Category Archives: Music

When Cynics are Prophets

1) All sexual assault victims should be given our full, unconditional support.

2) 1) should not prevent us from issuing the reminder that a small number of them were also willing and enthusiastic propagandists for the Bush/CIA torture regime.

3) A record of having participated in a depraved and dishonest Hollywood spectacle will be perceived by some as undermining their moral authority, particularly when they  make accusations against others.

4) The most cynical among us will entertain the possibility that the allegations are a ploy to engender sympathy for the alleged victim while obscuring her complicity in one of the great moral atrocities of the century.

5) As a matter of record, the most cynical explanations have an unfortunate tendency to turn out to be correct.

Challenging Rape Culture

I am currently being challenged to demonstrate my opposition to “rape culture.”

The request is altogether reasonable and we should all accept it.

I will do so by relating the following.

Some years ago, a powerful and well-connected individual was accused of sexual assault by a woman possessing very limited resources.

The charges were sufficiently credible to require an out of court settlement for $850,000-a not inconsiderable sum two decades ago. But justice in this case was delayed for some years, only achieved after a pattern of behavior had been established by other women having made similar complaints.

Prior to that time, the woman’s accusations were widely ridiculed, most conspicuously by numerous political associates and friends of the accused. A remark from one high level offical was typical: “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,“ was his response to the situation.

It would be hard to imagine a more disgusting example of apologetics for sexual assault and rape culture.


That brings me to my response to the challenge above. Many of us can attest to having repeatedly attempted to demand accountability for his remark.

In particular, we vehemently opposed the candidate who retains close ties with the sexual assault apologist who would likely have been appointed to a key position in her administration.

Given that fact, to support her would have been, as should be apparent, an implicit endorsement of rape culture.


But at this point an irony surfaces. Many of those who are issuing the challenge to us now urged us then to do exactly that: to support the candidate in question, namely, Secretary Clinton who has, it should be noted, her own history of minimizing the importance of sexual assault.

Notably, in response to a question as to whether women accusing her husband of sexual misconduct should be believed, she equivocated.

“Everyone should be believed at first” was her answer, “until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”

With that in mind I will reiterate my complete and total support for the consensus which has been expressed on my social media feed.

Sexual harrassment and sexual assault are beyond indefensible and should never be condoned under any circumstances.

And that includes by those who assume that by issuing the challenge that they are themselves exempt from it

Musical Deplorables: Notes on Neoliberalism, Jazz Purism and Kenny G.

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.

Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”


Before revealing the source of these descriptions, it is worth pointing out what should be obvious, namely that, with a few substitutions, the passage could have occurred in any number of alarmed New York Times, or Washington Post op-eds in the months and weeks before the election, one of which mirrored the concluding phrase above in bearing the headline “We Ignore Trump at our Peril.” In fact, they could have emanated from the Democratic nominee herself who described her opponent as “the most dangerous candidate in history”, his supporters, notoriously, an “irredeemable basket of deplorables” impelled by a “negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision.”

To answer the question left hanging, we owe the enumeration of the “dangers” of Kenny G. to guitarist Pat Metheny in a blog posting from some years back, one which is routinely resurrected and brandished as a club when a new round of Kenny’s G. bashing is initiated as it was last month.

What makes those forwarding this document conspicuous is not just the high dudgeon, but their self-righteousness. The latter is evidently grounded in their certainty that Metheny’s critique transcends subjective opinion in being based on objective music/theoretical fact. Thus, Kenny G’s “harmonic and melodic vocabulary . . . . limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns,” his “out-of-tune, noodlings” suffused with “wrong notes” and “harmonic clams” are all assumed to be data points providing the empirical basis for a unique conclusion: abject musical incompetence. This, presumably, in distinction to canonic jazz icons whose mastery is empirically demonstrable by means of technical musical analysis.


It is at this point that those with professional expertise in music theory need to intervene to note that what is being played as a trump card here is in fact a bluff. Music theory can, of course, identify many significant aspects of musical structure-providing us some insight on why composers chose the notes they did. What it can’t do, and what any minimally honest practitioner of the discipline will immediate concede that it can’t, is predict why a particular piece of music is regarded as good, bad, indifferent or deplorable.

For those in musical scholarship, this is all familiar ground explored, most notably, in Joseph Kerman’s classic (1980) essay “How We Got into Analysis and How to Get Out.” This appeared at the peak of influence of certain triumphalist variants of music theory which, in their most extreme form, tended to equate what Kerman called musical criticism (the evaluation of a work’s aesthetic merits) with analysis (the formal description of its structure). The latter, as would be noted by subsequent generations of musical scholars, was inferred to provide an objective basis for the claims for transcendent greatness of what was being analyzed, namely, canonic masterworks deriving from white, European, males. Relatively soon, all this would be exposed and criticized as cultural chauvinism at best white supremacy masquerading as objective scholarship at worst.

Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

A slightly more subtle issue is at stake in what Metheny characterizes as G’s “harmonic clams” or “wrong notes.” What is being referenced is what music theorists would refer to as unresolved, or inappropriately resolved dissonance. Here the problem is that the supposedly objective data is contested with even the most unambiguously tonal works many of which present numerous puzzles to the most sophisticated analysts. Perhaps Kenny G’s choice of pitches is, in some absolute aesthetic sense, “wrong”, but given there is no agreement on the distinction between consonance and dissonance within a Bach Two Part Invention or Chopin Prelude there’s no justification for deploying it as a weapon to attack any music or musician, unless doing so is nothing more than a rationalization for pre-existing aesthetic bias.

Finally, the problematic subject of “wrong notes” is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Eric Dolphy which consists almost entirely of “wrong notes”, insofar as the term has any meaning. But what makes Dolphy’s wrong notes “right,” as any minimally literate jazz fan knows, and Kenny G’s “wrong”? At this point, the question can only be answered by some variant of “because I said so”, an appeal to bien pensant consensus with respect to who belongs within the walls of an increasingly sanctified canon.


At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny.

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

The key to answering the question involves recognizing that both, as I have pointed out, are reflections of deep-seated conventional wisdom as this is expressed by the agenda setting media, the academy and by the priorities of corporate philanthropy. Challenges to its authority, whether this takes the form of enthusiasm for the debased artistic expression of Kenny G or the debased politics of Donald Trump are viewed as heresy. More broadly, those challenging orthodoxies on free trade, permanent war or banking deregulation, were relegated to the margins just as those raising doubts about the sanctified status of jazz, as I myself discovered when I did just that in the piece linked to above. All that’s needed to dispense with them is to cut and paste from a well worn-lexicon of denunciations-“irresponsible”, “dangerous”, “uninformed” etc.-while appealing to the authority of acknowledged experts in their representation of what are claimed to be “the facts”.


By now it is uncontroversial to identify the election of 2016 as a delegitimation crisis for this same expert class-the moment when “the twilight of the elites” turned to midnight. The public would vote based on the evidence provided by their own eyes making clear their contempt for the fairy tales of those who they regarded as frauds and mountebanks.

The unemployed steel worker working for near minimum wage at a 7/11 in a town ravaged by drug addiction, his home, and those of his neighbors, foreclosed on by banks stuffed with trillions of taxpayer dollars, now demanded that elite talking heads stop talking and begin to listen, as they have not for three decades. The Trump election was the two by four administered to the head of the neoliberal mule to get its attention. Reasoning with it, as the joke goes, which is to say development of actual progressive legislation responding to the immense suffering apparent everywhere will need to come later: after the catastrophe of the Trump/Pence administration is brought to an end.

It is at this point that the analogy between the admirers of Kenny G and Trump breaks down: I know of no instance where Kenny G’s fans have lashed out against at those who routinely make punching bags of them for the crime of enjoying simple bluesy tunes in high gloss professional arrangements. Rather they vote with their feet filling stadiums or opening their wallets when they are requested by him to throw a few bucks in a hat for a charity.

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t harbor plenty of simmering resentment towards those ridiculing them for their coarse and degraded musical tastes while patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity and refinement. The value of these and other purely cultural antipathies have, for years, been recognized by right organizers such as Grover Norquist whose electoral strategy, as he recently revealed, relies crucially on “changing the tone . . . towards bitter nastiness.”

That our own attitudes help pave the way for this tone to be established and thereby the success of the right raises a fundamental question for those of us whose lives have revolved around a passionate investment in forms of musical high culture, however we define it. How do we respond to artistic tastes which seem to represent an affront to our cherished aesthetic values, just as much as support for Trump seems to represent an attack on our core political and moral sensibilities.

How we resolve this is an individual matter, but one guideline should be clear: While we should make clear that while we regard their views as misguided, maybe even profoundly so, we harbor no ill will towards Trump supporters as individuals.

When it comes to those with an affection for Kenny G or any other artist for whom visceral contempt seems de rigueur it would seem that more is required of us. Namely, we need to take a step beyond tolerance by applying the kindergarten adage to either say something nice or nothing at all about the music people like, the cars they drive or the foods they eat. Doing so won’t by itself prevent a repetition of the electoral disaster of 2016 or install socialists at the helm of state power. But if we can our curb our reflexive pleasure in lampooning the bad taste of others, it will make it the longstanding project of the right to construct walls which divide us that much harder. And in so doing, we make our job to build bridges connecting us that much easier.


(1) See my widely derided Jazz After Politics for arguments along these lines.

(2) Oddly, Metheny claims Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as embodying the supposed virtues of jazz under attack from the debased idiom of Kenny G.

On Why Classical Music is from Georgia (the country): An Assignment

Core Sequence Class I (Tonal Harmony and Counterpoint)

Bard Conservatory Of Music

John Halle

Assignment 1

Due: 8/29/16

A Harmony/Counterpoint teacher/student dialogue (Note: Instructions for completing the assignment at the end of the document.)

Q: Questions asked by a first year Bard Conservatory Student
A: Answers given by slightly disheveled middle aged teacher of Harmony and Counterpoint.

Q: Why do I need to take this class?
A: It’s required.

Q: Why is it required?
A: Graduate schools require that you be able to 1) harmonize soprano or bass lines in four parts 2) provide figured bass analyses of pieces from within the standard repertoire 3) understand something about the dominant musical forms of the so-called common practice period.

Q: But why do they require it?
A: Because they always have.

Q: That’s a terrible answer.
A: That’s not a question. You’re supposed to ask questions.

Q: Oh right. I’m sorry. Isn’t that a terrible answer?
A: Yes.

Q: Do you have a better one?
A: I don’t know. Should I?

Q: That’s not an answer
A: You’re right. But that’s not a question.

Q: You’re right. Sorry. Isn’t that not an answer?
A: Yes.

Q: Can you do better?
A: I’m not sure. Let me try.

Q: OK.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Sorry. Can I help?
A: Yes you can.

Q: How can I help?
A: By asking questions about what you think you should learn.

Q: But how do I know what I should learn?
A: You don’t. That’s part of our job. To teach you what you need to know.

Q; But are you confident that you know?
A: No.

Q: Why not?
A: For lots of reasons.

Q: Can you share some of them?
A: Sure. Here’s one. We all know lots of musicians with nothing more than the most rudimentary understanding of music theory (and sometimes not even that) who play their instruments beautifully, perform compellingly both as soloists and in ensembles and have had hugely successful careers.

Q: Why is that a problem?
A: It’s not a problem for them.

Q: But why is it a problem for you?
A: Well, presumably at conservatories, what we teach should have a more or less direct practical application to students’ ability to prepare themselves for professional careers in music.

Q: And you’re saying that what you teach does not?
A: Let’s say it’s not so obvious that it does, especially now.

Q: Why is that?
A: For lots of reasons.

Q: Can you give some of them?
A: Well I already gave you one.

Q: You did, but are musicians like that typical?
A: No.

Q: Well then, how about those who are.
A: Some of them get something out of learning counterpoint and harmony.

Q: What exactly?
A: Harmony tells you the difference between wrong and right notes-at least in the music of the so-called “common practice” period which remains, for better or worse, and maybe for necessary reasons, the conservatory repertoire.

Q: You mean the difference between consonance and dissonance?
A: Not exactly. Lots of “right” notes are dissonances, and vice versa.

Q: How do you tell the difference?
A: Take the class!

Q: But can’t I learn that without taking the class?
A: Sure you can learn the definition, but not what it really means.

Q: Well, what else will I learn?
A: What do you want to learn?

Q: That’s a question.
A: That’s not a question.

Both: Ooops. You’re right.

Q: What else will I learn?
A: You’ll learn about chords, how they progress from one to another and how diatonic chords function as elements within harmonic progressions, how different melodies and basses can admit of many different sorts of harmonizations depending on the extent of one’s harmonic vocabulary and, ultimately, how to write melodies and harmonizations which make sense to the ear and are sometime very attractive.

Q: But can’t I learn the same thing from other kinds of harmony classes? Say the harmony they teach in the jazz program?
A: You can and you absolutely should. But there is a difference.

Q: What’s that?
A: Most jazz and so-called “popular” music harmony consists in treating chords as self-contained structures, e.g. C7, F# maj 7, E7 #9, etc. within a lead sheet as opposed to harmonies (or simultaneities) within a fully composed score.

Q: But baroque figured bass is something like a “lead sheet isn’t it”?
A: Absolutely, but remember that pieces including figured bass notation specify not just the bass, but also the melody and composers work hard to establish a relationship between the two parts which seems musically coherent and satisfying.

Q: Why does that matter?
A: Because it means that the piece is defined by two layers of counterpoint both of which are defining elements of the piece itself. In pop music, the bass tends to play a more functional role, supporting a melody line which is the primary, if not exclusive focus of attention.

Q: But that’s condescending. Lots of great bass lines in pop music are very melodic aren’t they?
A: You’re right. It was condescending. My mistake. In fact, the broad consensus among academics like myself (i.e. those teaching this class at most institutions) is that classical music is no “better” than any other, or to quote one of our better known musicologists, classical music is “only one (style) among many, and by not the most prestigious.”

Q: But do you really believe that pop is just as “good” as classical?
A: I’m not going to comment. I was just stating the fact that those who believe that are very much in the minority not only among students (who have always preferred pop music) but now among the faculty here at Bard very few of whom have much interest in or knowledge of the kind of music performed on our concerts and recitals (with more than a few notable exceptions, of course).

Q: That’s sad.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Oh yeah. Isn’t that sad?
A: Well maybe, but it’s possible to get over it.

Q: How?
A: First by recognizing that different styles or genres of music have their own unique qualities and virtues and then to recognize what those are for the kind of music which forms the core of the conservatory curriculum (here and elsewhere).

Q: What do think those are?
A: Take the class.

Q: I am. I have to. But can’t you say more?
A: Well, I alluded to them before when I talked about counterpoint within classical music-the independence of the bass line which means that it can be heard as a self-contained melody but which also conforms to the “rules” of common practice harmony (e.g. not doubling leading tones, avoiding cross relations, and parallel fifths etc.) in combining with the other parts. That can also go for other parts as well.

Q: But if it’s so that that’s unique to classical music, why is that so?
A: The reason has to do with classical music, as opposed to all other styles being more or less entirely notated. And that means composers can create elaborate and complex plans for their pieces working out intricate relationships between the parts. While some parts are primary, others secondary, and still others seem insignificant often what these roles are is not at all apparent on the first, or maybe even after many, listenings. And so re-experiencing pieces is a constant discovery of many treasures which were composed into, and sometimes concealed within, the score.

Q: That’s a long answer. Can you keep your answers shorter?
A: I’ll try.

Q: But is the kind of complexity you’re talking about a good thing?
A: Yes and no. But I think we can first agree that complicatedness is a bad thing.

Q: What’s the difference between complicatedness and complexity?
A: I’ll let you think about that. If you really want an answer you should take some of my other classes.

Q: Which ones?
A: My class on language and music, for example.

Q: How does that answer the question?
A: Well for one thing, you will learn about other languages some of which at least seem to be very complex.

Q: You mean languages like Russian, Latin and Greek which have many different forms of nouns and verbs?
A: Yes, exactly. These are called “inflections” and as you may know, English is quite impoverished in terms of its inflectional morphology. For example, we only inflect our verbs in the 3rd person singular. (e.g. I, you, we, they walk. He/she walks.)

Q: What? Aren’t we getting off track here?
A: Maybe a little but bear with me: if you take the class, you’ll discover that, for example, the central asian Georgian language inflects for both the subject and the object resulting in a paradigm having (at least theoretically) thirty six forms for each tense.

Q: Wow. Isn’t it amazing that kids are able to learn that language?
A: Yes. But the music which you perform is similar.

Q: How so?
A: For one thing, in classical music all of the notes of the twelve note scale play a functional role.

Q: But don’t they in all forms of music?
A: No. Many (probably the majority) are limited to the five note (pentatonic) scale. Others are limited to the seven notes of the diatonic scale.

Q: But most of our music uses a seven note scale. How is our music different from theirs?
A: Take the class.

Q: How will that answer the question?
A: For one thing, you’ll see that while you’re right that the diatonic scale defines a basic foreground set of pitches, the availability of the other five notes is fundamental to the “common practice” both to create additional harmonies within a key (so called secondary or applied dominants) but also to allow for the possibility of modulation to other keys. Modulation is rare among the world’s musics-arguably it is unique to so-called classical music.

Q: So is that why you brought up Georgian?
A: Yes, exactly. Common practice “classical” music is like Georgian in this respect-making maximal demands on our (or on the child’s) capacity to make sense of what we hear when we are exposed to it. And conversely English might be compared to “simple” or “primitive” genres of music which generally (though not always) are limited to a small set of pitches.

Q: And also to a lesser degree the so called classical languages like Greek or Latin are more like Georgian in this respect, right?
A: Yes.

Q: And just as those formed the basis of education for many centuries, by analogy it might seem reasonable to take the common practice period as forming a similar function within musical education now. Right?
A: Exactly. The reasons why students learned the “dead” languages Latin and Greek wasn’t just to develop awareness of “classical literature” which was foundational to the culture of the west, though that was surely one factor.

Q: And the other factor was that one didn’t learn the language, so to speak, one learned those languages to learn something about language-i.e. the structures (visible and invisible) which are inherent in what it means to be fluent in any language.
A: Exactly.

Q: So then you’re saying that even if Bach, Beethoven and Brahms etc. are no longer perceived to be the central pillars of musical culture that they once were, there’s a reason to become fluent within the musical language they were communicating in. Right?
A: Yes, that’s essentially my (our?) position. By studying the grammar of classical languages whose underlying structure is, in many respects more apparent in its surface forms, we are able to learn something about what it is that makes utterances in all languages cohere and make sense. And the same thing can be said about common practice music, though there’s a lot more to be said on this.

Q: But all that seems overly intellectual. And it still makes me sad since you seem to be claiming that while our music might be unique, it’s not uniquely valuable. Isn’t that what you’re saying?
A: I think you have trapped me in a contradiction. But I think there is a way out of it.

Q: What’s that?
A: That’s your job.

Q: What, you want me to help you find a way out of your contradiction? That’s outrageous.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Oh sorry. I meant isn’t it outrageous that you want me to help you find a way out of your contradiction?
A: Maybe. But you’re a Bard conservatory student and you’re supposed to be thinking about the bigger questions raised by music, why we play it and why we value the music we do. Isn’t that the reason why you came here?

Q: That’s not a question is it?
A: You’re right. Even so. I’d like you to think about what you have just read and continue the dialog.

Q: What? You mean, this is an assignment?
A: Yes, it’s an assignment.

Q: What do I need to do?
A: For next class, I would like you to continue this dialog picking up on any of the topics raised in the above.

Q: How do I do that?
A: You do not need to pick the dialog up at the very end continuing it on from there. You could choose to insert your new questions and answers at any point where an issue is raised that you have something to say on.

Q: Where might that be?
A: Your choice. If you need help you can talk to me outside of class or email me.

Q: OK, I’ll give it try.
A: That’s not a question.

Q: Right. Anything else you’d like to say?
A: Yes. It should be around 500 to 800 words. Longer if you’d like though I will expect that it meet the basic requirements for quality of expression which will be expected in your other classes. Namely, that it be clearly articulated, reasonably well informed, not containing any gross errors in spelling and punctuation and, hopefully, that it will be enjoyable for me and your fellow students to read. As we will next class. OK?

Q: That’s not a question.
A: Right!

Q: Oh yeah. When’s it due?
A: The beginning of next class. Enjoy!

Q: OK . . . ?

On Richard Taruskin (highly abridged)

My old music history prof at UC Berkeley, Richard Taruskin, in fine form here, returning to his old haunt at the New York Times to demolish Julian Barnes’s neocon party line novelization of Shostakovich.

If I were an important person, I can imagine myself being asked why I regard Taruskin, along with Chomsky, as one of my major influences, even though his politics are frequently dubious, not to mention his having, on at least two occasions, personally attacked me in print. This review should give a good indication why. Namely, that he routinely exercises the capacity to, as Orwell put it, “face unpleasant truths.” That’s what’s made him enemies over the years, and that’s why, while finding him a plenty disagreeable person, I regard him as an unlikely albeit problematic ally. (He would never describe me as one, needless to say.) 

For it is this capacity, after all, which is fundamental to any chance we have of digging ourselves out of the hole we are in. The fact that much of “the left” has demonstrably abandoned it at various points of its history, including now, suggests to me that the kind of intellectual honesty Taruskin embodies is a much better foundation on which to build a political movement than the delusions of those who self-identify as on the “revolutionary” left.

Much more to be said on this topic, obviously.

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.

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


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)