Saturday, April 11, 2020

music for Holy Saturday, Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night ... " and Mahalia Jackson's performance of the same

if you want to hear an equally glorious version with the words of the hymn, you can hardly do better than Mahalia Jackson singing "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground on Which my Savior Prayed"

Hindemith, Mathis der Maler Symphony, movement 2

Yes, I know, Paul Hindemith fans are few and far between nowadays (and maybe in the past) but I really do actually like a good chunk of the music of Paul Hindemith.

Mathis der Maler was an opera Hindemith composed on the life of a painter and ... skip it.  The symphonic suite is pretty cool, though, one of my favorite orchestral works, and this second movement corresponds to a panel from the Isenheim altarpiece that depicts Christ in the tomb.  So pretty suitable music for Holy Saturday.  There's a tradition at Wenatchee The Hatchet to link to music that was composed for Holy Saturday or thematically corresponds to the day.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Bach - Mache dich, mein Herze, rein from St Matthew Passion BWV 244 | Netherlands Bach Society

I've loved J. S. Bach's Matthew Passion for decades and this baritone aria is one of my favorite passages in the work.  If I thought I could pull off the feat of transposing this for voice and solo guitar ... I'd transpose it down into A major first, because even I'm not that uncompromising about key signatures.

Penderecki, Luke Passion

Because it is Good Friday (in the Western rite) and because Penderecki died recently. 

Norman Lebrecht relays concerns that UK orchestras are in critical condition which is yet another reason I doubt that the future of "classical music" is likely to take a symphonic form now that a pandemic is gutting concert life as we've known it in the classical scene

via Slipped Disc

relaying the following:

With the global pandemic situation gutting concert life it's not a surprise that Bachtrack has closed shop

Sympathetic as I am to the cause of continuing what's generally called "classical music" I have had my doubts, and posted them here at my blog, over the last year or so that whatever the future of classical music is that it will necessarily take the form of the symphony.

I.e. the name Future Symphony Institute might put too much stock in there being symphonies in the future.  I don't think for a second that "a renaissance for classical music means a renaissance for humanity".  That seems like the kind of "fine art makes you a fine person" kind of manifesto that Richard Taruskin has spent his entire professional career, more or less, arguing emphatically against.

On the other hand, per some pieces by Jay Nordlinger at the Future Symphony Institute website, that were published in The New Criterion (back when I bothered to even read that magazine, come to think of it), mentioned way back circa 2004 some points raised more recently at On an Overgrown Path back in 2014 (there's too much classical music in terms of market saturation):
We have a glut problem, however. Horne recalls saying fully twenty-five years ago, “We should close all the conservatories for five years,” just to give the job market a break. And “now the situation is worse!” For woodwind and brass players, life has always been tricky: Zarin Mehta tells me that, for a recent tuba opening in the Philharmonic, over 120 people applied. [Editor’s note: A current tuba opening at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has over 180 applicants.] One result of all this redundant talent is that players tend to be quite good, everywhere. David Delta Gier, a conductor with wide experience both in America and abroad, says, “You should hear some of the players in Sioux Falls!” (The orchestra there is the South Dakota Symphony.) The sad part of our cornucopia is that many musicians wind up disappointed. Gier knows many fellow conductors – or would-be conductors – who have not had careers, or satisfying ones, simply because of the number of podiums available (versus all those who want to stand on them). “You get into a great school, you study with a great teacher, you work hard, you do everything right, and you think you ought to be rewarded. But a lot of people have been made to realize that that’s not necessarily the case.”

In a pandemic scenario even an orchestral conductor has pointed out the obvious, that symphonic music is not necessarily "what we need" these days.  Chamber music may be better able to withstand the current tide of policies that have curtailed concert life.  

Actually, that kind of gets me back to why I think Douglas Shadle is basically wrong about the idea of canceling the nineteenth century.  In a global pandemic we might want to actually revisit the Biedermeier era of in-house music-making.  I'm a classical guitarist interested in solo guitar music and particularly chamber music that includes the guitar so, of course, I don't see any reason we should "cancel the nineteenth century" when it was during the 1810 to 1845 period or thereabouts that guitarists were writing the kind of DIY music for amateurs playing solo and chamber music of the sort that we could learn from if the global covid-19 pandemic situation has led to policies that may 
permanently damage concert life at the orchestral and symphonic levels.  You can still play Chopin or even Beethoven (or Dussek or Hummel) in the privacy of your home, just like you can play blues, jazz standards or ragtime.  

When the Thirty Years War raged along Heinrich Schutz didn't make a point of staying at the production level of the grander larger-scale works he did in his earlier career.  He stripped everything down to little sacred concert music pieces.  His Passion settings shifted into voices-only for liturgical but also practical reasons.  

The guitar music of Mauro Giuliani is still fun to play even if snooty classical music critics at The Guardian have referred to it as silly trifling music.  Frankly, as a guitarist I find it easier to bridge the gap between American popular styles (i.e. ragtime from a century ago) and classical music by way of having studied Carulli, Giuliani or Legnani.  For that matter a Bohemian guitarist composer like Matiegka also wrote works that have given me inspiration to bridge the gap between American vernacular styles and sonata forms but Italian and Bohemian and Spanish guitarist composers are generally so far off the radar for mainstream musicology it's never been a surprise to me if in the turf wars of academic music studies pop vs orchestra or salon traditions have persisted.  If there's something we guitarists could potentially do the world over, it could be to develop ways of thinking and composing and writing about music that could potentially bridge this chasm, which musicology-as-usual in the last century and a half, even including New Musicology, has rarely seemed to be interested in remedying.   If a string quartet from Haydn might even seem hard to stage these days Haydn is public domain, try transcribing.  There are ways to learn from and to continue what we find beautiful in the old even if the received ways of playing that music can be kept from us due to the exigencies of dealing with a pandemic.  

Some ideas for consideration. 

Alan Jacobs compares R. R. Reno on the novelty of the covid-19 response to Agamben's statements on the normalization of states of exception

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity. 
That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives. 
I find this convergence quite interesting, and wish I had the time to trace the intellectual genealogy that led a post-Heideggerian, quasi-Foucauldian continental philosopher and a traditionalist Catholic to make precisely the same argument. Reno’s contemptuous dismissal of the value of “physical life” echoes Agamben’s “purely biological condition,” his famous concept of “bare life,” while Reno’s attack on “a perennial state of fear and insecurity” echoes Agamben’s “perennial crisis and perennial emergency,” his equally famous “state of exception.” (One common ancestor, I think: Carl Schmitt.)
But for now I’ll just note that perhaps the strongest obvious link between them is indifference to the truth of their historical claims. What Reno got wrong about the American response to the Spanish flu I mentioned in an earlier post; for a refutation of Agamben’s claim that a sense of emergency in plague time is a new phenomenon, see, for instance, this post by my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins, and Anastasia Berg’s critique. When the facts get in the way of the narrative, print the narrative.  ...

Comparing a contemporary traditionalist Catholic take (a la Reno) on the covid 19 situation to Agamben is ... interesting ... .  Jacobs floats the idea more implicitly than explicitly that we live in a strange time when figures on the religious conservative side of our era so readily recapitulate arguments made by Marxists in a previous century.

Having done some comparative reading in Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton I would venture to say that paradox is not only not very irony these days but practically seems to be a norm.

Something else Jacobs has written about lately is:

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.
For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed.
Scott Alexander has done a great job of explaining the widespread relevance of the motte-and-bailey tactic. And it is a tactic that is getting a heavy workout these days, especially from certain parts of the Christian Right (especially its Catholic-integralist, nationalist-fundamentalist, and snake-handling Baptist wings.) 
Alexander writes, “So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement” — or perhaps a statement that’s widely accepted in your social circle — “so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.” And that’s how it goes with the Ours-is-not-a-spirit-of-fear crowd too. 

The "motte-and-bailey doctrine" seems less like a doctrine and more like a tactic, although of course it should be mentioned that in geopolitical policy a doctrine generally works out in tactics and strategies but I digress.  As a rhetorical tactic, whatever "motte-and-bailey" pans out to be seems weirdly familiar to me after a decade or so of observing how people like Mark Driscoll have wielded social media. 

But I wonder if the "doctrine" as it plays out in social media depends on social media "reach".  To be plain, Mark Driscoll can imply by way of those rhetorical question titles that, ironically, more often can appear in the blog posts of watchdog bloggers, that in asking "Was Nebuchadnazzar demon-possessed?" in the title the answer has to be "yes" or the blog post would never have been written in the first place.  "Did abuse happen at Church X under the leadership of Pastor Y?" in a watchdog blog context is very often simply an uncertainty gambit that substitutes for what a journalist would report as "Allegation of abuse at Church X under the leadership of Pastor Y". 

Thursday, April 09, 2020

some thoughts having finished Richard Taruskin's Cursed Questions, more on my own dissent from art-religion and the binaries of the Cold War era

One of the fun parts about blogging can be when writers can bounce ideas off each other and, whether they necessarily always agree, spark interesting discussions.  There was a time between about 2011 to 2015 that this blog was mostly known as a stopping point for people who wanted to read about the former Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  During those years I would occasionally get some angry comments to the effect that "all" I ever wrote about was Mars Hill stuff or about Pastor Mark (Driscoll). 

That was never the case but for people locked into a brand loyalty that could have seemed to be the case.  I didn't have any problem writing about Pixar movies I liked (and I admit I like quite a few, having wanted to be an animator when I was a boy and having never lost my respect for the craft and skill it takes to make even what I would now consider badly made cartoons).  I also occasionally wrote about music and now, of course, music is often what I write about.

Perhaps it's because of my time at Mars Hill Church and witnessing more second-hand than first-hand what seemed dangerously cultish about it, in other words having seen the various ways that what would be called actually religious religion can do significant harm, I have basically zero sympathy for what in academic circles and arts circles is considered the better, nobler and truer religion a la Richard Wagner, namely Art.  There's a couple of reasons for my acquired skepticism about art-as-religion being an ennobling thing.  First, I admit to being the sort of Calvinist Presbyterian who takes seriously the idea of the Fall and original sin and that the first warnings we must heed from those doctrinal traditions is what it means about "me" before any of us get around to "you". That leads rather quickly to what has been one of Richard Taruskin's key arguments against the art-of-religion in connection to the Holocaust. In actual religious traditions there are plenty of warnings that you can have the right dogmas and still be evil.  Didn't James warn in his epistle that you may say you believe in God but even the demons can make that profession.  As Richard Taruskin has noted many a time about George Steiner, Steiner was perplexed by the reality that the humanities did not humanize. 

The way I've put the topic in the past has not necessarily been to do with the Holocaust but with a different situation, the revelations of Weinstein's conduct in the #metoo era, which from within the streets of Hollywood itself confronts us with what could be a Donatist controversy for advocates of art-as-sanctifying sacrament. The post was very unsubtly named

"the post-Weinstein #MeToo era as a Donatist controversy for Western art religion"

Taruskin, for his part, has written many articles arguing against the idea of art-as-religion or we might be able to call high art traditions as sanctifying sacraments.  I considered seminary at one point decades ago so it's fairly easy for me to switch back and forth between art jargon and theological jargon.  So all of that may be by way of introduction to anyone who is reading this who has not read what either I or Taruskin have written in our very different scenes and platforms about the idea that loving the high arts or fine arts of the Western traditions makes people better people. 

Bryan Townsend has been reading Taruskin's Cursed Questions, too. He may struggle more with Taruskin's often withering take downs on the notion that loving the right kind of art makes one the right kind of person.

I've got my own differences of perspective from Taruskin about, for instance, George Steiner, but it's more a matter of emphasis.  I only heard about Steiner because John Borstlap took In Bluebird's Castle to be a wholesale summary of the death of Western culture because it did not stop the Holocaust and now we have to live with it, whereas Taruskin's take is more that Steiner presumes a justified dominance, for want of a better phrase, of the West as the West that is partly justified because George Steiner feels ambivalent about how Western arts didn't stop the Holocaust.  Many a Western secularist would refer to the commanded slaughter of the Canaanites and trot out the old claim that religion always makes people evil.  Well, in that case, all the more reason to reject any kind of art taking a comparable place to religion.  Last I checked Star Trek fans need to get that memo.

The older I get and the more I mull over what the Native American half of my ancestry ran into dealing with state and federal authorities the more it seems to me that Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, whatever the average blue state white progressive might think of it as embarrassingly low genre goofiness or aspirational utopian sci-fi, the possibility that Star Trek embodies an LBJ era form of American cultural imperialism is generally not up for consideration. 

I wrote the following a while back before I'd finished the book.

I've also exchanged thoughts with Bryan and others at his blog.

I've put my cards on the table that I am, at nicest, skeptical to the point of unbelief about art as religion.  If religion doesn't ensure that people are better people there's no reason for me to believe that either art or politics will ensure people are better people, either.   I have read a bit too much about Soviet history to regard Marxism as exempt from atrocity because Anglo-American leftists want to no true Scotsman Stalin or Beria out of being "real" Marxists.  On the other hand, perhaps thanks (?) to having half my ancestry being Native American I don't really have a huge incentive to presume the best about American continental expansion and yet (in case you didn't catch that I mentioned being a Calvinist!) I also don't think that blue state white guilt about the way Native Americans were treated (badly) exempts Native American cultures from being found wanting for what in some regions (the Pacific Northwest) was the pervasiveness of a callous and inhumane approach to slavery in the generally nomadic PNW tribes that even white racists from Missouri found somewhat galling.

Or as some authors in the Bible warned us, there is none that is righteous, not even one.

One of the key arguments Taruskin has made over the course of his career is to keep highlighting that loving the arts does not make us good neighbors.  Art as religion is no better at making us better people than religion generally is.  What low church Protestants might say the problem often is is a form of sacralism and a conflation of church and state, some post-Gelasian  doctrine of the two swords being invoked to make the church and the state of one accord and that this error, for those Christians who regard it as a terrible error (hint) it's possible for the magisterial Reformers to see the problem in post-Constantinian Christendom and yet magically not see their own bids at replicating Christendom and the sacralized states on their own Protestant terms. 

So, I guess that's my way of saying as a Christian that what I appreciate about Taruskin's polemics against Western art-as-religion for its long history of abuses or failure to rein in the lesser impulses of humans resonates with me because, well, my own years of chronicling what I came to regard as the graft and abuse of religious leaders in the former Mars Hill might, as the saying goes, overlap on a Venn diagram. 

It's somewhat paradoxical that I only got around to reading George Steiner and Theodor Adorno because of John Borstlap.  Borstlap has proposed that the Holocaust may have happened because people failed to live up to the best ideals of Enlightenment and the West.  Well, okay, but if that's the formulation it's what Americans call the informal fallacy of no true Scotsman, a temptation that we need to resist whatever team we're on

So I don't happen to agree with the idea that art can make us better people.
But art and music have very special potential benefits that most other activities do not. There is a long and rich history to explore with all sorts of aesthetic and social implications. There is the challenge of performance which rewards not only the artist, but the audience as well. There is the challenge of understanding music from the point of view of the listener and the analyst. Writing about music is another multifarious challenge.

As religions go, you could do a lot worse than choose art and music.

Woody Allen once said that Mozart was proof for the existence of God. I lean more to Bach myself. Here is the Magnificat in D major with Concentus Musicus Vienna and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

One of the things I've discovered in my musical life is saying I think Mozart is kind of boring and lame but that I love, love, love the music of Haydn turns out to not be an orthodox view within classical music.  It's a bit more of an accepted orthodoxy to say that Beethoven had some great musical moments but could be a bloviating self-important blowhard.  I still love Beethoven's Op. 111, mind you, I just hate his choral music.  I'd take choral music by Poulenc and Rachmaninoff over Beethoven any time any where. 

What came up recently at Bryan's blog is that Richard Taruskin came by to articulate what I've found and liked in his work:

Richard Taruskin said...
Hello Mr Townsend, and thanks at long last for reading me so seriously and commenting so seriously on what I've written. You are of course right: I love classical music and high art as much as anyone (even as much as you, I'll bet). My question is whether I am entitled by my love for it to regard myself as a morally superior person. I of course say no, and the piece on which you are commenting is my lengthy justification for my refusal to pat classical music lovers on the back. It's the sober academic version of that Musical Mystique piece from the New Republic a dozen years ago, about which people got rather exercised. But neither piece was an attack on the music or anyone's love for it.
All good wishes, Richard Taruskin