Commies vs. “Commies”

A typically excellent piece by Freddie DeBoer claims-almost entirely justifiably-that on issue after issue those who viewed the Democratic Party with extreme skepticism (bordering on cynicism) would find their positions repeatedly vindicated by the inevitable capitulations of a corporate party to its donor base. Freddie calls those who got it right “commies”, which is a reasonable enough designation, provided that it’s understood that it applies informally and not precisely.

To show that it doesn’t always apply, I’ll use myself as an example. All of the positions he attributes to “commies” are positions I am on record as having advocated for-including when I was a Green Party Alderman in New Haven.  But I am not, nor have I ever been, a “commie”. And a lot of us on the front lines of the reaction to neoliberalism were not-though we would hasten to add that we would defend to our deaths the rights of “commies” to participate in the political process and have found ourselves on the same side of the barricades with them many times.

Furthermore, he should also know that those for whom the designation most strictly applies, namely, the remaining members of the Communist Party, USA, have long since made their peace with the Democratic Party and have been for years enthusiastically campaigned for its candidates, virtually never challenging its agenda.

I myself had a front row seat to this when I served in New Haven. There were, in fact, “commies” in New Haven, i.e. members of the CP. And, rather than work against the local DP machine, they routinely cut deals with them to finance their (small scale, but not totally insignificant) operations and even salaries. Consequently, they were cut into the action and would reliably be brought to heel when the local bigs (e.g. Joseph Lieberman) pulled on their leash. I would prefer not to name names here, as those who participated in this sort of transactional politics were mostly decent people, by now quite advanced in age, if not, in some cases, deceased.  And, God knows, many of them have suffered enough for their political beliefs. But I can document this charge, if anyone wants to challenge it.

In short, so not all “commies” were commies, as Freddie’s piece suggests, though his basic point, of course, still stands.

Should we “believe the victims”?

Joanne Wypijewski challenges one pole of convention left wisdom in asking whether we should “believe the victims”?

The answer to the question is clearly yes-if the victims are, say, those of the El Mozote massacre, those being foreclosed on from having purchased fraudulent mortgages marketed by the big banks, or citizens of Flint supplied poisoned water by the State of Michigan.

On the other hand, the answer is sometimes no: for example, in his memoirs, Henry Kissinger presents himself and others who prosecuted our genocidal policy in South East Asia as “victims” of the anti-war movement, “endlessly persecuted” by protestors who would not grant them a moment’s peace. This is one “victim” I choose not to believe. Two others in this category are Ruby Bates and Victoria Price who claimed to be rape victims of the Scottboro boys. Another falsely claiming victim status is Tawana Brawley who was suckered by the huckster Al Sharpton into filing a luridly false report of police abuse. Also, it appears that it was a mistake to believe Emma Sulkowicz‘s claims for victim status-as Columbia University did and which will almost certainly be forced to pay a massive civil settlement (quite appropriately) for having done so. Finally, it appears that three SUNY Albany students who charged that they were victims of a hate crime had simply invented the story. I myself might have passed it on-I’ve forgotten whether I did. If so, I apologize for not having been sufficiently skeptical.

In short, there is no general rule. To assume that one must always “believe the victims” is by no means politically progressive. In fact, as it is based on an inherent distrust of institutions, including state institutions which are the only mechanisms which can enforce a just and equitable social and political order, unconditionally “believing the victims” implicitly supports a distinctly reactionary philosophy of governance.

Going Nowhere Fast: Notes on the AMS Self-Implosion

The pitched battle which recently erupted at the blog of the American Musicological Society (the field’s pre-eminent professional society) naturally generated considerable interest among members of the tribe. It even, to some degree, reached outside of it, though most will likely concur with a friend who dismissed the entire affair with the pithy phrase “Academics gonna academic”.

Insofar as it is more than a dog bite man story, its relevance has less to do with the content of the exchange than what it tells us about academics’ conceptions as to their real and imagined role within the broader culture. The latter will be the subject of a few remarks here.
Before I get to them, it is necessary to recount the outlines of what, at least in its general essentials, should be by now a fairly familiar trajectory. This specific instance began with a musicologist, Pierpaolo Polzonetti (hereafter P), posting about his having conducted a class on Metastasian opera, one of his academic specialities.

As is by now routine, he related that, in conducting the class, he made reference to the sorts of music likely to be relatively familiar to his students, in particular, rap which he describes as having “a pounding beat” and “blatant lyrics”. He also alluded to the various functions of the “rage aria” with specific reference to “Ah chi mi dice mai” from Don Giovanni. This elicited a lively classroom discussion which P channelled into a technical exegesis, “encourag(ing the class) to look closely at the score and analyze Mozart’s dramatization of emotions.” P eventually derived from this a familiar albeit somewhat pedantic conclusion:

Mozart’s Don Giovanni gave these students a chance to better understand real-life emotions that, when repressed or out of control, can be destructive: fear and fearlessness, guilt and remorselessness, sexual passion leading to compulsion, sexual abuse, even to rape and murder.

None of this would have elicited any comment or probably even been published on the AMS site were it not for the circumstances under which P. was conducting the class. For P was not, as is usually the case, delivering the academic goods to a relatively privileged, predominantly white student body. Rather he was serving the largely African American inmates of Indiana’s Westville Correctional Facility.

This, according to a significant fraction of the readership of the AMS blog, made all the difference in the world. And after expressing serious reservations with respect to the “tone” adopted by P, they were quick to unleash direct, personal attacks against P, who was immediately characterized as “racist and elitist and entitled.” Others weighing in denounced P’s lack of understanding of “the deep institutionalized racism that underpins the US prison-industrial complex” attributing it to his being a “native of Italy” and consequently, according to this commenter, “substantially less sensitive . . . to institutional racism” than those of us who are native born citizens of the world leader in mass incarceration.

When P meekly defended himself as having been a citizen and a resident of this country for 20 years, the counterattack was swift and furious-albeit not substantive: P’s “tone” again betrayed him in his protesting that his immigrant experience was no less authentic for his not having arrived “in the trunk of a car.” This brought forth a new round of denunciations, with accusations of xenophia now included in the mix.

The push back would reach a fever pitch, moving on to topics such as the overwhelmingly white complexion of the musicological profession, the condescending treatment experienced by women and minority junior faculty members extending all the way to the field not having sufficiently commemorated the death of Michael Jackson some years back.


At this point, it should have come as no surprise to have found leading “new musicologist” Robert Fink saddling up his high horse. His doing so rang a bell for me as in our exchange a year back he had charged similarly that my defense of the Minnesota Orchestra workforce from attacks by its corporate board constituted a musical application of the “one drop rule” based on “the presence or absence of melanin”.

Whereas Fink was implicitly impugning my integrity by suggesting my alleged sympathy with a Jim Crow statute, his charge of “casual racism” against P is explicit. According to Fink, P’s description of rap should be seen as “the musicological equivalent of using the N-word.”
It should be noted that P escapes Fink’s full condemnation as these attitudes are relics, according to him, of longstanding white supremacist prejudices of the musicological profession.

Fink sees himself as having moved beyond his benighted mentors in this respect. Now he “winces on behalf of the tweedy prep school classical snob I once was, enthralled with Mahler and dismissing disco as repetitive trash.”

No doubt Fink has long since traded in his academic tweeds for the hipster academic uniform of choice.

But by invoking his sartorial preferences Fink probably doesn’t recognize that he gives the game away. For in doing so he concedes that academic positions are just that, namely fashions which have as much to do with substantive political attitudes and convictions as do decisions to order from Etsy, L.L. Bean or Urban Outfitters.

Indeed, as I had previously noted, the entire “new” musicological program of which Fink is a foremost exponent should be seen in this light. Fink’s “celebration of ‘pre-bop jazz’ and ‘Mississippi Delta blues’ displacing white European males from the canon of Western classical music,” and other exercises in “now dominant academic multiculturalism” are, I argued, nothing more than “a way of purchasing leftist bona fides on the cheap through symbolic concessions in the aesthetic and cultural realm.” For what these efforts conspicuously fail to do is play the slightest role within a substantive “challenge to capital’s virtually uncontested string of triumphs in the political and economic spheres.”

And if we did not know that back then, we should know it now: The negative evidence on this score, after all, is explicit and overwhelming in the form of metastasizing rates of child poverty, a massive drop in aggregate wealth, and depression level rates of unemployment co-occurring among marginalized groups with the victories of post canonic musicology achieved by Fink’s new musicological cohort. What is their value when it is now obvious that for three decades they have been correlated with the declining prospects and often complete devastation for minority and working class communities?

This critique, associated with Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, and Karen and Barbara Fields, among others should by now be familiar. Among those who are aware of it, it will provoke an obvious question. Why have so many managed to convince themselves that the new multiculturalism in musicology and other academic disciplines constitutes anything more than a rhetorical shift of fashion. Why do so many appear to be invested in believing that what happens in academic seminar rooms and tenure hearings has any bearing on the substantive material conditions of marginalized constituencies far outside its walls.

The answer to the question returns us to the opening allusion one which is obvious to everyone besides the academics themselves. The kilobytes of high dudgeon invective invested in this thread is us parading our self-importance, our pretentious assumption that the stakes involved in out sectarian squabbles-even vicious ones-have some ultimate meaning or utility.

So why even bother to discuss behavior which, after all, merely typifies our species, just as much as a cow chewing its cud, a dog butt-sniffing or a plant photosynthesizing. The reason has to do with is its timing. For it’s hard to avoid noticing that the frantic denunciatory energies are being expended at a time when an actual, as opposed to merely rhetorical, political conflict is occurring, one which, depending on its outcome, has the potential to tangibly benefit the lives of the marginalized and immiserated constituencies which are the supposed object of these academics’ passionate advocacy.

For the first time in decades, there is a viable political campaign based on formerly taboo issues including not just mass incarceration, economic devastation of low income communities but the system of neoliberal governance and ideology which is ultimately responsible for the human wreckage on display most conspicuously in prisons, inner cities and elsewhere.

It might be assumed that those who most ardently proclaim their solidarity would be aligned with the candidate who has forced these issues onto the table. That matters are not so simple is apparent when we observe that the candidate most willing to deploy the most stridently anti-racist rhetoric, and whose supporters have been eager to brandish the charge of “white supremacy” and white skin privilege is, in fact, the candidate of elite, neoliberal capital.

What this suggests is that we can no longer assume that “anti-racism” no matter how ardently protested overlaps with a commitment to the kind of egalitarian politics and redistributive economics which is required to begin to address the root causes of the conditions experienced by the inmates of Westville, their families as well as others in the dispossessed 99%. Rather, as Adolph Reed has suggested, anti racism, particularly in its most theatrical varieties can function as a distinctly reactionary class politics, one “that expresses and connects with the interests of an aspiring or upwardly mobile stratum of the professional managerial class that scoffs and sneers at programs of material redistribution.” While surely not all of those denouncing P are in this category, much of the tenor of the discourse is consistent with viewing them in this light.

And what of the patrician, meliorist do gooderism of the sort represented by P and his supporters on the thread? While it has been routine to view these as the legacy of Boston Symphony founder Henry Lee Higginson’s attempts to to control the restive impulses of a potentially revolutionary working class, this view itself is highly ahistorical. Indeed, for much of its history, working class movements have viewed high culture as a possession which they actively sought to acquire and put to their own uses. This comports with P’s experience as well as those of others who have been brought into contact with those in the vast gulag through the sorts of programs P has enrolled in.

As for P’s political commitments one can make no assumptions along these lines: they might range from minimally tolerant (and tolerable) Rockfellerism right to the centrist New Deal liberalism of Leonard Bernstein to the radical leftism of classical music devotee Noam Chomsky.
In any case, the attacks against him serve no purpose other than self-aggrandizement and the entire discussion goes nowhere fast.

Like any other display of adolescent destructiveness, it needs to end now so we can make ourselves useful.

Backwards Compatibility: Hillary Reverts to Neoliberalism 1.0

It’s well known that Hillary Clinton regards African American voters as the “firewall” protecting her from the Sanders challenge.  It has also become apparent in recent weeks that the wall is seriously eroding requiring emergency reconstruction efforts. Her appearance in Harlem last night in which she promised, according to Amy Chozick writing in the NYT, a “$125 billion plan to assist poor and minority communities with job training, education and re-entering society after incarceration” should be seen in this light.

It’s important to pay close attention to two aspects of this initiative.  First, Clinton’s career has been marked from the beginning by an intense hostility to precisely those constituencies whom she is now courting-as evidenced by her enthusiasm for welfare reform, the crime bill and war on drugs, all of which had a devastating effect on African American communities.  It follows that there is absolutely no reason to believe  a word of her expressions of “feel your pain” concern for them.  Secondly,  these overtures mark an important shift in Clinton’s campaign and, more broadly, in the neoliberal strategy of which she and her husband are the foremost avatars. Note that by proposing pie in the sky programs which she has no intention of advancing when in office she is returning to the Neoliberalism version 1.0 associated with her husband who famously ran on “putting people first” and then governed (entirely predictably) by “putting corporations first.”

The Obama administration while equally corporate friendly, if not more so,  should be seen as the leading developer of Neoliberalism 2.0.  The crucial difference resided in his having made many fewer promises to the rank and file base, never once pledging that he would institute significant redistributionist programs of any sort. As I wrote at the time, he could run “a relatively honest campaign” since most of the left had already invested itself in achieving  the “historic breakthrough” of an African American presidency. On this basis, they would support Obama unconditionally, and Obama was not required to make even rhetorical gestures of support towards the New Deal consensus which has been overwhelmingly popular with the public (regardless of party affiliation) for generations.

As I previously suggested, Hillary found that Neoliberalism 2.0 didn’t work for her:  the substitution of identitarian terms (woman for african american, gender for race etc.) was not accepted by young women who rudely dismissed elite, first generation feminists’ attempts to impose on them an obligation to cast their vote for a figurehead representative of their identitarian cohort. And so we now have a reversion to Neoliberalism 1.0 which, rather than based on identitarianism bludgeoning, is fundamentally based on dishonesty: making promises that Clinton, a leading advocate for the immiseration of African American families through welfare “reform” and the incarceration of black males through her support of the crime bill, has no intention of fulfilling.

It’s an open question whether the strategy will succeed. To be honest, I’m concerned that it will. That’s partly because Sanders, having pledged to run a “positive” campaign, will not be able to call her out on her past history of dishonesty which is the only basis on which her present dishonesty can be assessed, after all.

Anyway, important to recognize what’s going on and to have our own strategy to counteract it.

Hedges Misstatement: Open Letter to Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer

Dear Mr. Scheer,

Chris Hedges’s Truthdig column contains the  claim that
“(Bernie) Sanders, as part of (a) Faustian deal, serves (as) one of the main impediments to building a viable third party in Vermont.” To assess its factual basis, I would respectfully direct your attention to the following email correspondence with  Vermont Progressive Party head, Vermont State Senator Anthony Polinna,

On Sep 25, 2015, at 12:09 PM, John Halle  wrote:

Dear Senator Pollina,

For an upcoming piece, I’m contacting you in reference to the following statement made by journalist Chris Hedges:

“(Bernie Sanders) has been the main obstacle to creating a third party within Vermont.”

(see here: and here

As the highest ranking official within the VPP, your opinion as to the accuracy of this statement should carry considerable weight.

It would be useful to have on record whether you believe it is or is not correct and a brief explanation for your assessment.

Thanks for your excellent and inspiring work over the years.

John Halle

On Oct 2, 2015, at 1:35 PM, Anthony Pollina  wrote:


We can talk if you would like. But, here is the basic response.

The statement that Bernie Sanders is a major barrier to creating a third-party in Vermont makes no sense because it ignores one fundamental fact.

The fact is the Vermont Progressive Party is the strongest, most successful third-party anywhere in the United States. For years we have elected Progressives to the state legislature, both Senate and House (where there is an officially recognized Progressive Caucus), to the Burlington City Council and various school boards.

There’s no doubt that our efforts have been helped by Bernie’s leadership; his ability to frame the issues and inspire others to run for office. Bernie has endorsed Progressive candidates and appeared with them at campaign events.

There are certainly challenges to building a third-party. But we have been successful. I don’t think it would’ve happened in Vermont if not for Bernie Sanders.

The better question may be; what are the barriers to building third parties in all the other states, that have not been successful.

Anthony Pollina
Vermont Senate
Washington County

As you will note, Pollina uncategorically denies Hedges’s assertion. Furthermore, were you, your staff or Hedges to investigate the matter further, there is little doubt that you would find his conclusions consistent with those of other progressives in Vermont-both those in and outside of the VPP.

Given this fact, I would respectfully request that you issue an immediate correction and retraction of Hedges text.

Finally, I should mention that as a former third party official myself, this is an issue which I regard as central to development of the left one which I have been writing about for more than fifteen years.  If you are interested in advancing the discussion I would recommend attention to the recently released Empowering Third Parties in the United States, which contains an excellent history of the VPP and Sanders’s relationship to it by long time Vermont activist, former Burlington City Council member Terry Boricius.  (I am also a contributor.)

The text represents a serious, fact based contribution to the discussion. It is regrettable that Hedges has chosen to weigh in by circulating a transparent and easily refuted falsehood.


John Halle


A Vote for Clinton is a Vote for Trump

While I didn’t watch the Republican food fight last night, it is reported that Trump pledged not to touch Social Security. If that’s so, that makes at least three issues on which he will be able to sell himself to working/middle class voters should he compete against Clinton. Clinton, it should not be forgotten, has been a longstanding advocate of SS “reform”. The others are her support for the Iraq War (Trump opposed it) and NAFTA (Trump opposed that too).

The obvious fact of the matter is that Trump will wipe the floor with Clinton on these (and likely other) issues. So the bottom line is if you want President Trump, nominate Clinton. That’s called “pragmatism”.  Bizarre, though typical, that the usual cadre of DP hacks have managed to affix that label to themselves.

C. Wright Mills’s “crackpot realism” is more like it.

Sanders, Strategy and “The Left”: Behind the Fist Pump

Bernie Sanders’s dropping the hammer on Clinton’s cozying up to the vile genocidaire Henry Kissinger was one of the fist pump moments of the campaign. That’s recognized by pretty much everyone now, so I don’t need to say much about it here.

What does seem to be worth mentioning is what it shows about Sanders’s campaign strategy. And make no mistake-he has a larger strategy and it is a successful one, obviously. One core element of it appears to be to inject into the discourse Clinton’s transparently indefensible positions while making sure that when he does so these are a) factually irrefutable b) not entirely dissonant with conventional wisdom c) entered at sufficiently spaced intervals to that they don’t overwhelm the capacity of the media (both social and conventional/corporate) to assimilate the factual basis of the charges.

What I have in mind includes but is not limited to the following: 1) attacking Hillary’s position on Iraq (entered during the first debate). 2) targeting Hillary’s Wall Street connections, particularly the Goldman Sachs speaking gigs, which he did in the second debate. 3) Now the attack on Kissinger. Notice that in every instance, Clinton was caught completely off guard and had essentially no response. As Sanders understands, that’s an inherent liability with being an establishment hack: you assume everyone agrees with you (as Noam has shown for years) collapsing when you are confronted by facts which challenge the conventional wisdom, ending up looking clueless and ridiculous (e.g. C: “Who advises you? S: It ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure.”)

Also, in every instance, claims which previously would have been written off as conspiratorialist ravings now have the chance to get a footing.  This is partly because they are being uttered by a legitimate presidential contender but also because they are quickly reinforced  evidentiary support provided by Sanders’s team which then makes the social media rounds.  That was most conspicuous with the immediate response to Clinton’s denial that her receipt of Wall Street cash had ever influence her votes: Sanders’s team knew they had an ace in the hole-the paragraph from Elizabeth Warren’s book and her appearance on Bill Moyers, and it’s easy to imagine them salivating when they played it.

In any case, it is clear that Sanders has a strategy along these lines and that he is implementing it beautifully. Not to belabor the obvious, had Sanders been listening to “the left” who was constantly criticizing him for his failure to attack Clinton, all this would have been put immediately on the table: at his campaign announcement he would have denounced Clinton (and the Democratic Party), as Wall Street stooges, apologists for mass murder, mass incarceration, environmental pillage, etc. He chose a different strategy, and, to reiterate, it was obviously the right one.

So can “the left” finally go back to its dog eared copies of the Grundrisse admitting that its history over the past decades is a painful, prima facie demonstration that it has not the slightest idea of how to operate in the real political world, having shown itself utterly incapable of building mass constituencies for a left program.

Sanders does. That is why he is where he is and why his “left” critics are yet again reprising their role as the dogs frantically barking while the caravan passes by.

Post-Ideology and its Discontents: Three Variations (3)

  1. Bowie et Boulez sont Morts

None of this, of course, is to deny the deep, personalized affinity we have for the music we love and those who make it.   Rather, the point is to note that love for music doesn’t need to be blind-in fact, there is nothing inconsistent about being enthralled with a composer or a piece while being aware of his (personal) or its (musical) flaws. And that goes not only for music of the past, but for the present, as was apparent a couple of weeks back following the deaths of two musicians both of whom raised this question though they were the icon of European high modernism Pierre Boulez, and the glam rock icon David Bowie.

With respect to Boulez, uncritical adulation was never an option either in celebrating his life or still less in memorializing his death. Boulez’s eulogy for Arnold Schoenberg, after all, was a furious denunciation and it was based on this, and much else, that Alex Ross observed that “it would be antithetical to Boulez’s spirit . . . to offer nothing but banal praise at his passing”. Ross’s retrospective did issue some mild criticism of Boulez’s oeuvre noting that “Certain of the large-scale pieces—the ‘Livre’ for string quartet; ‘Dérive 2,’ for eleven instruments—seem uncertain in their structure: the music fascinatingly streams along, but it lacks narrative direction.”

But it would have been appropriate for Ross to have mentioned that some of Boulez’s critics would go farther: according to one, Boulez was among the “maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everybody write this crazy, creepy music.” Or, as the criticism was rigorously formulated in Fred Lerdahl’s seminal essay, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems”, the inherent structure of Boulez’s works was “cognitively opaque”-that is, failing to register in the form of a “detailed mental representation” of a sort required for it to stay in our mind’s ear.

The fact that no one bothered to resuscitate these and other criticisms, Boulez’s defenders could claim, indicates the usual path from bomb-throwing radical to establishment icon. While a possible explanation, that seven decades of Boulez’s works have largely failed to find a secure place in the repertoire- raises questions as to whether this traditional trajectory can accommodate Boulez.  A more skeptical reading takes the absence of critical discussion on these or other controversial points of Boulez’s legacy as indicative of the late Ottoman empire state of decay of the kingdom of classical music, one which no longer commands much aesthetic, cultural, social and even political authority-as it once did. It follows from that that the reason why there was no dancing on Boulez’s grave was that real estate around it was no longer worth dancing on.

But if there was any doubt that music and musicians continue to wield significant influence in all of these spheres these were removed by the event which followed only a few days after Boulez was put to rest. The news at the death of David Bowie dominated of the news cycle with expressions of mourning, praise and condolences emanating from the Pope, to professional athletes, to obscure academics. This was understandable and altogether appropriate especially as Bowie, from almost all accounts, appeared to be an unusually, articulate, thoughtful, gracious and even humble artist, living his last two decades in New York, as chronicled in this New York Times commemoration with elegance, style and dignity.  Furthermore, unlike Boulez, David Bowie did not paint a target on his back inviting criticism.  So for both these reasons the normal decorum not to speak ill should apply to Bowie as it would to any other private citizen.

Rock and Rebellion

Among those remaining mostly silent was a small minority who have never developed an affinity for the kinds of mass stadium spectacles which have defined the rock experience since Woodstock, and which reached their apogee with second generation rock icons such as Bowie. And, paradoxically, it was Bowie himself who provided the most perceptive and trenchant basis for what it was that many of us find alienating about them when, in a now notorious Playboy interview Bowie named Adolf Hitler as “one of the first rock stars” and makes a convincing case:

Think about it. Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for 12 years. The world will never see his like again. He staged a country … he would march into a room to speak and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock ‘n roll concert. The kids would get very excited – girls got hot and sweaty and guys wished it was them up there. That, for me, is the rock ‘n roll experience.

Bowie is not the first to celebrate the power of a charismatic showman to induce crowds to fall under his spell. For classical musicians, rock stars are merely continuing the legacy of Liszt and Paganini, the swoons of women-a staple of 19th century novels- not in the least new. Furthermore, the trajectory from hyper Romanticism, particularly that on display in Wagnerian musical spectacles to Nuremburg rallies is one of the most discussed musicological topics as is the seminal role Wagnerian ideology performed for the third Reich. One of many lurid example recently provided by Alex Ross was the propaganda film Stukas in which a German fighter pilot has his will to massacre civilians refreshed by an evening communion with Wagner’s Gotterdamerung

At this point, it’s worth drawing a far flung albeit obvious comparison returning us to Boulez which is that however one wants to characterize the masterpieces of modernism championed by Boulez they did not, and could not serve an analogous function: Free tickets to Wozzeck or Bernard Alois Zimmerman’s die Soldaten or George Crumb’s Black Angels would not have been made available to bomber pilots trying to escape nightmares caused by their devastation of South East Asia, East Timor or Gaza. And, along related lines, no girl will ever “get sweaty” from listening to Marteau sans maître (though more than a few have gotten sweaty playing it!).

These are not bugs rather they are features of a style which conspicuously and self -consciously privileges the stoic contemplation of the underlying form above active engagement with it. Furthermore, this form would, as Lerdahl shows, always remain outside of the listeners grasp. The details of the underlying structure of the music remaining elusive, their unknowability will hold listeners at a distance, preventing the experience of deep affinity which is a prerequisite for music functioning as the opiate to intoxify the masses and release their passions. All this was well understood by Boulez’s generation who were attempting to construct “year zero” musical foundation in the rubble of postwar Europe one which specifically repudiated the potential of music to function in inducing states of mass hysteria which were inseparable from fascist ideology.

The Dark Side

A few decades later, these lessons were forgotten or at least ignored by a new left which, in defining itself as the Woodstock Nation, was eager to capitalize on the potential offered by mass spectacles to unleash the power of a mass movement. The potency of the alliance was recognized by the political establishment, as we now know from the tapes of the Nixon administration, who saw rock and roll and the peace movement as virtually synonymous, both equally treasonous and terrifying in their capacity to galvanize a mass movement.

But after reaching a high water mark in the huge antiwar mobilizations of the early 70s, rock quickly lost its political edge with a second generation increasingly divorcing itself from political commitment. Among these was David Bowie who described himself as apolitical. Bowie did, however, make known his contempt for “hippies” and by extension, as critic Ken Tucker has noted, the “hippy era’s sincerity, intimacy and generosity against which Bowie presented irony, distance and self-absorption. ” These would be watchwords for the me decade which would soon follow, as would hard edged social Darwinist attitudes celebrating the strong and ridiculing the weak, having uncomfortable connections with the man Bowie lionized as the first rock star.

Reflecting the prevailing zeitgeist, the official uniform replacing earth tones and cottons, would be polished steel and Stormtrooper black leather. Bowie’s near exact contemporary Lemmy Kilmister, having predeceased him by only a few days would adopt the Iron Cross as de rigeur concert attire. Within the fashion industry which claimed Bowie as one of its own, icons such as Karl Lagerfeld would establish the look and its accompanying unsmiling, sullen affect as hipster mainstream, with one, John Galliano of Yves St. Laurent, going beyond winks and nods expressing his repugnance for one woman’s “Dirty Jewish face” proclaiming that (along with her having “boots” and “thighs of the lowest quality”) she “should be dead.” Another trendsetter of the day, Andy Warhol, would be ruthlessly skewered by left journalist Alexander Cockburn in the Village Voice in the form of a Hitler interview with former chancellor now “found tanned and rested” “over lunch at Mortimer’s” becoming “a fixture on the New York social scene, after some decades of seclusion in Asundôn and Palm Springs.” Another case is the Warhol Factory product Velvet Underground singer Nico described as having “a definite Nordic Aryan streak, [the belief] that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior” one which expressed itself in episodes of anti-semitism and violent racist attacks.

All these are a few of many indications that Bowie’s remarks were not drug addled free association, as he would later claim, but arose in a context of many others pushing the edge in exactly the same direction.

In fairness, for even those most in thrall to what was then called Nazi chic their underlying political sympathies would remain conventional- situated somewhere on the spectrum between apolitical and a vague liberalism largely based on social issues such as gender equity, celebrating “diversity” and LGBT rights. But for a significant minority, this was dog whistle politics: the dark, affectless, passivity expressing a cynicism about human motivations and human potential which has provided the emotional and philosophical foundation for reactionary governance, either when it is explicitly fascist or when in its “soft” variety as the attacks on New York City’s exploding homeless population effected by Mayor Rudolf Giuliani known as Adolph to foes and even, affectionately, to some friends. The reactionary drift, it shouldn’t be forgotten, was bipartisan: Bowie’s contempt for hippies would be realized as hippie punching under the Obama administration by chief of staff Rahm Emanuel while press secretary Robert Gibbs made patent his contempt the “professional left” he viewed as “on drugs”, though Bowie’s cohort would likely regard the problem as the wrong kinds of drugs-cannabis and hallucinogens having been displaced by heroin and cocaine as the drug of choice as the me decade tightened its grip.

Epilogue: The Music We Deserve

Before I conclude I will bring this line of discussion to a screeching halt by noting that I reacted to Bowie’s death the same way everyone else did by going on a listening binge of nearly four decades of Bowie’s music. This was an inescapable backdrop to the circles I moved in but didn’t really feel I belonged to. Now, re-encountering in less fraught late middle aged circumstances, I discovered and re-discovered not only some wonderful tunes but also a lovely off-centeredness and jump-cutting stylistic pastiche which I hadn’t noticed in even some of the most familiar hits. All this was knit together by Bowie’s voice which was a bit of a marvel-ranging from the operatically emotive to the flattest deadpan-all in service of an indefinable though altogether compelling musical and dramatic persona.  While I didn’t love everything, there was left little doubt why he became a touchstone for a generation imperceptibly sliding down the razor blade of the 70s and 80s as the promise of the sixties evaporated into nothingness.

But just as it can’t be denied that his music spoke to a generation, it also can’t be denied that it embodied, reflected and even functioned on the cutting edge of a lot of what we should regret about it. And so the question comes up for some of us how can one combine admiration for how something was being said by with contempt for what it was?

Squaring that circle returns us again to familiar controversies in classical music, Wagner, obviously, but even before, to the 16th century Council of Trent where the church, recognizing the threat music posed in serving as a delivery vehicle for “lascivious” and “profane” sentiments, imposed on it an austerity regime dictating that “singing . . . should be calculated not to afford vain delight to the ear but so that others may be filled with devotion and called to religion.”

The fatwas didn’t work then and they wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s: The power of Bowie’s artistic persona-and that of his cohorts at the time would have overwhelmed any attempt to repress the music and, more importantly, their underlying sensibility. By now it seems merely churlish to bring up.

But that doesn’t mean that we can make ourselves aware of the contradictions implicated in our musical preferences. Insofar as music reflects who we were and are, our often disgraceful history and fairly odious present, it’s pretty much inevitable we’re not going to like everything we see.

That’s my view at least-a darker one than Kyle would be likely to endorse. Where we would agree is not on where we need to end up, but on the necessity to be moving forward on a path and be willing to ask the questions which are necessary to tell us where we are.

Post-Ideology and its Discontents: Three Variations (2)

  1. Jazz After Politics (Una Mas)

All that is a lot more than I intended to write on the subject of one throwaway remark.

And it’s also unnecessary given that Kyle, as is well known, is fully capable of defending himself.  Why I’m weighing in here is partly personal: Kyle is a friend and colleague.  But the main reason has to do with the subject encroaching on some of my own battlefields of the past couple of years, two of which I’ll discuss here.

The first of these was provoked by my Jacobin article Jazz after Politics which resulted in my having finally achieved the dubious Orwellian honor of being hated by large numbers of people. What provoked the rage was raising questions about the longstanding reputation of jazz, going back to the beats, for defining a certain kind of adversarial, outsider hipness. What with support offered by Exxon, Goldman Sachs, most Ivy League music departments offering endowed faculty positions to jazz artists, and its near universal embrace by mainstream politicians, it no longer has that status, more or less by definition. I also claimed that its reputation for political sophistication was always perhaps somewhat exaggerated. One instance was the illustrious saxophonist Joe Henderson having recorded a virulently racist Tin Pan Alley standard including it as a track within a sequence of albums based on black nationalist themes.  A nice tune, at least in terms of its structure, an interesting reharmonization and, as always, a great performance by Henderson, but, in embodying this patently obvious mixed message, hardly a model of critical political sophistication.

This opened the floodgates to a torrent of pure abuse virtually none of which began to address, let alone challenge, any of the central arguments of the piece.  One of the few which even alluded to them to did so obliquely by deploying a red baiting smear against me.  That made the point better than I could have that jazz, and jazz enthusiasts, have long since become comfortable with establishment orthodoxies including those of the reactionary right, worlds away from the revolutionary black nationalism which Henderson was celebrating, needless to say.

I was suggesting that, at least optimally, we should expect musicians to be responsible for the meanings, allusions and political valence of the sources they tap, or at least be aware of them. Paradoxically, many of those attacking me seemed to agree-at least implicitly.  They hotly denied that Henderson could have been ignorant of the offensive lines in question and attempted to spin yarns based on that assumption.  Unfortunately for them, Henderson, in fact, was unaware, likely having only heard Frank Sinatra’s expurgated version of the song made popular in the late 1950s.  I know this from having played a gig I played with him in the 1980s when I directly asked him whether he knew that passage from the lyrics of the song. His answer indicated that he clearly did not.

The Case for Unreduced Expectations

Those outraged by my mentioning this shouldn’t have been. Suggesting that some aspect of a piece fails is, after all, paying it the second highest complement which is to have high expectations of it in the first place.

That it’s hard to create music which demands and rewards close listening and that those trying don’t always succeed is taken for granted in so-called “classical” music where it’s routinely noted that the greatest composers sometimes fail.  Among the best known failures, as I mentioned in my response to the attacks on me, is Beethoven’s Wellington, though Brahms’s Triumphlied is also sometimes mentioned in the same category, as are certain late works by Schumann (albeit for different reasons).  Going beyond individual pieces, one is even allowed to dismiss the works of canonic composers in their entirety.

Of course, those doing so should expect arguments. A case in point returns us to Kyle who, a few weeks ago, had taken to Facebook to declare his dislike of Tschaikovsky. I’m sure it came as no surprise to him that I fired back by expressing doubts about much of Liszt’s output-who turns out to be one of Kyle’s favorites. Our arguments only scratched the surface, of course. But as is always the case in any engagement with Kyle, I came away not only knowing facts which I was previously unaware of, but with more appreciation for the composers he champions-and even those he disparages.

Our exchange was instructive of a larger point: the great rhetorical battles of music history have a lot to teach us about the artistic, intellectual, and even moral culture of the periods in which they occurred.  And that, for many of us, is the reason, in addition to the obvious pleasure of engaging with the notes themselves, to study music and to try to decode its messages and to determine how these fit into a larger picture. To take a couple of familiar examples: the criticism of Hanslick directed against the Wagnerian “music of the future” has provided generations of students with an introduction to the subtleties of music and its relation to narrative, extending beyond these into thorny epistemological questions having to do with whether music embodies meanings, emotions and ideas or merely expresses them. More troublingly, as I will allude to later, is Wagner having functioned as an important ideological foundation for the Third Reich a couple of generations later. Other musical controversies mirror other concerns and tendencies: revisiting the arguments provided by advocates of reformed tuning systems in the 16th century can provide a way into an understanding of the basic physics of sound and how these were, and still are, connected with musical aesthetics. The 18th century War of the Buffoons provides access to early romantic controversies with respect to naturalism and artifice which would flare up in different forms in other musical genres.

Musical discourse almost always takes the form of opposing ideas, sometimes expressed with a high degree of intensity, passion and even hostility. These are based on the assumption that great music not only can withstand criticism but that it should invite it.  It is its absence which I take to be the core of Kyle’s concerns as he expressed them. Insofar as post-ideological equates to limiting musical discussion to bland public relation boosterism, whether it derives from the jazzers attacking me or the young composers attacking Kyle, they are doing the cause of the music they are championing no favors.

(final part here)

Post-Ideology and its Discontents: Three Variations (1)

  1. Kyle’s Theme

A while back a minor ruckus erupted in my small corner of the music world from my friend Kyle Gann having passed along a remark applying to a concert of student works. I had said that the predominant influence on them seemed to me to be “Hollywood.” I meant by that something quite specific which is that they could be fairly easily divided into two main parts: a spacious, metrically static, placidly ambient section interrupted by the assertion of a darker tonality and aggressively propulsive rhythms generally rounded off by a reaffirmation of the previous tonal and rhythmic tranquility. One could very easily connect these with any number of familiar screen tropes: the first section evoking the lush fields of Pandora, Middle Earth, Hogwarth, Tython.  The second portrayed the inevitable face off between the warring parties Slytherin/Gryffindor, Jedi/Sith, Navi/RDA, Dwarves/Orcs, etc.

I should stress that this was not intended as a criticism-or at least not negative criticism: for myself, I appreciate clearly delineated forms, the absence of which strikes me as a limitation of more than a few recent-and not so recent-works. It was a rare pleasure to encounter a concert in which one’s ear could concentrate on the rhetorical and sometimes even tonal paths by which expected goals are reached rather than losing one’s bearings en route.

While Kyle and I agree on a lot we do disagree on some things, and this is one: Kyle found the conception of musical form a bit overly facile and unimaginative.

But while I might take issue with Kyle in the particular, far more important is the principle at stake here and that is that not only does Kyle has every right to make these criticisms, a healthy musical and artistic culture should welcome them. What I found troubling about the reaction Kyle encountered was not at all the push back on points of fact and interpretation, but rather the attempts to dismiss his criticisms as the carping of an old academic. What some of these had at their foundation was a kind of passive aggressive schoolmarmism embodied in the dictum that one should say something nice or nothing at all.  According to its fans, new music doesn’t need naysayers, it needs advocates. Asking too many questions carries with it the dreaded stench of over-intellectualism which has been, so the story goes, the kiss of death of new music, at the core of the perpetual crisis having its most conspicuous roots in the “who cares if you listen” days of high modernism.

Kyle will have none of that. While he recognizes that “it is generally frowned upon these days,” he rises to the defense of what he calls “musical ideology” by which he means the ideas behind the music. It is the investment in and understanding of these and not just a superficial engagement with music’s surface which has provided the foundation for what he, I and, likely, many of us have seen ourselves as doing for most of our professional careers.

Conversely, its absence, a bland ideological neutrality, is at the root of what Kyle finds lacking:   “Minimalism is considered passé. The students don’t know . . .  postminimalism ever existed, . . . Spectralism is attractive to the older and more sophisticated (grad) students, but requires some technique. Fidelity to any kind of -ism or movement seems as an anachronism anyway.”

I agree with that too, though with the caveat that jettisoning stultifying ideologies is always a good thing.  The problem with doing so in our current historical circumstance is what is sure to fill the void remaining from the absence of ideas and that is capitalism. As Kyle puts it: “Once you declare all ideology invalid, what metric is left but success?” by which he means “success” defined by the competition within the capitalist marketplace.

Free to Choose?

At that point, Kyle’s critique gets into sensitive territory for young composers.  For what Kyle is suggesting is that much of what has been celebrated for a while now as stylistic diversity-the freedom to choose from a range of styles-is in part an illusion.  Capitalism, of course, is notable for creating the illusion of choice: I can drive to Boston to visit my family by any route that I choose.  What I can’t choose, which is to say, what capitalism does not allow me to choose, is to take public transit.  Or, I can choose to take out a fifteen or 30 year fixed rate mortgage on my house.  What I cannot do is have my loan forgiven, (only Morgan Stanley can), or live in public housing.  Or, when I had a previous job, I could live in New Haven, Hamden or Woodbridge but I could not choose any area in which the air quality was at consistently healthy levels.

As markets and market ideology tighten their grip on society, it stands to reason that a similar kind of illusion of choice would apply to music.  And recognizing this takes some of the glow off of what our colleagues were celebrating.   Just as I can’t take the bus, composers’ choices, Kyle suggests, are similarly narrowed by the conception of “success”, hence, the limited range of formal narratives on display by our students a couple of weeks back.

Now, I should reiterate here that I don’t necessarily endorse the application of this line of criticism to the works we heard that night.

What I do strongly endorse is Kyle’s concern about a reflexive tendency to put this kind of inquiry off limits exchanging it with superficial and bland cheerleading often indistinguishable from commercial hype.

Kyle himself has had a front row seat to one of the more unfortunate expressions of this tendency in arts journalism and music journalism specifically. Under relentless bottom line pressure, what used to be staffs of music critics are now expected to serve as de facto publicists. Their delivering anything other than hype regarded by their editors and publishers as a threat to their outlets bottom line resulting from possibly disgruntled targets of a critics wrath pulling their ads.   Something of the same can be seen in the academy as a now firmly institutionalized post-modernism offers high brow sales pitches for the products offered by multinational communications conglomerates, the subject of my exchange on the AMS blog with “new” musicologist Robert Fink.

All this sums to the bottom line that if what has been referred to as pop triumphalism and its close twin market fundamentalism is what it means to be post-ideological, I’ll out myself as ideological.

(continued here)