23 November 2014

Utility

I have written here before, at least in dribs and drabs, about all the things I don't have in common with people who come from a rock background, but one thing we do have in common is a growing discontent with the sound palette of the traditional classical orchestra. I myself am a player who sticks to traditional tone production quite a lot of the time, and yet there is more to this question than just that, including but not limited to rooms, recording techniques, and instrumentation. I also seldom miss an opportunity to disavow audiophilia, but admittedly this is largely an audiophile's dilemma: on the rare occasion I can summon the willpower to launch an investigation into the latest flavor-of-the-month orchestral composer, I often come away with even stronger (usually negative) impressions of the "sound" than of the piece(s).

The name Djuro Zivkovic has been circulating, and perhaps it brings hope. None of the pieces I've listened to thus far have disappointed, and I've just realized a primary reason for this: they make me forget that I've ever lamented the limitations of traditional instruments, tone production, or recording techniques vis-a-vis contemporary music. Certainly there is still much to be done in waking the orchestral world from its timbral slumber. Even so, it's good to be reminded that the usefulness of any tool depends almost entirely on the skill with which it is wielded.

Music Education By The Numbers

The Western orchestral tradition represents a pinnacle of human achievement, but the student-to-teacher ratio stinks. Where else but band class is a 30-, 50-, or 80-to-1 student-teacher ratio considered normal and acceptable? And why do we somehow expect problems which rather predictably arise from this in core subject classes not to arise in music classes?

A View From The Place Where Blog Month 7 Went To Die

This post is a protest against Operational Need; as in, "applicant must be able to work a flexible schedule depending on operational need, including evenings, weekends, and holidays." Those of you reading this who know me personally know that holidays in particular and weekends to some degree as well don't mean all that much in my world. Evenings don't have to either, except of course when I've already spent all day, week, morning, and afternoon in the unique state of imposed intellectual deprivation mandated by the private security industry and, to varying degrees, its clients.

Though I've had some long days and weeks of teaching and touring, and though I'm no stranger to the Day Job scene, I'm always a bit embarrassed to admit that until 15 months ago I had worked 40 or more Day Job hours in a week only a handful of times. What I now know is that while 40 hours in five days can in fact be made to coexist with my musical life, 46 hours in five days definitely cannot, and 54 hours in six days sure as hell cannot. And the kicker is that the line I quoted above didn't actually appear when I applied for this particular job. It was a pretty decent scheduling situation for a while. Then I tempted fate, wrote a bunch of stuff about privilege and non-privilege, and vowed to keep doing so for an entire month. Me and my big ideas. What about my operational needs you guys?

Security is the most un-zenlike profession on the entire planet, one where you are not allowed to trust anyone unknown to you for any reason, and even those known to you only incrementally and symbolically over time. Security itself is an abstraction, not something you can simply install in your building or hold in your hands. The industry is, contrary to everything you might be lead to believe by the severe overrepresentation of men in its front lines, a soft-skills, people-skills, customer-is-always-right driven one. It is ornamental masculinity at its most purely symbolic and, in most cases right up through the Secret Service, dysfunctional as well. The facilities department "runs" the school; the security department merely holds red-faced conferences on how to look busy when you're really not.

And so this post would be remiss if it did not address what the phrase "operational need" really means. This is what it really means, and this injustice has no place in our country or our world. Fortunately for me there is no child relying on me for support, just a lonely weblog project which is already fully accustomed to not getting much action. I am not tied down by breadwinning duties or institutionalized prejudice against my kind, but merely by adolescent hubris and recreational verbosity. It could be worse. Even so, I take exception to being asked to work on 24 hours notice when officially, if not always practically, getting a day off requires two weeks advance notice; and I chastise the very notion of contracting out services, understanding as I now do that this creates a buffer zone of responsibility between a client that never has its shit together vis-a-vis The Schedule and the front line employees who are held hostage by said incompetence but have no direct recourse against an entity that does not legally employ them.

Once upon a time, a certain newly minted MFA spewed the following venom all over the internet:

In many ways, the day jobs I have held have engaged, challenged and utilized my entire physical and intellectual capacities to a much greater extent than many of the paying tuba gigs I have played. Those prone to hawking music as the ultimate multi-disciplinary task for the developing brain will of course accuse me of exaggerating, but I'm not so sure I am. In fairness, it is true that I have invested quite a bit more time and effort in improving my tuba playing than I have in becoming a better security guard, and that this has made certain kinds of tuba gigs much easier than they would otherwise be. That being what it may, in facing the transition from academic to civilian life for the second time, I find myself far less fearful of the indignities associated with low-wage jobs than of those which inhere in the musical cultures I inhabit.


I stand by those words. Indeed, the problem with the current situation is that once again, after a long and frustrating several months of job hunting and a dozen interviews with HR neanderthals who saw in me only an overqualified, distracted artist type destined to play by my own rules and bail in short order to go on tour, I have predictably outlasted scads of less qualified, less educated, less competent people who have managed to get themselves fired in every conceivable way, from urinating in public to smoking on campus to having their dad pick a fight with a homeless guy on their behalf. And now, somehow, some way, the one that's leftover after all of this, that long-haired hippie with a graduate degree and gaping chasms in his employment history, is too important to the operation to be scheduled for a mere 40 hour week. No, instead we must extend two of his shifts from 8 to 11.5 hours, netting him several hours of time-and-a-half and a few precious hours of double-time by the end of the week. If anyone else doubts that there is dignity in this in some circles, simply witness my co-workers bickering over who is chosen for overtime scheduling and who isn't. And then there's long-haired, distracted, ungrateful, overqualified me trying to give mine away and having a hell of a time. Color me privileged on payday and exhausted the rest of the time.

20 November 2014

Snail Mail

Today I had the pleasure of making a special trip to the Post Office in order to mail off some materials in support of a recent application. Say what you want about the zombification of Kids These Days or the discomfort of reading from a backlit screen, but I do find it surprising that so many places still require physical materials mailed to them. Perhaps in the composition world this is necessary to determine whether the applicant has any realistic grasp on performer-friendly score preparation; and yet, too often this merely becomes a referendum on whether the local print shop, be it of the mom-and-pop or the faceless corporate variety, can competently execute some of their most basic services. My road to grad school was paved with the fuckups of both types of places, a small one where the PC went all 1994 on my Sibelius-generated PDFs and rendered all of the noteheads in plain text, and a big one where both the self-service machines and the one behind the counter required several takes just to print on 11x17 paper without smearing. In truth, adjudicating dozens of scores on a screen doesn't sound like something I would want to be involved in. Today, however, I mailed off a wad CD-Rs and a DVD of the stuff I recently posted to YouTube, which is a task I thought was blissfully behind us. Should it not be?

Then there's the much-maligned Post Office itself. May the omniscient being du jour have mercy on its soul. The Post Office evidently does not believe that good things come in small packages. It believes, rather, that the degree of Postal Service bling emblazoned on the package simply must vary in direct proportion to the importance of the contents, and hence that if you were well-prepared and brazen enough to fit three discs, three transcripts, and a cover letter snugly but comfortably into a small, plain, padded manila envelope, you must thereby suffer the indignity of all but completing the transaction at the self-service machine only to be told at the end that because the appointed label size will not fit on your envelope, you must wait in line with everyone else in order to receive a prepaid, blinged-out, flat-rate envelope, return to the back of the store in order to copy the address over, then wait in line a second time to pay. I have twice in my life had such packages disappear into thin air in the custody of the Post Office, and if this reduces the chances of that, I am on board. At that point, though, we are back where we started in wondering if there isn't just a better way to go about this 95% (or is it 99%?) of the time.

19 November 2014

Stand-in for a Placeholder

In a moment of hubris which has become a yearly tradition, a certain white male blogger with pretensions to blog every day for a month recently spat out this gem of a sentiment:

...for a field of endeavor so often and so loudly criticized for representing, literally or figuratively, the interests of male aristocrats and colonists, it is today difficult to locate which upper class privileges, exactly, are being enjoyed by any but the most conventionally successful artists

That none of the many Facebook comments I've managed to elicit so far this month have yet seized on the discussion(s) which an investigation of this claim might open up has been a disappointment, but only a mild one. That's because if pressed I might just unleash a tidal wave of angry white male angst about how my once-a-day project was, inevitably, interrupted by a distinctively underprivileged day, one which stretched straight from 6am to midnight, which involved 7.5 hours of my life being pissed away standing around in front of a gate, which incorporated a round trip between LA and San Bernardino, and during which I literally had not one spare moment to get up even a generic placeholder post, as I have occasionally done in past years under similar circumstances. It was a day where, ultimately, my work was more furthered than hindered, perhaps significantly so depending on myriad remaining unknowns. I hasten to insist, nevertheless, that it was not a day of privilege even so.

And so, as I write this again having awoken at 5am and again having caught only a fractional quantity of my customary afternoon naptime, I suspect I am by now carrying what the sleep doctor calls "crushing" sleep debt, aka living in "the twilight zone." Under such circumstances I fear posting as much as not posting; but here it is anyway for what it's worth, which is probably not much. Yes, I have a roof over my head; no, I am not particularly privileged at the moment; yes, I could have majored in biochemistry and now be depriving myself of sleep for a more noble, or at least lucrative, cause; and no, I don't have anything more elaborate or well-thought-out to say about all of this, at least not at the moment. For that, I regret to report you'll likely have to catch me on weekends and holidays while contenting yourself with thinner gruel during the week. G'night then.

17 November 2014

On Creating Challenges

The Question: if you don't care about the audience, why present your work publicly at all?

The Answer: motivation; that is, to consolidate if not to please. The possibility that someone else will see/hear my work provides excellent incentive to be myself; their particular reaction to me being myself figures most insignificantly in my desire to do so.

16 November 2014

Basketball, Bodies, and The Meritocracy

If you play enough pick up basketball in enough different regions of this country, you will see and hear quite a few remarkable things, and perhaps contribute a few yourself. But you will also see a lot of the same thing: people whose bodies simply won't permit them high-level athleticism or purely physical advantages over opponents who nonetheless have developed some very strong fundamental skills. Individualized fundamental skills, if the oxymoronic overtones of that turn of phrase can be massaged just a bit. (I want to argue that they can, and must.) Most striking to me these days as someone who received a great body for basketball but whose limited natural athleticism is only becoming more limited with advancing age is to watch and play against people who are the other way around. On Friday a much shorter co-worker joked to me about investigating all manner of PEDs and black-magic stuff so he could get taller and be able to dunk. When I told him I'd been dunked on a few times by people his height he was incredulous; but I was telling the truth.

There are even quite a few people out there who have neither the size nor the athleticism but who nonetheless, whether through sheer force of will or some other intangible, undeniably "got game," at least as far as the average pick-up game goes. And this is to say that they have, probably unwittingly, scrapped the "fundamentals" and instead "just played" until it felt right. In music, meanwhile, I fear that even though "success" truly is a much more subjective notion than it is in basketball, too often it is treated in the opposite fashion. We tend to look around at everyone who has two eyes, two ears, two arms, and two legs and think to ourselves that if they want to work hard enough at it, they too can master the very specific gauntlet of fundamentals that a given musical tradition demands of any and all adherents. It is far easier to see someone's arms and legs flailing about on the basketball court than it is to see through the cup of a trumpet mouthpiece to those two tiny strips of flesh resting against it, to the precise position of the jaw, teeth, tongue, and throat. As any trumpet student knows, though, there's a whole lot going on up inside that airway, and there are a whole lot of people (I was one of them) who for whatever reason just don't have physical rapport with the instrument as it is traditionally conceived. We make unrealistic expectations in this way, and we do it at yet greater expense here than in athletics, since "winning" at art may or may not have anything to do with traditional technique and everything to do with becoming yourself. With that last turn of phrase, we are apt to think of what's on the inside; but what's on the outside has a lot to do with it too, more probably than we've given adequate thought to in most musico-pedagocial traditions.

15 November 2014

Scrabble, Ethics, and The Meritocracy

Another confession: over the last several years I have allowed myself to get sucked into the strange and beautiful world of more-than-casual Scrabble playing, and I like it a little more than is probably good for me. Yes, I have become "that guy" who thinks nothing of playing words like UVEA, COOEE, and AENEOUS whether he's at a Scrabble club (yes, it has gone that far) or with a bunch of drunk friends, and who, when inevitably accused by said drunk friends of "cheating" in the moral sense (if hardly in the legal sense), thinks nothing of pointing out that (1) these words in fact appear on a widely available list of "vowel dumps" that anyone with an internet connection can easily seek out and learn if they care enough to do so, and (2) though these words seem pretty random, Scrabble vocabulary is hardly an anything-goes proposition, specifically because there is an international organization of people who really care about this stuff and whose administration of the rules and their application reflects said high degree of caringness. In contemporary terms now: don't hate the player, hate the game.

Having thus passed from being someone who only thought he was good at Scrabble to being someone who knows he's nowhere near an "expert" (and there is, as with the words themselves, a finite definition of experthood), I have also made the concurrent transition from being someone who viewed studying such lists of meaningless words as "cheating" to being someone who understands that access to such lists or the willingness to make them oneself represents so much less than half the battle. To compete on the highest levels of this game, you still need a steel trap mind, a killer instinct, and an iron poker face; if you lack any of these, experienced players will summarily devour you. You do, admittedly, also need to know a lot of words that you're highly unlikely to encounter anywhere else. Even so, "knowing" them is one thing, "finding" them in crucial moments of a game is another; and that throws the whole proposition back on to familiar territory: practice.

As professor Jerry Luckhardt at the U of MN would always say, "Practice is not a sign of weakness or insecurity." It certainly is not cheating either. Get a bunch of drunk music majors together some weekend and they will unite behind this battlecry concerning their own metier, then decry it in the next breath once someone grabs the Scrabble board off of a nearby bookshelf and deals them a death by a thousand cuts using some of the over 1,000 permissible 2- and 3-letter words. The truth is that the two pursuits are overwhelmingly similar in their Gladwellian dimensions: the intuitive genius and the hapless grinder are, while not unheard of, exceedingly rare birds both in Scrabble and in music. There is also this: given a modicum of discipline and motivation (the afterburn of having one of those vowel dumps played on you for the first time and then losing your challenge seems to provide an adequate, if temporary, dose of both for most drunk music majors), there's no reason virtually any fully developed adult couldn't grasp the most basic elements of high-level Scrabble in one sitting and thereby become almost unbeatable in occasional drunk living room games against less enterprising friends while expending a disproportionately paltry amount of effort. Similarly, I have often found it both maddening and heartbreaking when my adult students seem unable or unwilling to solidify foundational skills and knowledge that would open the world up for them. Too many hobbyists look at professionals with the same mixture of awe and contempt that my music major friends point in my direction when I take the rack AICNNRT and drop down TYRANNIC through a Y for 80-some points. The truth of the matter, though, is that while I've put in only a fraction of the time the experts have, I have made an investment, I have put some thought into prioritizing certain tasks over others in the limited time I am willing to devote specifically to Scrabble, and it has been sufficient to deliver a much more enjoyable and satisfying Scrabble experience. Some find it off-putting simply that you can be capable of plays like the one described above and not yet be near the experts. They should not feel this way: you get out of it what you put into it, and there is plenty of fulfilling, even exhilarating grey area for those of us who are already committed to some other life-dominating pursuit to inhabit without jeopardizing our prior obligations.

If you have an iOS device and a Facebook account, let's play Scrabble over the interwebs sometime. I promise I won't go easy on you.

14 November 2014

13 November 2014

RIP my eMusic account (2010-2014)

I could easily have rolled this into yesterday's dispatch but thought it deserved its own entry: after almost exactly four mostly happy years, I've put my eMusic subscription on hold and am likely to walk away entirely in the near future. By the time I first signed up for eMusic, paid MP3 downloads were already on their way out of fashion. I nonetheless have appreciated and enjoyed many facets of the experience: offline access, crazy as it is to say in 2014, is still a boon; the ability to dump transcribables into the software of my choice is highly preferable to wrestling with Spotify; making and tending to my many lists is a vice I'll never outgrow; the motivation to "get into" rather than merely "get through" my purchases, which is a motivation even I need from time to time now that streaming and total access are increasingly the norm, has been good to have; and though eMusic has been infamously secretive about their artist compensation system, certainly more of my money has gone to artists this way than if I had done my repeat listening on Spotify.

I'm jumping ship now because eMusic has, in a move that smacks of desperation, reverted to their original purview of featuring strictly "independent" music, a purview which evidently excludes ECM. Not only is almost all of ECM missing from Spotify, but digital purchases from this label, though they were invariably priced higher than eMusic's default scheme, were significantly cheaper this way than physical media. I am certainly of two minds about all of this since I think eMusic made a big mistake abandoning its mission the first time; and yet unfortunately my sole use for the site over the last couple of years has been access to this "major" label. Now I have three months to think of another one.

And speaking of reverting, I have already begun cleansing myself in the waters of materialism:

12 November 2014

On the Scarcity of Scarcity

I have a confession to make, again: contrary to what you might assume about someone having such a tough time "making it" as an artist (and being apt to write about it at such length), I find it awfully hard to get upset about the existence of Spotify. Certainly I am a consumer as well as a producer of content and have taken full advantage of the digital apocalypse to deepen and broaden my own listening; and certainly I am just young enough that I've never lived in a world where an income stream from record sales was ever a reasonable career expectation. Those are obvious points that you've heard before or thought yourself, and I hope this one is too: scarcity is not coming back, so we had better learn to live with abundance. Why should that be so hard to do?

As Cory Doctorow so aptly pointed out in Content, a big part of getting this particular genie back in the bottle would be to make computers less capable, and that simply is not going to happen. Then again, this twenty-first century problem is, I think, too often posited in place of a more basic, nineteenth century one: when we traded in cultural consensus for a modicum of freedom of expression, and similarly music-as-craft for the romanticized, singular, freelance artist, the wheels were set in motion, even as the technology remained over a century away. We remain miles away from a truly "free" society, but what freedom we do have in the aesthetic arena is gained at the direct expense of cultural consensus. The more we have of one the less there will be of the other. If you are one of those people who would draw the analogy between downloading a song and shoplifting a candy bar, I think you have not completely grasped this point. At the very least, with specific regard to Spotify, which is legal and market-driven, this old trope no longer fits at all.

And aah, the market. Since I'm on such a roll, shouldn't I have more mean stuff to say here about capitalism? Could I possibly have shot all of my bullets not yet halfway through Blog Month? Allow me to reload: the whole conceit of "American Innovation" and "competition driving innovation" is a fucking ruse. The roadmap is and has for the most part always been to gain near-monopolistic control, by hook or by crook, over essential resources and services that people need just to stay alive (e.g. health care), to artificially manipulate supply and pricing, and then profit off of our literal desperation. I don't doubt that capitalist competition has been great for spurring businesses onward towards ever more appealing boutique trail mix and spa treatments, and I as much as anyone else want to live in a world where we can enjoy those things guilt-free and for what they are. But innovation is hard work and consumers don't always behave in ways that would most obviously seem to represent their best interests; corporations know this, and hence also that the most reliable way to ensure handsome profitability will always be through exploiting the most basic necessities of life.

Simply put, music is not a basic necessity of life, no matter our widespread figurative insistence to the contrary. If it were, the capitalist streaming music industry would look a lot more like the capitalist health care industry and we would be having a very, very different discussion right now, at the potential expense of our personal safety and the definite expense of the security of our communications. And so, with the music industry thus being a more truly American, capitalist endeavor in this way, are we to take more seriously the suggestion, per Marc Ribot and others, that if things don't improve for independent at-the-margins artists they will simply go out of business as it were? Extended to its logical conclusion, this is precisely the outcome my reasoning above would predict; again, however, we all know (or should) that the notion of "rational actors" is itself something of a ruse, and most especially in an area of inquiry where rationalism itself is at best a marginal player.

To wit, have we not been hearing precisely this fatalistic prediction for over a decade now? And at the current rate of cultural and technological evolution, is a decade not a pretty decent sample size from which to conclude that more people actually are making and distributing music than ever before? At the risk of invoking the ill-fated governorship of Jesse Ventura, it seems for whatever reason that people who are smart enough to play this kind of music also are smart and resourceful enough to find ways to fund their projects. (I hope I'm not the only musician-in-the-trenches to read the Ribot blurb and think to myself, "If you gave me $15,000 to spend on a trio record, I'd have trouble spending half of it." So clearly we're also dealing with very different cultural, possibly generational expectations here.) The market is indeed a powerful force, but it is not and never has been quite as powerful as this camp would make it out to be, certainly not in the specific ways they are apt to enumerate. I for one would absolutely enjoy assuming a yet more overbearing degree of righteous indignation that I am working security instead of collecting fat royalty checks, but aesthetic plurality and ease of access are real things too. Worrying about that which you can control also has its upsides.

11 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (ix)

I recall countless high school classes where I sketched compositions during time allotted for a head start on that evening's devoirs. After noting their reticence to intervene, I began silently daring my teachers to reprimand their best student for being off task. I am convinced, however, that status had far less to do with their complicity than did my choice of something as intellectual, esoteric, and over-romanticized as handmade lines-and-dots music. Perhaps on a more practical level my demonstrated ability to lap the field academically without being given extra time to finish my homework had something to do with it too. In any case, by the time it wasn't cute anymore, I was an adult and a college graduate. And man, was it ever not cute anymore. Plastic turns to Cardboard in a hurry for those of us given to intellectual, esoteric, over-romanticized pursuits.

There is a similar reticence that prevails out in the liberal bourgie world, where relativism-as-social-grace acts as a filter and no one wants to be the first to tell you quite so baldly that "Improvising Tuba Player" is not a real job. There is in addition, as I touched upon early on in this series, the lovingly crafted, overdetermined, eminently socially and academically respectable path of university music study. And indeed, not only was I myself almost impossibly meritorious in this academic arena, but my particular mancessory, the tuba, is typically so difficult to recruit that my undergrad school picked up virtually the entire tab for my studies there. And so I left behind high-powered academics in one fell swoop to become a student-athlete of sorts, privy to none of the social perks while suffering from many of the same drawbacks, namely an intellectually stilted curriculum and profoundly limited employment prospects post-graduation. Had I not concurrently taken a student job with the campus security department at a time of rapid post-9/11 growth in both the public and private security sectors, who knows how I would have supported myself in the interim. Indeed, this led me to make yet another statistical contribution to Hanna Rosin's work: I am a college graduate, and now a graduate degree holder, who has never held a job that requires a post-secondary education.

Even having excelled at my course of study and having managed to remain blissfully free from the crushing debt faced by most of my peers, I less launched myself into the real world than did an epic faceplant in its lap. Certainly my timing could not have been worse: an historical recession was on the horizon and, in related news, Western art music had never been less marketable. I don't deny, however, that my distinctively male unwillingness to "adapt" has profoundly shaped this leg of my journey as well. This series of posts has been devoted largely to defending that posture and to enumerating its potentially broader, gender-neutral social utility.

Most of the people I have known who are making a real living as musicians are not the best musicians. Some of them are quite far from it. What distinguishes them, in my experience, is their willingness to do just about anything to achieve this. They will play, teach, and quite frankly, say anything they have to, walking right up to the line between ethical and unethical behavior, and in occasional cases crossing ever so slightly over to the other side. There is, meanwhile, a small collection of people I can count on one hand who are even more uncompromising and sensitive to issues of honesty than I am, who have strongly influenced the way I go about my own business, whose work I find unusually compelling, and who, like me, have generally had a much tougher time of it.

I know, I know, you've heard the art-versus-commerce whine-fest before and you're not too keen on rehashing it through the eyes of a latent mancessionist. If you insist on more excitement, I defy you once again to ponder the deep, dark questions lurking all around this old trope as the (un)willingness to compromise enters popular discourse as a decidedly gendered concern.

The gendering of compromise is a central theme of Rosin's The End of Men. It is a maneuver which holds up quite nicely in the polite company she evidently keeps. The Arts are in this way, though, a far less polite domain, which is why there's no trace of a Maria Schneider, Ingrid Jensen, or Nicole Mitchell anywhere to be found here. How naively parochial and presumptuous such a list is when we're talking about mainstream journalism for mainstream readers; but for me, working in a field where such remarkable women are still breaking ground, it's hard to ignore their being ignored.

In the place they might have occupied, we are of course left with that fleeting, threadbare caricature of a hyper-bourgeois "creative class" of mercenary consultants and entertainment industry frill-mongers, proxies for more substantive notions of creativity and insults to the aesthetic risk-takers who anonymously feed the machine from below. Rosin must understand that creativity and compromise are, if not truly anathema, then at least strange bedfellows, which is why she forgoes meaningful engagement with the kind of art and artists that, wittingly or otherwise, challenge bourgeois values. She sticks instead to an investigation of the new "Plastic Woman" (7) who is "nurturing" (124), "approachable and consumer responsive" (135), "more nimble and responsive to trends." (248) These are above all women who "tend to respond to social cues and bend their personalities to fit in what the times allow," (191) all while demonstrating "the willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape." (270)

As I encountered each of these turns of phrase for the first time, I was constantly reminded of a paper by Gordon Downie which I had dug up for a prior research project:

With the expansion of free-market neo-liberalization in the form of Thatcherite and Reaganite economics...those performance measures associated with commodity form and behavior have spread to encompass not only public sector services such as health care, utilities, infrastructure, and education, but also cultural provision and production...

...any organization or individual seeking to maximize their strategic advantage in society will be required to adopt those behaviors that are congruent with those metrics of performance associated with marketization and commodity form. Phrases such as "selling yourself" and "making the right impression" point to a process that seeks the extension of the commodity form away from material artifacts and goods to soft services and interpersonal behavior profiling. (197)

'Cultural Production as Self-Surveillance: Making the Right Impression.' Perspectives of New Music 46. 1 (Winter 2008)

At some point in the not-so-distant past, the phrase "Well-behaved women rarely make history" achieved that certain critical mass required to find its way onto a popular bumper sticker. In those terms, the most disturbing aspect of Rosin's Plastic Woman is what a well-behaved capitalist she is. Of course, the key takeaway from The End of Men is that the world we now live in seems keen on rewarding these characteristics to a greater degree than ever before, rendering that bumper sticker a tad bit miscalibrated and odiously vengeful. And yet, anyone who has been shopping for something other than groceries has seen what "the extension of the commodity form away from material artifacts and goods to soft services and interpersonal behavior profiling" looks and feels like. I for one certainly have seen it. Perhaps I have a tad bit more empathy for these workers than the average Cardboard Man, or perhaps I have a raging case of corrugation myself since I just don't like to shop all that much, but generally this is a condition that breaks my heart and my spirit in equal measure. These are the ultimate mediated men and women, and they do not seem to be the least bit happy having been tasked with concealing their employers' criminality beneath parade smiles and complimentary bottles of spring water.

10 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (viii)

As the seminal "sociobiological" account of the origins of many contemporary gender differences, anthropologist Lionel Tiger's Men In Groups is guaranteed to leave a bad taste in the mouth of social constructionists everywhere or their money back. This notwithstanding, his sidebar on the question of decoupling the notions of violence and aggression is, in my opinion, worth taking seriously. In it, he seeks to establish a "statement of difference between effective action which is part of a process of mastery of the environment, and that particularly intimate form of mastery which involves the violation of an organism's personal space and the infliction of physical pain." (159) This distinction, he continues,

allows more general use of the term 'aggression' so that it refers to a process rather than an event. Sociologically it implies a mode and direction of social organization rather than an actual circumstance of intimate intrusion. I want to regard aggression as a 'normal' feature of the human biologically based repertoire, a type of behaviour intrinsic to man's being and to his effective interaction with his social environment. Violence is not necessarily part of all or any of these. (159)

In short, all violence is aggressive but not all aggression is violent.

There are at least two important lessons here for musicians. First and foremost is that the mimetic "violence" of late-period Beethoven or Coltrane is generally overstated. Real musical violence lives in the realm of conceptual pieces which call for the destruction of instruments onstage or the lobbing of explosives into the audience; it lives where acoustic instruments and electronic playback alike are amplified to the point that they become irreparably injurious to the human sensory organs at which they are literally and figuratively aimed; and it lives anywhere lyrical content is introduced which is, relative to its audience, disturbing enough to inflict lasting emotional harm. Interstellar Space certainly is aggressive, but played at a reasonable volume for voluntary audients, it is not injurious, and so I would argue not inherently violent; neither people nor instruments are irreparably damaged by it. Saxophone reeds and drum heads are, after all, consumable items; I have heard colleagues liken the former to tampons.

Now, perhaps all of this is relative. Perhaps there are indeed people whose expectations of what music, art, and public deportment ought to be can be so traumatically violated by "dark," "angry," aggressive music as to emerge from the experience with permanent emotional scars. But when such mimetic or metaphorical violence of a player "attacking" an instrument has become so disturbing as to be received as real violence by the spectator, has a breakdown not occurred, certainly in cultural convention, but I would not hesitate to ask in common sense as well? The seeking of a perfect allegorical resemblance between the technical parameters of an art form, the physical-technical gestures necessary to execute it, and an imagined utopian world without violence is one of the less constructive inheritances of postmodernity. It is a textbook case of left becoming right, a faux-liberationist tack with a decidedly repressive outcome.

The second and final point I want to draw from this is hinted at by Tiger's use of the term "mastery" and the distinction he makes between gaining it over one's environment and over one's fellow (wo)man. I am admittedly a bit out of my league here, but it seems that the notion of mastery has taken a similar deconstructionist beating as that of aggression, and for not much better reasons. Here, though, I think it is at least possible to grant the relative nature of the concept without disavowing its usefulness. Indeed, the political problem peculiar to the art world of very particular aesthetic values being installed and enforced on the institutional level often relies on culture- and ideology-specific notions of mastery for its rudder, but I would argue that this is something of a separate question from that of mastery's abstract value and potential. Baby > Bathwater.

If cliches about the two kinds of music ("good music and the other kind") have worn thin by this stage in the game, so be it, but at least for me this one only resonates more deeply with age and experience. There are whole genres of music I loathe whose masters nonetheless get over to a certain degree, and for me that is why mastery still matters. Do what you love and invest the entire fabric of your being in it. It won't beget a perfect world, but it might at least make our time left in the one we have a trifle more enjoyable and fulfilling. As a child of the 80s, I was weaned on this kind of motivational talk; now I often feel as if I have lived, for not all that long, to see it deconstructed out and compromised away. Perhaps this is just an inevitable rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. The self-esteem stuff was always overbearing and precious, but frankly I think it might be the last line of defense against a marauding nihilism that is the inevitable consequence of a post-rationalist, post-aestheticist, post-purpose society. Certainly if even art cannot be a safe outlet for aggression, there is little to look forward to.

09 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (vii)


I'm a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.

(Man's Prayer, The Red Green Show)



Why pay such heed to Hanna Rosin and a years-old trope that's already been picked apart by a variety of smart people? It certainly has been a useful prompt for me to verbalize quite a few thoughts that had remained abstract and unarticulated for quite some time. It inspired me to read up on a subject other than music, probably in more depth than I ever have before. It was also a great excuse to get excited for Blog Month. Above all, though, these sorts of public mastheads for issues of great social importance and interest seldom represent the private thoughts of isolated individuals. It certainly caught everyone's attention when in the immediate wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures the right promptly dispatched David Brooks to smear The Solitary Leaker as "the ultimate unmediated man," pinning responsibility for his treasonous actions on

the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

Sound like anyone we know?

Brooks continues:

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

True enough in a vacuum. But you know, Dave, I have to imagine it's easier to live such a mediated life under the watchful eye of our "gigantic and menacing state" when you've made a nice chunk of change publicly defending that state's imperial wars. Then they only spy on you for fun, or maybe for practice. The rest of us, meanwhile, can't help but be thankful that there are a few people unmediated, unpropagandized, and unafraid enough to sound the alarm on wholesale violations of the law that threaten to upend the foundations of Western civilization far more thoroughly and violently than the propagation of atomized "technological existences" among malcontent nerds ever could.

All of that being as it is, the real tragedy here, obviously, is that no quick-witted political cartoonist seized on the opportunity to render Unmediated Man as an overweight, unshaven comic strip superhero who goes around repelling bad guys with his body odor and infiltrating government spy agencies by striking up conversations about fantasy football. Cartooning in fact was an early artistic interest of mine, long before music. At my youthful behest mom even shuttled me off to a few Saturday morning cartooning classes in middle school; I however found representational drawing, then as now, intensely difficult, and quickly gave up. And so the Unmediated Man franchise may be licensed free of charge by any more skilled cartoonist who cares to do so. You're welcome.

In the end, about all I can say for David Brooks is that at least he has the good sense to focus his laser beam of mediated male ire on issues of pressing importance, misguided though he seems almost exclusively be. The military, the police, the private security industry, and the New York Yankees meanwhile all fixate publicly and overbearingly on the minutiae of grooming as expressions of mediated masculine discipline. Is finding the time and willpower to shave every single day really such a harrowing accomplishment? Perhaps I could forgive the casual observer for thinking that some of us indeed find it to be an impossible challenge. The reality, though, is not that it is too hard but rather too easy, too insubstantial, too ornamental. Are the unshaven the class clowns, or are we rather the kids whose schoolwork isn't challenging us? For a real unmediated challenge, we might just decide to piss our lives away in isolation pursuing mastery of esoteric bodies of knowledge and their attendant technical skills with virtually no worldly social or material incentive beyond our own self-fulfillment and, perhaps if we're lucky, occasional small validations of our irrational faith in the greater social utility of such seemingly decadent pursuits. You want a challenge? Put down your fucking safety razor and try that shit on for size. Do any of you in these industries realize that you're not only committing the Fallacy of the Beard, but in fact committing it about beards? And in the name of "discipline?" How fucking pathetic is that?

I'm not above ruthlessly questioning the "social utility" of any artist's work, of course, nor am I prepared to crown each and every "whistleblower" a national hero on the spot without a frank assessment of the particulars. Once again, as with Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man, our galling collective predisposition toward black-and-white analyses rears its head: Mediated or unmediated? Hero or traitor? Seldom are things so simple, and seldom can relationships to "family, neighborhood, religious group," and especially not to something as baldly trivial as grooming tell us everything we need to know about someone. More importantly, it likely tells us nothing at all about whether the release of a secret government document is a matter of urgent civic necessity or how it impacts the personal safety of Americans overseas. Crummy people occasionally do heroic things, and vice versa.

There's nothing noble in achieving discipline over something trivial or something loathed. A task is not too easy simply because you love it; indeed, the pursuit of mastery often entails summarily eradicating the honeymoon phase, discovering all manner of unseemly corners of one's metier and oneself, and inevitably falling, at least partially, out of love. There's no surer way to become unenamored of a jazz solo than to transcribe it down to its smallest details, no surer way to dethrone a lines-and-dots composer than close examination of a score to reveal, often enough, frighteningly simplistic approaches. To uninhibitedly love a music is to keep it at arm's length; getting closer more or less mandates making an often uncomfortable peace with its shortcomings as they become increasingly perceptible. Some of us so inclined were damaged goods from the start, never destined to excel at the Americanist meritrocracy; others were impeccably qualified and simply couldn't be bothered to do both things at once. But make no mistake that the true artist is, by definition, the furthest from an unmediated man or woman, no matter their metier, and especially not because or in spite of the aesthetics of their appearance.

08 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (vi)

It's telling that the popular saying "The customer is always right" is seldom uttered without a hint of sarcastic contempt. That's because, as anyone who has actually sold goods or services of virtually any type has learned, the customer is almost always wrong. Wildly, comically wrong.

Why is this? We become customers when we need something we don't have, and even where "services" become reified into "goods," usually this something is, in part, knowledge. You seek out a mechanic to determine that your car needs $1500 worth of work, but because you are a Customer, you respond that you can afford $800 to get it marginally drivable and that they should be happy to have your business goddamn it. You want to know what you really need, but you will take less in order to pay what you intended to pay from the start. And so, when you sit down at conferences with your children's band teacher and this teacher insists that Johnny and Susie really need to practice more, that receiving one-on-one instruction from an established professional player would greatly help to focus this practice time, and that in the broadest sense these children will "get out of it what they put into it," you are apt to say to yourself, "Gee whiz, Mozart, it's not like we're training professional musicians here. Music is for nourishing mind, body, and soul, for helping my kids get into Yale, and for tickling their neural pathways just so, leading to success at, you know, real life jobs, like stockbroker and financial analyst. And besides, they already have soccer Mondays, youth group Tuesdays, quilting Wednesdays..." Maybe you think these things to yourself, or maybe you go out and write an op-ed to this effect for a major dead-tree media outlet. Or, if you're really ambitious, maybe you install yourself at the helm of an arts non-profit in order to spread the wisdom of protracted dabbling and gross overcommitment. Hey, you and your kids all turned out great, didn't you?

Those of us who have, perhaps ill-advisedly, chosen to devote the entire fabric of our being to music know better than to think that any student, no matter the modesty or grandiosity of their ambitions, musical or otherwise, could ever reap the benefits these people constantly namecheck from the kind of distanced, half-suspicious quasi-engagement their actions tend to beget. And yet most customers simply will not buy real musical education. Many will not or cannot accept it even free of charge; I know because I and those around me have tried to give it away on more than one occasion.

In news to no one, the idea of music moves the needle for parents and students while the reality of music does not. Vendors know the reality, customers only the idea, but it is the customer who is, in our society, always right. Exceptions are not unheard of, but they are rare. I have done my fair share of sales-pitching in committee meetings and planning sessions, in conversations with prospective parents and job interviews with prospective employers, for the kind of intense, no-holds-barred, academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating music education that has made me who I am both on- and off-stage. I typically face little or no dissent as to the abstract value of what I am proposing, but all manner of fierce resistance to its implementation. This is because customers will not buy it, administrators know that customers will not buy it, and, well, you know the rest.

The ostensibly charitable segments of the arts economy upon which virtually all practicing artists today rely directly or indirectly to support themselves financially, and which, perhaps more importantly, essentially serve as the last remaining justification of our very existence, replacing aesthetic- and morally-grounded cultural consensus which has fragmented well beyond retrieval, are in spite of their loudly proclaimed "not for profit" legal status nonetheless profoundly consumer-driven enterprises. These are milieus where the heat and light of constructive competitiveness and the pursuit of mastery look just animalistic enough to turn the stomachs of the Bourgeoisie upon which they disproportionately rely for support and validation. They are where uncompromised, unmediated, untriagulated musical pedagogies and traditions go to die. And all of that is to say that they are, at least if you buy the analysis of contemporary gender constructions seized on by Hanna Rosin in The End of Men, profoundly and intrinsically feminine structures.

Certainly for those of us more or less on the outside looking in, its feminine construction explains several facets of the arts education job market: the roughly exponential decrease in the number of teaching opportunities from early childhood to elementary to secondary to college to adult amateurs; the flooding of popular music into a socio-aesthetic-epistemological space formerly reserved exclusively for art music; and a willingness to compromise away rigorous pedagogies, the ones which might actually help justify so many public policy battle cries that that The Arts are core academic subjects, but which customers inevitably balk at on account of what is demanded of them in return to make good on this promise.

As I try to recall some of the specific places I have heard or read the core subject battle cry, I in fact can conjure only images of women, a useful reminder that the structuring of an institution or body of knowledge as masculine or feminine, as many theorists have argued, does not mean that only one gender participates in the structuring, or even that the majority of participants will be of that gender. And it most especially does not mean, if I may take this opportunity to preempt the obvious potential for misunderstanding of what I am getting at here, that people born with vaginas are inherently and irrevocably inferior to those born with penises when it comes to "rigorous" or "uncompromised" arenas. What it means, rather, is that the undue polarization of certain types of thought and behavior along gendered lines creates arbitrary burdens of expectation which mediate our ability to become our authentic selves. And so the facts on the ground leave me to wonder if the "core subject" trope has not become just one more marketing tagline that few of the men or women who might utter it out of self-interest would actually be willing to fight for.

Are you?

07 November 2014

06 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (v)

For middle class children fortunate enough to have access to them, The Arts lay out a uniquely treacherous path from success to failure, starting (and often ending) with the fact that you can major in them through the doctoral level at most of this country's best public and private universities. Many of my peers have sardonically labeled this a pyramid scheme, and I am not above backing that interpretation. Indeed, it is fair to say that we have done a very good job of building and sustaining institutionalized programs of pre-professional artistic training for the middle and upper classes to enjoy, and concurrently a piss-poor job of taking our work to the streets. The latter is, in fairness, and as anyone who has tried can tell you, easier said than done, and not merely on account of aesthetics or access: the centrist upper-middle classes and apolitical nouveau riche are hardly the only families who might balk at a child who wishes to pursue a professional arts career. For poorer Americans and recent immigrants with aspirations of upward mobility, I imagine the pigeonhole Western society reserves for its artists must look like a great place to continue toiling in economy purgatory, which of course in many ways it is. Predictably, becoming a rich celebrity is a more common aspiration, even though the odds of being able to eke out an existence teaching lessons and playing money gigs are exponentially greater.

Indeed, in the United States we have seen tremendous recent influxes of immigrants from cultures with radically different conceptions of art and music than those brought here by previous waves of Central Europeans and West Africans. And of course, it is hardly unheard of for such groups to bring with them as well regressive gender politics which greatly circumscribe both men's and women's roles and career options. This poses a great challenge, if not out-and-out crisis, to liberal multicultural idealism. For one thing, American Westernist arts organizations, especially orchestras and museums, which were founded decades or centuries ago with very particular cultural purviews are now being challenged by many on the left to better reflect today's America or lose their charitable status, intrinsically if not legally. The aesthetic results of such triangulation tend, predictably, to be disastrous, which is the first, best reason to seek a better solution. To be sure, a panoply of isolated conservatist vacuums is not that solution either, just a different kind of disaster. Culture is living and living things evolve! Decaying carcasses stink to high heaven, and so does formaldehyde. Synthesis irrevocably defines both American music and global postmodernity; it would be the ultimate regressive maneuver to artificially inhibit this essential human intellectual process out of a precious sentimentality for native cultures. Remember kids, space is curved, so let's not drift so far left that we end up on the right.

I am not saying that nothing is lost when the last exponent of a native tradition passes away. Nothing lasts forever, though, and the ritual maiming of our own traditions and institutions out of white liberal guilt is the least constructive response. What would behoove these institutions of ours is to seek and support multicultural, pan-stylistic artists who are smart, dedicated, and altruistic enough to push beyond facile pastiche and quotation into finer creative granularities; who do not merely dabble in various traditions but have made deep concurrent investments in two or more of them, achieving a pre-modern degree of idiomatic authority therein as a prerequisite to constructive synthesis; and whose constituent influences thus operate at deeper perceptual levels. All of that is to say: artists whose work clearly sounds different, but may not sound the least bit multicultural on the surface.

This question of surface, of course, points to precisely why this type of work will never be supported to the same degree as the orchestral composer who tacks a superfluous clave part onto his ersatz neo-classical drivel, or the atom-smashing puppet-master impressario who throws groups of Western and non-Western specialist musicians haphazardly together. These are affronts to non-Western traditions just as they are to Western ones; they are supported not on aesthetic merit, nor simply because they are multicultural, nor, I don't think, because of some vast liberal-multiculturalist conspiracy, but rather because their multiculturalism is transparent enough to be perceptible to administrators too dense to perceive it otherwise, and because those administrators see their lives flash before their eyes with each new wave of immigration. In other words, because we live in a "democracy," and because more is more.

The question of how our life experience finds its way into our art is in one sense almost too obvious to bear verbalizing: traffic is bad one night, you lose an hour you had blocked off for composing, you return to the piece the next day in a different state of mind and write something either slightly or wildly different than you would have otherwise. But of course this quotidian sense is not the one which the most overdetermined aesthetic identity politics invoke: in that sphere, rather, identity issues must be overbearingly worn on one's sleeve, laid on with brute force, and articulated with all the sophistication of a jackhammer. Victimry and deviance become coveted locations from which to make art, even as it becomes ever more apparent, and not least to theorists from this very milieu, that these are matters of degree for each and every one of us and not isolated, privileged perspectives that we either do or do not inhabit. Indeed, in contravention of so much overdetermined deconstructionist insistence that identity inevitably shapes aesthetics, the contemporary paradigm is not one where identity simply finds its way into the work, but rather one where it must be put there as conspicuously, self-consciously, and overbearingly as possible, as if out of fear that it might otherwise fail to turn up.

Is my evident skepticism about all of this merely a dressed-up version of "I don't mind x people as long as they act like y?" I am not an expert in any non-Western musical traditions, so I will eat my words here if anyone who is wants to put forth a compelling case that postmodern pastiche is an essential cultural and aesthetic value in one or more of them. Perhaps my privileging of "finer creative granularity" is a more contestable, Westernist maneuver. In my defense, the West best knows the dictum that influence begets depersonalization not as a multiculturalist battle cry but as a well-chronicled phase of juvenile misconception through which virtually all of us have passed and from which a few inevitably fail to emerge. Depth of engagement with a variety of streams is, rather, is the surest path toward individualism in our paradigm. The more and finer the granules, the less perceptible their individual sources; conversely, the people whose pieces sound like teetering Jenga towers of superficial references are the ones who have fewer influences and know them less thoroughly.

Style, be it a decadent aestheticist contrivance or an ancient aural continuum, is above all a trivial, surface feature that too often distracts us from deeper conceptual affinities among musical works. Tribalism is the ascription of ancestral thoughts and actions to all living genetic exponents, and hence the source of "us versus them" mentalities that blind members to "deeper conceptual affinities" shared with other "tribes." And to be sure, it is in depth and not in surface, in reconciliation and not in tribalism, that any constructive multiculturalism qua multiculturalism must trade. Aesthetically that is. #SorryNotSorry postmodernists, but in news to no one who reads these dispatches, I really just care about aesthetics.

A final thought: to construct a piece out of the coarsest stylistic granules is to make the underlying concept transparent and the surface contour uneven. Finding a "match" between two such granules is inherently a process of trial-and-error and minimally if at all one of exercising the will. It seldom rises beyond the level of an ironically inelegant mosaic comprised of just two unwieldy, misshapen panels. Sounds like conceptual art, right? Indeed, conceptual art makes its nut in this space, not infrequently at the hostile, direct, and intentional expense of the pre-modern traditions referenced, and often in precisely the manner I am describing. Adherents of those traditions, even if they have no other use for conceptual art, could undoubtedly learn something by paying more attention to it; perhaps the world is trying to tell them something.

05 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (iv)

Virtually no matter the explanation(s) one might seek for male overrepresentation in certain Western artistic traditions and subcultures, a double-bind often lurks, sprouted in the fissure between the separatist and integrationist wings of feminism, eagerly awaiting any conscious man of progressive, radical, uncompromised aesthetic sensibility who either charges or stumbles into the chasm. I am referring to the difference between (a) advocating for women's advancement in traditionally male dominated fields of endeavor, and (b) dismissing such fields of endeavor and their value systems as inherently male and therefore useless to over half the population. The term "difference feminism" is evidently in circulation, though (b) is still an extremist stance, even under that rubric; Naomi Wolf's distinction between "power feminism" and "victim feminism" is in the ballpark as well, but ultimately it also is broader and more moderate than what I am describing.

Sometimes the two modalities are interleaved (dare I say cross-contaminated?), as when Patricia Hill Collins in the course of her eloquently written, painstakingly researched, and elaborately referenced Black Feminist Thought incongruously picks away at positivist methods of "validating knowledge claims" as "ask[ing] African-American women to objectify ourselves, devalue our emotional life, displace our motivations for furthering knowledge about Black women, and confront in an adversarial relationship those with more social, economic, and professional power." (274) Instead, she argues in favor of equal consideration of claims proceeding from "an experiential, material base" of "collective experiences and accompanying worldviews," from a "mother wit" by which "your personal experience is considered very good evidence" (275-6, the latter two turns of phrase attributed in the text to other authors.) Indeed, this is known in "elite white male" circles, and a few other places, as anecdotal reasoning; are we simply to be content, then, that "subordinate groups have long had to use alternative ways to create independent self-definitions and self-valuations and to rearticulate them through our own specialists" (270), or does the ultimate liberation of such groups unavoidably entail winning a piece of the positivist pie?

Wolf fittingly describes an early lecture engagement of hers where extremists from both camps were in evidence:

The ring took turns not so much offering criticism of my work...but rather, calling me to account for myself to them. One woman charged that I was too elitist – I had used compound sentences – while another complained that I was insufficiently academically rigorous, since to make The Beauty Myth accessible, I had used endnotes instead of academic footnotes.

(Fire with Fire, 127; the power/victim taxonomy also comes from this book)

It was, incidentally, with this book that Wolf herself blossomed into a full-fledged integrationist, taking Audre Lorde's famous pronouncement that the "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" and riffing instead that only the master's tools are up to the task. The inconvenient fact for both camps, however, especially in The Arts, is that the master had excellent taste in houses. Moreover, even if the sculpture gardens, marble countertops, and manicured lawns are easily dispensed with, the running water, refrigeration, and climate control certainly are less so.

Where does this last realization leave us? I am male and perhaps biased as a result, but on this question I for one am casting my lot with Katha Pollitt:

In the arts, we hear a lot about what women's "real" subject, methods, and materials ought to be. Painting is male. Rhyme is male. Plot is male. Perhaps, say the Lacanian feminists, even logic and language are male. What is female? Nature. Blood. Milk. Communal gatherings. The moon. Quilts.

Haven't we been here before? Indeed we have. Woman as sharer and carer, woman as earth mother, woman as guardian of all the small rituals that knit together a family and a community, woman as beneath, above or beyond such manly concerns as law, reason, abstract ideas – these images are as old as time. Open defenders of male supremacy have always used them to declare women flatly inferior to men; covert ones use them to place women on a pedestal as too good for this naughty world.


(Reasonable Creatures, 44).

Make no mistake, by the way, that not all of the "covert" operatives are men.

Perhaps the aesthetic values of Western musical modernism are a bit less universal and absolute than those of "logic and language," but I for one am less afraid of that constructionist booby trap than that of historically oppressed groups' pre-modern survival tactics becoming posited, even celebrated, as essential markers of identity, as if members of those groups should (still) be happy to have them. Collins' elevation of anecdotal reasoning strikes me as a telltale example of this; Rosin's celebration of women's willingness to compromise as an inherently salutary trait is another. To wit, have all those bumper stickers admonishing us that "Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History" so fallen out of circulation that it has become socially acceptable to praise women as "approachable and consumer responsive" (TEOM, 135), to celebrate their marshaling of "'soft'" power (29) and "social intelligence" (199), to breezily namecheck their "flexibility and responsiveness" (263) and "willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape" (270); all of this without so much as a peep of concern for what they really, truly want? Indeed, ladies, haven't we been here before?

You can hear a few such peeps throughout The End of Men, but only if you're listening carefully for them, for they are articulated near-exclusively through distinctively bourgeois narratives: the footloose and fancy-free single young professional woman who has "mastered the hookup"; the calculating breadwinner wife grasping at jobs, kids, and houses while Mr. Mom vacillates between euphoria and boredom; the all-star PharmD student who pines for "a house by Lake Wisconsin with a path lined by ferns and hostas" (126), who "read somewhere that classical music activates parts of your brain you don't really use" (114), and who for some reason tolerates a do-nothing, know-nothing long-term boyfriend simply "because we crack each other up." (116)

For her part, Rosin is at least apt to lament that successful young women who outpace their male peers find it nearly impossible to "marry up" in the manner of their mothers and grandmothers, and that half-liberated men have been slower to embrace domestic responsibilities than their superstar wives have been to inhabit formerly male professional spaces, leaving the women as overtaxed as ever if not more so. And she is not above granting that working-class single mothers have it rough when, as she repeatedly emphasizes, taking a husband from among their own lot increasingly means gaining little more than another mouth to feed. Marriage, she reports, has in fact become a class privilege in America.

Meanwhile, what is conspicuously absent from the book in my opinion (it is perhaps more of an opinion than a fact, but bear with me) is a woman of any economic class chasing true personal fulfillment through any but the most materialistic, bourgeois avenues. Occupying this void instead is a predictable strawman caricature, the "creative class" of mercenary job-hoppers and rear-guard parasites: "publicity assistant, wine critic, trail mix creator, sustainability consultant, screenwriter." (118) These are indeed the poster children for compromise, artistic and otherwise, however you feel about it. If you are a Creative Type who aspires to outearn your spouse, certainly there is greater potential for that here than virtually anywhere else you might set up shop, certainly this situates you well in the coming Service Economy eclipse, and certainly Hanna Rosin would be happy for you. If we didn't have escapist entertainment (or, god forbid, trail mix) we'd have to invent it; but someone has to probe the outer reaches of aesthetic possibility as well. This is no task for compromisers, and yet it cannot possibly be ideally fruitful if men are the only participants. Yet another double-bind...or is it really?

This dynamic seems not to have occurred to a great many commentators on contemporary gender relations, though perhaps it is more accurate to say that they, like nearly everyone else in the world, just don't care that much about it. Encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers becomes a universal global concern while encouraging them in marginalized artistic disciplines remains strictly an internecine campaign against a decidedly first-world problem. To be sure, I'm certainly in no hurry to convince any promising young student that the life of an uncompromising progressive artist is a sensible aspiration. Really, though, what the hell is a "sustainability consultant" anyway? How truly "creative" does your average wine critic ever get to be for god's sake? And when exactly did "screenwriter" become a reliable, stable career path? Am I just too male to see the dignity and self-fulfillment here? Or is this "progress" something of a hollow victory for women, a mainstream, postmodern update of the blood/milk/moon/quilts meme?

04 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (iii)

The notion of compromise is uniquely fraught, loaded, and just plain complicated for artists no matter their particular relationship to it, a fact which makes reading The End of Men from the perspective of an artist a particularly uncomfortable experience. In so breezily and uncritically tossing the notion around, Rosin indicates, at the most parochial level, that The Arts are not on her radar, and, at a more substantive level, that she is oblivious to the pitfalls of hitching the wagon of women's progress to a service economy paradigm rife with both institutionalized and individualized injustices.

Under these circumstances, I believe it might profitably fall to artists to elaborate a bit on our strained relationship with compromise, this in hopes of rounding out the picture for the benefit of those more apt to make peace with the concept on account of having led very different lives. Start with the fact that The Arts inhabit Western society's most hyper-relativistic space and are valued and supported tremendously unevenly across various American demographics. Broad pronouncements about who has "pulled ahead" of whom in The Arts have always been particularly contentious for us, be it a question of gender, nationality, style, discipline, posture, finances, or virtually anything else. There will be no "data wars" here, only style wars, some of which will have a gendered character while others will not.

(A brief aside: faced with this, some will inevitably lament the loss of pre-modern cultural consensus and attempt to appeal exclusively to micro-consensuses, or to grow them in a laboratory so to speak; cultural fragmentation is, however, ultimately just one inevitable consequence of a free society, and so if we intend to build the latter, the former is something we need to learn to live with, and soon.)

This slippery state of affairs has many well-known and much-lamented implications for the quotidian lives non-celebrity artists. Lurking more quietly: the lines between artistic idealism and "mancession" (TEOM, 3), chasing technical refinement and playing with "boy toys" (113), being dedicated and being "isolated" (156), having a long-term plan and being "slow to cook" (159), and so on are typically difficult or impossible for non-initiates to see. Who among my fellow artists reading this, whether male or female, has not experienced both types of reactions, sometimes in the same evening, maybe even from the same person? To work in a field of endeavor where the notion of success itself is almost entirely subjective is to accept the impossible challenge of ingratiating oneself to everyone while at the same time risk failing to ingratiate oneself to anyone. And so if the drive to ingratiate, or lack thereof, is, as Rosin is convinced, itself a highly gendered phenomenon, that opens quite the can of worms for those of us who work in and value socially marginalized musical subcultures. In fact, you may want to change into clothes you don't mind getting dirty, so numerous are the ensuing wormy messes.

In my unmediated maleness, I can think of two good (to me) arguments against compromise that apply to The Arts and not to the archetypal American office building. One is this: the hyper-relativism of artistic reception dictates that while we certainly can ascribe greater and lesser probabilities of material success to different musico-stylistic arenas, the only thing guaranteed by compromising your own aesthetic and/or cultural values is that you will have compromised them, while the only thing guaranteed by refusing to do so is that you will not have. Professional artists are thus the perfect control group in an evil science experiment designed to disprove the existence of a meritocracy: having all but disallowed the concept of merit itself, and under absurdly redundant, oversaturated supply conditions, the chance elements and pre-existing advantages that are the real wellsprings of material success both here and elsewhere are laid bare. In The Arts, people pay you to do what they want, not what you want; and they seldom qualify as rational actors in why they want it and who they want it from.

The second argument both follows from and completes the first; it concerns how the ego is situated in The Arts as opposed to how it is situated in standard-issue office building politics. Placating the ego by getting one's way over co-workers is always a hollow victory, usually bad for business in the long run anyway, and, to invoke Warren Farrell again, a literal death trap for the red-faced perpetrator and his escalating blood pressure. Conversely, achieving fulfillment through wholly self-directed artmaking, while it is undeniably also an ego-driven pursuit, is real, personal, and ameliorative; if you're happier, so are the people around you, the people around them, and so on. Indeed, on that last count, who better to cite than Hanna Rosin (and Susan Faludi, from whom she gratefully borrows the concept of "ornamental masculinity") for evidence that civilization is virtually disintegrating under a shock wave of deeply personal male discontent? Under these circumstances, it rather boggles the mind that men who have all but disavowed long-term financial stability, creature comforts, social respectability, and long-term domestic partnerships can be derided as egotistical simply for following their muses. I mean, those manufacturing jobs are not coming back, and there certainly are worse ways to pass the time than making art.

03 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (ii)

It was at one time in the not-so-distant past a central concern of crusaders for gender equality that men learn to define success more intrinsically and less materialistically, that we become conscious of how the need to dominate imprisons us as well as our targets. Take, for example, Warren Farrell's contention in in The Liberated Man (1975) that, "Every step of the masculinity value system encourages the need for external approval and appearances of success rather than internal approval or human satisfaction" (104). "The pursuit of excellence," on the other hand, "is the pursuit of balanced personhood, a free body, an open mind. It is being able to contribute my all to my work by causing it to contribute to me. ...It is first choosing one's love as one's goal and then seeking a way to make a living through that love." (59)

These words were aimed at men, but, as Farrell himself would later become infamous for insisting, perhaps there are a few women out there who could also use a refresher. When Rosin, for example, appeals pejoratively to the scare-quoted phrase "creative pursuits" (48) as metonym for the new male obsolescence, she casts her lot with this group. And while she continues to chase headlines, rankling orthodox third-wavers from the "college, professional class" with bold claims that "the patriarchy is dead," a classic deconstructionist question dangles in the breeze: whose definition of "pulling ahead" are we using here, and whose interests are served by it? Further, why exactly is it that the New Economy places such a premium on soft skills, self-mediation, compromise, and accommodation, and what are the broader implications for a capitalist society so thoroughly structured by such demands?

The single such implication explored in The End of Men is that women seem to be willing and able participants in this brave new world while men merely bristle and bluster. Fair enough. Is there more? Certainly there is if data wars are your style. My concern here, however, is less with Rosin's basic thesis than with her smug obliviousness both to the injustices of the service economy and to the ongoing utility of individualism in certain (not all) areas of human endeavor. Her book is a giant missed opportunity to interrogate the unreasonable, unjust demands this economy makes on its grunts, the differing demands it makes on them based on sex, race, orientation, class, etc., and the superficial conclusion that personal malleability is an inherently salutary trait simply because it makes for more eager cogs in the machine. "Hire for personality, train for skills" certainly has a feminine ring to it; but it also points to the corporate need to mystify and obfuscate, to find front-line people who will always smile and wave even as they are being #$%ed in the #$%.

In The Arts as well, as this rhetoric of Cardboard Men and Plastic Women becomes, if not always in those words, ever more mainstream, the harder it becomes to ignore the gendered aspects of art-specific dialogues on compromise, self-mediation, and collaborative practice. Musicians certainly are accustomed to enduring our share of well-warranted handwringing over more quotidian gender-related issues: discrimination in orchestral hiring practices, college professors sleeping with students, the benefits and drawbacks of identity-based curation, and so on. The gendered character of aesthetic polarities themselves tends to live a bit further off the grid. It is rarely invoked in other than veiled, coded, or humorous terms ("his girlfriend broke up with him after she found out he liked jazz"), since a double-bind of knee-jerk reactions awaits any commentator, male or female, who endeavors to verbalize what everyone else was thinking but was afraid to say.

Against my better judgment, then, allow me to attempt a crude taxonomy anyway, keeping in mind the core assumptions of The End of Men and, as a last resort, social constructionism, as safety valves. The polarity of solitary, physical, masculine work versus collaborative, face-to-face, feminine work has a clear analog both intrinsically and historically with that of high art versus entertainment. So does Rosin's pet issue of masculine single-mindedness versus feminine accommodation. The solitary artist uncompromisingly creating from whole cloth was a staple romantic archetype throughout the era of Western male hegemony from which our contemporary notions of high art are descended, whereas today even all-white, all-male groups (e.g. Kneebody) are falling all over themselves to declare their sovereignty from this paradigm, so far has the pendulum swung in the other direction. Co-composition, personal relationships with fans, and an equal sharing of administrative burdens among ensemble members are overdetermined core values of a great many contemporary musical organizations. You've probably read about them on the internet many times over the last decade, and there can be no denying their heritage in traditionally constructed femininity.

It is but a stone's throw from all of this to more parochially musical territory, such as abstraction/representation, absolutism/narrativity, and untexted/texted. It also goes without saying that the mastery/nurturance and competitive/non-competitive gender polarities potentially loom large in music education, as well as in the determinist/experimentalist aesthetic polarity. Finally, bringing it all home to the backbeat of socio-political context, a feminine, accommodating, self-mediated, tit-for-tat posture vis-a-vis the capitalist system is an inherently bourgeois, self-preserving maneuver, whereas a masculine unwillingness to be placated by the system's individual material rewards is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to spearhead real change. I have personally known too many bold activist women, starting with my own mother, to be able to write that last sentence without cringing just a bit; and yet, if you'll permit me my own occasional anecdotal riff a la Ms. Rosin, certainly most of them have been quite far indeed from the trappings of traditionally constructed femininity. Could that possibly be a coincidence?

This is a crude rendering of some awfully intricate territory, and it is only muddied further when we try, necessarily, to separate questions of aesthetic valuation from those of gender essentialism. Did I put all the good stuff in the men's column? Or do I only think it's the good stuff because I'm a man? Essentialist theories of gender demand a high degree of aesthetic relativism: men and women are different and therefore will make different art; both are valid because no one can change who they are, and it doesn't matter whether or not you "like" it aesthetically. Constructionist theories of gender, ironically, better support aesthetic essentialism: there is good and bad art, and if certain genders and sexual orientations become associated only with certain aesthetic modalities, that is merely an unfortunate consequence of their regressive, polarized constructions, which we can change if we really want to.

Certainly I am not here to lapse into the same black-and-white thinking for which I have impugned Rosin above. The larger project of liberating ourselves from regressive, circumscribed gender roles of all types is not one of coming up with new, equally polarized ones; it rather lies, as the most sober commentators on the issue have always maintained, in refusing to be hemmed in by convention, and thus being individually able and willing to take what we need from any point along the continuum and leave the rest behind on the scrap heap. Certainly it is entertaining and thought-provoking to read chronicles of women behaving as only men once did, sexually, professionally, and domestically; a mere reversal of polarity, however, can't possibly count as progress, and there can be no a priori acceptance of these changes without evaluating how they play out-in-the-world.

02 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (i)

...throughout my reporting, a certain imaginary comic book duo kept presenting themselves to me: Plastic Woman and Cardboard Man. Plastic woman has during the last century performed superhuman feats of flexibility. She has gone from barely working at all to working only until she got married to working while married and then working with children, even babies. If space opens up for her to make more money than her husband, she grabs it. If she is no longer required by ladylike standards to restrain her temper, she starts a brawl at the bar. If she can get away with staying unmarried and living as she pleases deep into her thirties, she will do that too...

Cardboard Man, meanwhile, hardly changes at all. A century can go by and his lifestyle and ambitions remain largely the same. There are many professions that have gone from all-male to female, and almost none that have gone the other way. For most of the century men derived their sense of manliness from their work, or their role as head of the family. ...Some decades into the twentieth century, those obvious forms of social utility started to fade. Most men were no longer doing physically demanding labor of the traditional kind, and if they were, it was not a job for life. They were working in offices or not working at all... And as fewer people got married, men were no longer acting as domestic providers, either. They lost the old architecture of manliness, but they have not replaced it with any obvious new one. What's left now are the accessories, maybe the "mancessories"–jeans and pickup trucks and designer switchblades, superheroes and thugs who rant and rave on TV and, at the end of the season, fade back into obscurity.


Hanna Rosin, The End of Men, pp. 7-9

First and foremost, allow me to take credit for my contribution, however small, to any statistical case that women have "pulled decisively ahead" of men, to quote the publisher's blurb for Rosin's faux-provocative screed. I can't claim that pursuing a music career has been either a graceful or a constructive way to disavow my white male privilege, but it certainly has been an effective one: I am 32 years old working for $11 an hour; I hold an entry-level position in an industry where I previously worked for over 5 years; I have never held a job that required more than a high school diploma; I rent a room under the table in a shabby shared apartment close enough to spit on the Hollywood Freeway; I have been single for longer than I care to admit; and of course, like so many of Rosin's Cardboard Men, I have spent most of my life trying to make play look as much like work as possible.

Admittedly, to implicate myself in this way requires strategically omitting a few incongruous details, such as my enviable academic track record, a graduate degree from an expensive private college, a stellar professional resume in a field wholly unrelated to the aforementioned day job, and a life that on the whole has been more frequently over- than under-privileged. Call it my Plastic side if you will; it has nonetheless proven entirely ineffectual in delivering even a whiff of the self-made material or domestic respectability by which polite bourgeois society measures its charges. While any grand pronouncement on the contemporary economics of gender is well-suited to attract attention, that Ms. Rosin's appears through and through to have been issued from the perspective of just this sort of contended, materialistic non-culture is, as many have already pointed out, the real lead story here. This much, at least, is obvious to anyone who has lived concurrent Cardboard and Plastic lives, and who thus inhabits part of the vast grey area unaccounted for by her imaginary comic book duo.

In my case, the highway from academic all-star to broken manhood runs squarely through territory most commonly (if unwieldily) referred to as The Arts, ironically thought by so many unliberated men to be the exclusive domain of sissies and faggots, but which, as even its seasonal inhabitants quickly learn, in fact harbors its own litany of gender terrorists, macho men, misogynists, and homophobes, some of whom would undoubtedly get on just fine with their more politically conservative brethren in fields like finance, law, and politics. A more substantive defining characteristic of The Arts, rather, is the inevitable disparity between intrinsic and popular valuation arising under advanced capitalism and fragmented postmodern culture, a disparity which, as intensely uncomfortable as it is for many artists to verbalize, itself has an unmistakably gendered component. The Arts in fact present a more extreme case of material incentive lying almost entirely on the side of compromise, accommodation, and malleability than most any economic sector Rosin endeavors to chronicle. If those have become, as she argues, highly gendered characteristics, then the valuation discussion indeed takes on a highly gendered character.

Such it is that for a field of endeavor so often and so loudly criticized for representing, literally or figuratively, the interests of male aristocrats and colonists, it is today difficult to locate which upper class privileges, exactly, are being enjoyed by any but the most conventionally successful artists; that is to say, by those exhibiting the ostensibly feminine "willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape." (TEOM, 270) The true men and women of leisure one encounters in artists' circles are far more likely to have simply inherited a fortune than to be collecting royalties from a hard-won mainstream breakthrough. And yet the rest of us white men do not simply divest ourselves of privilege in one fell swoop by choosing to become workaday professional artists; privilege, or the lack thereof, reproduces itself as long as one continues to exhibit the trait(s) with which it is associated. Such it is that as far out of my lane as I might seem to be these days, I am nonetheless reminded frequently and vividly that white male privilege is powerful enough to moderate even the extreme indignities and vicissitudes of the service sector in ways that most of my co-workers will never enjoy. This makes it hard for me to take seriously any argument that a service economy could ever serve as the backdrop to real feminist progress.

There is more than one reason for the underrepresentation of historically oppressed groups in so many Western artistic disciplines. It starts with good-old-boy politics but it does not end there. Becoming an artist of almost any kind worthy of the name in a world where cultural consensus and common practice have gone extinct is one humongous risk. All artists sign up for certain challenges, but only some see these challenges magnified immeasurably by intersecting oppressions. An arts career is thus a more manageable proposition for someone of my background who can count on relatively fair job interviews and loan approvals and an emergency familial safety net; it is less so for people truly on their own whose lives are already defined by underground discrimination and the daily risk of police brutality and/or sexual assault. Much as health care reform will do more for artists than a hundred NEAs, winning the ability for everyone to count on basic human dignities from their employers and governments is infinitely more central to the task of diversifying perspectives in The Arts than identity-based curating or grantsmanship ever could be.

And so, while I do wonder if my high school teachers, for example, might not be horrified at what has become of me, I can also accept this as a First World Problem. I have a steady job, a roof over my head, and just enough "spare" time to maintain the semblance of a music career working with some very talented people. Make no mistake that the ability to be an uncompromising artist at all and still attain even this basic degree of human dignity has everything to do with having had untold advantages from the outset. As such, I do not and never have considered holding a service sector day job to be in and of itself an affront to my dignity. To conclude from this that I have not been "successful" in life is, on the other hand, beyond an insult.

Indeed, there are always just enough artists of various stripes succeeding in polite bourgeois terms to make the more uncompromising elements look like failures. Just as surely, there will always be a few bourgie busybodies observing all of this from a safe distance and jumping to questionable conclusions. Sometimes we meet them after a show; other times we meet them in print. Such it is that while the ostensibly cherrypicked, anecdotal nature of Rosin's case studies and her alleged statistical misstatements have proven fertile territory for critics wishing to engage her on her own turf, for me it is the turf she neglects to cover which opens up a far more revealing line of inquiry. Indeed, The Arts had to be more or less ignored to maintain Rosin's central conceits; the life of a modern-day Franz Schubert, Hector Berlioz, Bix Beiderbecke, or Herbie Nichols would blow the roof off of such clean and clear distinctions between success and failure. These men, like virtually everybody else, male or female, artist or not, were both successes and failures, compromising and uncompromised, part Plastic and part Cardboard. The "old architecture of manliness" has seldom been more than an undue burden on The Arts, but nor does consigning The Arts wholesale to the playpen of "mancessories" and "ornamental masculinity" do them justice. Literally, this is not what The End of Men does; by proxy and the occasional odd whiff of hostility, it comes closer.

01 November 2014

November Is Blog Month – 2014 is No. 7 – You Are Reading

November 2014 Is Blog Month VII here at Fickle Ears. Prepare for your yearly daily dose of wry cynicism, harebrained philosophizing, and studied inanity. Hasn't it been too long?

To customarily rehash the back story here, we believe that less is more on the content-rich internet, and that being one-twelfth of a "real" blog is plenty indulgent already. Within the temporal confines of such strict self-discipline, however, no feat of pompous verbosity is off limits. So grab your popcorn, or if you prefer, the complete works of Lutoslawski, and enjoy the seventh iteration of this ill-advised foray into mid-2000s-style online discourse.

For the sake of context and tradition, prior years' miasmas may be bathed in here:

2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008

New this year: cross-posting to Facebook. Since, you know, no one visits any other websites anymore.

See you at the end.