12 October 2013

Hearing Modernity (i)


From an essay by Ian Power:

For the first ninety or so years of modern liberal arts education in the United States, the study of music meant the study of classical music, much like the study of literature was that of Great Books. As the advent of critical theory in other humanist disciplines began to expand the scope of scholarly study, music (somewhat grudgingly) began look to critical theory as well; with, for example, music theorists looking to phenomenology, and musicologists looking to gender studies. But perhaps most critical to the study of sounds themselves was the rapid expansion of ethnomusicology, which not only exposed academia to different musics, it brought to music departments a laundry list of ways of thinking about and experiencing music that were much different from the Western classical situation. There came to Western ears far more to tell of societies (contemporary and past) in which the boundaries between music and daily life were not so clear; where purposeful noise was integral and not polluting. In addition to these, scholars began to turn ears to contemporary consumers of American popular culture, much of which produced music that was not to be sat and listened to, but danced to, shower-sung to, run to, eaten to, and shopped to.

An important point goes customarily unremarked upon here: in the bygone era of cultural consensus (or the appearance of it), the arts nonetheless did not seem to fit very comfortably into the academic mandate, and it was never particularly gauche to suggest so. Canonical old-world musical figures like Berlioz, Wagner, Debussy, and Prokofiev certainly had their own strained relationships with the academic musical thought of their respective times, which is to say years or decades before music (of any kind) had gained its foothold in American academia1. With cultural consensus came the threat of enforced convention, and as goes one, so goes the other, or so it seems this cadre of sound scholars would have it.

The distinction here between "music" and "sound" is well-taken, and has shaped my own world more so than my overwhelmingly lines-and-dots-oriented work might outwardly indicate; in any case, I'm certainly not here to argue that classical music is the only kind worth studying. One wonders, however, if a precipitous lurch towards sound necessarily resolves the longer-standing tension, held over from the age of music, between academic theory and real-world practice; or if, in fact, as an almost purely academic construction (and at that, one taking significant cues from, of all places, critical theory), a field like Sound Studies merely threatens to transform the problem of studying music into something bigger, messier, and even less utilitarian than the paradigm it purports to supersede? Insofar as the "practice" of sound is less intention-driven than that of music, does it not pose a proportionately less tractable condition?

Indeed, the disintegration of cultural consensus was never music's problem alone: after all, with the "boundaries between music and daily life" now suitably shattered, what good is the study of sound without 1000 years of music as its contextual counterweight? Could Sound Studies justify its own existence without this backdrop? Throughout the musical era, the glaring and elementary epistemological problems inherent in the gesture of subsuming creative artistic disciplines as they were then understood within the academic environment as it was then manifested were nonetheless papered over, dwarfed as they were by music's (not sound's) larger cultural significance. Sound Studies, meanwhile defines such top-down, monolithic frameworks right out of its worldview; from what source, then, is its necessity taken to spring?

The matter of the arts justifying their own existence, in academia and elsewhere, is a frequent, if often indirect, topic of conversation these days, and rightfully so; yet no one I'm reading from either a musical or a sonic viewpoint is suggesting that both music and sound could be truly endangered academic species. I am beginning to take seriously the notion that they are; that more people think so than say so; and that we can learn something about the whole mess by studying these and other stakeholders' behavior. As a mostly musical creature myself, the rather calculated academic maneuver by soundists to dump the entire weight of postmodern cultural fragmentation onto the backs of us musicians strikes me as an omen, since these are the people that, if they understand anything, understand both culture and academic politics intimately.

Certainly with strict regard to music, the costs of pluralism (of which I have been a strong proponent here) are steep. The first is trite but all-encompassing: as a practical matter, schools of music can no longer provide comprehensive music education when the very notion of music has (rightly, I think) been exploded into something as varied as the individuals who sustain it and as vast as collective human intellectual endeavor itself. In other words, schools can neither expect their graduates to know everything nor can they afford to teach it to them. The second, equally trite and equally all-encompassing point: qualitative evaluation in the arts was a dicy proposition from the start, and in a self-consciously pluralistic educational environment, it is impossible almost by definition. If art and academia were always strange bedfellows, someone is sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future. Does excising the study of art from the study of sound really solve the problem? Does it create another?

Paradoxically (perhaps ingeniously), the dismantling of cultural consensus short-circuits the possibility of the institutional training of music-makers while securing scalable, nearly unlimited avenues of inquiry for pure scholars of sociology and culture. Discourses of mastery and refinement (with, for Cage and post-Cageans, intentionality as their proxy) were the very first targets of the most vehement deconstructionists; all human beings, it turns out, create sound and shit in equal amounts (lots) and with equal effort (none). In an instant, there were no more musicians for academics to train and an unlimited number for them to study. Is it really all that farfetched, then, given, on one hand, the wide-ranging adademic-political implications of such a trend for what are, for the moment, known as music departments, and on the other, the well-documented limitless pettiness and insecurity of academics in marginalized fields of endeavor, to at least take note of all of this from an academic-political perspective?

"The advent of critical theory in other humanist disciplines" and its bleed into musico-academic scholarship is a topic which I'm neither prepared nor qualified to tackle in any mature scholarly way. I will say only that I suspect it deserves to be presented, as it is above, strictly as a history of academia itself, and as such is otherwise about as relevant to modern day musical practitioners as the list of Prix de Rome winners or the competing conventions for labeling secondary dominant chords. The emphasis on the role of ethnomusicology seems more justified, though this should also remind us that rigid convention, refinement of technique, and formal apprenticeship are not exactly unique to our own classical tradition. It is mere delusion to believe that excising them from our culture is inherently a depathologizing or liberationist maneuver.

As all-encompassing as the impact of critical theory can seem in the right circles, as well as the best of it explicates some important recent trends, and as thoroughly at odds as it is (representing fairly well, I think you could say, the facts on the ground) with the very notion of allowing pre-professional training of musical practitioners to dominate academic musical life as it has for several decades, musical academia itself has, of course, not (yet) truly begun to reform itself accordingly, nor has it ventured very far from the usual high-brow Western musical traditions. Last I checked, in fact, the numbers were continuing to explode. The institution I most recently attended, thought by itself and a few others to point the way forward on just these sorts of issues, is, of course, singularly proud of its accredited performance programs in several non-Western musical traditions, again solving one problem only to create another. It turns out that music-makers, those lovable idiot savants who make the entire musico-academic edifice hum, have a peculiar way of going on the offensive to protect their turf, preserving, contriving, and enforcing their own cultural consensuses among micro-communities just large enough (but plenty well-connected) to sustain the old monolithic ways in politically well-placed pockets of resistance. We are an eminently naive, outmoded and vulnerable species which critical theory has nevertheless completely failed to either reform or depose, not through exertion of external pressure, and certainly not through holistic infiltration of the subculture. (Really, how many conservatory brats could begin to understand the first thing about this literature? See the problem now?) As I continue to read about, study, and observe the world around me, the clearer it becomes that the academic training of practitioners of living musical traditions will remain in perpetual conflict with the values of liberationist critical theory unless or until such training ceases to be undertaken at all. So stay safe out there kids; there are Bolsheviks in our bathroom.


1Of course, it figures that the differences between (1) an old-fashioned (i.e. nineteenth century) national conservatory system and (2) a modern quasi-conservatory system subsumed within a nation's public and private universities are decidedly non-negligible, and would make for a fascinating angle from which to attack contemporary polemics surrounding the orientation and mandate of post-secondary music schools.

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