Saturday, October 31, 2020

Exodus 22:28, Ecclesiastes 10:20, and an American civic religious tradition of vituperation--thoughts on cycles of conflicts between scribes and prophets in an age of surveillance capitalism

Exodus 22:28
Thou shalt not revile God, nor curse a ruler of thy people 

Ecclesiastes 10:20
Curse not the king, no, not in thy thought, And curse not the rich in thy bedchamber; For a bird of the air shall carry the voice, And that which hath wings shall tell the matter.

These two passages have been sticking with me this year.  While 2020 has its own unique moments any election cycle in the United States offers a boundless supply of social media and media moments in which reviling the leaders of the state(s) is a requisite to public activity.  What could United States journalism and social media use (whether on Twitter, or blogs, or Facebook, or Tumblr, or Reddit, or 4Chan) even be without cursing or reviling a ruler of the people?  A nation of sheeple?  

For people who don't take the Hebrew Bible seriously there's nothing more to consider. For those who take the Jewish and Christian scriptures seriously, however, these verses are verses we have to think about, and not just in election years. Christians in the United States who are online reviling leaders still, at some point, have to consider these verses, if perhaps only because we have so much to consider as to what the distinction is between a prophetic denunciation of injustice on the one hand and reviling on the other since they can sure seem to overlap.

Fredrik deBoer's "only the club remains" about media professionals reminds me of Ellul's observation in The Empire of Non-Sense that attending the right parties where you meet arts critics was more important than the art you made

Since his posts still generally self-destruct after a few days, I wanted to mention deBoer has a post revisiting what he has described as the sclerotic and self-congratulating insular coterie of media figures.  The following reminded me, as I'll get to after complete quotation, to some observations Jacques Ellul made decades ago about how artists were not as significant in terms of their actual works as the personas they created that were then vetted by critics; that what mattered was which people you met at which parties in the right cities.  But first ... Fredrik deBoer's post:

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Chris White at Slate says its time to "fullname" all classical composers, but in an era of mononymic pop stars haven't we had the same "problem" in pop music for the history of pop music?
There will be a time when we’ll go to concerts again. We will buy our tickets, shuffle shoulder to shoulder down the aisle, and find our seats. The lights will dim, and the conductor will walk onto the stage to introduce the program. They might talk about Beethoven, Schumann, and Bartók. And they might talk about Alma Mahler, Florence Price, Henry Burleigh, and Caroline Shaw. Many of us, used to the conventions of classical performance, will hardly notice the difference: “traditional” white male composers being introduced with only surnames, full names for everyone else, especially women and composers of color ...

Going forward, we need to “fullname” all composers when we write, talk, and teach about music. If mononyms linguistically place composers in a canonical pantheon, fullnaming never places them there to begin with. When we say, “Tonight, you’ll be hearing symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Edmond Dédé,” we’re linguistically treating both composers as being equally worthy of attention. And while fullnaming might seem like a small act in the face of centuries of harm and injustice, by adopting a stance of referential egalitarianism, fullnaming at least does no more harm. ...

What the concert scenes will look like remains to be seen.  Norman Lebrecht has been keeping tabs on orchestral crises, some cases of staff slashing, and season cancellations

In an era in which pop stars can be identified as Beyonce and Taylor, or we can muse upon the catalogs of Madonna and Prince and Cher and Sade, fullnaming classical composers across the board might sound more cogent to a Slate contributor and editorial than it might sound to other people.  If I asked you to think of a jazz musician whose first name is "Miles" and whose last name is not Davis could you think of anyone?  Anyone at all? I mean, I can't. No ... wait ... sorry I can. Miles OkazakiThere. Your turn. If I say "Django" can you supply the last name?  If you can, well, let's take as given that jazz has a pantheon of musical luminaries where the first name is all you need and the last name is implicit.  Thelonious, Ornette, Alice, Oscar, Art, McCoy ... if you recognized those musicians on the basis of those first names alone then that, friends, is the same thing that goes on with last names in classical music. 

I mean, think of who has died from the quartet of John, Paul, George and Ringo?  Did I have to name them by last name for you to get the reference?  Thus with Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Brahms.  The mononymics for the saints of a musical style may have first rather than last names but pop music has had mononymic call-signs for pioneering musicians since, oh, Satchmo, maybe?  Nobody is going to start referring to the compositional techniques of "Nelson" when "Prince" is already the norm.  If Ciconne writes a chaconne would we call it Ciconne's Chaconne or would Madonna suffice?  

Who was the King of Rock?  How many people will say "Presley"?  How many would say "Elvis?" Who is "The Boss"?  Bruce?  Bruce, who?  

One of the jokes in The Big Lebowski that leans heavily on our ability to predict with minimal information is that moment when the Dude puts in a casette with "Bob" on the tape and the joke is probably not a single person watching the film had to think all that hard about which "Bob" mix tape was about to get played. If the genre were reggae instead of rock "Bob" would automatically refer to someone else and as I've been arguing through constant implicated reference, there's a good chance if you're an American who has spent decades listening to all sorts of music none of the lists of first-names-only I've been deploying is likely to be unfamiliar to you.

There might come a time when Price's symphonies are well-known enough that we can just refer to them as the Price symphonies.  I think we can basically do that now, because if we're talking about symphonists who many Prices are we going to end up talking about. David PriceRobert Price?  The trouble with a case for fullnaming to offset some unfairly designated pantheon in classical music isn't that there's an annoyingly ubiquitous pantheon in classical music because obviously there is, just as there is an annoyingly ubiquitous pantheon in rock, pop, jazz, and every other commercially recorded style of music.  If I talk about country and just name-drop Hank, Johnny, Merle, Patsy, Dolly, Lucinda and June and you know right off the bat which two of three guys I'm not referring to (i.e. not Jr and not III), well, that proves my point, too.

Now I know that if someone says "Joplin" and a rock fan overhears it they will think "Janis" and a ragtime fan will think "Scott" but within genres a surname can often get the job done.  I know that orchestras can decide to present music by Edward Ellington but, come on, let's not be too hasty to regard Duke's music as emblematic of some kind of unfair system of musical/creative royalty in which the super-stars of an art form can be known by single names, whether in jazz or in classical music or, as I've been demonstrating, pop. 

Fullnaming won't get nearly as much done for William Grant Still's music as a top notch recording of Trouble Island will ... that is if American opera companies actually survive the covid-19 era, which it seems not everyone is sure is going to happen.

It's not that we can't play this game of fullnaming within classical music, it's that the argument for it is advanced in flamboyantly bad faith in relationship to just about every style of popular music from the last 150 years against which classical music could be compared. I'm not going to stop thinking of Scott Joplin as the King of Ragtime because of some qualms about monarchy. I don't see anything inherently wrong with Michael Jackson being thought of as the King of Pop. The honorifics of shorthand exist across musical styles. The Fab Four can still be the Fab Four even if I find them annoyingly over-rated. 

POSTSCRIPT 10-28-2020
From Friday, said President Macron, everyone must stay at home until the end of November.
The only exceptions are essential work or medical reasons.
He’s still speaking, but it’s the end for concerts and opera.

So there's that. If the era of the symphony, for whatever reason, doesn't make it through the era of covid-19 lockdowns what we colloquially think of as classical music (or what Kyle Gann has at times called post-classic music) will still probably get made. In an age in which more people know the music of Prince than of Persechetti (and that will probably always be the case moving forward) let's at least not fool ourselves into thinking that demanding a change in mononymic customs in a single genre of music is going to change that genre of music.  We might be on the cusp of having to reconceive the  nature of what kind of music even gets played. My hunch, as I've been writing for years, is that the age of the symphony has probably passed but the age of the song is strong at the popular level and there's still plenty of possibilities with chamber music. Now if someone is able to go record Price's string music I'd be happy to get the recording.  

POSTSCRIPT 10-30-2020

Let's add something else to consider, mononymic reference in classical music is not invariably a reference to an elevated god of the art.  Literally nobody in the history of classical music writing is going to say Diabelli of the Diabelli variations wasn't an opportunistic hack who had a spotty record as a composer compared to others.  Mozart ripped on Clementi's compositions and these are two composers from the time of the Big Three who are known because somebody famously slammed their music in comparison to other classical composers who are also known by mononyms.  Pretending mononymic shorthand only signals elevation and veneration in classical music is a lazy bad faith assertion across the board to anyone who has read extensively on the history of the styles and forms. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

links for the weekend: Jim West on the irony of Charisma peddling spells to break spells; NYRB pieces on Boulez and Wagner; Mbird has its ATLA series

First, Jim West noted the irony of a Charisma-published article that sells spells that break spells. Selling spells that break spells is one of a number of reasons I'm ex-Pentecostal and ex-charismatic and while the topic of how paradoxically anti-witchcraft teaching in that wing of ... we'll call it Christianity anyway, resembles witchcraft is a topic I want to take up at some other time, links for the weekend isn't where I plan to do that in any detail!