Saturday, January 14, 2017

will eventually blog about some stuff .... but stuff happens. Nevertheless, preview of possible coming attractions (?)

A friend showed me Westworld season 1 and I mean to get to that. 

It's wildly belated but I've meant to write about why I have problems with Captain America Civil War having managed to see it a second time.  It completely falls apart and the weakness of the film is paradoxically organically tied to what Marvel Studios fans may regard as one of its great strengths, the overall cohesiveness of the Marvel film universe.  There's a problem, and the problem is, whether you'll want to believe this or not, Jessica Jones.  It just boggles my mind that Bucky seemed to have no real remorse for having killed a bunch of people as the Winter Soldier while Jessica Jones was haunted by killing just one person.  Bucky was brainwashed?  So what, Jessica Jones was under the thrall of Killgrave, a skeezy monster who can tell people to do things and they have to do it whether they want to or not.  The more fully integrated the Marvel entertainment brand gets the more pressing the problem of this double standard in which Bucky Barnes is off the hook for killing countless people while Jessica's superhuman liver lets her not die from the alcohol she drinks in guilt over having killed someone.  But we'll get to that later, I hope.

The "Legend of Entitlement" essay about the moral trainwreck that was Legend of Korra has yet to be written.  And there's a little piece about the genius of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold retelling of Batman's origin I want to get to. 

The selective Christian/pagan syncretism explicit in The Secret of Kells take on the Book of Kells might be another topic for another time.  All that is to say I've felt overdue to write about animation for years.  There's still a pile of stuff about Justice League/Justice League Unlimited I've wanted to get to.  The DC films this far have generally convinced me that if you want to see versions of these characters done convincingly it's best to stick to the Dini/Timm continuity or catch The Brave & the Bold (which got me to love Aquaman and had an actually good story for Crazy Quilt!).

I haven't written much about Archer or The Venture Bros.  Could but probably won't.  Might instead mull over a general ethos that comes across in the Adult Swim brand in more general terms.  But that, too, probably needs to wait. 

Things come up and things go down. 

This isn't the venue to get into that stuff.

I have, I will say, been working a lot more (again) on some musical projects.  There was this gigantic cyclical project, a musical thing that I spent years working on.  That's done.  For the long time long time readers (and/or the people who know who blogs here) you might have already heard.  It's not like there's never been lengthy discussions about contrapuntal music and the guitar here before.  I'm hoping to get around to discussing contrapuntal cycles by Igor Rekhin, Castlenuovo-Tedesco, Rodion Shchedrin, Shostakovich (yes, that one), Henry Martin and ... eh ... I might even go back to Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis for old time's sake because I love that cycle. 

I wish that when Slate did Wonder Week I'd gone back and recycled my "Counterpoint According to Stevie Wonder" blog post.  But I didn't.  Instead I wrote thousands of words about why that compound chorus in "Living for the City" is so amazing, which it still is! 

But a lot of stuff happens in the off-line world.  There's nothing wrong with feeling no huge obligation to meet deadlines that simply don't exist.  A friend or two in the real world asked whether or not the blog was retired on account of a certain Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors up and quitting.  Nope, still around.  If anything the blog can finally belatedly get back to all the stuff it was intended to be about a decade ago.  It doesn't mean people will want to read it but if they do I can be grateful. 

Still, it was hard not to notice that when that evangelical advisory committee for Trump's campaign was announced there were some guys on that list who got mentioned in coverage of the Driscoll meltdown.  Sealy Yates?  Was that the person who, as reported by Warren Throckmorton, suggested Result Source could be used?  Was that James MacDonald mentioned at The Elephant's Debt who showed up with Mark Driscoll at the Strange Fire conference?  Never mind the matter of whether you think Trump should have gotten the RNC nomination or have won the Electoral College vote.  The prodigious rate at which I've referenced Ellul in the last year might telegraph a skepticism about populist agitators and their fans whether it's red or blue.  No, this is another point, that even "if" Trump were as pristine as undriven snow that some of the evangelical advisors (who may not want to be linked to the guy by now but, again, separate matter) were peole who ended up being documented as having played no compelling accountability role for Mark Driscoll in the last six years and in one case may have positively advised the use of Result Source to rig the New York Times Bestseller list.  With an advisory committee tha tincludes people like that (or Paula White) nobody in the Oval Office, whether a Clinton or a Trump, would seem to be in "good hands". 

But then these days my fatalism and pessimism abou the United States would be hard-pressed to find a gloomier outlook. 

But then you can only do what you can where you can.  What I feel like I can do is make some long-form cases for how and why the boundaries between pop music and art music need some conceptual dismantling.  It's begun to drive me up the wall how some guys, and it's generally been white guys who ponticiate about jazz as musicians or journalists, traffic in an essentialist narrative of some kind or another about the history of the tradition.  I've grown tired of reading white liberal journalists and musicians write about soulful black musicians in ways that don't convey that  there is some seriously cerebral stuff going on in the music. 

I'm getting tired of "reification" only being deployed in some Marxist sense and not a gestalt sense, because the gestalt sense of reification is in many respects founational to getting how jazz can work as a listener's art and a performer's art.  I don't want to demystify the craft of music composition to make people stop loving the music they love.  I want to demystify elements of music because I'm tired of the idiotic claims of writers that Stevie Wonder "broke all the rules" of music in a song chorus (you know the one) when he was using chromatic median pivot relationships and octatonic linear movement in ways that can correspond to things done by Stravinsky or Scriabin.  There isn't a "white" or "black" way to deploy chromatic median relationships over octatonic linear movement! 

It pisses me off that after generations of black musicians trying to articulate things about their music in a way that lets the music be appreciated as music there are still white liberal writers out there (and generally their guys) who sell the holy fool vibe.  We don't need that.  It seems condescending to say blues "broke the rules".  One of my friends in college hated blues because for her the harmonic formula was too simple, too predictable and too impossible to do anything interesting with to make it worth learning. Whereas I can zone out blissfully to the endless variations John Lee Hooker introduces into 12/8 time.  I love pre-World War II blues and it's one of the wells of inspiration I keep coming back to.  One of my dreams is to find a way to arrive at a fusion of 18th century polyphonic and developmental thought processes with old Delta or Texas blues.  If I could write a fugue for guitar inspired by the music of Blind Willie Johnson I would so totally do it! 

... and try to get back to writing about some Batman cartoons. 

But this hasn't been one of those phases in life where it's easy to just sit down and write 6k to 12k words in a day like I was doing back in 2012. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

over at the New Republic, a rumination on the aging baby boomer rock stars and ambivalence about their legacy
If you were a rocker in reasonably good health who put out a reasonably successful record in the 1960s or 1970s and had yet to write a book, chances are you wrote a book or had one written about you in 2016. As the publishing industry has become more vulnerable, it has become more risk-averse. Established names with established audiences—preferably older audiences, who spend money on things like books—have become increasingly valuable. After the success of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Keith Richards’s Life, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, publishers are hot for baby boomer nostalgia, while musicians are just as hot to cash checks. In 2016, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Robbie Robertson, Johnny Marr, and Sebastian Bach all published memoirs—in a few cases, they even wrote them, too.

But, with the exception of Springsteen’s joyous memoir, a feeling of resentment permeates these books that are supposed to serve as well-earned victory laps. The desire to bask in glory turns out to be inseparable from the sense that credit hasn’t been given where it’s due. This curious mixture of self-satisfaction and resentment—call it the baby boomers’ revenge [emphasis added]—was reflected in the politics of 2016, which was defined by a reactionary nostalgia that led to the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, two catastrophic events that came over the expressed opposition of younger generations.

One thing these books have in common is a general ambivalence about the time period their authors are largely identified with. For Love and Robertson, it’s the 60s and early 70s; for Springsteen and Collins the 70s and 80s. These writers know that they made history, but are not quite sure what that history means. They are baby boomers who are abundantly proud of their generation’s cultural achievements but wary of its political legacy.

It's not entirely clear to me that the mixture of self-satisfaction and resentment is the peculiar domain of baby boomers who decided to go for Brexit and Trump.  But then this is the New Republic we're quoting here.   After all, it's the sort of magazine that can also feature stuff like ... :


So, Meryl Streep’s presidential address from the Golden Globes podium this weekend felt familiar. When FDR held his fireside chats over the radio, he codified the sound of both the American president and the American patriarch in his castle. Hollywood depictions of the American political voice have been various but contain certain definable strains. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Frank Capra brought an existential sweetness to the Senate, throwing the system into a reassuringly contained and inconsequential chaos as an unknown enters the system by chance (literally, through a coin toss). Similarly, in Forrest Gump the hero accidentally makes an excellent speech about the unmentionable horrors of the Vietnam War due to an unplugged mic. On our televisions, The West Wing fooled us into thinking that grandiose monologues delivered by clever white people could right any wrong in the world.

Whoever this "us" was that actually thought Sorkin-penned dialogue solved anything at all must have been subscribing to The New Republic.  I've mentioned how The West Wing and Gilmore Girls can be thought of as blue state power fantasy/wish fulfillment narratives in the way that 24 was a red state power fantasy somewhere else at the blog, but overall it seems that the temptation to regard yourself as part of the greatest generation is a temptation that will erupt in every American generation.    As some old aging pop star put it in some song, "I won't be coming home tonight, my generation will put it right. We're not just making promises that we know we'll never keep."

Yup, because only baby boomers have that sense of entitled we'll-change-the-world hubris? 

Generation X has had a few men and women who are able to simultaneously reveal self-satisfaction and resentment.  There might even have been a local case study here in the Puget Sound area who wasn't even a rock star ... .

But the desire to bask in glory may, really, be inseparable from the sense that credit hasn't been given where it's due for any human being who is not simultaneously also Jesus. 

There's this line from The Right Stuff where Wolfe described how all the astronauts wanted was to be led on to a stage where they then received at least as much adulation as the Pope and that this was really not so much to ask. Recognize that we changed the world and we'll feel like the world is a basically fair place, perhaps?

My thinking of late has been a great deal about whatever our legacies are are ultimately not things we can control.  Legacy sounds great on paper but what it turns out to be is beyond you or me. 

Kyle Gann blogged years ago about how he came across classes of students where not a single one of the students had heard a song by the Beatles.  When a commenter lamented this observation Gann, iff memory serves, replied that he was glad there was finally a generation of students that wasn't obsessed with the Fab Four for a change because he never liked them half a century ago when they were a thing. 

on the other side of the Electoral College decision, remembering Schumer's zinger that didn't come to pass

Not that I'm particularly thrilled with the outcome, but then I regard the empire as doomed either way.  Still ... one of the reasons that some people found the outcome at least partly amusing was because of stuff like this:


Schumer went on to promise that she would go to “rehab” to better please everyone, “both the rich, entitled, white people who are gonna vote for [Trump] and the very poor people who’ve been tricked into it.” She concluded, “I look forward to putting this all behind us in a couple weeks when Hillary Clinton is our motherf---ing president!”

If it had just been Dewey defeats Truman for one institution of the press that'd have been one thing.  What happened late last year seemed to involve the majority of what passes for the Fourth Estate in the North American continent. 

Depending on what does or doesn't happen we find out how long Trump is president ... but this was not Clinton's moment.

The temptation to retroactively imagine that the last eight years were actually somehow great is going to be too strong for some people.  This may be less a function of a responsible or thorough reading of historical events than a rear-guard nostalgia prompted not so much but a clear-eyed view of the past as a panic-fueled vision of the future.  The paranoid apocalyptic idiom that the red and blue cultivated together during the Cold War may have fractured into unique apocalyptic idioms favored by those red and blue but the paranoia has begun to smel the same.  It's not even that there's nothing to be worried about.  There's always been stuff to be worried about.  Any number of genre/pulp classics are reminders that ever since we humans invented nuclear weapons and used them there's been reasons to worry that we'd incinerate ourselves.  But it would seem the order of the era in the post-Cold War American idiom is to only have melt-downs that betoken the fall of Babylon the Great when your team isn't in power.  It was weird reading David Gushee (was it?) lamenting overweening federal power as if the reach of the federal government was only terrifying because Trump won.  Conversely, a decade ago someone I know was declaring that more or less the problem was the President DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH POWER to implement the War on Terror.   In an age in which the greatest apostasies to advocates red and blue is to not be red or blue it would hardly seem any wonder that genuine threats from overseas would matter less to red and blue partisans than the mere existence of the other color. 

It'd be easier to feel bad for the press if the press itself didn't seem to be one of the inveterate ruling castes these days.  Just because they are so very often not particularly religious doesn't mean that the entertainment castes of the United States haven't embraced what could be described as a form of clericalism, but a clericalism of the artist rather than the formal priest. 

and I guess lately I feel like a slightly anticlerical sort on the subject of the arts and entertainment.  These people don't necessarily have special knowledge that's worth more than what you can have about the arts.  It's not as though the red and blue partisans don't have a history of holding jup entertainers as saviors.  It's not like Reagan always had his career in politics, after all. 

a Francis Schaeffer retrospective at Mere Orthodoxy suggesta a third way between adulation and anathema ... we might be underselling some of the foibles a little
He got some of the details wrong. He was an over-the-top generalist. The film series and book, How Should We Then Live? have a certain Cold War feeling that has now been succeeded by newer concerns, such as globalization and Islamicist terrorism. But he was fresh, and insightful, and had a “nose’ for trends and people. We can do a great deal with his heritage, whether in general areas or in the arts in particular. So many of his insights were right, though partial. May we be his worthy children as we build on his legacy and add to his insights!
He got some of the details wrong is too nice a way of putting it, depending on the subject.  I still agree with Schaeffer's critique of art for the sake of art being a dead end.  But Schaeffer's whole take on history blows up when you start breaking it down into the component disciplines.  Musicians with a modicum of music history could find no end to the implications of what Schaeffer got wrong about just John Cage.  But I'm incubating some thoughts about stuff like that which may or may not be presented in this particular context, i.e. this particular platform.

We can, certainly, do a great deal with his ideas and proposals, partial though they were--we can also, in another sense, remember that at most he provided a potential starting point and that perhaps the most valuable thing we can do is, and I'm trying to find a way to say this that can be construed as respectfully dissenting, move on from Schaeffer as clarion call to have Christians do X and go actually do X. 

I'd write more but I'm still mulling over a lot of stuff ... and to some degree there's some stuff at Roger Scruton's end of things that merits some pushback.  But I'm not sure how inspired I am to tackle that just yet ... maybe some stuff can wait for the weekend.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Nat Hentoff has died ... and a semi-related link on arts critics positions withering away in newspapers

Well, as arts news goes 2017 started off with ... basically the death of Nat Hentoff.  Perhaps not a name that would jump out or ring bells for readers, but it's a passing that deserves to be noted.  If people were unhappy at so many artists and such dying in 2016 losing Hentoff at the start of 2017 hardly seems like an indication that this year will be "better".

So thematically it would seem that we're witnessing the death of the era of arts critics in mainstream and local newspapers.  Thus ...

Blogs and niche arts websites thrive (if not economically, certainly in terms of traffic). But they can do great work, gather thousands of readers and still not plug the hole newspapers have left by pulling arts pages. Niche sites cater to niche audiences. They ghettoize content and normalize the notion that a story about a tremendous new rock act doesn’t belong between a report about a corrupt city council member and a recap of a Cleveland Cavaliers game.


“Newspapers are where most investigative journalism originates from, so it’s scary,” music publicist Jim Flammia of All Eyes Media says. “But it’s also scary for me professionally because I need places for our artists to get covered. My artists make their money on the road, so regional coverage is more important than national coverage, and that regional coverage comes from newspapers.”

There's a strange and not necessarily delicious irony reading this kind of stuff.  The irony is that when I started blogging back in 2006 what I was aiming to do was write about chamber music; classical guitar involving musical traditions that were not the usual suspects of Spain and Spanish-speaking traditions (I'm fond of stuff more from central/eastern Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, though I'm a stereotypical guitarist in that I do admire Sor and Villa-Lobos); animation and other things.

It was only when local and regional media, to say nothing of national press institutions, seemed to be systematically failing to cover what I thought needed covering about the history of Mars Hill that this blog took what was arguably the largest half-decade detour a would-be arts blog could take.  The blog came to be so utterly defined by investigative journalistic blogging about Mars Hill that when I saw a friend from the Mars Hill days a few months ago he asked if the blog was retired.

Nope, it's finally getting back to arts stuff.

But the ghettoizing effect of blogs is not merely a function of writing, it can be a function of the reading tendencies readers bring to their web experience.  Traffic to the blog is a tenth what it once was, which is fine.  The number of people who read the extensive series of posts late in 2016 I did on recapitulatory tendencies in early 19th century guitar sonatas is a mere fraction of the people who read about that memo proposing Driscoll get a raise.  There are times when investigative journalism is more important than arts coverage.  Ideally we can have investigative journalism and arts coverage.

But back when I was a student journalist I realized that a lot of what constitutes even the best arts coverage is still, in the end, advertising copy in a lot of ways.  Take any article in The New Yorker about this or that book or author that allegedly "predicted" Trump and what have you got?  A book of the month style advertisement for a book that the staff of The New Yorker imagine you either haven't bought/read yet or that you should read again.  Now there's a great deal of value in arts criticism precisely when you don't intend to watch or read any of the stuff being discussed.  That's not to say you want to be like Tom from Metropolitan, reading criticism rather than the books themselves as though you've read both.  :)

So in a way this blog is a reflection of my intermittent feelings and thoughts that we could have more academic discussions of guitar literature.  Those discussions are out there, to be sure, but they're not always easy to find. 

And what we're really lamenting when we lament a decline in critics is institutional endorsement.  The problem with a blog is that no matter how prestigious the author or content of a blog, it's not usually an example of the institutional press. 

It's hard to forget that in the last six or seven years what ultimately shook the foundations of Driscoll's empire here in Puget Sound was not exactly mainstream press coverage, at least not by itself.  Negative press coverage played a role but by no stretch of the imagination did Warren Cole Smith count as a liberal/secular journalist.  Neither could that be said of Janet Mefferd.  Driscoll's empire crumbled because of intra-evangelical, intra-Reformed critique.  Had things been left up to the left (religious or otherwise) Driscoll's brand might be even more powerful now than it was in 2012.  It may well be that a variety of the alliances of convenience through which different people who had criticisms of Mark Driscoll have withered away.  That's probably as it should be. 

An arts writer can make the difference between me reading a newspaper and not.  I basically stopped reading The Stranger for the most part after Chris DeLaurenti stopped writing for them ... unless something unusually pertinent showed up in the paper's pages. 

But my feelings about arts criticism and arts critics are profoundly mixed.  I wrote a haiku a while back ...

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft

isn't exactly an upbeat message.  Given the failures of the Fourth Estate to anticipate the recent Electoral College decision (never mind the small lake of post-mortems) the press may need to ask itself whether or not we're going to miss the freedom of the press in a post-Hentoff media or not. 

To put it another way, from where I've been blogging in the last ten-ish years, arts critics can have a comparable well of self-aggrandizing self-pity that north American Christian intellectuals can sometimes have.  We've got folks who are sad about their declining influence in society while we don't always seem to have the most airtight case as to how much influence we had to begin with. 

Some of my most persistent critical interests (i.e. what I've written criticism about) have been on subjects that I have rarely seen mainstream arts critics even bother with.  Yeah, yeah, maybe Richard Brody will vent about childrens' movies and cartoons for kids being all moralistic.  So what?  How much mainstream coverage is there of animation as an art form?  Not a ton, except in the comics scene, perhaps.  We'll get coverage of stuff considered "grown up" enough to count, so we'll get stuff about The Simpsons, South Park, or Family Guy, or Archer, or maybe sometimes The Venture Bros.  The pending Ghost in the Shell remake makes "some" headlines.  Ghibli makes some news for people already dialed in.

But arts criticism tends to ignore animation as a medium because of stereotyped associations with kid stuff.  One of my pet projects has been to occasionally write about cartoons and take them as seriously as I would novels by Dostoevsky or Camus or poetry by Levertov or Eliot or Stevens.  Part of the fun of criticism as a discipline and an art form is that you can write about the stuff that interests you.  I would propose that if you want to get a clear sense of where a society is at look into the stories a people considers safe enough to share with children.  What ideological and metaphysical perspectives are endorsed in kid tales?    If I were to take Batman stories more seriously than stories by Hemmingway that could be a reason why.  Arts criticism can travel about in the things people want to watch and discuss and not just the stuff academics have decreed we have to discuss in order to graduate from high school.  When the director Satoshi Kon died it was hardly news over here but it was sad news for me.  More people noted the death of George Michael than Roland Dyens, I suspect ... .

and so then there's music, and if there's a topic that could be said to interest only academic sorts, the evolution of sonata forms in solo guitar literature would be such a topic. 

All of this is stuff you can write about as much as you want at a blog.  You could do it for a local newspaper but ... really ... could you?  I can hardly think of more than maybe five articles (all reviews) discussing any of the music of Ferdinand Rebay.  Now, sure, maybe his music isn't your bag and that's fine.  What the role of arts criticism can play is in catalyzing conversations and debates.  I'd like Rebay's guitar sonatas to get quite a bit more exposure because even though I actually do admire Ponce's guitar sonatas they're in danger of being overplayed lollipops, to borrow some phrases Matanya Ophee has used.  Now perhaps Rebay's sonatas are lollipops but there's something to be said for sucking on a new lollipop once in a while. 

I haven't even gotten around to discussing contrapuntal cycles by Kapustin, Shchedrin, Shostakovich or Henry Martin yet ... that's stuff I want to get to.  You may be getting the idea here that what a blog has the luxury of providing is extended arts criticism that does not have to worry about a fiscal bottom line.  Newspapers may have less and less ability to provide that platform for arts criticism.

It might be a good thing if arts critics have to have other jobs with newspapers.  In the last few years of trying to catch up on arts criticism and the arts scene I've sometimes been discouraged and a little depressed at the solipsistic tendencies in arts criticism.  The idea that someone like A. O. Scott can make any defense of the art of criticism by saying in any way that it's "the art of the voice" seems ridiculous.  If I've never had confidence that art for the sake of art was ultimately a compelling life-long reason to make art that seems even more true about criticism for the sake of criticism if by criticism we mean the literary art form.  The problem with the art of the voice is that you have to be willing to say something.  Hentoff, it hardly needs to be repeated, was willing to say something. 

One of the more memorable reviews of Scott Timberg's book Culture Crash was at Arts Fuse, where the author dryly observed that it could seem as though Timberg only thought the seismic economic changes that slammed the working classes across the United States over the last thirty some years were a big deal when he lost his job as an arts critic. 

But then it seems the older I get the more I get the impression that writers in the United States by and large don't want to talk about the infinitesimally small odds that you or I can "make it" as a writer; it was illuminating to read that Sor had a desk job in the military while he was alive and doing his guitar composing thing.  It was interesting to read that Wenzel Matiegka was a clerk in a law office for a while.  To the extent that arts histories and arts coverage discuss the "what" of the finished products and not the possibility that very, very few of these people paid all their bills (or maybe any in some cases) doing what we remember them for ... it'd be nice if I could feel it was terrible that arts coverage has been declining in the last fifteen odd years.  But for some reason I'm just not feeling that heartbroken about it this week.  The art of criticism can withstand all this and the role of the vocational critic in the arts may e precarious as the role of the vocational artist.  It doesn't seem those institutional jobs or that institutional clout is coming back any time soon ... if ever ... so what alternatives may emerge?  Sometimes it seems the blog will have to do.  It's only a small part but it can still be something.