Saturday, December 07, 2019

a 2019 retrospective on blogging, fewer posts with more esoteric content, and some highlights from the post-MH orbit

This year kicked off with an anti-defamation suit being dropped, HBC and James MacDonald dropped their anti-defamation suit around the start of 2019.  

In the more local post-Mars Hill orbit, former Mars Hill Portland shut down and Tim Smith shifted over to Door of Hope.

I've enjoyed visited Ethan Hein's blog since I discovered his work through ... rants about him at SlippedDisc.  I wrote "Ethan Hein on receptivity to Ellington and jazz, a reminder that the debate about jazz continued what happened in late 19th century debates about ragtime" early in the year and it's ... music wonky, but some of what he's been writing has helped me think more about my concern that a lot of battles about music, music history and musicology seem to cluster around different practices of musical literacy.  Ethan's blogging also inspired me to write about Monk, because he wrote about Monk, who fortunately turned out to be a composer and musician we both revere.  :)

"Ethan Hein on Monk being remixed and covered ... some thoughts about that as a classical guitarist who revere's Monk as a composer"

For Valentine's Day I had a ramble called "a Valentine's day musing on real divorce in the wake of Real Marriage, "we" weren't better than "them" after all, like I figured was the case back around 2002, and the gimmick of marriage books is still part of the star-making machinery of Christian pop publishing for red and blue state audiences"

Somebody ... wrote a review of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution that was published at Mere Orthodoxy at the start of 2019.  Said somebody also reviewed Roger Scruton's Music as an Art, too.

Also in February ... somebody wrote a series called "Optimus Prime and the Religion of Toys"
part 1
part 2
part 3

From March, "Peter Kwasniewski the monotony of pop music emotion vs pure/profound art music emotion and a counterpoint by way of Paul Hindemith's comments on mediating convention and emotional content"  That's another entry in what I'd call interacting with or disagreeing with ideas presented by contributors to The Imaginative Conservative.

April was a bit more of a month for musical analysis, specifically Matiegka pieces that are in sonata form
Op. 20, No. 21
Op. 20, No. 24

There are plans to get to other Matiegka sonatas somewhere in the future but 2019 those two sufficed because ... 

In June, from the summer edition of National Affairs, Philip Jeffery had a fun read on American arts policy before, during, and after the Cold War with a comparison and contrast between the literary ideals of T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams as to what American letters and arts ought to look like.  The end of the Cold War precipitated a crisis in arts funding, arts patronage and philosophy in the United States at the level of national policy because, short version, the US had been so committed to defining, backing and mediating arts policy in international Cold War terms during the Cold War the end of that era brought with it crises of purpose that became what we have since been calling "culture wars".  I wrote a few thousand words on that back in June this year.

There was also an interesting Twitter exchange between Warren Throckmorton and Justin Dean that sparked some new analysis on the governance of the former Mars Hill.  Dean related via Twitter that the MHC board had proposed that there would be a deal in which Mark Driscoll could keep preaching and teaching at Mars Hill but would have to step away from any managerial role in Mars Hill as a corporate entity.  That, for those who didn't read the post, gets discussed at considerable length over here:

July brought a guest piece by Brad East at Mere Orthodoxy writing against Christians consuming pop culture ... and it got me thinking that Christians inveighing against pop culture via Twitter was weird.  What I have been observing since I did my years' long Adorno binge is that conservatives and traditionalists with cases against pop culture in general and any specific pop cultural thing tend to recycle, whether they realize it or not, the arguments and assertions of Theodore Adorno.

But as the Mere Orthodoxy folks swear by the positive influence and writings of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer it's been on my mind in the last few years how very badly Schaeffer dropped the ball in his sweeping narrative of Western arts by never engaging with the work of Richard Wagner at the level of music or philosophySchaeffer also badly dropped the ball in dealing with the life and work of John Cage who, to be clear, has never been one of my favorites but I think it's important to address Cage's legacy in terms of reactions to what many Americans have come to believe has been the hugely stifling legacy of German idealism and German arts in academic contexts.

Ben Johnston, the American composer who worked in extended just intonation and whose music I've blogged a little bit, died this year.  I learned of his work reading Kyle Gann's blog at ArtsJournal and have been very grateful to have discovered Johnston's string quartets.  For musical topics Johnston's passing was the big news for July, at least for me.  

In July Mark Driscoll got back in the social media news cycle a bit by declaring he thought the TULIP was garbage.  Thus, "Mark Driscoll repudiates Calvinism and calls Young Restless Reformed little boys with father wounds and join networks where they're all brothers with no fathers, revisiting Driscoll saying why he started Mars Hill" That Driscoll has defined his brand and person in connection to what he is now calling "father wound" is something we've looked at over the course of a decade and it's interesting, if frustrating, to see that as he has ditched his old scene and worked on cultivating a new audience he keeps recycling the core ideas but shuffling off elements like Calvinism that, though he was defined in the press as being some kind of neo-Calvinist, was not how he started off.  That's been one of the challenges of chronicling the life and times of Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll, that journalistic inattention and propensity to recycle memes has meant that Driscoll's ambivalent-to-rejection stance on the limited atonement part of the TULIP meant that Driscoll was presented as more Reformed than he actually was, although he clearly had no real problems accepting funding and supported from Reformed and neo-Calvinist groups when it suited him.  

Driscoll was big on courtship from about 2002-2007 and his take was in many important ways a new post Joshua Harris take on courtship with steroids, so it was noteworthy that Joshua Harris announced he no longer considered himself a Christian and also distanced himself from his notorious book ... even though his ability to sell millions of books is part of how he's since been branding himself.

I've been blogging on the writings of Theodore Adorno and Jacques Ellul a bit this year.  The Marxist and the Christian anarchist differed on a few things, to be sure, but they both had interesting arguments against what might be thought of as anti-humanistic technocratic/authoritarian tendencies in the arts in "administrative society" or technocracies.  One of the points at which I regard conservatives and traditionalists in the arts as arguing in egregiously bad faith against Adorno's work overall is when they pin the blame on Adorno for the emergence of total serialism in post-tonal music.  Adorno wrote more scathing and damning remarks on integral serialism and aleatory in the 1950s than anything Roger Scruton or John Borstlap has managed to write in the last fifty years since Adorno's death.

So, I wrote a piece:  Between forms of non-choice: Adorno’s criticism of serialism and aleatory as techniques that obliterated the decision-making subject, Leonard Meyer’s observation on the abjection of choice in modernist musical history, and some brief thoughts on jazz.  The title tells you what you want to know if you're already at the TL:DR point just looking at the title.  Adorno lambasted aleatory a la John Cage and also lambasted serialism of the Boulez variety and ripped into Stockhausen, too.  But ... Adorno could not bring himself to regard jazz as a serious art form though in his later writings he could express respect for the musicianship of the better jazz musicians.  Adorno's relationship to jazz has been fraught at best and third wave critical theory scholarship is in the process of attempting to somehow rehabilitate Adorno's criticism of jazz in connection to, or what he saw as its disconnection from, anything "genuinely" black from Adorno being seen as a racist elitist twerp.  Whether or not that successfully happens remains to be seen.  I've got Eric Oberle's monograph on Adorno and negative identity I plan to get to in 2020.  I don't want to just dismiss Adorno as an elitist racist chauvinist with some anti-Slav prejudices ... although that's been tempting!  The thing is, since the Scruton/Borstlap wing of writers at the Future Symphony Institute have done and said nothing more than rehash Adorno's brief against serialism and aleatory without Adorno's erudition or scathing tone the task of demonstrating that Adorno was wrong will take some time--Adorno was wrong in passing judgment on the "what" of jazz but the "why" of his condemnation of popular song as prefab music that feels for the listener can and should be addressed.  His esoteric rants on the fracturing of modes of music cognition deserves to be taken seriously but that's something I'm saving for another occasion.

Something else Adorno was clear about was that twelve-tone technique was something he thought could liberate music provided music did not become it's slave.  Thus "Adorno in Philosophy of New Music, "... music must emancipate itself as well from twelve-tone technique." comparing that to Ellul's observations on art in technocratic societies"

Building a bit more on what I was writing about in "the post-Weinstein #MeToo era as a Donatist controversy for Western art religion"  I spent some time mulling over the ways journalists and to a different extent scholars mull over collective guilt in connection to artists.

The short version is that journalists who have spent careers writing about stars have done some soul-searching about what abuses and exploitation stars and star systems perpetrate and perpetuate on people in ways that implicate everyone.  Now having played a role in chronicling the life and times of the former Mars Hill Church scene there is a lot to be said about how the people in the pews have decision-making power through their checkbooks and their attendance.  I didn't really do anything more than document things as they happened and thousands of other people made decisions to leave Mars Hill when it became apparent to them that Mars Hill Church was not interested in really reforming as much as it seemed to be committed to brand protection where Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill was concerned.  But ... having never wanted to be a minister or a preacher or a deacon there is a disconnect I can feel when pastors and former pastors talk about guilt and abuse.  

People who have sought roles in the machinery of power might be tempted to think that the ideologies within the machinery are the "cause" of abuse.  They can be but only in the sense of being the pretext.  I have begun to wonder from time to time whether journalists and people within the systems of power have an incentive to transfer guilt to a royal "we" that includes anyone who reads their work.  Having never liked R. Kelly I find it hard to feel responsibility for what R Kelly has been said to have done to girls.  I never bought his music and don't like his music.  I agree altogether that there is such a thing as collective guilt but I have been wondering whether or not in music journalism and cinema journalism "everybody knew" can be transferred outward to an even bigger "everyone" as part of the process of coming to terms with a guilt that may be, more strictly speaking, an intra-media empire guilt. Ex soldiers can see entire military systems as guilty of mass murder.  Ex-preachers can see religion as altogether domineering.  People who worked in higher education can have a sense that the business is about making money more than teaching students.  Imputing to an entire culture a totalizing guilt is tempting but I have tried to avoid doing that.  There's some truth to entire systems being guilty but my having read Sherman Alexie books could, at most, make me a small part of the celebrity Alexie used to try to have sex with people he shouldn't have been trying to do that with, to go by reports in the last couple of years.  

As I've looked at how people who used to be at Mars Hill have spread out and gone to different camps I have noticed that some of them were drawn to the late Rachel Held Evans.  Others got interested in Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I have made no secret that I regarded Rachel Held Evans and Mark Driscoll as the kinds of popular level Christian writers we need less of in contemporary pop publishing.  Her death this year was terrible and yet the way journalists wrote about her and the way some Christians blogged about her made it seem as though she was far more important in her death than she may have actually been in her life where social media and mass media are concerned.  

It is difficult to know whether or not even ten years from now her work will be influential or significant.  Like Mark Driscoll she'd mastered the ability to communicate in a vernacular style on issues pertaining to being an American and choosing to identify as Christian.  Thomas Nelson had no difficult selling A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Real Marriage alike.  Over at iMonk she was praised as being one of the uncool but do the uncool really get invited to serve in advisory spots in the Obama administration?  If in the present age there are "court evangelicals" who are associated with Trump (though how Paula White qualifies as evangelical is a bit mysterious to me), Rachel Held Evans could be seen as a court evangelical or court Episcopalian of the Obama administration ... yet holding court seems to be pejorative on a selective basis ... . 

With the mainline Protestant denominations having been in a generations long demographic death spiral, Rachel Held Evans leaving evangelicalism, or at least leaving conservative evangelicalism, to join a more progressive wing and land in the realm of Episcopalianism could be seen as a flipped script for the celebrity conversion, like the football player who points to Jesus on the field or the famous media figure who converts only in the case of RHE it was a woman who was in the evangelical fold where things are red state and she went blue state.  GetReligion has written about how RHE was covered by the press plenty but what stuck with me about that coverage of the coverage is that it highlighted that RHE can be thought of as a kind of Christian media figure "transfer growth".

The mainlines are still in a demographic death spiral which may also be coming for evangelicalism of the more conservative variety because at some point there's no real reason to keep reverse-engineering Jesus to be the blue state or red state American when you can just decide to be one of those two kinds of American.  Some regarded Rachel Held Evans as a prophetic voice just as some regarded Mark Driscoll as a prophetic voice.  The more time goes by the more I have the conviction that these are prophetic voices speaking up for specific ways of being American that are wrapped up in Jesus talk, which is not to say I'm willing to consider either the late RHE or even Mark Driscoll as not being Christians as such.  My skepticism has grown over the star-making systems that annoint these kinds of people stars and how people debate the worthiness or unworthiness of the stars more than they enquire into what people have decided they should be able to do with that celebrity.    This isn't just in churches.  

The Mars Hill spin offs have mostly done well so the idea some might entertain that Mars Hill blew up and all that's gone, well, you're wrong if you think that.  Driscoll has a new book out and has talked about, among other things, the Absalom spiritHe also did some kind of 180 from the high praise he had for Wendy Alsup in 2008, and apparently it wasn't long after Wendy and Andy left MHC in 2008 Driscoll was reported as having decided that they left because Andy couldn't keep his woman in line.  By shifting to a charismatic scene Driscoll might be poised to develop a bigger audience at some point in the next twenty years than he cultivated in the last twenty years--he's even got an oracle from a supporter in the new style who said as much.

However, for the most part the plan is to wait until 2020 to get back to anything to do with Driscoll's legacy in the PNW or correspondences between nu-Driscoll and a re:surgence of ideas from the MHC days.

In the last few years Wenatchee The Hatchet has managed to shift back toward arts and music writing and so ... when the inevitable explosion of conservative reaction to the NYT 1619 project came along I didn't address that so much as express frustration at the entry on music.

I've been reading on music, music history and music journalism more since Mars Hill collapsed and what has struck me is that a lot was going on in terms of debate and movements.  While I was trying to keep up documenting the peak and decline of a megachurch system in the Puget Sound area there were debates between rockists and poptimists and a continuation of debates about whether classical music was dead or jazz was a tool of the establishment in the 21st century and so on.  Reading academics and music journalists debating things made me feel grateful I didn't become an academic, even though I love reading about music and studying it and am interested in theories and idea.

But ... the NYT 1619 project left me frustrated because I came away with a sense that there's a black and white narrative sold in the materials that I am not convinced, on the topic of music and music history, does much more than sell the idea that African American popular music vs white European classical music are somehow opposite poles.  Who in Europe, for instance, really sees things that way (besides John Borstlap, I've already read what he thinks from The Classical Revolution. :)  ).  With half my lineage being Native American and half being white I have been struck by what seems to have been some mythmaking on the part of mid-twentieth century musicologists and scholars.  To put it rather plainly in a specific case, the notion that slide guitar technique descended from African monochord instruments or a diddley bow could be true ... but when scholarship in the last decade combs through interviews with blues musicians who repeatedly say their bottleneck technique is playing "Hawaiian style" then maybe, just maybe, the eagerness to use a master narrative of white vs black has erased Native American and Native Hawaiian contributions to American popular music in the last fifty years, an erasure that scholarship may only be working to correct here in the twenty-first century.  

There's stuff I had hoped to get around to writing about this year that I didn't write about so much.  The Matiegka guitar sonatas, for instance, and the Gilardino guitar sonatas, and the Bogdanovic sonatas and more on Koshkin's preludes and fugues although on that last topic there's an opportunity for renewed activity!  Next week Asya Selyutina's CD of preludes and fugues 1 through 12 is available by Naxos!  Also out next week is Kostas Tosidis' CD of the five guitar sonatas of Atanas Ourkouzounov.  Now that the brand in the Puget Sound area fractured back in 2014 I've finally had time to get back to writing about the kind of music for guitar I said I wanted to write about way, way back in 2006 when I started blogging at Wenatchee The Hatchet.  

"why pop music is so bad these days" takes from The Imaginative Conservative and a Patheos blogger, and rhetorical battles over forms of musical literacy in contemporary music/musicology debates

Although I have tended to think of myself as a moderately conservative sort I sometimes read a site I tend to think of as The Imaginative Reactionary, better known officially as The Imaginative Conservative.  The older I get the more I get a sense that there is a distinction between "conservative" and "reactionary" and the distinction is not subtle in principle even if it can be subtle in practice.

Two primary sources for learning to read music are school programs and at home piano lessons. Public school music programs have been in decline since the 1980’s, often with school administrations blaming budget cuts or needing to spend money on competing extracurricular programs. Prior to the 1980’s, it was common for homes to have a piano with children taking piano lessons. Even home architecture incorporated what was referred to as a “piano window” in the living room which was positioned above an upright piano to help illuminate the music. Stores dedicated to selling pianos are dwindling across the country as fewer people take up the instrument. In 1909, piano sales were at their peak when more than 364,500 were sold, but sales have plunged to between 30,000 and 40,000 annually in the US. Demand for youth sports competes with music studies, but also, fewer parents are requiring youngsters to take lessons as part of their upbringing

There's the point where the author moves along to the decline in the quality of the music, i.e. pop songs are formulaic in bad ways.  Now I have a friend who complained to me, speaking as an audio engineer, about how he's troubled by the pervasive use of dynamic range compression in tandem with "loudness wars" in engineering--his concern is that newer songs are so engineered for the in-car listening experience or riding public transit experience that sound engineering as a practice could lose the dynamic range present in older styles of engineering.  But that's an audio engineer's perspective on why the new songs are too loud and from the perspective of that field of craft.  It's not necessarily the same as "the music is too loud and they all sound the same."  They sure seem to on mainstream radio and that would be because I-V-vi-IV gets really old really fast.  Adele wore it out almost single-handedly for a while and that new idiotic song sung by that Capaldi dude springs to mind.

When Adorno complained about popular song he complained that popular songs were schematic, sequences of largely interchangeable and replaceable blocks of musical trope that created and established a mood that the popular song industry as a whole was invested in sustaining.  Now there are all kinds of ways I think Adorno was wrong and I can get to that some other time, but Adorno's complaint that popular song dumbed down things and did not rise to the level of musical art as he perceived it in the European concert music traditions was a complaint he registered so acutely and forcefully that conservatives have ever since done basically nothing more than parrot Adorno on pop culture while excising Adorno's Marxism from the critique.

But Adorno kept asserting that the nature of the raw materials of American popular song were incapable of rising to the level of art and my rebuttal is to say that the fact that songs are songs and sonatas are sonatas doesn't mean it's not possible to take musical ideas from songs and transform those ideas into the basis for sonatas.  I will grant it requires picking up a moderately advanced level of craft to reach a point where you could make a fugue out of melodies from a Stevie Wonder song but I see no reason it can't be done.

But let me get back to the polemic quoted, and I want to mention, for those who haven't read it all, that there's a lot to be said about restoring educational programs that highlight musical literacy.  There is, however, debate as to what kind of musical literacy students get exposed to.  To put it another way, the kinds of writers who contribute to The Imaginative Conservative will tend to focus on musical literacy of the sort Richard Taruskin has called the Western literate musical tradition, notes on paper.  Other writers and educators are interested in having an approach to musical literacy that includes the fact that since about the 1870s it has been possible to record musical performances and this with increasing ease.  If you have a couple of recorded takes of a performance and one take is perfect in terms of note execution and rhythmic accuracy and expressive playing but is a bit on the quiet side because you didn't nail down the ideal microphone position, while the other takes you have nailed that sweet spot for microphone placement but are full of errors so embarrassing you can't bring yourself to use that take then, well, if you used up the memory on the device along the way what do you do?  That's the kind of thing where knowing that dynamic compression and ramping up the volume on the good take you have is handy.

When I was in an aspiring progressive rock band a lot of conflict that happened between me and the bassist was, in hindsight, partly informed by our different defaults in modes of musical literacy.  I came at things with training as a singer in choral and a handful of solo settings. I also studied classical guitar and had some keyboard lessons to the point that I taught myself to play "Maple Leaf Rag", a Bach invention and a prelude and fugue, and a few of the early entries of Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis.  I was also teaching myself to play Koshkin's Usher Waltz and Takemitsu's All in Twilight.  The bassist came more from a metal and hard rock background and he was into Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple but particularly Rush!  And Yes and ... for those of you who have read my thousands of words praising the musical genius of Stevie Wonder you ... might be able to imagine that this bassist and I locked horns on a lot of stuff.

Over time we began to appreciate each other's contrasting sensibilities and modes of musical literacy.  I began to realize I was not really interested in doing the rock band thing as much as I loved composing for the guitar.  The bassist, as he put it to me years ago, realized that he was a frustrated producer and sound engineer with a perfectionist streak.  When we began to recognize this about ourselves and each other we began to have rewarding collaborative work together ... in time for the drummer and his wife to have too many kids for rehearsals to remain a realistic goal.  So ... there was that.  :)

People who advocate for a return to musical literacy of the notes on the page kind too rarely seem to think about how there's a type of musical literacy that's involved in figuring out that if you have a chunky old tape deck with a little microphone and an acoustic guitar that you can hit the Record button and if you play a guitar part and gently shift down a fraction of the way with the Pause button you can record the audio but dramatically distort the signal you get some fun playback effects.  It's also possible to record something at normal speed and then re-record over that using the method I just described and, if you are a mixture of skilled and lucky, overlay the distorted half-take over the full take audio.  That's if you have just one tape deck and absolutely no tracks.  Don't ask me how I know this stuff because I hope by now you've figured out that I'm sharing stuff I've done.  Way back in the previous century when I was a teenager I was a bit more adept at figuring out how to get mileage out of manipulating the buttons on a tape deck than I was at mastering barre chords.  I most assuredly mastered barre chords later in college but in high school I wasn't there.

Back in the era of figured bass there was, as music historians have put it, what we can think of as the old style and the new style.  There was an ars perfecta that reached a peak in the late Renaissance and there was the new style or second practice that figures like Monteverdi helped develop.  Competent musicians, for a good couple of centuries, were expected to know how to make music using both ways of making music.  You might be recognized as being better at one practice than the other or you might be bad at both but about equally bad.  Some people, like Johann Sebastian Bach, were known to be pretty good at the old and new styles, Renaissance polyphony and figured bass driven dance.

I've floated the idea here in the past that we could be living in a new kind of Baroque era and by that I mean we live in an era in which two significantly different but overlapping ways of making music exist.  If in the Baroque era the differences involved the first and second practice in the last century and a half I would propose that there's a different form of dual literacy going on, the officially literate form of musical literacy with notes on a page and a mechanical/electronic literacy of knowing how to make music using technology.  Finale and Sibelius and notation software programs have been with us for decades.  It played a substantial role in helping me refine my ability to read scores by dint of writing music and testing out how closely what i wrote in my scores matched what I was hearing in my head and playing with my hands.

If there is a core criticism that I think gets leveled at musicians and musicianship in this second, mechanical/electronic form of musical literacy that goes beyond a simple canard of "they're musically illiterate because they can't read scores", the most significant criticism I've seen that I think can be taken seriously is this--technology simultaneously liberates and constrains us as we use it.  There have been complaints for generations about guitarists who play music with their fingers far more than with their minds.  Something comparable can happen with studio musicians, so to speak, whose approach to music can be inventive in the manipulation of timbre but, at times, limited by recourse to working within that domain of that technology.  The crudest way to put it would be to say that cliche can emerge by way of sampling the same stuff everyone else does or laying down the same old I-V-vi-IV power ballad shlock progressions to write the latest tear-jerker soul ballad.

From the other side, if we can set aside the anxiety of influence and legacy and grant that there's got to be more to "classical music" than assuming all the best music was written by dead white guys in the 18th century, there are cliches and tropes to be found in that tradition, too.  That the shortcuts and lazy reliance on formulas can happen in any style of music shouldn't have to be underlined too much but it is worth making explicit.

If these two forms of musical literacy get too insular, and the older I get the more I am inclined to entertain the idea that in the music industry these two forms of musical literacy have gotten perilously insular (and display that insularity in different ways), then we get stuck with ruts that don't seem like ruts to people whose listening habits and forms of musical literacy are combined to just one practice or the other.  The people who are content to basically rewrite rewrites of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. songs aren't wrong to admire Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr, or Willie Nelson or Parton or John Prine or ... okay ... I admit to hating most country I've heard since basically the fall of the Berlin Wall excepting Cash, but I'm refusing to write off country as a genre and style because I got sick of hearing Toby Keith and Billy Ray Cyrus!  My brother tells me Hank Williams III has done some fun stuff ... but I digress ... .

What I'm finding as I get older and keep reading about music, reading music, writing about music, and writing music is that the musicians I admire across styles and genres, picked up more than one type of musical literacy along the course of their musical lives.  Haydn picked up learned contrapuntal techniques but he also played in street bands.  Shostakovich got involved in film music as well as symphonic music.  I don't subscribe to any form of the idea that to be musically literate is to be so on the basis of just one paradigm of musical literacy, whether it's the notes on the page kind or the playing with signals and audio tracks on the other.  Both forms of musical literacy have their value and both forms of musical literacy come up, at length, if you spend your life writing and playing music and performing.

But at a platform/online magazine like The Imaginative Conservative writers tend to lean toward favoring the notes on the page form of musical literacy as being the working definition of musical literacy.

Thematically this seems of a piece with something I've seen over at a Patheos blog on CCM (contemporary Christian music). Variations on Thomas Day's Why Catholics Can't Sing most assuredly come with Protestant variations.  If in the previous century a polemic regarding the injection of the Irish "sweet song" tradition into liturgy brought with it a bunch of songs that are functionally antithetical to congregational participation and sweet, sweet music for a showboating soloist or liturgist, newer variations on the vernacular as the enemy of the holy and the good continue ... and it's not that I can't appreciate the various problems with CCM ... but ...

isn't it possible that there's a spectacular survivorship bias that's cooked into liturgy and the arts?

If this could be said to be true of classical music in general how much could it potentially be true about liturgical traditions?  We're talking about bodies of music often derived from or settings of texts that have literally been canonized.  There's not just no "no pressure" for that set of legacies, there's all the pressure in the world.  It's not without cause Mass in B minor by Bach is considered a touchstone in choral writing in Western civilization.

But the Ponder Anew approach doesn't quite convince me and it's not because I think lyrics these days are all that great and it's not because I think the new music is necessarily "better" than older songs, it's because of the aforementioned survivorship bias.  We have, so to speak, had centuries to glean the cutrate and hackwork materials out of the traditions by now.  I am nonetheless skeptical about the prospect that popular song gospel music of the last century somehow doesn't stand the test of time.  Worship music isn't necessarily always designed to be that way.  Bach specialists have pointed out how readily and consistently Bach repurposed and recycled material.  You could say he was sampling from himself in Mass in B minor and his Christmas Oratorio.  He was also availing himself of hymns, of course.  Now will the songs of Thomas Dorsey be at the same level as J. S. Bach?  Well ... maybe not ... but "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" should be considered pretty firmly ensconced in Baptist hymnody by now!  It's a beautifully written hymn and the fact that Dorsey used a well-known tune that had another text doesn't mean Dorsey's song is less of a good song for it.

I'll see if I can try to unpack the potential significance of this issue in another way.  There are advocates for Western musical art who have argued that the best of it represents universal human values and ideals of beauty.  That is the part that has been contested in the last few decades by writers and musicians and composers who are skeptical about a "pale, male and stale" approach to the arts.  It does not mean what I think traditionalists and conservatives seem to think it means.  That a Beethoven symphony is no longer a cultural default for people doesn't mean Beethoven's Fifth has stopped being a compelling symphonic work.  What it means is that a work that was premiered a bit more than two centuries ago may not connect to contemporary listeners who aren't educated in the norms and ideals and people involved in making Beethoven's Fifth what it was.  This isn't an argument for cultural relativism as an ideological stance--as Paul Hindemith put it, there is no timeless musical work or musical style and every work of music and every style of music has a shelf life.  There was a point in the tenth and eleventh centuries  when post-Carolingian plainchant was the catholic (universal) musical art and how many people know how to sing and understand plainchant these days?

All of that in mind there are musical works whose appeal and capacity to communicate have survived across changing aesthetic fashions but this is not a sign that these works are "timeless".  We can still read and enjoy Jane Austen novels (I do, anyway) because despite her works dating back two centuries they correspond to aspects of contemporary life in ways that make her works enjoyable and relevant.  The gap between an individual's inner emotional and intellectual life and the social roles they find obliged to take up in public and family life was an issue Austen played with in her novels and those are issues that remain relevant to contemporary life in 2019.  That the world still has personable and well-spoken men who on further examination turn out to be louts and fools and liars won't change but there will probably come a decade when a man like Wickham could be seen as a noble and spurned figure if the ethics and social values of a culture shifts.

Beethoven's Fifth isn't timeless because no music is actually timeless.  It has had a longer shelf life in cultural terms than the music of R. Kelly has and to be honest I think it should continue to have a longer shelf life than R. Kelly songs.  But I don't have any problem saying I think that fifty years from now voice students should be singing Stevie Wonder and Gershwin songs.  Thomas Dorsey's gospel songs should still be around, if not sung as often, perhaps, in some contexts.  Hymns by Watts and Wesley and Luther will likely still be around but if we dig into the transformations Luther's music was subjected to across the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries that could be instructive in the ways in which the music that has lasted has lasted both because it has retained its power to communicate but has also been changed in significant ways.  Luther's original was not the post-isometric Baroque-era regularization of rhythm and meter we have probably heard in contemporary versions of Luther's hymn such as the one by W. B. Olds.

Lutheran hymnody has survived not because it's a body of musical work that is "timeless" but because it's a musical body of work that was able to survive revolutions in the shift from mean-tone to equal-tempered tuning systems; survive the transition from modal to major/minor key systems and associated functional harmony; and also survive the shift from the regularization of meter into duple and triple meter that came about in the era of figured bass (i.e. what we'd also call the Baroque era) with its connection to dance forms.

Now if people who want to argue that contemporary popular songs and CCM more particularly are bad music because they are so of their time they lack the musical or textual substance to survive another seismic shift in musical thinking, okay, I'm willing to be open to that.  Commercial music has been with us for a century and it's not clear that the kind of music that you listen to as a kind of soundtrack to your life is going to be entirely conducive to congregational singing.  We may not be singing any Amy Grant songs at church as it is ... but we may find in twenty years that there will be people in music classes who have not heard of the Beatles, something Kyle Gann has attested has already happened in at least one of his music classes.

Too often, however, what I've seen from the pro-classical side has been an assertion that popular song won't last because it's not amenable to large-scale procedural development in sonata or fugue.  Merely because people have not made fugues from the hooks in Stevie Wonder songs because copyright is an issue doesn't mean it couldn't be done.  I don't see any reason that a musician couldn't make a sonata form from Thelonious Monk themes.  You could take "Pannonica" and "Round Midnight" and make that into a sonata, for instance.  To argue that that's not possible is to ignore the old lore associated with Beethoven's Diabelli variations where he was claimed to have said that with enough craft you could take something by Diabelli, for instance, and compose a substantial work.  Well, okay then, if Beethoven's claim (myth-laden and myth-generated though it partly is) is true, then a composer with enough craft could take popular songs and spin them out into something approaching the Diabelli variations.  It can be at such a moment that the traditionalist or conservative can reveal the bad faith of their arguments on behalf of craft if they resort to talking about the innate or inherent limitations of musical materials.

Lutheran hymnody has survived being adapted through and into a variety of stylistic changes.  That's not a sign of "timeless" musical value or "universal" musical values, which, of course, is not what the writer at Ponder Anew is even trying to argue for.  Not being a Baptist I can't exactly relate to concerns about battles within the Baptist scene but i'll try to appreciate that  there are some specifically denominational contexts for what Jonathan Aigner is writing against. Aigner's concerns even seem like they overlap with things written by Ian Pace on the classical side of things about his worries that there has been a "deskilling" trend in even academic music history and musicology.

That deskilling is happening might be another topic, however, in which we might want to consider what is being deskilled.  Pace is referring to score reading and notes-on-the-page musical literacy, from what I've read of his work in the last few years, whereas there's a whole range of musicology that is more steeped in electronic/mechanical musical literacy, studio tools, audio technology, familiarity with music as mediated by the recording industry and recording technology.  This practice is not necessarily musically illiterate in the notes-on-the-page literacy across the board, though people in the practice often can be, perhaps in much the same way that those who are fluent in notes-on-the-page literacy might not be able to record themselves and manipulate audio samples effectively.

One of the things I've been thinking about since reading Wesley Morris' piece at the NYT for the 1619 project is that there's a thread in the points and counterpoints about white and black music, or discussions of Eurological and Afrological conceptions of musical tradition and debates in the current West about modes of musical literacy, a contrast between European musical literacy of the notes on the pages traditions and African American popular song as bequeathed to us through the mechanical recording industry sets up a dichotomy that I reject, which is why I found it disappointing Morris seemed to so readily run with that kind of dichotomy.

It's not just that the claim that everybody seems to be stealing black music because it's the music of freedom traffics in the kind of mythology about America and freedom that Native Americans, for instance, might not agree with; it's not just that such a mythology in which white music on paper vs black music on the street can manage to misrepresent the complex histories of dozens of musical traditions by reducing them to a binary of white and black that erases nuances within both (i.e. there are black people in Asia who make music that won't sound the least bit African and there's a difference between Polish and French musical traditions); it's also that such begging the question of what white and black music is in an American context skates past the reality that the most beloved musicians and composers of the last century displayed aptitude in both the electronic/mechanical and the notes-on-the-page forms of musical literacy.  Ellington didn't get a graduate degree level education in music theory but he was literate enough to write out charts for his band and record his music.  Rachmaninoff had a formidable recording career besides writing and performing his own music.  Stravinsky performed and conducted his own music, as did Paul Hindemith.  Messiaen recorded his own music for organ.

For better and worse we live in a musical world in which you could have immense musical literacy in the notes-on-the-page traditions but if you can't convince people to play that music and also record it you can have a solar system of musical material that remains marginal because it's not hitting the concert scene and also has a spotty representation in commercially recorded music.  Now maybe Sorabji's music "should" remain marginal or niche but even though I haven't heard his music I've read enough about it to get a sense that his work is demanding enough that only true believers tend to know who he was or to try playing his music.  There are shortcuts and ruts of the mind that exist in the notes-on-the-page practice of music and the hit-the-record-button practice of music.  What I find disappointing to see, year after year, in Anglo-American music journalism and writing is a propensity of advocates for one or the other to abject the value of the other practice of musical literacy along the way to making a case for the practice of musical literacy they value.  We should value both practices of musical literacy.  We're long past the century in which the only way to hear new music was to go find where it was being played.

a handful of links, Nieman Lab pieces on how a decline in local journalistic coverage harms civic life, and Nathan Robinson interviews Adolph Reed at Current Affairs

Local newspapers are suffering, but they’re still (by far) the most significant journalism producers in their communities

In sum, while legacy newspapers have declined, they certainly have yet to be displaced as vital producers of local journalism. And the long hoped for emergence of online-only outlets as comparable providers of local journalism still appears to be a long way off. As policymakers and philanthropic organizations concerned about local journalism consider their next steps, and where to invest their efforts and resources, it may be worth keeping these numbers in mind.

Damaged newspapers, damaged civic life: How the gutting of local newsrooms has led to a less-informed public

An interview between Nathan Robinson and Adolph Reed, in which Reed spells out why he regards reparations as a dubious and unattainable goal in terms of politics (as distinct from politics of symbolism):



It strikes me, though, that a lot of the things that we demand on the left are radical and require shifting public consciousness. Often, at the beginning, they are things that we can’t imagine, or it’s very difficult to imagine having. The fact that the majority may be against you means that you have to work very, very hard, and it’s a very slow process. But if that’s what would constitute justice, it’s sort of necessary, because there’s lots of things that majorities oppose, but we believe in protecting minorities. How do you think about things that are of practical utopianism, versus things that are utopian utopianism?


Yeah, I hear you, and in fact, Keeanga brought up the case of abolitionism. And that’s a nice case, because it shows the problem with the argument. Abolitionism didn’t get anywhere, really, except to piss off slaveholders, until political circumstances shifted to advance the position of political anti-slavery activists, and anti-slavery Northerners were opposed to slavery for a lot of reasons, some of which, of course, overlapped with the abolitionists’ moral concern, but for other reasons that they could see their own interest in: both a commitment to an ideal of free labor, sometimes racist and sometimes not, and anxiety about being degraded by an immigrant labor force. A lot of other things have been like that, too. For reparations in particular, what we would have to do is convince people whose main experience, or one principal experience, is a declining standard of living and increase in economic insecurity, to go to the wall, fighting for an agenda that they, by definition, wouldn’t get anything from. I just don’t see how that’s possible. 
Reparations may be a compelling idea to some writers who have contributed to the Atlantic but Ibram Kendi's approach to reparations was, unfortunately, something that culminated in presenting support or non-support for reparations as a shibboleth that defines a person as racist or anti-racist. Reparations comes across as though it has become a blue state dog whistle positioned against the red state dog whistle of "law and order" politics. Reed has pointed out in a couple of interviews that the Nixon administration set up the EPA and OSHA in response to organized political activism--this was not a sign that Nixon was a great guy or not a racist, Reed has proposed that what we can learn from this is that there is a difference between effective political action and grassroots activism on the one hand and the symbolism of "spark" that amounts to a kind of political theater of "moment" that ... Jesse Jackson may be emblematic of, as Reed has been putting it for decades.  

Friday, December 06, 2019

hmm ... "Europe risks losing strategic clout in Western Balkans"

I don't broach the topic of foreign policy a ton but sometimes as I browse ... stuff sticks with me.
I've written a bit here and there at this blog about my hunch that Atlanticism has been breaking down.  The post-World War II pax Americana doesn't seem to be holding together and the older I get the more skeptical I am about the "pax" part.  While back in the previous century I thought the United States won the Cold War in this century I have leaned more toward ... maybe not a Zinn/Chomsky reading of American history, more like a reading that there were no "good guys" in the Cold War. 

Some of my friends and family are enough history buffs I've heard my brother quip that for all the stuff we heard about Germany being the bad guys in World War I what were they aiming for?  Well ... to put it in what might be a bleakly Native American strain of humor, Germany counted as the "bad guy" because its idea of colonial expansion was attacking nations of other white people when they could have gone out and subjugated people of color away from the European mainland like the "good guys" did, aka England and France. 

But there's something else that's stuck with me, having as I did some friends in my college years from Croatia and having a fondness for music from central and eastern European composers and associated traditions--but perhaps I'll just indirectly say it via quotation:

Stability, democracy and prosperity in Southeast Europe are directly linked to the consolidation of the European project and the completion of the reunification of our continent with the accession of Western Balkan countries, a process that started 30 years ago.
The obstinate opposition to opening EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, despite the recommendation of the European Commission and the will of the vast majority of the member states and European Parliament, has put in jeopardy the EU’s remaining influence on its own doorstep and its ability to shape strategic developments and stability in Southeast Europe.
This is a strategic mistake that helps consolidating the status quo in Western Balkans and EU inertia in an increasingly messy geopolitical map. The European Union’s duty is to contribute to the stability and security of South East Europe. Therefore it should consider Western Balkans accession to EU as a responsible policy rather than a burden.
"increasingly messy"!?  This must be some kind of relative measure because ... when are we supposed to believe the Balkans was geopolitically "clean"?  Being an American I admit my reading in history is not very deep on the Balkans even though I've admired music from people from those regions.  But I can't remember when in the last century, even factoring in for totalitarian regimes, when the region didn't seem messy.  Milosevic?  Ceausescu?  

Now I'm reminded of a grim joke my brother once shared that he saw somewhere.  The joke is set up by way of a question:  
Question: What roles did Bosnia and Serbia play in World War I?  
Answer:  Apart from starting it, basically nothing.
Conflict in the Balkans blew up to the point where the First World War happened and lest Americans get too insular and think that things can blow up in the world only if the POTUS is the wrong person and pushes the wrong button.  A friend was asking what the next war could be about and where it could be and my brother and I joked, admittedly macabre humor, that if the Balkans catalyzed a catastrophic conflict in Europe a century ago there's no reason to assume it can't happen again.  That doesn't mean the players and their respective goals are necessarily going to be the same but if history doesn't repeat itself it can often rhyme.

If the POTUS and successors shift away from NATO and shift away from an Atlanticist paradigm in which "democracy" is really a sloppy or dissembling shorthand for an EU-focused Amero-European consortium of powers, then "Europe" will have to take more direct initiative to get what it wants.   Part of why I have remained skeptical about American progressives who look to the western European powers as guides for social policy is it's hard to forget that we have a vast global military presence and a nuclear arsenal.  Should the western European powers have to pay entirely for their own national defense or sense of European order would they remain the ostensibly enlightened and humane set of powers they seem to see themselves as being or would we all discover old habits die hard?  Some of my friends over the years from Africa have hinted that the ways in which European power-brokers wield power in Africa looks different, it's less direct and less explicitly military, but it's still around.