Saturday, April 27, 2019

links for the weekend

This narrow dramatic determinism is the principal reason that the Marvelization of movies ultimately feels deadening, despite the occasional spectacular delight or dramatic twist. It’s not because of the ubiquity of the advertising or the number of screens on which the movies play. It’s because their hermetically sealed aesthetic narrows the inner lives of the characters depicted to a terrifying 
homogeneity, grooming audiences to welcome precisely such movies and to imagine themselves in their terms.

... and the person who was inadvertently responsible for catalyzing that cycle was basically Joseph Campbell in terms of popular influence.  But ...

From the Richard Brody who made a point of heaping some small praise on Michael Bay and writing hundreds of words on how Josh Trank's Fantastic Four film would have been quite a great film if the studio hadn't interfered and declared that A Quiet Place was more or less racist ...  I might see Endgame anyway.  He is aware that the problem isn't the source material of comics as such, but he regards the corporate anticulture as the problem and the demagogic nature of fans and ... well ... it's not like I haven't gotten a sense Brody has a didactic streak in him ... but I am likely to watch Endgame.  I'm personally a bit more curious about Godzilla.  That is ... not the American film that I thought would bring Ziyi Zhang back on to the big screens in the U.S!

By way of thematic transition on the topic of the sorts of movies some guys think nobody past 40 should even be talking about ... anyone who read Justin E. H. Smith's rant on "It's All Over" and remember my riff on that might be interested (maybe?) to know there's a review of his book out.

At The New Republic there's an article discussing a book that gets into sexual aggression and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  

Exposing sexism is not the stated purpose of David O. Dowling’s new book, A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That, according to the introduction, is to examine “the impact of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on literary culture and the publishing industry” by narrating the careers of important contemporary authors who taught or studied there under a series of distinctive directors, from its founding to the present. The impact is certainly profound: In 15 brief biographies, Dowling demonstrates how many of the twentieth century’s most celebrated American authors shaped this institutional setting and were shaped by it. He shows too how deeply entwined the Workshop and the publishing industry have been since the 1940s—it is no accident that so many books reviewed in The New York Times bear the imprimatur of Iowa. The poet Paul Engle, who took over the directorship of the Workshop in 1941, emphasized professional development; over more than two decades at the helm, he worked tirelessly to secure prize money and corporate sponsorship for individual students and for the program as a whole. The goal for students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is and has always been to publish. Dowling is intrigued by the contradictions generated under Engle’s stewardship, which he traces through the Workshop’s later decades: How can writing be both pathbreaking and popular? Does institutional orthodoxy stifle innovation? How can one be a “man of letters” and a “man of business,” as Engle aimed to be? 

These questions have been tackled ably elsewhere, by scholars such as D.G. Myers, Mark McGurl, and Eric Bennett. What Dowling offers that is new, and important, is a thoroughgoing record of the varying ways sexism has shaped the Workshop experience. He has been through the literature and archives, and he has found a number of letters, interviews, and memoirs describing incidents of sexual misconduct. The book is heavily footnoted. (Dowling, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, follows academic practices of citation.) His book demonstrates how institutional sexism involves more than just discrete incidents of sexual harassment: It permeates a program’s culture and expectations. Dowling relates anecdotes about boxing matches, the rampages of Norman Mailer, and the challenges of attending seminars while mothering two small children. He also tells of the aid that women writers offered one another, of their defiance of male authority, and of alternative workshops they formed in contradistinction to Iowa. There seems to have been plenty of savagery in Iowa City, but that same place gave rise to creative forms of resistance and strategies for survival. 
There's been a bit of a theme along this line about academia ... 


Keeping things in The Atlantic vein .. there's a piece about the ways in which A. I. requires a lot of scut work and human surveillance

Take Charles Perrow, a sociologist who published an account of accidents occurring in human-machine systems in 1984. Now something of a cult classic, Normal Accidents made a case for the obvious: Accidents happen. What he meant is that they must happen. Worse, according to Perrow, a humbling cautionary tale lurks in complicated systems: Our very attempts to stave off disaster by introducing safety systems ultimately increase the overall complexity of the systems, ensuring that some unpredictable outcome will rear its ugly head no matter what. Complicated human-machine systems might surprise us with outcomes more favorable than we have any reason to expect. They also might shock us with catastrophe.

When disaster strikes, past experience has conditioned the public to assume that hardware upgrades or software patches will solve the underlying problem. This indomitable faith in technology is hard to challenge—what else solves complicated problems? But sometimes our attempts to banish accidents make things worse.

In his 2014 book, To Save Everything, Click Here, the author Evgeny Morozov argues that “technological solutionism”—leaving the answer up to Silicon Valley—causes us to neglect other ways of addressing problems. In The Glass Cage, published the same year, Nicholas Carr points warily to “deskilling,” which occurs when the skills of human operators working a job begin to erode, as automation makes such capacities unnecessary. On average, automation is safer than error-prone humans, so a typical response to deskilling is “So what?”
Eh, that seems like sufficient posting for this particular weekend.  

Jordan Peele's Us, an energetic but diffuse follow up to Get Out and how Peele's work is strangely reminding me of Sam Raimi

While it's been praised in more than a few reviews there were bound to be some dissenters on Jordan Peele's film.  Not that I went out looking for articles that were devoted to negative assessments as such but ... this one jumped out at me when I was perusing.

Beyond its vague evocation of America’s history of violence, Us relies on a strange twist that further muddles its imagery. The Tethered turn out to be more than doppelgängers: they are clones of every American who have been forced to pantomime their opposites’ every move for their entire lives. The logistics of this plot detail are virtually nonexistent, but even as a metaphor it’s a baffling conceit. If the Tethered are the oppressed and neglected, the wage workers and homeless, the scapegoats whose misery sustains American dreams, then what about the actual homeless folks and wage workers and scapegoats? Why would the people who know their pain and their struggles most intimately seek to replace them, to murder them in cold blood? What are the Tethered even getting in return?
To answer this question, Peele relies on a second, obvious twist: the revelation that the two characters played by Lupita Nyong’o met and switched places as children. In order for Us to make the case that the Tethered are sympathetic and all Americans equally guilty of their bloodlust, it has to rely on a literalist conceit that downplays the family at the film’s center—and all aspects of identity other than nationality. While Adelaide and her family have a clear stake in the Tethered’s uprising due to Adelaide’s history with Red, it’s strange how much of a foregone conclusion their opposition to each other is. Albeit for different lengths of time, Red and Adelaide have both suffered at the hands of a twisted government experiment. They have both been separated from their families. They are both black women in America, which is generally a raw deal. Besides their personal scorn for each other, what do they really have to fight over? Is their bitterness so all-consuming that nothing else matters? Are they just American? To work, the film has to elude these questions at every turn. Like two mirrors placed face to face, it just reflects, endlessly.
Kearse doesn't even mention the prevalence of slavery in Native American societies so it's ... possible ... to suggest that even Kearse's criticism of Peele's essentially mythological conception of America and American history is potentially (I'm not saying actually) predicated on a kind of counter-mythology that will be of little help to people with, say, Native American ancestry who know just how pervasive and inhumane Native American forms of slavery were reported to be in the Pacific Northwest.  Then again ... it seems like a lot of cultural criticism and historical ruminations on the nature of America (TM) originate in places like the East Coast, the Midwest and ... the South and ... California.  The Pacific Northwest, the older I get, seems to figure not so prominently on musings about us, whether in a film like Us or in musings about a film like Us.

Now I'm writing what I'm writing because I have seen the film.  It's fun but it feels like it's a film that is buoyed by a strong cast that offsets what seems like muddled storytelling.

This might seem weird ... but Jordan Peele's two films remind me of Sam Raimi.  I'm not even entirely sure why, although the delicate mixture of horror, jump scare methods, weird situations and character arcs in which protagonists make terrible discoveries is not exactly a uniquely Raimi set of traits.

There's not really any splatstick in Jordan Peele's work and he seems to be going for more "pure horror" than horror comedy.

But perhaps I'm trying to say that Peele and Raimi are the kinds of cinematic storytellers where they invest in the emotional power of a scene at a visceral level with an idea that once they've engaged the viewer the plot mechanics of why the scene is even happening will just vanish. Those questions don't vanish, really, but ...

Let me give an example from a movie I still really enjoy, Spider-man 2.  Raimi has a scene in which Peter Parker is about to kiss Mary Jane Watson (you may know this scene), and suddenly realizes by way of his spider-sense, that a great big sedan is hurtling through space toward them both and he uses his reflexes to save himself and Mary Jane.  As Steven Grant put it, as fantastically memorable as this scene is it just defies all sense.  If Otto Octavius, who threw the sedan their way as he approached them in their diner moment, knows Peter Parker is Spider-man then he can get Parker's attention in some other way and if Octavius doesn't know Parker is a superhero then he's just being a fool flinging sedans to and fro in New York because he'll kill people who can't help him find Spider-man but ... hey ... the scene does look impressive.

In that sense, Jordan Peele has something in common with Sam Raimi.  Memorable, even iconic scenes in genre film are juxtaposed in narrative contexts where the second you stop thinking about the plot mechanics of "hey, so, how did all of this get set up again?" you begin to have some doubts about the plausibility of the set up.  Now I still really like Spider-man 2 but I've had time to think about how Raimi and company have some memorable scenes that have sometimes been set up with no regard for either plot or character logic.  That's kind of part of what you get with Raimi films and I'm willing to forgive that in his work.

I think I'm basically willing to forgive that in Peele's work so far but I also feel some kind of intellectual/critical obligation to note that Peele has this issue popping up in his approach to film like Sam Raimi's work has.

So I saw Us with some friends earlier this week and we enjoyed the film but these friends are middle-aged guys like myself but who have had kids.  One of the guys said the movie was engrossing and fun while he was watching it but that, you know ... if all the tethered had to eat was raw rabbit for decades they'd all have scurvy and they'd be physically weak and have really brittle bones. They wouldn't have all of this strength, agility and stamina to run around like they do in the film.   Yes ... there is that.  I had a different thought, which was that a lifetime of eating raw meat would waylay a lot of them with food poisonings.  Rabbits are not exactly the cleanest animals and the kind of infrastructure and maintenance required to keep all those rabbit cages poop free would seem to have involved enough infrastructure to get some vegetables down there.

The idea that you can clone physical bodies but not souls doesn't seem all that unique and perhaps the point was to say that somebody, anybody apparently, but probably somebody meaning a cabal of some order, tried to clone people with the idea that the clones could be used as tools to manipulate activity. But the experiment didn't work. The tethered were those bodies that were compelled to replicate, by way of sharing a soul with the original human, replicate in some truncated fashion, the activities of those humans they were cloned from.

This is obviously not a science fiction tale so how that sort of cloning was done isn't really even the point, nor is it even so much the point that clones somehow can't have souls.  It's been a while since I've read Aquinas on the topic of the soul but it's not really clear to me that you could even argue from within the context of theology that a clone somehow "could not" have a soul.

So as a social and political allegory the Tethered are those clones in the underground tunnels of America who rise up in 2019 to kill their "originals" and thus claim fully for themselves the souls they have had no choice but to share with their above ground "original selves". The plot twist in Us is that Adelaide (Nyong'o's character) is a tethered who switched places with her original, "Red", who was trapped down in the underworld.  The clone Adelaide successfully grows up, gets married, becomes a mother, and by movie's end has successfully killed and defeated her original.  This kind of switch saved for the end is not all that potent in horror film by now.  It often doesn't even really work for me, it's like the end of Candyman.  I guess it works for some people but I find these kinds of gotcha endings don't stick with me.  Maybe if you're a Calvinist that kind of ending can't be entirely horrifying because you think people rarely realize how bad they can be?

I think the movie works, perhaps more because of the fantastic cast than the script. I mean, the script seems pretty solid in terms of getting from scene to scene and with motives in place.  Adelaide is the doppleganger who has been living in our world and the rise of the Tethered is not just a threat to her family and the people of the U.S., it's also a threat in the sense that her identity could be revealed to others, that she would at some point have to admit she is someone who was among the Tethered, a clone who rose up and beat down her human original and locked her away. Even if that's never discovered there's the imposter syndrome aspect of Adelaide's self that she can no longer escape.  She has only been able to have so much luxury and comfort and love because she stole the possibility of these things from her double.

Ash does battle with a double in Army of Darkness in a far more comedic way, and the "good" Ash wins, more or less. The Dark Half, a Stephen King tale I just barely remember, had a motif of a character fighting an evil double. It's a pedestrian trope in itself but Peele's variation on the well-heeled being pursued by their doubles is slightly different. The premise that the underdweller copies have wearied of having to share the soul of their better-off originals is the added detail.

That the tethered/copy Adelaide prevails and kills her original is the twist ending that, if known from the outset, creates a variety of plot mechanical questions that the film doesn't seem written to answer.  Or perhaps, as with so many a film, the questions are the aim. The "imposter" Adelaide has become the real one by way of having killed off the original.  Critics have described this film as a kind of political fable about class and it does seem to be that but I come back to my friend's observation about just how scurvy-addled the Tethered would have to really be if they only lived on raw rabbit.

The moment where Red (original Adelaide) talks about how the clone Adelaide could have taken her with her is a reminder that, well, there's dramatic moments and then there's, well, not sure.  Perhaps in the film as fable only one of the two Adelaides could prevail.  Stories about how the seemingly well-heeled and well-off ultimately show themselves willing to murder and steal and do terrible things to get the American dream are legion and go back to film noir as well as horror.  Affluence at the price of a broken moral compass has inspired stories going back centuries.

But after the thrill ride of the film is over some basic questions about where all the rabbits came from emerge.  Rabbits breed quickly, sure, but where are THEY getting their food?  Who's feeding them?

A story in which the imposter kills off her original and has to live with being the imposter ... I've read a little bit about imposter syndrome

But the clone back story ... that just seems to be a wonky thing that causes a lot of elements to unravel when I think about them.  So the cloned Adelaide knocks original Adelaide out and handcuffs her down in the tunnels, then goes up and takes over the life that Adelaide was going to have but the parents, attempting to deal with the trauma they think their girl has gone through, spare no expense at inspiring her.  So I'm not entirely sure how the film plays out with imposter syndrome readings if the big plot reveal is that the imposter killed off her original.

That someone who seems like a good person has a cauldron of cruelty and evil inside them is ripe for narrative exploration and in this respect the story that sprung to mind as I've thought about Peele's film is Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, the film he did that was regarded as a kind of horror-comedy penance for Spider-man 3. Alison Lohman''s seemingly demure and angelic bank officer decides that she's within her powers to deny an extension on a loan to an old woman who turns out to have the power to curse her and, since this is a horror comedy, makes a point of doing so.  Lohman's character then spends a lot of effort trying to negate the effects of the curse or undo its effects (except for, if memory serves, actually doing anything about the loan decision she made).  In the end she thinks she's beaten the curse and the powers behind it but in the final climactic and, frankly, hilarious scene, her fiance recalls that there was something she dropped, the cursed button from her old shirt and when he hands it to her hell opens up and hands, well, the title is Drag Me to Hell. Raimi's film was a return to form for him and a memorable riff on how there is a whole lot of evil hidden in the sweet-seeming bank worker.

Us was enjoyable while I was watching it but the moment I started thinking about it, well, a lot of the story mechanics and particularly in the explanatory back stories shared by Adelaide to her copy, unraveled quickly.  Fortunately Nyong'o and Vernon Duke are so good at what they do their performances make it easy to forgive the tangle of world-building issues in this genre film.  But ... as a sophomore film this is, well, kind of how those films can be, where the second film is not quite as compelling as a memorable and lively initial work.

But ... seriously, the Tethered seem like they should have succumbed to malnutrition of various sorts and food poisonings way back within the first few years they existed.

A whole lot of the somewhat predictable switched doubles plot twist hinges on one dad having too much to drink and not keeping track of his kid ... which ... well, that kind of fits a horror movie trope where chaos bursts forth ... eventually ... because someone made a bad, irresponsible decision.  It raises yet another question as to how and why, given how even inattentive parents can remember and treasure moments with a child, wouldn't have worked out the ways in which this clone of Adelaide was in some way not their original child.  Peele's attempt to anchor things in some kind of shadowy technocratic conspiracy backed by a government or corporate interests or a combination of both with a punning U. S. in the Us title might be too clever for its own good by not having any clarity about the implications of this sort of world-building.

There's an axiom I've heard that some screenwriters have that if you have to choose between writing for continuity and writing for "the moment" you always write for the moment.  Well ... I don't agree.  The problem with writing for "the moment" is that writers can very often decide to write the moment out and then work toward whatever it is they think gets there even if that means bending a few things like character arcs and the ground rules of the narrative world along the way. 

It's probably going to seem a bit weird now that I've been comparing Jordan Peele's films to Sam Raimi's to now step sideways in another direction and invoke Hayao Miyazaki but in Miyazaki's tales the world-building is pretty immaculate and interacts with character arcs. If you know a few things about statuary and religious and folklore from Japan there's a certain moment in My Neighbor Totoro where you know Mei is going to be okay because of which statue is shown in a scene.  There are moments like that in his films where the world-building is detailed enough that there's symbolism in it that is welded to the plot points.

With Peele's work, by contrast, the big reveals in his films have invited viewers to say "What?"  The idea in the last act of Get Out that white liberals who voted for Obama turned out to secretly be racists who are mining black bodies in which to transplant white brains constitutes a kind of social and political commentary on a kind of white liberal cultural theft or appropriation ... but it also raises simple questions about how many body-switching brain transplants have happened.  I mean, sure, I saw Eyes without a Face last year so I get that in horror these kinds of speculative tales are about other things than the literalness with which the plot points can be realized. but the plot twist that the white liberal-voting family turns out to be racist and in a more Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of brutal way seems ... well, it's like Peele has figured out to write for moments more effectively than he's figured out how to establish how those emerge from the backstories he tags on in his third acts.

Us kind of works better than Get Out in this sense, the copy Adelaide who we see at the start of the film has killed her "original" or "real" self in the process of rising from the tunnels and joining American society.  But the suspense that seems presupposed throughout the film is that the Adelaide who is fighting to defend her family is the "real" Adelaide, not the imposter.  That only works if, as Peele has done, crucial information about what happened years ago is withheld.  Yet if the two bodies share a soul do they not share memories at some level?  To put it another way, why would the connection only work one way?  Underground Adelaide had to do or replicate whatever was going on with her above-ground "original" which would mean she'd have memories but the connection apparently does go both ways ... which ... if it does ... brings things back to some questions.

What made Adelaide "special" so that her underground clone recognizes this special quality?  That they can switch places?  Well, what's the reason for that?  Peele never answers the question and perhaps the aim in the horror is to suggest by implication there simply isn't an answer and that we don't have an explanation for why those of "us" live in relative peace and affluence in contrast to the "them" who live in the tunnels below ground.  But if that's the case then the film is made by "us" for "us" about "us" with a plot twist that the central character is a "them", an imposter who has so thoroughly assimilated into the "us" she almost forgot she was one of "them" until she has to kill the doubles of her family from the tunnels underground to save the family she has made here above the tunnels.

All of that could have, perhaps, been more poignant and pointed without so much backstory about how the people living in the tunnels had to eat only raw rabbit.  And ... where did they get their water?  The film places so much of the weight of its drama and the "them" that emerge from the tunnels that Peele's lack of interest in explaining more than sketchy harrowing accounts of what the "them" had to do makes the "us" of the film seem like it's the point of the film to a fault.  Basic questions I've mentioned so far about why only rabbit meat and raw at that? There don't seem to have been any security precautions to keep "them" from riding the escalator up to Santa Cruz as we're supposed to know it?

If the original Adelaide spent years, decades, fomenting a "them" revolution she had to live long enough to do so and there's a lot of food poisoning and sickness she'd deal with.  Raw rabbit meat, after all, has zero fiber content.  So when Red (who turns out to be the original/real Adelaide, shares that the Tethered living underground had to eat raw rabbit she doesn't look like she's had to spend thirty years doing that.  Is it a bit much to point that she's a pretty attractive woman?  Her performances are great but they also highlight just how much Peele's backstory reveals in the third act seem to collapse if you stop and think about them for any significant length of time.

Peele has a clear grasp of how to write for and to moments ... but between his two films he seems to have a habit of bringing about those moments by way of last act reveals that involve backstories that not only raise some questions that can't be answered but that, if revealed within the first acts would drain a lot of the liveliness out of his stories.

Having had a few days away from the film to think about it, it helped a lot that Peele's leads were really good.  I just can't imagine the film working at all if the leads had been more along the lines of Tyra Banks and Damon Wayans.  Nyong'o really is good at presenting the two different Adelaides, which is central to the film's plot and substance.  Vernon Duke is also memorable playing her affable but lunk-headed husband and his even more lunk-headed and implacable doppleganger.

excerpt from an interview with Angelo Gilardino, composer (and guitarist) on how guitarists were not successful during the later 19th century because of Romantic interests in what Leonard Meyer called statistical climax

I.S: What about your other compositions? Do they aim in the same direction?

A.G: Yes, they do, although I must say here I have been more courageous. In the years 68-73 I have published pieces which were oriented to the atmosphere that was dominating European music in that epoch, a style trying to put into agreement Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez. But I gave up composition at that time because I did not think it was something important that I was doing. My con- cert activity was absorbing me totally. But in 1981 I stopped as a concert player. I did this mainly to compose again. Besides the studies, I have also written two sonatas which are already published and a cycle of variations on the famous theme Folies d’Espagne in order to do something that in my opinion has never been done in guitar music before and never successfully attended to. In the case of the Sonata the composer has either given up the form of sonata in order to retain a certain amount of specifically guitaristic patterns or, the composer used the sonata form to a certain extent and wrote in very common patterns which were playable on the guitar but also on a keyboard, maybe with an even better result. So, I tried to be successful with music which was on one hand from a formal point of view perfecting a sonata with a big development normally based on the two themes (usually you do not have that in guitar sonatas – they never have a development but just a central episode). On the other hand I tried to produce a high level of specific writing characteristic for the guitar. I did the same in the case of the variations.

A.G: My approach is a new one compared to other books on the history of the guitar, as far as I am aware. I tried to give an account of the history of the guitar as a minor page in general music history. Phenomena like the renaissance of the guitar in this century are usually presented as the result of the appearance of some great players. This is not my approach. I have described the renaissance of the guitar from Tarrega to our days as the consequence of a new wave in music history. We have always had, in all centuries, very good guitarists, but whether they were highly appreciated or not did not depend on them, but on the general musical scene. In the second half of the 19th century for example we could not have successful guitarists because romanticism and its latest phenomena had created a climax that was impossible to produce on the guitar. The search for a certain kind of colour, a tone of orchestration, led from one side by French composers around Debussy, and from the other side by the composers from the Vienna School around Arnold Schoenberg, had created a new kind of sensitivity to art – to sounds like that of the guitar. This is why we had a new situation in which several guitarists have been able to make themselves appreciated and make the guitar more popular, but not as a personal miracle of theirs, but as a sort of consequence that music history had produced. [emphasis added] So guitar repertoire is not primarily the result of the action of any guitarist but is something that happened within the general situation of musical history. This was my approach, and of course, it calls for a complete new setting of the chapters and also for a new explanation of the relationship between facts, causes and efforts.

as Matanya Ophee put it in his lecture "Repetoire Issues" there was a distrust of the guitar as an instrument and there is still, in some ways, a distrust of the guitar as somehow not being a "legitimate" instrument with which to compose what is generally called "classical music".  

I'm not sure I'm going to bother quoting Leonard B. Meyer in this particular case.  I've referenced his work a bit over the years.  Short version, the 19th century interest in Western concert music was toward bigger and more timbre-saturated forms of musical climax, what Meyer described as a statistical accumulation of sound as distinct from what he described as the 'syntactic climax' of 18th century music in works by composers like Haydn or maybe we could pick Clementi (and why not? I like a few Clementi piano sonatas).   The guitar was simply incapable of "keeping up" with the fad, if you will, of the gigantic symphonic climax.  

an old twwet from Future Symphony Institute that got some ... pushback that ... eh ...

Replying to @mattmarks
The various canons throughout the arts are like crowdsourcing. These works are the best of the best and actual people over the ages keep voting for them without ideological intent. Seems pretty democratic.
11:43 AM - 3 Feb 2018

The way the Twitter conversation was not how I would have guessed it could have gone. There weren't any jokes about in ancient democracies land owning males got to vote or how that the democracy of the arts canons developed in a similar way.  There were indirect references to that, it seems.  But then as things went along ...

In the canon of literature, Jane Austen, contemporary with Mozart and Beethoven, is widely considered to be the greatest novelist to ever pick up a pen. Why did the white male patriarchy give her a pass? Who is the Jane Austen of composition? Perhaps she has yet to be born.

Her works were initially published anonymously. I.e. maybe people surmised a woman wrote the novels but they didn't not recognize that it was Jane Austen as such who published those novels. Replies mentioned that novels were things considered acceptable for women to write. Austen riffed on how many of the novels of her day were basically trashy. I have a friend who loves to intone how Mark Twain regarded it as better that a person should read no books at all than to read a book by Jane Austen.

There was a crowdsourcing element but there were also taste-making elements. There were plenty of high profile writers and taste-makers who regarded Austen's work as trivial or pedestrian and her works have been frowned upon as too friendly to bourgeois values in some nations. Austen made it into the canon but how ... and how long it took before her place in the English literary canon became more or less beyond dispute might invite a question as to which women composers have gone that distance in classical music. von Bingen, I would venture. It's the weekend and I'm not at my most limber in reading on composers lately. I'm also not exactly a big symphonist in my listening lately.

I mean, I could rattle off the string quartets of Joan Tower; Annette Kruisbrink's lively and brilliant 5 Dances as well as Cirex for double bass and guitar; Nadia Borislova's Butterfly Suite; But then the guitar tends to get left out when people discuss canons of classical music on social media, perhaps? Unless the conversation maybe "is" about a canon of guitar works ... .

So if there is a Jane Austen of composition whose work should be appreciated and was well-liked and even pleasantly reviewed but ignored by mainstream criticism could I suggest that "that" kind of Austen could be someone who's been overlooked and shouldn't be? The idea of an Austen of musical composition isn't an idea I'm going to dismiss altogether, but if the FSI tweet writer kept in mind the larger reception history of Austen's work before it gained its canonical status over the course of a century the invocation might have invited some more lively pushback ... if the participants had been Austenites, maybe.

Alan Jacobs links to "Twitter is not America" and a sideways shift to Deboer on not being in the "conversation" online.

As the platforms age, their devotees become more and more distinct from the regular person. For more than a decade now, many people in media and technology have been feeding an hour or two of Twitter into our brains every single day. Because we’re surrounded by people who live their lives like this — and, crucially, because so many of the journalists who write about the internet experience the internet in this way — it might feel like this is just how Twitter is, that a representative sample of America is plugged into the machine in this way.
And thus I renew my plea to journalists.

But the passage that jumped out to me from the article was the following:

In the United States, Twitter users are statistically younger, wealthier, and more politically liberal than the general population. They are also substantially better educated, according to Pew: 42 percent of sampled users had a college degree, versus 31 percent for U.S. adults broadly. Forty-one percent reported an income of more than $75,000, too, another large difference from the country as a whole. They were far more likely (60 percent) to be Democrats or lean Democratic than to be Republicans or lean Republican (35 percent

But Pew’s methodology was able to capture another layer of distortion: The Twitter of the platform’s fanatics is very different from the norm. In other words, Media Twitter is not Median Twitter.

First, Pew split up the Twitter users it surveyed into two groups: the top 10 percent most active users and the bottom 90 percent. Among that less-active group, the median user had tweeted twice total and had 19 followers. Most had never tweeted about politics, not even about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s meeting with Donald Trump.

Someone has a proposal after a somewhat glancing description of how staying away from social media immersion has been better for him.

Consider the Scandinavian social democratic states. I personally do not think that these should be the model that leftists emulate, given that they are in the process of being dismantled. But if you gave me the option to turn America into a social democratic state I’d take it in a heartbeat. Here’s the thing: the Western European social democratic states emerged in a world where the Soviet Union presented a genuine alternative to capitalism, and in a context where there were radical socialist and Marxist parties that opened up space for the social democrats to win. There are other examples, like the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. The demise of communism coincided with a worldwide rightward tilt, in part because capital no longer felt pressure to build a social welfare state in order to ward off socialist impulses. The Democratic party got dragged to the point where it celebrated welfare “reform” and the attendant rise in extreme poverty because there was no left wing left in the party.
No political party has ever won anything by being on the absolute extreme of a given ideological direction. They’ve all required people further to that extreme to flourish.

Well, not sure I'd see it that way.  Social democracies in western Europe had some benefit in not having to mount their own military systems to defend themselves in the context of the Cold War with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. engaging in "Cold War" and developing nuclear arsenals and alliances or ... maybe let's be quite a bit more plainspoken about this and call them satellites and vassal states.  What if 45 decides the U.S. should just pull out of N.A.T.O.?  Will the western European social democracies be able to take that in stride, water off the proverbial duck's back?  Maybe ... ? I'm not going so far as to suggest that there's no sense at all in the notion that for X leftist to gain some traction that Z leftist needs room to have a political voice in the public sphere that makes X look more reasonable to the "center" and lets a previously never-before-elected W actually get into office.  I'm suggesting, a bit simply I admit, that American power in the post-war period might be a more substantial variable to consider in the western European social democracies than people who are trying to advocate for social democracies might be granting.  Wasn't Paul Kennedy musing almost half a century ago about the possibility that a combination of military over-extension and crises in the sustainability of social welfare programs might be the undoing of the United States?  I'm rusty, really rusty on that ... .

Since I'm not actually on Twitter and rarely visit it I'm not privy to much of what goes on there but I can appreciate the comments made by those who have used it that it is its own kind of ... pocket universe.  

some memorable comments from Kyle Gann on "language spinners" and "image cutters" and "once again into the 12-tone breach".


It is a trap that some composers fall into (and there are so many of them, aren’t there?, traps, I mean) that they can develop a language and then sit around writing pieces in that language. A piece is not simply nine yards of a given composer’s language snipped off from the rest – it’s a thing with its own bounds and unity and personality. Years ago Boulez made some statement about having “perfected his language,” and I wrote an article with the sub-headline, “Pierre Boulez perfects his language – but does he have anything to say?” [emphasis added] Music and language are analogous in various respects, and the fallacy that music is only a language is so seductive that it sucks certain people in, letting them forget the fact that much of what we remember and most savor in music are specific sonic images. The composer may have a big impact – but his or her pieces may be individually forgettable

Although I can admire Boulez the conductor Boulez the composer has left me indifferent at best for decades.  I could fish up a quote or two about how one of the "difficulties" of composing in the 20th century on has been some challenge to develop a musical language as a whole that Adorno wrote back in the 1950s but I am not exactly a believer in reinventing wheels that don't need to be reinvented.  Even if I admire some of the microtonalists, for instance, I don't feel a strong obligation to break out of playing the equal-tempered guitar I have.  When I compose somewhat extended works using only natural harmonics I recognize I'm working strictly with the overtones you get from the guitar's strings (which I love doing!) but that's not exactly going to define me as a composer who works in just intonation, is it?  

I've rarely felt any need to pick up 12-tone techniques and feel I've benefited from being an American (and a guitarist and former choral singer at that) who, when I was studying composition, had an instructor who made a point of saying that if I really wanted to study twelve-tone I could go do that but this particular Mahler fan was not going to encourage me to go that route. Berg?  Okay, Berg wrote some great musical art but that came first.  Shostakovich?  Oh, he could help me a lot with Shostakovich and even Ellington and Monk were worthy of study.  He even said that it was fine to study Scott Joplin.  But Schoenberg?  Nah.  And Boulez ... a capable conductor whose music my instructor regarded as inhuman.  

So as I've read off and on about music education and music educational cultures it's been interesting to read that not being immersed in music academia might have been the best thing for me.  Kyle Gann wrote a somewhat long blog post that sums up a few things so well I feel obliged to quote him at some length.


I ruffled some feathers with my post about 12-tone music – I wonder if I’m capable of saying anything without ruffling some feathers – I wonder if there’s anything that could be said without ruffling someone’s feathers – I wonder if ruffling feathers is as heinous a crime as a lot of people apparently think – but in at least one sense my words weren’t taken literally enough. One thoughtful respondent compared me to a fundamentalist trying to expunge all memory of 12-tone music the way the Christian right wants to expunge Darwin, Balzac, and any TV show that refers positively to gay families.
Quite the contrary. Educationally, I’m heavily invested in 12-tone music. Year after year I bullheadedly continue teaching Webern’s Piano Variations and Symphony, Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet, Dallapiccola’s Piccola Musica Notturna and Sex Carmina Alcaei, Stravinsky’s Threni and Requiem Canticles, Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Babbitt’s Philomel and Post-Partitions. Those pieces mean something to me (except for the Fourth Quartet, which I’ve come to loathe), and I’m proud of knowing (except for Philomel, which I don’t have a score to) how they’re constructed. I don’t advocate locking them away and never bringing them out again. What I do advocate is a revisionist view of music history – and contrary to some things that have been written in response, I’m not commenting on the validity of the music or whether it should be performed or programmed, but how it should be explained as the historical period it now clearly is. After all, we’ve been using the same rhetoric to justify the advent of 12-tone technique since it was prevalent, but our collective view of the genre is greatly altered. [emphasis added]
One trope on 12-tone music is that it was a historical inevitability: the individual motive had supplanted an overriding tonal system as the driving force for composition, and Schoenberg needed a new method to unify music in the absence of tonal structure. But as Jonathan Kramer points out in an upcoming book, the idea that music had become totally motive-driven was a fiction invented by Schoenberg himself to justify his new method, based on a “creative misreading” of Brahms. [emphasis added] For Schoenberg to look selectively back to Brahms’s motivic technique as precursor to his own method was a natural artistic impulse, but hardly objective; nothing in Mahler, Strauss, Reger, Scriabin, or the other late, late romantics makes the use of a 12-tone row look necessary or inevitable. Quite the contrary, the application of a pitch row as a governing device was a palpably arbitrary move, brilliantly so if you want to look at it that way, but one that patently wrenched music away from its traditional moorings. Following the historical development of harmony through various seventh and ninth chords, one eventually arrives at, not the abstract pitch sets of 12-tone music, but the 11th and 13th chords of bebop, which was the real continuation of harmonic progress from classical principles.
Another 12-tone trope is that the row provided a completely organic way of composing, in which every measure of the music was drawn from the same cell. But Lerdahl, Kramer, and others have made it clear that the textual unity of a page of notes all being forms of, say, the pitch set [0,1,4] does not at all guarantee perceptual unity. [emphasis added] And beyond that, postmodern texts and theories have made it apparent to most college graduates by now that unity and organicism are not inherent in a work of art, nor necessary, nor a universal good. One can still cling to Schoenberg’s ideal of total organicism as a matter of taste, but it is an anachronism to claim, in the 21st century, that organicism is a necessary component, or indeed a guarantor, of quality.
Nor was 12-tone music, at least in America, a crucial step on the road to some other kind of music. The major movements since 12-tone music have either been antipodal rejections of it, like minimalism, or retreats from it, like the New Romanticism. One could argue that in Europe 12-tone music led to serialism and then postserialism, but it also seems true that the most successful postserial works were those that abandoned 12-tone technique altogether, like Berio’s Sinfonia, Boulez’s Rituel, Stockhausen’s Stimmung.
And ... I mention this in passing in light of some of my interactions with John Borstlap, this kind of context informs perspectives. My perspective as an American guitarist composer has been that by the time I was first taking serious time to study composition as a musical craft the Berlin Wall had fallen within my lifetime and in many key respects twelve-tone and its serialist and post-serialist legacies were dead letters.  By the time I had heard Elliot Carter I was more or less of a similar mind to the late composer George Walker.  Or to invoke Frank Zappa on a certain jazz guitarist, he said you'd have to be a moron not to appreciate his technique but he didn't see the musical value of getting the guitar to sound like a machine gun.  Anyway, let's get back to Gann here:
Strip away the fiction of historical inevitability, the assumed congruence of textual and perceived unity, and the aesthetic of necessary organicism, and all 12-tone music has left to defend itself with is what any other music has: its inherent attractiveness to the ear and mind and heart, which in 99 percent of the cases is pretty thin. The moral and theoretical underpinnings that buoyed 12-tone music up in mid-century have dissolved. [emphasis added] For a piece to employ 12-tone technique can no longer be seen as a virtue in itself, and therefore one has trouble answering the inevitable student question: since 12-tone music clearly doesn’t guarantee more beautiful music, why did so many hundreds of composers feel that they were required to use it, or else risk career disaster? However you couch the answer to that question, it isn’t pretty.
Now I interrupt the writing to mention that as a kid who grew up in the last decade of the Cold War I do remember some of the arguments advanced on behalf of 12-tone and post 12-tone music.  There was an argument that was a moral and a political argument that went roughly as follows:  12-tone music is the kind of music that infuriates dictators and fascists and communists and, therefore, it is the obligation of people who believe in democracy and freedom to be open to the notion that a complete democracy of tones should be endorsed.  Or as someone like Richard Taruskin put it in his massive Oxford History of Western Music, there are styles of music that should be understood explicitly in the geopolitical context of the Cold War.
So what I’m looking for is a more charitable way to describe the post-war 12-tone movement phenomenon, one that doesn’t make it sound like a blatant academic mafia, so I can continue teaching my favorite 12-tone pieces without getting skeptical looks and the feeling that my students think I’m selling them a bill of goods. And I think what we need to do is quit teaching 20th-century history with a dishonest thumb on the scale in Schoenberg’s favor. For decades, academic historians have presented the Second Vienna School as central to a European modernist canon, at the expense of dozens of other composers more popular, outside academia, than Schoenberg: Copland, Milhaud, Cowell, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Messiaen, Britten, Weill, Cage, Partch. It’s time to restore these composers to the center of 20th-century music, and redraw 12-tone music as the interesting but infertile cul-de-sac that it was. [emphasis added] What I propose is that we take 12-tone out of the “Great Monuments of Western Music” bag, and put it in the “Curious Dead-ends of Music History” bag. That way, when you get a bright senior or grad student who’s already absorbed Partch, Messiaen, Bartok, Cage, et al, you can say, “Hey, wanna see something else? Look at this crazy Webern Symphony with the double canon in the first movement. Isn’t that wild? And this obsessive Babbitt Post-Partitions, built on a ‘super-array’ with every pitch having its own dynamic? Pretty whacked out stuff, eh?” That way we can talk about 12-tone music as an interesting kind of fixation that composers got themselves into, the way we talk about the rhythmically complex music that happened at the court of Avignon from 1400 to 1418. I’d feel so much better about Schoenberg if his reputation were like that of the other 12-tone inventor, Josef Matthias Hauer, whose music I love studying because it’s truly peculiar, and no one pretends it’s terribly important.
I'm going to mention that one of the things I did when I began blogging about the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay was make reference to Rebay's cycle of chamber sonatas for guitar paired up with woodwinds and strings in a way that compared his cycle to Hindemith's cycle of chamber sonatas.

Now, by no means, is Rebay's style like Hindemith's!  But the comparison is historically interesting and useful to me because Rebay lived during roughly the same period of European history that Hindemith did, and he made a point of composing a large cycle of chamber sonatas for the guitar.  That's a pretty loose parallelism, I admit, but I mention it to highlight Gann's comments about how having Hindemith in the pedagogy makes sense. To put it in the breezy way of a blog post, if I could pitch Ferdinand Rebay as having been a kind of Paul Hindemith for the guitar, writing duets pairing the guitar up with violins and violas and flutes and clarinets, that suggests to me, at least, that Hindemith's legacy is not so marginal I can't usefully invoke him when discussing Rebay.  Plus, really, I like a pretty good chunk of Hindemith's music.  

Now should you want to read an account of how the 12-tone movement phenomenon maybe was a kind of academic mafia ... 

Joseph Straus's discussion1 of the much alleged tyranny of serialist practice is a valuable contribution to a reconstruction of the history of recent art music, not least because it reveals a disturbing, if unsurprising, level of ignorance of the practice of recent American composers among opinion makers in both the journalistic and academic sectors of the classical music establishment. A common fundamental misconception has to do with an unthinking conflation of a compositional method, serialism, and a perceptual attribute of pieces, namely, atonality. Confusion on this score has led to the mistaken impression that an overwhelming proportion of the music of the last half century has been serial. The fact, well known to anyone with a minimal familiarity with the literature of this period, is that comparatively few composers wrote serial music, at least with a degree of strictness that renders the technique analytically apparent. Straus's statistical analyses of the music of 468 composers from this period therefore tell most of us what we already know. These analyses are meant to go further, however. They indicate, according to Straus, that the bulk of the music composed, performed and studied in this period continued to be not only non-serial but tonal, and that this generalization cuts across all sectors of what he calls "the musical marketplace.2

If Straus is willing to recognize this point, however, a question intrudes with respect to his own previous work, specifically with the marketing and use of his text An Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. This is a book which the preface suggests is designed to serve, and frequently does serve, as a primary text for a "course in twentieth century techniques and analysis."3 What is significant is the absence of a qualifier: Straus is not suggesting that the book serve for the segment of the class concerned with atonal music, perhaps augmenting other texts dealing with tonal, or quasi-tonal, 20th century techniques. Techniques for atonal and serial analysis are proposed as the exclusive means for coming to terms with the music of this century. If he continues to stand by this orientation, Straus cannot have it both ways: he cannot now claim that serialism is a relatively marginal technique and continue to have it a major focus of a primary text for 20th-century techniques and analysis. Nor can he claim that tonality (or quasi-tonality) in the 20th-century has not been a marginalized topic in the academy while being responsible for a work on 20th-century techniques which fails to mention a single work by Ravel, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ives, Debussy4 or Strauss.  [emphasis added]

While in no way reflecting the actual practice of composers, Straus's text does reflect the priorities of the field of music theory for the past quarter century in viewing the core of the canon of 20th century works as derived from the Second Viennese School. 5 Works from Second Viennese School comprise nearly half of all of the music discussed in An Introduction of Post-Tonal Theory. The choice is significant not just in relation to the question of the inordinate attention given to atonality, which Straus now claims is only one of "a healthy diversity of approaches." It also reflects on the more narrow question of the alleged "myth" of serial dominance in the academy which Straus is now attempting to debunk. ...

There's more but that sampler should give you a basic idea where Halle goes.  

The thing about 12-tone technique or serialism or other forms of integral organicist techniques deriving from gesture is this, I didn't have to study those types of modernist styles to arrive at that.  You can learn a lot about tightly crafted music by studying other composers like, oh, Hindemith, for instance.  Or. J. S. Bach or Haydn, two of my personal lifelong favorites.  

I've read and heard that there was a 12-tone and serialist cabal in "serious" music academic culture in the 20th century.  I am fortunate to have passed that by.  It's certainly not that I have no interest in abstruse or esoteric things in music or art.  I really do enjoy a few pieces by Xenakis, for instance.  But I also love a lot of music by Messiaen and Shostakovich and admire a good chunk of music by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Which ... now that I've just mentioned him, on the basis of Villa-Lobos alone I think guitarist composers should get some kind of consideration.  One of my beefs with Taruskin's Oxford History of Western music was a passing sentence where he said that basically the guitar was not part of the Western literate musical tradition.  But if Berlioz and Heitor Villa-Lobos both played the guitar (Schubert did, too, if I recall, and wrote works for the guitar) wouldn't it seem specious to just hand wave the six-stringed guitar away as if it wasn't part of Western music?  It seems as dubious to ignore the Russian seven-stringed guitar given that Taruskin has been known to specialize in Russian musical topics.  So, I admit, this is something that I find baffling about his work as I've been reading it over the last ten to twelve years.  But ... so it goes.