17 March 2008


It seems obvious from the outset that most any attempt to define what "culture" is has about the same chance of succeeding as does a similar attempt to define "music" or "art." Nonetheless, this is a concept to which so many musicians so often refer to as a pillar of an argument or a philosophy that we really should understand what it means, or at least what it is taken to mean in any given context. Below are three explorations of the modern dynamic between music and the concept of culture, each taking a different approach: culture as control, the dictionary definition of culture, and the concept of the inevitable influence of culture on art.

Culture: The Control Aspect


"What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture."
-Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation"

There's something about statements like this that particularly roils those for whom music's basis in culture is seen as essential. We know what it means for a person to be assimilated into a culture, but what does it mean for music (or art broadly) to be assimilated into, have a basis in, or reflect a culture? By capitalizing the C-word, Sontag highlights a crucial detail which must be addressed in any such discussion, which is that somewhere along the way, we stopped dealing in terms of specific cultures and started touting capital-C Culture broadly.

For Americans, there are two elephants in the room when it comes to any discussion of the C-word: the long-held view that we lack a culture (or at least a single unified culture), and our particular history of racial oppression. Only through the peculiar combination of these two circumstances (not that they are wholly unrelated) could Culture become generalized and fĂȘted in the particular way that it is (i.e. with no regard for which culture we are dealing with, as if they were all of equal merit). There's a certain knee-jerk reaction that some of us white Americans are prone to whereby white=bad, and black (or, to take it further, non-white, or even non-Western)=good. It's awkward to talk about and we avoid it if we can, but anyone who lives here knows how firmly entrenched it is, especially if you are involved even casually in jazz and its offshoots. It's a token way for us whites to acknowledge that we understand how fucked up things were and are. There's nothing so wrong about that on the surface, but let's just keep in mind that the devil is in the details: there are plenty of places in the world today where the human rights situation is as bad or worse than it is in the USA, even given the substantial regressions of the last 7 years.

Lack of pigment by no means equates to lack of Culture; various European ethnic groups, after all, have vital and distinct cultures of their own. More importantly, however, I don't believe for a second that a lack of Culture equates to a lack of artistic potency or legitimacy. There is a grave contradiction at the heart of capital-C culture advocacy; for lack of a better term, I'll refer to this as the control aspect of culture. Basically, what "culture" imposes on individuals generally is what "style" imposes on music (or any art) specifically: limits, control, hierarchy, or whatever you want to call it. You could, of course, have a "culture of openness" or something similar, but even that is a kind of control, essentially standing in opposition to people who might favor the imposition of something more monolithic. Think equal and opposite forces: to have a unified culture is to exert social control. If we are to merely generalize about Culture, this may in fact be its most universal feature.

"Style" is a concept that captures in a general sense what "culture" does to art. Mastery of a style is eminently more accessible to the musician than is the ideal of functioning beyond style ("synthesis" or "integration" of styles) because the tasks to be accomplished are known and finite. It is precisely where a certain musical style is perceptible to the student that a pathway for mastery of the style also comes into view. Given a bounded musical realm such as style, it is clearer here than anywhere else that the process of attaining mastery can basically proceed in a vacuum, cultural or otherwise.

I would think it would be obvious that synthesis in this case is a pathway to greater artistic freedoms, i.e. away from culture rather than into it. The sort of control that culture imposes is quite the opposite. Without this control, there is suddenly greater subjectivity and autonomy, accompanied by none of the certainty or boundedness that came with finite style. Culture, like style, can be stifling. I would think that were we truly to debate capital-C culture as a general idea rather than taking each lower-case-c culture case-by-case, as musicians, it would be hard to choose the control aspect over the apparent freedom of whatever the alternative is.

In real life, of course, what we find in musical circles where a common practice prevails is a group of like-minded people who are scarcely conscious of the fact that an outsider might perceive their individual works to be very similar. The musico-idiomatic devices that prevail in such circles are taken for granted by insiders, creating the (usually false) appearance of a consciously implemented method or dogma. Actually, these people seem less to be the victims of some authoritarian cultural control than they do to be unmoved by (or simply ignorant of) any of the alternatives, instead remaining perfectly content with what they've got.

This is all well and good; however, once one becomes aware of the breadth of musical expression that exists the world over, it is then much more difficult to remain so content with a common practice. This, I think, casts a shadow on capital-C Culture advocacy as far as music is concerned, for Culture remains innocuous only when its subjects have no reason to question it. Otherwise, it becomes a contrivance, an externally imposed dogma that stifles free expression. Given modern communications technology, I find it difficult to believe that the control aspect of culture will find a legitimate or lasting place in the modern musical landscape.

Culture: Dictionary DefinitionsThe dictionary that came pre-installed on my laptop (the "Oxford American Dictionary") gives the following definition:

1 the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively : 20th century popular culture.
• a refined understanding or appreciation of this : men of culture.
• the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group : Caribbean culture | people from many different cultures.
• [with adj. ] the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group : the emerging drug culture.

"1" is thought provoking, but I think ultimately of little help. It seems to take for granted that "The Arts" are in fact not only already assimilated into, but in fact comprise culture...that is, along with those less consequential "other manifestations of human intellectual achievement" thrown in merely for good measure. (The arts an intellectual achievement? You don't say!) This is too broad a definition; the toilet is a manifestation of human intellectual achievement, but is it part of culture?

The first bullet point is almost a figurative usage, so I don't think we need to bother with it. I'm particularly intrigued by the second bullet point, which breaks culture into four areas. I want to explore them individually and challenge their relevance to music:

To put it mildly, I despise many of the customs where I live. There is no way I'm going to allow my music to either reflect or incorporate most any of these customs. Does that mean that I need to go culture shopping around the world simply to continue to exist as an artist? It might get me a grant, but it won't make me a better musician, or really even have any effect whatsoever on the music that I make. For music to exist outside the jurisdiction of a particular culture's established customs is not so radical a proposition. Of course, some will say that this is what is behind supposedly shrinking audiences for classical music; I, on the other hand, value the "concert" experience for precisely this reason, as an escape from the customs I despise that nonetheless seem to govern the rest of life. Does a certain flouting of culture in this case not merely reflect greater self-determination?

"social institutions"
Some detractors cite the remarks of Schoenberg and Babbitt, for example, as essentially aspiring for music to be its own social institution somehow divorced from the everyday life of the Average Joe and aimed at a small group of fellow professionals, or "specialists." They then oppose this, and argue instead that music must be part of the broader culture such that the social institutions and customs of that culture naturally permeate any musical presentation. The opposite case is one in which music has become "self-referential" "elitist" or "rarefied" and is no longer "relevant." But even granting the "assimilation into culture" for just a moment, can't there still be, then, a difference between being full-fledged member of the culture and being governed by its most pervasive social norms? Social norms, after all, are just one facet of culture; what if the music fits squarely into the culture on every other level with the sole exception of something about its mode of presentation that is foreign or awkward in that culture? Again, the supposed decline of classical music comes to mind, and you'd have to admit that this is a pretty good description: sitting still for an hour without talking is something that is not only awkward for many in our culture, but perhaps even foreign to them entirely. Nonetheless, why should I as a musician accept this and allow it to dictate what I'm allowed to do?

It confounds me how offended the culture mongers get when someone suggests that, for just a few minutes or hours at a time, someone might wish to exist outside the space of their culture's social customs/demands and just listen to some damn music. The argument that the concert experience has become irrelevant once it becomes disruptive to the way that 51% of the population behaves in public just doesn't convince me that a great travesty is being committed every time someone composes a work that is not an unabashed outward embodiment of their ethnicity, or that violates the rules of social hour, or that isn't "about" anything in particular. Before we go around advocating for music that has cultural relevance, we had better understand how severely that condition limits musical expression, as well as exactly which culture we are talking about in the first place.

Some people will stop at nothing to impute an objective importance to their favorite instantiations of the art of organized sound. If it doesn't symbolize something, it surely embodies, expresses, communicates, or implies it, right? There's very little room for talk of the aesthetic experience when we are trying to explain to future in-laws how exactly it is that we might be the least bit useful to society, or when funding for a music department or program is up in the air. In my culture, it seems that we pay lip service to the value of "The Arts" only where some concrete connection to some other achievement can be made. We ride the coattails of politics and the hard sciences so that politically-conscious, enlightened people won't think that we just sit around and smoke pot all day, and we pretend that this is the reason we care so much about music. Even if this is not flat out wrong, I still think it's dishonest. I vote, shovel the sidewalk, bike or take mass transit instead of driving my car if I can, and occasionally I even manage to donate money or volunteer for a worthy cause; but I play, write and listen to music for my own selfish enjoyment. You should too.

Music is (or at least can be) an art itself, but there are many other arts as well; are they essential to each other's mere existence? This is even worse than stealing importance from politics and hard sciences. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of successful music out there that has nothing to do with visual art, dance, film, or whatever. I don't think you could argue that such an interdisciplinary background is essential to the musician, although if anyone wants to try, feel free.

Culture: The Inevitability FallacyWhen it comes to the concept of inevitability, composition teachers and students frequently have the same discussion about imitation and creation. Some students (I admit to passing through this phase) become fixated on avoiding influence and becoming "purely" creative and original; their teacher then tells them that it is impossible to create in a vacuum, and that since it is inevitable that they will be imitating something, they might as well expose themselves to a wide variety of stuff. Similarly, we often hear that music without culture is impossible, or at least not a good idea, etc. etc.

Making something that is inevitable a cornerstone of the argument actually works against the position. If it is inevitable, then there's nothing anyone can do about it; let's stop wasting our time and start discussing things that we can control rather than those which we can't. I think that the notion of the unavoidable influence of or basis in culture falls into the same trap as the unavoidable influence of the composer's musical surroundings: if something is so impossible to escape, there's no sense trying to convince someone to acknowledge it consciously. Imagine being told, "If you don't die someday, you're going to be in big trouble." There are no consequences for failing to abide by an inevitability because such failure is impossible.

The Culture monger says that by denying the presence or influence of culture, we are committing a grave error; then they turn around and state that to do such a thing is not even possible. These conditions cannot both be true. The one reason it is important to recognize inevitabilities is so that one can learn to ignore them and function in an uninhibited fashion; where the artist has already reached this state (however ignorantly), it could only be seen as a regression for them to become consciously engaged with so-called culture. It's analogous to a cognitively paralyzing fear of death. Hence, let us collectively abandon any need to proselytize on behalf of inevitablity; I can't think of a worse waste of time.

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