Saturday, July 01, 2017

Washington Post article on the decline of the electric guitar considering that guitar era that Kyle Gann thought might exist circa 2003 that might still just be the musical subculture it's possibly always been

I've enjoyed reading Kyle Gann's blog when he's blogged but I can't help remembering that waaaay back in 2003 he wrote:

Something else I meant to add about my students and the piano: Perhaps it’s just Bard culture, but I see many students today, perhaps a majority, coming to musical creativity from the guitar rather than the piano, as they used to, or any other instrument. This could have profound consequences. In the Renaissance, composers usually got their start as child singers. Baroque and Classical composers were often string players (Corelli and Haydn, the violin; Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, the viola). Romantic and modern composers were more often than not pianists. Such choices have profound consequences, and if there really is a sea-change of composers now coming from the guitar world rather than the piano, that alone could bring about a rift in musical eras. Berlioz, who played the clarinet and guitar, was almost the only non-pianist composer of his era, and as a result became its most innovative orchestrator. Guitarists visualize music theory in more contextual, less fixed and abstract, ways than pianists do. Interval size is less of a constant for them, melodies more conveniently leap throughout the register than proceed by steps, and their instruments are easily retunable and portable, tremendously louder (if electric), and carrying no upper-class connotations. By their 20s, these composers have been conditioned by a completely different relationship to pitch and volume than the pianist-composers of my generation and earlier. I’m curious as to whether professors in other music departments notice the same demographic change.


I don't know if I'd call it profound consequences as such but let's take note that here in the year 2017 Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar have finally been published.  German Dzhaparidze's cycle of 24 preludes and fugues has been recorded in the last three years.  Igor Rekhin's cycle of preludes and fugues has not been recorded in its entirety but about two thirds of it as performed by Vladimir Tervo is able to be ordered as digital music for those who know where to find it.  My set of preludes and fugues for solo guitar now exists as a duet cycle, too, and ... that's been recorded and is available somewhere.  Which is to say that here in 2017 there are AT LEAST four cycles of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar out there.  At least two of those four cycles were composed by guitarists and if Dzhaparidze himself is a guitarist that would make for three.  There's a cycle by Puget Sound area composer/guitarist Philip Quackenbush, too, but I haven't been able to see the scores for that cycle. 

Not that fugues have to be composed for the guitar in sets of dozens.  Friedrich Zehm has a set of six preludes and fugues I haven't gotten to yet but hope to get to in the future.  Gilbert Biberian has written fugues into a couple of his guitar sonatas.  There's also the Brouwer fugue, and a fugue. Alexandre Eisenberg has a prelude, chorale and fugue I've got, too.  Ideally you get the idea that fugal composition for solo guitar is by now, if not exactly the stuff of musical legend, at least so firmly established as to be beyond any serious scholarly dispute.

If there are profound consequences for those whose commitment is to the preservation of the art music traditions that are informally understood to be of Western European lineage one of those consequences "could" be this--if it's possible for fugues to be composed for solo guitar and at least four guitarist composers have composed large-scale contrapuntal cycles, then would this mean the guitar has finally reached a level of respectability that was perhaps not attained in Segovia's time by dint of guitarists being busy transcribing Bach rather than more directly contributing to the polyphonic literature?    Well ...

What Gann had to say in 2003 may well have a kernel of truth if we're talking what could be called classical music.  If arts funding keeps getting sliced and if the symphonic and traditional ensemble formats suffer in the wake of such cuts then a way the art music idioms could adapt and survive could partly lay in the hands of guitarists.  I think there's at least some basis for such a move.  I admit to being highly biased in favor of this approach as a guitarist. 

But there are two ironic twists.  First ...

Long-time electronic composer and general Downtown raconteur Tom Hamilton sends me an interesting fact in response to my perceptions of the guitar’s takeover of the composing world:

In 1995, an industry group called the Guitar and Accessories Marketing Association (GAMA), along with the NAMM and MENC, started a launched a program to train teachers to start guitar programs in middle and high schools. That group estimated that by 2001, over 200,000 students have learned guitar in school, and over 38,000 students bought their own guitar. They project a trend that by 2010, will have over 1.5 million students learning guitar in school programs, and over 300,000 students purchasing guitars. And that’s just through one school-based program! My observation is that most guitarists learn through woodshedding and private lessons without any institutional structure at all.
So no wonder young guitarists seem to be coming out of the woodwork: it was a calculated industry initiative!  ...

What might have seemed an organic grassroots shift had a great big corporate explanation.

But the ironic thing is that just a few weeks ago the Washington Post had this:

The electric guitar, that emblem of rock music and rock culture, has been on a decline. There aren't guitar heroes these days like there were in days of old.  The guitar heroes there are, are getting old.  If some believe that what is needed these days if for there to be heroes of the guitar do those heroes have to come from a rock or pop or jazz setting?  If Taylor Swift inspires kids to take up the guitar, as one source quoted in the WaPost article described, are there guitarists who will turn up their noses at the prospect that girls, wanting to imitate Taylor Swift, decide to take up the guitar?  Considering how many times I've seen people say that guys take up the guitar just to get the girls I'll just overlook that dubious kind of condescension.  Some of us take up musical instruments because we love music and not because we're trying to improve our odds on the local dating scene. 

Now perhaps there was, as some say, a bubble on the manufacturing side.  But we've blogged about this before here at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  There was also, apparently, a bubble on the observation side.  First we'll revisit a comment by an author at The Guardian describing rock music as having entered its "jazz phase".

2. Rock music is in its jazz phase

And I don’t mean it’s having a Kamasi Washington/Thundercat moment of extreme hipness. I mean it’s like Ryan Gosling’s version of jazz in La La Land: something fetishised by an older audience, but which has ceded its place at the centre of the pop-cultural conversation to other forms of music, ones less tied to a sense of history. Ones, dare I say it, more forward looking. For several years, it seemed, I was asked by one desk or another at the Guardian to write a start-of-year story about how this was the year rock would bounce back. But it never did. The experts who predicted big things for guitar each year were routinely wrong. No one asks for that story any longer.

Indeed!  We've just seen an article on the slow death of the electric guitar!

Then there's this thing called the Shazam Effect mentioned a few years back:

Billboard replaced its honor system with hard numbers in 1991, basing its charts on point-of-sale data from cash registers. “This was revolutionary,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s current director of charts. “We were finally able to see which records were actually selling.” Around the same time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio airplay through Nielsen.When that happened, hip-hop and country surged in the rankings and old-fashioned rock slowly began to fade—suggesting that perhaps an industry dominated by white guys on the coasts hadn’t paid enough attention to the music interests of urban minorities and southern whites.

What if beyond the bubble in manufacturing in the 1990s there was this bubble in measurement that took place on the measurement side.  Rock seemed to be the big thing because rockists ran the industry.  When the systemic biases toward rock and against rap and country were eliminated by more direct metrics tracking, hip-hop and country came to dominate the charts. 

Not that music relying on the sampling of existing works is without it's own potential risks.  Let's not forget that it was just a couple of years ago the "Blurred Lines" verdict came down.

Hip-hop in particular has proudly thrived on borrowed sounds and vibes, and has clashed with the courts over the years because of sampling. In the wake of the ruling, Questlove of The Roots sent (then deleted) a tweet with the hashtag #NiceKnowingYouHipHop. In 2013 he told New York that  “If it were a case of melodic plagiarism, I would definitely side with the estate,” but then explained why he thought Thicke and Pharrell were in the clear:
Look, technically it’s not plagiarized. It’s not the same chord progression. It’s a feeling. Because there’s a cowbell in it and a fender Rhodes as the main instrumentation — that still doesn’t make it plagiarized. We all know it’s derivative. That’s how Pharrell works. Everything that Pharrell produces is derivative of another song — but it’s an homage.

There are those who regard the verdict as a disaster for music.  I find that impossible to believe but then I'm a guitarist and also a guitarist who has opted to specialize in what's generally known as classical repertoire.  I guess I also fit into what would be called the new music scene, since when I play I play new compositions rather than the usual warhorse literature of Sor, Giuliani, Diabelli or Tarrega (who all wrote some fine music for the instrument, to be sure).  So for me, the "Blurred Lines" verdict has no bearing inasmuch as when I crib music from other composers I make a point of going for works that have been public domain for centuries.  I also deliberately recompose them to the point where only a specialist in music history might necessarily even recognize the source materials.  What does a musician do if they want to work in a musical idiom in which sampling is involved?  Here's one answer:
What some of the early rap samplers went through when, all of a sudden, their music became illegal in that way.
Exactly. And copyright law's getting more and more strict, but you can exist in two ways: You can either be remarkably wealthy and license whatever you want, or you can be really obscure and no one's gonna care. But if you're anywhere in the middle, collage becomes difficult. So I really like working with microsamples and sounds that are devoid of their original context, but exist just as a timbral element. [emphasis added]

Like a pixel, in a way, of music. And to get around copyright issues, you can just use it if it's that small?
Well, I would consider it fair use — because it's completely recontextualized. A new derivative work is made, and there's no way to tell what it was. [Laughing] We should really not talk about this. I'm expecting the emails that are like, "We've identified the microsamples you were discussing ... "

Now I would venture as a matter of preference that you go for stuff that is public domain.  If you need to record that public domain stuff yourself before you then manipulate the audio for sampling that might be even better.  Call it a possible third way between the two extremes Dan Deacon described. 

But for the average electric guitarist there is practically no such thing as a public domain body of work.  One of the reactions I've seen coming more from the wing that regards classical music as some kind of prestige or class problem (generally on the rock/pop/jazz side of sympathy if people situate themselves in class conflict) is to consider the "Blurred Lines" verdict a disaster for music.  It's not a disaster for music so long as you're plugged into some musical idiom that has robust enough a body of public domain works for this to not have to effect you.  If the verdict "is" a disaster for you or your preferred styles of music because nothing in the style you like is public domain then that might be your real problem, both in terms of aesthetic interests and in terms of legally constrained options. 

Generational insularity was often enough a thing in music of earlier eras but back in those days intellectual property was not quite the same thing, either.  Thanks to companies big enough with enough trademarks to protect to have a vest interest in fundamentally altering the range and scope of copyright laws and licensing practices things are different now.  This would be an opportunity for those with a traditionalist bent to argue for the value of the traditions.  What has become a public domain has become a cultural good that can be recombined, recomposed and reinvented in any number of ways for a continued existence.  A culture that is entirely under copyright and trademark is one that may paradoxically not long survive. 

Something I wish had been explained more clearly back when I was in college was the thing about how the composers of old were not necessarily compensated for their music itself, but for their labor.  Haydn was paid to provide goods and services, for instance.  He was under what effectively amounted to a military contract. Scott Timberg found it useful to gloss over that when he wrote that if Haydn didn't show up for work he could be jailed for being absent without leave over at Salon.  Duh, anyone who knows anyone who has been in the military, let alone anyone who's been in a military service, can get why an AWOL incident could get you in a brig.  But Timberg skipped over the parts where Haydn was allowed to write whatever he wanted and got free housing and a food stipend and free medical care.  When a patron doles out that much largesse for a court composer who is expected to compose all major and incidental music for the parties under a contract that has him effectually listed as a military caste participant then, yeah, the day you fail to show up for your job is the day you're in trouble. 

So ... if the guitar manufacturing industry is in a slump ... it may or may not be the guitar era Kyle Gann was guessing we'd have after all.  Matanya Ophee said decades ago there was never a proverbial golden age of the guitar, regardless of the marketing schemes of a select range of guitarists. 

I'm looking forward to blogging about the fugal cycles of Koshkin, Rekhin and Dzhaparidze later this year but you can't just go and just start blogging about stuff like that.  You have to immerse yourself in the scores and stuff.  I think that for those of us who love the six-stringed instrument banding together regardless of formal style and whether or not there are pick-ups installed in proximity to the bridge would be a good idea. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

links for the weekend--is it the top one percent or maybe the top twenty percent in the United States that is hoarding the wealth at the expense of everyone else?

Over at Commentary Terry Teachout has something about a book discussing the symphonic scene in Germany under National Socialism.

After the 20th century, so full of atrocities and horrors that would be axiomatic if merely saying they were so was not a troubling axiom, the idea that the humanities humanize shouldn't be taken very seriously.  This is not simply a matter of whether poetry can exist after Auschwitz.  Plenty of human activities continued after that evil and will continue.  But it has been easily observed that German culture, for a long stretch regarded as the pinnacle of Western sophistication and genius in the arts, was clearly no barrier against systematic evil.   Cue the quote from Walter Benjamin if you already know it ... .

What American artists who would prefer a more European style state-subsidized arts scene might want to ask here in 2017 is whether they really would want the United States government to subsidize the arts given how vehemently anti-Trump many artists are.  Would not, at this point, it seem to many an artist that the demolition of the NEA and NEH might be inadvertent favors to artists, if only in the sense that if Trump proves to be as despotic as many on the liberal/left side of the spectrum fear he will ultimately prove to be, why would any artists with self-respect want federal funding from that administration, exactly?

Furtwangler assuring Toscanini that people are free where ever Wagner and Beethoven music was played and that, if they are not free at first, they are eventually free listening to the works, sounds ghastly.  It's ghastly for the most literally obvious reason but it's also ghastly to anyone who actually can't stand Wagner's music and prefers Haydn to Beethoven overall.  It's not that interesting music can't be made by those who are imprisoned.  Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is amazing.  I've been listening to Zaderatsky's preludes and fugues which, as has been reported in the last couple of years by advocates for it, was one of the first cycles of preludes and fugues for piano composed in the 20th century and which was also composed while the composer was stuck in the Gulag.  

But there's a lot of art that is made that is beautiful in spite of evils.  If people on the secular left side hope that truly great journalism will happen in the era of Trump that's not conceptually so different from reactionary right wing dispensationalist fundamentalists Christians believing that some powerful End Times anointing would be at hand if Hillary Clinton were president.  After twenty some years of hearing the red and the blue regard the other team as spawning the Antichrist if they win the Oval Office it seems easier to just assume that whoever actually gets the job ... .

There's more than one angle to approaching the conceit that bad times make for great art.  Take this article over at The New Republic about the emergence of the "thought leader".

However deeply the superrich have degraded American intellectual and political discourse, the Ideas Industry has also created an opening—albeit a very slim one—for a different kind of organic intellectual. The one percent’s attempts to disrupt the media and universities have had the unintended consequence of radicalizing a generation of young writers and academics on the left—those recently dubbed “the new public intellectuals” in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Facing dim job prospects in the academy, leftists who might once have become professors increasingly define themselves as writers or political organizers. Bad times, historically speaking, are good for ideas, and our moment is no exception. We’re arguably living in a new golden age of little magazines: Not only have publications like n+1, Jacobin, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Current Affairs appeared in recent years, but older ones like The Baffler and Dissent have been resurrected or revitalized.

Gramsci’s conception of the organic intellectual was not merely meant to describe the prophets of the European bourgeoisie and its industrial capitalism. The organic intellectual was above all a concept for the left: a name for those who, emerging from working-class conditions, had the inclination and ability to express their vision of society and organize it into action. He envisioned not a savior swooping down from the elite, but thinkers sharing an experience of economic privation, translated into both an intellectual and social struggle.

For those who read and remember the Alan Jacobs lament about the loss of Christian intellectuals this idea that real intellectualism, whether it's imagined to be left or right in foundation or origin, is one of those lapsarian bromides that will probably not die until there are no humans left to express the sentiment. 

But which super-rich do we really want to hold accountable for wrecking the prospects (whatever those may be hoped to be) for the working class?  The proverbial one percent?  What if it's turned out to be the whole range of the "top twenty percent"? Such is the argument, at least, advanced lately by Richard V Reeves.


Trump’s success among middle-class whites might seem surprising, given his own wealth. But his supporters have no problem with the rich. In fact, they admire them.  His movement was about class, not money, and he exuded the blue-collar culture. For his supporters, the enemy is upper middle-class professionals: journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names. You and me.

And here is the difficult part. The popular obsession with the top 1 percent allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.  However messily it is expressed, much of the criticism of our class is true. We proclaim the “net” benefits of free trade, technological advances, and immigration, safe in the knowledge that we will be among the beneficiaries. Equipped with high levels of human capital, we can flourish in a global economy. The cities we live in are zoned to protect our wealth, but deter the unskilled from sharing in it. Professional licensing and an immigration policy tilted toward the low-skilled shield us from the intense market competition faced by those in nonprofessional occupations. We proclaim the benefits of free markets but are largely insulated from the risks they can pose. Small wonder other folks can get angry.


I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. There are lots of reasons I have made America my home, but one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

Indeed, the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust. The top fifth of U.S. households saw a $4 trillion increase in pretax income in the years between 1979 and 2013.  The combined rise for the bottom 80 percent, by comparison, was just over $3 trillion. The gap between the bottom fifth and the middle fifth has not widened at all. In fact, there has been no increase in inequality below the eightieth percentile. All the inequality action is above that line.

The broader case, in case this is a TL:DR weekend for you, dear reader, is that there's what some call income inequality of revenue and then there's other thing Reeves calls "opportunity hoarding". A lot of income inequality is not necessarily found in bankers and deals for plutocrats, though it's obviously found there; it can also be manifest in the ways the upper middle class parents take steps to ensure their kids will have AT LEAST the comfort and access to resources they themselves have enjoyed.  The prospect that your kid may have to live with economic downward mobility is never going to be acceptable, is it?  Reeves suggests that the United States university system abolishes altogether legacy admissions practices.  Just because one or both of you parents went to school X doesn't mean you get a tuition discount or any advantageous consideration compared to someone who comes from a family that never previously attended school X.

I've made this somewhat joking observation before but it's not a surprise to me that in the last decade the signature take on the all-American superhero Batman managed to come from a British director, Christopher Nolan.  Perhaps Americans have been so eager to not think about class, yet between Nolan's version of Batman and the by now iconic take of Batman: the animated series, Batman is the sort of character that most directly interrogates questions folks can have in the United States about how, if there's going to be a one percent, if there's just going to be a plutocratic caste, what kind of conduct do we want from that caste?  That is, somewhat predictable riffs from some branches of the left withstanding, not necessarily an advocacy of "fascism".  Inequality is ineradicable from the human species and the people who are least able to avoid this reality about our species are generally those who were quite literally born with a disadvantage of some kind, what in bygone eras might have been inelegantly called a handicap. 

I'll admit to some frustration that a student who thinks that writers at The Baffler or Jacobin or n+1 signify the emergence of a new intellectual group.  I do read stuff from those publications on a roughly monthly basis.  I also toggle through Commentary (obviously), The New Criterion, The American Conservative, and a few other venues that are not quite left of center.  It's been a little surreal to get the sense that the far left and the far right agree more with each other these days than the proverbial "center" left and right.  Part of what makes this a little odd is remembering a macabre observation by one Richard Taruskin about how the  history of Europe shows that if you move far enough to the left or the right the thing they all agree on is that the bad stuff is the fault of Jews who should get ostracized or punished. 

It doesn't seem like there's much reason to be optimistic about the far edges of the left and right or the center.  It sometimes seems as though agitators and partisans across the board are angling for some kind of race war or class war or all of the above if that can be managed. Those that do angle for those kinds of things very like cannot be disinterested parties.  Revolutions tend to get embraced by those sorts of agitators who ultimately intend to be the next ruling class.  The history of the Soviet bloc suggests, no, more than suggests that regardless of formally espoused ideologies ruling classes tend to end up behaving more or less similarly across the board. 

I'm not so sure that the "thought leader" that a David Sessions at The New Republic decries is ultimately much more than a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" of the public intellectual from an earlier era. 

Let's put it this way, there's no reason the thought leader isn't really the organic intellectual of the top twenty percent and not just the top one percent, but those sorts of people who might be in the top twenty percent and have, say, a penchant for founding left-leaning or socialist `zines might have very powerful incentives to exempt the nineteen percent they are part of over against that one percent in the top twenty percent they aren't themselves part of.
The intellectual institutions of postwar America were far from perfect; universities and think tanks accepted military-oriented funding from the U.S. government and often provided the intellectual foundations for American imperialism. Nevertheless, the three decades after World War II—when corporate power was checked by a strong labor movement, higher education became broadly accessible, and social services were expanded—were the most democratic in American history. Universities and think tanks were able to establish a baseline of public trust, in part because their production of knowledge was not directly beholden to the whims of idiosyncratic billionaires demanding that their “metrics” be met and their pet political ideas be substantiated.


The golden age of little magazines ... I admit to cynicism.  Plutocrats may be more brazenly direct in their interests in influencing policy but I wonder whether it's necessarily worse than earlier eras in which the American university system was in full post-war bloom.  Didn't someone over at Jacobin write a long-form piece about how Jews in American academic became neo-conservatives because, with the emergence of affirmative action Jewish scholars who might otherwise have been on board with civil rights for African Americans balked at the prospect of losing their disproportionately large influence in American letters?  Yes ... I do recall reading such a piece.  What is alternately thought of as neoliberalism or neoconservativism, depending on which left/right polemics you're reading, seems to have been birthed in part from that university/think tank culture.   Not the whole, obviously, and not by a long shot but the idea that the old system was better than the new thought leader regime seems tough to buy.  There are reasons that the contemporary academic scene seems like it would be something people would want to not be part of. 

At length the question that comes up is how much you're willing to reconcile yourself to serving an empire.  That's an unavoidable question.  If you're an academic at a state school you're working for whatever the empire is that you live in.  It can be done, and I'd hardly say you should never be a teacher.  Teaching was one of the career paths I was interested in.  But I was not, at the risk of putting it in terms borrowed from the various polemics cited above, not born into the class or caste for whom those kinds of doors really opened. 

I twas not that long after graduating from college that it began to dawn on me I had had an advantage a lot of people wouldn't have in educational terms, but also that I had graduated into a job market for which my education was not necessarily a preparation.  I had also reached a slowly but steadily firm conviction that whatever I had been told about the power bestowed upon the job-seeker by higher education was at best wishful thinking and at worst a sham.  Class mobility is probably one of the most pervasive myths in the United States.  If injustice is the discovery that you and yours are on a downward trend that's not necessarily injustice, is it?  What if it's the market at work? 

Here in Seattle about two months ago posters and fliers were about saying "no more shit jobs".  There will always be those kinds of jobs and just because a lot of us get those kinds of jobs and don't exactly adore them doesn't mean the jobs don't, in some sense, have to get done.  It seems that people who weren't born into the world with disabilities can't quite get that the world will always have haves and have nots.  You could be born into the world able to digest gluten ... or not.  You don't get to choose that.  If there's something about American society that seems toxic it's that people on both the left and the right in the artsy entrepreneurial scene seem to feel like they are somehow exempt from being I n that previously mentioned top twenty percent.  You don't have to be a Trump or a Soros or a Swift to be born into a ruling class, you might just need to be born into a family where, simply because your parents and/or grandparents went to school X, gives you or gave you a hefty discount on tuition at school X, or that you get a legacy admission for their time and money and ... maybe effort.