Saturday, December 08, 2018

a link or two for the weekend, Jeff Koons fined for plagiarism (again), an Atlantic piece on Beyonce and Sheeran reminds me of a Ted Gioia polemic that music journalism is lifestyle writing

an older story, of how Jeff Koons was facing fines after being found guilty of plagiarism, again.

over at The Atlantic there's a piece on the ... significance of Beyonce and Ed Sheeran doing a duet and what it's supposed to mean.  Yes, I'm signalling some ennui about the matter ...


In pop, image typically follows sound. The acoustic-guitar love song—Sheeran’s commodity—has a standard costume: jeans and tee. To see how tightly linked clothes and genre are, look to Nashville, or to the flashy pop icons who’ve had rock and country phases.  To pluck out just one example, in 2015, Kanye West made an acoustic ballad with Rihanna and Paul McCartney, and for the related visuals, they all wore denim. Of course, when pop or hip-hop crosses over to folk, it usually comes with notably polished and tweaked versions of rootsy outfits. You really can’t get less effortful than Sheeran does.
Which is ironic because that Sheeran is so successful is not simply because he’s “normal”—the ultimate plainspoken white boy staying in his lane. Rather, it’s because he has a talent for songwriting that reaches outside of the authentic-acoustic realm for which he’s known. Sheeran is a huge fan of hip-hop and R&B, whose innovations are often key to his songs. “Sing” from 2014 was stacked with fast and feisty #bars, co-created by Pharrell. The biggest smash of Sheeran’s career, “Shape of You,” used calypso-influenced sounds, hip-hop cadences, and was so reminiscent of TLC’s “No Scrubs” that he had to hand over a songwriting credit to its writers (Sheeran originally intended for Rihanna to sing it). His latest album, Divide was co-executive produced by Benny Blanco, who’s shaped many of the hugest hits across the glittering, artificial charts landscape, and who started his career dabbling as a rapper.

All of which makes notable just how flagrantly Sheeran insists on the character he’s perceived to be: unsmooth, unpolished, unfunky. That great groaner, “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover, so the bar is where I go,” from “Shape of You,” is a typical bit of posturing—he’s a creature of the pub, not of bottle service, even if elements of his music might indicate otherwise. His projected image of himself as sweet refusenik against pop culture’s superficiality really never breaks. “I’m all for people following their dreams / Just re-remember life is more than fittin’ in your jeans,” he sings on Divide’s “What Do I Know?” On “Eraser,” a song about resisting fame’s temptations, he again mentions legwear, boasting of playing a stadium with “my beaten small guitar, wearing the same old jeans.” Shlumpiness is thus portrayed not as laziness, but a kind of purity and trueness.

Some fans deeply relate to that shlumpiness. Others might sense a racial and gendered element to his performance of purity, given the diversity of today’s spectacle-rich, rap-and-R&B-inflected pop landscape. Sheeran would certainly never say he’s out to shade Beyoncé, and the two are clearly mutual admirers. But when he stands next to her, the visual contrast plays to each of their respective constituencies’ attitudes around aesthetics and identity. The game he’s playing isn’t all that different from hers, and there’s a case to be made that her presentation is the one that’s more transparent about it.

Neither is more or less transparent than the other about the nature of persona being distinct from person.  A few years ago I recall seeing some articles written by women extolling Jennifer Lawrence as somehow "real" and Anne Hathaway as somehow "fake".  That was a couple of years back and the polemic is more refined by way of saying that Hathaway comes off like the kind of girl who practiced  acceptance speeches in front of a mirror when she was a kid.  My speculation in response to those kinds of opinions expressed by women about Hathaway is that there may be some kind of tacit law among cultural writers that thou shalt not look like you're working for it.  If Hathaway is attractive, well-spoken, and obviously puts in effort at what she does that can be construed as "fake".  But ... that's pretty literally her job.  It seems apt to compare Lawrence and Hathaway in another domain to point out that what journalists decide is somehow "real" or "fake" or what is "transparent" and what is not transparent is not necesarily what a person should take them to be.  For me it's better that Hathaway did one fantastic take on Selina Kyle than that Jennifer Lawrence did a passable turn as Mystique before slumping into phoned in performances for all subsequent X-Men films. 

Since I'm not exactly a big fan of either Beyonce or Sheeran I don't see that either one is more or less "fake" than the other or that either one is more "transparent".

Instead, what I am more attentive to is how what passes for music journalism is very rarely about music.  Ted Gioia was on to something when he lamented that most of what passes for music journalism now is really lifestyle reporting.

but I have sometimes been frustrated by Gioia's history of jazz and blues since it can at times be boilerplate "it didn't follow the rules of classical music".  That's become one of the laziest bromides from bros, whether in jazz rock or classical that I've seen.  There's plenty of debate on the distinctions between 18th century harmonic practice and 19th century harmonic practice.  The two approaches have commonalities and substantial differences.  So the idea that blues or jazz somehow "didn't follow the rules" of "classical music" is something that, when an author like Gioia or anyone else presents that, passes over the question of which rules, if any, aren't followed. 

In other words, jazz critics and historians have supermyths like everyone writing in music criticism in genres can run into.  A supermyth is an idea that, when you stop and think about it in light of primary source materials, evidence and accounts, doesn't even make sense but because it has been passed down within and across generations of scholars or historians or journalists is taken as given. To give an example from the realm of biblical studies Jacob Wright pointed out that the theory that Samuel-Kings whitewashes the life of David and exonerates him of any wrongdoing collapses the hour you read 1 & 2 Samuel!  Wright pointed out that it is only because of the sheer momentum of scholastic conformity that such an obviously wrong explanation of the nature of the material in the biblical literature is explained as "whitewashing" David's reputation.  David's refusal to punish one of his sons for raping one of his daughters inspires enough resentment in another son that an assasination happens that leads to an eventual coup that causes a series of civil wars that only end near the end of David's life and then, when at last he tries to take a census to see how many people are in the kingdom after all that, he's described as ignoring the advice of a trusted general, incurring the wrath of YHWH and thereby instigating a plague that kills off thousands of people!  That's whitewashing the reputation of David?  What idiots think that?  Scholars.

So in a way there's no "winning" side in the spat between Ted Gioia and Jody Rosen. Rosen's response a few years back conceded a few points and amounted to a question as to where the bad music journalism is. 

The Beyonce/Sheeran editorial isn't exactly bad music journalism ... it's just that it demonstrates how often what is published as music journalism isn't about the music so much as about the extra-musical or non-musical codes and semiotics through which the music, if ever you hear it, gets mediated in journalistic discourse. 

This kind of failure is not unique to pop music criticism or jazz writing.  Even someone like Roger Scruton can toss out lines about how Schubert's string quartets don't follow the rules of sonata form, as he does in his most recent book Music as an Art

But if it seems that a Roger Scruton is an old fogey one of the object lessons in the last century of writing about music is that anyone can end up a fogey at some point.  The fogeys of the Boomer generation were at one point perceived as daring, radical and willing to question the status quo.  Now they are consider an albatross to younger music journalists.  Gioia's critique was, in a phrase, that musical literacy was no longer required for music journalism and that even a musician like Jennifer Lopez could find fault with Harry Connick Jr for using the term "pentatonic" because it's musician jargon.  The symbolism of that cited case shouldn't be lost on those who disagree with Gioia's claim.  He wasn't citing a case where a non-musician asked a musician to not use jargon.  This was an intra-entertainment incident. 

Let's put this another way, when journalists lament that in the age of Trump people don't trust experts and don't trust people with technical training doesn't there seem like a possibility that this sort of disapproval of the uneducated or those unmotivated to attempt to explain things in technical or guild-informed terms seem like a possible double standard?  If music journalists hate Trump as much as I suspect many of them do and regard his disregard for institutional knowledge, norms and study as terrible does that "complicate the narrative" for journalists who think Gioia's criticism of music journalism as having devolved into lifestyle reporting by opening up the possibility that there's a comparable problem in music journalism itself in the United States that could potentially map on a Venn diagram to the kinds of complaints that have been made about 45?

My personal conviction is that if music journalists are not musically literate enough to discuss the music in the technical terms of a musician then if they have issues with Americans not caring about intellectual topics or having an "anti-intellectual" streak or regarding Trump as having a low view of experts that's the pot calling the kettle black.  If anything in the age of Trump Gioia's complaints about the lower state of music literacy in music journalism could invite a proposal that the kind of president we got may be symptomatic of problems in American culture that can be observed beyond the Oval Office.  If the entertainment industries had not cumulatively made him a celebrity would he have been in a position to run?  If journalism that dropped to the level of lifestyle reporting and a reality TV industry managed to keep someone in the spotlight long enough for the person to decide to run then the press may have reason to despite Trump, but Trump sure seems like the kind of famous for being famous person who couldn't have become that kind of famous had journalism in the United States and entertainment more generally not been at a level where he could have staying power.

Hollywood may regret making certain people stars but there's no reason, after so many decades, to think that Hollywood at all regrets the star system itself.  But when controversies about misconduct emerge about a Sherman Alexie or a Ronell it seems impossible to chalk that up to a political spectrum.  It seems our stars and celebrities can't resist the temptation to leverage that starhood.  In such a culture the prospect that one person is "real" and the other "fake" seems like one of the cogs in the machinery of entertainment. 

Given how many rock and roll heroes turned out to be physically abusive drunks and rug users and creeps perhaps an apt summation of Beyonce's appeal could come from a little spiel given to someone on an episode of South Park. South Park Kanye West says of his lady love, "My girl may not be able to sing like Beyonce, or talk like Beyonce, or act like Beyonce, or be a decent human being like Beyonce, but with the help of Photoshop ... ."

If the creators of South Park namedrop Beyonce as someone whose prominence in the world of celebrity and entertainers is "decent human being" that is funny both because it comes off as such a damning assessment of what the baseline behavior is for celebrity on the one hand and that, against all those tendencies, Parker and Stone think Beyonce is a decent human being. 

at Slate Kaya Oakes has an article about classical music, concert decorum, and the emergence of the "shush" paradigm

One of the recurring themes in writing about what's colloquially known as classical music is that we seem to have been dealt a whole range of conventions and expectations from 19th century conventions and ideals that Americans who write about classical music can regard as either wildly outmoded or, as we'll see in this piece, as norms that were introduced into and imposed upon appreciation of classical music .


I grew up in Oakland, and my first exposure to classical music was at the Oakland Symphony’s children’s concerts. The symphony’s conductor was the late Calvin Simmons, the first black conductor of a major American orchestra. Simmons’ enthusiasm for music was infectious: He invited kids onstage, left the lights on in the art-deco Paramount Theatre, let us try out instruments, and made the shows vocal, interactive, and a hell of a lot of fun. When my parents occasionally took us to shows at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, I loved the music but was also bored out of my skull, fidgety, and itchy in dress-up clothes.

As a person whose primary beat is writing about religion, I can’t help but notice the parallels between classical music and religion in America today. As an aging Christian population watches its congregations shrink, younger seekers who don’t feel welcomed give up on church. Americans still discover classical music in their youth, but even those who play enthusiastically in school often can’t afford to go to the symphony, or if they do, they’re asked to treat it like a religious space, which it isn’t.

Classical music isn’t dying, but our ways of experiencing it are becoming ossified. People have told me stories ranging from being whacked on the head with a program for whispering to watching a child excited to see Misty Copeland dance being told to pipe down; a fistfight recently broke out at a Mahler concert in Sweden over someone rustling a gum wrapper. There’s even a whole genre of YouTube videos of conductors stopping concerts to quiet audiences. Based on the comments, these videos offer smug satisfaction for those who gloat that they would never make a peep at a concert. The implication is that a noisy audience at a classical show is an uneducated, unsophisticated audience, one that can’t possibly appreciate what’s on the stage. 

But that’s not how classical music was originally meant to be heard. Bach’s music was certainly played for the 1 percenters of his time, but it was also played in taverns and coffeehouses, for talking, sweating, farting, working-class crowds. Bach was in many ways a glorified organ grinder, cranking out music to support his 20 children. (If those taverns were raucous, imagine what his home life was like!) Clerical and royal audiences in churches and palaces sat in silence, but in concert halls, the lights were left on so people could chat and flirt, and crowds often vocally demanded instant encores or booed loudly.

I recently finished a fun monograph on the minor key symphony in the Viennese idiom in the era of Haydn and Mozart by Matthew Riley.  I'll probably have to write a post discussing the book at some point down the line, but in that book Riley notes that it's a commonly known fact about 18th century musical life that in the 18th century the people who showed up at performances were notoriously inattentive listeners.  There is, however, a case to be made that Haydn composed several of his symphonies for performance in church services and Riley's case seems persuasive when he proposes that the evolution of the minor key symphony in Haydn's work and the storm and stress style of writing probably did not develop, as has previously been conjectured by music historians, in response to some slightest romantic/erotic attachment.  That sort of Freudian explanation as to why Haydn or any other composer did X or Y in musical expression has not gone away, but Riley proposes, I think more plausibly, that Haydn in particular probably developed the minor key symphony as a way to comply with Lenten conventions while also still providing music for a patronage base that still wanted to hear symphonic concert music or have music in church services that would not breach the proprietary concerns of a Catholic culture.  

Two things to note from that. First, minor key music tends to signal through myriad conventions that now is the time to be quiet for some serious music.  Second, ostensibly strong explanations from a Freudian reading that were considered compelling in the previous century can seem daft now.  As one of my music teachers put it, if Mozart was having a bad year you'd never know it from the music he wrote.  Composers from that era did not see music composition as a role in which the aim was what has been thought of since the Romantic as the aim of personal expression.  

Inattentive listening has been part and parcel of musical life for probably as long as humans have made music.  Specialists in Early Music (i.e. Baroque music or the musical era of figured bass or thoroughbass or Rhetorical music if you've read some Bruce Haynes) have at times pointed out that a great deal of our classical music concert culture and conventions derive from 19th century paradigms that were not necessarily a reflection of earlier epochs of Western musical life.  

Without intending to get extravagantly detailed, as I've read musicology and music blogs in the last few years I've been struck by a consensus in American writing that there's a laundry list of legacies from the 19th century and the "new German" approach to music that Americans even within classical music distrust.  Douglas Shadle's book Orchestrating the Nation could be the start of a historical exploration of why that has been the case by dint of looking at a variety of 19th century American composers and symphonists whose work was simply never admitted into the canon that was in many respects already defined in Germanic terms, first by Beethoven and then by Wagner.  It's not that difficult to perceive in the writing of Roger Scruton that has commitment to serious music as a serious endeavor that shapes and forms can be read as a kind of art-music-is-like-church approach, or art as a kind of sanctifying sacrament.  Any number of contemporary Westerners would probably regard my personal religious convictions as fundamentalist and yet, low church Protestant sort that I admit I am, I simply do not subscribe to high art as having some religious element as a matter of necessity.  There are those who make art their religion and with that I simply don't agree but people can do what they will.

People should generally be quiet so people can appreciate the music but that's a matter of appreciating the fact that people pay money to hear, say, Hilary Hahn, not a screaming baby.  But if Hahn wants to give concerts in which she encourages people to bring their little ones that's great as far as I'm concerned.  There are ways performing artists can signal that appreciating music doesn't necessarily always "have" to be done in ways parallel to attending a church service.  

In the case of post-Wagnerian art there's other stuff I could write inspired by books by a few books but I don't feel like getting into that at just this moment.  

I'm reminded, at the moment, of Raymond Knapp's book Making Light about Haydn and musical 

When I read writing from what might be loosely described as the New Musicology, American writers in the wake of Susan McClary and Kerman and others who may with all sincerity seek to "complicate the narrative" of classical music as received and disseminated via educational institutions that treats German and French music as canonical, I get the sense that what they're cumulatively trying to object to is the legacy of German idealism and its influence on the arts as a surrogate for religion in particular.  I don't think that that kind of polemical effort, as sympathetic as I can be to it on any number of grounds, is a necessarily helpful path.  Arguing to the effect that canons are products or constructs of institutional power is and that we should move beyond canons is ultimately pointless and foolish.  Let me put it this way, the Gospels describe Jesus redefining what greatness means for those who follow his teaching.  The greatest among you will be a servant.  Jesus is not recorded as attempting to reject the very idea of greatness but substantially redefining greatness within the context in which he lived and taught, or rather, he set up a definition of greatness that went against the functional definitions of status and prestige that Jesus regarded as typical of the Gentiles, the Roman imperium, for instance.

We're not going to end up with a post-canon musical anything.  Humans are canonizers and the religious impulse is a largely ineradicable element of what we humans do.  Roger Scruton has written that Richard Wagner understood that our concept of the sacred undergirds and is the real foundation of illusory religious dogmas and that this capacity for recognizing the sacred was central to Wagner's art.

Let me try to put it this way, Michael Jackson and Elton John and the Beatles are part of a popular music canon.  By definition no one who wants to teach music is going to have a post-canonical conception of music because the canon, whatever it is, in the arts, is what you teach from.  For some that's Johann Sebastian Bach. For others it's Beethoven. For others it's Michael Jackson and for still others it might be Madonna or Clara Schumann or whomever.  So at one level my disagreement with the new musicology in American musicology is that I regard any attempt to claim a "post canon" musical culture or educational paradigm as an oxymoron at best and at worst a bad faith double bind with respect to the very nature of vocational pedagogy.  If you're a teacher of any kind you're teaching from a canon.  

That was something I was trying to get at when I wrote "hegemony may be in the eye of the complainer" but I hadn't refined the argument to the point I've just written above.  If you want a post-canon musical world you want a world full of amateur musicians who are not bound to any educational institutional, who can learn from friends and family how to make music.  If you want a post-canon musical world you can only get that if there is no higher educational cultural matrix within which any kinds of canons could be debated.  Until such time as all arts education in the United States is abolished that "world" will never exist and I would argue that it should not exist.  Teaching is a noble and wonderful if oft thankless activity, which is not necessarily ever precisely the same as being an academic.  Though I never ended up in academia I aspired to get into academia decades ago but I gave up on that, and I feel it's for the best.  As I think about it what teachers do is teach and what academics, defined here in a practical and deliberately pejorative sense, debate canons and post-canon and things like that.  Don't be an academic, be a teacher. 

But there's a second level at which I find I can't sign on for some of the polemical stances I've seen in American work known as the new musicology.  This is a point that I could raise by simply invoking Adorno.  What 19th century bourgeois self-congratulation did with Beethoven should not be construed as equivalent to what Beethoven accomplished in his music or with what he hoped he could express and accomplish in his music.  

One of the things Adorno wrote in a scramble of writings published in a book called Current of Music, was that Americans who presented Haydn as somehow consolidating the "rules" of sonata form was a gross misrepresentation and misunderstanding of what Haydn did.  Anyone who has read more than just a chapter or a few paragraphs in a music survey course about Haydn is likely to discover is that Haydn was not the sort to particularly enjoy following rules and was even less interested in prescribing rules.  Yet somehow, as if by magic, Haydn gets handed down as the one who established the paradigms of "made the rules" American understandings of classical music.  In that sense an understanding of Haydn as standard-maker by way of his influence on Mozart and Beethoven in classical music mythologizing flies in the face of what anyone who seriously engages with the music and life of Haydn would discover about him.  Taruskin has noted that one of the ironies of music history and pedagogy has been to present Haydn as a standard-maker when that would be as far from Haydn's own interest or practice as possible; one of the long-running jokes in formal analysis and in teaching sonatas is to lay out a series of conventions that are to be expected in a sonata from 18th century practice with the caveat for just about any and every such convention being "Just don't expect Haydn to always do X"  Once my brother tried to study Haydn to learn how sonata forms should be written and he took a quartet score to a teacher who then, dryly observed, that somehow against all odds my brother picked one of the string quartets Haydn composed where the movement had a sonata exposition and a development but one that sort of playfully frittered to the end of the work bringing no recapitulation.  

So I'm not surprised if a journalist writing about classical music and comparisons of classical concert decorum to church attendance might note that the kind of concert-as-church paradigm is something we can read was not the way classical music has always been done.  That's true.  I think that a serious engagement of popular music an a serious engagement of 18th century concert music could fairly easily lead a musician or composer to arrive at a potential fusion of "high" and "low".  Even old sourpuss Adorno wrote that it was up through the 18th century in which it was thoroughly possible for something to be both genuinely popular culture on the one hand and successful as the highest achievement in art on the other.  Now I think Adorno was ultimately wrong to insist that stopped at the eighteenth century but this post is already fairly long as it is.  

What I'm trying to articulate is that I believe music teachers and theorists who have been on the pop music side may not fully appreciate that when they attempt to dislodge the influence of German idealism in American musical pedagogy they may not fully appreciate the extent to which they have drunk a large draught of it even in how they attempt to argue against that legacy.  At the risk of floating an example, Raymond Knapp has pointed out that rock and jazz criticism simply made the ideal of "real" and "authentic" a matter of being a black American or some other minority sidelined by the white mainstream, whereas in German idealism it was being truly German and of "the people".  The script was flipped so to speak but it was still the same script.  

Knapp's proposal that many American musical traditions that rejected German idealism in style and substance tracked along the lines of what might be best described as camp, but that post-Sontag discussions of camp have become entrenched in an assumption that camp and gay or so equivalent as to preclude straight camp---Knapp's proposal in Making Light, among a number of proposals, was that Haydn was venerated as a standard-maker in 19th century music study but not venerated as being truly first-rate compared to Haydn or Mozart, for instance, because Haydn's music is, compared to theirs, camp.  Haydn is too funny to be taken seriously and yet to go by the praise lavished upon Haydn in his own era and by contemporaries, it was Haydn more than most who was regarded as an artistic hero and genius.  

Of course I also think that the high and low have balkanized so much in the last two centuries I think there's a compelling reason to propose that a "solution" to a number of artistic challenges in our time, but especially in what's called classical music, is not going to be achieved by doubling down on a high or a low range of conventions, and it's not going to be achieved by doubling down on canons or on the dubious idea that there should be known canons.  I think the most potentially fruitful path to explore in music is to explore ways to restore a synergistic/dialectical relationship between high and low musical idioms of a sort that even a man like Adorno could grant existed in the 18th century.  The potential irony of this path is that if "we" do this it means we'll simultaneously immerse ourselves in J. S. Bach and Haydn and Buxtehude or maybe through in Hummel, Clementi, Dussek and grab a little Purcell; but we'll also be listening to blues, jazz, country, and all the popular styles of the last century.  

I know some music teachers think there's not much conceptual overlap between 20th century American popular styles and 18th century European music but I'm here to suggest on a December weekend that my polemical proposal is to ask, "What if that idea is due to the outsize influence of German idealism?  What if thinking about the historical and musical issues in that ways shows that people who think that are still residually influenced by a division between high (art-as-religious sublime) and low (I can dance to it) that was firmly introduced in the Romantic era?"  Part of consciously and thoroughly rejecting the legacy of the long 19th century might be precisely in insisting that there is probably some practical way within which to compose a fugue that is inspired by a slide guitar riff in a Hank Williams Sr. song.  It should be thoroughly practical to write a sonata inspired by chord changes in a Stevie Wonder song.  It is absolutely feasible to compose sonatas using ragtime strains.  The obstacles are not, as I see and hear things, in the musical works or styles at all, they exist in the precepts and polemics of musical academics (who are not necessarily the same as teachers).   

Which is repeating myself a lot, I admit, but blogs let you repeat yourself and play with ideas from different angles.   

Thursday, December 06, 2018

something that may arrive later in the year (or more likely next year), page compiling music essays

During the particularly intense years of blogging back in the 2012-2014 period there would occasionally be a comment from someone who might write something like "All you do at this blog is rip on Pastor Mark and Mars Hill."  There was a lot of writing going on at this blog during those years and while a lot of people who have chosen to read posts at this blog chose to read about Mars Hill Church related topics there was plenty of other reading material, a bit of writing about animation (an art form I've loved since childhood), and also what could be broadly described as musicology, musical analysis, and music history.

Sometimes I think it might be a good idea to create a separate page that lists the extent of musical blogging I've done ... well, no, not the extent, more of a highlights page.  I may create such a page later this year but often I feel it might be best to save it for 2019 or, at any rate, after I've managed to go through all 24 of a certain set of pieces in contrapuntal cycle for solo guitar I still want to write a lot more about. 

I finished a hugely informative (though not cheap!) book by Matthew Riley on the minor-key symphony in the Viennese tradition during the time of Haydn and Mozart.  It could, as some existing reviews have sometimes noted, have been more robust exploring a couple of composers but I think that's a small criticism to make in light of what the book has to offer about the minor-key symphony in Haydn's time.  I hope to write about that at some point but it feels like I've been trying to write maybe too many things this year, not all of which are for this blog and not all of which is even essays.  I've completed a pretty big chunk of musical composition this year. 

My theoretical treatment of the possibilities for temporal/spatial correspondence between the syntactics of sonata forms and ragtime that I wrote last year seems like something I can refine as theoretical examination but in practice I've written a number of ragtime sonata works.  Drawing on Hepokoski and Darcy's five types of sonatas as syntactic scripts and making use of William Caplin's observations about intra-thematic formal dynamics, I also drew some inspiration from George Rochberg's theorizing about the distinctions between timespace and spacetime; and, finally, thanks to some fine writing by Peter Burkholder about Ives I've used Ives' paradigm of cumulative form (which, I hasten to add, was not unique to Ives since Benjamin Britten used what amounts to "cumulative form" in his magnificent Nocturnal after John Dowland!) ... all that is to say I've read some fairly heavy theoretical writing about formal analysis and with a specific set of interests--I'm interested in formal analysis in which the end result can be ragtime sonatas. 

Ragtime is what I consider an unfortunately overlooked or ignored genre in American musical history.  In historical terms or musicological terms it is significant as a style of popular music and also as the precursor to what is now known as jazz.  Yet it seems that in histories of jazz ragtime is in some senses sidelined, it probably doesn't help much that in mythologies of jazz ragtime as a background for dixieland jazz can be set up in narratives of jazz in which reactionaries embrace ragtime as roots jazz where bob and bebop explored new directions. 

Thing is, as a classical guitarist whose musical education was anchored in choral singing I sometimes think that dixieland and bop and bebop were all reactionary  movements in the sense that they were reacting to the perceived exhaustion, dilution and commercialization that happened to swing.  Raymond Knapp merely touched on how rock criticism tacitly or even unknowingly assimilated the ideals of German idealism; it could be said of the bop and bebop styles that they were in many respects a "rockist" reaction to the commercialization of swing.  In a way dixieland jazz was, too, but in the sense that it tried to go back to what were regarded as the historical roots of jazz in ragtime that move was possibly reactionary but ragtime was originally a much slower style and also a genre of popular song (not that you'd know this from truncated histories of ragtime that come up in music histories that don't deal explicitly with ragtime).  If dixieland advocates felt that bop and bebop were moving in a direction where jazz was no longer dance music and becoming too complex and insular then ... well ... let me try putting this in a polemical way, the jazzbros of the last twenty some years may have proven the advocates of dixieland were right about something, after all. 

This isn't to say bop or bebop is bad.  I really enjoy a lot of that music, too, it's just that I've also loved ragtime my whole adult life and yet don't play jazz and am not in any kind of jazz scene.  So at the risk of putting this in a still polemical way, I have not had much reason to buy into mythologies associated with different eras of jazz as emerged within its history.  I like Armstrong. I like Tatum. I adore the music of Ellington.  I admire Mingus and revere Monk.  Davis is, eh, pretty good half the time but not my favorite.  Coltrane is near where I begin to lose interest in jazz as a historical musical set of paths and I have to admit I haven't enjoyed Coltrane nearly as much as George Russell in some ways.  I actually dislike a lot of jazz choral music!  At the risk of bringing in what I've read about 18th century musical theory and practice one of the complaints made from that period was that lesser level singers spent so much time decorating and ornamenting melodies there was no recognizable tune left to hear beneath the filigree less prudent vocal soloists would add. 

And that reminds me I want to write a post about Christmas songs as a great way to hear the differences between soulful (or would be soulful) singers who sound great or grating to me depending on how they ornament the core tune ... which I mention because over the last twenty years I've noticed that there's some interesting overlaps and correspondences between 18th century musical commentary and commentaries about popular singers now.  The era of what's thought of as autonomous or transcendent instrumental music in the long 19th century was not, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, more than a sliver of the thousand years of Western musical history.  Mahalia Jackson could brilliantly ornament a traditional song by adding her flourishes at the start or the end of a note's duration but she would articulate the duration of a note in a given melody in a way that would convey the duration of said note if she didn't decorate the note at all.  What works brilliantly in a Mahalia Jackson Gospel song performance can be what works brilliantly in a thought-through and emotionally engaged performance of a Baroque era aria. 

One of the things I sometimes wonder is whether musicology types have been so entrenched in their respective stylistic and, er, historical or cultural trenches they don't cross-study enough even within the realm of musicology to fully appreciate points of overlap and correspondence.  Jazz people study jazz without studying Baroque music and vice versa, yet some of the more exciting musical possibilities I've been hearing and reading happen when contemporary writers and musicians explore how, once you set aside the often literally academic turf wars, lots of musicians in practice can revere the music of Stevie Wonder and Haydn in pretty equal measure.  They have displayed their respective musical gifts in different ways and that's wonderful. 

When Raymond Knapp suggested that the ideological tendencies of German idealism got replicated in rock and jazz criticism he went so far as to suggest that the archetypal or stereotypical "authentic" was shifted from white German Romantic era instrumental music to black American vernacular styles ... provided those black musicians checked off the right boxes of authenticity in terms of race of socioeconomic class and gender.  Another way to put this is that the photo negative of German idealism as it emerged in rock and jazz criticism could be of the same face--a mythological Beethoven or a mythological Byrd or a mythological Berry can still perform the same cultural mythological role and even within the same basic taxonomy of a mode of German idealism. 

I was trying to get at and express those frustrations when I wrote something called something like "hegemony may be in the eye of the complainer".  Having more time to have thought about it the jazzbro and the Beethoven mythologizer are very often the same kind of person and it may be that many a jazzbro venerates Miles Davis and also even Beethoven.  It's not bad to love the music of either Davis or Beethoven, I'm just finding myself annoyed by the ways in which ostensibly "opposite" poles in narratives tend to mimic elements they may recognize clearly enough in the musicology and mythologizing of another style than the style they're committed to. 

But I have felt like I'm alternately trying to write more than I practically can and not writing enough.  One of the better axioms I heard from a teacher in high school was that sloppy writing was generally the result of sloppy thinking.  Sometimes attempts to "complicate the narrative" don't complicate a narrative so much as complicate language while leaving core narratives alone or simply offering alternative simplistic narratives.  I am tired of white liberal guys saying blues "broke all the rules" of classical music.  Which period?  The 18th century?  The 19th century?  It's not as though false relations can't be found in the music of William Byrd or Gesualdo. 

There are things that make blue notes unique within blues, absolutely, but when blues and jazz writers say that their favorite styles roke the rules of classical that very often shows they don't know enough music history about those styles to understand that, as Haydn once put it, the "rules" are whether it sounds fun to you if you have a well-trained ear.  It seems a good chunk of the "rules" that blues supposedly broke were rules formulated by 19th century theorists and pedagogues rather than composers and practical musicians.  Let me see if I can put it this way, there are moments in Haydn string quartets that have moods similar to a Hank Williams Sr. song.  There are moments in Stevie Wonder songs I find more harmonically complex and sublime than anything I've heard in Scriabin. 

I've been rambling through a lot of words to say that I don't think of myself as a poptimist or a rockist because I can't shake the sense that these two camps aren't as different in practice as they think they are in theory.  I've been moving toward a proposal that there are battles between purists and fusionists because I think that may be a more accurate description of the kinds of things I've been reading in musicology and music history.  I'm not on the side of purists as a composer even if purists historically make formidable scholars!  I just don't want the music I compose to ever be beholden to the interests and rules of purists.  Haydn didn't either which is why he's one of my musical heroes.  Richard Taruskin once quipped there's a J. S. Bach for the left and one for the right.  In a similar way there's a J. S. Bach for the purists and there's a J. S. Bach for the fusionists.  I don't have any hesitation to say that latter Bach is what interests me in historical terms and in terms of what inspires my own thoughts as a composer.  As Manfred Bukofzer put it in his monograph on the Baroque era, back in that day if you melded Spanish, English, French, German and Italian styles into a synthesis that was praiseworthy. 

It is with the hindsight of musicology that a panoply of divergent forms and styles could be read as a monolithic late Baroque culminating in J. S. Bach.  Of course I love the music of J. S. Bach.  :)  But the German Idealist legacy of a pure J. S. Bach that embodies the greatest music of the Western tradition I don't contest on the ground that I don't think of Bach as an amazing musician and composer, it's the German idealist part I reject.  I love German language music before it became self-consciously so "German" about stuff, kind of like how I love American music composed by Americans who did not have some existential battle of definition and delineation as to what American is. So I love music by Johnny Cash and Duke Ellington and find Copland to be kind of a pretty bore.  I also don't particularly enjoy Leonard Bernstein's compositions.  I can respect the craft of their work, to be sure, but I don't exactly thrill to their music. 

if I do set up a page of collected music essays this post is not going to likely end up getting a link on that page.  This is too sprawling. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

a brief update by way of links to the Redeemer PDX merger with Door of Hope. In the Staff/Elders page for Door of Hope there's no sign of anyone named Tim Smith

filed October 30, 2018

For those who have kept tabs on this particular topic at this blog ...

What would Tim Smith’s role at Door of Hope be? Would he be an elder?

Tim would serve as an associate pastor, working alongside our other pastors in shepherding the church. Additionally, he’d play a key role in helping the Redeemer congregation integrate into DoH. He would not be coming on as an elder. [emphasis added]

Since the merger was consolidated and filed slightly more than a month ago perhaps there has not been time to officially add Tim Smith to the listed staff and elders, or perhaps an associate pastor would not be listed on the website?

As we'd noted in the earlier post, the numbers for what used to be MH PDX looked like they were dropping before the formal closure and while we never had access or were given much by way of information here at WtH about MH PDX post closure of MH it seems that the downward spiral of numbers got to the point where a merger happened.  Back in 2012 at its peak, Mark Driscoll was blogging about how Jesus loved church mergers and so should you.  The irony of a former Mars Hill campus merging with another church and giving them a building would be hard to overstate for those who at any point called the church their home church. 

Thus ends, apparently completely, the story of what was once Mars Hill Portland. 

Sunday, December 02, 2018

some links for the weekend (what's left of it)

over at The Atlantic an author has an article in which the title speaks of how Trump pits elite whites and non-elite whites against each other and the Democratic party keeps falling for it and, why?

keeping things Atlantic, Ed Yong had a piece that says the replication crisis is leaving the whole field of psychology without any plausible excuses

Kori Schake has a piece called "The End of the American Order"

thumbnail sketch, in the era of Trump's presidency where he seems to think lightly of internationalist alliances European powers have begun to make policy decisions that can signal the end of the American order or American preeminence globally.  Since I've been skeptical in the last ten years about the long-term viability of internationalist Atlanticism I can't say I'm hugely shocked by such a piece.  To put it another way, as I've considered the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of one of Francis Schaeffer's more famous books I've been saying this a lot, that Francis Schaeffer was so busy lamenting the post-Christian America he saw in his lifetime he didn't seem to stop to consider what a post-American Christianity might look like, and by that I don't mean a world in which the United States doesn't exist as a political region so much as a world in which the "world" does not automatically look to the United States as the leader of the "free world". 

Alia Wong has a piece on the at times devastating psychological pressures of grad school and doctoral studies

apropos of nothing, perhaps, a recent piece in Inside Higher Education discusses how the history major has reached a new low of enrollment and student interest

on a more pedestrian note, someone at Slate has written about "floaters" and what they are inside your eyes if you have them and what you can do about them (spoiler alert, absolutely nothing). 

Alan Jacobs has a post called "enough with the `cultural Marxism' already" and it's hard to fault him at the moment, featuring a riff on how anti-Marxist cultural conservatives somehow end up using polemics that were ironically used by Adorno

Alexander Zubatov tries to rescue the term “Cultural Marxism” in this post, and I don’t think he succeeds. Now, he might succeed in defending some users of the term from some of the charges Samuel Moyn makes here, but that’s a different matter (and one I won’t take up here). I simply want to argue that the term ought to be abandoned.

Here’s Zubatov’s definition:

So what is cultural Marxism? In brief, it is a belief that cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures, so we must scrutinize and judge all culture and ideas based on their relation to power.

The problem here, put as succinctly as I can put it, is that you can take this view of culture without being a Marxist, and you can be a Marxist without taking this view of culture.
Jacobs goes to the trouble of actually quoting Marx to demonstrate that Marx did not see some kind of one-to-one correlation between art works and the cultures that produced them.  Now the habit of reading some kind of statements or inferences about a culture off of the "text" of a musical or artistic work is something I've seen made as a complaint about the American new musicology after the fashion of Susan McClary, for instance, but it's not necessarily how Marx seems to have dealt with art.  It's not even really the way that Adorno, often and widely held in conservative circles as having somehow paved the way for "cultural Marxism" dealt with artworks.  Adorno could claim that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was "true" and participated in truth and signaled sympathy with a revolutionary desire for freedom and universal humanity but that his work was later co-opted by bourgeois ambition and self-regard and retroactively transformed into a kind of falsehood by the class that co-opted Beethoven's art as the standard by which middle class individualism could be signified.  Adorno venerated Beethoven's work without necessarily regarding the society that "produced" Beethoven's music as anything close to a just society.  

To be sure, many later Marxists would get highly agitated by Marx and Engels’s use of the word “determined” in the passage just quoted. But a decade after The German Ideology, in an appendix to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx would clarify this point:

As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society, nor do they therefore to the material substructure, the skeleton as it were of its organisation. For example the Greeks compared with modern [nations] …. It is even acknowledged that certain branches of art, e.g., the epic, can no longer be produced in their epoch-making classic form after artistic production as such has begun; in other words that certain important artistic formations are only possible at an early stage in the development of art itself.

Marx believed that capitalism was an advance over feudalism, which was in turn an advance over more primitive forms of political organization; that did not mean that he thought Benjamin Disraeli a superior writer to Homer — or that you could explain Homer’s greatness by invoking the politics of his world. But if you want to understand a given work of art you need to pay attention to what Marx and Engels habitually called its “material conditions.”

So, if we grant that Marx and Engels are Marxists, we must then conclude that Marxists do not necessarily believe that “cultural productions (books, institutions, etc.) and ideas are emanations of underlying power structures.” [emphasis added] And many later Marxists, including some of the ones Zubatov quotes, go even further in separating the superstructure of cultural production from the economic base. (Georg Lukács, for instance, was taken to task by Bertolt Brecht for writing criticism insufficiently attentive to the base and therefore to the revolutionary imperative: “It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.”)

Moreover, the one figure who did the most to consolidate the idea that all culture is deeply implicated in the “underlying power structures,” the power-knowledge regime, is Michel Foucault, and there has always been the suspicion on the academic Left that Foucault is actually a conservative.

It is equally clear that one can believe that an advocate “for the persecuted and oppressed must attack forms of culture that reinscribe the values of the ruling class, and disseminate culture and ideas that support ‘oppressed’ groups and ‘progressive’ causes,” without endorsing any of the core principles of Marx’s system. (There are forms of conservatism and Christianity that are as fiercely critical of the ruling class as any Marxist, while having no time for dialectical materialism or communism.) [emphasis added]

I am not convinced by Moyn’s claim that there is something strongly antisemitic about the contemporary use of the term “Cultural Marxism” — though I’d be interested to hear him develop that argument at greater length. I tend to see there term deployed in the classic Red Scare mode of the McCarthy era: in some circles, now as then, there’s no quicker and easier way to discredit an idea than to call its proponents Commies. And that’s the work that the “Marxism” half of “cultural Marxism” does.

So that's a good chunk of what Alan Jacobs had to say in his post about `cultural Marxism'.  

Whatever 'cultural Marxism' is, it seems that far too many of the people who wield the term have never read anything by authors associated with the Frankfurt school, whether Adorno or even the technically not formally affiliated Walter Benjamin.  A lot of what passes for 'cultural Marxism' seems to be an objection to a kind of multiculturalism that, if anything, might replicate identitarian essentialist stances.  The identity politics of the newer left and the new right don't always seem that different to me.  Or as John Halle has blogged, there's a kind of blue state neoliberalism that holds that so long as the rainbow gets fuller representation the last forty years of deregulated globalist internationalist finance is basically all good.  In other words, merely not being some kind of Republican or a neo-conservative doesn't by any means get people off the hook from being what some call neoliberal.  

Since one of my hobbies is reading about Soviet era music and composers who lived through that period, it's been interesting that culturally conservative traditionalists who are apt to invoke 'cultural Marxism" every once in a while, can have a paradoxical nostalgia for all of the Western fine arts traditions that were thought to be preserved or saved from a post-Adorno-style Western avant garde.  But there are a couple of potential levels of irony in that sort of bromide against "cultural Marxism".  

The first is that Westerners who would say musical art was better preserved in terms of the Western European legacy of classical music by way of the Soviet system are basically saying that the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union did a better job of preserving traditional Western musical arts than the Western European nations did.  Well if that's the case then Western liberal traditions don't seem to have been the reason the art forms were preserved.  At another level, since so many of the fine arts traditions of Western European vintage emerged over centuries of medieval Catholic feudalism and monarchic empires it's possible to suggest that there's actually nothing necessarily inherent in the Western tradition of liberalism that necessarily "deserves" any credit for the Western fine arts as such.  If the ideological system that ensured the preservation of Western musical arts in the classical tradition was socialist realism ... the liberal Enlightenment Western values are perhaps superfluous to the preservation of the musical art.  The same apparently can also go for Western feudal Christendom. 

The second level of potential irony besides the matter of how the Soviets, in some tellings by traditionalists of Western fine art traditions, preserved the classical musical heritage that was cast off by acolytes of Adorno is that Adorno had damning remarks about the post-World War II avant garde for which he tends to be blamed in these narratives about "cultural Marxism".  Because it's the weekend and I've felt better I don't feel like diving into the lengthy Adorno quotes from the mid-1960s essays he wrote where he blasted the Boulez/Stockhausen pedigree as specializing in arid and inhuman music bereft of the "subject" or how the post John Cage style aleatoric approach removes the subject by dint of a Zen posture that vitiates the art of musical composition, decision-making.  

The people most apt to inveigh against "cultural Marxism" and the legacy of the Frankfurt school can ironically do nothing better than parrot the arguments against the post-war European avant garde that Adorno himself articulated half a century ago, and often the conservative/traditionalist polemics can seem to recycle Adorno's points in a way that suggests a complete lack of awareness that Adorno made these same points half a century ago ... it's almost as if some accepted conservative/traditionalist master narrative has been accepted in which Adorno is simply blamed for things he was castigating in his actual life and writings because people who bloviate about "cultural Marxism" too often have other things they want to do with their time than actually read the primary source works.  

Suppose it be said that the new avant garde that emerged in the wake of World War 2 in Europe has led to the creation of a musical subculture in which no one has to have any traditional musical competencies and can get by on literally formulaic systems that can be passed off as an indication of musical competency.  That is a relatively common complaint that is registered by writers like John Borstlap and Roger Scruton.  It's worth noting that if you never master the traditional Western tonal musical skill sets then breaking the "rules" when you never mastered them or understood them to begin with can't even mean anything because if you couldn't understand the traditional rules to begin with rebelling against them on the basis of the codification of a new set of alternative rules is pointless and will lead at length to the observation that many of these new would-be avant garde composers and musicians are just incompetent by the measure of both old and new ... but that's not necessarily a conservative or traditionalist argument if a "cultural Marxist" of the Frankfurt school has to be considered a "cultural Marxist".

Why?  Because I was just summarizing Adorno in his essay "Difficulties" wherein he outlined how post-tonal avant garde composers who couldn't write Palestrina following exercises in voice-leading were not rebelling against tonality in writing in total serialist systems, they were just displaying their omni-incompetence for music in general.  That's been one of the more ironic discoveries I've made reading Adorno in the wake of reading John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution, that Borstlap pins some blame on Adorno for the postwar European avant garde when Adorno damned the post-tonal postwar avant garde in even more vitriolic terms in essays called "On the Aging of the New Music" and "Difficulties" half a century ago.

So if the best that writers like John Borstlap or Roger Scruton can manage is to echo Adorno's condemnations of the postwar European avant garde in less incisive language then Alan Jacobs may be more right than he knows suggesting "enough with the `cultural Marxism' already".

a sort of demise for the film critic David Edelstein over a butter joke in the wake of Bertolucci's death ...

I generally have gotten to the point where I don't expect anyone who writes for Salon to be capable of nuance.  O'Hehir's declaration that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is fascist simply did not convince me.  Reference to Edelstein's withering pan of Wonder Woman that stopped only to bask in the author's admiration of Gal Gadot's physical form gets made in the Salon piece. That was just last year and a number of feminists and writers online noted that what Edelstein did was basically declare the superhero film was a piece of junk and, to the point, it seemed that Edelstein only had regard for the body of the actress he admitted got him horny.  So the mere possibility that Edelstein was somehow undone by one bad joke doesn't seem to really make any sense.  Within the realms of liberal journalism what happened recently might have been a straw that broke a camel's back or maybe it was just a bad PR situation but I've read enough of what Edelstein has written about films over the last twenty years that I can't quite see what happened as tragic or even perhaps an injustice.  But I also can't really see that any calls for him to have been dealt with as particularly persuasive either.

It may be that some of the oddness of the moment may have to do with otherwise liberal journalists who in earlier years might have praised the "rawness" or "realness" of a Louis C. K. who are not at a loss to justify jokes that make light of various levels of sexual assault, which is to say, we're not seeing a kind of neo-puritanism so much as a recognition that many of the cultural heroes or priests of the art-religion of film and the meta-art religion of film criticism, seem like they shouldn't be able to just get away with saying or doing the kinds of things that were venerated in the 1970s as peak-art.  Tolstoy's insistence that great artists should actually be great people does not die off altogether even eras as jaded and brutal as one in which South Park can run for 22 seasons.

But Edelstein managed to enjoy South Park right up to the point, as he put it, that he discovered that Parker and Stone are self-styled libertarians and not liberals like himself as he had imagined they must be. Once Edelstein made that years-delayed discovery (that more alert viewers worked out before the South Park movie was released) suddenly Edelstein couldn't enjoy Parker and Stone's gleeful eviscerations of liberal entertainers in Team America. Matt Damon, indeed.

What may make the Edelstein situation awkward may have something to do with the ghastly, stupid and unfunny joke but also to do with the extent to which idle jokes may reflect upon the nature of the moral compass of those taste-makers in the entertainment industries and the journalistic institutions from which institutionally vetted criticism gets written.  Had Edelstein just been "some blogger" this sort of controversy could not have happened and he'd still be blogging. 

Lessons?  I don't know that there are lessons to be learned by way of Salon.  Mostly a few lines from Proverbs 18 spring to mind.

via NKJV

Proverbs 18:2
A fool has no delight in understanding,
But in expressing his own heart

Proverbs 18:6
A fool’s lips enter into contention,
And his mouth calls for blows.

Proverbs 18:7
A fool’s mouth is his destruction,
And his lips are the snare of his soul.

The age of social media may be able to reveal who has been foolish simply by dint of the fact that fools who use social media can't resist revealing to the entire world how foolish they are, and most of the time it is through what they regard as in-the-moment brilliant displays of wit. 

having chronicled the peak and dissolution of what used to be Mars Hill it might be useful to observe that a famous person can offend a whole lot of people that would be regarded as ideological adversaries and his or her star will continue to rise so long as amid all the controversies there's nothing to suggest that the celebrity or influential figure has said or done something to alienate the support base.   Perhaps as Bill Clinton's personal vices were not considered sufficiently important enough to be obstacles to backing him implementing promised policies 45 has been given a similar "pardon" by his supporters--they may be aware of how vice-filled the occupant seems to be but the policy goals are worth it. 

By contrast, Edelstein made the sort of joke that may have passed by in the past as something that could be tolerated but can't be in this era.  I just don't get the sense that it's about any kind of puritanism as such. 

Part of me wonders whether, had Hillary Clinton won the electoral vote, if these kinds of moments would have happened in that parallel universe.  In an era in which a reality TV star has become president is it possible that the moment we're witnessing in the entertainment industry is the enforcement of codes of conduct that are simply what's expected of anyone with a high profile in the media industries who is in some way expected to act and write and speak in a way commensurate with those classes that are above the "floor" of reality TV?  That's my guess over the last year or so since 45 became 45.