Saturday, March 21, 2020

At The Imaginative Conservative, more Beethoven panegyric that may help some understand why Americans want to "cancel the 19th century"

I don't think we actually need to "cancel the 19th century".  We would not have ragtime or the protean forms of any of the most interesting American musical styles if we cancelled the 19th century, just as we'd also have to "cancel" the guitar if we consistently cancelled the 19th century, whatever that's supposed to ultimately mean.  I've already come up with a counter-proposal that we just cancel the symphony and leave the 19th century otherwise in peace. 

But in the midst of the 250th (and if you know anything about Beethoven then I don't even need to explain the number further) it can be easy to read praise of Beethoven and see how right-thinking progressives can regard Beethoven as the emblem and symptom of everything regarded as wrong with American music education in post-secondary contexts.

At the fourteenth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, held between April 15 and June 27, 1902, the German sculptor Max Klinger unveiled his monument to Ludwig van Beethoven. Conceived as a tribute to Beethoven, the entire celebratory program determined to effect an artistic synthesis, integrating architecture, painting, sculpture, design, and music into a unified aesthetic vision, with Klinger’s statue providing the focal point.[i] Klinger exalted Beethoven as an artistic hero, fittingly enshrined among the gods.
For Klinger and the other contributors to the show, including the architect Josef Hoffmann, who designed the sanctum sanctorum where Beethoven sat, and the painter Gustav Klimt, whose erotic and allegorical frieze illustrated the power of art to vanquish the adversities of life, Beethoven had been instrumental in creating the modern artistic sensibility. He was arguably the first to establish the vision of the artist as genius, serving as an intermediary between God and man. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Beethoven thought he had an intimate relationship with God. “I know well that God is nearer to me in my art than to others,” he affirmed. “I consort with him without fear: evermore have I acknowledged and understood him.”[ii] Twenty years before Percy Bysshe Shelley declared in 1821 that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Beethoven had already characterized the artist and even the musician, who had heretofore been no better than a minor household servant, as the spokesmen for a “suffering humanity.”[iii] As the equal of God, Beethoven would tolerate subservience to no mere mortal. 
The status of the artist was thus greater than that of the aristocrat or royal. However consequential such powerful men might be, Beethoven insisted that they could never hope to approximate his brilliance. [emphasis added] They might, he wrote, “hang a decoration around a man’s neck” and “make a privy councilor or a minister,” but their feeble imaginations could not conceive a work of artistic genius.[iv] They must learn their place and must be taught to respect the endowments that they did not themselves possess, or even comprehend.
Dead white guy presenting himself as having a direct line to God, huh? We'll have to come back to that but let's keep going through the Beethoven article:
Beethoven could get away with such impertinence in part because of changing attitudes toward music that had emerged during the early nineteenth century. Traditionally, music was a lesser art form than poetry. Music appealed only to the senses and emotions, while poetry engaged the mind, imagination, and spirit. In addition, unlike poetry, music had no moral content and could thus elicit no moral response. An expression of the sentiments only, music had nothing to do with the reason or virtue that nourished serious, critical thought.[v] Even on those rare occasions when music did affect the mind, its influence was temporary. Devoid of concepts, music was too ephemeral to make a lasting impression.[vi]
By the turn of the nineteenth century, a different, more generous, view of music had come to the fore. It turned out that the very passions music excited made it valuable and important. Music enhanced intuition and self-consciousness. It offered the possibility of insight far exceeding any knowledge that reason alone could impart. Music “made the listener more clearly aware of the workings of the inner self,” explained G.W. F. Hegel. “The special characteristic relating the abstract inner-consciousness most closely to music is emotion, the self-extending subjectivity of the ego.” [vii] Beethoven’s piano sonatas, for instance, conveyed both intimacy and emotion. He, or sometimes his audience, bestowed on them such titles as “Moonlight,” “Pathétique,” and “Appassionata.” Beethoven also used poetry to serve music, as when he famously ended the Ninth Symphony with a chorus singing Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” As Henriette, the sister of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, observed, music as no other art form enabled “spirit to speak directly to spirit.” [viii] Music had become the unifying force around which all the other arts cohered. [emphasis added]
We'll come back to that later but for now I'm still quoting extensively from Beethoven panegyric: 
 He sought to infuse his music with the most advanced expressions of intellect and emotion, asserting that music was “a higher revelation than the whole of wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, invents. Philosophy is a striking of music’s electrical spirit. . . . So art always represents the divine, and the relationship of men toward art is religion: What we obtain from art comes from God, is divine inspiration.” [x] Yet, Beethoven was not trying to turn music in particular, or art in general, into a secular faith. A devout, if somewhat unorthodox Roman Catholic, Beethoven believed that music was the way in which human beings came to know God. At the same time, the Romantic Movement that he helped to initiate became a substitute for traditional religion and, whatever his intentions, Beethoven was its priest and prophet.

In the annals of what Richard Taruskin has called Matthew Arnold style art religion the high priests of this Western art-as-religion in the 19th century were arguably Beethoven and then Wagner, the self-selected prophet-priest-kings of art-religion and music-as-the-sublime-art.  Should we ever forget there are writers that can remind us.  Since this is a piece in The Imaginative Conservative there's room to note that not all of the legacy of this divinization of the European composer as artist was necessarily good:
The Romantic Movement, (or perhaps more accurately the Romantic state of mind, since Romanticism was amorphous and no organized movement at all), immeasurably enriched Western thought, literature, music, and art. It fashioned new idioms, new musical structures (or infused a new level of emotion into traditional forms), new combinations of color, and new perspectives on the individual, society, and God. Romanticism sought to validate spontaneity and passion without, at the same time, precluding reason and introspection. It ventured to enlarge human experience and to deepen human understanding. Intellect alone was not sufficient to the task. In short, Romanticism offered a host of novel possibilities to thinkers, writers, composers, and artists who wished to see the world with fresh eyes, and to expand their vision of reality.
But in addressing the limits and confronting the errors of the Enlightenment, in attempting to integrate mind and heart, the Romantics introduced unanticipated problems of their own making. Until the advent of Romanticism, Western Civilization had rested on a consensus of values and tastes, drawn both from its classical and Christian heritage. Romanticism destroyed that consensus, or at least presided over its erosion. By rejecting an absolute, objective standard of meaning and by making self-expression and self-realization, innovation and originality, the principal aims of all art, Romanticism undermined the unity and coherence of civilization in the West. Notwithstanding the many works of genius it produced, and the astute insights into the human condition to which it gave voice, Romanticism thus also contributed to the intellectual confusion and the spiritual disarray into which the West has since fallen.
Now Beethoven actually is a composer I have a great deal of admiration and respect for.  His final piano sonata is a remarkable piece of music and I've written about how part of what makes that sonata remarkable is how he shifted the weight of developmental episodes outside of the development section of his sonata movement into the transitions.  Manipulating the conventions of form and sound themselves, however, was very often in the Romantic era presented as if it were ignoring the conventions and rules of stifling society.  

I'll quote Meyer extensively before long but I think it's necessary to point out that while Beethoven seemed to be breaking the norms and propriety of the 18th century he was still following the conventions of counterpoint and harmony and melody.  He was messing with conventions about form and size but to put it in terms of American fast-food, he didn't invent french fries, he just biggie-sized them and nobody had biggie-sized french fries the way Beethoven had done up to that point so it was new and daring.  As European tuning systems became more uniform across Europe it was easy for philosophers in Europe to regard their continent's music as a universal language able to speak from heart to heart because Western European music had a history of borrowing across ethnic and national divides--Bach's sound was a synthesis of English, German, French, Italian, Polish and Austrian sounds to put it in contemporary terms, but that final fusion became emblematic of the German sound.  That the grand unity of Bach's styles was possibly a post hoc constrution of 19th century theorists and pedagogues would be something for other posts and more formally scholarly writers, too.

Beethoven was free to "break the rules" because he was pushing the envelope of size and breaking the proprietary guidelines for when and where to do things that, in and of themselves, were still perfectly normal things to do within even 18th century musical practice.  He wasn't about to pull an Anton Reicha and write a 5/8 fugue in A major whose answer comes in the key of E flat.  

So we should remember that although Beethoven broke certain conventions and blazed new trails he upheld others.  As the ur-Romantic artist as prophet-priest-king of the soul he's useful to consider in light of Western art-religion even for those who regard Western art-religion as an ultimately negative thing.  But now, finally, let me get to Meyer:

ISBN 0-226-52152-4

page 163-164

But the romanticism that we will be concerned with--the movement begun in the eighteenth century and continued into our own time--is not merely different. It is not just that it seems more extreme and pervasive. Rather it constitutes a radical departure--a difference in kind.

The latest romanticism differs from all other romanticisms in this: Instead of being but a phase within a periodic swing in the inclinations and beliefs of the artistic/intellectual community, this romanticism formed part of a profound change--revolution is not too strong a term--in social, political, and ideological outlook. ... At its core, I will argue, was an unequivocal and uncompromising repudiation of a social order based on arbitrary, inherited class distinctions. This rejection was not confined to the arts or philosophy; rather it penetrated every corner of culture and all levels of society. It was, and is, Romanticism with a capital R.

Although the roots of this Romanticism extended back to the Renaissance and Reformation--for instance, to the growing emphasis on the worth of the individual, the widened perspective fostered by the discovery of new lands and cultures, and the dazzling achievements of the natural sciences--its prime driving force was a political and social radicalism that defined itself "as the antithesis of feudal Christianity ... ."

Which could be why, no surprise, contributors to The Imaginative Conservative might find the net and cumulative effects of that kind of Romanticism to be mixed. Perhaps the bitterest irony of the Romantic era European white guys who inveighed against the corruptions of residual feudal Christendom and clericalism is that over the course of a century or two it seems as though the prophet-priest-king artists and poets and musicians managed to replicate the vices they saw in the ancient regime.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss as a famous rock song puts it.

page 176

... The Romantic affirmation of the primacy of unconscious, spontaneous inspiration growing out of individual emotion, and the concomitant denial and denigration of the claims of consciousness and shared rationality, result in a curious, almost paradoxical dichotomy between the creative act and the aesthetic object. For though reason plays virtually no role in inspired creation, the relationships that are prized in works of art result from the inevitability and inner logic of organic development. 

page 195
... Emphasis on the centrality of concealed underlying processes or principles has continued, affecting twentieth-century thought in many fields of inquiry, including, for example, linguistics (deep structure), psychology (Freudian theory), and anthropology (structuralism). In aesthetic theory, as elsewhere, there tended to be reification; the concealed principle, instead of being understood as a provisional hypothesis inferred from actual perceived phenomena, became what was real, while the sights and sounds of the world were appearance--surface manifestations of a more fundamental principle. From this point of view, organicism is Platonism in biological clothing.

Both the composition of music and especially the concepts informing theory and criticism were, as we shall see, significantly affected by this strand of Romanticism. In composition, the ultimate consequences were methods such as those of serial and statistical music in which the compositional "seed" was explicitly and consciously contrived--an ironic outcome for an ideology that particularly valued unconscious, spontaneous inspiration!  The same ideological strand was at least partly responsible for the exegetic character of much music theory and criticism. For if the principles governing relationships in music lie concealed behind less important surface features, then it becomes the task of the theorist and critic to reveal this inner essence, wheter it be Schenkerian Ursatz, a motivic germ, or a Fibonacci series. Thus theorists and critics become comparable to theologians or seers interpreting the divinely inspired message of the creator. 

The stance and style of 20th century high modernism was ultimately Romantic, which was why Meyer saw fit to refer to the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as late late Romantic composers. He even went so far as to suggest that on the basis of the ideological and aesthetic stance of John Cage that Cage was the archetypal Romantic.  I've written about Cage and Meyer and the self-extinguishing potential of the avant garde elsewhere.  Meyer pointed out that while the Romantics repudiated convention at an ideological level they found themselves in a tight spot when it came to figuring out how to organize their music, art and poetry.

page 201

... the Romantic repudiation of convention (and especially of neo-Aristotelian aesthetics, which had been associated with the ancien regime), coupled with the denigration and weakening of syntactic relationships, highlighted the presence of diversity. As a result, the basis of coherence and unity became an issue: How did disparate and individualized themes, diverse modes of organization, and contrasts of expression--all intensified by the valuing of originality--form an organic whole? How did the several parts of a set of piano pieces or the different movements of a symphony or chamber work constitute a cohesive composition?

The problem was especially acute in the aesthetics of music. In literature, significant weakening of syntactic constraints and hierarchic organization were never really viable options, and in the visual arts, at least until the twentieth century, coherence was significantly dependent upon iconicity. In both realms, the representation of human and physical nature--often with convention disguised by historical or ethnic exoticism--played an important role in creating artistic unity. But in instrumental music, "unity through representation" was not a possibility, except of course in program music. And it is not implausible to argue that program music flourished in the nineteenth century partly because the use of a program was a way of establishing coherence and, in particular, accounting for the juxtaposition and succession of palpably different moods, connotations, and the like. 

A variation of "let me tell what is going to happen and what it's going to mean so that when it happens you get what was supposed to happen".  The program of the music was the insurance policy against the possibility that the music as music might not send a message from heart to heart after all.

page 221

The valuing of individual inner experience is evident in the shift from the eighteenth-century idea that music represented emotions (affects) to the nineteenth century belief that music expressed the feeling of the composer. 


Feeling is all in all; the name is sound and smoke, obscuring heaven's pure glow.

The nicest way to interpret this sentimentalist glop is to propose that what the Romantics aspired to was that what Daniel Kahneman called System 1 could be allowed to do the majority of the work in appreciating and apprehending the cosmos. 

The most potently distilled observation Meyer made about Romanticism as a group of ideologies in the arts may be the following:

page 222

In music, one of the discoveries of Romanticism was how to hide convention, yet have it too. 

page 231

Of the many factors serving to disguise the presence of schemata in nineteenth century music, perhaps none is more obvious than magnitude.  ...

Magnitude tends to mask schemata, --especially those defined by syntactic relationships--because of the constraints of aural memory. ...

They were officially repudiating conventions while at a practical level they were disguising the conventions they leaned upon. Yes, yes, I know that there was a trajectory away from the circle of fifths to chains of thirds in tonal organization and I'm reading George Rochberg's writing on that shift and why it was really revolutionary in Western music to switch from music defined by assymetrical scalar organization to increasingly symmetrical scalar systems.  But Meyer and other scholars have a point in pointing out that a lot of the revolution of the Romantics was, I'll put this indelicately, posing as much as composing.  It's not a surprise to me if in revolutionizing some aspects of music the Romantics became really boring in other realms.  They were revolutionizing harmony, I grant, but for me their overall rhythmic approach could often feel tedious.  Big soaring plangent endless melodies and, meh.  Chopin, I grant, wrote a lot of fun music, though.  

I'm not categorically against 19th century music, but I think I've been clear so far that what I dispute is the whole six-pack of ideologies associated with the Romantic era.  I love a lot of music from Josquin up through Beethoven and then I start to get bored in the 19th century and I find Wagner tedious musically and aggravating personally.  Then we get to about Brahms and Debussy and I'm okay with composers again and we get to Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith and I am more excited about where music goes.  

Perhaps I can put it like this, Beethoven is like a Stanley Kubrick for music.  I don't mind his work but I find the preening elitism and self-congratulation of his fans generally insufferable.  That Beethoven more or less billed himself as the prophet-priest-king of music the supreme art is so inextricable from his legacy and what academics now refer to as the reception history of the Beethoven cult it would be hard to separate the egoism of the artist-genius cult from the music itself.

I like Rick Robinson's ideas that we find ways to advocate for this music of the past without relying on superlatives but relying on the superlatives is pretty clearly what a range of conservative or "conservative" writers do, even those who are persuaded to the bottom of their souls they stand for Enlightenment ideals.  You can only go so many centuries with this kind of post-Beethoven cult of the artist-genius before others qualify for the status or people object to the nature of this kind of cult-forming tendency in letters.

I still admire Beethoven's music.  The Op. 111 piano sonata is a great deal of fun and has moments of striking beauty and violent activity.  Beethoven's Grosse Fugue can be heard in all its complexity as taking the shape of a giant contrapuntal five-part rondo.  We don't have to only talk about his music as though "nobody got it" in his day.  Clearly many people did, as noted in the article at The Imaginative Conservative. 

But as I get older I find that though I still like Beethoven half the time I find his choral music insipid and awkward, whereas Haydn continues to grow on me and I've loved Haydn's music since my twenties.  In an era in which popular and concert music traditions have ossified and insulated and the balkanization of their advocates has gotten seemingly as bad as it can get, a composer like Haydn who, as Charles Rosen put it, wrote in a learned style that was suffused with the virtues of street song seems more what we "need".  We "need" composers who are not continuing the artist as prophet-priest-king in the post-Wagnerian Art-Religion of Beethoven and Wagner, but can retain some kind of populist interest (which Beethoven did have, a bit) in conciliating a variety of styles that partisans want segregated.  Particularly since the election of 45 I have noticed that there has been a tendency among professional artists to define populist concerns in such pejorative terms that you'd think that a large swath of college-educated professional musicians have collapsed any notion of populism with the current executive. 

Beethoven's iconic status as an iconoclast has become a paradox, a double-bind in which the rule-breaker has been regarded as the norm-maker but the maker of forget-the-norms-and-express-your-heart.  The likelihood that most of us love and like in terms of cliches doesn't have much room for a post-Beethoven cult, a cult that Meyer described in his monograph on Romanticism as the ideology of elite egalitarians.  Two and a half centuries since Beethoven's day a potentially impassable rift between the elite accomplishments of canonized artist-heroes and the egalitarian impulses they formally expressed may remain impassable.  The mixture of head and heart that was, in his time, though perhaps more powerfully in posthumous glory, achieved by Beethoven through his music hasn't been replicated.  Many musicians and music scholars would ask why it even needs to be reproduced in our time. 

But it has been, arguably, in figures like Michael Jackson or The Beatles.  The grand act of reconciliation valued in Western arts shifts and the "what" of the reconciliation can change.  In Beethoven's time maybe the great rift was between "head" and "heart" within an intra-European set of concerns.  In the twenty-first century, however, with a probably declining United States at the focal point of a crumbling Atlanticist alliance it may be that the problem hasn't been Beethoven but the obsolescence of the Beethoven cult and of the Romantic nexus of ideologies that have catalyzed Western art.  The taste-makers and power-brokers of our epoch don't find Beethoven as useful as The Beatles or Michael Jackson or Madonna or Elvis or Beyonce. 

As Beethoven's music became more daring and rarified in his later career whatever delicate balance of learned technique and populist appeal that Rosen found in Haydn and Mozart began to get cast aside.  Beethoven solved the great aesthetic challenges that people felt needed to be addressed in his time and place, but the Beethoven cult has created a set of problems for which academic musicologists and music historians seem unable to find solutions to.  Nor should we expect academics to find solutions to the kinds of problems that, were we to take some of the Beethoven cult of the artist arguments at face value, only the artists can solve.  It's left, then, to people who write about music more than they write music to perform some mixture genuflecting before or fulminating against figures like Beethoven, their music, and their reception history. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

some links for the weekend, "Oil Age" at Current Affairs; a riff at The Baffler on conflating feminism and careerism; and a faultline within the progressive/left West across ecological crisis and the representation goals in entertainment industries

Over at Current Affairs, Samuel Miller McDonald has a long piece called "Oil Age: How one commodity explains the rise of our modern age…and now threatens to destroy it."

The piece rambles a while but it reminded me of something one of my progressive friends told me is a core problem in contemporary Western progressive political activism.  The short and blunt version is that nearly ever progressive redistributive policy goal is predicated on the global fossil fuel economy yet if the global fossil fuel economy threatens to destroy the long-term viability of human life as we know it the world over then the crisis progressives face is grappling with a necessity, that the redistributive goals of progressives are basically meaningless compared to getting the global economy off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. 

If such is the case then the villains of the world are not necessarily climate-change deniers, who have been denying anthropogenic climate change anyway, the villains could be those who are progressive and whose idea of progressivism amounts to a higher degree of diversity and "representation" within the industries that, at a global level, have us hurtling toward ecological ruin.

Let's put this point more starkly yet, for all the of the activism of the Hollywood scene and academics what's the cumulative carbon footprint of the entertainment industries and publishing industries? 

If Oscars are still so white that may be a problem for people who want diversity in the Oscars but what if in global terms the film industry itself is a catalyst for fossil fuel consumption over the last century?  To put this in the most scabrous way possible, is sacrificing the global ecosphere worth it so the jet-setting crowd of Hollywood has more diversity?  Is the publishing world going to be more necessary if more women are occupying positions of power within it?

Within the progressive/left scene there are those who are not so sure that having more women in power will be a good thing.  Unsurprisingly, over at The Baffler, this point comes up in a review of a recent book, review written by Rafi Zakaria

“YOU’LL BE A STAR,” Adrienne Miller was told when she applied for the literary and fiction editor position at Esquire magazine back in 1997. It was an apt prediction. Miller, who “lobbied hard” for the job, is the first woman in the history of the magazine to hold the position. It was quite the feminist coup, or so it would appear. After a mere three years working as an editorial assistant at GQ, Miller had become the gatekeeper for all the American short fiction to be published in a magazine whose contributors included Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Raymond Carver.
It is—or, at least was—a powerful position, but you would not know it from Miller’s telling. In The Land of Men, as Miller’s new book is titled, sets itself up to be a memoir of striving and making it in a man’s world, at a leading “men’s magazine” toward the end of the so-called golden age of magazine journalism, while also being a #MeToo tale. It is not that. Miller does strive, and the usual crimes do occur amid the unapologetic maleness of the place; the insistent misogyny of lewd remarks tossed with pre-#MeToo abandon are all truths about Esquire (and GQ) in the nineties.
Much of the attention from early reviews of Miller’s memoir focused on her working relationship and romance with David Foster Wallace. But there’s something just as striking, and perhaps more important, that is central to a feminist reading of the book. Can women who flourished in male-dominated environments and went along with their white-male-centric-cultures claim to be #MeToo heroines? In the Land of Men illustrates this conundrum in all its grey and murky details. You can’t help noticing that while Miller triumphs in the sharp climb she ambitiously plots, she seems oblivious in the plight of other women writers or employees who work with or around her.
It is a pity because (in her own words) Miller is responsible for “finding, acquiring, and editing all the short stories published in Esquire.” There is no hierarchy she must answer to, she smugly admits in the initial glee of the moment, just “me and my judgment” and a distracted editor-in-chief she has already learned to handle. It is, by any estimate, an opportunity to transform the (very male) American literary landscape.
She never avails it. Newly installed in her plum position, she heads off with a friend who happens to work at the Wylie Agency to get introduced to Norman Mailer. She may have “loathed Mailer,” but this judgment does not stop her from blurting “Hey, you should write for Esquire again” when she finally gets her coveted introduction to “the terrifying white cannonball” with a “large degree of personal charm.” He is, after all, the author of “a near masterpiece” (The Executioner’s Song) with a “heroic” work ethic
he problem is that Miller, like others before and others to come, conflates feminism and careerism. The object (marred by self-doubt and the worshipfulness of the fame-adjacent and the talent-adjacent) is ultimately to insure an individualistic realization of her own ambitions rather than any fealty to the larger cause of all women. She wants, in the words of the longtime GQ editor Art Cooper, on the fateful day of her hiring at Esquire, to be a star.
It is too bad that in the end she seems to settle simply for having been the neglected romantic interest of a literary star. The focus on David Foster Wallace in In the Land of Men reiterates that Miller never gets to be the star of her own story. To be a worthy #MeToo memoir, In the Land of Men would need to have plumbed questions of what women in power owe other women, of the costs of power frittered away, and of the use of access to celebrity as some crude affirmation of self-worth. It does none of these things, and so it ends up being yet another story in which a badly behaved and narcissistic man encroaches and overtakes a woman’s story.
if climate change is as dangerous as some say it is then pushing for more women to get prestigious roles in the publishing and entertainment industries might be a  waste of time.  If we're in a such a moment as "Oil Age" conveys then the ambitions of someone like Miller, or even of anyone writing about Miller, would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Having read a few books by Jacques Ellul a passing remark he made about progressive writers in the 1970s was that times had changed and that what progressives and leftists seemed to define as increasing freedom was not necessarily the kinds of political liberties proposed by earlier political and social theorists so much as activism on behalf of the idea that freedom meant more access to participation in the creation of and consumption of consumer goods.  A way to put this crudely would be to invoke a claim that "Everyone Deserves a Smart Phone"  Sure, someone could write: "As more of life has moved online, access to the internet has become overwhelmingly important—so much so that a 2011 UN report suggested making internet access a universal right, a belief that has been put into practice by France and Finland, among other countries."
But is internet access a universal right?  Is it a human right?  If so, on what basis?  More to the point, what kind of world has the post-industrial West made that access to the internet can be considered a candidate for being a universal human right.  
What's the carbon footprint of a smart phone?  How easily can the components of the smart phone be recycled?  Sometimes it seems as though conservatives and reactionaries don't have to do any work at all if within the progressive wing rifts of the sort I've been observing over the last twenty years crop up in which climate change will be the end of us yet working definitions of human rights have expanded to include presumptions that access to what are essentially consumer goods and services in post-industrial Western nation-states are part of what can be proposed for inclusion in human rights.
There's no doubt many in the West live from day to day with the help of machines or have survived into adulthood because of machines.  We can take that for granted too readily.  
We're living in the midst of a pandemic that has been possible because of the globalist world the West has created.  We made this world possible.  There's a lot about this Western world that's remarkable and that I think can and should be considered with gratitude but there are ... the economist's term might be ... opportunity costs.  The price of such a spectacularly "small world" with international travel and intranational trade and industry is that we have a world in which a pandemic can spread with unprecedented speed.
California is in lockdown mode and a friend told me recently that it's merely a matter of "when" and not "if" the governor of Washington decides Washington state needs to be in lockdown mode.
For those who haven't cultivated a fondness for older songs, you might not, by chance, have heard Blind Willie Johnson's "When the War was On" that featured lines about how barley and wheat were measured and sugar was rationed tightly and people complained they couldn't get sugar but "we've got to save the sugar for the boys in France." Fr. Ernesto mulled over how it was a few generations ago that Americans had to deal with the reality of government rationing in times of war and how, well, I'll just quote him:
With this coronavirus crisis and response and now the invocation of the Defense Production Act, I am beginning to get a very vague idea of how our parents and grandparents must have felt. But, let me emphasize, a very vague idea.
Back during World War II, gasoline, sugar, various foods were rationed. They were rationed precisely to prevent the type of hoarding that some people are now engaging in. There were also laws that were still in place to prevent price gouging. Some of those laws have already been invoked against the unscrupulous who have chosen to take advantage of the unnecessary panic by rushing to buy products.
Here is what I cannot imagine. I cannot imagine being under that type of regulation for four years. I cannot imagine a quarantine (during the end of World War I) that lasted for months while friends and neighbors were infected and some died. And, yet, our grandparents and great-grandparents experienced this type of life for extended periods of time. ...
Alan Jacobs had a short blog post about extended families recently.  Having spent my high school years in an extended family setting where my family lived at my maternal grandmother's house some form of extended family life has been what I've done for probably half my life.  In a way, all my life, since I still have family in the city and have only spent some years not living with family during a relatively short stretch of my former Mars Hill years.  But even in those years I had what could be considered an extended family experience.  
These days, though, there can be great shame associated with living in extended families, because of the peculiar sense of independence that so many of us have. Young adults don’t feel independent unless and until they are living away from their parents; and as for the parents, as they age they dread the loss of independence that would accompany having to move in with their children. 
There is at least the chance that the current crisis will change those feelings. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans are going to lose their jobs in the coming months. Not all of them will have homes to go to — “homes” in the Robert Frost sense of a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in — but those who do will have a chance to revisit our assumptions about the necessity, indeed the very value, of independence. And that may not be an altogether bad thing. 

Maybe not the same thing as David Brooks' "the nuclear family was a mistake".  

March 19, 2020 haiku in Seattle

this morning the bus
smells from floor to ceiling like
it was sprayed with bleach

Thursday, March 19, 2020

an exchange between Rick Robinson and Douglas Shadle reminds this amateur composer guitarist how much the online discourse on the symphonic canons can be an intra-professional debate

Although I'm a guitarist and not an orchestral musician or a musician tied to orchestral music, I read debates and discussions on the orchestral traditions with interest.  I've had some polite disagreements with John Borstlap of the Future Symphony Institute about a few things while also having had some fun exchanges via comments with Ethan Hein here at this blog.  I've been interested over my twenty plus years of musical life in exploring ways to melt down the boundaries between "high" musical styles and "popular" musical styles.

So at a very basic level, being a lifelong anti-Romantic in terms of the ideologies of Romanticism, I'm sympathetic to a great deal of what Doug Shadle has had to say about music history in connection to the symphony.  Yet for as much sympathy as I have for many things he writes I am a guitarist, which means that I can see him make cases for how and why Florence Price's work, which was well-received in her lifetime by those who had a chance to hear it, was functionally cast out of music history by a bunch of white racist bros who decided to not keep her work circulating long enough to have gained the place it could have and should have had in the American symphonic canon.

Having read about the ways the United States authorities sought to ban Native American musical and ritual practices and how among musicologists Native American song was rarely ever regarded as music I can be very sympathetic to most of what Shadle argues.

But here I am, an amateur guitarist, and the guitarist part of me wonders whether symphonic musicians and historians of symphonic music might come around to granting that Mississippi John Hurt, Tampa Red, Blind Willie Johnson, Lonnie Johnson and Joseph Kekuku have all had a more profound influence on the American musical landscape.  The guitarist and publisher Matanya Ophee used to say that the mainstream of concert music performance and education went along as though the guitar didn't exist, and if the guitar was acknowledged it got some little cubby hole office in the corner of the music department.

I freely admit I'm much more a fan of Ellington and Monk and George Walker and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor than I've managed to be a fan of Florence Price.  I'm giving her music a listen, though, and there's a lot I admire about her thematic concision and the way she plays with her themes.  If you're a self-identified classicist or a formalist (in the way that Leonard B. Meyer used that term in Music, the Arts and Ideas, specifically) then Price is worth checking out.  I admit that being a guitarist I'm curious to know if Price specialists can confirm whether she wrote any works for the guitar.  That would be fascinating to learn.

Among guitarists, as I've noted in the past, one of the luminaries of contemporary classical guitar literature is Leo Brouwer and his guitar sonatas are all fantastic and I hope to blog about them in the future.  Perhaps if Shadle wanted some ammunition for underlining his points about the reactionary tendencies within the symphonic scene he could consult guitarists on what differences, if any, are in the guitar scene.  This is hardly to say there's no history of racism or bigotry in classical guitar history.  As Ophee put it so bluntly, many important classical guitarist composers were professional soldiers whose day job was murdering people for nation states!

It's true that in "conventional" music education the composer and "work" tend to get favored ...

but in many eras of "classical" music before and after the "long 19th century" the metaphorical distances between composer and performer or even listener were not always as big as they became in the 19th century (which is why I half get Shadle's call to arms that we "cancel the 19th century" while not wishing to do so because the Spanish six-stringed guitar was know it wasn't fully formed until, practically speaking, the 19th century.

Further, the question of whether we can or should reduce an artistic tradition to the most infamous atrocities perpetrated by the patronage empires whose funds created art is something that Rick Robinson brought up by way of some polite pushback on some of what Shadle has had to say.  I can't possibly do better than quoting Robinson directly:

Rick RobinsonMar 6Liked by Doug Shadle
Hey Doug, First, let me hope that you and your loved ones are unscathed from the tornadoes. Second, let me suggest you would really enjoy meeting the cellist Jon Silpayamanant of Louisville and his blog Mae Mai, which exposes many of the non-Western orchestra traditions to American audiences.
Third, I think one can take this argument too far that "orchestras are a tool of white [and male?] supremacy." While the community I grew up in certainly saw it that way, my family and I as an independent individual certainly did not. And we're black. It's a matter of choice... or perhaps luck that I turned out to be very good at classical music, that I embraced it and made a strong career of it. Clearly, most kids don't have this luck or choice. But rejecting classical music as "the best music in the world" is a bit like rejecting English as "the best language in the world." On the basis it became dominant (lingua franca) over French, Farsi and Cantonese doesn't actually make it "the best," but simply the most practical language to communicate worldwide. We generally don't reject it AS "the language of the oppressors Britain and United States."
I have learned not to use superlatives with respect to classical music, realizing how alienating and arrogant this seems to other musicians. Esp. when I would never want to be without the other musics that also keep me sane; blues, songs, jazz, folk, jujuka, etc.. The industry has tried to teach how classical music can be a "universal tool," but only to those who've already self-selected. We've insulated ourselves from contamination of other ideas, except in small, measurable doses such as my own hybrid compositions. Classical music has and can be employed to serve political causes, but really only stands for the cause of preserving classical music itself. It has been very exclusive and we can feel/be very hurt by that (that tells me we want to be insiders), but the standards by which the industry maintains very high qualities are worth both preserving as well as circumventing with new ensembles, concert series and musicians that can truly serve, welcome and include a broader public.
Doug ShadleMar 8
Rick, thanks for this great commentary and for your kind words about the tornado. We're OK. We actually live in Louisville and I was home for spring break when they hit. I know Jon through the internet, incidentally, but not offline. Since I'm in Nashville a lot of the time, we haven't had a chance to connect.
For what it's worth, I completely agree with everything you're saying here, including the point about how black individuals often perceive (and have perceived) classical music differently from one another. When people who don't know much about the topic ask me about the relationship between race and classical music, the first thing I always say is, "Wow, it's complicated!" The biggest barrier I've encountered to deeper understanding is precisely this issue--that individuals typically have a narrow or even stereotyped perception of what it means to be black (or another race), which limits how they can imagine someone's relationship to classical music.
Along those lines, I would only add that the art never exists independently from the institutions that make it, so if the institutions themselves are exclusionary or discriminatory, the experience of the art will have some of that negative residue. If the art is to have a meaningful, positive future, I think it's imperative for *institutions* (through the individuals who govern them and participate in them) to resist these past institutional practices and make the art into something better. That requires deep thinking about how institutions relate to (a) its supporters/audiences, (b) the creative artists who provide the music, and (c) the people who make up the institutions. As my friend Aubrey Bergauer says, "It's about people." The notion that an institution functions within a "transactional reality" seems like the definition of dehumanization, which then leads to reinforcing exclusionary or harmful behaviors.
In any case, thanks again! There's a lot of work to be done to maintain the high level of performance, as you said, in addition to making the institutions more sensitive to the radical humanity of the enterprise.
...What jumps out for me as an amateur guitarist is how intra-professional this back and forth is.  Shadle's point loses a great deal of power if we open to field to all the amateur musicians and composers whose activities would, in the phrasing of Paul Hindemith, be the lifeblood of the actual musical life of a culture.

Since I live in Seattle I'm going to put this in the starkest way possible, in the era of COVID-19 there's been some comment even from an orchestra conductor about how now is turning out to not be the time for orchestral music.

I'm on board with the idea that the music we "need" now is chamber music.

Fortunately there's plenty of it and I hope, as I've written earlier, we can hear more of Price's chamber music along the way.  My not being so much into symphonic music as I was a decade ago doesn't mean I don't want to hear chamber music.  What it may mean, I'm pondering, is whether a demise of the symphony in the current viral age means that attempts to revive Price's symphonies may falter--all the more reason that people dedicated to reviving the fortunes of her music tackle her chamber music. 

When Heinrich Schutz had to deal with the realities of a generation-long war he scaled back the musical resources he wrote for.  I wonder if American musicians have in some way functionally forgotten how long we've been in a range of global military conflicts.  Shifting to chamber music may have been overdue as it is. 

I wonder, as an amateur musician, how far Shadle can push the argument that "art never exists independently from the institutions that make it ... "  I've gone so far as to insist that all high art is inevitably imperialist.  You can't have any high art without it being a reflection of some kind of imperialism. Full stop.  It won't matter if the person in the canon is a Beethoven or a Florence Price.

That's not intended as an argument against high art because as I see human history, imperialism is ineradicable from human society.  The countervailing approach is to encourage music that's more driven by the work of amateurs.  Academic folklorists would tend to, probably wrongly, conflate such a view with folklore.  Having finished Karl Hagstrom Miller's Segregating Sound I wonder whether or not the entire range of professional musicians may need to have a reckoning with a Jim Crow mentality that emerged parallel to the recorded music industry in ways that suppressed musical styles before they could ever even be recorded.  Chevalier de St. George managed to write a good sized body of music back in the days of Haydn and seeing as I don't much like Mozart calling Joseph Bologne a "black Mozart" seems unfair to his accomplishments.

it's still interesting to read the discussions and debates about the symphonic repertoire but I've made it no secret I think the era of the symphony is basically behind us.  That does make it more rather than less important to become familiar with the musical riches of that legacy.  That can be a case that Price's work needs to be heard more urgently now that the symphonic idiom has been on the wane, particularly in the United States, and may take a nosedive in the era of COVID-19.

We may be in for a long stretch where keeping the various arts of music that are thought of as "Western" alive may have to happen through chamer music or even subsets of chamber music that have been dubbed hausmusik or tafelmusik, the kinds of stuff that doesn't tend to get celebrated in music programs in colleges in the U.S.  When's the last time you heard anyone sing the praises of the chamber music for French horn and flute and guitar by Christian Dickhut, for example?  Even among long-dead white guys the Austrian composer Ferdinand Rebay wrote a lot of chamber music for guitar with woodwinds and strings that's the kind of not-symphonic music we could hear more of.

I've written that I am not convinced the future of "classical" music is the symphony before but if the viral situation we're dealing with now continues a global pandemic may force all of us who love what's notionally regarded as Western concert music or "classical" music to reassess whether the symphony has long since passed it's metaphorical sell-by date.  If it has then Americans should study the neglected symphonic repertoire of American composers ... without necessarily expecting anyone else on earth to care along with us that American symphonists were ignored by American music journalists for not sounding German enough.

If you think they were dismissive about symphonies written by the wrong kinds of people Matanya Ophee used to say he had a lexicon of invective against the guitar and guitarists ... which sounded like the makings of a book I'd like to read.

we may be transitioning into a new era of music but I'm not so sure our brains comprehend music as differently now as fifty years ago

One of my family members has quipped over the last ten or twenty years that nothing dates 1980s era sitcoms as brutally as a line, so often uttered on a show like Three's Company, "These are the 80s!"  There's a kind of "get it together, people, we're living in the NOW" manifesto that tethers the assumptions of progress and change to a moment so mercurial that the preservation of such a proclamation dates the proclamation as soon as it has been made.

In the arts declarations that our brains are not what the brains of humans fifty or a hundred years ago were have been common, if not exactly commonplace, for a century or few.

I realize that many American musicians and composers feel as though we're too beholden to music from the common practice era but, still, many a guitarist who has never been inside that scene in academic terms could start to get the idea that the insiders are protesting too much.  There are protests about the way things seem to be inside the nexus of music industries that may seem more powerful to the professionals than will be salient to amateurs.

So when I read something like this it's interesting to read professionals scoff at this sort of manifesto even when, as a hobbyist musician, I fail to see that the assertions made are convincing and also get a sense that the entrenched professionals don't have the most generous response either.

So here's something from Catherine Lamb that, along the way, talks about how we listen and how we perceive is different than it was a decade ago: [more after the break]