of the songs milk themselves, doubling down on their repetitions by getting denser and louder in later sections.

This is a common trait of many popular and acclaimed bands that turn me off. I call it Crescendo Rock—I’ve had similar misgivings about U2 and Radiohead, though I’ve aired them less because their fans go way more apoplectic. To me, the bands each sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.

As a manifestation of what Leonard B. Meyer called a statistical approach to musical form rather than a syntactic approach "Ho Hey" is a fairly straightforward example.  The underlying "ground" stays pretty steady and what gets added are contrapuntal ornaments and registral shifts in the vocals.  In other words, it's possible to go beyond "crescendo rock" to point out that a lot of popular song is built around statistical accumulation of detail rather than syntactic manipulation of gesture and phrase. 

Now one of the prevailing troubles of musicology "may" be that all of the theories that are popular in academic contexts as being relatively easy to teach favor syntactic rather than statistical developmental processes.  It is easier to talk about how gestural contrast or conflicting paradigmatic expansions (August Halm on Beethoven, for instance?) play out in a sonata form than to talk about statistical ramping in a popular song.  If an academic in musicology were to explain statistical "crescendo rock" as--go eight measures and then add another riff on top of whatever you already have then, well, why should anyone pay thousands of dollars a year in tuition for that!?  There's reasons besides "anti-intellectualism" for why people who want to get into popular musical styles might choose to forego higher education that don't have to do with some lack of love of music. 

But ... having said that, fans of popular music seem too ready to traffic in essentialist and even racist master narratives about why they feel they shouldn't have to bother with the more esoteric aspects of "traditional" music analysis, music history aka musicology.   I can say for myself that diving deeply into esoteric and challenging formal analysis of 18th century music was what gave me the conceptual tools I needed to start composing a bunch of ragtime sonatas for guitar. 

I'm not even against all forms of "statistical" shaping of music in popular music.  I have U2 albums, for crying out loud.  I don't mind some "crescendo rock" in select doses but when a music critic or two complains that it sure seems like an awful lot of popular songs are sounding like "crescendo rock" and that the same tropes show up I can't blame them for that complaint. 

Now as a fan of some Baroque music I would say that the chaconne or passacaglia has clearly made a comeback via popular music but that this rebirth of the endless statistically piling-on decorative variations over a ground bass or foundational riff hasn't been discussed as such ... except maybe by Alex Ross (?).  As popular as it has been in some circles to say we live in a new Gilded Age (and I guess that's got to be true for the visual arts scenes) in musical terms we may be living in a kind of neo-Baroque era.  There's a dizzying panoply of styles and forms that all make sense within their sociological and cultural contexts and an eagerness on the part of practical musicians and composers to blend them as prolifically as possible though, perhaps, without a strong interest in establishing a theoretical foundation from which to consider the conscious development of such fusions. 

And ... then amid all this there's the Millenial Whoop.  As a 5 and 3 alternation goes the opening vocal line of this ... thing is all Millenial Whoop. 

best day of my life

I hate these folksly chord strumming anthem type songs that have a bleating cantor and a dutiful sing-along-chorus response.  I'm not against call and response vocal music.  I was in choirs as I was growing up.  I'm totally fine with responsorial singing.  I do that every Sunday even.  But I find it frustrating to hear all these folksy would-be anthems in popular song.  You could get me to sing along in a responsorial way to something like "Chris is risen."  Sure, absolutely!  But "best day of my life" by some bro strumming a guitar?  As Lana Kane might put it, "Nope". 

I've written about oblque motion in the past, and how oblique motion is a useful tool if you're a singer who isn't nearly so accomplished a singer as you are an instrumentalist (though that bar can be set low, too).

California Girls, Katy Perry
a song I hate so much for its Millenial Whooping Cough I refuse to link to it under any circumstances.  I hate the Lumineers songs even more, actually, but since I have to use some kind of example of what it is about the Whoop I hate I figure I have to deal with the most flamboyant, egregious examples of it and the Perry song, though I hate it, too, doesn't go so far as to construct the verse lines on the Whoop and entirely on the Whoop before getting to the obligatory non-word syllabic antiphonal response.  OH oh oh oh OH oh OH-oh-woah .... Oh oh oh oh OH oh Oh-oh-woah (as echo).

Oblique motion is where you have one line in a harmonic/melodic texture that stays steady while the rest of the musical structure shifts.  This could refer to a single voice that sustains a long tone while the accompaniment changes through chords (think, for instance, of the ultra-long sustained tone Jeff Buckley uses at the end of his Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" cover.  But a more abstract, and arguably more prevalent, form of oblique motion is some kind of melodic activity such as a repeated gesture or repeated tone that sustains over a steadily changing instrumental accompaniment.  For this kind of song you could go with Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or R. E. M's "This is the End of the World As We Know It".

Which, actually ... I don't think rock journalists have put enough blame for the Millenial Whoop on bands like R. E. M.  It's easier to try to keep all the blame on pop performers rather than cast the new wider for indie rock darlings.  Michael Stipe and Kurt Cobain have added to the roster of tricks in pop songs over the last twenty-five years.  Cobain helped solidify repeating the same limited range vocal patterns four times before shifting to "riff 2", and also helped play a role in solidifying the trope of the mumble-core first verse followed by a wailing/screaming octave transposition of the same melodic gestures later in the song.  You get more melodic activity and sequential development in a Madonna song than you ever get in a Cobain song ... and I am not even really a Madonna fan. 

Hearing banjos and ukuleles in pop song anthems is starting to set me off ...

Bros slinging guitars and singing inspirational songs are also starting to set me off.  I hadn't stopped to think how pervasive the John Mayer/Jason Mraz school of ballardy was going to become but I wish it could go away for a while.  I'll hear some song like "Love on the Weekend", for instance, and it just sounds better to me as "Blood on the Windshield".  Hey, "your body's a wonderland" is a memorable line and if John Donne hadn't come up with a version of that line centuries ago the Mayer version might sound more special ...

But I'm trying to stick to the Whoop for this post.  Singer-songwriter guys should ideally be kept as a separate topic, another case of my not being against the abstract idea of one person playing guitar (and how could a classical guitarist be against that in the abstract, after all?) but finding myself frustrated with a current in popular song. 

I've written this before but my annoyance at the proverbial high and low is how entrenched each ghetto seems to be and while people are out there who pay lip service to the idea of no genres or styles the reality is that each stylistic trench seems to be getting dug deeper and deeper by its respective partisans. 

American musicology seems to be no help for this problem because the pissing contests seem to pervade the field.  If some folks were to set out to establish a theoretical basis by which the boundaries could be collapsed or elided that would be neat.  We're talking about equal tempered instruments here so the delusion that there's "no overlap" between musical traditions and styles that all use equal tempered instruments in our time seems dubious and dishonest.  We can do this, we can work out ways to restore a dynamic/dialectic/synergistic relationship between musical "high" and "low" if we drop essentialist paradigms and do the work of what can be tedious analysis.  I say we do that because if Scriabin and Stevie Wonder use symmetrical scales or shifting chromatic mediant pivot chain progressions that tells us that the "classical" and "popular" traditions have more overlap than partisans for just one or the other would like to believe.  My deep dive into early 19th century guitar sonatas showed me that the overlap between Italian, Bohemian and Spanish guitar sonatas in their thematic catalog and ragtime was strong enough that I was able to start recomposing guitar sonatas from the 19th century as ragtimes on the one hand and, in the last few years, to start recomposing ragtimes as a the basis for sonata forms.  So I know for a fact this fusionist experimentation can be done. 

What does that have to do with the Millenial Whoop?  Well, I would propose in an admittedly polemical way that the Millenial Whoop and similar tics are what you get when the popular style is subjected not just to a formulaic consolidation but when the aforementioned "trenches" get dug deeper.  The Millenial Whoop is an example fo a "trench" that is dug further in in a way that appeals to those already committed to X as "real" music and a counterpart on the "other side" of the divides, a la "classical music" might be those who are into ... I dunno ... the New Complexity?  I'm not against microtonality at all.  I love the string quartets of Ben Johnston!  I am also digging the string quartets of Alois Haba and some of the piano works of Wyschnegradsky.  But the New Complexity ... eh ... I respect that they feel they are exploring new and vital things but since my passion is for thinking, composing and, when applicable, theorizing about a way to restore the synergy of art music and pop music interaction they're doing some respectable work in a direction that doesn't personally interest me.  I'm not going to be some John Borstlap who declares that it's not music!  I like too muxh Xenaksi to go in that direction.  :)

But I am, obviously, venting my spleen about the Millenial Whoop as a symptom of what I regard as a disease in popular song that does not take as given that popular song is in any way bad. 

If I had to try to describe why I think the Millenial Whooping Cough is a disease of popular music I may just skip the theoretical stuff and go for the jugular, there's a lot of lazily written pop songs out there that go for the fastest and laziest way to "inspire" by drawing on a raft of tropes that might come from liturgical musical traditions that have been mutated past crooning love songs and torch songs into a kind of meta-inspirational chicken-soup for the soul pop song tripe that takes inspiration as a direct appeal to the heart as though the left hemisphere never existed.  Yeah, I'm writing this as someone who's been on an Adorno binge over the last four years (and a Leonard B. Meyer binge).  I can reject Adorno's take on the obsolescence of the tonal idiom without ignoring that his criticisms of popular song can have "some" merit. 

There's a similar failure on the "high" side of the divide where simply avoiding the cliches of popular song or tonal music is taken to be daring or groundbreaking despite the fat that those post-tonal/serialist domains of composition have their own fairly readily identifiable cliches.  Even Adorno could point out that the great masters of the concert music tradition could traffic in the most obvious cliches throughout their work.  The thing was not just that someone like a Haydn could use cliches but what did Haydn do with the cliches? 

It's not that the idea that can be identified as the Millenial Whoop is inherently "bad", it's that the gesture is so readily put to the laziest possible uses.   Maybe the way to put it is that too much of the use for the Whoop is an operant conditioning appeal to "the feels" without a challenge to think.  The opposite erroneous tendency may permeate those musics that set themselves against popular song when, ideally, popular song and art music should keep learning from each other in ways that even an Adorno could grant was able to happen in a lively synergistic dynamic up through to the 18th century. 

So ... what could Brian Ferneyhough do with the Millenial Whoop?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

some doubts about Richard Taruskin's presentation of Anton Reicha in his Oxford History of Western Music

Taruskin presents the composer Anton Reicha's treatment of sonata form as a "conservative" one but compared to whose definition of sonata would Reicha's definition be considered conservative or traditional?  Wasn't this the Anton Reicha who wrote thirty-six fugues in his Op. 36 in which there's a fugue in A major in 5/8 that gets an answer to its subject in E flat?  Who else in the zone of 1803 was composing fugues in 5/8 with a subject being answered at the tritone rather than the fifth?  Reicha also, as happily recounted by Kyle Gann over at this blog post, was willing to endorse the theoretical utility of quarter tones.

Don't believe me, go over here to IMSLP and see for yourself!

Thanks to Gann's blog post I learned of the Tiny Wirtz recording and I got hooked.  I eventually went on to pick up recordings of all of Reicha's woodwind quintets, which are all pretty glorious!

Not too coincidentally I was also immersing myself in the guitar sonatas of another Bohemian composer, Wenzel Matiegka.  I've written enough thousands of words about that I don't want to belabor that too much ... but I'm going to mention it again anyway because I proposed near the end of my long-form analysis of early 19th century guitar sonatas by guitarist composers that if you look at the themes composed or chosen by the Bohemian, Spanish and Italian composers who played guitar in the late 18th and early 19th century who were writing guitar sonatas it takes very little adjustment to transform a theme in a guitar sonata into a strain for a ragtime.  This is, admittedly, an academic point of consideration (if I were officially an academic!) but let's remind ourselves that in the ragtime literature we've got "Bohemia" by Joseph F. Lamb and "Solace (A Mexican Serenade)" (aka a Mexican serenade). George L. Cobb wrote a "Russian Rag" that adapted a prelude by Rachmaninoff.
And if you'd like to hear a version of it, go over here.

Another presentation. This one opens with a performance of the prelude in C sharp minor followed by the Cobb ragtime adaptation.  Both of these performances seem, to me, too fast to fit a ragtime style but I can't help admiring the chops required to play ragtime too fast even when I find it troublesome in terms of the really explicit warnings in published scores about how it is never right to play ragtime fast.

See, as a guitarist composer if I write a bunch of ragtimes and specify that the quarter note be at sixty beats per minute on a tempo I'd probably have guitarists asking me if I can slow things down.

So how does this connect to a new set of recordings of keyboard music by Anton Reicha?  Well, I've made this case in the past that while ragtime can be understood as a style pioneered by great African American pianists like Scott Joplin not everyone who composed ragtime was African American and, more to the point, the influences tend to get name-dropped in titles and subtitles.  So we get pretty explicit notices about Bohemia and Mexico and Russia as well as references to Africa and the African American experience.  Where this might be germane to musicology and new musicology discussions is that there's something Spanish language nation states (whether Spain or Mexico, etc) might have in common with Bohemia (aka what we'd now consider something like Czech music)--it's not-German.

In my own compositional activity I realized that it took so little work to transform themes from my favorite Italian, Spanish and Bohemian guitarist composers' sonatas into ragtime strains I figured, why couldn't I try to reverse this process and transform ragtime themes into the basis for sonata forms?

I'm not saying this can't be done with German music, but I am thinking in a blog post for the record about how curious it is that rags have been published that name-drop Mexico, Bohemia and Russia as places of inspiration for ragtime as a style.  Rag was evidently a more fusionist style than might be presented in a ssurvey if we only looked at Scott Joplin and James Scott.  Joplin, if memory serves, had some exposure to the "big B" composers, too, so it's not that there could be no German influence of some kidn of ragtime but that's a musing--ragtime is pretty likely not on the radar of German music spieclaists for having any shot at being "profound".

Because ragtime si obviously dance music and uses recursive forms it tends to be thought of as lightweight  It may be regarded as lightweight but that doesn't mean dance music can't evolve intos oemthing more "substantial". Practically the whole span of music hsitory we now call baroque would seem like a possible proof of that point.

Anyway ... back to Reicha ... it seems like Taruskin's Oxford History presented Reicha as being more conservative than I think anyone with more than a passing familiarity with his actual compositional (let alone theoretical) output might agree to.

And if it might seem Reicha's theorizing about what a sonata form may be seems conservative I saw a scholar (name escapes me at the moment) point out that many an earlier treatise on composition were designed to facilitate composing and were not designed to facilitate analysis.  So in that sense a Reicha treatise on composition wouldn't necessarily be a treatise you should take as giving you a roadmap to analyze what he or other composers had already done as much as providing a schematic outline of things you "could" do if you wanted to.

Its one of the things about treatises on counterpoint that I suspect can get lost in debates over whether X or Y has the "real" grasp of contrapuntal idiom X or Y.  The idea with these treatises was to encourage and catalyze actual composition.  Notoriously analysis seemed to come up short on explaining what a J. S. Bach or a Haydn was doing and there can be some complaints about how treatise A or B doesn't seem to fit with what composer C or D was actually doing.  Well ... at the risk of pointing out the obvious, maybe it wasn't supposed to and nobody who read these sorts of treatises labored under that misconception.

Bruce Haynes, in his book The End of Early Music, mentioned how in what we'd now call ancient music treatises there's an idea that theoretical writings about music are to music what a recipe is to the finished culinary creation--no one would mistake the recipe for the food for being the food.  It doesn't mean you don't care about the recipe and it certainly doesn't mean you don't care about the relationship the recipe has to the food, just that in your enjoyment of a good recipe you don't forget that the good recipe doesn't become food until you "perform" the recipe.

Finding the theoreticians who wrote about music in the past wanting because their work didn't give us the tools to analyze the music that was written by the composers who were the contemporaries of those theorists forgets that those books were probably not being written for the people who already knew how to compose according to the conventions of the day.  Almost every theory book I can remember that has tried to describe how "classical form" works has laid out a variety of rules only to throw in the seemingly inevitable and inevitably funny caveat of "except for Haydn".  It's funny every time I see it, that caveat.

I finished reading Richard Taruskin's Oxford History in the last few years and I recently read a lengthy critique/rebuttal of the master narrative approach of Taruskin's Oxford History written by Franklin Cox.  I have my own reservations about some of Cox's criticisms with the topic of new music in mind, because i find through my own experience that when people say that a composer like Ferneyhough is hard to understand but that you can understand his work an objection that Taruskin seems to have a narrative where he takes down elites can inspire people to do what I've previously called a shifting of elite definitions--the "elite" becomes the fiscal elite who control the finance sector as though cognitive elites who dominate academies somehow don't count as being elite or at least being elite in some more forgivable way.

If music can only be  appreciated by a cognitive elite then that's still, arguably, elite music.  The recently passed composer George Walker once said that classical music is music by elites for elites.  Maybe the nature of what and who that elite is changes from age to age but the elite part has stayed pretty constant.  Over the years I have gotten the impression that the musicians who can admit to themselves they're working at some kind of cognitively advantaged position can also look at writing music in a way that doesn't compel any and all would-be members of a possible audience to have to do as much work sa the composer or musicians do to get the music performed.  Another way of putting this is I like Haydn because as abstract and lofty as his music can get he doesn't set aside making music hat could be appreciated by people who won' get all of the esoteric tricks of craft.  He may have written a lot of music for court and gentry but he was the son of a hweelwright, wasn't he?

Reicha's music can get esoteric and weird but not in a way that, in my experience, loses sight that music should in some way be fun.

And I just don't see how when I read through the Op. 36 fugues or listen to them that they could be construed as conservative in the late 18th or early 19th century.

Taruskin did seem to traffic in a kind of master narrative about master narratives.  My take away from his history was that there's no non-imperialist patronage system.  The nature of the imperialism or colonialism changes across the coarse of history, for want ofa better way to put it, but there's no arts patronage scene that is innocent of the trappings of power and money--all our love for th bbeautiful art that emerges from each of those cultural dynasties of patronage does not have to blind us to those historical observations.

Where some critics of Taruskin take issue with what they regard as a kind of neoliberal triumphalist narrative seem to me to be missing a possibility--that Taruskin has not exactly said that this new era is innocent of power or ideology.  He'd rather live in this particular era and, as he's joked, vote for Adlai Stevenson endlessly

I also have some issues with the ease with which Taruskin blithely declared the guitar has not been part of the literatre music tradition.  Never mind that we've got scores going back for centuries from composers like Diabelli, Carulli, Giuliani, Molitor, Matiegka, Sor, and others.  I'm also surprised Taruskin had no word for the guitar since he's known as a specialist in Russian music and yet the Russian seven-string guitar literature goes back for centuries, too!  I've had fun listening to recordings Oleg Timofeyev has made of the Russian literature in the last few years and look forward to hearing more of the recording he does in that direction.  Just because Taruskin hasn't familiarized himself with Diabelli's Op. 29 guitar sonatas doesn't mean there's no F major guitar sonata (which, honestly, much as I've enjoyed Diabelli's guitar sonatas over the last ten years the F major is the one that I think holds up best, you could totally skip the others).

There's a sense in which, if critics of Taruskin's perceived (by them) vendetta toward German music were taken further they could point out that his depiction of Reicha seems skeletal and even inaccurate, and that Reicha may be a case study of a capable, even brilliant composer and theorist whose work got sidelined in the wake of 19th century battles (all I know at the moment, I'm afraid, is that there was reportedly some battle between Reicha and Cherubini that, so the sketchy reports go, had something to do with whether the sonata or the fugue was most likely "the" compositional path forward).

This could be a point at which those who are tired of the stolid German canon might want to reappraise the field.  Reicha's work has been around for centuries and if you want an alternative to the German hegemony new musicology seems worried about, Reicha seems due for rehabilitation or renewed recognition. Sure, "we" know that one of his students, Lizst, came to define the "new German" sound ... but I don't feel like digressing down all of that. 

Now I get that in his long-form criticism of Taruskin's Oxford History that Franklin Cox might believe Taruskin is unfairly dismissive of New Complexity and of non-tonal musical developments.  It is disappointing there was no room in the five-volume narrative for Ligeti or Takemitsu and a range of others.  Taruskin's approach could be considered the start of other approaches. 

But there are other things that can be said in criticism of Taruskin's sprawling history besides that he can't hide a disdain for the New Complexity.  He didn't manage to hide his disdain for Paul Hindemith's music, either, seeing as I read his essay asking where any of the good Hindemith music might actually be.  Now as a Hindemith fan I could get upset that Taruskin can't enjoy anything about Hindemith but there's no need for that. 

But Taruskin's description of Reicha, when I read it in the Oxford History, seemed too cursory and, well, inaccurate.  Even on the point of whether Reicha's definition of sonata could be considered conservative, that depends on what else he was writing and proposing at the time. 

Guitarists, I think, would benefit from soaking themselves in Reicha's work.  The Op. 36 fugues are begging to be arranged for guitar ensemble.  Actually ... several of them have.

If you want to go observe the glory of Reicha's woodwind quintets ... go over here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

an Ange Turell feature on Atanas Ourkouzounov

This article and associated interview were clearly finished before the fifth guitar sonata was completed.

Ourkouzonov's music is some of my favorite from the contemporary guitar scene.  I am very partial to the idea of a folk-jazz-classical fusion, too.  Being in the Pacific Northwest in the United States the folk materials I draw upon are a bit different, maybe radically different from what Atanas does but I share a passion for the paradigm of a folk-jazz-classical fusion.  Leo Brouwer has indicated, if memory serves, that these sorts of experiments have been going on for, well, basically generatons but that contemporary musicology has not had much use for these kinds of fusions.  Academic musicology might arguably depend upon the conventions that are, on paper at least, viewed with skepticism.  I doubt more than ever that we're really "post genre". 

I do plan to eventually get around to writing about his guitar sonatas, by the way, but I've managed to overload myself in terms of what I've been trying to write about. S ometimes you have to take a break from writing long enough to read all the stuff you want to read ...

and there's always composing music, too.

before I wrap up this post ...

Both Autoportrait and Autoportrait II are fun albums of contemporary classical guitar.  I recommend them both happily.  Actually ... I think I have nearly all of the CDs Ourkouzounov and Ogura have recorded and they're all fantastic. :) The KLE 2003 recording could be really, really hard to find these days, though.

Ernst Krenek: Hausmusic, Op. 172: IV. for violin and guitar

and here's another movement from Krenek's Hausmusik. 

Ernst Krenek--Hausmusik, Op. 172: II for soprano recorder and guitar

Krenek's Hausmusik is a fun little series of miniatures for a variety of instruments that includes the guitar.  William Anderson and Cygnus Ensemble recorded this Krenek work years ago and did a fun job with it.  So I'm linking to a couple of admittedly "guitar-centric" movements.