Saturday, July 07, 2018

Steve Ditko, pioneering comics artist, dead at 90 with a few links on Ditko's objectivist convictions and how he was at odds with a few of his more traditionally liberal collaborators in the industry over the years

No Steve Ditko arguably meant no Spider-man and no Dr. Strange. 

Definitely no The Question which would have meant no Rorshach.  The irony that Alan Moore's most famous comic book story depended in crucial ways on the creations of an Objectivist whose views he would probably still scorn to this day is one of those ironies that's worthy of Moore's better writing. 

Ditko can seem like he was the photo-negative of Stan Lee.  If Lee basked in celebrity and catering to fans Ditko was thought of as a recluse and a creative hermit.  I do wonder, however, if in the age of celebrity and social media Steve Ditko can be thought of as being like another comics titan of a different strip, Bill Watterson.  I like to think of artists like Steve Ditko and Bill Watterson as not recluses but as committed to an pre-social media standard of maintaining a personal life or a private life.  The ideal, if I may venture this, is that your work is known but you are not, not beyond what you feel comfortable sharing with the public at large, to whom you owe none of the trappings and traits of celebrity.

It's striking to consider that coverage says that Ditko was a recluse. Maybe he was ... or maybe we are so saturated with celebrity as a way to define being a figure with influential work in the public sphere that if someone rejects or refuses those parameters of contributing to the public sphere we can't help but regard them as a "recluse".

By now it seems that Ditko's disagreement over Stan Lee and company's decision to make Norman Osborne the Green Goblin has some agreement.  Making Osborne the Goblin has stuck and its comics canon but when I read the comics in my younger days I felt the Green Goblin was kind of a tedious C-lister and that Norman was an interesting, conflicted character.  He seemed capable of being cold and aloof but he did seem to really love his son Harry.  The proposal noted above that Ditko may have wanted Norman to become the surrogate father figure to Parker is a theory, but the first Raimi film clearly ran with the idea that Norman offers himself as having been like a father to Peter.  The possibility of retconning a Norman Osborne who's never been the Green Goblin is clearly never, ever going to happen. 

But if it's true Ditko didn't want Norman to be the Green Goblin who he DID want the Goblin to turn out to be may never be known. 

As these things go the pinnacle of Spider-man stories for me is that initial 100 issues up to the death of Captain George Stacy.  There a plenty of reasons why the Lee/Ditko Spider-man holds up for me as classic pulp fiction but I don't wan tto bore you with all the reasosn for that.  If you're a Spider-man fan you basically already know, don't you?

HT D. G. Hart on "Why Some Catholics Are Still Trying to Revive Medieval Christendom" by Massimo Faggioli--some weekend musing on how if the endgame in mind is a revitalized Christendom then it's the Christendom that's venerated and not Christ whether that Christendom is formally Protestant or Catholic

Protestants have an easier time around our Constantian history since no European government or Reformed church declared a specific political order to be the Christian ideal. Protestants varied and worked church-state matters out on the ground, whether as established churches (Scotland and Geneva), persecuted minorities (France), or voluntarist communions (United States).

Not so with Roman Catholics. Popes and their advisers since the eleventh century spent a lot of time defining papal supremacy in relation to Europe’s Christian social order, and then after 1789 doubling down on the state’s subordination to the church and condemning all forms of liberalism.

But then Vatican II happened. Roman Catholicism is still trying to figure out what Vatican II means and meant since it presents at least three different papal models from which Roman Catholics may choose: Pius IX (traditionalist), John Paul II (conservative) and Francis (progressive). But as Faggioli insists, Vatican II broke the mold of the papacy’s place in western politics.

And since the old, Pius IX political theology was part of the church’s infallible teaching not just on society but on salvation (a liberal society tolerated errors that led the faithful to mortal sins), Vatican II represents a problem for any Roman Catholic who says this is the church that Jesus founded (and doesn’t have his fingers crossed).

Duly noted, although it would seem thanks to postmillennialism and a host of other doctrinal ideas plenty of Protestants found ways to get straight back to throne and altar theologies but with a different set of parameters.  It's not as though the ideals of Christendom are even strictly "Western" in conception.  Maybe the Gelasian doctrine of two swords has been modified a bit in Protestant-land but it's possible it's still the guiding paradigm whether the Social Gospel is American blue state or American red state. 

That sidelong tangent placed up front, here's the piece Hart was linking to.
Why Some Catholics Are Still Trying to Revive Medieval Christendom
By Massimo Faggioli
June 28, 2018
The current wave of anti-liberalism in the nations of the West and in the Catholic Church is bringing fifty years’ worth of disappointments to the surface. One would have to be blind not to notice the fact that the period after Vatican II—what Karl Rahner called the beginning of the “world Church,” a new age in the history of Christianity—has been a messy one, full of tension and uncertainty. Most postconciliar periods have been messy, but the disorder of this period has been aggravated by new global anxieties about environmental ruin, nuclear war, and globalization.

The new anti-liberalism springs from an old temptation: nostalgia. The anti-liberals dream of a new Christendom that would restore the church to a position of official dominance enforced by the state. They are allergic to pluralism, especially cultural and religious. There is some of this in the Trump agenda and in the right-wing governments now in power in Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Poland, as well as in the free state of Bavaria in the German Federation. The recent meeting between Cardinal Raymond Burke and the new Italian minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, says something about this realignment. Salvini is known not only for his threats of unconstitutional police-state repression against migrants and gypsies in Italy, but also for saying that Benedict XVI is still his pope.

Some people in Europe and the United States still haven’t accepted that we now live in a world church that represents a historical development beyond medieval Christendom. The state of denial of those who still believe that a return to Christendom is possible is driven by many factors, but one in particular: the return of the myth that the whole category of the secular is a liberal invention, the myth that “once, there was no secular.”

One might dare to playfully suggest that to the extent that Magisterial Protestants couldn't resist the temptation to a conflation of the Church and State that might have been because everybody was doing that in the West and the Anabaptists had not managed to build a case people were willing to follow at the time that the conflation was bad news in both directions.  Not that there were only "Western" critiques in that direction but this is the weekend and I'm not officially a scholar or a historian.

We'll skip a few paragraphs that are no doubt of interest to people who are already disposed to read the article to get to this:


Going back to the Middle Ages is not just a practical impossibility—especially in the “global south” where Christianity is now growing. It is also, and no less importantly, a theological impossibility.

Of all the ambivalences and sometimes intentional ambiguities of the documents of Vatican II, the council marked a reckoning with the history of the church’s relationship with political power, especially in the twentieth century. [emphasis added] The bishops and theologians at Vatican II delivered a clear, albeit mostly implicit, moral and theological judgment on efforts to deal with modernity by repurposing totalitarianism and authoritarianism for the protection of the institutional church and the promotion of a Christian social order. (How many of the supporters of authoritarian regimes in pre–World War II Europe became, thirty or forty years later, leaders of Vatican II?)

This judgment was based partly on a new historical sense of the myths that had nurtured the church’s anti-modern stance. One of these was the myth of a Jewish conspiracy against the church. But this pernicious myth fit into the larger triumphalist myth about the glories of Christendom, which had only to be recovered and renewed. This was the myth at which Pope John XXIII took aim in the speech that opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin…. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, nonetheless, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty. We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand….  It suffices to leaf even cursorily through the pages of ecclesiastical history to note clearly how the ecumenical councils themselves, while constituting a series of true glories for the Catholic Church, were often held to the accompaniment of most serious difficulties and sufferings because of the undue interference of civil authorities. The princes of this world, indeed, sometimes in all sincerity, intended thus to protect the church. But more frequently this occurred not without spiritual damage and danger, since their interest therein was guided by the views of a selfish and perilous policy.

All this says something to us today. The refusal to learn from history seems to be a problem for the church now, just as it was in 1962. One must acknowledge that the global disruptions of the current age directly challenge some of the assumptions of Vatican II. When the conciliar documents discuss violence, for example, they are never referring to religious violence. In this sense, Vatican II needs a radical recontextualization. Nevertheless, the council still has something important to say to Catholics who “behave as though at the time of former councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.” In some parts of the world, where Christianity used to be either the only religion or the main one but is now a minority religion, some are again pining for a restoration of an idealized Christendom. [emphasis added] They should heed John XXIII’s warning.

But this should not be construed as a uniquely Catholic problem.  There are bids to restore some kind of normative Christendom in Protestantism and in Orthodoxy across the world.  In the "global south" it may still be that there are more Pentecostals and charismatics among Christians than there are Catholics but I'll admit to being very, very rusty on statistics about that. 

If the Religious Right in the United States and the Anglo-American world could be easily (perhaps too easily?) defined by a single trait it would be a desire to restore Christendom as the norm for societies.  Despite the fact that the Reformation was brimming with men and women who regarded the corruption and graft of Christendom as precisely the thing to be fought against during the actual period of the Reformation in the 20th and 21st century people who might ostensibly be on opposite sides of the Protestant or Catholic divide could still end up agreeing that "some" form of dominant Christendom was the ideal for society.  Americans who might rail at Popery would nonetheless have a variant of throne and altar theology in which America had a Manifest Destiny in which Christians ought to play a part.  Thanks to sleights of hand in nomenclature the new boss could still be the same as the old boss but think he was really new.

Going back to the Middle Ages is not just a practical impossibility—especially in the “global south” where Christianity is now growing. It is also, and no less importantly, a theological impossibility. The ressourcement of Catholic theology in the twentieth century was not primarily a return to medieval sources or even to the fathers of the church; it was above all a return to the example of Jesus himself. To take that example seriously, as Dignitatis humanae does, is to resist any effort to impose Christianity coercively. Christendom often left the individual with too little room for self-determination—too little choice, for example, about whether, and whom, to marry. It too often assumed that the most important decisions about a person’s life were best made for him or her by the family, the community, the church, or the state. Christendom also provided a theological rationale for the wars of religion, a rationale now evidently irreconcilable with Catholic teaching. Finally, Christendom relied on the identification of Catholicism with European civilization. [emphasis added] But one does not have to be European to be Catholic, a fact that becomes more evident with every passing year. Romanitas is no longer an essential feature of Catholic Christianity—if it ever was. The theology of Vatican II points toward the Kingdom of God rather than to a church protected by a political, constitutional, social, or cultural establishment. 
Protestants have obviously had a similar set of mistakes.  Whatever problems nationalism may have felt it was addressing in rallying against legacies of Christendom within the wake of the Holy Roman Empire it does not seem, with a few centuries behind us, that many of the solutions proposed by the Enlightenment and the Romantic responses to feudal Christendom really "solved" the problems of Christendom so much as commuted many of those problems into new forms.  But a newer globalist humanistic vision of a completely unified humanity simply replicates the problem of a universalizing Catholic Christendom in a new ostensibly secular and pluralist vision.  The vision is still one humanity unified under a single global ideology, it's just that the ideology can be construed in secularist and humanist terms rather than explicitly religious terms. 

There is no question that Christianity still needs to come up with a political theology able to address secularity, the dangers of populism, inequality, climate change, and transhumanism, among other pressing issues. It needs a new theology of the common good that is adequate to the problems and possibilities of our own time. It is delusional, however, to think that we will find what we are looking for, or what we need, in a resuscitation of premodern Christendom.

But that seems to be precisely what is preferred not just by reactionary elements within Catholicism but also within Protestantism among those who might be swift to talk about how "ideas have consequences" and how the forsaking of the "Christian worldview" led to a demise in Western culture.  Anglo-American Christian social conservatives may think that because they differ on ordo salutis stuff and a number of other doctrinal differences (that we can grant are real as well as formal differences) that the socio-economic endgame is somehow different from a revitalized Christendom.  Protestants may want a revitalized PROTESTANT Christendom but they still want a revitalized Christendom.

If the end game is a revitalization of Western culture "back" to the point where some Christians think it should have remained then the reactionary nature of the reflections on doctrine and history can be seen for what they are.  These are people who say with their mouths they worship Jesus but venerate their ideals of Western culture in reality. In that sense there are Roman Catholics who are Roman Catholics rather than Roman Catholics. In a comparable way there are American Protestants who are ultimately American Protestants rather than Christians.

On the other hand ... many of the utopian forward-looking ideologies that would posit that we are all one race, the human race, don't seem able to reckon with the ways in which a whole lot of the worst things done in the last few centuries have been done with that kind of optimism. 

Thursday, July 05, 2018

one of the ironies of John Borstlap's disagreement with Ethan Hein at Slipped Disc about teaching hip hop is they both seem to agree that skipping John Cage and his disciples in academic musicology would be a net benefit

To say that John Borstlap regards John Cage as a huckster and a fraud whose work should not be promoted in any way or in any way taken seriously by musicians is probably not an overstatement.  Having read the reprint of his book The Classical Revolution he has asserted repeatedly and passionately that sonic art should not be considered music however much it should play some (ideally small!) role in concert life.

Which makes it ironic that he has disputed the legitimacy of teaching hip hop in musicology in higher education because ... well, somebody has been articulate enough on why he has no use for John Cage or sonic art over at his blog.

Does John Borstlap have a deep-seated hostility toward mid-twentieth-century modernist composers?  Guess what, so does Ethan Hein!  I just read his post on Cage and it seems worth posting about.  Looks like we've both read Richard Taruskin's argument that Cage ideologically is the apotheosis, rather than the rejection of the mystique and cult of Beethoven.  Hein's most recent post (unless he's posted a new one in the last four hours I haven't seen yet) is about Cage and sound art.
John Cage and sound art
Posted on July 2, 2018 by Ethan
I have a deep-seated hostility toward the mid-twentieth-century modernist composers. I like my music groove-oriented, and there is no music less groove-oriented than avant-garde “art” music. I would be happy to ignore the whole genre, but in my life as an academic, I keep having to deal with John Cage. Many musicians who I admire are fans of his, and reviewers keep insisting that I talk about him. I find some of Cage’s ideas appealing, at least on paper. The main obstacle to my admiring him is his music.
There’s plenty of music I dislike, but still understand. Extreme subgenres of metal aren’t really my thing, but I understand why people like them, and if I’m in the right mood I can get a feeling for them. My feelings about Cage go way past dislike, and into a visceral revulsion that’s closer to the way I feel about rotten fruit. This Alex Ross article helped me clarify why that is. 
Nearly six decades after the work came into the world, “4’33″” is still dismissed as “absolutely ridiculous,” “stupid,” “a gimmick,” and the “emperor’s new clothes”—to quote some sample putdowns that Gann extracted from an online comment board.
 I’m similarly skeptical. I’m on board with Pauline Oliveros and deep listening, but there’s something about Cage’s spin on the idea that rubs me the wrong way. 
Such judgments are especially common within classical music, where Cage, who died in 1992, remains an object of widespread scorn. In the visual arts, though, he long ago achieved monumental stature. He is considered a co-inventor of “happenings” and performance art; the Fluxus movement essentially arose from classes that Cage taught at the New School, in the late nineteen-fifties. (One exercise consisted of listening to a pin drop.) Cage emulated visual artists in turn, his chief idol being the master conceptualist Marcel Duchamp. The difference is that scorn for avant-garde art has almost entirely vanished. A Times editorial writer made an “emperor’s new clothes” jab at Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” when it showed at the Armory, in 1913. Jackson Pollock, too, was once widely mocked. Now the art market bows before them. 
Cage makes much more sense to me as a performance artist than a musician. If I evaluate the performance below as music, it fails completely, but if I think of it as performance art, I’m more willing to suspend disbelief. 

The most articulate (if not, for me, entirely persuasive) explication and defense of John Cage's aims and means has come from Kyle Gann.

I blogged a little about that over here.

That Cage was reacting to Muzak needs to be kept in mind.  Now Cage's disdain toward popular music isn't really something I share.  We can get to that later, maybe.  But Gann's explanations of Cage can be expanded by a larger historical process that he's alluded to by way of reviewing Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating the Nation.

Kyle Gann riff on Orchestrating a Nation (a book), an accounting of the double bind American critics and concert organizers used to sideline American symphonic music

Cage and other "American mavericks" in the orbit of Cowell can be thought of as rejecting a canon defined by and confined to a post-Beethoven German idealist designated since of higher and better stuff.  I was writing about the stifling effect of German idealism and Germanic canon in my write-up on Raymond Knapp's Making Light: Haydn, Musical Camp, and the Long Shadow of German Idealism.  Knapp managed to unpack the extent to which music pedagogy and institutional power favored the German idealist legacy and how many popular and vernacular musics arrayed themselves against German idealism in a variety of ways, most particularly in terms of camp aesthetics as mediated through traditions as varied as minstrelsy and light opera/operetta and the Broadway musical. 

Since I wrote about that plenty already I mean just to allude to that book as a component of a larger argument I've seen presented in writing about music and the dilemma of the American relationship to the 19th century autonomous music canon.  When all the pedagogy is geared toward explaining the substance and significance of instrumental music and everything that has staying power in American culture can be thought of in terms of song then the pedagogical paradigm we have about concert music seems to be at odds with the reality on the musical ground.  Haydn scholars don't have to work too hard to appreciate that the boundaries between high and low were negotiable in his era; Haydn's use of folk music is well-known.  But I digress on Haydn stuff.

What I'm trying to get at is that Cage's music, even if I'm not much of a fan, is understandable in the sense that he and others in his generation got sick enough of the inescapable double bind in which anything not German enough was lightweight but anything that sounded too German was uninspired and derivative that they rejected the entire canon and terms of discourse that drew from German idealism and a Germanic canon.  I wouldn't even say the problem is really the canon itself but the pedagogy that emerged around that canon.  The tricky part is that Cage and others may have created a body of work that has evolved into a kind of canon of its own. 

Now here's the part where an amusing irony emerges.  Hein wrote the following:

Alex Ross and writers like him devote a lot of column inches to the mystery of why intellectual hipsters like me are so much more interested in modern art than modern music. In my case, I think I react so negatively to the music because I don’t consider it to be music at all, but rather miscategorized sound art. I don’t listen to sound art for pleasure, necessarily, but I certainly approach it with a more receptive mindset. A lot of that has to do with context. You approach art voluntarily, and you can walk away at any time. Music in the concert hall is not like that. 
The simplest explanation for the resistance to avant-garde music is that human ears have a catlike vulnerability to unfamiliar sounds, and that when people feel trapped, as in a concert hall, they panic. In museums and galleries, we are free to move around, and turn away from what bewilders us. 
Swap out the word “unfamiliar” for “unstructured” and you’ve got my feeling in a nutshell. When a grad school professor played HPSCHD for us, I felt assaulted by it, but I had to stay in the room and endure it. You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears. I felt invaded by the music, because I couldn’t tune it out or direct my attention somewhere else. (I dropped the class that same day.) 
The irony here is that John Borstlap, who seems to obviously dissent from the viability of hip hop, has devoted a whole book (The Classical Revolution) to insisting that sonic art is not music and should never be considered music but without explaining why.  Hein and Borstlap look like they may agree that we should not think of sonic art as being the same as music, though Borstlap seems more resentful of its existence because of the outsized dominance he feels it has had in arts patronage in Europe in the last fifty years. 

Now if it were up to me (and I'm sure plenty of people are glad it's not!) I'd say we can gently set aside John Cage and Elliot Carter and Milton Babbitt and the mid-20th century avant garde from America.  I wouldn't say remove it altogether but it treat it as the ultimately marginal and probably irrelevant movement that it seems to be.  I mean, to be polemical about it, Carter was the descendent of a silk merchant and a good chunk of what was avant garde in the Cold War era got bankrolled indirectly by the CIA in the mid-20th century. 

Couldn't we just propose that that music served its political/polemical purpose and that since the Cold War ended we don't really need to spend as much attention and time on Carter or Babbitt as we could on Ellington, Monk, Stevie Wonder, Motown and a host of other types of American music that people didn't have to go to a grad school to learn about?  I can think of any number of Whitney Houston numbers I'd rather listen to than Elliot Carter string quartets if it's a matter of choice.    Thomas Commuck's contribution to the shape-note tradition as a Native American seems more interesting to me than spending time on serialism or set theory.

Byt at the same time, I can understand Cage's reaction to the Germanic legacy being what it was.  That is part of music history.  The paradox is that Cage's formal stance arguably belied his embodying the legacy he was ostensibly against.  This is something Hein gets to:

Not all of Cage’s music is unbearable. Some of it is even attractive. I love a lot of the moments in the prepared piano pieces [agreed!] , even if the lack of medium-scale structure leaves me cold [and also agreed]. 
The lack of rhythmic organization bothers me, though. I don’t need everything to have a metronomic 4/4 beat, but some kind of temporal regularity would be nice. In his book The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, Richard Taruskin argues that 
never was a musician more cerebral or less sensuous, and, for all his lifelong involvement with dancers, never one less attuned to physical impulse. (Nothing, except perhaps lovely harmony, so repelled Cage in any music as a beat.) 
Taruskin, describing Cage’s Cheap Imitation: “All the music’s humanity, all its communicative warmth, is systematically, anhedonically squeezed out.” Describing a version of Atlas Eclipticalis: “sixty minutes of virtual sensory deprivation, a discipline that, inflicted on an audience of nonadepts, can seem an act of puritanical aggression.” The aggression comes through loud and clear. 
Cage wasn’t all intellect. He wrote The Perilous Night from a place of emotional pain, and he was understandably upset when a critic said it sounding like “a woodpecker in a church belfry.” Cage was so hurt by the woodpecker crack that he rejected the whole idea of music as communication. Taruskin says, “The bruise that Cage received from an insouciant philistine turned him inward, and equipped him with the resentment and the aggression that a modernist giant needs.” I feel that resentment and aggression strongly in his music. I can sympathize with it, too. Being gay in Cage’s era must have been brutal. But there are a lot of different ways to process pain through music. Billie Holiday, John and Alice Coltrane, and James Brown all offer useful alternatives. Taking out your anger on the listener is not one that I can really get behind.
Taruskin thinks Cage is much more like Beethoven than unlike him. 
The esthetic [of Western classical music], in the classical Kantian definition, was a quality of beauty wholly transcending utility. Esthetic objects existed—that is, were made—entirely for their own sake, requiring both disinterestedness and zealous application on the part of the maker, and a corresponding act of disinterested, self-abnegating contemplation on the part of the apprehender. Autonomous works of art occupied a special hallowed sphere, for which special places were set aside (museums and concert halls, “temples of art”), and where special modes of reverent behavior were observed, or, when necessary, imposed… Under the social regimen of esthetic autonomy, the composer controls not just sounds but people, and a work is defined not just by its contents but also by the behavior that it actuates. 
Cage implicitly commanded that listeners gather in a concert hall or the equivalent, that they sit still and silently, that the performers follow his whims down to the tiniest detail. Whatever freedom he imagined for himself, the end result feels relentlessly oppressive to me. 
This reminded me of something from Leonard B. Meyer's Style and Music.  He mentioned on page 220 that in the Romantic era innovation and individuality were prized and that these ideologies led to a kind of bidding war for who could be most innovative and daring in the face of conventions. The paradox, however was that "Put aphoristically: radical individualism seeks to undermine the norms on which its expression depends".  And then in a tossed off footnote he has a comment about John Cage, which is worth quoting:

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

footnote 7.  page 220
In the ultimate music of Romanticism--for instance, that of John Cage--there are no norms in terms of which the individual can be known or personal experience defined. [emphasis added]Originality remains. But it is defined not through play with and deviation from prevalent, and usually conventional, norms, but through the devising of categorically novel means. As such it becomes an important (at times exclusive) basis for criticism.

In ideological terms Cage is the apotheosis rather than the antithesis of Romanticism and post-Beethovenian art religion, just at such a meta-level it would seem to those adherents of 19th century arts that everything in the canon was rejected.  The letter of the law, maybe, but the spirit lives on!

Taruskin grasped this, too, when arguing that John Cage is the ideological embodiment of the ideals of Romanticism and also of Beethoven, despite formal repudiation of either or both by Cage himself.

But there was another sort of criticism that could be made.  Taruskin made a criticism that Cage's way of "asking questions" rather than "making statements" can come across as an epic case of passing the buck.  Somebody has to do all the actual work of preparing the music for performance and in a way a John Cage performance is a performance but not necessarily of John Cage's music so much as John Cage as brand.

Which gets to another kind of critique of aleatory music that was made by Iannis Xenakis, not necessarily directly addressing John Cage.

Copyright 1992 by Pendragon Press
ISBN 0-945193-24-6


Before generalizing further on the essence of musical composition, we must speak of the general principle of improvisation which caused a furore among the neo-serialists, and which gives them the right, so they think, to speak of chance, of the aleatory, which they thus introduce into music. They write scores in which certain combinations of sounds may be freely chosen by the interpreter. It is evident that these composer consider the various possible circuits as equivalent. Two logical infirmities are apparent which deny them the right to speak of chance on the one hand and "composition" on the other (composition in the broad sense, that is):

1. The interpreter is a highly conditioned being, so that it is not possible to accept the thesis of uncontrolled choice, of an interpreter acting like a roullette game. The martingale betting at Monte Carlo and the procession of suicides should convince anyone of this. We shall return to this.

2. The composer commits an act of resignation when he admits several possible and equivalent circuits. In the name of a "scheme" the problem of choice is betrayed, and it is the interpreter who is promoted to the rank of composer by the composer himself. There is thus a substitution of authors. [emphasis added]

The extremist extension of this attitude is one which uses graphical signs on a piece of paper which the interpreter reads while improvising the whole. The two infirmities mentioned above are terribly aggravated here. I would like to pose a question: If this sheet of paper is put before an interpreter who is an incomparable expert on Chopin, will the result not be modulated by the style and writing of Chopin in the same way that a performer who is immersed in this style might improvise a Chopin-like cadenza to another composer's concerto?  From the point of view of the composer there is no interest.

On the contrary, two conclusions may be drawn: first, that serial composition has become so banal that it can be improvised like Chopin's, which confirms the general impression; and second, that the composer resigns his function altogether, that he has nothing to say, and that his function can be taken over by paintings or by cuneiform glyphs.


So a complaint can be registered that the alleged aleatory isn't able to come from a vacuum.  Your musicians probably specialize in something and get their ideas from somewhere.  If you find a Chopin specialist and draw glyphs and paintings as a score then what your specialist will improvise will reflect Chopin if the specialist is a Chopin specialist.  Xenakis believed that abdicating the prerogative of the composer to tell the concert performer what to play was abdicating the proverbial nature of the game.  This wouldn't be a point applicable to traditional Greek Orthodox chant or popular music or folk music, it's a particular polemic regarding "classical music" that is proposed to introduce aleatory in mid-20th century terms.  Either admit the performer is a co-author with you if you claim to be the composer, or actually write something out that can be played and ask the performer to play it.  The kind of intellectual dishonesty that seems indicted by Xenakis above isn't relevant to popular and vernacular music but it's a critique that seems worth considering for Cage and aleatory that has emerged in the wake of his work.  It's possible to appreciate why he felt a need to react to the Germanic canon and pedagogy dominating the American musical scene on the one hand while not subscribing to his disdain of popular music or imagine that his philosophy (which Leonard Meyer described as a kind of transcendental particularism) is an appealing path "forward". 

And there is, of course, a Marxist/Maoist critique that has been made of John Cage by way of Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury.

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

Series Editor. Kenneth Goldsmith

John Cage: Ghost or Monster?

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

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 musican he has to live as a man, and not as abstract man, but historically as a real man in a particular society. ...

page 42
... 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. ...

page 43
And try as he may, Cage can no more resolve the contradictions of contemporary composition than he can the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. For to resolve a contradiction it is necessary to grasp the laws of motion and change, and act in accordance with them. This is something Cage is patently unable or unwilling to do.

Setting aside what the laws of motion and change would constitute for Marxists (since I only just finally finished reading Adorno's Aesthethic Theory and Philosophy of New Music in the last few weeks) the salient point, I hope, is simple enough--John Cage's supposed forsaking of individuality was simply the shtick with which his individuality could be identified.  A Richard Taruskin could spot this and a John Tilbury or a Cornelius Cardew could spot this.  What they could all identify as a potential (or actual) weakness in Cage's ideological and aesthetic stance is that it could be construed as asocial or even anti-social and as the embodiment of bourgeois art religion from the 19th century rather than its repudiation.  As we saw in Leonard B. Meyer's quote earlier, it is possible to perceive in Cage's sound art and philosophy what merely appears to be anti-Romantic in stance but is, in fact, the apotheosis of Romanticism, its pure ideology of anti-conventionality that has shorn itself of every convention except the pure, distilled essence of Romanticism as an ideological stance. 

Which seems like a good time to get back to what Hein wrote:

All music is social, even if it pretends not to be. Susan McClary explains this well in her ethnomusicological essay, Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition. 
Within many societies, there exists a hierarchy among musical discourses that attributes greater prestige to some of these functions than to others. Perhaps only with the twentieth-century avant-garde, however, has there been a music that has sought to secure prestige precisely by claiming to renounce all possible social functions and values, just as Wagner’s Alberich renounced human love in exchange for the Rheingold.
 McClary, like Taruskin, sees smooth continuity between the 19th century concept of absolute music and the supposed autonomy of 20th century avant-gardists. None of this would matter to me, except that the avant-gardists set the tone for university music programs. 
The presence of this group of artists in universities has had several perhaps unexpected but nevertheless serious consequences besides the presumably benign survival of the avant-garde. First, because the prestige of these composers (and, not coincidentally, their livelihood) is dependent on the transmission of their antisocial assumptions to subsequent generations of musicians, academic music study has gradually and subtly become restricted to the reproduction of this ideology. 
That some of these artists and pedagogues have denied that they have had real influence in the academy is something John Halle undertook to debunk a while back.
and someone else over here ... had some comments about Straus and 20th century music pedagogy being defined exclusively in post-Webern/Schoenberg type terms.

Now, of course, serialism and Cage are not the same thing but since I've bothered to quote Cardew and Tilbury the jocular way to formulate all this is to ask if we can maybe gently sideline rafts of avant garde music theorizing and pedagogy that could be construed as being in any degree dependent on direct or indirect patronage from the CIA.  :) 

But I have found it interesting to use pseudo-dodecaphonic methods of gestural manipulation as long as I'm applying them to blues riffs.  I think that Schoenberg may have had legitimate reason to feel that German music was "spent" and that he came up with a remarkably inventive way to work within the constraints of equal-tempered chromaticism ... it's just that there's a whole swath of composers who figured we're not obliged to even stick to twelve tones across the octave, whether it's Ivan Wyschnegradsky or Alois Haba or Harry Partsch or Ben Johnston or Easley Blackwood or ... etc.  Not that I compose microtonal music myself.  I play a standard six-string guitar, but Schoenberg's short-term solution for what he felt was the inescapable kitsch cul de sac of post-Romantic German music doesn't have to be ours and if there's any singular wrong call Adorno made it was espousing that path as "the" legitimate path in the wake of a musical cultural crisis that was arguably a German and French one rather than Spanish or Italian or Russian or English, let alone American identity crisis, at least for the musicians and composers if not for critics, journalists and scholars. 

When I advocate for pop music norms and values in music schools, I get people arguing that we need to protect “art” composers, because they are being true to themselves, free from the demands of the marketplace. Meanwhile, the mass audience’s preferences can be disregarded, because they aren’t authentic–pop listeners are manipulated into thinking they like what they like by the cynical machinations of the music industry. [and boy, oh boy, was Theodore Adorno beating that drum!]  This might be true to an extent, but McClary points out that however artificial pop tastes might be, tastes in avant-garde art are even more so. What is music school if not an institution devoted to inculcating a particular set of tastes? 
We shame students for their incorrigible tastes in popular music and browbeat them with abstract analytical devices in hopes that they will be influenced by, say, stochasticism and will maintain the illusion that this kind of abstract experimentation informs the future of music. For everything rests on some community continuing to think that this audienceless music is prestigious: otherwise, prestige simply evaporates. It begins to feel a bit like the make-believe worlds of The Glass Menagerie or The Wizard of Oz, in which enormous amounts of energy are poured into keeping a fantasy of denial alive. 
McClary’s counterexample to the value system of the academic avant-garde is the song “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind and Fire. She argues that this song is as sophisticated and nuanced according to its value system as any piece of contemporary composition. 
The fact that this song reaches a wide audience, that it speaks in a comprehensible language of exuberant hope in the face of hardship is regarded not as evidence of selling out, but as a mark of success in an economy of prestige that rewards communication and political effectiveness. Earth, Wind and Fire cares if you listen. 
The younger composers I meet tend to fall in with McClary, and to appreciate music like “System of Survival,” even if they don’t quite know how to make their music work in the same way. But I hear a lot of academic compositions, and the shadow of Cage looms large. I’d prefer that we move him over into music history, and let highbrow music be a little more fun.
 My own impression has been that by the 21st century we are back to the song as the dominant form of musical art, and it was arguably vocal music that was the prevailing musical idiom back in the Renaissance (whichever numbering there of you want).  The ideal of a German canon in which autonomous instrumental music expressed yearning for the infinite and "universal" values pretty clearly did not do any such thing except to those already ensconced in that pedagogical and concertizing milieu.

Which is why, in a way, we could gently set aside John Cage as having played a part in formally defying that range of ideological and pedagogical options while paradoxically embodying them in his own legacy.  Merely because you or I or "we" can't directly hear manifestations of the artist as seer-prophet-philosopher who guides us to the truly human path a la European art religious impulses in the 19th century, and this merely because Cage said "Beethoven was wrong", doesn't mean Cage's work doesn't embody the social stratum that embraced that ideology and found a new and distinctly American way of embodying it. 

In the sense that John Cage disliked popular music we could perhaps invoke Raymond Knapp's arguments about the nature of camp as the self-identified antidote or alternative to German idealism as the winking and self-aware "fake" range of entertainment in popular music that took the ideals of German idealism off the pedestal its advocates have tried to keep it on. In Knapp's case he was arguing that Haydn fell out of favor because his music is camp, if not exactly camp in the stereotypically gay way people tend to use that concept post-Sontag, which Knapp has proposed is a whole scholarly discussion that is probably worth bringing up.

I have skimmed through the comments and one or two jump out.

There were some coments about how sound can be about sound.  Regular readers of this blog probably know that I've been reading a bunch of Jacques Ellul and the premise that sound expresses itself rather than having emotional or extra-musical symbolic freight sounds like the kind of thing Ellul would say reflects societies that have prized technique as a kind of ideology unto itself--art always expresses something about the human condition in traditional terms and if in the West there has been a trajectory of each wave of avant garde art developing techniques to refine techniques it stops being about the human experience more generally and more a kind of self-examining trade guild of academics who are basically making things so that theorists can theorize about them.  Ellul was hardly into pop culture himself but it's possible to appreciate where a person can go with this kind of polemic.  The people who say their music has no emotional content just have to pretend that we don't have emotional responses to sound when we do.  It's possible to attach different modes of extra-musical symbolic association to sounds across cultures, certainly, but to say that this symbolic association doesn't happen in sonic art or avant garde trends in the last half century in Western arts is hard to buy. 

Hein had a short comment about how Cage and his fans aren't the "enemy" but he wished he could have spent his grad school time and money studying something else in the place of that module of study. 

There's a back and forth between Hein and a Dewald that stuck with me because of a comment.

Gahlord Dewald says:

 July 3, 2018 at 10:10 am

I guess I just don’t it. On a blog in which pretty much every post that I’ve read (which is to say all of them for at least the past two years) is so excellently inclusive and forward thinking we get this one post of derision, and it turns out your problem with the heirarchical structure of academic music, the stuff that should be ejected from the dept because it’s taking up too much space is… wait for it… experimental music.

Why pick on the the most marginalized corner of most music depts? What is there to gain from this?


The most marginalized corner of most music departments is experimental music ... or sonic art? 

As a guitarist let me put things this way.  Richard Taruskin's Oxford History covers Ferneyhough and Xenakis and Cage and Schoenberg and Lutoslawski and Partsch and Reich and Messiaen and Ives and Cowell and a variety of advocates of experimental music across the five volume set.

How many guitarists did he mention?  Just Berlioz, long enough to say that Berlioz was unusual for having learned music as a guitarist and the guitar is basically an instrument outside the Western literate musical tradition.

Really?  I mean, I can produce a few thousand words about structural and thematic patterns in early 19th century guitar sonatas.  I can even show that the themes in early 19th century guitar sonatas have so much in common with early 20th century ragtime that it takes very little compositional reworking to transform some Giuliani and Diabelli and Carulli guitar sonata themes into ragtime.  But in Taruskin's telling of the history of Western music the guitar doesn't even rate.  That was a useful and vivid reminder of what relatively recently departed guitarist and publisher Matanya Ophee once said about the marginal place the guitar has in the academic scene.
... We find it necessary to apply to our instrument the adjective “Classical,” with the hope that by so doing, we would somehow convey to our colleagues that we are not to be confused with balladeers, rock’n’rollers, gypsies and mariachi. Violinists and pianists have no need to use the adjective “classical,” even though the piano is still the instrument of choice of many jazz players and one can find it in my country in every bar, every hotel dining room. At the turn of the century, the piano was also the favorite instrument in the public houses of San Francisco, New Orleans and St. Louis and it was precisely in that environment that rag-time piano music first became established. The violin is an important part of hillbilly, Country-Western music in the USA, and is used as a folk instrument in the British Isles, Scandinavia, France, Mexico, the Arab world from Marocco to Iraq, and in many other countries. Violinists never worry about that.

The very concept of folk instruments, is one which deserve closer attention. An instrument, as an artifice of human craftsmanship, does not have any intrinsic attributes in and of itself, until somebody plays it. It acquires whatever societal qualities we usually associate with it, depending on the music being played. The Jews Harp is a so-called folk instrument in use all over the world from the mountains of Northern Italy to the frozen tundra of Siberia. But when Georg Albrechtsberger, Beethoven’s teacher of harmony, wrote a concerto with orchestra for it, it did not matter much that the instrument is also played by nomadic sheep herders.

Folk music is often defined as music which exists in an oral tradition, while art music depends for its existence on the written page. The music we play on the so-called “classical” guitar mostly exist in written or printed form. Some of it was composed by people who are not very well known outside the limited circles of guitar lovers. Some of it was composed by main-stream composers such as Paganini, von Weber, Schubert, Berlioz, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ponce, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Mahler, Schönberg, Asafiev, Webern, Hindemith, and Milhaud. In more recent times, music for our instrument was written by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, Eliot Carter, Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina. Considering these composers and their music, the guitar cannot possibly be considered as a folk instrument. Yet, the prejudice continues.

I have assembled a considerable lexicon of anti-guitar invective from different countries and different times. I am at a loss to explain why it is that of all musical instruments, the guitar, the instrument which was part and parcel of European musical renaissance from the sixteenth century on, is singled out by other musicians for ridicule and derision. I have some theories on the subject, but they are not the kind that can be discussed in polite society. The fact remains that we have a problem, and if we wish to continue as a living musical discipline, we have to try and find a way out.

That as a lecture he gave decades ago  So as a guitarist I'd venture to say that experimental music may really be marginal but it is quite possibly not as marginal as the guitar in academic musicological prestige.  I could give a for-instance.  The Future Symphony Institute touts books that mention tonal composers that people should know about. Robert Reilly's book is recommended and in Reilly's book he recommends symphonic recordings of the work of Heitor Villa-Lobos.  Sure, I enjoy a good chunk of Villa-Lobos but if you want the best distillation of what he did as a composer you might get that more directly from his string quartets than his symphonic works (he was a cellist) and even more significantly from his guitar music (he was also, famously, a really capable guitarist). 

If we just want to stick to writings by Taruskin we can see he devoted a good deal of writing to experimental music while basically saying the guitar has never really been part of the Western literate musical traditions.  That's provably not the case whether we're talking about the European or American "West" or even about the mountain of seven-string guitar literature from the Russian traditions in the "East". 

If anything that almost completely marginal relationship to the academic musical mainstream of what we call classical music might be why guitarists can be so open to trying whatever if they are not themselves in the rut of the prestige canon.  It's not that I don't love music by Sor or Giuliani, it's that I feel like we're hamstrung by the prestige of the top dogs that some perfectly fun music by Matiegka or even Diabelli get ignored.  Someone had to write that theme before Beethoven could use it, and Diabelli's Op. 29, No. 3 is actually a pretty well-made guitar sonata even if he ... was kind of a lazy hack in his other guitar sonatas in my opinion.

So I guess that's a long way of saying that however bad you might think experimental music has it in the academy these days the guitar never even got to that stage as far as I can tell.  Cry us a river. 

The Cuban guitarist composer Leo Brouwer has mentioned that the guitar literature is a good case study of how the boundaries between pop and "classical" have always been permeable but that academics have not been all that interested in studying fusions.  But that's stuff I'm sure people can look up at their own initiative. 

If I could choose between keeping Cage and sonic art in their place in the curriculum or adding popular music and guitar music (which in the last century would have a pretty formidable overlap!) I think I've made it clear by now which I'd pick.  I'd rather talk about Lonnie Johnson and Django than John Cage if I have a choice.  Not that I don't like the prepared piano pieces. I do. :)  It's just that I admit to being part of Generation X and the Cold War is over and a whole lot of music that was freighted with what was thought to be potent political and social meaning in the Cold War doesn't always have the same weight "now" for some of us it may have had for people "then" who were first hearing it.  Some of the Cold War era music is still with us.  The Shostakovich string quartets are, deservedly, not going anywhere out of the concert repertoire any time soon.  But this gets to a point Taruskin has made over the decades about how if it's a choice between Charles Wuorinen and recordings by the Beatles or David Bowie or blues that if a whole lot of people pass on the serialists the academics whose livelihood hinges on promoting the former can't really hold it against the masses for preferring the latter. 

All of which is what I've been thinking about since Borstlap dissented from the idea that hip hop should be taught in a music program.  Well, okay, he's not into hip hop but could hip hop be preferable to programs devoted to Ferneyhough or Cage?  This might be a rare case in which Hein and Borstlap may agree that we could do with less of Cage and his legacy in music education. 

a piece at The Atlantic proposing that there are things classical musicians and composers can learn from Kanye West

The conversation around Kanye West lately has focused on politics, stunts, and the phrase scoopity-poop. It can be easy to forget that it was his musicianship, not provocations, that built up enough goodwill for him to go on a five-week spree of releasing one album a week (at least one of which, apparently, was put out in unfinished, soon-to-be-revised form).
Some of those albums—Nas’s Nasir and Teyana Taylor’s KTSE, both produced by West—feature string arrangements and vocals by the Yale-trained composer and pop artist Stephen “Johan ” Feigenbaum. He had, in a way, gotten West’s attention by drawing attention away from the noise around West and back to his music. Since 2016, Feigenbaum and the conductor Yuga Cohler have periodically put on performances they call “Yeethoven,” including two in Los Angeles and one at New York City’s Lincoln Center. With a contingent of classical instrumentalists, they trace the similarities between the works of a 21st-century rapper/producer and a 18th- to 19th-century composer.

“We wanted to figure out why it was that the two of us, and a lot of our friends in classical music, were so enamored with Kanye’s music,” Feigenbaum said before an abridged Yeethoven set last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival (sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic). The five songs they played comprised selections from 2013’s Yeezus—a noisy and divisive album that Cohler and Feigenbaum hear as a turning point in West’s career—and 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Some of the tracks were mashed up with Beethoven compositions. One point of comparison: the jarring tonal switch in the end of “New Slaves,” recalling the turn at the close of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Another: the way West’s “Waves” uses its high end to keep time and its low end to convey melody, much like in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8.
The day after the Aspen show, I spoke with Cohler and Feigenbaum about how Kanye draws from the classical, and how classical composers might draw from Kanye. This interview has been edited.
Kornhaber: Some people might be leery of using classical terms to describe pop, as it might be seen as a confirming the thought that one is a higher art form than the other. Do you worry about that?

Feigenbaum: Well, since entering the pop-music world, the judgments I would have made when I was in classical music about pop, I increasingly understand why they would have been irrelevant. And it’s made me appreciate that most classical music isn’t about the technical shit either. Pop includes a lot of what is called “extra-musical information.” The lyrics, that’s not music, that’s words representing outside ideas. The artwork, the music videos—all this stuff that’s not the music, but that is used to create the product. But it turns out that’s true in classical music. There’s no Mahler No. 9 without knowing his daughter died.
Kornhaber: What did you think of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer?

Cohler: It’s inevitable. And probably a good thing. My Facebook news feed is full of instrumental orchestral musicians, and there are a lot of rage posts.

Feigenbaum: The fact that for almost every year the Pulitzer went to some contemporary classical composer was an important data point in the argument that classical music still matters. The door is open now. There’s not going to be classical composers winning in a decade. Which is fine, in my opinion. If the Pulitzers are supposed to be an honor for the music that’s most relevant to our cultural conversation, Kendrick’s a way better answer to that. In classical music, people should think about why we’re not working harder to impact the national cultural conversation.

Kornhaber: That’s pretty tough on classical music.

Feigenbaum: Oh yeah. Part of why I’m doing pop music is because I want to reinvigorate classical. There’s a lack of realism in classical about how much it matters. The more that illusion is broken, the better.

Kornhaber: At the same time, part of your argument is that Kanye is classical. Could the Pulitzers be saying the same about Kendrick?

Feigenbaum: We’re not saying Kanye is classical, we’re just saying he’s doing what classical composers should be doing. At least for me it’s that. [emphasis added]

Cohler: Yeah this came up yesterday: What does the term classical mean?

Kornhaber: And you had a really expansive view, Yuga, saying you don’t think there’s any real need to draw a distinction between genres.

Cohler: When it gets to the actual terminology, it’s difficult. Clearly there’s this notion that certain types of music are meant to be appreciated in a deeper way or over a longer term than other types of music. The Pulitzer is intending to be the “deeper” music, whatever you want to call it. Giving it to Kendrick is saying [he’s that].

Feigenbaum: All the composers that studied at Juilliard and Yale and so forth, maybe they’ll start writing music like Kendrick.

Kornhaber: But then does it become pop? Do they have to start using verses choruses?
Cohler: I have a theory. Obviously genres are blending, even on the level of Taylor Swift going from country to pop. If that’s true, and audiences are coming to expect that, it’s easy to extrapolate that classical and pop can blend in some way. Maybe you’ll have pop songs that are in crazy meters and have weirder harmonies and stuff like that.
Feigenbaum: I see it going one direction. Classical musicians are going to listen to more stuff like Damn. I don’t think there’s any evidence that what we would call classical music infiltrating the mainstream in any way. I don’t see like suddenly the new David Lang piece is going to be taking the indie-music community by storm.
Kornhaber: But you’re kind of arguing that’s what’s happened with Kanye, aren’t you? And you see it with him working with Caroline Shaw, or even with you.
Cohler: Caroline Shaw is a great example.
Feigenbaum: Yeah, there’s one. She’s exactly what classical music should be. My view of it is that if Kanye were do do an opera tomorrow, we’d all be talking about it and that would mean a lot for the future of opera. The best way for me to do it is to get a Kanye to use their platform.
What has been interesting is that while there has been an assumption that a Kendrick Lamar win is good for the prize and that anyone who might object to Lamar winning the prize must be racist or on the political right neither of this has to be true.  John Halle's blogging comes to mind.

One of the oddities of the campaign was persistently encountering the view within the agenda setting media that what was really motivating us was something very different. Rather than a positive affirmation of Sanders’ program the votes of Berniebros, as we were derisively referred to, were purely negative, motivated by sexism against the front runner and racism directed against many of her supporters.


A farcical recapitulation of this recent history can be seen in a column by a member in good standing of the elite media class, the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg. The ostensible subject involves a few composers objecting to the Pulitzer prize for music having been awarded to rapper Kendrick Lamar. These provided the opportunity for Rosenberg and a former Yale classmate (1) to engage in frenzied, ritualistic savaging of what might be called composer-bros, “white people from privileged backgrounds” whose veritable essence is assumed to deprive them of the capacity “to wrap their heads around Kendrick [Lamar].” Lamar is, according to them, “dealing with topics they don’t necessarily want to look at, in a way that’s simultaneously unflinchingly direct and also very complex and layered.”

“They” in the previous sentence is taken to indicate those excluded from the woke multiculturalist circles inhabited by Rosenberg and her interlocutor who somehow survive the extreme violence of their self-administered pats on the back on display here.

Returning to the planet earth, it is not only members of this post Yale social club who are able to appreciate the virtues of Kendrick Lamar. In fact, many of the composers they are condescending to insist on Lamar’s musical brilliance and cultural significance albeit while expressing reservations about the Pulitzer board’s decision. (2) That there is absolutely no contradiction is a matter of elementary logic: as anyone who has made a hiring decision knows, the question of whether X is highly skilled at or even brilliantly qualified for Y is entirely independent of whether X is an appropriate choice for Y.

Furthermore, even if it were the case that certain composers actively dislike Lamar’s music and have cast aspersions on his musical competence their doing so would say precisely nothing about their underlying attitudes. To take one obvious example, the manufacturer of legendary Republican hit pieces Lee Atwater had a profound affinity for African American music and musicians, sympathies which easily co-existed with his promoting a dogwhistled racist agenda. To infer substantive political content or commitments from affective aesthetic preferences is a fool’s errand.

That Rosenberg has little interest in examining these ambiguities is apparent as was her studied avoidance during the campaign of the reasons why Sanders voters rejected her preferred candidate, Mrs. Clinton. And just as Rosenberg played a role in creating the myth of the sexist Bernie bros, who, she claimed (were) ”aggressive(ly) adopting language and stances . . . tinged by gender” it should come as no surprise that she is attempting to imbue composer bros with similarly reactionary impulses.


Halle articulated an argument that the Pulitzer prize in music should be focused on music in what Richard Taruskin has called the "literate musical tradition", music that can be performed from a printed score.


Classical composition, which I will refer to here as composition, is not a style but a medium: a means for conveying musical ideas, emotions, and information. As such, it is distinct from all other musical media—whether these are elevated, debased, trivial, or distinguished—which do not transmit and convey their ideas through the means of composition, i.e. as notes on a page. It follows then that the real question about the appropriateness of the Pulitzer guidelines mandating “distinguished composition” arises not with the qualifying adjective. Most of us would be happy to accept that much mainstream music is indeed “distinguished.” The problem is with the noun “composition.” For it is a fact, albeit one that non-professionals often find surprising, that the overwhelming majority of music which is produced, broadcast, recorded, downloaded and listened to, does not exist in the form of a “composition”, i.e. as printed music on the page, and it has been many years since it has. Long forgotten are the days when, as Charles Rosen relates, Proust’s mother would receive in the mail and bring to life the newest Beethoven Sonata for the assembled family and guests on the living room piano. Also long in the past is the time when popular songs would circulate primarily through sheet music. Instead of having to master the 88 keys of the piano, those wanting to bring music into their homes need only to master the smaller number of controllers on a CD player panel or the keystrokes necessary to access the Internet sites Kazaa or iTunes.

And just as musical literacy is no longer necessary to play music, literacy has also long since ceased to be necessary to compose it. No genuinely popular songwriter of the present produces fully or generally even partially notated scores as did Rodgers, Kern, or Gershwin. As recordings have become the final form in which music is encountered a very different process now mediates how a musical idea finds its way from conception to realization. The process is one which more closely resembles filmmaking than traditional composition in that the final product is assembled from the creative contributions of a range of participants, from band members “laying down tracks” to the studio engineer’s decisions on mike placement or audio effects, to the producer’s decision to add or subtract (i.e. to punch in and out) previously recorded material to the audio “mix.” More recently, sequencing software has meant music existing as data inputted onto MIDI tracks channeled to samplers or synthesizers, sometimes augmented by “live” instruments or vocal tracks. While the latter represents something closer to the authorial control assumed in literate traditions, notes on the page play at most a minimal role in either process.

The medium by which contemporary music tends to be transmitted has radically altered the range of skills expected of musicians to function professionally. While generally highly technically proficient as instrumentalists, fluent improvisers, and often extremely knowledgeable in both the practice and theory of electronic music, most contemporary musicians are usually, in a strict sense of the term musically illiterate, unable to negotiate musical notation except in the most rudimentary way. Only a few read music on the level required to function on a professional level within a symphony orchestra, a Broadway pit, or in a jazz big band. Most would not be able to decipher a score of more than minimal complexity at the piano or can even follow along with one.

I want to stress that by stating this fact, I am not judging the quality of the music which is produced through non-notated means. Clearly, elaborate, comprehensive, and elegant notation is not a guarantee of artistic value—if it were, the Darmstadt school would have long since overtaken J.S. Bach at the pinnacle of compositional achievement. Conversely, the existence of partly or wholly non-notated masterpieces ranging from Motown, to gamelan, to Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians—a work that did not exist as a conventional score until the edition prepared for Boosey & Hawkes in collaboration with composer Marc Mellits—is beyond dispute. There are, in my opinion, certain qualities which are unique to what we might call “literate” music, and I’ll discuss some of these momentarily. But whether or not that is that case, the conclusion that we are witnessing a shift not merely in style but, more fundamentally, a shift in the medium by which music is communicated seems to be unavoidable.

The argument wasn't, isn't, and has never been that any music composed or recorded or conveyed by any other medium is bad music or is somehow not even music.  The argument is that by changing the criteria by which a musical work is considered for the Pulitzer from a published or publishable score that anyone with sufficient traditional musical literacy could take up and play to recording processes that the standard has been changed.  Now there are those who would potentially argue that's great because hip hop is the most popular style around these days and it's about time the Pulitzer awarded a hip hop artist.  The thrust of Halle's argument would be that if hip hop can be published in a form that can be expressed in a written-out score, great, by all means give the award.  But if the hip hop performance is mediated by recording then either we, so to speak, can have a distinguished award for that type of music-making (and why not?) or we pass over the hip hop that has no on-page score in favor of something that does.

The point about Atwater has not, so far as I've managed to see, been addressed by the folks who are happy Lamar won the Pulitzer.  It "is" possible for people to appreciate the music of a culture or a people without treating those people as having the same rights as the aficionado.  If anything that would seem to potentially speak of a thoroughly colonialist rather than progressive mentality depending on how you parsed things. 

So while it's tempting, really tempting, to imagine that any opposition to a Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer prize in music from a John Borstlap or a Norman Lebrecht "must" come from a right-wing or reactionary impulse on the part of self-identified progressive whites or others, it's still possible to argue from a left position that moving the goalposts by changing the criteria by which the Pulitzer prize in music is bestowed changes the nature of the game.  Presenting the Lamar win as unique because he's a person of color by itself doesn't count, since George Walker won the Pulitzer a couple of decades ago for one of his scores.  Thanks to Ethan Iverson's blog I learned about George Walker's five piano sonatas, which are all inspired and wonderfully-made works.  In the year after the centennial of the death of Scott Joplin it would seem that we have plenty of musical works written by African American composers and composers of African lineage that we could discuss. 

Now it's not that I think classical music, for want of a better description, can't benefit from the boundaries between the literate and non-literate musical traditions being regarded as more inherently permeable than post-19th century pedagogy tends to permit.  If there's anything that can be overlooked by those who read Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music and muttered with disappointment that African American music and jazz and rock hardly got mentioned the reason has to do with what published scores are out there.  Taruskin was clear at the start of volume 1 of 5 that he was not even suggesting that music from non-literate traditions was in any way bad and even went so far as to propose at several points in volume 1 that some revolutions in the early/ancient music scene were most likely that people finally got around to conveying in notated on-page form musical styles, idioms and works that had been circulating for possibly generations outside the literate music tradition. 

It's very easy to imagine that popular and esoteric/literate music can be developed into a successful fusion of the two different strands of music.  Charles Rosen explicitly spelled out how this was accomplished in the 18th century by Haydn and Mozart and regarded it as an unusual and possibly never-repeated-since successful fusion of high and low idioms in Western music. 

slight postscript.  I'm not so sure, since I'm not an academic, that the canon is necessarily as big a problem as academics may feel it is.  There's a canon to popular music.  It may be partly mediated by music critics but Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Elvis had to sell records before they could even be considered members of the pop/rock pantheon.  As Charles Rosen put it about Haydn and Mozart they were both popular composers on the way to being canonized in academic literature.  If there's yet another way in which to argue that John Cage embodied the ideology he was putatively against it's in his denigration of popular musical styles and forms. 

In that sense he was on the same side as Adorno, which not so coincidentally is a paradox about John Borstlap--as much as he impugns Adorno with ruining European cultural patronage by advocating for atonality and things that birthed sonic art, Adorno's distrust that anything good could come from popular musical styles, and his emphatic assertion that no attempt to revitalize concert music through the use of popular or vernacular styles like jazz could possibly work, all of this suggests that in spite of formally being against Adorno the philosopher or Marxist-Leninist ideologue, John Borstlap is on the same side as Adorno in regarding jazz as incapable of being employed to bring new life into the concert music literature.  I don't see it or hear it that way.  If anything when I listen to some of the greats of the 18th century like Haydn or Mozart I hear that their willingness to blur the boundaries between high and low is one of the great things about their music, and that's a point that even Adorno could readily grant in Introduction to Sociology of Music.