Saturday, March 14, 2020

Josh Pauling on contemporary Christian music style vs liturgical substance in light of contemporary scholarly concern about a default whiteness in Eurocentric traditions and OrthoCuban comments on how some Orthodox want to go back to Byzantine chant over against the Slav influence in Orthodox liturgical music

A few years ago someone wrote something on Twitter of some kind that emphasized the need for methods of reading and interpretation that didn't privilege white, European male voices and that contemporary scholarship could help toward this end.  The rejoinder was that apparently the set of 18th and 19th century German higher critical methods employed to read biblical texts were needed to ensure we weren't beholden to the doctrines of the Christian tradition established by bishops from Africa and Asia millenia ago.

The punchline couldn't have been more obvious for those who read on these kinds of issues--Americans have been presenting themselves as developing methods to give voices who don't default to white and European a chance to speak now but the historic interests of European Christian traditions was preserving the standards of orthodoxy handed down by the previously alluded to African and Asian bishops. 

But for those Christian writers of a more traditionalist mind now a defense of the traditional can miss the ways in which is taken to be the traditional in music defaults to neither Africa nor Asia but to, obviously, Europe.  Josh Pauling has made a case that contemporary Christian musical style is in profound ways inimical to the substance of liturgy.  I'll quote Pauling at some length:

some scattered thoughts on NewMusicBox essays on whiteness, Douglas Shadle's activism for Florence Price and a recognition among guitarists that Leo Brouwer is one of the most important figures in current guitar music

Western musical literacy as it developed from the customs and systems developed since Carolingian consolidation of liturgical music could definitely be construed as a long history of white music. The elephant in the room is making a point of arguing that mechanically/electronically derived musical literacy, music literacy based on the consumption, imitation, adaptation, and modification of norms and customs of musical literacy mediated by recording technology, is something I can agree should be a factor in music education.

Undergrad and grad school level instruction can't "catch up" for people who haven't spent ten to twenty years already learning to master instruments or singing along the way. This might be why music education courses for non-majors vs majors developed. I was able to take a survey of popular music course that music majors couldn't take but because I was a music minor I could take it.

Some things sort of stick out for me in this:

"A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice."

Music education that's geared toward the idea that students will be making a living recording music actually seems like a more pernicious myth than the myth that Western music notational conventions are somehow "white" when we have more than enough classical music composed by black composers to prove that's not the case. For that matter, when there are classical composers from Asia and of Asian American descent who use the Western musical notational systems; when the first published musical work in Western notation by a Native American was back in 1863 with Thomas Commuck's Indian Melodies hymnal; I don't think it's even historically fair or accurate to say Western musical notation is "white". This seems like another fusilade against the negative impact of German dominance in Anglo-American music education programs that has been transformed into a white vs black narrative that simplifies in harmful ways. When Thomas A. Dorsey was plugging his songs in the 1930s and 1940s he was touring with star singers to help promote the publication of his sheet music.

There can be erasures in the mechanical music traditions and practices. Charles Tindley wrote a lot of hymns but because he was not prone to writing them down in score form and people recorded them the nascent music industry credited the performing artists as having written hymns that gospel specialists such as Anthony Heilbut have documented were written by Charles Tindley. That's to say Mark Burford's book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field is a fantastic, informative read.

White people who invented the university system in Western education as we know it and developed written music conventions might have a historical advantage ... but it's not as though there aren't written musical systems in Asian music traditions, for instance. The concept of whiteness deployed during the Enlightenment and colonial era had also not, as we've defined it in our era, been invented yet. The implicit take that notational systems favor white music traditions makes a sort of "gut" sense but it's not necessarily accurate for "then" if we forget, or choose to forget, what the rhetorical and polemical potential of the definition is in the now. Thai music has notational conventions of its own.

The denial of the legitimacy of black music in the Western literate traditions depends on a still latent assumption that black music primarily refers to music recorded on machines as well as an assumption that African diaspora composers could not contributed to the Western literate traditions. The written-down and published scores of George Walker, Florence Price, William Levi Dawson, William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Joseph Bologne Chevalier St. George, Scott Joplin, James Scott, and more recently Julius Eastman exist in score form, right? I am wondering whether a musician whose background comes from jazz and rock may be forgetting the legacy of black musicians who wrote scores. AfriClassical is a blog dedicated to exploring and demonstrating how long-standing and rich the musical works made by black musicians can be. We guitarists can hardly forget the Afro-Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, for instance. The Gallen CD set is amazing, by the way. :)

The Wesley Morris piece at the NYT 1619 project seemed to tilt in a similar direction to the NMB piece quoted, and that tilt seems to be toward defining black music as recorded over against notes on the page. I am supportive of musicians learning both notes-on-the-page literacy and recording techniques literacy. I am concerned that the NMB contributors can create an artificial dichotomy between these two conventions of musical literacy. The Baroque era had first practice and second practice, we can have a first practice and second practice of a different sort in the 21st century.

Fans of black American popular music can risk obliterating any space for black composers across the world who have contributed to the "classical" music traditions if they define black music strictly in terms of the recording technologies of the commercial music industry.

At the risk of commenting away, what can happen with appeals to Beethoven or appeals to Beyonce is the survivorship bias can dominate in both simplified appeals. I was writing about that a little on a recurring trend of "worship wars" over church music, battles between advocates of popular styles and traditionalist/literate styles. Wrote about that a bit over here:

Now Beyonce is no less top of the pyramid in popular music than Beethoven is in the prestige system of concert music. If the NMB contributor were comparing The Knack to Simon Molitor then at least the comparison wouldn't be between peak and peak in terms of brand recognition.

What can make the Molk polemic seem in bad faith is the reality that you can go find transcriptions of Robert Johnson and Stevie Wonder and John Lee Hooker songs. You can get sheet music for Hank Williams Sr. songs, too. Music that is popular enough has proven time and again to be popular enough that it gets transcribed into music notation.

As an intra-academic set of debates and not being an academic myself I realize that Douglas Shadle can be very excited that Florence Price's music is getting heard.  Her music has a lot of good qualities about it and yet there's the matter of personal taste.  The symphonies she's written don't stick with me the way Samuel Colerdige-Taylor's cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast sticks with me.  I like the works of George Walker, particularly his piano sonatas, more than the symphonies by Price that I've heard so far.  Price's work should get a hearing but William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson may still retain their places in a canon of African American composers. 

Writing as a guitarist I'd say the guitar sonatas of Leo Brouwer are among the most important cyclical works for solo guitar composed in the last fifty years and, if I'm understanding Kyle Gann's use of the term "totalism" correctly, might be a good example of a totalist composer for the guitar.  In contrast to the aforementioned African American composers, the Afro-Cuban conductor and guitarist composer Leo Brouwer is still very much with us.

Non-guitarist music journalists can sometimes be caught remarking in passing that it feels like there's some law that says guitarists giving recitals have to play Leo Brouwer music.  It's wonderful guitar music and Brouwer's work shows that he's conversant in atonal extremities as well as populist folk-music styles and his work draws from African and Afro-Cuban sources alongside Scriabin and Bach for inspiration. 

I get that Douglas Shadle's interest is more in the symphony but the symphony may have had its day. 

Reading his arguments for Price's music and invoking the history of whiteness and blackness within a broadly symphonic context reminded me recently of Matanya Ophee's "Repertoire Issues", a lecture he used to give that was a life-changer for me thinking about guitar music in relationship to the Western concert music traditions.  His advocacy for chamber music and for guitarists to not have any inferiority complex about what the quality of the music in our traditions can contribute to concert life and musical life has inspired me.  The link itself is no longer active and so The WayBack Machine has to be consulted.

You could probably go through grad school and get a degree without learning anything about the Biedermeier movement in chamber music, for instance.  The guitar's music in the nineteenth century has been so non-existent in relation to mainstream concert music education Richard Taruskin wrote as though it has never really been part of the Western literate tradition even though scores for the six-string Spanish guitar and the seven-string Russian guitar go back centuries.  Why mention all this?  Because in the last half century when one of the luminaries of contemporary classical guitar composition is an Afro-Cuban composer, the aforementioned Leo Brouwer, it's a quip but a legitimate observation that African diasporic and native Hawaiian contributions to the guitar in the last century are taken for granted in ways that the symphonic traditions of education have not caught up to.  Not all guitarists think in terms of setting Sor alongside Charley Patton or Giuliani alongside Lonnie Johnson or Matiegka alongside Tampa Red or Tarrega alongside Joseph Kekuku but if you're reading this now you're reading the writing of a guitarist who does keep these guitarists and their musical contributions to the instrument's legacy in mind constantly.  Among a subset of classical guitarists there are those who listen to Bach and Haydn and Blind Willie Johnson and Ellington and Monk and so on. 

Something Leo Brouwer said in an interview decades ago was that academics have tended to be against fusion as a concept because musical fusions tend to work against the kinds of purity norms academics want the music they study and teach to have.  Whether it's jazz fusion or progressive rock or maybe a Claude Bolling or a Dave Brubeck or any musician who has mixed styles academics and music journalists who appoint themselves the guardians and arbiters of whatever is authentic seem less than eager to embrace and endorse the kinds of fusions or musical syntheses Brouwer alluded to.  We are in many ways still beholden to the legacy of German Idealism and Raymond Knapp argued in his monograph on Haydn and camp that the paradox of pop music advocacy and scholarship is that the Romantic ideals of German Idealism live on more robustly in advocacy for jazz, rock, blues, country and other vernacular American styles than they do in writing on concert music.  The script of German Idealism has been flipped from the white symphonist to the black musician in Chicago but the script of the outsider-genius-who-speaks-the-truth-and-is-a-seer has been retained.

Since I'm anti-Romantic by convictions and interests I'm more sympathetic to Rick Robinson's arguments for a type of classicist aesthetic.

I admit it's a slightly snarky way to put things but the guitar has been a focal point for contributions from African, Native American, Asian and eastern European musicians for centuries but if mainstream American music education in the last fifty years hasn't taken note maybe advocacy for more representation in the symphonic tradition is moot.  What if, as I have proposed here at the blog for a while, that the day of the symphony as the apotheosis of musical prestige in the Western literate traditions has come and gone?  What if in the divergence between "art" and "pop" the guitar dominated the last century and, even now, is not necessarily a dominant influence even within pop?  Maybe let's put it another way, we may have returned to an era in which plucked stringed instruments have become a norm and yet our educational systems are so set on the symphonic repertoire that a musical advocate like Shadle can argue that we need to give Florence Price's symphonic music more attention (and we should give her music more of a chance now than she had in her life) and yet if we wanted to look at who has profoundly influenced American music African American musicians named Johnson took that lead in the 1930s.  Singers like Aretha, Tina, Mahalia and others (I don't even need to give last names, do I?) changed the way we appreciate popular song. 

It's not just that African diaspora music has influenced popular music, consider the role the guitar played in that popular music, not strictly in terms of the solo recital ethos and practice, but the ensemble work.  This ties back to Ophee's comments in "Repertoire Issues" about how if guitarists want to make a living chamber music rather than the solo recital would be a direction to take.

That, too, can be a counter to the solitary musical seer archetype.  There are guitarists, of course, who play just by themselves or sing their own songs because it's better to write and play for the musical resources you have than the ones you wish you had. 

I hope more of Price's music gets heard but having played guitar for twenty-five odd years it lately strikes me that Shadle's emphasis on symphonic music and on the long-term effects of whiteness as a concept in pedagogy may be missing a point that's easier to see if you're not steeped in a profession whose literal and figurative business is the symphony, that we left the age of the symphony a while back.  There's not likely to be a "great American symphony", as if there needed to be one.  Whatever the aesthetic equivalent of the "great American symphony" may be, if we're even going to take that concept seriously, may have already been composed by guitarists or banjoists or someone playing dulcimer or mandolin or ... I'm biased, probably guitar but also definitely the piano. 

Brouwer has been exploring a West meets Africa musical fusion for more or less his entire musical career in Cuba and he's done that brilliantly.  I keep coming back to Leo Brouwer's music in a way that, honestly, I can't anticipate doing for the music of Florence Price.  Her symphonies are fine but they're not as engaging for me as Brouwer's guitar sonatas or La espiral eternal.  Ophee was right.  We guitarists don't need to have an inferiority complex about our instrument and its musical legacy.  In light of Shadle's advocacy on behalf of the neglected works of Florence Price that can be a reminder to guitarists that an Afro-Cuban composer has been one of the most celebrated guitarist composers of the last half century.

If you want an introduction to Brouwer's music Ricardo Gallen's IBS release last year is a great place to start.  I plan to keep giving Price's music some time and attention but I am a guitarist, after all, so I want to suggest that more people listen to Brouwer.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

a haiku for a specific circumstance 3-12-2020

In Washington state
now's not the time to be part
of a megachurch

Arts events are going to take a beating from this ban, too.  Any concerts you were planning to attend, for instance.

Seattle Public Library has announced all its locations will close until at least April 13 effective 6pm tomorrow night. 

Had he managed to stay in the Seattle area and still be lead preaching and teaching pastor ... someone would have had to deal with the reality of all religious groups of 250+ being banned. 

Now is probably the best time in recent history in Washington state to not be part of a megachurch ... which is not to suggest there's necessarily been an ideal time to be part of one. 

There are some folks online, no doubt, who will argue that Inslee doesn't have the legal right or power to ban church services from gathering together.  That's certainly something that can be discussed and debated but I can think of at least some Presbyterians who have concluded that intinction is not going to be the way eucharist is given for the foreseeable future.

Also ... some recent reading on teaching and doctrine related to passive obedience.

If there's a teaching that United States citizens seem set on never, ever finding in the Bible that might well be one of the teachings.