Saturday, July 23, 2016

FilmCritHulk on the probem of Civil War--we don't care about Bucky so it's a huge problem when the film assumes our empathy without earning it for the characters who are formally the main agents

This, too, manages to distill some misgivings I had about the latest Captain America film.  I enjoyed the parts with Black Panther and Spiderman and it's not hard to grasp why, these are characters whose identities and motivations are not presumed as given from half a dozen previous films.  The scripting shows.




Which meant that when Bucky became the focal point for the not quite a Civil War so much as a schoolyard shoving match, it wasn't clear what the stakes were.  When Barnes asks if he is himself worth the trouble the script (and Cap, obviously) presume the answer is "yes" without having ever once given us a clear reason why the answer couldn't also be "no". 

it took FilmCritHulk until June 2016 but FCH got around to Star Wars Episode 7

Now I had fun watching Episode 7 and I was willing to watch it more than once.  Unlike the earlier Episodes 4-6, however, I didn't like it so much I felt like going out and buying it once it comes out on disc.  FilmCritHulk had some interesting things to write about Episode 7 in particular and about flaws Hulk finds in Abrams' entire approach to cinema in general.  As FilmCritHulk is never less than loquacious we'll only quote some of FCH's commentary:

The observation that Han Solo's bravado was not just always misplaced but generally got him and his friends in even worse trouble is a good way of putting things, it also gets at what pervaded the original trilogy that we didn't really see in Episode 7 and also didn't exactly see in Episodes 1-3.  Episodes 1-3 were permeated by a lot of promising things would eventually and inevitably go badly for the Anakin Skywalker who would become Darth Vader and there ... wasn't exactly "joy in the journey" for me on that one.  The bar had been set so low by the prequels that the bar was simply at the place where what I wanted was to come out of seeing Episode 7 and not regret having just seen it, no, worse than that, to merely be at the place where I wasn't already regretting having bought the ticket to sit through the thing in the middle of the movie.

I do differ with FilmCritHulk on what Episode 7 is about.  I'd be willing to say that Charles Mudede was on the money when he wrote that Episode 7 brought back the idiosyncratic theology of the original trilogy; I'd piggyback on that observation and propose that Star Wars has brought back into marketable form the kind of theology that may best describe the "lived out" theology of Americans and it's not necessarily a WASP religion as a kind of panentheistic Pelagianism.  Anthony Lane had a hilarious comment in his review of Episode 7 where he said it was good the subtitle was The Force Awakens because that let everyone here in the audience know there was a concession being made that in the previous three installments the Force had been asleep at the wheel. 

So FilmCritHulk's reaction might be that the Force has woken up only in the sense of having just been stirred from sleep and having some dim sense of self-awareness that isn't the same as getting out of bed and doing something.

Kenneth Kirschner's musings on indeterminacy in music, proposing a musical work that, thanks to codes and data, could be different each time you hear it
But why should a recording be the same every time you listen to it? Until recently, this question wouldn’t even have made sense. You had to physically scratch the sound onto those old wax cylinders, and one can only imagine the mess it would have been to try un-scratching it. You can’t re-lathe a vinyl record, or reach into an old-fashioned compact disc and start moving those microscopic pits around. But our notions of what our recordings are have not kept up with what our recordings actually are: digital data. Code. Our recordings are no longer hardware—they’re software. And yet we listen to an mp3 or an online music stream in the exact same way in which we have listened to CDs, vinyl records, cassettes, 78 rpm phonographs, wax cylinders—starting at the beginning, playing linearly to the end, and hearing music that’s exactly the same on each listen.

But there’s no reason why this must be the case. With digital music, it’s possible to build complexity, chance, and intelligence into the recording itself, to create a music that is ever-changing and open-ended, indefinite in duration and indeterminate in composition—to create an indeterminate recording. A listener can press play on a piece of recorded music that will be different on every listen, that can be heard for as long or as short a time as they wish, and that will continually grow and evolve for as long as they choose to listen.

Last year I reviewed Andrew Durkin's Decomposition, which more and more resides in my memory as the first draft of what could have been a fantastic book that seems more and more like it was a cobbled together reworking of an existing academic paper (and there's a reason for that, it turned out).  Questioning assumptions about the "ideology" of "authorship" or "authenticity" was largely a defense of academic jargon rather than a defense of music, unfortunately.  But then the book wasn't exactly setting out to interact with indeterminacy in contemporary musical approaches.  Kenneth Kirschner's writing about music as code presents an interesting possibility (not one I'll necessarily explore in my own music), that since music in recorded form exists as code, digital data, a form of indeterminacy can be used to create music that isn't necessarily even the same sonic experience any given time you hear the music.

...  “An indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound—which unified everything.”

To [Morton] Feldman, indeterminacy was a means to an end—a way to break through the walls of traditional composition in order to reach the pure physicality of sound beyond. Just as Wittgenstein had dismissed his Tractatus as a ladder to be thrown away after it was climbed, Feldman climbed the ladder of indeterminacy and, having reached the top, discarded it.

This idea, articulated in this way, was what the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer was characteristic of a group of composers he called transcendental particularism, the quest to recover when the arts an appreciation of sensation itself; the goal was, in Meyer's account, more of a philosophy of experience than an artistic manifesto as such.

Kirschner had a different idea to share about what indeterminacy could provide ... in particular.

Indeterminacy became for me a way to have my musical cake and eat it, too. Rather than accept the roll of the dice as a source of raw material, I could accept all possible rolls of the dice and call them the composition itself. With an indeterminate work, there is no longer one piece, but a potentially infinite number of pieces, all of them “the” piece. Here was an entirely different way of thinking about what music could be.


Where does the composition reside? Is it in the specific notes or sounds of one particular score, one particular performance, one particular recording? Or is it in the space of possibilities that a particular composition inscribes, in the wider set of potential outcomes that a given system of musical constraints, techniques, or limits marks out? Even with a lifetime’s constant listening, it would be impossible to hear every imaginable realization of even a moderately complex indeterminate piece—and yet we still somehow feel we have grasped the piece itself, have “heard” it, even if we’ve directly experienced only a tiny subset of its possible realizations. Such a composition resides in a space of pure potentiality that we can never fully explore—yet in glimpsing parts of it, we may experience more music, and perhaps intermittently better music, than a single fixed composition could ever give us.

Accepting this is not without costs. The first, and very important, lesson I learned in writing indeterminate music was that I missed editing. ...

Of course the not being able to edit is the thing about indeterminate music, whether it's the music formally known as indeterminate music or whether we're talking improvised solos in a rock or jazz context.  I've written in the past about how this kind of indeterminate music, at a conceptual level, could correspond to another code-based form of entertainment we have in our time, the video game.  A musical experience that can be different every time depending on unforeseen variables as well as foreseen variables could correspond to a video game.  Depending on what decisions the player makes in the game the corresponding musical soundtrack could change. That a super-majority of video games probably have no use for this kind of music doesn't mean this kind of music couldn't be composed (or that it hasn't been).  While on the one hand music in a video game could be the ultimate realization of Satie's reported music-as-furniture aim at another level introducing indeterminacy at a coded level to music for a video game could be the most active way to give the audience (i.e. the player of the video game) the power to collaborate with the composer through music conceived as being able to change in response to the decisions of the audience/player.

So it's interesting to read stuff like this because from the new music side of it (or as I sometimes call it the new-music side) the challenge of reintroducing indeterminate elements in music composition and performance is a reminder that improvisation was part of the art music tradition for some time.  The elimination of improvisation from what we call classical music was something that began to happen, kind of, around Beethoven's time.  It was during the 19th century that the shift away from the space to improvise to writing exactly what the composer wanted began to take place. 

I don't think there's really a problem with "high" music or "low" music.  I think the problem is that the previously permeable boundaries between "high" and "low" have been stratified by the educational empires in place in the West.  In what might be a paradox, the commercial music industry and folk traditions may have preserved elements that, at one point, existed in the art music tradition but that got banished over a couple of centuries--what composers like Cage and Feldman provided an opportunity for was, in this much larger historical sense, not so much a revolution of casting off centuries of traditions as their critics have sometimes liked to put it; it's more like they found ways to bring back into the art music tradition different versions of fairly old and formerly commonplace elements. 

Does this mean I'm a big fan of Feldman or Cage?  Well, no, not really.  I like the prepared piano music I've heard but I haven't exactly warmed up to Feldman.  On the other hand, I've gone through life not hugely loving the Romantic era.  I love music from the 18th century and from the 20th century but there was always a bunch of stuff about the 19th century I couldn't stand in the art music tradition.  I don't hear 20th century music as some affront to the century of decorum and good taste; I hear the 20th century as a century long process of cleansing the palette of what had become the ersatz tropes of Romantic era music.  But this wasn't a complete purge, a lot of the things in 19th century music I can appreciate (and I've learned to appreciate it more over the years) are preserved.  The amusing irony/paradox about this is those things about 19th century music I like get preserved in American popular/vernacular traditions like ragtime. 

Every era needs to have its moments of reinventing the wheel, I suppose.  Indeterminacy is not necessarily throwing out the old but going back to something that is observably a part of the Western music tradition and bringing it back in a new context.  That which has been shall be again, someone wrote somewhere. 

My own tiny interest in indeterminate elements in a composition are more inspired by Ellngton--I like the idea that 80% of a composition is scored out in some fashion but that there's a space left for a soloist to wing it and play something fun.  But this isn't intended to be a blog post about stuff I compose.

I sometimes have the feeling that aspects of indeterminacy were striving to regain what popular musical styles never lost.  Actually I have that feeling often but not everyone who was into indeterminacy as an approach to music really wanted improvisation as we'd conventionally define it.

over at The New Republic Colin Dickey has a piece about Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2016, and spiritualism

The paragraph wherein there's an expression of mystery seems like it "could" be answered later within the article.

It’s unclear why this new Ghostbusters—of all possible remakes, of all possible movies to be remade with a female cast—would inspire such overwhelming petulance. After all, what should be obvious to anyone not trapped in his own nostalgia is that communicating with spirits has always been the provenance of women.

Well ... the history of what is sometimes called necromancy hasn't always been the provenance of women, has it?  Is it possible that within the history of the United States it has been stereotypically associated with women?

The original Ghostbusters made clear from the outset it was having none of this. When they’re called to a ghost sighting at the New York Public Library, one of the first questions Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman asks the elderly librarian who’s witnessed the ghost is, “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” It’s more than a lazy joke. Original cast-member Dan Aykroyd has said that “Part of Ghostbusters’ appeal derives from the cold, rational, acceptance-of-the-fantastic-as-routine tone that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, director Ivan Reitman, and I were able to sustain in the movie.” When men see ghosts, they do so as rational, thoughtful scientists. When women see the same ghosts, they’re hysterical.

Even accounting for the politics of the era, it’s difficult to understate the amount of sexism in the original film. As Andy Hoglund wrote for The Daily Beast, “It is not ghosts that haunt the film’s protagonists; it’s their inability to connect with women.” From the open disdain towards women from Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) to Murray’s predatory behavior (Our first glimpse of him is rigging a Milgram-esque psychology experiment to hook up with an undergraduate), what unites the Ghostbusters is that they’re man-children, alternately befuddled by and contemptuous of women. In the film’s, um, climactic sequence, as the Ghostbusters face the Sumerian god Gozer (who’s taken the form of a naked woman), Murray’s Venkman shouts instructions: “Grab your sticks! Heat ‘em up! Make ‘em hard! Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown…throw it!” Whatever was once subtext is now simply text, as ghostbusting becomes more or less indistinguishable from a rape fantasy. [emphasis added]

I didn't like the movie so much as to consider it a formative part of my childhood but for those that did ...  Dickey just declared that the culmination of Ghostbusters is a straight up rape fantasy.  Well, there you go, I guess--saying that the driving impetus of the entire film is a rape fantasy might explain why anyone who was a fan of the original film might freak out about the gender inversion ... assuming people have such simplistic definitions of gender now that a simple "inversion" within accepted binary stereotypes is sufficient for a turnabout-is-fair-play thing.

Given what writers have managed to say about how retrograde the racial and sexual politics of the film was back in the 1980s ... it's strange that writers defending the franchise should defend it on the basis of how women are the line-up of the quartet.  But ... if the sexual and racial politics of the original were as bad as people say then what ... exactly ... was the aim in the reboot?  This is far less a concern about the direction, the scripting or the cast than the studio. 

Now Dickey's got a forthcoming book to sell so at this point it makes sense that what passes for cultural analysis and film criticism is ultimately ALSO about selling books. It's just that, well, sometimes it can feel as though the news peg of a film as the opportunity to comment about the film in a way that promotes content from the book can hijack a discussion of the film itself. 

Dickey leading so earnestly (and, lacking a clear memory of a film I haven't watched in decades, somewhat persuasively) made the case that a beloved cult classic of the 1980s is basically a rape fantasy, there was plenty of time between paragraphs 3 and 10 being written to go back and redact the part about things being "unclear".  One of the key points of Dickey's essay was to explain how retrograde the sexual/racial politics of the 1980s film were which could have become a commentary on the perceived backlash.  I mean, if the whole point of the film was a rape fantasy then Dickey's case implicitly says everyone who loved the 1980s original loves a rape fantasy and that they're objection to the gender reversal thing would be an objection to ... would it be too crude to suggest that the subtextual rapist fans of a rape fantasy film original would feel as though they were put on the receiving rather than the giving end of the fantasy?  It's all pretty gruesome if stated directly and yet it would seem Dickey's point would have been more ... potent (?) if made more directly?

But then there are the reviews at large ... and then there's also the not incidental detail about the studio's investment in this thing.
Here's the bad news: This movie cost $144 million after tax incentives and rebates. It had a P&A (promotional and advertising) spend rumored to be over $100 million. That puts the total amount Sony sunk into this movie in the $250 million range, which is ... a lot for a comedy. Like: a lot. Box Office Mojo is predicting a total domestic run in the $135–$145 million range, which would barely be enough to earn back its production budget. And unlike similar openers from last year, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Hotel Transylvania 2, Sony can't rely on overseas audiences to significantly boost that number.

In hindsight, it seems absurd: Why would Sony spend superhero money on a comedy? Feig's track record is impressive, but it's impressive because he tends to make sensibly budgeted movies that deliver a significant return on investment: Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy cost $32.5 million, $43 million, and $65 million, respectably.

The answer resides in the Sony leak. Hundreds of emails leaked in early 2015 were related to the reboot of Ghostbusters. But the most interesting of them all — more interesting than their attempts to hire Christopher Lord and Phil Miller to do Ghostbusters 3; more interesting than the efforts to balance power between Ivan Reitman and Paul Feig; more interesting than the dozens of actors, writers, and directors who tried to get themselves attached to Ghostbustersis one Amy Pascal, then co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, sent to Michael De Luca, then Sony's president of production, that frames everything in a much more understandable, if not entirely defensible, light: They were hoping Ghostbusters would be the basis of a Marvel-like universe for Sony. [emphases added]

Richard Brody's recent commentary was that this new Ghostbusters film was more of the kind of film he'd like to see, just not in the disappointingly pedestrian way the studio has ultimately rolled it out.  The problem may be at the level of conception.  It "might" be easier to have a break out comedy if you're planning things on a film by film basis without necessarily planning in advance to have a franchise that takes over the Cineplex.  Not every reboot needs a reboot and there may be a danger in presuming upon the solidity of the franchise brand as the basis for a new cash cow in a new context.

So even if the new Ghostbusters movie is okay, the trouble is the studio needs to be more than just okay. 

Meanwhile, Colin Dickey has a book that will be coming out later about spiritualism. The recently released Ghostbusters movie provided an opportunity that The New Republic regarded as a suitable occasion for what turned out to not quite be a film review.  Because, after all, in the wake of the bro-fest that was Batman vs Superman let's not treat this latest attempt at founding a franchise in advance of the success of the film as another example of cynical studio presumption because, after all, the leads are female. 

If the director and cast had been tasked with merely a remake that wasn't also freighted with the studio expectation that this would be Sony's equivalent of the Marvel cinematic universe it seems we'd be talking about a very differently made film, a different film altogether.  So, ironically, while the 1980s cult classic became one about slacker guys hunting ghosts as if they were neighborhood pest control, the reboot is paradoxically a cosmic-level affirmation of a double standard, the new quartet in this new film has to live up to impossible franchise expectations that were not in place for the male original.  That's ... not exactly a reversal of gender anything, is it? 

I have been surprised by the reviews of the film, not because there have been cautiously positive reviews for it (that's not really a surprise, given who was involved) but because it seems film critics want this film to have been funnier and more compelling than they can honestly report it being.  Considering the cast it would seem that ... well, Ghostbusters in 2016 might be The Three Amigos of this decade, a comedic film in which, once you've factored in the sum of the parts and consider how hilarious you think the film SHOULD be you get to the end of it and say "Well, I had fun but .... but ... that was IT!?"  Only it was relatively clear decades ago no studio was expecting The Three Amigos to turn into a potential nine movie franchise.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mere Orthodoxy podcast on meritocracy and an article by Helen Andrews' proposal that there's a new aristocratic class forming

A few brief thoughts, for now.

Regular readers will know I've quoted Jacques Ellul's proposal from half a century ago that those in control of mass media constituted a new aristocratic class capable of influencing culture and policy without themselves being subject to any democratic processes and that this group of vocational propagandists constituted a new aristocratic class.

And, of course, this year I've been looking at how Ellul's writing on propaganda and propagandists explains not formal political propaganda (which is too obvious) but the megachurch pastor (aka what Mark Driscoll transformed himself into, namely from "pastor" to "propagandist").

And, of course, Ellul's description of the populist agitator pretty well anticipated Trump.

and to a lesser extent Sanders.

But there's an additional idea in this meritocracy/aristocracy idea that might be worth discussing.  In an era in which entertainers are taken seriously as policy pundits and in which film directors and film critics proclaim that this or that is fascism, Ellul's comment was that in the mythologies of communists and anti-communists the great enemies were fascism and communism--these paranoid narratives need these kinds of enemies.  Anything that isn't explicitly democratic becomes the "enemy of democracy", and once democracy has become an ideology rather than a mode of governance it becomes as totalitarian as formal totalitarianism.  That's all old hat here.

Well, let's propose that since Americans are so class averse and so loathe to concede that class exists; and since when Americans DO talk about class mobility within meritocratic contexts they only think of upward mobility (per Whit Stillman's riff in Metropolitan), let's float the idea that the superhero genre is Amerca's way of interrogating itself on the expectations it has of its aristocratic class without conceding that such an aristocracy actually exists in the real world.

This could culturally make at least "some" sense in an era where income inequality is a going concern on the one hand, and arguably overpaid entertainers feel some sense that they are obliged to sound off on politics as if they are somehow magically on the proper side of a class war.  :)  If those with controlling interests in mass media are the new aristocratic class then the unavoidably not-even-ironic irony would be film directors who complain about superheroes being fascists would embody the ethos they've criticized by dint of having made the kinds of films that instill the putatively fascist ethos (i.e. if you directed Die Hard you're not in a great position to complain about Captain America as if you haven't contributed to the ostensibly "fascist" cause in cinema).

But if the superhero genre is an indirect, closeted riff on what Americans expect from their aristocracy ... this gets back to my earlier proposal that Batman is an American imagination of how if there must inevitably be a "one percent" what do we want that one percenter to be like.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

as of today, though there era of Mars Hill Church may seem over, there is still a Lasting Legacy (LLC) that's not formally inactive yet.

It might just be to technical difficulties and a lack of updated information, most likely.  But even though Mars Hill Church; Mars Hill Foundation for Planting Churches; and Mars Hill Church Investment Fund, LLC are all listed as inactive ... there's still this other company that has a historic connection to someone from Mars Hill that's not inactive just yet.

UBI Number 603199549
Category LLC
Active/Inactive Active
State Of Incorporation WA
WA Filing Date 04/17/2012
Expiration Date 04/30/2016
Inactive Date 
Duration Perpetual

Agent Name
23632 HIGHWAY 99 STE F441
EDMONDS , WA 98026 
23632 HIGHWAY 99 STE F441
EDMONDS , WA 980269211

Normally I resist awful puns (I've got friends who don't) but, well, it's obvious that there's still a Lasting Legacy here in Washington state of the activities of Mark and Grace Driscoll according to the Washington Secretary of State.

Monday, July 18, 2016

on the tiresome canard in Western conservative polemics about how atonality depicts godlessness or a rejection of logos

This piece linked to above dates back to 2001 but it retains ideas that keep cropping up in conservative polemics against atonality in music.  I would say that I've been what I call a moderate actual conservative rather than a neo-con for a while, and that moderate part would essentially apply to my approach on politics and religion as well as the arts.  I love me some Xenakis and Messiaen for listening but not necessarily as stuff I would compose.

I've been incubating a project for a while and might just have to blog some of it here and there.  I've gotten tired of the argument that avant garde techniques in Western music signify this or that.  Not that I can't appreciate why some people would hear string quartets by Xenakis and conclude it's the music of hell, I just disagree. 

Robert R. Reilly's overall polemic was that Western music was based on the Greek philosophical premise of a cosmic harmony that informed all other forms of harmony.  The music of the cosmos informed the music of humans and instrumental music and the music, so to speak, of bodily health and so on.  Pythagoras experimented with divisions of a cord and the sounds those divisions produced and began to record the ratios that led to certain intervallic relationships. And thus, through the millennia, we got the tonal system in Western music that is inevitably the thing that the conservative author wishes to defend.  The idea that the octave could be divided into seven equidistant tones the way it is in traditional Thai classical music just never comes up.  If it ever DID come up in the arguments of a conservative Western author as relevant to a complaint about atonality I haven't come across it yet.

It doesn't just so happen that a recent piece in the Atlantic highlights that as musicological research scours the globe it becomes a bit easier to establish that dissonances are not always defined in the same way in all places (or times, since in ancient Western music fourths could be considered consonant and did not become treated as dissonances until closer to the 18th century).  So ...
But if the Western preference for consonance isn’t rooted in biology, then why do the frequencies of these sounds relate to each other with such clean mathematical precision? “The Greeks were really into ratios,” says McDermott. “All their theories of aesthetics related to ratios. It’s possible they started making music that way and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.”

But that doesn't mean there won't, even now, be those who refer to the usual suspects as the destroyers of the beauty of Western music, Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage.  Now certainly a Christian could appreciate the idea proposed by Clement of Alexandria that Reilly brought up, the proposal that if the Logos was the Greek idea of the cosmic harmony undergirding reality as we know it, the music of the universe, that Christ was the Logos who made all things and by Whom all things persist. That wouldn't be a big leap.  The Gospel of John pulled that off, arguably, from the introduction.

But to assert that Schoenberg's aspiration toward atonality constituted a rejection of this whole approach, that seems ... dicey.  To argue that it signified Schoenberg was irreligious seems even more dicey.  Schoenberg's rejection of what he called "beauty" may have to be taken with a few pounds of salt, what passed for beauty in the post-Romantic era could be described as, well, kitsch.  Even a conservative like Roger Scruton could conceivably grant this.  Dwight Macdonald's remark on the early 20th century avant garde was that they did not necessarily see themselves as the avant garde so much as those who were rebelling against the staid mannerisms of their era.  In other words, plausible cases could be made from folks left and right that the tonal idiom as it had developed throughout the 19th century had exhausted itself and become kitsch; it had become a series of shorthands whose meanings were so readily apprehended there was seemingly little that was interesting left to do with all that.

Even a conservative who doesn't like Schoenberg's music on the whole, by now has to concede Schoenberg's caricature as someone rebelling against traditional tunes and harmony has to, at some point, be squared with his public remarks on the passing of George Gershwin.

Not that there aren't other authors who have fielded the topic of Schoenberg and the occult but Richard Taruskin's comments seem apt enough:

ISBN 0-691-01156-7


The surmounting of the major-minor dichotomy was for Schoenberg no mere technical breakthrough but a spiritual ascent--a provi--to a superhuman condition. "Double gender," he proclaimed, "has given rise to a higher race." No less than Scriabin, then, Schoenberg spoke in the voice of the vatic androgyne, as the text of Die Jakobsleiter and the mesmerizing title page of Promethee (by the Belgian theosophical artist Jean Delville) jointly declare. ("The fire that blazed in his eyes," wrote Balzac of his angelic messenger, "rivalled the rays of the sun; he seemed not to receive but to give out light."

p 358
The cold war rationalization and academization of dodecaophony caused that voice to grow cold and that face to grow dim. "As you read," said one of Balzac's characters of Swedenborg, "you must either lose your wits or become a seer." By now we have long consigned Scriabin to the former estate, that of lost wits, but we have been unwilling to consign Schoenberg to either category. Instead he sulks in positivistic limbo, his methods venerated but his deeds ignored. But it is precisely the academic despiritualization of dodecaphony--more broadly, of atonality--that has led to its widespread, and justified, rejection.

Indeed, it is precisely the rationalization and refinement of dodecaphonic technique to the point where it has become a kind of abstract numerical logic that has brought attack from those who question the cognitive relevance of its logical concepts. Twelve-tone music has come to seem a conceptual game to which listeners can never gain perceptual access. Those who attempt to finesse the problem by placing the blame on the inexperience of listeners (their "incompetence," to speak cognitively), invariably come across as special pleaders.

It is only when the original conception of atonality as a transrational, uncanny discourse is recognized, and its nature as a medium of revealed--which is to say undemonstrable--truth is grasped, that aesthetic apprehension can begin. It bears the aura of the sublime (Seraphita: "Why, if you believe in number, should you deny God?") and the sublime purges and terrifies. It is important, therefore, to refresh our memory of atonality's motivating liminal impulses. Renewed contact with the early atonalists, with Scriabin, and with the sources of their inspiration, can help restore perspective, but only if they are "put together again." At the very least it should be apparent that musicians who dismiss Scriabin's spiritual vision as "cosmic hocus-pocus," and literary investigators who assume it impossible that a spiritual vision could be "communicated musically," are cut off equally from the vision and from the music. It is only the music that can communicate the vision, but only if we have vision enough to receive the communication.

Drawing inspiration from theosophy and deploying a fusion of major and minor modes in music that transcends the conventional distinctions between major and minor tonality could be described as a lot of things, but the idea that it somehow rejected the existence of God is dubious.

If the transcendence of conventional major and minor chords was the aspiration of a spiritual quest then it hardly seems like a stretch to propose that what European composers could admire about blues and jazz was that here we could listen to music in which the blue note permeated musical textures in a way that arrived at that transcendant fusion of major and minor modality in an insoluable whole.  Schoenberg could admire Gershwin's music because however different it sounded from Schoenberg's, the assimilation in blues and jazz of the major/minor sound was a different way of arriving at what Schoenberg was aiming for, a reinvigoration of music from the tepid formulas that 19th century Romanticism had led Western music into.

One of the sad ironies of culturally conservative pundits with a thing for Romantic era music and a distrust of popular music is that it was in popular music the clearest connections can be observed between the harmonic and melodic vocabulary of ragtime, for instance, and the parlor music of earlier 19th century composers.  As a guitarist it's not difficult to set out the themes from sonatas by Diabelli, Sor, Giuliani or Carulli and show how they could be easily transformed into ragtime strains.  So the trouble with the abjection of popular musical styles is that they represent most readily a preservation of the kind of musical idiom that certain musical pundits regret seeing as less normative in art music that, nonetheless, is snubbed as unserious in popular music.  Schoenberg's remarks about Gershwin might be apt here, that there are some people who take themselves too seriously and by dint of that consider themselves serious composers or thinkers about music.

But there is yet another difficulty with a case that the Greek ideals about ratios constitute a music-of-the-spheres foundation for music that was rejected by Schoenberg (or Cage), it's an irony that was noted by the composer Iannis Xenakis:

Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press

page 242-243
Musical theoreticians did base their theories on Fourier, more or less directly, in order to support the argument about the natural harmony of tonality. Moreover, in defining tonality, the 20th-century depracators of the new musical languages based their arguments on the theory of vibration of elastic bodies and media, that is, in the end, on Fourier analysis. But they were thus creating a paradox., for although they wanted to keep music in the intuitive and instinctive domain, in order to legitimize the tonal universe they made use of physico-mathematical arguments!
It is therefore natural to think that the disruptions in music in the last 60 years tend to prove once again that music and its "rules" are socio-cultural and historical conditionings, and hence modifiable.

That seems pretty self-explanatory there.  The irony of those who have opposed 20th century techniques and alternatives to traditional major/minor tonality has been that in their desire to preserve what they felt was a neglected intuitive aspect of the art of music they leveraged all of their argument ton ... arguments from mathematics and physics! 

It wasn't as though Xenakis couldn't appreciate J. S. Bach, for instance.  Xenakis' music isn't for everyone, certainly, but his music could provide an interesting case study in which formulating music informed by patterns in the natural world and through application of mathematics and engineering approaches could fit Francis Schaeffer's axiom that art should somehow be a reflection of the world.  Xenakis' music could be said to have done this even though Xenakis was an atheist and wrote music that set aside most conventions about the Western tonal idiom. 

But Xenakis, for his part, was pretty critical of John Cage, asserting that Cage's approach amounted to a renunciation of the composer's responsibility to communicate to musicians or audiences in a clear way.  It was, in essence, a cheap way of passing the buck (for Xenakis) that John Cage's music was the way it was.  Richard Taruskin's criticism, for those already familiar with it, was similar, but his assertion was that John Cage paradoxically reflected back to the rest of Western art music the most exaggerated and toxic forms of its own pious bromides.  The problem wasn't really Cage, since in the end Cage was more seriously consistent with the ideals of Romanticism and Western innovation as ideology than the rest, the problem was that when the rest of us didn't quite get what Cage was after we revealed we didn't get the full implications of what we embrace on paper in the sound of music.  In spite of the Zen trappings, John Cage could be described as ideologically being more arch-Romantic than modernist.  So the polemic goes.

And the polemic could be taken further.  Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury just declared that Cage's music was morally and socially bankrupt because he was nothing more than a shill for late capitalism, which is about what we should expect from a Marxist critique of the Western avant garde in the 20th century. 

Stockhausen Serves Imperialsim
Cornelius Cardew
Originally published in 1974
by Latimer New Dimensions Limited: London
SBN 901539 29 5

Series Editor. Kenneth Goldsmith

page 38
There is a contradiction between the toughness of Cage’s music and the softness of his ideas. ...

from Introduction to John Cage's Music of Changes
John Tilbury
(page 41)

Let us begin with the facts of the piece. The Music of Changes was written in 1951 and is the embodiment, wholly or partially, in musical expression of Cage’s view of the world. By that I mean that before Cage can function as a musician he has to live as a man, and not as abstract man, but historically as a real man in a particular society.[emphasis added] ...

... Technically, the result of Cage’s application of this method is brilliant - the way in which the piano is used as a sound source to be explored rather than an instrument to be played, the extensive use of the third sustaining pedal to achieve a wide range of colours and textures, the subtly changing resonances obtained, the overall pianistic clarity; and artistically, the effect is of stylistic coherence and originality.

But this is not all - in fact it is only half the story. For there is no such thing as an artistic conscience which is not governed by world outlook. [emphasis added] ...

This tone kind of reminds me of someone.

The God Who Is There
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A. and Canada)

Escape from Reason
copyright (c) 1968 by Francis A. Schaeffer
Published by InterVarsity Press (U.S.A) and Hodder and Stoughton (Canada)

ISBN 13:978-0-89107-561-5
ISBN 10:0-89107-561-5


page 76
We should love good art. But art as art does not have the right to speak ex cathedra regardless of content. [emphasis added]

There was a very interesting Profile of John Cage (1912 - ) in The New Yorker, part of which we shall quote in considering his music. The Profile says: " .. what he is proposing is, essentially, the complete overthrow of the most basic assumptions of Western art since the Renaissance ." We have already seen that the young person caught in the modern generation is 400 years away from the previous generation. So Cage is seeking to overthrow a total concept stretching right back at least through those 400 years to the Renaissance. ..

page 77-78
Back in the Chinese culture long ago the Chinese had worked out a system of tossing coins or yarrow sticks by means of which the spirits would speak. The complicated method which they developed made sure that the person doing the tossing could not allow his own personality to intervene. Self-expression was eliminated so that the spirits could speak.

Cage picks up this same system and uses it. He too seeks to get rid of any individual expression in his music. But there is a very great difference. As far as Cage is concerned, there is nobody there to speak. There is only an impersonal universe speaking through blind chance.

page 79
... here is a man who is trying to teach the world what the universe intrinsically is and what the real philosophy of life is, and yet he cannot even apply it to picking mushrooms. If he were to go out into the woods and begin picking mushrooms by chance, within a couple of days there would be no Cage!

So, obviously, Marxists believe in worldview, too.  D. G. Hart could have a bit of fun with this juxtaposition of Francis Schaeffer talking about how Cage has worldview issues and Marxists such as Cardew or Tilbury making the same critique from a different direction.  I tend to, perhaps too cynically, view Marxism and postmillenialist/theonomistic thought as different versions of the same basic impulse. 

The chromatic scale as an extrapolation of major and minor diatonic scales from 17th or 18th century Western practice, particularly as connected to equal temperament, could be described being an artificial extrapolation from an artificial extrapolation.  Assuming there is a thing such as an octave across all human perception that could be called musical, you can divide that octave into any number of discreet tones for a variety of reasons.  The Greek legacy, as interpreted in the West, certainly could seem to give us diatonic scales and modes but Xenakis' complaint was the Western Latinized tradition botched all this stuff and that if you wanted to get a clearer sense of what Greek music was really supposed to sound like ... well, of course, you'd go listen to Greek Orthodox chant where the mode was characterized not as a movable scale so much as a set of melodic patterns prevailing within identifiable tetrachords.  Xenakis' complaint about Westerners trying to defend Western music by appealing to Greeks was that they didn't seem to really understand the Greeks. 

My own take is that Christianity does nothing like prescribing a set of pitch organizing principles and that you can make use of any and every musical idiom you want.  If in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female; if Christ is the mediator who reconciles us to God then why shouldn't our music be part of that?  In the age to come why would only German Lutheran music or Swedish Lutheran music be heard in Heaven?  Why should we not hear Thai music?  Why should the music of Heaven be explicable only on the basis of twelve-note chromatic mediation of tonal music from roughly just two centuries of the Western world? 

And conservatives sometimes wonder why they get seen as only having a thing for dead white guys.  I adore the music of Haydn ... but I also like music by Messiaen and some of his students.  If we're going to reject atonality we can come up with reasons that don't hinge on presumptions about the viability of a musical idiom that is only a few centuries old.  Christians don't, as a rule, seem to want to do that kind of thing on a worldwide scale, so why do it in a defense of just one brand of music? 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sean Blanda "The Creative World's Bull$h1t Industrial Complex, with some consideration of such a complex as the Christian conference scene by analogy

During just the weekend when I've been musing about how every last vocational artist is inevitably the servant of or the builder of an empire ... I come across this.
The bullshit industrial complex is a pyramid of groups that goes something like this:
Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.
Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.
[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]
Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.
Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.
Groups 5+: And downward….

At my most charitable level of assessment I used to think of Mark Driscoll as having had a place in Group 2.  He was never going to be in Group 1, but he managed to summarize the writings of people in Group 1 if he read them.  But now it seems that, at best, he's in Group 3 and has been in Group 3 for some time.  His fans have largely been in Group 4 to the extent that they've published books. 
Creative people often despise those that criticize work without having work of their own. Something Teddy Roosevelt referred to as “being in the arena.” We respect opinions from those that are in the trenches with us, doing the hard things that we try to do. But this creative expert class is worse than any critic, offering other people creative salvation in an attempt to find their own. We despise critics with no skin in the game but we’ve handed them the keys to our kingdom and the space on our library bookshelf.

Ah ... yes ... and here at Wenatchee The Hatchet we discussed that famous Roosevelt address in which he also said

      It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and their can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself.

and ... as noted earlier:

But if a man's efficiency is not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic. Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man's own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others. It speaks ill for the community if the community worships these qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly. It makes no difference as to the precise way in which this sinister efficiency is shown. [emphases added] It makes no difference whether such a man's force and ability betray themselves in a career of money-maker or politician, soldier or orator, journalist or popular leader. ...
in place of "popular leader" you could insert "popular megachurch pastor".  Now, getting back to Blanda:

Let’s be clear here: Those who write books, speak at conferences, or write essays are not all bullshitters. Many (if not most!) are offering advice that takes its audience into consideration. This is not bullshit. This is good.

What I’m referring to are those that believe being “industry famous” in the creative world is success in of itself. Especially those that start out with that goal in mind. This is where the Complex can poison talent. Being industry famous should be the result of some contribution to the world that the industry respects and wishes to learn from. Or insights unique and useful that it genuinely makes people’s lives better.

What Blanda wrote about conferences for "creative" ... not so sure it applies to Christian conferences these days.  I haven't had the willpower to dig into the conference side of things but it has become abundantly clear that whatever Acts 29 leadership had to say about Mark Driscoll in 2014 there's no stopping the conference train for Driscoll. 

If someone cares more about what their industry peers think of them than the problems they are solving, they’re a bullshitter. If the idea of being “known” is barometer of their success above user (or reader) success stories, they’re a bullshitter. They are the internet’s equivalent of a reality TV star, taking advantage of the attention economy by catering to our worst instincts in lieu of substance

This unintentionally piggy-backs on the earlier post that quoted from Michael Spencer's question as to whether American evangelicalism could truly decouple itself from the parasitic presence of the prosperity gospel.  Prosperity teaching may be like a deeply dug in tick in American Christian thinking, regardless of what other differences may exist among its participants. 

But as it applies to the Christian pastors' conference scene ...

if you care more about being able to keep showing up for the conferences than about whether or not your sins that have been confronted about not only theoretically bar you from the conference scene but that might be sins for which you'd say (about someone else, obviously) "that person isn't fit to be a pastor" then you could be ...

Rod Dreher on "the coming christian collapse, references Michael Spencer's The Coming Evangelical Collapse

Rod Dreher has been noting the writings lately about the coming Christian collapse.  He references Michael Spencer's The Coming Evangelical Collapse, which we'll quote at some length here:

My Prediction
I believe that we are on the verge- within 10 years- of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”

The party is almost over for evangelicals; a party that’s been going strong since the beginning of the “Protestant” 20th century. We are soon going to be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century in a culture that will be between 25-30% non-religious
1) Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This was a mistake that will have brutal consequences. They are not only going to suffer in losing causes, they will be blamed as the primary movers of those causes. Evangelicals will become synonymous with those who oppose the direction of the culture in the next several decades. That opposition will be increasingly viewed as a threat, and there will be increasing pressure to consider evangelicals bad for America, bad for education, bad for children and bad for society.
The investment of evangelicals in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history. The coming evangelical collapse will come about, largely, because our investment in moral, social and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. We’re going to find out that being against gay marriage and rhetorically pro-life (yes, that’s what I said) will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence and are believing in a cause more than a faith.

2) Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions of youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures that they will endure.

Do not be deceived by conferences or movements that are theological in nature. These are a tiny minority of evangelicalism. A strong core of evangelical beliefs is not present in most of our young people, and will be less present in the future. This loss of “the core” has been at work for some time, and the fruit of this vacancy is about to become obvious.

3) Evangelical churches have now passed into a three part chapter: 1) mega-churches that are consumer driven, 2) churches that are dying and 3) new churches that whose future is dependent on a large number of factors. I believe most of these new churches will fail, and the ones that do survive will not be able to continue evangelicalism at anything resembling its current influence. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.

Our numbers, our churches and our influence are going to dramatically decrease in the next 10-15 years. And they will be replaced by an evangelical landscape that will be chaotic and largely irrelevant.
2. What will be left after the evangelical collapse?

a. An evangelicalism far from its historical and doctrinal core. Expect evangelicalism as a whole to look more and more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. The determination to follow in the methodological steps of numerically successful churches will be greater than ever. The result will be, in the main, a departure from doctrine to more and more emphasis on relevance, motivation and personal success [emphases added]….with the result being churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.
d. I believe the emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision. I expect to continue hearing emerging leaders, seeing emerging conferences and receiving emerging books. I don’t believe this movement, however, is going to have much influence at all within future evangelicalism. What we’ve seen this year with Tony Jones seems to me to be indicative of the direction of the emerging church. [emphases added]

When I first read it I wasn't sure who Tony Jones or why on earth he should matter.  As writing on the decline of white Christian America lately points out, evangelicalism's decline can be likened to the decline of the mainline/liberal Protestant tradition.  Given the history of how white Americans have interpreted the Bible the decline of white Christian American influence might be just what the doctor ordered because whether it was the Social Gospel or Manifest Destiny in the 19th century or cultural warrior campaigns in the 20th it's not clear that American white Christianity is finally separable from cultural imperialism in its blue state as well as red state forms.

Will the coming evangelical collapse shake loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? We can all pray and hope that this will be so, but evidence from other similar periods is not encouraging. Coming to terms with the economic implications of the Gospel has proven particularly difficult for evangelicals. That’s not to say that American Christians aren’t generous….they are. It is to say that American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success American style. [emphases added] Perhaps the time is coming that this entanglement will be challenged, especially in the lives of younger Christians.

That Mark Driscoll decided to quit Mars Hill and then, in 2015, declare for the record he felt convicted to apologize to Joel Osteen might be proof that evangelicalism hasn't shaken loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ.  Driscoll's new friends, seem, if anything, to suggest Driscoll's willing to sell out. 

In the sense that both the mainline and the evangelical wings of American Christianity were apparently mainly focused on their respective Social Gospels and selling out to institutional powers it's not entirely surprising if those who are committed to the gospel of specific social agendas find that sometimes the easiest way to get from point A to point B would be to jettison coming up with a plausibly Christian excuse for getting from point A to point B. 

more haiku for the weekend

all soldiers shed blood,
theirs and others, for causes
artists celebrate


a seattle street
chalk words say "Nickleback rulz"
must be sarcasm