Saturday, February 02, 2019

ballads with rowdy bridges, two brief case studies in "Say You, Say Me" and "Eyes without a Face" and a comment on timbrel change as a structuring element in popular song

In popular song we hear more songs that start quiet and get rowdy than we hear songs that start quiet and only get rowdy somewhere in the bridge.  It's not hard to think of a "Stairway to Heaven" that starts with recorders and acoustic guitar that transforms into a loud, screaming electric guitar solo finale.  By the 1990s the emo trend of quiet-to-loud was relatively easy to chart.  But that's not what this post is going to be about.

Some of the songs I remember from, oh, about the 1980s, were soft ballads punctuated by loud bridges.  The two examples, and the only two I can remember after so many years, are by Lionel Richie and Billy Idol.  Fortunately, as both these songs go, they're pretty good examples of the paradigm of the ballad with the rowdy bridge.

"Say You, Say Me" by Lionel Richie

This ballad is ... well I'd say it's about the value of friendship and ... self-belief it's not exactly my favorite song but it's stuck with me for musical reasons.  The contrast between the syrupy chorus and verse and the bridge is what sets this ballad of uplift apart from a whole lot of other ballads from around the same time.

The  rowdy bridge kicks in at about 2:53 and shifts back into the down-tempo part about 3:10.
There is a half-cadence at the end of the bridge that ensures the return of the chorus has a perfect authentic cadence (the proverbial V-I in traditional analytic terms).  The loud, raucous bridge that has a slightly faster tempo building up to the half cadence helps reinforce the resolution that comes by way of a return to the opening chorus.

It can be heard, at least as I hear it, as the possibility of acting out the potential energy of "you" and "me".    I have less to say about this one than I thought I did when I got the idea to write a post on the ballad with the loud bridge.  So ... I'll move to the other exemplar of this relatively rare move in popular music.

"Eyes without a Face" by Steve Stevens and Billy Idol is another example of a ballad with a rowdy bridge.  In this song the loud bridge kicks in at 2:31. Of course this song is so obviously indebted to the horror film you hear it in every line of the chorus.  We could talk about that some other time, maybe.  Actually, the juxtaposition of lyricism and violence for a song so explicitly inspired by the French horror classic makes sense on extra-musical grounds.  You want the mood to be lyrical and nostalgic for the sense of despair that permeates the tale, a father who regrets his daughter's disfigured face but sets store by his delusions that he has it in his power to "restore" her but his bids at restoration involve kidnapping, butchery and murder.

I think of the two this ballad with a loud bridge works a lot better.  It deos help if you know the film and its themes, though.

The bridge can be thought of as a steady oscillation within the tonic key between the tonic (it's not strictly a major or minor chord since "power chords" are open fifths or fourths) and a chord built on the flat seventh scale degree, sometimes called the subtonic.  The mixolydian implication in this kind of section is fairly common in popular music and depending on who you talk to the "blues" seventh or flattened seventh that emerges from the overtone series is associated with sexuality.  Ben Johnston makes that association though I'm not about the "chapter and verse" where he said that in his writings--the take away I hope is that the tonic to subtonic rotation is brought out to musically illustrate turn to obsessive, repetitive activity, violence.

Depending on how traditionalist music writers insist on being there's not a moment of "functional harmony" in this bridge shifting between the two chords. But the whole thing is diatonic, if modal.  If you're steeped in traditions of popular songwriting the I-VII vamp has traditionally been associated with aggression and this sense of aggression tends to be highlighted when both chords are major.  That seems like a subtle point on the page but it's not when you're hearing it.  E minor to D major can still easily be within a number of the diatonic modes. E major to D major breaks with common practice functional harmony.  Normally two consecutive major triads would rise rather than fall, outlining the IV-V in a tonal sequence that would lead back to I (tonic, the root chord of the key).  Or ... you might be in D major and go to E major to prepare a move to A major through secondary dominant function.  What you don't do is start off with a major triad and drop to another major triad built on a tone a whole step lower if what you're aiming for is traditional major/minor key common practice.

But if we're working in diatonic modal mixtures that sort of chord progression happens a lot.  One of Adorno's many complaints about popular music and particularly jazz was it had nothing that had not been pioneered by Debussy.  Point noted ... but then the point would be that Debussy pioneered modal diatonic harmonic and melodic thinking in which the norms of 18th century functional harmony were no longer required and established a possibility for abandoning the conventions of I, IV an V in ways that could be worked out at the level of popular song.  So now, post-Debussy, you could have a song that features a tonic to subtonic rotational pattern in the bridge in a Billy Idol song and, thanks Debussy. :)  I don't think this is a bad thing at all, but I would say there are traditionalists and conservatives who want to praise what Debussy accomplished in breaking altogether with 18th century common practices while lamenting how other musicians and composers played with tools from the same harmonic toolbox.

Let's go with "Voiles", one of Debussy's most famous miniatures to show how about 2:30 in he, too, introduces a shift in harmonic language mid-work.  This isn't the best performance but it has a read-along score so ... for those who aren't already steeped in Debussy that is a plus.

He has spent the first couple of minutes slowly building momentum through passage work in the whole-tone scale and as rhythmic and melodic activity slowly and steadily builds it reaches a climax in which Debussy shifts to pentatonic material.  The whole-tone scale divides the octave into six equal whole-steps, with the steps between any two tones in the scale being equidistant.  This symmetrical scale lacks what would be called "forward motion" of the kind we hear in major or minor keys.  Sit on a tone in the whole-tone scale long enough and whichever tone dominates in duration and frequency of appearance defines the parameters of the "center".

So ... yeah ... I did just juxtapose a Billy Idol song with a piece by Debussy.

One of the things about popular music in the era of recording is that in a post-Debussy harmonic idiom that's not anchored to strict major or minor keys or to strict ideas of tonality, you can have music that is harmonically cloudier.  How do you create a sense of structure and formal separation in musical works in which cadences on I or IV or V in the 18th century practice were practiced?  One of the things you can do is use timbre, you can have the guitar playing clean or "dirty" with some form of amplification or signal processing that changes the sound of the instrument.  An outworking of the kinds of revolutions that happened in Western musical practices in the last century has been that tone color plays a more prominent role in delineating structures in popular music.  In a Schubert lieder you might have musical contrasts of texture and tempo and pianists can highlight by way of touch a different mode for one section or another.  What you won't find quite as much of, at least in comparison to a more modern popular song, is using timbrel mutation as a way to signal a core structural unit in a song.  So there's not going to be a "clean" guitar riff that turns into a "dirty" guitar riff of the sort that is habitual in a song like, say, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Not that I like Nirvana ... actually ... a lot of bands that rock critics praised in the 1990s they seemed to praise for non-musical associative reasons.  Cobain's songwriting problems weren't that he somehow lacked a mastery of 18th century era voice-leading practices.  That's not what a song in a popular style requires.  No, my complaint about his approach to songwriting was that his approach leaned too hard on changing registers and timbres as a signal that a new structural element has been introduced. Mumbling "rape me" at the start of a song and then screaming it in a higher octave at the end of the song is an example that comes to mind.  What's changed is timbre. The musical gesture in terms of melody doesn't change.  He'll sing a chorus where the same few flecks of melody get recycled relentlessly within the chorus and then ideas come up in the verse and he basically presents them twice and prepares for the next section. 

It's not that this is bad because there's "no development" in a classical sense, it's that I think it's bad songwriting that the foot pedals that establish "clean" and "overdrive" are what he used to delineate what parts are what as much as the melodic and harmonic material in the song. If the structural indicators are not in your vocal line and the text then I consider that a weakness in songwriting since, you know, song involves the voice.  I don't think the foot pedals controlling the sound of the electric guitar should be as important a signal as to what part of the song we're in as stuff like words or vocal lines.

You don't have that approach in either the Richie song or the Idol song.  The verses and choruses and bridges are clearly delineated by a gestalt of harmonic and melodic patterns.  The loud and soft of timbre change in the guitar part plays "a" role but it isn't a structure-defining role in quite the sense that it is for the Nirvana number.  I'm not saying you can't enjoy songs by Nirvana, even if I never liked the band.  I'm just trying ot articulate that I like songs in which timbrel changes aren't the biggest "signal" to a listener that we're in the verse, chorus or bridge of a song.

HT Alan Jacobs--Guardian letter on the wreckers of real European civilization ... Europe-as-post-history-order or the actual mess of Europe?

To the authors and signatories of this letter I have one thing to say: “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.”

Said letter includes ... :
This is the noxious climate in which Europe’s parliamentary elections will take place in May. Unless something changes; unless something comes along to turn back the rising, swelling, insistent tide; unless a new spirit of resistance emerges, these elections promise to be the most calamitous that we have known. They will give a victory to the wreckers. For those who still believe in the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius there will be only ignominious defeat. A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. Disaster will have befallen us.

Fight to protect "Europe"? What kind of Europe? The European Union as a geo-political force?  Decades ago I can recall Christian relatives who were fairly confident the European Union was going to be where the Beast would arise and the Antichrist.  The possibility that the United States could be the Beast of our age was completely off the table ... at least until a non-white President got elected but that's probably a topic for some other, separate post.  I grew up in the sort of Pentecostal context in which it could be theorized that the European Union "might" be the terrible world power predicted in the book of Revelation based on dispensationalist prophecy industry.  When I learned how much of a mess the EU's approach to policy and collaboration actually was in the roll up to the "end of history" I began to get the sense that the EU will never arrive at a United States of America moment.  It can't and it won't.  The capacity of the West to lead the "free world" is at the behest of nuclear superpower activity, which would be "us", the US. 

And ... how many formerly Warsaw Pact countries joined NATO would be useful to remember.  It's not that I think Putin isn't a very bad guy, it's that the Atlantic power base of the post-World War II Amero-European alliance can get presented as being in peril and ... well ... what happened to Fukuyama's "end of history"?  Didn't the Balkans suggest during the 1990s that history wasn't even remotely ended?  Or were people ignoring the eruption of conflict in the former Yugoslavia as not ultimately suggesting the possibility of a fully unified European political/economic super-power was not even, really, possible?  The great nations of Europe, together, could not be together enough to become a kind of United States of America.  I don't know that I'd say Europe was in danger of destroying itself so much as European powers ruined their empires by fighting wars about whose imperialism was better justified. 

One of the things that's been gnawing at me since 2016 is I have read descriptions of how nationalism and populism are destroying democracy.  That democratic processes of governance can lean toward populist and nationalist causes wouldn't seem like a shock, the sort of shock it seems to be in at least some coverage.  That populist and nationalist impulses can play out in racist, xenophobic ways isn't even really a shock.

Maybe the shock is that the myth of "Europe" is taken seriously by the type of European intelligentsia most able to benefit from that conception of Europe to the point that it is actually treated as though it "is" Europe.  There is a Europe, and an America for that matter, that is a construction of journalistic and academic activity which may not coincide with the flesh and blood people who do or don't vote as hoped for. The puzzle isn't that populist and nationalist impulses can play out in what is thought of as a "righwing" turn.

The puzzle is that now, so to speak, journalists treat democratic expressions of populism and nationalism as fundamentally anti-democratic.  For that to be possible there has to be a definition of "democratic" in which a democratic procedural outcome does not fit an ideological definition of what real democracy is expected to be; by extension, for nationalism and populism to be anti "Europe" there has to be a particular definition of Europe in mind. 

Just as there can be a myth of "Europe" there can be a myth of a certain type of "democracy". It has gotten me thinking of Jacques Ellul's comments in Propaganda.

Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7

page 244
... any operation that transforms democracy into a myth transforms the democratic ideal. Democracy was not meant to be a myth. ... Let us merely say that democracy cannot be an object of faith, of belief: it is expression of opinions. There is a fundamental difference between regimes based on opinion and regimes based on belief. [emphasis added]

To make a myth of democracy is to present the opposite of democracy. 

page 247
We have seen how all propaganda develops the cult of personality. This is particularly true in a democracy. There one exalts the individual, who refuses to be anonymous, rejects the "mass," and eschews mechanization. He wants a human regime where men are human beings. ... To be sure, the object at this level is not idolatry, but idolatry cannot fail to follow if the propaganda is done well. Whether such idolatry is given to a man in uniform bursting with decorations, or a man in work shirt and cap, or a man wearing a business suit and soft hat makes no difference; those are simple adaptatio
ns of propaganda to the feelings of the masses. 

page 249
... Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.

pages 249-250
... This really is the ultimate problem: democracy is not just a certain form of political organization or simply an ideology--it is, first of all, a certain view of life and a form of behavior. If democracy were only a form of political organization, there would be no problem; propaganda could adjust to it. ... But if democracy is a way of life, composed of tolerance, respect, degree, choice, diversity, and so on, all propaganda that acts on behavior and feelings and transforms them in depth turns man into someone who can no longer support democracy because he no longer follows democratic behavior. 

pages 251-252
But the creation of the etiological myth leads to an obligation on the part of democracy to become religious. It can no longer be secular but must create its religion. Besides, the creation of a religion is one of the indispensable elements of effective propaganda. [emphasis added] The content of this religion is of little importance; these feelings are used to integrate the masses into the national collective. We must not delude ourselves: when one speaks to us of "massive democracy" and "democratic participation," these are only veiled terms that mean "religion." Participation and unanimity have always been characteristics of religious societies, and only of religious societies. [emphasis added]

page 254-255
The individual is seized, manipulated, attacked from every side; the combatants of two propaganda systems do not fight each other, but try to capture him

... An additional effect of contradictory propaganda is that the individual will escape either into passivity or into total and unthinking support of one of the two sides.

It is striking to see how this current, which is the point of departure of totalitarian parties, is beginning to take hold in the United States. These two different reactions--passivity or total commitment--are completely antidemocratic. But they are the consequence of some democratic types of propaganda. Here is the hub of the problem. Propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas but also democratic behavior--the foundation of democracy, the very quality without which it cannot exist. [emphasis added]

page 256
... A man who lives in a democratic society and who is subjected to propaganda is being drained of the democratic content itself--of the style of democratic life, understanding of others, respect for minorities, re-examination of his own opinions, absence of dogmatism. The means employed to spread democratic ideas makes the citizen, psychologically, a totalitarian man. The only difference between him and a Nazi is that he is a "totalitarian man with democratic convictions," but those convictions do not change his behavior in the least. Such contradiction is in no way felt by the individual for whom democracy has become a myth and a set of democratic imperatives, merely stimuli that activate conditioned reflexes. The word democracy, having become a simple incitation, no longer has anything to do with democratic behavior. And the citizen can repeat indefinitely "the sacred formulas of democracy" while acting like a storm trooper. 

in 2019 we could add just the words "on Twitter" to that last sentence and probably have a relatively safe assessment of some of what may ail us today. 

The idea that the problem in Europe is that populist and nationalists have influence might not be the problem. The problem might be that after a century of propagandistic techniques being deployed in technocratic cultures the harvest of that social-agriculture is bearing fruit that is terrifying to people who have at least some dim grasp of how totalitarian the impulses are that have been cultivated by the use of propaganda techniques.  People are trying to agitate and then direct tidal waves of human impulses using media that has been with us for ... maybe not as long as we've considered. 

And open letters in newspapers are going to solve this?  It would be nice to think that could even theoretically be possible but ... .

To the extent that members of the press are themselves part of those castes that create propaganda, or who at least use the tools that propagandists use, I doubt that the people who have been part of the process of agitation are going to be able to tamp down agitation.  A demise in institutional media has not had with it a demise in media use.

Adherents to the two-party system here in the United States have demonstrated the extent to which they are totalitarian.  How?  Well, any time a person who favors Republicans or Democrats presents executive power as executive tyranny but only when the "wrong" party has a candidate in the Oval Office who wields that power, the problem isn't in the amount of power but merely who has it.  People who were in dread of the powers that W was able to wield should have been in dread that Obama still had those powers and gained a couple of more and that Trump benefited from the inertia of executive accumulation of power.  There are some authors who have noted that the executive branch has gained powers in part because Congress hasn't done things it has enumerated powers to do ... and "if" there's truth to that then the executive branch has gained tyrant level powers because Congress would rather let the President authorize any number of military activities rather than officially declare a war.  It seems as if we have journalists committed to the two-party system who are also committed to an idea that X is tyranny just so long as the other people have X. 

Ellul's comment that propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas but also democratic behavior was made half a century ago. There was no Twitter. There was no internet, there was no social media means to mediate current events as we take for granted online today.

A definition of Europe offered by intellectuals may not be the Europe that resides in nations that are in economic bad times from the last twenty years ranging from Greece to Italy.  I've started getting the sense that Europe has a variation of what in the United States is thought of as a battle between the "coastal elites" or the "urban dwellers" and "flyover country". 

world-events cinema as domestic parable in Anglo-American arthouse and tentpole, the new SPECTRE as a drab sibling rivalry trope
What is “united” about the United Kingdom in December of 2018? On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May canceled the Brexit vote she promised would take place on Tuesday, because she wasn’t going to win it. The pound sterling started dropping. A rogue MP grabbed the ceremonial mace from the central table in Parliament and started waving it about. Pete Wishart of the Scottish National Party called Monday “the single biggest political crisis since Suez with the biggest capitulation since Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.”
The timing, in other words, couldn’t be worse for entertainments like Mary Queen of Scots, which inherently has an intense relation to modern politics, but prefers to plumb history for the costumes and sibling-esque rivalries. In Mary Queen of Scots, we don’t see a reckoning with the future of a country united across the Scottish-English border. We see queens cry and fret about their hair.
There would seem to be more to history than that. Relations between Scotland and England could not be at a lower ebb. Scottish citizens overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU during the Brexit referendum, but they were drowned out by English votes. Although Scotland had an independence referendum four years ago and opted to stay in the U.K., a bad Brexit treaty could very possibly lead to a breakup of the union. Ireland is in an even worse position. Currently under discussion in Parliament is the so-called “backstop,” a last-ditch option that keeps the border in Ireland open in the unpleasant event of a “no-deal Brexit.” A closed border could be disastrous for both the island’s economy and the Good Friday Agreement’s peacekeeping terms.
That the United Kingdom is on the brink of collapse reminds us that its integrity was not preordained—that it was, in fact, maintained by violence. At the U.K.’s political heart has always been the English crown—now the Parliament in London—which has abused countless citizens in the name of centralized power. That legacy of violence runs through Ireland, through Scotland, through civil war, and through the bloody colonialism that ate up so much of the world as part of the British Empire. 
Josephine Livingston made this point about a fad for historic dramas but she brings up a point that I think is as applicable to blockbuster films in our time.  If the indie and arthouse film seeks to present historical events as kind of family drama or comedy that places the interpersonal at the level of political or social allegory, this is something we see going on in the blockbuster.  The tropes may not be fundamentally different in a film about one Mary than about James Bond.

Thanks to many an old Bond movie being easy to stream for free these days if you have the right services, you can watch the older Bond films.  A few simple moments of observation clarify the difference between the old SPECTRE and the new.  The old Blofeld was set on bending the Western world to his will through subterfuge and then outright terror.  The geo-political goals were fairly plain.  In the Daniel Craig era Bond ... things are ... a bit ... more personal.

Bond has been a psychopath who knowingly puts himself in danger and makes a point of using his violent and socially disposable nature to perform missions to preserve the Western order in general and the Western order as distilled in England in particular.  But what was different about the new SPECTRE was we got a shadowy criminal empire run by a half-brother to James Bond.  The globe-spanning espionage, intrigue, murder and terror was all subjugated to what, in the end, was a pedestrian and banal sibling rivalry story.  The problem isn't exactly Daniel Craig as Bond, it's the way screenwriting in the last few generations has shifted toward an idea that "raising the stakes" means making this or that thing "personal" but doing so in ways that would have been ... well ...

take Gravity.  The backstory of Sandra Bullock's character precludes the very thought of anyone sending her up into space.  No one who lost a child and had psychological issues that made them panic would probably be sent into space to begin with.  Back when there was The Weekly Standard John Podhoretz made this point in his review of the film, a film he wanted to like more than he did--as a child of the space age he knew enough about the psychological screening of astronauts to know that the Bullock character would never be sent into space and you can't just "forget" that for the sake of watching a 21st century adventure film.  What seems "powerful" and "personal" to contemporary screenwriting types inadvertently betrays things that were known as norms in earlier generations. 

Before the recent SPECTRE could "work" as a tale of sibling rivalry it had to "work" as a coherent tour of geopolitical flashpoints.  That is the point at which the newer Bond film failed. 

But as a window into how teams of screenwriters think film should be "about" these kinds of symbolic sibling relationships a trudge like SPECTRE can still have some use.  Contemporary film that attempts to "engage" historic events or blockbuster genres like global espionage and wars of races of robots by transforming these tales into sibling rivalry tropes or quests for identity betray the times not so much because these issues don't keep being "fresh", but because whether in the arthouse or the megaplex, storytellers in film may have become so solipsistic they can only think in cinematic terms. 

But political figures in history were not enacting dramas of post-Maslow attainment.  The sorts of tyrants and megalomaniacs who feel obliged to "make history" don't seem to think in the terms in which contemporary screenwriters can sometimes like to feel through scripts. 

If the United Kingdom stops being united the question of why a James Bond would keep doing what he's done is probably not going to become the center of attention.  Skyfall could riff on the idea that Bond was a monster who lurked in the shadows but he did so for "us".  The Daniel Craig era bond plays with the idea that maybe this isn't a worthwhile pursuit, maybe Bond wants to call it a day, but the question is always framed in purely personal terms, even with M as a surrogate mother, not in terms of a principled refusal to continue serving this empire in this particular way.  Which I guess is a way of saying James Bond is never going to become The Prisoner.

Wesley Morris at the NYT on Oscars and falling for racial reconciliation narratives predicated on employment relationships

“Driving Miss Daisy” is the sort of movie you know before you see it. The whole thing is right there in the poster. White Jessica Tandy is giving black Morgan Freeman a stern look, and he looks amused by her sternness. They’re framed in a rearview mirror, which occupies only about 20 percent of the space. You can make out his chauffeur’s cap and that she’s in the back seat. The rest is three actors’ names, a tag line, a title, tiny credits, and white space.

That rearview-mirror image isn’t a still from the movie but a warmly painted rendering of one, this vague nuzzling of Norman Rockwell Americana. And its warmth evokes a very particular past. If you’ve ever seen the packaging for Cream of Wheat or a certain brand of rice, if you’ve even seen some Shirley Temple movies, you knew how Miss Daisy would be driven: gladly.

As movie posters go, it’s ingeniously concise. But whoever designed it knew the concision was possible because we’d know the shorthand of an eternal racial dynamic. I got off the subway last month and saw a billboard of black Kevin Hart riding on the back of white Bryan Cranston’s motorized wheelchair. They’re both ecstatic. And maybe they’re obligated to be. Their movie is called “The Upside.” A few months before that, I was out getting a coffee when I saw a long, sexy billboard of white Viggo Mortensen driving black Mahershala Ali in a minty blue car for a movie called “Green Book.”

Not knowing what these movies were “about” didn’t mean it wasn’t clear what they were about. They symbolize a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart. All the optimism of racial progress — from desegregation to integration to equality to something like true companionship — is stipulated by terms of service. ...

I was writing a bit earlier this week about how the Westerns produced by Hollywood in the mid-20th century were not necessarily depictions of the American West but a Hollywood conception thereof, and that the kind of whites against Indians of that cinematic era could be taken as a reflection of cultural moments of then and not necessarily the "then" the cinematic genre purported to present.  J. I. Packer once said that The Scarlet Letter can get mistaken for a depiction of Puritan New England at the expense of recognizing it was a social/literary commentary on Hawthorne's own era. Packer has said a few times that the popular imagination in America imagines the Puritans as something that they needed to be more than engages with what the Puritans actually wrote and did. 

On another topic altogether but with a unifying thread, Alex Ross has a book on Wagnerism in the works.  I'll probably try to pick up a copy but Ross has been plainspoken about how there's a type of racism we have read back on to Wagner on account of post-Nazi associations that is not necessarily a reflection of who Richard Wagner the man was in his own life.

The unifying thread here is that the "we" of the present, the artists in our time and place, make a lot of use of pasts that are convenient to us, pasts we can use as a portal into or a prism that refracts the "then" and "there" of some past as a way to riff on what we think about our present.

The idea that racial reconciliation can and does happen through employment relationships seems like a cinematic fantasy.  I suppose if we wanted to we could float the idea that it would be inherent to neoliberalism to imagine that the market can play its role in racial reconciliation by way of the workplace ... but that feels a bit too pat.  

Morris could have been more confrontational by saying that in the fantasies of racial reconciliation that Hollywood cranks out the core relationship is always one that could be cut off at any time for any reason by at-will employment clauses.  Yet the people of different skin colors perservere because, ultimately, they're just good people who want to understand each other or stick around long enough for the cinematic moment of catharsis.  Hollywood fantasies of racial reconciliation may be most powerful when they vicariously confer a reconciliation that never has to actually happen in the job site.  

Would it be too far to speculate that these fantasies of racial reconciliation are not even really necessarily about racial reconciliation as class conciliation?  After all, employment relationships don't tend to maintain social equality.  How long can you work for someone before that someone stops seeing you as an equal at some important level?  Appreciating the help of "the help" can be a thoroughly aristocratic value even in a society that can so often pretend there aren't class divides, at least no class divides about the stuff that's considered important.  What if the racial reconciliation narrative is really the pretext for what the "real" point of these stories is, aristocrats at the formal or informal level who are humanized by recognizing the people who serve them are people, too?  Sure, feel-good movies will want to land on the idea that we're all pretty much the same in movieland but since I've been on an Adorno binge in the last few years, an Adorno would say that is where the lie of the culture industry resides, the illusion of a freedom or a liberty that doesn't exist in reality at all and for which the products of the culture industry serve as simulation. 

Peter Hitchens on his changing thoughts about John Ford's The Searchers, some short thoughts on my never being able to get much into Westerns

Generations have things they're into and things they're not into, it seems.  For generations before me the idea of watching superheroes in film drives them crazy and they think it's stupid.  For me, the idea of watching Westerns where one after another depicts Native Americans in racist and condescending terms is not something I've ever really much enjoyed.  It's not that I haven't been able to enjoy ANY stories set in the American West.  I loved the Coen brothers take on True Grit.  There was a version of 3:10 to Yuma I thought was alright.  But the Western was in the mid-20th century what the superhero film is now, it's just that those folks who imagine that genre film distinctions are hard and fast and that whatever they're into is legit versus what they're not into don't think about it like that.  Guys who are into elves and hobbits can think superheroes are dumb while, being into stories about elves and hobbits.  People who hate movies set in space could watch ... baseball movies.  That I don't get. 

Peter Hitchens had a blog post someone ran by me recently, in which Hitchens reflected on his changing thoughts and convictions about one of John Ford's better-known films.  I haven't seen the film, by the way.  Never was able to appreciate John Wayne.  Wayne is a cinematic icon whose appeal may in some real ways be confined to a range of generations of which I'm just not part.

Over the last decade or so there's been some time for authors to highlight that the American West of Hollywood in the mid-20th century was more racially stratified than the West itself was.  To put it in a deliberately harsh and polemical way, the racism of 1950s Hollywood Westerns was a reflection of the racism of the culture that made those movies more than the films were a reflection of what was going on in the American West in the 19th century.  Racism surely existed, of course, but the city of Chehalis, a friend was sharing with me in the last few years, was founded by an African American man.  So even though a great chunk of the legacy of the Pacific Northwest involves territories being settled by people with white supremacist/white separatist aspirations, racial mixture and collaboration is also part of the history of the Pacific Northwest, too.  I'm staking out my sympathies for the latter camp, to be clear. 

I've never gotten into Westerns and while I get that critics of both genres can easily point out how formulaic and white the genres are, I find in middle age that life is more ... formulaic in bad and good ways than people who are against formula and convention in cinema but not so against it in real life might have it.  A lot of cinema is frankly about escapism and those people who aspire to realism in cinema can go watch eight hours of surveillance footage from a grocery store security feed if they want real cinematic realism.    Nobody wants that, particularly not the people who most explicitly claim they do.

We hit peak Western generations ago and we're going to heat peak superhero.  I'd still take movies about superheroes over movies about football adn baseball, though. 

some thoughts on the persistence of Hasbro-based media, thinking about how My Little Pony beat mother! in global and domestic box office

A couple of years ago the film mother! got released.  I haven't seen it and don't feel a real need to see it.  Film parables about what "we" are doing to the world through our technology and consumer lifestyles have gone back a ways.  As bare conceits go, Aronofsky can say his film is a parable about human influence on the environment (climate change).  But Transformers is about how our consumer and warfare technology may change the fate of the world as we know it, too.  The villain in the 2017 My Little Pony film aspires to gain technology (magical tech, of course, but tech) that can change the planet.  The arthouse film is an also-ran compared to Hasbro derived films  that explore questions about American consumption and ideals influencing the future of the world. 

But to be even more jaded about American cinema as a kind of religion, Americans across the low and high brow find it easier to make movies about the end of the world than to imagine a world in which Americans won't be around to save it.  A lot of what passes for universal liberal human values can be thought of as also being a kind of American imperialism.  The red state version of American cultural imperialism is easier to recognize because it's so literally militaristic. The blue state version of cultural imperialism has been disguised in forms like Star Trek, where the ultimately imperialist/colonialist nature of the Federation can be hand-waved away on ideological grounds by those who embrace the ideology the Federation embodies.

But the thing is ... in these lowbrow cults of media, you at least know what you're in for.  You can opt in or opt out.  When it gets to the level of what you have to study in film school because professors aren't giving you a choice about it ... that's something I've been mulling over over the last few years.  What Adorno and others described as art religion is easier to take or leave in the lower brows than the higher brows, where whether or not you graduate from the university systems that are, whether the people there realize it or not, are part of what Frankfurt authors should recognize as the culture industry.  In other words, if you're a film editor in America, you're part of that industry even if you are explicitly Marxist.  I've been toying with an idea that the higher the brow of the art the less likely people are to formally recognize the art cult they are in.  People who are dedicated to rewatching films by the Coens or Woody Allen have a kind of cultic devotion to film that is more respectable in some circles than having watched all of the Transformers movies but ... why is that? 

Here we are in 2019 and there have been seven Transformers movies.  You haven't misread that in case you've never heard of this franchise before.  Seven films.  There's the original animated film from the 1980s; there's the five Michael Bay directed Transformers films; and now, most recently, there's the Travis Knight directed Bumblebee.

The amount of middle-aged nostalgia for the original 1980s film surprises me.  There are sincere cases that the original animated film was somehow the best of the bunch and the most daring and challenging.  That an entire generation of Transformers cartoon characters got killed off in a feature-length film was considered daring and a way to show kids that death is a real thing ... that's the pitch by journalists at places even such as Slate, though sort of, kind of conceding the whole film was developed as a way to kill off the old toy lines symbolically to make room for new toy lines.

But the new lines of characters were not as memorable or as effective as the characters and mythology Hasbro and company built around the original Japanese Microman and Diaclone toy lines.  It's a relatively safe bet nobody knows who Rodimus Prime is compared to Optimus Prime even thirty odd years after the fact, and while devotees of the franchise know both names, Optimus Prime is still the focal point after all these decades, after all these shows, and most of these movies. 

There have been rhetorical questions from journalists in film criticism over the years as to how and why so many of these Transformers films get made.  I say the questions are rhetorical because it seems fairly evident as someone who played with the toys as a kid that the appeal of Transformers films is not, in principle, different from people who watch movies about baseball or football.  The idea seems patently ridiculous that there should be movies with stories told about the objects people play with ... unless that game is somehow considered an emblem of distillation of the values and norms of a culture.  People who wouldn't imagine any reason to watch Transformers might watch Field of Dreams.  Neither film is necessarily more profound than the other if all we're going on is whether it can be a profound exploration of American life to make a film about people playing baseball or preparing to play the game or whether a profound experience can be had watching films about robots that turn into vehicles fighting each other on Earth over the use of Earth's natural resources as a parable of what form of contemporary American technology will decide the fate of the world.

The Michael Bay films are by now widely reviled, even if they have been widely successful.  I have been developing an admittedly impudent proposal that if Walter Benjamin were alive today he'd say to forget films like mother! and look at the Hasbro-derived film franchises.  The Aronofsky film may seem important to those film critics who buy the idea that it's a parable about climate change caused by humans.

But My Little Pony beat the domestic and global box office of mother! The respectable idea might be that the latter is a serious film and the former is a standard-issue toy-derived film.  But in global and historical terms the Hasbro film is the third or fourth film to spin out of that toy line and its associated mythology, a toy line that has been steady since the 1980s.  The Aronofsky film is the one-off blip on the radar, blink-and-you-missed it cinema.  Torturing and killing off a Hollywood blonde who is supposed to represent Mother Earth can seem pretty retrograde even on paper if you compare it to, I don't know, Tara Strong's Twilight Sparkle convincing Emiiy Blunt's Tempest Shadow that choosing the path of dominance and repression is something you can cast aside.  Sure, there might be film critics at The New Yorker who would rather watch the arthouse film than the Hasbro-based film but that might invite a snarky question as to why torture porn devoted to catechizing about climate change is better than a film aimed at children that hopes to instill in them tolerance and friendship.  There's such a thing as what Richard Brody has called a wan and sentimental liberalism but I have a sense that a wan and sentimental liberalism might be more The New Yorker than its authors know.

Over the years I have been formulating a theory as to what is involved in the appeal of these Hasbro based mythologies.  The appeal is pretty real since there are so many films.  Marshall McLuhan is known for his axiom that the medium is the message but hes' also known for suggesting that television is a "hotter" medium than something like literature.  Against proposals that TV was the "dumber" medium because it didn't require as much brain activity McLuhan claimed it was more immersive.  It engaged all your senses in a go, sight, sound, and its narratives were more immersive by being episode and recurring.  It demands more of you to watch fifty episodes of a show across a couple of years even if, on a strictly episode by episode basis of viewing habits, the TV show demands less of you than a feature-length film. 

But at another level there's something else going on.  You invest your sympathy and imagination in recurring characters in a way that you don't do and can't do in film ... unless we're talking about franchises in which the same character persists across dozens of movies like Godzilla or James Bond or pick another character you probably already know.  

I've gotten to thinking that there is probably an inversely proportional relationship between how high the brow of an art cult is and how aware adherents to that cult are likely to recognize their cult participation.  Kubrick fans are cultists who have a cult baptized by way of film school--it's a sacramental participation in a kind of art religion.  Nobody who goes to a Pony-con or a Comic-con or an anime convention is unaware of the cultic/festival element.  There might be another way to put this, that registration as a visitor or curator in the "imaginary museum" is basically the same kind of cultic social system as being a comic book fan.  What's different is the extent to which that cultic devotion is sanctified by higher education.  

But the higher you go in the brow the less directly you can invest yourself in the idols.  You can go get an Optimus Prime toy and play with it to your heart's content.  The adventures you give Optimus Prime or Megatron or Starscream in your playtime as a kid becomes a part of who you are.  What's the corresponding investment of self in Shakespeare's sonnets?  I'm not for a second suggesting the Bard isn't the greatest poet in the English language (even if I love John Donne's poetry quite a bit more!).  I'm pointing out that a distinction between lowbrow and highbrow art is the fact that in higher brow art you can't invest yourself as directly in the work as a way to build a sense of yourself.  

If you're a thespian you can play in the plays, of course, but that requires that you are part of the cult of art-makers.  The theater goer who isn't a thespian has to watch Shakespeare and consume Shakespeare through reading his work or secondary literature.  You can play with that Optimus Prime or Prowl or Jazz toy.  the investment of imagination is more direct than it can be in consuming highbrow culture.  In highbrow religions of art the opportunity to "play" is in trying to contribute to the existing canon of the arts.  In lowbrow religions of the arts you can ... play with the toys while collecting the media and go on to discussion forums where you could debate whether or not Wolverine could defeat Captain America in an arena match or a scenario match.  

Whether it's the sports or athletics we perform, or the culture we consume, these kinds of games help us formulate who we are as individuals and in relationship to the social groups we participate in.  Those toys you played with thirty years ago helped to shape your moral compass and your sense of imagination, even if you figure you're a grown-up now and left all that kid stuff behind.  To look at how people behave on social media in 2019, however, is to invite at least the possibility that a whole lot of middle-aged Americans are acting and reacting to each other as if the world is permeated with Autobots and Decepticons and total ideological warfare is still the rule of the day. 

Transformers is a case study in how a couple of toy lines from Japan got marketed in the United States, to great success.  There was nothing particularly new about the toys in their American presentation as objects you can buy in a store.  The difference between a Japanese Diaclone and an American Transformer is that in the former case you're buying a toy, in the latter case you're buying the same toy as mediated by a sprawling mythology that allows you to inform your play time with said mythology.  That's something to unpack and there's a little piece that partly attempts to unpack that over at Mbird that's part of a three-part series called "Optimus Prime and the Religion of Toys".  Publishing schedule's a little uncertain for now, but part 1 is up, with parts 2 and 3 pending publication.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Stranger's film editor Charles Mudede on how he and his dad both admire J. S. Bach

Dec 2, 2015 
On His Deathbed, My Father and I Could Agree on Only One Thing: Bach
Time was running out, he would soon be dead, it was now or never.

Later, as I walked down to the Mount Baker Station, I decided that the next time I visited the nursing home, my father and I would do something together instead of just sitting around waiting for him to die. And because the only thing he and I enjoyed doing together was listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, I would bring a CD player to his room. Our favorites included The Well-Tempered ClavierGoldberg Variations, a collection of his greatest hits; the Cello Suites; and the galloping Brandenburg Concertos.
The discovery of our shared love for the music of the 18th-century German composer happened when I was 19. It was the Christmas season, which in southern Africa happens in the summer, and I was visiting Harare, Zimbabwe, from Gaborone, Botswana. I was in the living room waiting for TV to start (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, then the only station in the nation, operated between 5 p.m. and midnight) and listening to the Brandenburg Concertos on the Philips stereo.
My father returned from work, poured himself a drink in the bar (whiskey he had purchased while visiting India), and entered the living room with a look of surprise.
"Bach!" he said, and not exactly to me but to the home stereo.
"Yes," I said.
"This one is one of my favorites." It happened to be the allegro in the third concerto.
"You like Bach?" I asked.
"Yes, yes. It's so rhythmical. Almost has an African beat," my father said.
And we sat there, me on the sofa and him on the easy chair, listening to the concertos together, silently, but this was not our usual sort of silence. Unlike my discovery of my father's love of baseball many years later in Seattle, my discovery of his love of Bach made a deeper impression on me. I cared far less for that sport than he did, but our admiration of Bach was on an equal footing. It was soul to soul. We weren't in separate worlds, waiting for the moment to end, waiting for either him or me to stand and leave the room. We were actually sharing a world, the music of Bach. And as long as the performances of Bach's music played, we were fully engaged, fully there. There was no rush. For once, I was happy to be with my father, and he with his son.
Over the years, we found ourselves connecting with Bach again and again, sitting in some room and just listening to a work. There would often be a little conversation at the end of a session: "Isn't Prelude 1 the most perfect piece of music ever composed? So clear, simple, lyrical. The music almost plays itself. It's as natural as a stream." Or, "He even knew what flying above the clouds would feel and look like. 'Air' is jet travel before the invention of the plane." Or, "It is interesting that three brilliant black American pianists—John Lewis, Bud Powell, Nina Simone—were profoundly influenced by Bach. I don't think it is an accident. There is something there." Or, "I'm beginning to think Bach was not European. He does not compose like one, but like an African. He really might have been black."
More than once, I looked at an album or CD cover that had a drawing or painting of Bach and tried to see if his face had any African features. I never found one.
"You can actually do Shona clapping to that rhythm. It's not pronounced. But you can hear it, and it's a perfect match. The German is Shona clapping," my father would say, and then he would clap African style to the beat of a concerto to prove his point. (Shona clapping, which was the foundation for much of our culture's drumming and dancing styles, has two quick double claps that go 1-2/1-2, followed by three staggered claps that go 1-2-3.)

(Town Hall) I have a big problem with the term "civilization": It implies that something is sophisticated and something else is not, while the culture that's infamous for making this kind distinction ("I civilized--you savage") has been Western culture. But whenever I listen to the greatest composer in the Western musical tradition, Bach, I can't help but feel that his music is the very essence of civilization. His dense fugues, smooth preludes, and graceful concertos are perfect forms, elegant systems. Even the best jazz sounds like it's full of unacceptable errors when placed next to the refined works of Bach (and I generally prefer jazz to classical music). With the possible exception of Debussy (whose music is also full of beautiful errors), no other classical composer has obsessed jazz players more than Bach. From the sheer genius of Art Tatum to the noble purism of the Modern Jazz Quartet to the troubled brilliance of Bud Powell to the academicism of Jovino Santos Neto--a Seattle-based Brazilian jazz pianist who will be part of Town Hall's Bach Around the Clock--we find and feel Bach's influence. I hope Neto plays Brazil's most famous tribute to Germany's most generous musical offering, Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." Charles Mudede Also see The Score, page 67.

by way of Quartz, Dan Kopf has a piece called "The economics of streaming is making songs shorter"

I suppose, in a way, this kind of headline would be taken as an argument that people who care about the high art traditions would want to point out that popular and mass culture is dumbing down the collective attention spans of those who enjoy popular music.  Those who draw upon ancient near eastern texts might even be eager to invoke "those who worship them shall become like them" and point out that this could be observed of the attention spans of those who soak up and venerate popular musical styles ....

Popular music is shrinking. From 2013 to 2018, the average song on the 
Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to about 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Six percent of hit songs were 2 minutes 30 seconds or shorter in 2018, up from just 1% five years before.

But, personally, I don't want rock and roll to go back to the sprawl of Emerson, Lake & Palmer or even later 1970s era Pinkfloyd (and I've loved the band since my teens, so it's not about whether or not I like that kind of music).  I don't think we need yet more of bands like Yes, whose work brims with ideas that sound memorable in themselves but whose songs become a soup of gibberish due to a lack of guiding principles for many of those jammed-in-there riffs.  

But when I read that contemporary pop songs are getting shorter I don't want to jump to a conclusion that this is a sign of attention spans without considering the state of musical art over the last millenium.   Sometimes other variables come into play, like philosophies and aesthetics about text-setting.  Or you could have something like the Thirty Years War messing things up badly for artists.  Take Heinrich Schutz, whose narrative works I'm looking forward to listening to relatively soon.  Many of the individual movements are no more than three minutes, tops.  So much damage was done by that war Schutz did not sugar coat how much it restricted what he could do as a composer.  When so many people are dying of war, disease or famine inside a generation there's not nearly as many people left to perform music.  

Not that I want to say streaming ISN'T making songs shorter.  If people are likely to tune out or change channels then having songs be shorter may be a concession that if you don't reel them in within the first seven to fourteen seconds they're going to switch or, if they zone out because they're passively listening, a shorter song paradigm means the possibility that if their ears don't perk up for Song 1 they may be drawn in by Song 2.  In the eighteenth century the inattentiveness of listeners who were hearing works by Mozart and Haydn was a known thing.  

But as the article highlights, there's a financial incentive to make songs shorter.  

Payments from music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music made up 75% all US music revenues in 2018 (pdf), compared to just 21% in 2013. Streaming services pay music rights holders per play. Spotify doesn’t say the exact amount it pays artists for each stream, but reports suggest it is somewhere between $0.004 and $0.008. Every song gets paid the same. Kanye West’s 2010 five-minute opus “All Of the Lights” gets the same payment as West’s two-minute long 2018 hit “I Love it”.
“[T]here has never been this kind of financial incentive to make shorter songs,” tweeted Mark Richardson, the former editor of the music criticism site Pitchfork. Stuffing more diminutive songs into an album is simply more remunerative than having a bunch of long ones.
Whether or not people stream Mahler's Fifth, I don't know.  I don't tend to stream, so I don't know.  But it does seem that in an era in which streaming seems to impact song length toward shorter lengths, pleas for renewed interest in and attentive capacity for symphonic works that last hours is going against the grain.  I'm just not so sure that's virtuous or that it even "could be" virtuous.  I've begun a book by Bob Snyder this year, Music and Memory, and it might be interesting to learn what maximum thresholds the human brain has for aural content.  George Rochberg used to write warnings that much of the avant garde consigned itself to oblivion by bombarding what he kept calling the sensory nervous system with more information that had less clear audible structuring than it could possibly handle.  Overwhelming human cognitive thresholds for the sake of creating a sublime experience has some history.  Leonard B. Meyer pointed out in Style and Music how Romantic era composers biggie-sized their symphonies to aspire to grandeur.  My sympathies are more with concision and economy of expression.  If the technology we can't avoid has inundated us to the point where our attentional capacities may be influenced trying to force people to "go long" might not be any better in attention and listening than trying to get someone with arthritis in the knees to start a marathon tomorrow.  Conditioning seems like it has to get introduced.  

I'm speculating that it may be 18th century era classical music and even 17th century music that has a closer conceptual fit with the contemporary attention span.  People who listen to jazz and hip hop can still, it seems, venerate J. S. Bach when they've no use for Beethoven or Mahler much of the time. 


Sunday, January 27, 2019

Jacques Ellul riffs on Pierre Boulez as emblematic of technocratic art in The Empire of Non-Sense: Art in the Technological Society


Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 112
Now, the decisive importance of theory is found in all the arts.  In music, we have serial music, which at first glance is simply theoretical, especially since its extension, beginning with Arnold Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt, among others, to the domain of measure and dynamics. It becomes a type of mathematical composition. But, from another point of view, the systematic search for analogies between visual symbols and sonorous symbols is also theoretical. The same can be said when one undertakes to reintroduce freedom into musical play: here again this is the result of taking a theoretical stance (John Cage). At any rate, we now have a non-figurative music without reference to either history or to the existing body of sounds.  The influence of theory is, one could say, greater in music because it is nonrepresentational and better reflects the forms of thought. A perceptible order of pure theory emerges from the random improvisations of Andrei Markov or in the use of statistical law in certain works of Iannis Xenakis. It becomes a matter of assembling sonorous objects according to a rule or a group of rules that one has set down. Types of experimental music are also formed on a theoretical basis because the composers create their experiment on the basis of precise ideas. This experimental music is also divided into schools as a function of theoretical differences: concrete music, electronic music, music for tape (Vladimir Ussachevsky). In all cases, it is a matter of creating new sonorous objects, of not taking account of natural sounds or of customary compositions. Music becomes a procedure for organizing new sounds that are totally abstract. Ultimately one could say that theoretical validity is what makes music.  It goes without saying that architecture, like music, lends itself particularly well to this triumph of theory. ...

although Boulez isn't specifically named, he fits well into Ellul's axiomatic comment that  
page 118

... We stand in the presence of art of elites for elites. A moderately competent intellectual who does not have the "key" is left out in the cold.  ...

Boulez comes up for another mention in the following:
pages 128-129

... After having constructed a very complicated theory with the utmost scholarship, and after having written the deepest reflections of writing on writing or on language, one is finally left with nothing more than ridiculous mouse talk. It is clear why these same critics ardently challenge the very idea of a work of art. Clearly, nothing of all this grandstanding has duration or permanence just as crossword puzzles done on a train are not worth saving any more than episodes of a television game show hosted by Guy Lux. Now, this is the level of our descent. These are crossword puzzles for highly qualified intellectuals or Guy Lux programming for dyed-in-the-wool aesthetes. But since we are considering a game, there must be interest and amusement. If one plays, it is to escape the grey, dull boredom of the everyday. But what is proposed is not at all playful. One is invited to agonize over incomprehensible material. This is not play for me.  I will even claim that I am more bored and frustrated when I read Robert Pinget or Claude Simon, and when I hear Boulez or Victor Barbeau, and when I look at Vera Molnar or Mondrian, than when I am in the metro.

This is not an issue of intellectual difficulty. I can read rather difficult texts, more difficult than Roussel; it's really a question of boring exhaustion and emptiness after an initial moment of curiosity. ...

page 129

... When one sees the results of theoretical art-play--and there are always results--one is bored to tears by an explanation of how they are obtained, and one is faced with the famous questions: do they paint that way because they are incapable of painting? Do they poetize in that way because they are impotent? Sadly, yes. And the gravitas, the depth of the theory is there only to hide these incapacities and impotence. Technical society renders the creator of art impotent. He can only be an entertainer.   ...

What's ironic, doubly ironic perhaps, is that Adorno had the same withering remarks to make about serialists in the 1950s and 1960s. Even Adorno thought the total serialists wrote music that wasn't even music, that was empty and inhuman, technocratic nonsense that existed not to express a subject but to rationalize the use of a technocratic system.  We can get to that material in some other post, though.

Now I actually do enjoy some music by Xenakis.  As has been said about Tom Wolfe's fusilades on art criticism, he was not exactly blasting away at the art itself but at the critical establishments that made it quite literally their business to tell us what we were supposed to think about all this stuff.  Ellul's larger criticism of the role criticism plays in promoting contemporary art in technocratic societies that criticism itself embodies the technocratic rather than humanistic tendencies that you would imagine, in earlier epochs of humanity, would have been the "real" aim of both the arts and arts criticism.  In that sense Adorno can remain one of the villains of such an arc of critical work in the sense that when he declared tonality to be "used up" he was writing a great big "been there, done that" that prohibited anyone from being thought of as "allowed" to do "that" again.  Sure, he'd make some vague exceptions for a Bartok on account that, oh, maybe Slavs haven't evolved culturally as far as Germans had so tonality wasn't as "used up" for them in Bartok's homeland.  If you can't believe Adorno could even write something like that trawl through the endnotes of Philosophy of New Music if you dare!  Ellul, for his part, regarded Adorno as at least grasping the nature of the crisis of the arts and humanities in the age of technocratic societies and the implications this new era has had on how differently artists and arts critics think about the arts.

Now maybe ... maybe humanity has not caught up to speed of the possibilities in the arts that are available through our technology.  Maybe, to piggyback on Ellul's work a bit more, there's a distinction to be made between technology that can be used to better the lives humanity and a technocratic ideology that becomes self-serving, self-rationalizing and enslaves rather than liberates humanity.  That's the impulse in arts criticism that I think Ellul was blasting in The Empire of Non-Sense. Others, of course, may disagree.

Jacques Ellul on the role criticism and critics play in imbuing art in technocratic societies with a meaning extrinsic to artworks

Having read the second edition of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution, I would venture to say I'm halfway sympathetic to some of his complaints.  I substantially differ on the assertion Borstlap makes that jazz, pop, film and other types of music can't be assimilated into contemporary concert music.  I think there is certainly a place for theory, even theory of the most abstract and esoteric sort, in finding ways to solve musical problems.  I've drawn on theoretical writings by Hepokoski and Darcy; by George Rochberg; by William Caplin; and the music of ragtime composers and the early 19th century masters of classical guitar to play with fusions of sonata forms with the style of ragtime in the last five years.  It takes more than just technical facility on an instrument and familiarity with ragtime and sonatas from the 18th through 20th centuries; you can't compose sonatas drawing on country, blues, bluegrass, shape-note hymnody and other American vernacular styles to compose multi-movement works if you haven't steeped yourself in, say, the chamber music of Haydn and the keyboard works of Clementi and Dussek and Beethoven and Chopin ... even if you happen to be a guitarist.  

But ... there's another point at which I differ with Borstlap and that's about how effective his polemic against technocratic post World War I modernism has gotten.  He seems to locate the rupture in modernism that rejected the past with "zero hour" and the aftermath of World War II.  I don't really want to contest that particular reading since it's his Netherlands and associated arts patronage he's had to deal with.  I do, however, suggest that Jacques Ellul provides a more compelling alternate take on the emergence of technocratic art tailored to technocratic societies.  

In particular, Ellul zeroed in on the role that critics play as the establishment that defines what is "in" or "out".  Ellul had a few zingers about the Boulez who had the luxury of denouncing everything since he got all the awards, the funding, the social prestige and could write whatever he wanted.  But Ellul's broadsides were against technique being pursued as an end unto itself, as the new defining process and principle of art in technological societies.  In such societies the artist is more a cultivated personality or persona than someone who even makes actual paintings of musical works or poetry and it is the critic who, thanks to a variety of 20th century theories, is the new and greatest iteration of technocratic art culture.  Tom Wolfe once sniped in one of his books that he was being led to believe that arts critics would say to him that if he did not have a theory of seeing he could not even see a painting.  What Wolfe riffed on as a journalist, Ellul trawled through as a scholar. Bold emphases are added.

Jacques Ellul
Copyright (c) 2014 by Papadakis Publisher
translated by Michael Johnson and David Lovekin
ISBN 978-1-906506-40-7

page 152

In this vast universe, the art critic finally achieves his principal role. The artist is only a secondary element in relation to the critic who makes and unmakes styles and reputations.  ... Let us note that the art critic is a recent development. This man who is a scholar of the material in question, music or novel, painting or poetry, who knows all that can be known, who is the true expert in all his knowledge of the imaginary museum; that man, a specialist, a meticulous connoisseur of all the techniques, is incapable of producing anything by himself, but, as the occupant of the public podium, he makes his opinions known. He promulgates evaluations, and he reveals the philosophy and meaning of these works. He decrees what is good for the general welfare, and what will be the legacy of our present world for the future.  He can add nothing to this legacy but his explanations. The art critic did not exist in the seventeenth century, although there were a few hints. In reality, he is a product of the bourgeois, industrial, mass society; he is a shareholder in the culture, whose conscious and willful reality originates in the same era (along with the idea of culture), ... The critic owes his existence to the mutation of the bourgeoisie: the bourgeois, perhaps uncultured, harried and involved with other needs, and dedicated to utility, does not possess the same understanding of art as the aristocrat. For the latter, there was no need for explanation. By contrast, the bourgeois, the philistine of the Gilded Age, needed explanations, needed to be led to understanding. And, just as businessmen needed their brokers, so, in matters of art, the bourgeois needed their critics in order to discern what kind of art to buy. And for the Bourgeois buying art is an act of status. He must not make a mistake. First and foremost, the critic guarantees the durability and lasting value of the work in question.  The critic is just another business agent whose job is to guarantee status. 

We could take a film critic such as Roger Ebert as a potential counter-example.  Ebert partly gained his reputation by deciding that he was not going to tell people, so to speak, to "not eat hot dogs". He decided that rather than always insist that people not eat what he thought of as cinematic junk food he'd review even the junk food movies and then offer his opinion as to whether or not "is this a good hot dog?"  So Ebert would, say, mention that he enjoyed Christopher Nolan's Batman movies and felt the trilogy ended respectably while commenting about how he couldn't get into Superman because every single filmmaker always came back to the boring weakness of kryptonite rather than explore the character's capacity for weakness in some other, more interesting way.  Naturally other writers on film would prefer there were no superhero films.  I'm inclined to think, as I read critical responses to popular cinema, that one of the reasons film critics dislike middle and lowbrow cinema is because the messaging is so overt the films can be dismissed as some kind of propaganda, certainly, but it might be more crucial to suggest that a filmmaker who is pulling no punches about a message has made a film that doesn't require the mediation of a critic in order to connect with audiences.

The critic is a rubber stamp that something is worth buying for those who otherwise lack the intellectual and social resources to know, as aristocrats offering patronage to artists in days of yore, what they like already. The critic as the broker for a businessmen whose business is art consumption might be a disturbingly accurate assessment of this relatively recent development in arts cultures in the West. Later on in the book Ellul has an even more trenchant description of what critics do for contemporary art.

page 153
... The art critic is a publicity agent for modern art. ... The link between the discourse of the critic and art itself is so essential that it appears, for example, in the view of Abraham Moles, as a proof of art's vitality. Everywhere they have proclaimed the death of Art, he asserts; now we are witnessing an "unprecedented flourishing of doctrines and movements," which prove that art is alive. However, these doctrines are the work of critics. They produce an infinite amount of discourse on art, but one must remember that this is not art. ...

page 154

Clearly minimalist and post-minimalist paintings and sculptures are nothing, absolutely nothing, without explanatory discourse. We are told that it is a "mental" art, which now requires conceptualization and no longer the sentimentality that has ruled art for too long.  I can buy that.  But I do not see in what way a red X traced on a white sheet is in any way "conceptual." Now, I must explain. A work like this has no character or any intellectually discernible quality unless the artist or the master know-it-all steps up and reveals the intellectual process, the means of understanding, and the logic of the work. This is what we could call an "instruction manual of poetics." I'll buy that, too.  But why should this act of drawing two bars on paper be a greater act of creation than that of a lathe operator in a workshop?

page 155

... The work no longer speaks for itself; the critic speaks in its place and situates the work in the great current that carries art to this point. He becomes the irreplaceable companion on whom the artist relies. 

That's certainly a harsh indictment on the role critics play in technocratic societies in which a critic simply saying that a red X traced on white paper is "conceptual" art that could be done by any teenager in shop class but for the vetting of an established critic writing for this or that institution.  Ellul asserted, as we saw above, that when a critic invoked the proliferation of doctrines and movements these were not, really, signs of a vibrant social life of artists making art, it was a sign of the liveliness with which arts critics promulgated theories and established schools of discourse.  Now theoretical writing is valuable and has its place but Ellul's complaint was that art in technocratic societies had devolved to the point where, absent this kind of theoretical post hoc explanation the art in question was often so opaque, so hermetic, and so fixated on refining technique as the starting point and ultimate goal of art, the objects produced meant nothing without that post hoc critical explication.  

It might even be said that "the death of the author" was not so much the death of the author as the self-anointed accession of literary criticism as the ultimate realization of what art was supposed to be.  This is a point Ellul brings up near the end of his book.

page 155
I am not at all sure that modern art would have evolved as it has if it were not for the critic. In other words, it is an enormous resource to know that an explicator is behind the artist and whatever he produces; the explicator will take charge of providing a meaning and of decrypting symbols even when none exists. This will happen provided the artist in question falls in line with society and with the current development of sensibilities in artistic milieus. If this happens, the artist no longer has to worry about expressing a "form" attached to a "meaning," and he has the rare privilege of declaring that there is no meaning, that art is pure form; he knows that the critic is the specialist in discovering sense and nonsense, a meaning in pure form that pretends to say nothing. The critic is nothing more than a safety net for a high wire act. The artist, according to the model granted him by modern society, has the added privilege (and one that he always claims) of insulting without consequence the philistine public off which he lives. The critic is there to exalt these insults and to demonstrate that they are really a form of respect for the spectator who is involved in a newly minted reality. But, in order to play this role, the critic becomes a technician of art. He knows its history, its techniques, and its resources better than any artist. And the more the work becomes abstract, the more a technician is required who not only displays his knowledge of technique but, in addition, can elaborate his own techniques for interpretation. He possesses instruments the others do not. The critic, after having become an indispensable character of capitalist bourgeois society, becomes a representative epigone of the technical system. He makes art and the comprehension of art a technique; he leads us to think that there is no such thing as untutored reading or vision (except in those cases where it is false); he establishes himself as the sole judge of success and value, which is precisely the role of the technician.  ...

pages 155-156

The critic, in his current role, and especially in relation to abstract art, fills a social function of monopolistic mediation based on technical competence. He is the technician for arts and letters, comparable to MBAs and other technocrats. And, like them all, he reduces every art form to an ensemble of techniques. It’s not by accident that the denial of meaning and a refusal of anything to say is the result of the ping-pong match between critics and artists.  The critic assures his pre-eminence, his social role, his indisputable status by asserting that there is nothing in art which is not hermetic, nothing which is not symbolic in the second or third degree, but that everything is beyond the understanding of the lay person. And the artist plays the same game, assured that his technique will hoodwink the public.  ...

page 156

... IN all cases what the author says is never to be confused with what he wants or would want to say. And it is New Criticism that seizes on an author's real meaning behind what he says. But despite this difference we can conclude with two quite remarkable positions. The first position is the pre-eminent role of the critic, who is situated above the creative artist.  Roland Barthes states this position cogently; there is a kind of hierarchy where one goes from the word to the language, from the language to the work, and from there to the criticism, which is the "ultimate act of literary creation, a symbol superimposed on the symbol created by the work." Without the critic the work is sterile, because the critic is essentially the model for the reader; and so, the work must be studied not as an extension of the one who creates it but of the one who reads it. Reading constitutes the work. Hence, criticism is the fine flower, the ultimate point, the supreme creation of the artistic process.  ...

page 157

... the critic has become the most important person in the world of art, and this relates at all levels to the technicization of society.

another reminder of the kind of trends I've seen in arts criticism that inspired me to write the following haiku

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft

Now I love criticism, actually.  A good deal of what I write here and a few things I write elsewhere would have to be described as criticism, a literary genre I think it's pretty obvious I love reading and writing in.  Yet ... just as obviously, I've become a bit skeptical about the extent to which criticism is regarded as "necessary" for a functioning society.  Criticism at its best is still a kind of journalism and while I have no doubt that journalism is "the first draft of history" there may be some danger in thinking too much of it.  Ellul mentioned that there was a case to be made that critics were always wrong when it came to making decisions and judgments about what was worthy and what wasn't in the history of 19th century literature as we now know it.  

If the art critic is the stoke broker for the new bourgeois; the publicity agent for the new establishment art in technocratic societies, do we do without them?   Well ... it could still seem that some kind of gatekeeping function for the critic is valuable. But if we live in an era in which those who attain these roles as arts critics have in mind to cast some doubt about the hegemony of a canon that their predecessors created, well, Ellul has some remarks about that kind of regime change mentality, too.

page 157

... the critic has become the most important person in the world of art, and this relates at all levels to the technicization of society.

Thus, it is amusing to note that New Criticism violently attacks old criticism proclaiming that the old critic was an agent of social control, the ultimate police force created by society to monitor expression of thought and conversation about values ... but those who exercise this function in a terroristic manner are none other than the new critics, much more so than the traditional university critics! But, if traditional critics were the police of traditional society, then the new critics are the enforcers for technological society with a deep-rooted and exclusive attention to everything that might threaten this society. ...

As the Pete Townsend song put it, "Meet the new boss!  Same as the old boss!"

Now what I try to do at this blog is, among other things, provide some compensating activity for the sort of coverage I don't see happening (enough) in whatever I see going on.  So for a while I wrote about, ahem, megachurch activity in the Puget Sound area that I felt was not getting enough journalistic attention from the mainstream and independent press.  And since that period came to a close I have shifted more toward what I had hoped to do when I started blogging back in 2006, writing about chamber music and music for classical guitar.  

Not that Future Symphony Institute necessarily has any reason to care what Wenatchee The Hatchet thinks but I really would recommend Ellul's book for their bookstore page.  I think it does a compelling job of articulating the problems in post-war technocratic trends in arts and arts criticism in a way that would supplement arguments that have been made by Roger Scruton and John Borstlap at the Future Symphony Institute website.