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)

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