Saturday, August 13, 2016

remembering Robert Blocker's comments about the musical canon and the reactions of Ethan Iverson and Alex Ross, any reactions from them about the recently announced Yale jazz initiative?

First let's revisit the angry reaction to Robert Blocker's somewhat ill-advised remarks about jazz as a music not part of the Western canon.  Since Iverson's done a full-scale renovation of his blog in the last year or so we have to go find the newer version of the post.
Alex Ross' commentary is still where it was before

for Lewanski's commentaries ...

The thing I am not sure progressive artists recognize is that if you say that all art is ultimately political you have to concede that all art is ultimately propaganda for one empire or another.  You can, maybe, decide what empire you want to make propaganda for or in consideration of, but you no longer have the option of saying that the vocational artist can be anyone other than the builder of and the servant of some kind of empire.  Some vocational musicians have built empires, like Prince or David Bowie, but the history of the arts as a vocation is more or less the history of artists serving empires.  That's why, arguably, the double bind of being recognized but not respected by the institutional powers within an empire is really preferable for jazz to formal institutional canonization.

Now I agree with Iverson and Ross that what Blocker said and how he said it was objectionable, though I don't share Iverson's fondness for the music for Babbitt overall and I suspect that for jazz fans and jazz performers the double bind of jazz not really being respectable in schools while being a significant influence in the history of music is probably what we really prefer--the old canards about how once jazz is taught in schools it's somehow not really legitimate exemplifies this paradoxically coveted double bind, which, if true, should have us asking whether or not dropping jazz at Yale would be doing jazz a favor but that's some set of thoughts for some other time.

Meanwhile, this year it's turned out that jazz can continue at Yale after all.

Blocker himself, no less, announced things just a couple of weeks ago.

If what jazz musicians are striving for is recognition within the academy and yet all the great jazz musicians were, as Iverson claims, gangsters, then it seems that what some of the jazz advocates want is the eternal double bind of being able to advocate for respect within the academy while never actually getting it because if you get music you love taught as part of the Western canon then it's given the imprimatur of the Establishment and then, well, you have to go looking for some other music that's no longer purely acceptable to the powers that be, don't you?  Or do you have to do that?

What I didn't see anyone pointing out at the time is that the Western canon itself is a polyglot of musical forms, idioms and vernaculars that has only become a "thing" conceptually presented as a canon by dint of formal education itself.  Back in the Baroque era you had the gradual end of the ars perfect/Renaissance stylistic unity replaced with a mishmash of Italian, German, French and other local styles.  You had the first and second practice and you had church music, court music, chamber music, dance music.  As Taruskin put it in his Oxford history series, back in the Baroque era you could have a panoply of different musical styles and forms that all had a socially understood and acceptable purpose so you could learn them all, if you wanted, and it was fine.  We don't have that kind of social understanding about what musical idioms are acceptable and in which contexts.  For Christians who go to traditional church services the worship wars have borne out the axiomatic nature of the observation Taruskin made, if in a very narrow field of musical activity.

While jazz advocates would seem to like jazz to be included as part of the Western canon, it's not always clear how much they "mean it" sometimes when some of their crew trot out reification and ideology and political musings at an abstract level.  It's almost as if what is ideal is to be forever barred from the table but being able to see it.

It's not as though the tradition of figured bass and jazz charts have to be construed as conceptually different.  We get a bill of goods from some music education regimes about how classical music is all about the fully notated score when even the most cursory overview of Baroque history will show that wasn't the case.  You will look in vain for an intricately mapped out score for Schutz' little sacred concert pieces.  Best know what to do with figured bass when you see those little songs. 

Sometimes I feel like a lot of the baggage we're trying to divest ourselves of has 19th century nationalist roots and that we still have work to do there.  When you go back and learn how much room there was for improvisation in 18th century music it can seem as though, to borrow a willfully inflammatory remark made by one John Cage, Beethoven was wrong.  Or we could say that the Beethoven that 19th century academics invented as the inspiration for what they wanted to do (assuming that was the "real" Beethoven) was put to uses we can now set aside.  I like Beethoven just fine but I prefer Haydn at every level.  Haydn had a military-caste contract and was compensated for services rendered, not for writing music for the ages.

That gets me back to the observation that one of the shortcomings from the arts education I remember getting in college is that we talked about the arts just fine but not necessarily about the contexts in which those arts got made, or to put it another way, you reach the discovery that the vocational artist has always been the servant of empire by reading about arts history in the ways that academics don't necessarily talk about.  It might be more fun for scholars to debate whose work belongs in the academic canon than to concede that there's an educational industrial complex that, in the end, may be even more pernicious than the military industrial complex.  At least all the soldiers who enlist know that the job description is to defend the empire and at some point have to ruin people's lives by ending them.  Academics in higher education particularly seem ensconced in an empire predicated on debt that has convinced itself that it's anti-imperial. 

So ... jazz at Yale gets to continue.  Are the folks who, last year, were upset that Blocker said some stuff about jazz and the Western canon happy?  Any thoughts/reflections on the announcement? Or has this recent announcement managed to not be news for them?

No comments: