Saturday, January 16, 2016

some links for the weekend and a few rambles on nostalgia and genre, the line between "art" and "propaganda" may just be the degree to which 1) you can/can't impute your own ideals to something you just observed and 2) whether you liked it.

Noah Berlatsky makes the paradoxical case that the Bechdel test can lead to the rejection of a lot of womens' literature

... But if a movie for women, with female stars, about female friendships and the evils of male infidelity can’t pass the test, maybe the problem isn’t with the film, but with Bechdel’s

He's also got an amusing riff on the irony of George Lucas' complaints about artistic integrity and liberty in commercial cinema contexts in contrast to the Soviet Union.  Never a particularly historically informed sort (how else to explain Lucas' insanely stupid belief that the Vietnam conflict demonstrated that more "primitive" societies could defeat more "modern" societies), Lucas' success has depend on his capacity to regurgitate and process the ideas of others.
You could argue that Lucas cheapens everything he touches—and sure, he does. But that cheapening is part of the joy of the film. The big themes of conventionally better filmmakers are robbed of their emotional content and their difficulty, and turned into bite-sized adventurous fun. Star Wars really is a movie that seems based on its toy line, rather than the other way around. Lucas has no original ideas. He has a talent for commercialization—for chopping up other people's thoughts and gluing them together in the least challenging, shiniest, most incredibly salable way possible.

In fairness, Lucas does have another talent—collaboration. A huge part of the greatness of Star Wars is due to the puppeteers, and the designers' creation of a grimy, soiled, tangibly run-down future. The best film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, owes much of its unexpected bleakness to director Irvin Kirshner. When Lucas seizes more control and tries to put his own individual vision across, you get atrocities like the added CGI effects in the digital rereleases of his films. Without others "ruining" his vision, Lucas has no vision—except for the bits where he's ruining someone else's.

To go by interviews and commentaries it can seem as though one of George Lucas' signal talents has been a penchant for self-mythologizing.  Whatever could be said about Joseph Campbell's monomyth in the mouth of Lucas the monomyth seems to apply less and less to the Star Wars franchise itself and more and more to George Lucas' various accounts and explanations for how he (as opposed to dozens of others with him) envisioned what we're supposed to have seen.

Over at Mockingbird Matt Schneider revisited the topic of Thomas Kinkade.

There were some dissenting comments.  I saw some dissenting opinions in response to another recent Mbird piece proposing that the core theological paradigm in the Star Wars franchise can be considered Pelagian.

We live in a time where franchises are rebooted and refurbished and it seems as though among critics whose job it is to write about this stuff there's little imagination that's observably going into WHY people keep buying stuff.  "It makes money" is both too obvious and uninformative.  People buy things for reasons and if economic theories propose any level of rational agency we might want to ask what people may be buying and for what reasons.

I've proposed that the nostalgia Americans have for sci-fi franchises can be seen to cluster around the franchises that peaked in the LBJ and Reagan periods of blue state and red state nostalgia.  Whether we nuke the world or save it there's no fate but what we make, we being Americans.  Seeing the trailer for Star Trek Beyond raises once again for me some doubts as to whether there's any reason to keep Star Trek around in a post-Cold War moment. We're so far removed from the end of the Cold War and people left and right have doubts about the perfection and purity of the American exceptionalist vision that there's a sense in which Roddenberry's optimistic vision seems ridiculous.

If half a century ago we had an America in which Star Trek could be imagined we now live in a different century, one in which there's a cartoon called The Venture Bros systematically skewering the generational optimism of the generation that gave us Star Trek half a century ago.  Just because the optimistic patriotism of Star Trek has historically had more blue-state futurist utopianism doesn't mean it hasn't been jingoistic along the way. Star Trek can be seen as much as a work of institutionally funded propaganda for liberal secularism as Veggie Tales can be seen as moralistic propaganda for evangelicals. 

The question of art may in some sense be irrelevant by misunderstanding as fixed the notion that art for the sake of art is even a given.  Something can be treated as if it's art to the extent that you can impute your values to it and if you find there's no values of your own (as you perceive them) that you'd impute to something it may just be that that delineates the difference between "art" and "propaganda".  If you like Star Trek, regardless of how red state Christian you might be, you'll come up with a reason to keep watching Star Trek in spite of everything you may have read Roddenberry say about this ideals and hopes for the franchise.  If enough evangelicals in America like Star Wars they will retroactively impute soteriological parables on to the films whether or not those had anything to do with Lucas' thought process. 

But then the fun thing about art is that the gap between intent and "reception history" gives room for that kind of thing.  Stravinsky had the luxury of being able to sympathize with fascists (literally) in the 1930s before changing his mind.  Liberals in the United States had the luxury of being sympathetic to Stalin before they found out how many people he had killed. 

The cultural undercurrent of skepticism at Cold War idealism as contrasted with Cold War era applied ethics in a post-Cold War society seems to be, well, more an explicit current of thought in American cartoons.  But that's a fancy to play with for some other occasion, if I ever get around to riffing on that at the blog.

Adam Gopnik spirals off point in an article titled "Why we Remember the Beatles and Forgot So Much Else", which seems to forget to make its stated point

This was a strange article in that it had a title that signaled a point that was never really made.  That can happen if you write a piece and an editor assigns a title to your piece that doesn't have any bearing on what you wrote, or maybe a title that reflected upon correspondence between author and editor that didn't make it into a published draft.  These things can happen.

But to call the piece something that asks why we remember the Beatles and forgot so much else should have made more of an evident effort to answer the question, if the question was inherent to the piece.

When we talk about the influence of Beethoven, or the mythology of what Beethoven's music is said to mean to those into his work, we can talk about Beethoven's formal innovation of received forms and idioms on the one hand, and on the other the social or political significance imputed to our reception history of his work on the other.  Taruskin and countless others have discussed the mythology of Beethoven but Taruskin has been succinct in discussing how Beethoven's reception history and mythology have two components, the artistic innovation component and the social significance component.  Others have written about how the patronage class that backed Beethoven had something to gain in the process and that might be for some other time. 

The short and sweeping thing to be said about Beethoven was he introduced innovations in musical art that were considered revolutionary and what his music was taken to mean was to represent, in some sense, the highest and most widely loved ideals about social and political liberty as it was conceived at the time.

They may have covered a song called "Roll Over Beethoven" but the Beatles are in the 20th century a counterpart or successor to Beethoven.  You see fans talking about and writing about the Beatles and the personal and social significance of their work as defining an era in a way that's not dissimilar form the ways that admirers of Beethoven in the 19th century described the impact of his work. 

But the Beatles were in many respects basically just a better than average boy band that transcended the limitations and expectations of their idiom.  They were also the product of a massive corporate empire that marshalled a variety of skill sets and creative interests.  The Beatles are the distillation of corporate rock but a distillation of what it could become when everything within the pop music industry of an age synergistically worked toward shared ideals.  We're able to impute to this boy band that trafficked in formulaic pop songs a great deal of our ideals.  And why not, it's the case, isn' tit?

What the Beatles managed to do more cogently than other bands from around he same time was embody a variety of popular styles from a variety of regions.  Earlier in the week I wrote about how if Stravinsky was the chameleon who dominated the first half of the 20th century then David Bowie could be considered the chameleon of the second half of the 20th century.  But there have been plenty of chameleons and in several ways the Beatles, a band, and a band with a spectacular corporate backing and aid, did the chameleon thing earliest and most successfully in pop musical terms.  The Beatles could be taken as a symbolically being a kind of melting pot or amalgamation in music that many contemporary Westerners still aspire to. 

Now we could say that was emblematic of cultural appropriation and colonialist cultural privilege and all that but that's not how people into the music tend to bracket the Fab Four.  It's usually more the working class background and not the waning imperialist context in which those guys were born.  We feel more comfortable about the ideals of an empire if they can be imputed to all of humanity than if we look at them as the ideals of a specific empire, especially when we live in a global media network that can reveal to us with relatively little effort how we live in a world in which there are other empires besides the ones we live in and how they don't share the same ideals we do.

The Beatles are symbolically useful to us as we discuss ourselves in a way comparable to the way Beethoven's music was symbolically useful to those who discussed Beethoven's music in their time. If anything the romantic idealism associated with affection for Beethoven's music was simply transferred to the Beatles without necessarily changing all that much.  The patronage systems changed and we went from enlightened autocrats to corporate sponsorship.  We'd certainly prefer to tell ourselves that our patronage system is friendlier to the arts and can speak with some confidence of a more egalitarian impulse but patronage cycles can show that a spirit of adventure can coalesce into a spirit of conservation and inertia.  When we stop to consider that the commercial music industry is nearing a centennial and that recorded music was seen by Sousa as a threat to the vitality of local musical cultures more than a century ago it may be that what was a vital and bracing musical thing half ac entury ago can become through veneration and journalistic/critical circulation the hoary status quo in just a generation or so. For my grandparents' generation the Beatles were as often as not, maybe more often than not, annoying in a way that my parents' generation or mine found New Kids on the Block insipid and irritating. 

It seems that most of the time when I read people writing about the Beatles it's about the four guys and the significance of their musical activities.  Fair enough, they wrote some fun songs, but what about the corporate behemoth that helped them become what they became?  When people complain about corporate pop and how bland and lame it sound or how it all just sounds like the metronomic ringing of a cash register the shortfall in this kind of jeremiad isn't just that it tends to make people sound old-fashioned (which it can often be and isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself), it's that invites a question, the question of whether or not we have sacralized the pop culture that inspired us in our innocent youth as being purer and better than the corporate pop that may be inspiring new younger generations. 

Besides, when people who are in their 20s now find inspiration in a band like the Beatles the longevity and broadness of the appeal of such a band may be instructive and inspiring.  There are people who have mourned the passing of David Bowie who weren't even born yet when he began his musical career. 

While jazz musicians and fans of classical music will certainly continue to lament the decline of the popularity of these idioms the popularity of The Beatles or of David Bowie may be a chance for us to remember the potentially obvious point that people, when they hear music, often like to hear the human voice.  If the 19th century was an era in which instrumental music in Western culture was regarded as a supremely transcendental art aspiring to personalized ideals of beauty and truth the 20th century may have restored or revived a different ideal, that people like to hear songs.  It's not such a big surprise that a band like th Beatles excelled at writing songs and excelled at writing songs across the surface details of timbre and formalities of expected styles.  To bring back a Meyer term, the Beatles managed to be formalists.  Whatever stylistics shifts and pivots they did their voices remained steady and their control of the song as an idiom for personal yet mass appeal was, half a century later, fairly easily agreed upon. Or so it would seem.  We remember the Beatles, obviously, because we want to.  It's a nostalgia like others but in an era where nostalgia can lead to franchise extension we might do well to stop and consider that nostalgia and the desire to buy more time for a franchise will depend on having some idea what it was or is we've been buying. 

New Music Box--An Atheist Composer on Choral Music--highlighting a predicament in a genre what do you do in choral music when it's not meant to be venerating something or someone?


Ever since high school, I have adored choral music. Like many young musicians, I idolized the composers and decided I wanted to compose choral music, too. Indeed, new choral music has a big market!

But, as an atheist in a field often inextricably connected to a religious community, there is an element of cognitive dissonance that’s a running theme in my career. When I tell someone that I sing in professional choirs and compose “mostly” choral music, it is uncomfortable, even alienating, when they make the assumption that I do so for spiritual reasons, that I am a “believer,” that the music that I compose is for worship, and that it has been sung by choirs, in the strictest sense, not choruses.

Why do so many people assume “sacred choral” music when I say just “choral” music? Religion, like music and especially choral music, at its best brings people together for a common good. That is the reason I sing in choirs.


That's a reasonable question, not a rhetorical one.  Why do so many people assume choral music is sacred?  Well, the answer that maybe all music is sacred doesn't quite get at the peculiarity of a secularist in the realm of choral music specifically, or maybe even vocal music in general. 

Even though since the time of Beethoven instrumental music has been held by some to be the transcendental music that expresses universal values this has hardly been the case in reality.  To put it another way, the thing is that we don't tend to sing about things we're indifferent to.  We sing about loves and hatreds.  More to a practical point, when you get a dozen or more people to sing about the same thing at the same time this tends to only happen, it seems, as an act of veneration.  The conundrum of being a secularist in the realm of choral music is that more than any other musical idiom in the history of humanity choral music as a performance tradition affiliated with veneration and if the veneration isn't explicitly religious it will tend to ALSO be or alternatively be collective, which is to say political.  It will be in praise of something more often than not, even if that praise is in some place you wouldn't normally think about.

For the person who never sets foot in a church and was raised with no religious background what's the most unavoidable point of contact for hearing a group of people singing together in praise of something?


Let's step back and think a bit. Even in a film or a TV show you may not hear any choral music but you will at some point have heard a bunch of people singing a jingle for a promoted product on a radio ad or a television ad.  There are plenty of other ways a person can be exposed to choral singing in life that don't involve advertisements but humor me for a bit.  It seems that if you're trying to explore a tradition of choral music that is completely secular and not tied to any kind of religious belief, personal or civic; but if you're also trying to avoid anything overtly or implicitly political or nationalist in a neo-nationalist variety then what have you got left?  Well, basically, advertising jingles.

There could be a proposal at this point that composing choral music that isn't dependent on a text could be a path to take.  Sure, but this gets to the question of whether or not people will be on board singing about music that doesn't commit to being about anything and whether, further, people will shell out money to pay to hear choral music performed that does not commit to anything other than music as an ideal unto itself.  I mean, there could be some truly fantastic choral music based on neutral vowel tones that doesn't depend on any text painting or textual enhancement ... but at this point we do have to raise the reasonable and emotionally compelling question of why people who are in search for that musical ideal would be choosing a choral work with no textual concerns when they could be listening to instrumental music. 

The conundrum of being a secularist in the tradition of choral music may be most acute and feel weirdest because it's in choral music that we are most unavoidably confronted with a tradition that is founded on the human history of veneration of a god or a ruler or a state or a political ideology that establishes a social identity.  In Ted Gioia's book on the history of the long song he paraphrased a quip that said that while 90 percent of all the songs in the history of rock and roll were love songs 90 percent of rock criticism as a literary tradition disproportionally focused on the ten percent of the rock songs that weren't love songs.  Take out the element of love and veneration in the vocal music tradition and you're left with ten percent, so to speak, even for music written for a soloist.  Take out the element of love and veneration in the choral music tradition and, well, what if all we're left with that we can remember off the top of our heads is a set of product endorsing choral jingles?  It seems that choral music more than other forms of music traffics in adoration and worship of stuff.  I'm not saying there isn't a tradition of secularist choral music.  Xenakis has written some pretty killer choral music, for instance.  It's not stuff everyone will thrill to listen to, but I'm just pointing out one case among many for choral music composed by atheists.  It's out there, it's just that it's such a recent development in the history of choral music the body of work is taking shape.

Monday, January 11, 2016

a few thoughts on the passing of David Bowie and Pierre Boulez--how pop music heroes became chameleons while academic music heroes doubled down on principles

There was a time when I imagined that Michael Jackson would outlive Stevie Wonder.  That certainly turned out to be wrong.  There was a point at which I imagined David Bowie would outlive Keith Richards.  That, too, has turned out to be wrong.

The passing of Bowie is not a heavy personal burden for me, though I know people who adore his music.  I like at least some of it, even if I have more Pinkfloyd and Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder albums, by far.

But Bowie's passing has given journalists and musicians an opportunity to highlight Bowies versatility and the way he reinvented himself as a public persona, taking up one persona and then another.

David Bowie's shifts in persona might be likened to Igor Stravinsky's shifts in style.  Both were able to shrewdly adapt to their respective times. Both had a chameleon like aspect to them. 

Long ago in Music, the Arts and Ideas Leonard B. Meyer proposed that the new era we saw before us was one in which "the Renaissance is over". There was no more avant garde and could not be an avant garde because having abandoned a teleological conception of history that would be inherent in Christian thought (or Marxist thought, for that matter) the ever present would be a dynamic steady state of all musical styles and artistic and literary genres co-existing in a stasis.  There might be traditionalists and there might be transcendental quests for the ever-new but Meyer proposed that this new era belonged to the formalists, those artists, writers and musicians who could and would shift from one style to another and display clever ways of crossing styles less out of some obligation to say the Big Things as to demonstrate mastery of technique and to play with what it even meant to be in one style or another.

And if that doesn't sound like David Bowie I don't know what does. 

Of course Meyer was certainly not writing with David Bowie specifically in mind in 1967.  David Bowie was just showing up at that point and Meyer was writing more about Babbitt and Stockhausen.  But for those familiar with Meyer's description of formalism as a tendency in the arts and the formalist as the artist or musician adept at shifting styles and combining them, David Bowie is the latest of a litany of musicians we have lost in the last twenty-five years who was able to leap from style to style. 

Whether we're talking about Roy Orbison or the Beatles or Bob Dylan (that switch from "folk" to "rock") or Frank Zappa or Johnny Cash or Ray Charles or David Bowie something that some musical heroes of the last half century have displayed is an ability to work within a category but to shift into another style.  In classical music terms this has been called "cross over" and it has not gone over well for many a critic and many a listener.  But crossover isn't a bad thing if the shift has been made in the context of a life in which the styles are shared.  Bowie could go from cabaret to glam rock and it made sense.  Dylan switching from folk to rock made sense.  McCartney or Joel trying out classical music after decades of pop didn't make sense.  A lot of us could not believe that these guys had spent their lives steeped within those traditions as performers.  Is that unfair?  Yeah, maybe, but the success of a David Bowie in shifting sounds may testify to a collective desire that even if we all get that persona is a put-on the finesse and technique and craft have to be legit.

Some of us admire the musical chameleons because they make music in a way that illustrates through their lives that the conceptual boundaries between styles of music are permeable.  Theodore Gracyk coined a term years ago for modes of grasping music, ontologically thick and ontologically thin.  The former is appreciating music, for want of a finer way to put it, through recordings.  An ontologically thick mode of experiencing music is thorugh listening to recordings or live performance and it would tend to involve replicating that particular sound you hear on a recording, that specific Marshall amp and that particular Gibson or Fender.  The sounds as sounds have to be disovered and replicated.  Ontologically thin music is closer to notes on the page.  Substitutions can be made for a flute or an oboe, there's a sense in ontologically thin music (Bach, for instance) that the music doesn't depend so much on THIS sound being played iN THIS way on THAT instrument by THOSE people.

So Bowie appreciation could be either of these.  Rather, what I'm suggesting is that for a  musician like Bowie part of the fun is that his work shows an appreciation of an ontologically thick finished product but a songwriting approach that could be potentially described as aware of ontological thinness in the Gracyk variety. 

It's easier to shift from style to style when you don't let yourself get hung up on the exactitude of timbre.  The timbres can be wonderfully when you select them but a whole lot of what passes for "ontologically thick" understandings of music is fixating on timbre.  Sometimes you can focus on the concrete sound at the expense of realizing that across a blues son; a country song; a hip-hop song; a string quartet the same set of chords and hooks may be able to appear. 

If in the first half of the 20th century musical styles and conceptions began to fragment and academics began to burrow into their schools of thought, something Leo Brouwer has said academics have failed to catch up with is the second half of the 20th century--this was an era, as Brouwer saw it, in which pop music began to have a lot of people exploring fusion.  While academic musicology had its Babbitts and while Boulez had intoned that Schoenberg was dead and that those who had not felt the necessity for the 12-tone system were, not quite useful ... in pop music, whether we're talking Bowie or Miles Davis in jazz, experiments toward fusion and in style change were already under way. 

When Meyer was writing about formalists it's not clear he would have had anyone like Bowie in mind, but we can propose that Bowie was one of the great formalists of pop music in the West in the last sixty years. 

Some may say Pierre Boulez, who died about a week ago, will be best remembered for his music compositions ... that remains to be seen.  I remember him for his fantastic conducting of works by Stravinsky and Berg and Bartok, personally, and never got much into his music.  If it were a choice between only being able to listen to the musical works of Boulez or Bowie for the rest of my life then Bowie takes this in a landslide.

I'm not sure how many people know who Boulez is compared to those who know who Bowie is.  Sure, both may have had stars on the wane but both were brilliant and capable musicians in their different ways.  It's just that it hardly seems in doubt that Bowie is the better-known name even if Boulez fans might wish that Boulez was the more household name. 

There's a passage blogged by composer and teacher Kyle Gann from last week that comes to mind.


 In grad school I analyzed every note of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, which I had never heard – and I knew it so well that when I finally listened to the recording, I cried. Today I wouldn’t recognize the piece in a blindfold test. I was astonished when Alex Ross reported that, late in life, Boulez admitted in an interview that, back in the serialist years, “We didn’t pay enough attention to how people listen.” It reminded me of a Morton Feldman quote, which I will paraphrase from memory: “Only in Europe do you have these revolutionaries who guillotine anyone and everyone who disagrees with them, and then change their minds.” All the same, I will listen to Pli selon pli this afternoon, and tonight I will drink to all of the great European masters of my youth, and to having outlived them.


Not everyone digs the music of either Boulez or Bowie ... but it seems David Jones did pay attention to how people listen.