Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor

Here, at last, we're on the Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor.  This is a work where Koshkin's wearing the influence of Shostakovich on his sleeve, and since I'm a Shostakovich fan I'm fond of this one!   I'll describe which Shostakovich (and Mahler) works I think can be helpful to understanding what Koshkin does in this prelude and fugue after the break.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in B major

In the home stretch for the first half of Nikita Koshkin's preludes and fugues as recorded by Asya Selyutina on Naxos.   More discussion of this prelude and fugue after the break.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor

This has become one of my favorite preludes and fugues in the entire cycle because of the passacaglia. The fugue is also pretty cool but the passacaglia is one of Koshkin's most compelling creations in his long career.  I admit to the bias of having admired Koshkin's music for twenty years so without further ado, the discussion starts after the break.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in E major

Prelude (2:08)

Despite the "Allegretto" indication and the quarter note equals 144 beats per minute in the score, this prelude feels as though its harmonic rhythm is anchored to the half note and could have been scored at 72bpm in 2/4.  Music analysis in general and formal analysis in particular can become a realm of debate quickly and I know that other guitarists and music analysts could dispute this overarching point I'm about to make.  Nevertheless, I suggest we think of this prelude as a gentle and pastoral sonata, of the "Type 1” variety classified by Hepokoski and Darcy.  I realize that that is potentially a hard sell but I'm going to explain what I'm doing with the "elements" in Elements of Sonata Theory that I am using to make this argument.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor

One of my personal favorites, the rambunctious Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor. In the interest of economizing all the links into one blog page I'm saving discussion of the works for after you get past the page breaks.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in A major

This is another case where the earlier film was so nicely done I didn't see a need to use the Naxos release as the reference.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in B minor

This is another prelude and fugue from the cycle for which we have a video performance.  In this case the prelude is melodically simple but harmonically complex.  It makes sense to provide a schematic analysis that doesn't attempt to get too involved in the harmonic activity of this prelude, even though a theoretical analysis could be a lot of fun to do.  This is a series of blog posts, after all, and for blog posts it should suffice to give guitarists and theorists a foundation for more detailed score analysis at their leisure.  

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in D major

I blogged about this prelude and fugue earlier using a live performance and am using the Naxos recording as a reference.  Discussion after the break.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in E minor

E major and E minor are arguably the most guitaristic keys in which a guitarist or non-guitarist can possibly compose.  It's a key that is both forgiving and unforgiving.  It's forgiving in the sense that there are a lot of things you can write and play that are idiomatic and rest easily on the instrument but it's an unforgiving key in the sense that whatever you bring to this key stands up against the entire history of the instrument in a way that a prelude and fugue in F sharp major never has to because very, very few guitarists are writing preludes and fugues in F sharp major.

I think Koshkin acquits himself well with this prelude and fugue and it's suitably emblematic to his approach to composing generally and for this cycle. Despite the key signature being E minor this is a prelude and fugue in drop D tuning. 

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in G major

When I first blogged about this prelude and fugue I had to do it with guitar in hand and score in front of me.  Several things jump out more vividly when I have had the luxury (and pleasure) of listening to Asya Selyutina's performance on the new Naxos release.

Discussion after the break.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in A minor

In cases where a film of the performed piece has already been up and doesn't seem surpassed by the recent Naxos recording I've stuck with using the older films as reference.

The prelude and fugue gets discussed after the break.

Nikita Koshkin's 24 Preludes and Fugues: Prelude and Fugue in C major

I've decided that although I've posted on many of the preludes and fugues in Koshkin's cycle before I'm reposting on the preludes and fugues I've written about and, where applicable, have written new thoughts and observations as my perspective changed.

Discussion of the prelude and fugue shows up after the break.

some links for the weekend

At GetReligion Terry Mattingly comments on a David French piece about Paula White's sermon and reference to "satanic pregnancies".  The summary is that French went to the trouble of understanding what White actually said in the context of the Pentecostal tradition she's part of rather than react in a clickbait Twitter-moment approach.  As an ex-Pentecostal who has nevertheless not rejected everything from that tradition, I have had some misgivings about mainstream journalism and editorials about "evangelicals" who have supported Trump.  Thirty years ago many an "evangelical" did not regard Pentecostals or charismatics as evangelical at all.  Cessationist and continuationist camps persist and if journalists are not religiously literate enough to understand the categories they can rely on shorthands and stereotypes. That's not to endorse Paula White at all. Far from it. 

But since Mark Burford's monograph on Mahalia Jackson came out I've read it and related works and it's been fascinating to read how, per Anthony Heilbut, so much of American popular music is culturally indebted to black Pentecostalism.  Heilbut has made a point in The Fan Who Knew Too Much that black churches in the United States have become more rather than less against gays. Figures like T. D. Jakes have been pioneers in this direction so while in mainstream journalistic coverage white evangelicals will potentially (or actually) be presented as homophobic Heilbut has said that black churches are far more so.  If it seems abstract it is a point GetReligion has touched upon when considering how Mayor Pete has pretty thoroughly failed to win over the black voting block.

In the last thirty years Pentecostalism has become a more prominent global presence and yet to go by the religious literacy of a lot of religion coverage and social media reaction to statements made from Pentecostal figures there's not much more literacy on the movement in the mainstream than there was decades ago.

Incubating some more detailed posts on music.  We've been overdue to get back to blogging through Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues and having had some time to listen to the recent Naxos recording and go through the scores there's some slight revisions to earlier observations I've been wanting to make on some of the earlier posts and I'm in the home stretch for the last few entries in the first half of the cycle.  When I finally have things together for the blog posts the plan is to drop all twelve analytical/descriptive posts on the first twelve preludes and fugues from the cycle all in a go for easier reading for anyone who wasn't already following that blog project here.Thanks to Youtube there are now videos active for every single track which makes the prospect of blogging through the cycle far easier than when I was blogging through the works with guitar and score in hand and no way to convey to you, dear reader, what was going on if you didn't have guitar and score in hand, too.

So things are a bit fallow at the blog but that's the reason. 

a belated note that George Steiner has died, revisiting In Bluebird's Castle and literacies that are not of the letter

The obits have come already but earlier this week George Steiner died.  I only actually heard of Steiner that I can recall because John Borstlap mentioned one of Steiner's work and disagreement with it in a "further reading" section in the second edition of The Classical Revolution.  I ended up reading In Bluebird's Castle and basically thought the point was a fair one to raise.  That the West has moved beyond a literate literacy, the literacy of letters, to a newer kind of musical literacy was probably a point that could be overlooked compared to Steiner's thesis that the Holocaust was the result of a centuries long contest between the monotheistic and polytheistic, the Abrahamic and pagan aspects of European history doesn't seem that absurd to me.  Eric Kurlander's book Hitler's Monsters on how National Socialism drew on various kinds of Odinist and border science ideas in the process of consolidating ideas seems to back up the basic idea.  I recall Borstlap regarded the imputed guilt of the West for the Holocaust as an absurd overstatement.  Richard Taruskin has regarded Steiner's book as absurdly downbeat ... but the  thing is ...

I wanted to go to seminary at one point in my life.  I never wanted to be a pastor or felt "called" to be a pastor so I couldn't justify the expenditure.  I also didn't want to tether myself to a denominational tie that was generally looking to be the prerequisite for funding, even though I've ended up being basically Reformed.  But in the 1990s, for those who remember, there was the Jesus Seminar.  There have been semi-comparable moves in academia with regard to the Tanakh and in the last thirty years there's a "minimalist" position and there are scholars who have proposed that more or less the whole of the Jewish scriptures were compiled or even created during the Persian exilic period.  My point here is not so much to dive into that debate in academic terms but to describe a misgiving I have had as a layperson over the last fifteen years as I've read scholarship that has entertained or assumed the core idea of what's colloquially definable as "minimalism"--the entire Jewish body of scripture was a late Persian-exilic era fabrication drawing upon surrounding regional myths.

That won't seem anti-semitic to the scholars who may never stop to consider what anti-semites can do with their theories but anti-semitism has never been strictly the realm of the "right".  There has been plenty of left anti-semitism in the last few centuries and by this I don't mean to say nobody can take a critical stance with regard to the policies of the contemporary Israeli government--it's easier to find the sentiment online that the legacy of the Abrahamic religions is bad or that the legacy of religion in general is only bad.  That's no different than the stance of a megachurch preacher who would claim that you and I are eating chicken tonight and not human because Christianity happened.  I haven't seen any compelling reason to think cannibalism has been so common as to have been ended by one of the later developments of religious thought in the history of Abrahamic religions (i.e. Christianity).  Judaism had plenty of condemnations of human sacrifice and if the kosher laws didn't explicitly condemn cannibalism oracles of judgment warning that the judged would resort to cannibalism hardly comes across as endorsement.

The crisis of the Holocaust, besides being mass murder, was that it was established by Germany, the cultural legacy that had been considered an apex of Western literary and musical and cultural achievement.

“We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning,” he wrote in Language and Silence. “To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanising force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?”

Taruskin had a memorably macabre observation that in the history of Europe the one thing the left and the right managed to agree on was that the way to solve European social ills in the 20th century was to kill more Jews, whether the Nazis or the fascists or the communists.  To no true Scotsman the Soviet system from being a reflection of the possibilities in Marxist thought is to perform the same ideological act of exoneration for Puritans or Anglicans or Catholics or insert-religious-belief-here.  It's a form of American exceptionalism to imagine that the United States couldn't and wouldn't replicate tendencies in Europe.  For that matter, the history of Africa and Asia should give us pause as to whether there's any "exception" that exceptionalism could exempt on massacre.  As badly as Native Americans were treated by the United States that doesn't mean we shouldn't know about the brutality of their slavery systems or lack gratitude that those systems were discarded. 

A way to translate Steiner's point in explicitly religious terms is to suggest that the crisis of the Holocaust was that, beyond the massacre of Jews as symptomatic of a specific form of loathing and scapegoating that the West was still capable of which has corresponding atrocities elsewhere in the world, the Holocaust constituted a repudiation of the plausibility of collective and individual art consumption as having sacramental power. 

If Steiner can come in for criticism in the week of his death the problem with the Holocaust as focal point is not that it's unusual but because it is emblematic of what has historically been such a normal aspect of collective human behavior, the Holocaust being terrifying as an exemplar of what that impulse to extermination can accomplished tied to contemporary technocratic bureaucratic forms of power. There have been plenty of genocides in the history of the world but the Holocaust was special because it highlights to the West how what the West considers its virtues can perpetrate horrifyingly efficient massacre when devoted to an evil purpose. 

Steiner cast doubt upon using the arts in the Western tradition as a form of immortality.  George Rochberg took an opposing stance, asserting that the arts are a form of individual and collective memory we cannot forsake. To split hairs on the matter, not everything that is in a liturgy is necessarily simultaneously a sacrament and if that seems like splitting hairs, well, such is the nature of arts writing ... and, for that matter, writing on theology.  Germans participating in the Holocaust while soaking up Bach and Wagner may not be as unique as Western arts educators have thought it was.  Nor, for that matter, should we regard "high" culture as necessarily uniquely culpable. 

Let me put this in an admittedly provocative way, am I supposed to think that German gas chambers run by people who were proverbial fans of Goethe and Schubert is more unique than Americans dropping bombs on people in other countries while listening to Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles or Michael Jackson?  That the ideals espoused by the artists and musicians are betrayed by those who use their works as the manifesto or soundtrack for some kind of conquest is not only not unusual it might well be the human condition.  Questioning whether the Western ideal in the arts of viewing the arts as a kind of immortality won't change this problem.  A Taylor Swift or a Beyonce an be a musical-cultural emblem of power whether or not the music and lyrics are regarded as "timeless" or "disposable".

Wesley Morris can write about how African American popular music is the music of "freedom" but I heard from my missionary kid friend who grew up in Nagasaki that blues doesn't sound like "freedom", it sounds repetitive and formulaic.  I hope she's changed her mind about that decades later but if she hasn't the point stands, if music is not a universal language, as some musicologists have insisted, then the extra-musical cultural meanings associated with music are even less universal.  Here's the catch, conflating those extra-musical values and meanings with the music itself was more or less the thing done in the long nineteenth century with music as art and art as religion.  In other words, there's no reason at all for me to believe that a contemporary Wesley Morris or Douglas Shadle isn't going to replicate the mistakes of the nineteenth century advocates of Matthew Arnold style art religion.

A secondary point in In Bluebird's Castle is something musicians may want to reflect upon.  Steiner considered that if the West was becoming a less literate network of cultures in terms of poetry in multiple languages younger people were not becoming less literate altogether, Steiner proposed that the locus of literacy had shifted from the word to the sound:

In Bluebird's Castle: Notes Toward the Redefinition of Culture
George Steiner
Yale University Press
September 10, 1974
154 pages, 5 x 8
ISBN: 9780300017106

pages 115-116
But are there no other literacies conceivable, "literacies" not of the letter?

This is being written in a study in a college of one of the great American universities. The walls are throbbing gently to the beat of music corning from one near and several more distant amplifiers. The walls quiver to the ear or to the touch roughly eighteen hours per day, sometimes twenty-four. The beat is literally unending. It matters little whether it is that of pop, folk, or rock. What counts is the all-pervasive pulsation, morning to night and into night, made indiscriminate by the cool burn of electronic timbre. A large segment of mankind, between the ages of thirteen and, say, twenty-five, now lives immersed in this constant throb. The hammering of rock or of pop creates an enveloping space. Activities such as reading, writing, private communication, learning, previously framed with silence, now take place in a field of strident vibrato. This means that the essentially linguistic nature of these pursuits is adulterated; they are vestigial modes of the old "logic."

page 117

Yet we are unquestionably dealing with a literacy, with codes of recognition so widespread and dynamic that they constitute a "metaculture." Popular music(s) have their semantics, their theory of genres, their intricate play-offs of esoteric against canonic types. Folk and pop, "trad music" and rock, count their several histories and corpus of legend. They show their relics. They number their old masters and rebels, their betrayers and high priests. Precisely as in classical literacy, so there are in the world of jazz or of rock 'n' roll degrees of initiation ranging from the vague empathies of the tyro (Latin on sundials) to the acid erudition of the scholiast. At the same time there is an age factor which makes the culture of pop more like modern mathematics and physics than the humanities. ...

page 121
... The lapse from ceremony and ritual in much of public and private behavior has left a vacuum. At the same time, there is a thirst for magical and "transrational" forms. The capacity of organized religion to satisfy this thirst diminishes. Matthew Arnold foretold that the "facts" of religion would be replaced by its poetry. Today, one feels that in many educated, but imperfectly coherent lives, that "poetry of religious emotion" is being provided by music.
If so then the Matthew Arnold style of art-religion hasn't gone away, it may have simply migrated from the "high" of collegiate canons to the "low" of popular culture.  Cultic devotion is more easily seen at the comic-con or in Star Wars or in devotion to a specific popular singer or rock band.  Michael Jackson rather than Mahler and Beyonce rather than Balzac.  Steiner had no problem admitting he was an elitist (and neither did Roger Scruton) but I wonder ... was Steiner in a sense trying to have his cake and eat it, too, on the issue of the arts and betterment?  

The thirst for magical and transrational forms may be slaked even more by cinema on the big and small screen than by music depending on where we look.  Far more recently than the Holocaust the post Harvey Weinstein era of Hollywood seemed to constitute a kind of Donatist controversy for art-as-religion in the realm of cinema.  If music isn't a universal language how much less the language of cinema and yet you can't visit a SIFF event without seeing that rote multi-lingual credo that "the language of film is universal".  Right.  An art form that is scarcely more than a century old is universal.  

Many a Romantic warned against the dehumanizing aspects of the machine as a thing in itself and as symptomatic of changes in society.  It can seem strange to think that some of the most idealistic and utopian streams of thought can revolve around popular music and cinema, art forms that are more mediated by and of necessity consumed via machines than any of the art forms available prior to the twentieth century.  

Late last year I finished reading Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History which was chock full of conventional wisdom and traded on more myths than debunking than I would have hoped for a music history that claimed to be subversive. What I found troubling was the extent to which Gioia presents a master narrative in which the history of music is really a history of Western music and a history of Western music as told by a jazz pianist in which the sum of Western musical history is a schematic battle between the "math" of white Europe and the "magic" of shamanistic suppressed Greek history or the magic of black or person of color music interrupting things, the id irrepressibly rising up and troubling the superego.  That this is a master narrative that, despite being penned by someone I could safely regard as an enlightened liberal white guy, trades on a race-war mythology is troublesome.  I've said it before at this blog, I exist because a Native American man married a white woman.  I am prejudicially in favor of inter-racial marriage, I admit.  So however well-meaning Gioia thinks his subversive history is supposed to be the white math versus black magic mythology seems dubious.  

Yet there is a sense in which Gioia's unabashed claim that as musicians we can all be wizards and shamans puts his cards on the table. The white math vs black magic master narrative seems like an absurd racist trope but it is clearly intended to be subordinate to what is an advocacy for a shamanistic approach to music, music is magic, music enchants human experience and art should be for the sake of people.  Okay, I get the aimed for thing.  Jesus taught the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.  

What i have found curious about a stance like Gioia's is that we have had a century in which popular music and cinema is more technocratic in means than at any point before and yet in a book like Gioia's we read a pretty thorough reaction of rejection to older conceptions of music tied to cosmologies from Greek thought, rather broadly a rejection of music as "math" or "science".  Gioia can mention Augustine's treatise in passing but since it doesn't just so happen I've been slowly reading through Augustine's never-completed treatise on music I know that what we got was book 1 of a series of books that Augustine never finished because he started writing his treatise on music before he completed his conversion to Christianity.  The treatise on music is actually better described (by those who have actually read it) as a treatment on the topic of rhythm in poetics and language.  Augustine went so far as to say music was the science of mensurating well, or the science of measurement.  Music was seen as part of a set of disciplines including arithmetic, astronomy and geometry.  Music was seen as part of those sciences.  We might do well to ask why.  In Gioia's master narrative European mathematicians and power-brokers imposed a mathematical order from the top down but this is, well, a sloppy presentation of things.  

Kyle Gann's book on tuning systems, tuning history and microtonality just came out about the same time as Ted Gioia's book and I would suggest that you read Gann's book as a substantial counterpoint to Gioia's master narrative claims that tuning systems are emblematic of The Man keeping people down.  It's a rather incredible claim for a pianist to make since pianists who work with equal-tempered keys are more beholden to the so-called tyranny of tuning systems than any string player who doesn't have to bother with frets will be, or singers, or even woodwind players or brass players. Gioia's repetitive claims that blues didn't fit into the prescribed notes of the Western tuning systems is the kind of claim that is in bad faith if Gioia has read enough about tunings and tuning history to spot that D# and E flat aren't the same thing.  

Claiming that African diaspora music made use of all sorts of notes that didn't fit into prescribed tunings is a claim, but Gann has pointed out that even among Greeks there were advocates of tuning intervals by ear rather than get bogged down by ratios.  Nevertheless we've needed talk about ratios and syntonic commas and all of that.  Musical performance that is beyond the use of the human voice, any instrumental performance at all, depends upon us being able to play the same note (or approximately the same note!) twice.  Gioia can claim that blues musicians found the notes between the notes and imply that Europeans didn't have that but that's unfortunately likely just a sign that a jazz pianist who has written books on blues and jazz (and they're worth reading, mind you) never read anything by Anton Reicha who, in his Treatise on Melody, extolled the use of quarter-tones in phrases by an opera singer to accentuate expressive moments in an aria.  

What does this have to do with George Steiner?  Well, the musical literacy he observed decades ago is a musical literacy that is full of exciting possibilities but we still have people peddling master narratives and, in the case of Ted Gioia, the irony is that an author with a master narrative thinks his is subversive when it may encapsulate the myths of our technological age better than most.  It's easy to present old dead European guys as imagining music was "math" and "science" in a technocratic society that proposes we have disenchanted the world but in an era before such an alleged disenchantment took place arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and perhaps last of all music could be seen as ways of observing the rhythm and harmony of the cosmos.  Someone like Roger Scruton could spend a career pointing out that that fusion of mathematical and artistic discipline has been lost to us.  

I'm rambling on the weekend here but I wonder whether or not it is symptomatic of our technological age that as music is more and more mediated by technology at every stage of production and consumption whether the Ted Gioias of our time and place need music to be the magic of shamans and will cast about for which ever ancient eleatic monist Greeks (Parmenides) or people of color symbolize the "not-math! magic!" option regardless of how careful the history of music or race happens to be on the issue.  It's not as though musicians in Africa or China didn't develop ways of tuning instruments.  Gioia has written some fascinating books over the last twenty years but the more he attempts to summarize all his work into a master narrative in his Music: A Subversive History the less persuasive he becomes.  It's as though since Work Songs, Healing Songs, and Love Songs he suddenly got very, very sloppy.

The kind of musical literacy George Steiner observed could be able to accomplish a lot if we don't rely on a Ted Gioia style master narrative of white math vs black magic.  To take things back to the Holocaust, our worst can be an outworking of what we can tell ourselves is our best.  If European highbrow culture was no preventative for a Holocaust we should hardly imagine that the best of blues, jazz and American pop will be any kind of preventative in our day.  Steiner spent a career reflecting on connections between the Holocaust and the most canonized of European arts but perhaps the Holocaust was not as unique as it has been presented as being and that should terrify us because potentially any technocratic bureaucracy could perpetrate a Holocaust and do so to its own soundtrack of elevation.  

some provocation from Douglas Shadle, "Let's cancel the 19th century". The fastest way to cancel the 19th century would be to end symphonies

For guitarists, since our instrument was in important ways only developed fully by the dawn of the 19th century, the idea of canceling the 19th century seems dubious.  It's not like Native Americans will get un-massacred by canceling the 19th century warhorse standards of the symphonic repertoire.  

Back when I was mulling over how hegemony is a term thrown around by academics in academic contexts bridling at what they had to teach or couldn't teach, I got a sense that the best thing that could have happened to me musically was simply never being able to afford grad school.  We guitarists largely get ignored across the board in conservatory contexts, it can seem.  I skimmed through a book years ago by Robert R Reilly, I think it was, about beauty and music.  It was interesting how in a chapter dedicated to Heitor Villa-Lobos (who wrote a lot of music I, as a guitarist, enjoy) there was no mention of his guitar music.  Symphonies?  Yep, references to those and to the Bachianas cycle, of course and maybe there was something about string quartets.  No guitar, not a mention.  As Matanya Ophee used to say, we guitarists are relegated to some back corner and are not treated as if we belong in the rest of the music school scene.  Our six-stringed instrument of choice has been part of every musical style and musical revolution more or less the world over and yet ... just that "classical" gets added to the guitar tells us something about the disregard our instrument has.  Violinists never feel a need to say they play "classical" violin.  A fiddle and a violin are not the same instrument, a saying has it, and there's a truth to that and that may be the truth that is more important to observe and then disregard if we really want to cancel the 19th century.

I've written a few thousand words here and there at this blog about my disagreement with the legacies of German idealism in the arts and particularly my rejection of views to the effect that the arts are some kind of sacrament.  One reason is simply that I'm a low-church Calvinist sort who reads Puritans from time to time and really rejects the Wagnerian notion that art can do for religion what religion no longer does.  I think that what that has led to has been a sacramentalizing of the arts that damages the arts.  As I've put it before and will say again, the problem with art-as-religion is the canon is closed and there's no room to add new revelation.  

But this was a problem more or less created by music education itself.  You can't cancel the 19th century and the music education systems that developed around it without canceling the symphony and canceling the post-19th century conception of music education.  Maybe I can take a page from John Philip Sousa and suggest that professionals are trying to solve at the intra-professional level the kinds of problems that can probably only get "solved" by letting amateurs be amateurs.  Nobody who wants to make money in the music scene is likely to be able to "solve" the problem of the stranglehold any canons of any music education curriculum is likely to have.  

I realize this is sort of trolling but in the American musical traditions it's not entirely clear the symphony hasn't been on some kind of life-support from the beginning.  Yes, I read Shadle's book where he detailed all the ways American journalists and music educators sidelined American symphonies.  I appreciate that but writing as a guitarist I am going to suggest that the symphony has had its day.  There's no future to it except as museum culture and not because it's bad or evil.  The polyphonic mass reached its high point centuries ago and it hasn't gone away but it's clearly not the peak of prestige in terms of musical culture any more.  The symphony, some two centuries since the heyday of Beethoven, may be a spent force.

Cancel the symphony and canceling the 19th century that sacralized the symphony in its post-Beethoven form will happen as a matter of course.

There isn't a realistic possibility of canceling the 19th century within the educational systems themselves.  If anything obliterating grad school level music programs might be what's needed.  Lest you think I'm just trolling here, even within music education there have been people skeptical about the long-term benefits of advanced music instruction:
But what first struck me about the book was the history lesson it gives on the development of musical style, with parallels that offer mirrors of our own situation. One article quoted from the music critic Vladimir Stasov, written in 1861 [emphasis mine] as Russia was just beginning to form its own art-music culture, seems as relevant now as it was then. Dubious about Rubinstein’s attempt to introduce conservatory training, Stasov warns:
“Higher” institutions for the arts are an altogether different matter from higher institutions in the sciences…. A university imparts nothing but knowledge; a conservatory is not content with that but meddles in the most injurious way in the creative work of an artist trained there, extending its despotic power over the style and form of his work, attempting to force it into a certain academic mold, imparting to it its own customs, and what is worst of all, sinking its claws into the artist’s very mind, imposing on him its own judgment of works of art and their creators, from which it will later on be exceedingly difficult if not impossible for him to extricate himself.
…The experience of Europe teaches us that to the same extent that modest schools which limit themselves to the rudiments of music are useful, higher school, academies, and conservatories are harmful. Is this experience going to be lost on us? Are we then required to copy slavishly what exists in other places, so as to have the pleasure of boasting afterward nothing but an enormous quantity of teachers and classrooms, a fruitless distribution of awards and prizes, proliferating volumes of worthless compositions and legions of good-for-nothing musicians?
Of course, in the narrative of successive decades Stasov goes on to become something of a clown, jingoistically continuing to cheerlead for the Russian nationalist composers, those descended from the “Russian Five” or “mighty heap” (kuchka), long after their students and protégés have descended into patent mediocrity. And yet, on some level Stasov’s tragedy vindicates his thesis: the kuchkist faction declines in quality precisely because those composers gained power in the conservatories, and turned out generations of dutiful students taught to compose in similar manner. It’s a particularly clear object lesson in how a musical society turns rancid through access to power and excessive inbreeding..
See, music advocates have been wanting to cancel the deleterious effects of conservatory training in 19th century music since right in the middle of the 19th century.  We know this.  We also know, as Gann eloquently put it, that Stasovs have been seen transforming into the things they railed against. 

The history of this happening might inspire people to argue that the problem is all grad school and doctoral level music education at this point.  Want to get rid of the 19th century?  Abolish graduate and doctoral degree programs in music and let musicians sink or swim with their undergraduate degrees. With the executive we currently have and may yet get again this future isn't actually all that hard to imagine in some ways. 

For those of us who have never written and basically never really want to write symphonies there's going to be no loss.  Guitarists "could" write concertos but when's the last time you heard a guitar concerto and remembered it?  Be honest.  If I'm honest I can't remember most of the concerti I've heard that were composed in the last twenty years with a handful of exceptions.  I remember the Higdon concerto because Hilary Hahn played it and it had some okay moments but the only concerto I still remember and remembered enjoying enough to hear live twice was the Samuel Jones Tuba Concerto.  That's kind of it.  I listened to the Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto and it's ... okay ... but it's not really sticking with me.  Thomas Ades' In Seven Days doesn't stick in my mind at all.  I mention how long it's been since I've remembered a concerto I've heard because Gann went on to point out that the go-to commissions in this century have been concerti and ten-minute symphonic opener-style pieces.  So ... 

Semi-seriously, cancel the symphony and cancel the concerto and then canceling the 19th century will be easy if it's just the shadow of Beethoven and Wagner we want to cancel.  Not that people will think you "can" write a chamber piece for electric guitars, electric bass, and drum kit.  I've got a mind to do it because I was in a prog rock band decades ago and writing a sonata form for the standard four-piece rock ensemble might be fun. The sacredness of pop timbrel vocabulary, as Gann has pointed out, can be its own kind of sacred cow but I digress, again.

Still, the prospect of canceling the 19th century seems doubtful to me and not just because we guitarists finally started getting music for the six-stringed Spanish guitar (as very distinct from the five-course Baroque era guitar) in the 19th century.  

Even if Shadle doesn't become a Stasov ... canceling "just" the 19th century?  There's still those hundred-some symphonies of Haydn, right?  Do we have to cancel those?  Cancel Haydn and I'm off-board.  If anything I'd say we need Haydn right now more than we'll ever need Beethoven or Mozart. Mozart was perfect for ... the 19th century ... but not for me in the 21st century.  We can learn from Haydn and Clementi and Dussek and Hummel and if we "have" to cancel the 19th century in its fuller effects we should cancel Mozart and Beethoven for being the gods of the 19th century demagogues.  Haydn's okay, though.  I say we keep him. 

I want to keep all the 19th century guitar music that non-guitarists don't even know or care about.  The Matiegka Op. 31 guitar sonatas are cute and funny if you understand how he took up Haydn's style and run with it for solo guitar.  The recapitulations in flamboyantly wrong keys are really funny if you're familiar with the style but I digress.  That should be a set of blog posts later.

Now think about this, if we cancel the 19th century we cancel Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag", published in 1899.  What American really wants to do that?  Not Captain America.  Only the Red Skull would want to cancel "Maple Leaf Rag"!   

If we cancel symphonies that got their start in the 19th century then Symphonies 1 and 2 by Charles Ives have to go and ... nope ... not going to do that.  

Didn't Charles Ives write String Quartet No. 1 in the 19th century?  Well, then, no way I want to cancel the 19th century if it means not having that Ives string quartet.  Didn't Jas Obrecht mention something about how Blind Willie Johnson drew upon songs from a 19th century hymnal edited by T. C. Okane in ... 1881?  Yes.  How about Thomas Dorsey drawing upon "Maitland", a 19th century tune for his most famous hymn?  The thing about canceling the 19th century is if we cancel it we cancel widely recognized inspirations and tunes that early 20th century gospel and blues musicians drew upon and "cancel" the single most famous piano rag in the history of the style. For all sorts of fairly obvious reasons we can't cancel the 19th century and even if we could so much of the 20th grew out of that 19th century we should be more clear about what we're really against.

I'm tired of hearing the same old Beethoven/Mahler/Mozart stuff.  I used to go to the symphony but hearing yet more Schubert bores me.  So I stick closer to my own instrument, the guitar, and try to keep tabs on what is being written in my own time.  There's fantastic music for the guitar getting written by Balkan composers, for instance.  Also Russian and Georgian and Polish composers as well as composers from Latin American countries.  I'll admit an American bias and say the best music for the guitar I've heard in the 20th century has come from Americans ... but it's often music that would never get discussed in a conservatory.  What exactly are you supposed to say about Blind Willie Johnson's music in a conservatory?  Would anyone even want to buy transcriptions of Blind Blake?  As a fan of pre-World War II blues I have been realizing that many American musicians don't even really want the first third of the 20th century back to go by their listening habits but that is when some of the most beautiful music in America was written ... as long as we're mostly not paying attention to the symphony ... . 

Which is why, even though I have a hunch I understand perfectly well what Shadle's trying to get at, the rhetoric can still seem in a bit of bad faith.  If we want to cancel the 19th century we will have an easier time canceling it if we abolish symphonic based education, tell students that was the thing two centuries but that there's never been a truly sustainable American symphonic tradition outside Hollywood and video game music can be done with synthesizers now anyway so even though there's beautiful symphonic music Americans have written that's basically the past and let the past die.  

Imagine a music curriculum in which there is no symphony and what can you do?  Depends on what the resources are.  Renaissance composers wrote some great masses, for instance.  

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

links from Fredrik Deboer, Lauren Oyler, David Labaree via Jim West, and Alan Jacobs referencing Mark McGurl, on the theme of literary clubs, academic clubs, and the opportunity costs of status or security in an educational-industrial complex tied to the state

Presented more or less without comment since these excerpts will likely telegraph the trajectory of reading and thoughts connected to it by dint of citation.
You might note that Oyler’s review, as far as these things go, is fairly tame. But Tolentino occupies rarified air in the High School But I’ll Be the Cool One This Time that is contemporary letters. Like all queen bees, she enjoys the privilege of self-deprecation, knowing full well that it is always the lower level of bees, the WannaBees, who are the real enforcers. And when Oyler’s piece came out, they enforced. And so she remains cool, even while vengeance is meted out by her beehive. It’s nice work if you can get it.
You can imagine a different environment that would be both harsher and more rewarding for both writer and critic alike. For example, Tolentino could have been a writer. Instead, she’s professionally the coolest girl in high school. Some would find that a terribly sexist statement, but the point is that this isn’t something that she’s done. It’s something that’s been done to her.
This is what I was trying to say, all those years. That there are stakes, to rendering the entire culture of opinion writing into yet another attempt to relitigate high school. That there is a cost. And the cost is precisely that which initially attracts many people to writing in the first place: the potential for transcendence, the frequently naive belief that writing can in the best of times transport both writer and reader to a higher plane of understanding. That our words might sometimes scrape the second part of life, the part where we feel like something more and better than actuarial scientists and used car salesman. In a punishingly quotidian world it’s something worth dedicating a life to. The only trouble is that writers seem to hate writing; they want it to mean nothing more than who sits next to who at lunch. They want to drain it of its rare power to transport us past our grubby painful lives. And for what? For the thrill of someone one rung higher on the hierarchy of the cool giving us a half a glance of digital attention. It’s for this that we abandoned the deeper meaning of a craft: to do high school again, only this time, we’re the winners.
The result is the rise of a style that I’ve taken to calling hysterical criticism – both because it represents an evolution of what James Wood termed ‘hysterical realism’ in fiction and because the word connotes anachronistic misogyny. This girl – sorry, woman – is sexist, you may have thought as soon as you saw my usage. Well, I’m not. These critics aren’t hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems, and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise. Besides, what they’re saying is important. If you don’t believe that yourself, don’t worry, they will tell you so, in terms so personal and heartfelt that you might not notice they are doing just fine. If you do notice, the joke’s still on you: no one cares about critics any more, which they’re very sad about too.
The moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction – and of most movies, art, music, television, politics and internet culture – has been a boon for these writers, who tend to find simple things complicated and complicated things simple. Because understanding and explaining a work or event is in most cases very easy, they can extract quick authority from the exercise and use the rest of their word count to reflect on whatever they please, often on life’s truths and mysteries, employing questionably relevant references and personal anecdotes. At the sentence level, it’s not difficult to understand what hysterical critics are saying; rather, it’s so easy that their lack of precision doesn’t matter. It is harder, by design, to pin it down, which is the reason you’ll often find one throwing up his hands and using some hyperbolic descriptor that is demonstrably false: things are unspeakable, impossible and ineffable despite being spoken, possible and effed, often in the same essay.
‘I wrote this book between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018,’ Tolentino explains in the introduction to Trick Mirror,
a period during which American identity, culture, technology, politics and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict, a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things always got worse.
Throughout this period, I found that I could hardly trust anything that I was thinking. A doubt that always hovers in the back of my mind intensified: that whatever conclusions I might reach about myself, my life and my environment are just as likely to be diametrically wrong as they are to be right.
Hysterical critics are self-centred – not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round. A bit like the way, in Tolentino’s understanding, one’s themes can ‘coalesce into’ a supernova, though a supernova is an explosion that follows a star’s collapsing in on itself and results in the ejection, not accumulation, of mass.
But I want to focus on an additional powerful motivation that drives academics, one that we don’t talk about very much. Once launched into an academic career, faculty members find their scholarly efforts spurred on by more than a love of the work. We in academia are motivated by a lust for glory.
We want to be recognised for our academic accomplishments by earning our own little pieces of fame. So we work assiduously to accumulate a set of merit badges over the course of our careers, which we then proudly display on our CVs. This situation is particularly pervasive in the US system of higher education, which is organised more by the market than by the state. Market systems are especially prone to the accumulation of distinctions that define your position in the hierarchy. But European and other scholars are also engaged in a race to pick up honours and add lines to their CVs. It’s the universal obsession of the scholarly profession.
Academics are unlike the employees of most organisations in that they fight over symbolic rather than material objects of aspiration, but they are like other workers in that they too are motivated by fear and greed. Instead of competing over power and money, they compete over respect. So far I’ve been focusing on professors’ greedy pursuit of various kinds of honours. But, if anything, fear of dishonour is an even more powerful motive for professorial behaviour. I aspire to gain the esteem of my peers but I’m terrified of earning their scorn.
Lurking in the halls of every academic department are a few furtive figures of scholarly disrepute. They’re the professors who are no longer publishing in academic journals, who have stopped attending academic conferences, and who teach classes that draw on the literature of yesteryear. Colleagues quietly warn students to avoid these academic ghosts, and administrators try to assign them courses where they will do the least harm. As an academic, I might be eager to pursue tokens of merit, but I am also desperate to avoid being lumped together with the department’s walking dead. Better to be an academic mediocrity, publishing occasionally in second-rate journals, than to be your colleagues’ archetype of academic failure.
The result of all this pursuit of honour and retreat from dishonour is a self-generating machine for scholarly production. No administrator needs to tell us to do it, and no one needs to dangle incentives in front of our noses as motivation. The pressure to publish and demonstrate academic accomplishment comes from within. College faculties become self-sustaining engines of academic production, in which we drive ourselves to demonstrate scholarly achievement without the administration needing to lift a finger or spend a dollar. What could possibly go wrong with such a system?

My point is: I don’t like seeing journalism being drawn so consistently into the same self-justifying, self-celebrating circles that the American university itself was drawn into during and following World War II. As R. P. Blackmur rightly feared, the intimacy between universities and government did not end when the war ended; it only intensified, and the fact that those universities became our chief patrons of the arts, especially literary writing, at the very moment that they crawled permanently into bed with government and industry, cannot be without repercussions for artists.
The best guide to the rise of creative programs in particular is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, and it’s fascinating how McGurl repeatedly walks right up to the edge of a clearly articulated critique of this system without ever crossing it. In the penultimate sentence of his book he writes, “Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read?” Then he starts a new paragraph before giving us the book’s last sentence: “What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise?” Oh clever man!
Yes, there is a great deal of skillfully written post-World-War-II fiction available to us, indeed more than we could ever read. But how much of it embodies the kind of imaginative otherness that, as David Graeber reminds us, our social/cultural/economic contexts militate against? How much of it, shaped as it is in institutions that owe their continued existence to their affiliation with the military-industrial complex, envisions ways of life radically other than the ones we now experience? How much of it offers more than increasingly sophisticated simulations of worlds we already know, can predict, feel comfortable in? How much, in shirt, is conducive to genuine hope?
I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an “artificial obvious” that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.
And I am also asking universities to realize and to reconsider their implication in those dominant institutions. I don’t demand that schools sever their ties with those institutions, since that would be financially suicidal, and economic times for higher education are hard enough as it is. But there need to be more pockets of resistance: more institutions with self-consciously distinctive missions, and within institutions more departments or even just informal discussion groups who seek to imagine the so-far unimaginable.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

At Scripture and Cities Ben Smith writes "Toward a Christian Critical Theory", which reminds me that in my comparing of Francis Schaeffer and Adorno that what the post-Schaeffer worldview scene tried to be was a kind of paradoxically anti-Marxist Christian critical theory

Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer is a foundational text of Critical Theory, the use of the social sciences to critique the oppressive structures and systems of contemporary society. It's also a tough read, despite its relatively short length (258 pages in my Verso edition), but, in my view, one that is ultimately worthwhile.

In nuce, Adorno and Horkheimer sought to critique Enlightenment thought, a rationalising and quantifying outlook that seeks to dominate the earth through the use of science and technology. Far from escaping the superstitions of pre-modern myth, enlightenment thought, as an outlook that includes, but goes beyond, the historical movement of the 18th century, is a continuation of myth insofar as myth also sought to dominate the world and societies, although by prescribing unquestionable values and hierarchies rooted in a supposedly natural or divine order. Fascism, then, is the logical product of Enlightenment, and not its negation.

It's a pretty sweeping project that leaves little of modern civilization uncriticised. Adorno and Horkheimer give no indication about what can or should be done, perhaps because Leftist projects, too, are themselves products of Enlightenment thought and method. Some would echo the sentiments of the late ex-Marxist Leszek Kolakowski, who, after generally lambasting the text for equating enlightenment with anything the authors didn't like, opined that the book's 'final response to the human condition can only be an inarticulate cry' (Main Currents of Marxism 3. The Breakdown, OUP, p.380).

To many Christians today Critical Theory in general is an object of immense suspicion, as that which apparently seeks to overthrow the Christian family and societal order. But even apart from the fact that Adorno's own views on the family were not as negative as some are led to believe, I think there is something of value to be found in his broader project, as bracing as it is. For the Bible itself presents a thoroughly pessimistic verdict on the wisdom of the world.

18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” (1 Cor 3:18-20)
In fact, the entire sweep of 1 Cor 1-3 gives us a masterclass in the critical demolition of worldly wisdom, identifying such a radical project as a key reason for the crucified form that God's salvation has taken in order to shame and bring to nothing the worldly-wise and strong.


What has been interesting reading Adorno over the last five or six years and comparing his writing on aesthetics and culture to Francis Schaeffer is I find it's as if the Frankfurt school forerunners of what evangelicals call "cultural Marxism" had a parallel and ostensibly opposed development in the post-Van Til/Francis Schaeffer "worldview" approach to arts and cultural criticism.  To keep things simple for the sake of a weekend post, whatever cultural Marxism is, it is a kind of pejoratively defined secular-left variation on a project that evangelical/conservative Protestants (and ... some Catholics, to be sure) have attempted to formulate in the last fifty years.  The antagonism toward the perceived triumph of "cultural Marxism" in the academy may be as simple as the sourest of sour grapes on the part of Christian scholars often in the Reformed or neo-Reformed traditions who, hoping to have "gotten there first" can only discover that the Marxist-Leninists got there generations ago, did a better job at it, and have even, particularly in the work of Adorno, formulated arguments regarding form and aesthetics in music that have been, at best, merely echoed or mirrored sans Marxism by philosophers such as Roger Scruton. 

Of course I've compared Francis Schaeffer's criticism and Maoist criticisms of John Cage in the past to show how basically congruent they are.  It may have been that in the midst of the Cold War Marxist and anti-Marxist polemicists were not going to quickly realize how much they had in common against John Cage.  That Scruton's arguments against Stockhausen and Cage were basically the same as, and not even as vitriolic as, those made by Adorno is also something I've written about in the past. Scruton's final innovation in contrast to Adorno was to say we should take popular song seriously as an art form, even if Scruton never got around to exploring ways in which the materials of popular song could be transformed into larger-scale approaches to form.  Critical Theory scholars have understandably been squeamish about Adorno's vitriolic rants against jazz and while Eric Oberle's new book Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is a fascinating read, all of the discussion of negative identity compared to positive identity and stereotypology will not, at least not right away, provide musicians a practical approach to establishing a musical path that demonstrates why Adorno was so obviously wrong in his overall take on jazz as musical art.

But ... Adorno did something from his Marxist-Leninist perspective that conservatives and reactionaries were basically not doing.  What he did was formulate a formal and aesthetic reason why popular songs failed to qualify as art and formulated an argument that included what he regarded as light classical music, too.  Conservative arguments against jazz as art tended to reflexively fall back on assertions about cultural barbarism that were not even really concealed racist dog whistles.  Yet because Adorno infamously claimed that there was no evidence there was anything legitimately African or African American in the jazz he heard in "On Jazz", his earliest and most vitriolic rant against jazz, Scruton could pass off Adorno's rejection of jazz as predicated on a rejection of popular styles without necessarily connecting the dots of Adorno's condemnation of the fascist tendencies he perceived in Stravinsky's music in connection to Stravinsky's publicly avowed sympathy for fascism.  But Adorno was probably right to insist that a generic liberalism would be insufficient to address the arguments against new music (a la Stockhausen or Cage) on the basis of aesthetic and formal objections.  For that matter even a composer as radical as Iannis Xenakis could more or less make a comparable argument to Adorno that aleatory and integral serialism removed decision-making power from the composer to such a degree that the idea of a composer getting any credit for the finished result seemed dubious.

To compare all of this to Francis Schaeffer being filmed listening to Mahler and more or less signalling with his face "yuck!" is to highlight that there are a whole lot of reasons conservative Protestants and Catholics more or less completely failed to develop their would be counter to what some of them now regard as "cultural Marxism".  Perhaps we could consider the possibility that by the time evangelicals began to take seriously that some kind of Christian critical theory equivalent should be developed Critical Theory was already born and here we are generations later and the game of catch up does not seem to have produced much of anything by way of a philosophy of aesthetics beyond, well, Roger Scruton ... and his avid Wagnerian take on the arts probably would not pass muster with any of the Reformed or neo-Reformed who couldn't realistically take on board Scruton's quasi-sacramentalist view of the arts.