Saturday, November 23, 2019

Cherie Hu writes that classical music is facing a changing world and its music journalists are grappling with how to adapt to this

There's an older piece from late summer at Columbia Journalism Review online I've been thinking about.


More and more, critics are going beyond reviews that focus on musicality and technique to report on problems concerning diversity, politics, and workplace culture. Independent publications such as I Care If You ListenNewMusicBox, and National Sawdust’s The Log reflect a more diverse creative landscape and a more politically-conscious audience. There’s an increasing drive, Gersten tells CJR, “to ask what a given concert is doing for the reputation of an institution and for the field at large…Can we use this concert, this particular piece, as a sign that there are better things to come?”


Still, virtually all classical-music writers avoid pronouncing the death of their field. “The conversation about the ‘death’ of classical has been part of my entire adult life, and so much about the genre has changed in that time period,” Brown says. “I don’t find it to be a helpful attitude anymore. When I first started at VAN, we were determined that the magazine would be a place where the phrase ‘classical music is dead’ would never appear.”

The first of those has some interesting stuff getting published.  Douglas Shadle has written some intriguing pieces on how African American composers and composers from America who didn't fit into the Beethoven or Wagner paradigm were sidelined by American music journalists during the nineteenth century.  

For me NewMusicBox feels has-been already and I only discovered it in the last few years.  I've read essays by composers who talk about how their music defies genre and how genre is just such an "over" thing ... and it feels like it has me stuck in some Portlandia skit in which some one declares "neckbeards are over!". 

The problems concerning diversity broached in the more memorable essays I've read at NMB tend to be ... well ... it's hard to shake a sense of hostile ... advertising.  "I don't fit into the white supremacist legacy of classical music because X, Y and Z."  

Well, okay, I can easily grant the symphonic traditions evolved during peak European colonial/imperial expansion but ... as a guitarist ... I might add that I think we've been witnessing the general decline of the symphonic idiom and ... I'm trying to stay positive here--we can develop new musical practices that build on those traditions so that even if the symphony has been on the wane in the last century and a half we can still learn from the symphonic tradition.  Some of those ideas need to be translated a bit for the probably smaller instrumental and vocal resources we'll have in our time, but it can be done.

NewMusicBox, however, has not impressed me as a platform in which those conversations are actually happening overall.  Battling old racist narratives with new narratives that trade in appeals to minority and orientation status deserve to be heard and brought forth ... but I am still not sold on some of the terms like Eurocentric and Afrocentric just yet.  I know Jacques Ellul claimed the old sacred can only be cast out with a new sacred but if art is religion for many people in our age then the canons are inevitably formed and one canon will be displaced with another.  People want purity in their canons, a purity that perhaps we shouldn't want so much.  The more I read about what we'd call Baroque music the more clear it is that stylistic purity was not a goal for them and that what has been presented to us in hindsight as a grand unified perfection of style and technique may be a heavy retroactive presentation ... we've had read for us a perfection of a "single" style that in the era of J. S. Bach was the simultaneous existence of a plethora of styles and forms.  It may be that our educational system presented things "then" as more monolithic than they were.

On the other hand ... I've found myself unconvinced that the unity we have through equal tempered instruments is really offset by stylistic differences; and there can be times where it's hard to shake a sense that some claims made about the slipperiness of Western notation seem like circumlocution.  I can read arguments that the literate musical traditions are clearly adaptable enough that the Kepler quartet recorded Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 7.  In other words, the sheer variety of pitches in that string quartet is so vast I don't think it makes sense to claim that Western notational systems don't have the accuracy to tell us what the pitches are a la Andrew Durkin's Decomposition.  If we wanted to say that most composers don't want to write a score that distinguishes between two notes that are just four cents apart, fine.  I'm with you. I, too, am not writing music that requires I be that picky about pitch. 

But in some writing from liberals who aren't people of color, arguments about the inaccuracy of Western musical notation can come across like shorthands for "non-white music doesn't fit into Western notational conventions".  There's still a difference between "this can't be done" and "this is so tedious a task to notate fully down to every last little microtonal shift and rhythmic nuance I don't want to bother".  In other words, a lot of writing about music and musical literacy can be about literally and figuratively white and black narratives when I'm not entirely sure it needs to be.  Thanks to equal temperament I can learn a Stevie Wonder song, a Joseph Lamb rag and a J. S. Bach two-part invention.  If liberal writers treat the divide as impassable from one side conservatives treat it as impassable from another while Stevie Wonder regards the boundary as practically non-existent.  That's where I land, personally.  If new generations of people who write about music have to do the work necessary to treat Haydn and Stevie Wonder as part of a beautiful, shared musical tradition then let's keep doing that.  

Particularly as I get older and think about the mixed race aspect of my lineage I'm worried, and I think with cause, that one potential proposed antidote to a white supremacist take on the Western literate musical traditions is a kind of inversion of the "script".  Raymond Knapp's observation in his book on Haydn, camp and the legacy of German idealism was that the ideals of authenticity and emotional rawness that emerged in Romantic era European art music got flipped in rock and jazz criticism to designate blacks in American cities rather than white guys in the Alps and so on, but the core problem is the basic script has been retained.  Andrew Durkin attempted to argue against an idea of authenticity but basically failed, and failed completely, because he was focusing ... fixating on the slippery nature of Western musical notation. 

I think a more fruitful line of attack is to do a full frontal assault on the legacy of German idealism.  Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating The Nation does a fairly good job of unpacking how a critical and educational establishment dominated by the legacy of German idealism sidelined American symphonic efforts as they were being made but I don't want to rehash that too much.  I think Durkin meant well in trying to attack a type of "authenticity" but he attacked the wrong type. 

Contra Norman Lebrecht types, there's not really a clear reason to imagine we're witnessing the "death of" classical music.  Taruskin thought this was happening in terms of the death of musical literacy but even he has been packpedaling on that since his Oxford History was completed.

Norman Lebrecht had his death of classical music moment and death of criticism moment but he's so ... over the top about it ... the death of the death of doesn't really even seem like a snarky idea:

Postmodernism, as has been rightly pointed out, is not a movement, a genre, a style, or anything else that can be formalized; it has no manifesto, no coherent creeds or tenets; only a loose association of tropes that have been exploited ad nauseam (irony, self-consciousness, recursion, epistemic contradictions). Like it or not (despite claims about New Sincerity, or the Post-Postmodern) our age is still a thoroughly postmodern one, and it’s hard to conceive of a time when it won’t be. This is conditioned partly by the belief that things are coming to an end. Or, that things have already ended––the finish line has already been crossed and we’re simply running around the track because we have nowhere else to go. This entropic countdown is part of what it means to be living “after” the modern.

For decades now, essays spelling “the death of…” have become a cottage industry, almost a subgenre within the critical essay. Yes, it seems that things have been dying for quite a long time now. Most artists share the same pessimism about the present: that the form is in decline, the best days are behind it, audience’s standards have been tragically lowered, and the stuff that gets picked up by the mainstream now is all crap. Musicians, filmmakers, photographers, all talk this way. But fiction writers seem to be uniquely obsessed with this belief. Indeed, literature is the only medium that actively, neurotically insists on its own obsolescence. It’s become the cosmic background noise against which today’s writer works, one that structures their whole view of their place in the world.

Many of these obsequies have been penned by some of the best and most successful writers. Jonathan Franzen’s “Why Bother?” (Harper’s 1996); Tom McCarthy’s “The Death of Writing––if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google” (guardian 2015); Will Self’s “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real)” (Guardian, 2014) are just a few. Others who haven’t committed these thoughts to the page have said as much in interviews. Zadie Smith has said she doesn’t believe that a coherent literary culture will survive her lifetime; Martin Amis has made similar rumblings, with a little more optimism. This is nothing new. Writers have been giving the novel funeral rites for years, and in reading these pieces, you’d think they were the ones digging its grave. So, I’m not keen to weigh in on the death of literature by adding another to the pile, especially with the added irony of claiming that “the end of things” also seems to be at its end.

The argument that the novel as a form is dead as a result of bi-directional media (Self) is distinct from the argument that the novel as a cultural force is dead (Smith, Franzen). The first presents a real challenge to the novel’s creative life, and the conversation about it will continue among writers. But for journalistic purposes, it’s the second that really deserves attention. The claim that no one reads serious, difficult books anymore is only half-true. Numerically, there are more readers now than ever. There are more students studying literature and graduating from writing programs, which means that books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Magic Mountain are being read by more people, with more care and attention than they were at any time previous.

If the argument is that once we've reached the end of a teleological conception of history that has a forward moving "direction" in the arts, Leonard B. Meyer pointed that out half a century ago. He also suggested that the traditionalist or the expressionist might not be the kind of artist that comes to characterize the new era.  The future might belong to the kind of artist Meyer called the formalist (not in the Emotion and Music sense, but in the sense he used in Music, the Arts and Ideas.


Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago 

ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 191

... if earlier styles and materials are employed in contemporary art, music and literature, it will most likely be done by those inclined toward formalism, rather than by those who still consider works of art to be vehicles for personal expression. One cannot "use" the expressive quality of a Bach, a Rembrandt, or a Donne. ... In like manner, it will probably be the formalist rather than the expressionist who delights in the possibilities of mixing styles and materials from different epochs within a work or in employing different stylistic models in successive works.


That this is indeed the case is shown by the fact that it has been avowed and explicit formalists, such as Eliot and Stravinsky, who have employed past procedures, models, and materials most patently and most extensively. And we are thus confronted with an amusing paradox: the end of the Renaissance--of belief in teleology, individualism, expression, and so forth--has made possible a return to the styles and materials originally fostered by those beliefs. 


page 193

...  If this analysis is correct, it should follow that in the future a particular past will be favored and explored because of the specifically artistic problems it poses rather than because of the ideological position it represents. 

Now perhaps Meyer was wrong ... but if he was right then a formalist might tackle artistic problems in ways that do not tether a writer or musician or artist to using forms and idioms as defined by traditionalist, expressionist or transcendental-particularist ends.  In other words, if a guitarist were to emulate John Cage's use of prepared piano writing a work for classical guitar that would not necessarily be an agreement with or an endorsement of Cage's ideas but simply a formal adaptation of a range of techniques.  Traditionalists and conservatives tend to re-litigate old wars so Cage's influence can only be mapped out in terms of "visionary" or "charlatan".  As an American I tend to think of Cage as an American, with an American response to specific cultural, economic and musical issues of his day.  I can respect his rejection of a paradigm in which American music was always beholden to what Douglas Shadle called the "Beethoven problem" or the "Wagner problem" ... but I can do this without having to actually like most of the music of John Cage.  If Cage can seem marginally important in 2019 it is because the problems he felt obliged to confront head on and in a drastic way are not the problems many of us musicians feel a need to deal with in the same way now.  

I guess to put this in a rather clumsy way ... American musicology seems to have people who want an integrated canon, to have Ellington and Bach and Jelly Roll Morton and Messiaen and Thelonious Monk and Stravinsky all part of a single musical world.  I love that idea.  I am not so sure I love the battles within musicology in which people seem admonished to have to pick one or the other.  I'm not interesting in assertions that all of "classical music" is predicated on white supremacist views.  Any group can be supremacist.  

I've been thinking about the Wesley Morris piece on music that has been part of the NYT 1619 project and have written in the past about aspects of it I find troubling.  Short version, American music journalists and musicology can basically flip the script of the German Idealist Romantic era myth of the artist as prophetic renegade so that it's no longer a Beethoven but a Charlie Parker.  The script gets flipped from European art music to American popular music without actually rejecting the underlying script at all.  It's that underlying script that I have been rejecting much of my adult life.  

As I'm getting into Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field (which is an amazing book so far, and well worth picking up!) I came across a passage in which the composer William Levi Dawson said that the nascent black American gospel popular style of music had its place but that he had reservations about it becoming the dominant style in church life.  The short version is Dawson suspected that churches would go with the new more or less post-Thomas Dorsey style of popular song because it required less stringent technique from performers than the kind of work in the spiritual song for chorus Dawson was working in.  It wasn't necessarily casting aspersions on the music as music as raising a question as to whether the music would supplant more difficult and in some ways explicitly classical or classicist music by contemporary African American composers in the interest of saving money. 

After 50 to 70 years of soul and soul-antecedent music being so prevalent in music industry standards it can be too easy to riff on the tropes of soul and the difference between an Aretha Franklin and a Mahalia Jackson on the one hand from an Aguilera or a Bolton on the other.  But those African American classically trained musicians who expressed doubts about the "dumbing down" that would come to black church music if it was dominated by "whoop it up" singers could be distilled into an axiom--once you know what the bag of tricks is for working a crowd you can do that even if you don't have a lot of cultivated musical skill.  If you do have spectacular skill (a la Aretha!) then you can use the tropes of soul to brilliant effect, having mastered the style but having that style informed by other styles.  

This constructive critique, in turn, might tie into a post-Adorno criticism of popular music as a corporate product which, in a sense, Thomas Dorsey was very upfront about.  Adorno, notoriously, saw no musical works that emerged from popular musical styles as challenging listeners to engage in critical thinking at the level called up by music from the serious art music traditions (i.e. Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Bach, Mahler, etc).  Fans of popular musical styles have more or less fallen into lockstep conformity with narratives and myths to the effect that there's nothing about African American music that follows "the rules" of white European classical music.

Since I've been listening to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's cantata cycle on excerpts of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha I don't see how that's plausibly true.  Thanks to writing by Joseph Horowitz I'm listening to symphonies by William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson and Florence Price.  In other words, my concern with a mythology that holds up African American popular music as the "real deal" is that it can be done so at the expense of capable African American musicians working in concert music traditions or in avant garde musical styles that, not being easily incorporated into popular music industry styles, will not make the grade.  Michael Jackson and Julius Eastman don't necessarily have bodies of musical work that map readily on to each other, as best I can tell.   

It's also possible, digging into the history of black gospel music as emphatically popular music, to consider that "serious" music by black American composers has been ignored not just because of racist tendencies in classical music but possibly also due to racial stereotypes in which, thanks to the flipped script of "authenticity" in American music journalism and scholarship about what constitutes "real" music by and reflecting black American experience, British-African music can be ignored altogether and Afro-Cuban music (Leo Brouwer, anyone?)  can be skipped over by American music journalists who are already not conversant in classical guitarist composers in general and might not have heard of Brouwer.  There are new music journalists who might be sick of every classical guitarist seeming to put Brouwer works into recital programs but I'm not in that camp.   I think Brouwer is amazing.  But in American mythology and pop culture history the Chuck Berry sound has more clout because, well, to be blunt about it, a Cuban composer who's been part of the Communist party would tend to get ignored by Americans thanks to generations of Cold War partisanship, even though Brouwer's music is worth studying regardless of whether or not one agrees with the gist of his political commitments.  In theory that's what a commitment to the liberal arts could involve but in the United States that doesn't necessarily follow.  

To bring this back to comments against a teleological conception of music history, I suggest we can translate that concept a bit into what I think is an effectively corresponding theological term.  If modernism in various forms evolved in a kind postmillenialist millenarian frame, and if fundamentalist reactions tended to shift over to an opposing premillenialism, then what people who have been trying to shake off all the things they regard as most damaging, colonial, racist and so on about the Romantic era may be trying to aim for is a kind of secular equivalent to a tempered amillenialist position, in which we don't have some narrative in which we are the saviors of society.  A rebirth of an art form won't signal a rebirth of the human race, just a rebirth of that art form.  

It may not be so bad a thing that criticism as conventionally understood by critics in the twentieth century is dying off not because there's nothing of value to it, but it may be that the ways in which the Western literate musical traditions are changing and shifting it might be just as well that those immersed in a business model that's been fracturing in the internet era are less and less in a position to have a kind of priestly/prophetic role.  

At a more meta-level one of the things I recall Richard Taruskin pointing out is a gap between what he's called the repertoire canon and the academic canon.  In the wake of reading so much Theodore Adorno and Jacques Ellul and trying to take seriously what I think are the better concerns raised by Roger Scruton and John Borstlap I think there's another way to describe some of what has gone on.  One does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate the confining or consolidating aspects of technocratic approaches to art.  This wouldn't just be something you could say about high modernism.  No, it could also be that a kind of factory approach that figures out assembly line paradigms of maximal production and then imparts that to students happens in technocratic cultures.  I'm thinking, at the risk of just throwing in something at the very end, on the order of Mark McGurl's The Program Era.  Axioms such as "Write what you know", "Find your voice" and "Show, don't tell" are axioms in college and grad school writing programs.  Do these axioms catalyze great literary art?  Eh ... maybe?  It could be thought of as the grad school variation of the axioms and precepts articulated by Joseph Campbell about the Hero's Journey for lowbrow fiction, a kind of highbrow counterpart to the middlebrow and lowbrow axioms.  You're not supposed to be so daft as to think that all of the stories in the world are reducible to a half dozen standard-issue plots but you are supposed to be sophisticated and cultivated enough to know that if you write what you know, find your voice and show rather than tell and don't make yourself too beholden to the old stand-bys in obvious ways, well, art.

Maybe I'll let a quote from Elif  Batuman explain things a bit because some of what Batuman has to say maps surprisingly well with criticisms Scruton and Borstlap have made about postwar European "zero hour" attempts to build an entirely new conception of musical art from within a set of academic axioms that sidelines building on canons:
Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.

McGurl himself observes that a limited historical consciousness is ‘endemic to the discipline of creative writing, whose ultimate commitment is not to knowledge but to what Donald Barthelme called “Not-Knowing”’. Formed in the shadow of New Criticism, the creative writing discourse still displays ‘not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence’. This commitment, this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum, is what turned me off the programme to begin with. [emphasis added] Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all. Literary scholarship may not be an undiluted joy to its readers, but at least it’s usually founded on an ideal of the collaborative accretion of human knowledge. It’s frustrating that McGurl, a literary historian, occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James, ascribing to the American postwar era various creative ‘innovations’ that actually date back hundreds of years.
Then there's this passage, in which we're treated to:

In the early 19th century, Jane Austen, who did not use the phrase ‘point of view’, or read an anthology called Points of View, nonetheless began writing novels whose sophisticated and innovative use of limited narration is founded on a firm grasp of the fact that ‘everything said is said by [i.e. from the limited perspective of] an observer’: an insight described by McGurl as the ‘foundational constructivist claim [of] contemporary systems theory’, and the cornerstone of ‘the paradoxes of narrative “point of view” in the Jamesian tradition’. Although James’s prefaces do describe, in possibly unrivalled detail, a writer’s struggle to find the right narrative perspective for a given story, writers had been conscious of this struggle for a long time. It was with great difficulty that Dostoevsky abandoned an early draft of Crime and Punishment, written in the first person from Raskolnikov’s perspective, and decided to shift to third-person narration by a ‘sort of invisible and omniscient being, who doesn’t leave his hero for a moment’.

and then this charming little statement, " It might not be true that you have to ‘know the rules before you can break them’, but knowing the rules can save you from certain pitfalls, like thinking you’re being revolutionary when you aren’t. " That is a thing that can be accomplished, in part, by criticism as a discipline and art form, if you make a point of reading criticism. 

In a passage that for me somehow evokes both Adorno and Ellul in one go Batuman writes:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos. The raw material hardly seems to matter anymore: for hysterical realism, everything; for minimalism, nothing much. The fetishisation of technique simultaneously assuages and aggravates the anxiety that literature might not be real work. McGurl writes of the programme as a manifestation of ‘the American Dream of perfect self-expression’. Taken as an end in itself, self-expression is surely sensed, even by those who pursue it, as a somehow suspect project, demanding shame and discipline.

So should we get rid of writing programs?  Higher education?  No, not really, but as I read criticism about criticism or critical essays about the nature of literary production it does seem as though there's a bad conscience about "the program era" and whether there's a distance between residually Romantic ideals as to what makes for authentic and compelling art (literary, musical, plastic, cinematic and so on) and the reality of programs of education in the liberal arts.  There are the Roger Scrutons who unabashedly regard the fine and liberal arts as the domain of elites and elitists and those who regard populist anything as inherently bad, aristocrats of the soul and probably some actual aristocrats now and then and aristocrats of bank accounts.  

There is one respect in which I'd venture we might benefit from going "back" to patterns from the nineteenth century where classical music is concerned, and that would be that composers would be directly involved in the writing of music criticism and music journalism.  Music criticism as a scholarly activity is probably not in danger of going anywhere but music journalism and music criticism by active composers is something that we have in our era.  Local music writer Gavin Borchert comes to mind, though where he's writing now I'm not so sure.  I've enjoyed hearing his music and I like reading what he has to say about music.  I've loved reading Kyle Gann's blog and I have been listening to Hyperchromatica and it's a fun piece.  I'm not going to go microtonal myself because I have a six-string, but I am liking the music.  You know, even though I find I can really disagree with John Borstlap about stuff he writes he is a composer who does write critically about music.  I often reach dramatically different conclusions from the ones he does, which anyone who has read four or five posts here and compared that to his book would figure out.  The thing is, what I enjoy about our era is that while the Norman Lebrecht style ... I'm going to be a bit of a provacateur here ... while the vocational consumer as journalist style of critic may be in a bad way and Norman Lebrecht can be worried about that, the composer who wades into the fray with a specific point of view a la Kyle Gann or John Borstlap doesn't seem to be gone and that, as best I can tell, is closer to what was going on in the nineteenth century a la Berlioz and Schumann and Wagner than Lebrecht and company.  Charles Rosen, of course, springs to mind, too, people in whom critical activity is connected to actually participating in musical life in some way.

We have so many albums getting produced and marketed that I have relatively little use for the kind of criticism and music journalism that tells me to go buy this album.  I don't mind that kind of writing, really, but since I have gone on and on about what I regard as the ways we can synthesize ragtime and sonata forms I confess to having a more theoretical yet also ... dare I call it activist ... agenda?  I think we should do what we can through theory and practice to bridge the gap between academic and repertoire canons as Taruskin has pointed those out, and I also believe that in the era of 45 it is both harmful and self-harmful for advocates of high art practices to have a dangerously pejorative working definition of any populist ideals or impulses.  I can even admit that there are things about socialist realism as a set of aesthetic goals I can find admirable, which doesn't mean I won't read about the miserable plight of Zaderatsky writing his 24 preludes and fugues on telegraph cards in a gulag.  

The more I have read on composers in the Soviet system who were attempting to bridge the distance between jazz and classical and listen to  composers like Claude Bolling or more recently Michelle Gorrell, it strikes me that attempting to develop some kind of successful workable synthesis of the European concert music traditions with what is lately called African diaspora music has been a niche but passionate agenda on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  Music journalists don't generally do this kind of work ... scholars do ... so ... eh ... anyway ... I feel like maybe I've written enough on this topic for now.  :) 

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