Category Archives: Music

My Tunes: Invisible Hand, New York 1992

Invisible Hand:  Back in around 1992, I was enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia.  A charmed life, in retrospect.  A supportive and inspiring teacher (Fred Lerdahl), hugely interesting fellow students, a “job” working under the wonderful Brad Garton in the Columbia/Princeton electronic music center, a great apartment cheap in uptown New York City in the waning days of the downtown scene and what now appear, in retrospect, to be the waning days of traditional concert music life before the internet and the “post canonic” aesthetic began to erode its foundations-what more could I ask for.

That said, I never felt fully at home there-or anywhere else in the “classical music” world.  Having spent a more than a decade playing jazz gigs  and having had most of my musical identity defined by evenings in clubs like Boston’s Jazz Workshop, San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, New York’s Bradley’s and Studio Rivbea left a permanent mark.  Invisible Hand  was the first of many attempts at reconciliation though the most direct since it involved getting a band together of the sort which I used to play in then just a few years before.

In fact, two of them were from those days: Bruce Williamson, a friend now for almost 40 years (is it possible?),  I met when I first got to Berkeley as a freshman in 1979, though maybe slightly after that.  He has since become one of the great spirits of the New York freelance scene-always finding ways to make any musical situation he finds himself in (and there have been probably thousands of these) more interesting, more special and more joyous.  A few years later, I was privileged to have performed on several occasions in the first stages of Larry Grenadier’s when he was still in high school.  He has since become one of the foremost jazz bassists of his generation.  Alas, I’ve lost touch with Larry, though I do occasionally see his older brother, the wonderful trumpeter Phil, when I visit Boston.

Bruce Williamson

Larry Grenadier

The other two quintet members were newer friends: Jon Nelson had at the time recently formed the Meridian Arts Ensemble brass quintet and would, in this capacity, produce numerous recordings and distinguished commissions. Now a much admired professor of Trumpet at SUNY Buffalo for two decades a gig Jon arranged for David Sanford’s Pittsburgh Collective brought us together last year.  I don’t quite recall where I met John Hollenbeck though as most new music fans know, he has gone on to do remarkable things both through leading his Claudia Quintet and his large ensembles in the years since.  I should mention that I did try to compensate the players for their services-but I had run out of cash when I needed to pay John-so I gave him a beautiful rosewood xylophone I had picked up at a pawn shop the summer before.   I wonder whether he still has it-or gets any use out of it.

Jon Nelson

John Hollenbeck

On the piece itself, as will be noticed from scrolling through the score below, it’s a fully composed work-no improvised solos,  a fully composed drum part (I actually though John was embellishing it, but when I asked, he told me he was just “reading the paint”), no C-7 or Abmaj7#5 for the pianist etc.  But it emulates the feel and the sensibility (I hope) of the mid sixties Bluenote sound which was the touchstone for what I was trying (unsuccessfully) to run away from when I turned to “classical” composition and which I have finally, I think, reached some accommodation with after years of usually joyful, though sometimes agonizing, struggle.

Anyway, I like this piece a lot.  Hope you do too.  If you want to play it, let me know, and I’ll send you the parts.  And, if you need a pianist, I’m available!

P.S. I should mention that the page turner for this session was my dear friend, the brilliant, inimitable and uncategorizable violinist Todd Reynolds.  I don’t know exactly how I talked him into serving in this capacity, but this may have been the most dramatic instance of a skills/demand mismatch in the history of employment.



Election 2020: Caitlin Johnstone and Left Pyromania

In a widely reposted piece, Caitlin Johnstone informs us of her

“promise to unequivocally and unconditionally do every single thing in (her) power to sabotage the candidacy of whatever pro-establishment presidential candidate the Democratic party tries to run . . . in 2020.”

Having advocated the same electoral strategy in 2016, Johnstone’s position is consistent.

But unlike others assuming it, she makes no effort to deny the atrocities of the anti-establishment administration she helped elect, climate change deniers in charge of the EPA, the emboldening of far-right hate groups, tax cut to billionaires and corporations, 13 million forced off of health insurance, federal waters opened to oil exploration, the impending deportations of 250,000 El Salvardoran immigrants, etc.

Rather she simply declares that she does “not care what Donald Trump (will have) done by” 2020, the suffering of millions of much less concern to her than the prospect of having “plenty of fun” in “find(ing) every scrap of dirt (she) can find” to “ruin” establishment candidates.

Aside from its unusual honesty, it is also revealing that a piece on anti-establishment candidates includes not a single mention of the candidate the establishment itself went into overdrive to defeat in 2016, namely, Bernie Sanders.

In this connection, it’s worth recalling that back then, while she was not one of them (edited 1/15) , many of Johnson’s follow arsonists were doing the establishment’s work for it-ridiculing Sanders as a “sheepdog”, gleefully passing on David Brock manufactured smears of his supporters as racist and misogynist Berniebros.

No doubt they will pick up from where they left off in 2020 mocking those such as Nina Turner, Rose Ann Demoro and Nomiki Konst working to build up the organizational capacity required to seriously oppose to the establishment.

Johnstone, whose twitter followership, she breathlessly informs us, “increased by 1000% over the last year,” clearly speaks for some in her enthusiasm for left pyromania.

Her doing so is a reminder that the left has often been a refuge for loons and cranks.

But their parading under our banner doesn’t mean that we need to hold our tongue.

When they attempt to spread their infection, basic intellectual hygeine and political common sense requires that it be forcefully repudiated.

McCarthyite Hack Attack on Stein: A Win-Win for the Dems

The DP establishment attack on Jill Stein as a Putin stooge serves various purposes. Among them it

1) Distracts from the abject incompetence and venality of the Democratic establishment and their role in rigging the primary in favor of their preferred candidate Ms. Clinton-with the catastrophic consequences we are now attempting to somehow cope with.

2) Distracts from the “Putin stole the election” narrative now quickly collapsing along with the numerous lies and distortions which they have perpetrated in order to attempt to establish it.

3) Situates at the center of the left opposition to the DP not only a painfully weak candidate (as attested by her embarrassing vote total) and an utterly dysfunctional organization (the Green Party which in 40 years has managed to acquire less than .01% of elected offices) but more fundamentally a moral witness philosophy of political engagement which has proven to be strategically disastrous for the left.

4) Tars those who do the unfortunately necessary job of defending her from Mccarthyite smears by associating them with a feckless candidacy thereby reinforcing the widespread view of the left as irrational, unserious and needing to be kept miles away from governance on any level.

In short, a win-win for the Democrats and for Stein. Which is why they are happy to assume their roles in the charade.

That doesn’t mean we need to play the game, however.

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