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)

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2 thoughts on “Post-Ideology and its Discontents: Three Variations (1)”

  1. Hey, John, everything I learn about the intersection of politics and pop music, I learn from you. I’m continually amazed that you can tie literally everything together. I will reiterate my initial point, though, because it keeps getting lost. I didn’t really mean to criticize what the students were doing. Eight of the twelve pieces, at least, sounded like they could have been written by the same person, and I was astonished that the faculty interpreted that as aesthetic diversity. It’s like 90 percent of 20th-century musical movements have fallen down the memory hole and only the middle 10 percent remains.

    1. Thanks Kyle, I agree that it should have been clear that what you wrote wasn’t intended as criticism, but it’s revealing, I think, that it was received that way. In any case, whether you were or you weren’t, you (more than pretty much anyone I know) have the right to criticize. And, of course, those you criticize have the right to answer back. Maybe I’m too influenced by the Marx’s line about being required to be “a ruthless critic of all that exists” but it strikes me that a healthy musical culture at least has some of this kind of back and forth. There’s less of it now than I think there should be. I suppose that’s my bottom line.

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