Sunday, February 03, 2019

an older Ethan Hein post on the orchestra hit as a possible future for classical music, with a statement of aims regarding the classical canon itself contrasted with pedagogical canonism

There are a number of authors whose work I've become familiar with thanks to vitriolic reactions by people at Slipped Disc. Ethan Hein is one such author.  Thanks to some largely failed attempts to address the polemics of Adorno by Roger Scruton and John Borstlap I ended up on an Adorno reading binge in the last four years. I think Adorno was wildly wrong on several key issues about what we'd call popular music since the later 19th century but this isn't where I plan to get into that.  I'm just laying some groundwork for how I heard of Ethan Hein's blogging and writing.

Not being a formal academic I feel there can be some weaknesses and strengths to that lack.  The weakness is that there's obviously stuff I won't be able to follow when discussions get particularly arcane and jargon-laden.  There's a book by Richard Cohn that I'm working through that is ... pretty heavy on jargon, Audacious Euphony. There's topics where I'm not going to be as up to speed on any number of things as an academic would be.

The strength of not being in academia, however, is that to some degree I'm spared the social and professional obligation of having to get involved in things I would consider pissing contests and turf wars.  So while I don't have the time to keep up with all that has been involved in reaction to Hein's paper about whiteness in music education I don't have to treat what he has had to say as an assault on the Western canon of classical music.  I have had time, however, to read his own blogging where he has explained that that's never actually been his aim.

Posted on May 21, 2018 by Ethan            

In my paper about whiteness in music education, I tried to make a point about sampling classical music that my professor was (rightly) confused about. So I’m going to use this post to unpack the idea some more. I was arguing that, while we should definitely decanonize the curriculum, that doesn’t mean we need to stop teaching Western classical music entirely; we just need to teach it differently. Rather than seeing the canonical masterpieces as being carved in marble, we should use them as raw material for the creation of new music.

Even a somewhat conservative Presbyterian stick-in-the-mud West Coast Calvinist who plays classical guitar and reveres the music of J. S. Bach and Josef Haydn finds not only nothing objectionable about this, but, as Hein has stated it, I agree with.  I'll plead guilty to having developed a lifelong objection to what I now know Adorno regarded as the 19th century bourgeois art religion/religion-of-art.  I don't think the entire thousand-year history of classical music is in danger of being obliterated by popular culture. I think, instead, that the ars perfecta of the instrumental autonomous musical traditions developed in Western European contexts from roughly the seventeenth through twentieth centuries is probably getting incrementally displaced by the return of Western musical arts to a more song-based approach to composition.

As much as I'm personally committed to playing and composing instrumental music, I'm still too much a residual choirboy to see it as necessarily bad if Western musical creativity has returned to songs in the last century.  Writing as a guitarist I can tell you that Matanya Ophee was right to point out how thoroughly marginalized guitarists are from the mainstream of classical music.  We guitarists have far less reason, if we stop and think about it, to feel that any "attack" on the symphonic mainstream is really all that bad a thing for we how play six-strings.  Anyway ... with that episodic commentary written, here's where Hein has written he'd be interested to see classical music institutions go. 

It would be nice if classical music institutions took a liberal attitude toward sampling. (Most of the canonical works are in the public domain, but the recordings are owned by the record label or organization that made them.) Even better, music organizations could start creating sample libraries. There’s an existing model to follow, the New World Symphony remix contest run by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The DSO posted a bunch of pristinely recorded excerpts on SoundCloud and encouraged the internet to go to town. That is the world I want to live in.

So here’s my fantasy scenario: classical institutions create sample libraries for every canonical work. They categorize the samples by instrument, key, and tempo, along with scores, MIDI files, background information, video of the performances, and whatever other context might be of interest. They use a licensing scheme that automatically grants sample clearances in exchange for some reasonable fee or revenue-sharing scheme. They encourage transparency of sources: “Hey trap producers! Here are some suitably bleak sounds. Be sure to link back to us from your SoundCloud page.” Classical music might be a tough sell for casual music listeners, but producers listen to a lot of unusual things, and we listen closely. We might not be inclined to buy concert tickets, but we would eagerly comb through recordings with the right invitation.

I recognize that this idea is kind of a tough sell. Classical music institution aren’t particularly interested in fostering the production of more beat-driven electronic music–they want people to learn to appreciate the canon as it is. I, on the other hand, don’t have much investment in the canon. My goal as a progressive music educator is to help young people find their own musical truths, through discovery or invention.

Most music educators still see their goal as being the preservation of the canon, and are either indifferent or actively hostile toward the music that the kids like. I think the odds of keeping the canon alive are better if it maintains cultural relevance, if it isn’t just “musical spinach” that you eat because it’s somehow good for you. I don’t believe classical music to be any more intrinsically nutritious than anything else (it’s packed with melody and harmony, but deficient in other necessary musical vitamins, like groove.) But if preserving the canon is your goal, then sampling producers might be powerful allies.


A similar project could conceivably be taken up with classical guitar literature.  The works of Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli are public domain.  Sure, the proliferation of scholarly editions and the absence of online presentations of manuscripts means that a classical guitar variation of Hein's proposed project might not be in the interest of guitar music publishers but IMSLP still has a decent chunk of classical guitar literature that's PD.  Of course ... score-reading guitarists could just take the bits they like, play them into a smartphone, and sample away.  The fantasy scenario is in some sense easier for musicians who can play the instrument in question.

One of my pet projects in the last eight years was comparing thematic catalogs of the early 19th century guitarist composers to ragtime composers and noticing how readily the early guitar sonata themes could be mutated into ragtime strains.  I've also been noticing that the process can be reversed, that ragtime strains can be transformed into the basis of sonata forms.  It's taken decades of composing and some abstruse theoretical reading but it's possible.  I believe that bridging the chasm between popular and academic musical canons is feasible and also desirable.  I've been pretty plainspoken about that.  I've been thinking a lot about how a number of my favorite composers, particularly Haydn and Villa-Lobos, were literally playing in street bands before they got their breaks as "official" composers of what we call classical music.  Shostakovich played music in silent film theaters.  Stravinsky wrote scores for ballets and films (not that you're rushing to see The Flood, I suspect). Hindemith advocated for "music for use" and, yeah, I get that these days Hindemith is ignored or a marginal composer but I admit to being something of a Hindemith fan.  His role in helping to premiere works by Bartok and the microtonallist composer Alois Haba make Hindemith of at least historical interest.  He also wrote an absolutely adorable Rondo for guitar trio that I think might be sample-worthy ... but his work is definitely not public domain yet!  

Hein's comment about groove reminds me that Theodore Adorno's Philosophy of New Music laid out a claim that there were two modes of listening and music cognition that prevailed in Western music and that these two modes of music listening and cognition had separated and become "false".  Adorno being Adorno the cultural industry and capitalism were to blame but the way to translate Adorno's polemic with some help from terms used by the likes of Roger Scruton and Ethan Hein would be to put it like this, classical music has "argument" and popular music has "groove" and Adorno was claiming that BOTH forms of listening and cognition had become false by being separated from each other.  

In Adorno's lofty taxonomy of music truly great music had to have both a, if you will, sonata style developmental "argument" and a dance-derived sense of "groove" in order to be successful.  Adorno would have asserted that J. S. Bach had this powerful combination of argument and groove in abundance and that early-to-mid-Beethoven had the balance, and that later Beethoven fractured argument and groove into different spaces of his late works but I'm being a bit sloppy there.  But I hope you get the general idea of Adorno's polemic, that argument and groove had to both be present.  Adorno's criticism of the classical music being composed in his day was it had argument and that popular music that was all groove was totalitarian and group-think inducing.  What Adorno seemed unable to grant was the possibility that these two modes of listening could be recombined in spite of the existence of capitalism.  Adorno's Marxist commitments blinkered his approach to history ... not unlike the way I think it blinkered the approach to history of the conservative Presbyterian minister and Religious Right stalwart Francis Schaeffer.  The Marxist and the fundamentalist can both work from what I'd call a disastrously ill-advised postmillenialist philosophy of history, give or take a few finer details I am certain scholars will dispute, and I grant with cause.  :) 

Now I venture that there are legions of canons within popular music as there are within classical music.  The era of classic rock has come and gone.  I recall a blog post from Kyle Gann in which he announced he'd finally gotten a classroom full of students where half of them had never heard the Beatles song he was using as an example.

Students are inscrutable. I’ve taken over first-year theory again this semester, as a favor to a younger colleague. So far I’ve brought in, as examples for musical analysis, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”; Tom Lehrer’s “Bright College Days”; two ragtimes by Scott Joplin; two barbershop quartet songs, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “Lida Rose” from The Music Man; “Yesterday” by the Beatles (unrecognized by half my class); and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” The other day a songwriting guitarist kid came to drop the class. His reason: “I’m not sure this classical theory track is the right one for me.”
I’ll contextualize. I don’t teach modulation until March, and nearly all classical music modulates, while in ragtime and barbershop I can get a dense wealth of varied harmonic functions without having to worry about changing key. Plus, classical music is so varied in its techniques that I used to spend a lot of time cherry-picking my examples to find pieces with which to teach a certain principle. Contrariwise, if I want to teach common-tone diminished sevenths, almost any ragtime will do; if I want secondary dominants around the circle of fifths, any barbershop quartet will do. If I need further examples, I just turn to the next page. When I teach pivot-chord modulation I’ll turn to Schubert and Schumann, though even there, mid-century Broadway tunes offer wonderful modulation paradigms within a three-page song, and West Side Story gives me both those and a lot of imaginative uses of the French sixth chord. ...
In the comments Gann wrote that he hasn't felt bad that The Beatles song catalog is fading from cultural memory.  For those who haven't read the post before, one of the things Gann mentioned was that through showing students ragtime and barbershop quartet scores they had a chance to see that playing vernacular and popular music is not some do-it-with-your-eyes-closed path.  It wouldn't be far off to suggest that in some contexts a guitarist playing Nashville standards has to have more technique and attention to musical detail that somebody playing something more officially avant garde.  If it's a choice between this duet for guitars that uses bottleneck technique and Don Helms ... 
Pertinent to Gann's tale of the guitarist unsure of how theory would be relevant ... it seems thanks to the stratification of pedagogical paradigms that people want to stick with "high" or "low".  But more salient to me is this, I studied music as part of my undergraduate degree but never was a "music major".  But I do know this, that it is possible to formulate a fusion of classical forms with American vernacular styles.  But the odds that a composer will get there by only being steeped in the vernacular traditions without having any grounding in "classical" theories about form, formal analysis, harmony and counterpoint, are probably low.  Anton Reicha wrote that raw genius is relatively easy to find but that without the discipline of training it doesn't yield much, just as the accumulated formal training that goes into a talent is not a substitute for having a genius for melody.  By now Reicha is a truly marginal figure in Western music history but I have enjoyed a lot of his work, particularly his woodwind quintets but that's risking another rabbit trail.
What Adorno diagnosed was a fracturing of modes of musical cognition. He didn't sem to think those two modes could be brought back together.  Well, I think they can be but there's no point in telling people who are committed to just on or the other of these modes of musical appreciation that they have to embrace the mode they don't have a use for.  If anything I feel more and more lately that the cottage industries in favor of classical music and popular music benefit from keeping what Adorno identified as two modes of listening as segregated as possible and formulating theories and polemics of authenticity and legitimacy around these modes of listening.  Raymond Knapp has suggested that what rock and jazz critics did was more or less replicate the rhetorical legacy of German Idealism around African American music rather than the German symphonic tradition. In other words, producing the photo-negative of German Idealism doesn't dismantle that Idealist notion of the "real" as much as relocate it to a perceived inversion, substituting a kind of blackness for whiteness.  My contention is we'd be better off mounting a full frontal assault on the viability of the German Idealist tradition as it's been applied to music. Paradoxically, in this sort of battle actually religious composers and musicians have probably done us more good than those people who have made high arts their religion.  I'll take Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin over Pierre Boulez compositions any day. 
To put this point still another way, Messiaen was a religious composer who was a pioneer in the Western avant garde of classical music. One of his students, Xenakis, was an atheist.  There isn't necessarily some one-to-one correspondence between being religiously observant and being what Americans think of as reactionary impulses in the arts.  Having said that, I would venture to say that there is a pedagogical problem of legacy with the "long 19th century" in the arts in the sense that the artists and writers who sought to make a religion out of art in the long 19th century and those pedagogues who swear by the greatness of that achievement, seem to have a propensity to treat the art-religion of the 19th century like many religious adherents--the canon is closed and the divine revelation of the canon is sufficient for reflecting upon and making commentaries about (either by commentaries or compositions that, so to speak, replicate as if icons the saints and achievements told of within the canon).

At least in explicitly religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism the idea that there's an established body of sacred literature to which not a whole lot needs to be added is explicitly in the realm of religion.  Advocates of art religion of a Romantic and post-Romantic sort seem to lean on an implicitly closed canon.   But the ars perfecta of the late Renaissance has fallen into relative obscurity since so much of the Latin-based musical practice was anchored in liturgical and court contexts that don't speak to us in the 21st century as directly as they did in the eighth through fourteenth centuries.  I'm suggesting that the 19th century symphonic tradition may be another ars perfecta like the late Renaissance ars perfecta was before it. 

I suggest we take a page from Baroque practice and let there be more than one school of thought and style of composing.  If Adorno correctly diagnosed a break between music of "argument" and music of "groove" then I don't see the point of telling partisans of just one or the other to embrace the one they don't have any use for.  Conversely, as a musician and composer who does value both "argument" and "groove" what those of us who want both of these elements in our music can work toward making that kind of music and on this point Adorno's dogmatic assertions can be ignored as having been precisely that, dogmatic assertions.

The span from the late Renaissance ars perfecta to the high Baroque musical mastery of J. S. Bach took centuries. The path from Gregorian chant to Palestrina, Tallis and Byrd, similarly, took centuries.  Composers like Haydn and Clementi and Vanhal and, yes, Mozart, built on galant to develop what we think of the high Classic style.

A musicology that focuses just on the peaks as though the peaks didn't have even the possibility of emerging from what some teachers might regard as valleys is going to fall short in depicting the thousand years of Western music we've got an opportunity to appreciate now.   If all you want of the high Classic era is Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn and you skip Clementi or Reicha, or want nothing to do with Dussek or Hummel then, well, you're missing out.  There was other stuff going on in that long 19th century besides the obvious, canonized composers.  Knowing that Reicha and Lizst were speculating about quarter tones in the 19th century helps provide some context for some of the revolutions of the 20th century.  The cottage industry narrative that Schoenberg and the would-be second Viennese school shook things up could be buying into a hype machine.  There was some far out stuff inspired by disciples of Scriabin brewing in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

What's this "valley" in music history?  We could just call it an era of music history, whatever the time or place ,where music teachers haven't canonized anyone composer to the point of having a bullet point on a syllabus, how's that?  What a purportedly traditionalist or classicist accounting of history can be guilty of is skipping large spans of history in favor of getting to the canonized saints of the religion of art.  That isn't necessarily bad if you only want "the best of the best and forget the rest", but if you want a fuller understanding of how "the best" developed and in reaction to ... what now?  ... you might want to get to "the rest", too.

I could write more but I'll probably end the post there.  


Ethan Hein said...

I'm surprised and a little alarmed to see the phrase "the likes of Roger Scruton and Ethan Hein" in print. I agree with Adorno that separating "groove" and "argument" leads to impoverished listening. Part of the problem (in the academy at least) is that we're disinclined to recognize that groove itself is a form of argument. Groove argues that you should be on your feet and moving, in your body, and actively socializing with other people. Max Roach said of rap that the politics are in the drums, and that's something you can say of all groove-based music. It's an argument that descends from African spiritual traditions, and it's one that many European-descended people find threatening, though they may not realize it consciously.

Lucy Green, an influential scholar of music education, has written about how any music being taught in school automatically becomes "classical," including the Beatles. She believes that the social context of the music matters as much as its actual content in how we receive it. (You can see the same force at work in the perception that contemporary composers are "difficult" and "inaccessible," even though more experimental forms of electronic music or rock are frequently much more far out.) But there's another reason for kids to lump the Beatles in with classical music: educators tend to focus on the parts of their repertoire that fit the best with the traditional canon. "Yesterday" is not a rock song; in fact, in its structure, harmony and instrumentation, it's practically a piece of classical music. Educators are less inclined to present groove-oriented and production-oriented songs like "Come Together," which are harmonically/melodically "boring" but closer in spirit to the abstract soundscapes and heavy grooves of current pop. A guitarist in 2019 probably is better served studying groove and production than chord theory, though in a perfect world they would want to do all of the above.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

"all of the above" is, I think, the ideal.

Some phrases come across worse in print than, perhaps, they would said out loud. I actually have a number of disagreements with Scruton but I'm going to avoid writing about that stuff in a comment. :) I'm saving my disagreements with guys like Scruton and Borstlap for other places in this blog.

My interest has been, as a classical guitarist and composer, finding ways to restore some kind of synergistic interaction between popular and "classical" styles. I'm focusing less on chord theory than syntactics of large-scale and small-scale forms. So it's more William Caplin's formal analysis and Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory. I think their work can be used for more than just analyzing 18th century music. The syntactic scripts they use to analyze 18th century music open up possibilities for composing now that I think would be worth exploring. One of the most indefensible canards I've seen from traditionalist/conservative aesthetes that I disagree with is the claim that you "can't" compose a sonata form or a fugue based on American vernacular or popular styles. I think a composer can create a sonata movement or even a fugue based on ragtime and blues or country riffs, it's just that it involves a more abstract and flexible approach to sonata and fugue as developmental scripts than the last two centuries of music pedagogy seem to have allowed for. It seems to me a prelude and fugue for guitar drawing inspiration from Aretha Franklin or Johnny Cash should be an option.

I admit that's one of my soapbox issues at this blog. From that perspective I've tried to outline, I can see both Adorno and Scruton as staking out adversarial positions that warrant a rebuttal. Adorno's damning remarks on popular music have gotten a lot of rebuttals. Scruton's problem is a bit different. He can grant in the abstract that there's been some kind of distance between pop music and classical music and my objectionto him is that he hasn't come up with stuff Adorno didn't come up with half a century ago. Meanwhile, Scruton's had decades to think of some possible way to bridge the span between "high" and "low" and he sticks to a cottage industry legend of how high art is in some kind of decline. Well, I say restore a synergistic relationship between classical music and popular/vernacular styles and that might help classical music.

Thus, I'm pretty sympathetic to your sampling library idea.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Adorno wrote that the two separated forms of listening meant the respective modes of music-making had become what he called "false" and that, honestly, I'm not sure I agree with. Adorno's damning assessment of all popular music is easy to look up and I think he's been deservedly fisked across the entire political spectrum for that. But you've done a good job of formulating a more positive variant on what Adorno wrote, even if there's a good case to be made that Adorno didn't mean it that way. :)

I think I get what you mean about groove having a kind of argument but I trust you get the idea that when someone like Scruton talks about musical "argument" he's really insisting on a particular range of syntactic developmental procedures that musical gestures can be audibly heard undergoing in a sonata movement or a fugue. The trouble with that, of course, is that not all processes of gestural transformation have to be so obvious in order for change and transformation to occur. Steve Reich's music has all of the processes out in front and as audible as gestural transformations in a haydn string quartet but the nature of the process of change and the formal significance of the process are different, but both are fun (to me, since I like music by Reich and Haydn).

At another level, Scruton has a weakness for treating the already-canonized as fitting into said canon. Adorno damned Stravinsky as embracing a rhythmic-spatial aesthetic that obliterated individuality and embraced fascism. Stravinsky was all "groove" and no "argument". Adorno regarded Stravinsky's abandonment of Beethoven style sonata syntactics as a sign of rejecting the subject. That seems a bit overwrought but Adorno's polemic has a certain ... force to it. Scruton accepts Stravinsky as part of the classical music canon. I like a lot of Stravinsky so, okay, but Adorno's beef with Stravinsky was, as he put it in such difficult terms in Philosophy of New Music, that Stravinsky forsook the "argument" of traditional sonata forms in favor of a dance-based identity-obliterating groove. I think we can safely argue that Adorno's polemic missed the possibility that neither a groove based music or an argument based music has to be "false" as Adorno understood it. He never really presents what I would consider a clear or compelling reason for his assertion. I love the idea that good music has some kind of "argument" and "groove" but Adorno's chauvinism and elitist tendencies stymie more positive ways of formulating what he seemed to be trying to get at.