04 April 2016

The First of the Rest


I

Early last spring, spurred on by a band director's curious statement as reported to me by a mutual student, I sat down to write my next pointed tract on the relationship between technical and creative musical development. My greatest initial trepidation therein stemmed from the danger of slipping into needless reprises of arguments which I had already presented here and elsewhere several times over. Yet even as such fears melted away in the face of fresh insights, a new problem presented itself: while the line of development was clear in my head from the outset, the task of fleshing out each small detail of the argument suddenly seemed inexhaustible; the simplest statements of position on a particular matter led to multiple pages of excursus on all manner of peripheral details, musical and otherwise, details which I had never intended to dredge up but which the offending statement itself had shown could not be taken for granted. Indeed, the realization that nothing could be taken for granted quickly displaced the particulars of the incident as the impetus behind the essay, and at this point the task seemed too broad.

The paper I had envisioned writing was hence threatening to take on dimensions all out of proportion with the real salience of the theme. In short, I found that I was no longer capable of addressing the obstacles faced in refining and enriching our pedagogy without being burdened by their rootedness in so many intractable real-world questions which otherwise have nothing whatsoever to do with music. This came as a particular shock to someone who for the bulk of his formal education would simply stop writing when he felt intuitively that he was finished, who consistently turned in papers that were a half-page short of the prescribed minimum length, who repeatedly dared his instructors to blink, and, if I may brag a bit, succeeding without exception in doing so. Then one day, all grown up and having become thoroughly burdened and preoccupied with "adult" concerns such as feminist separatism in the arts, cultural co-optation, the ethical dimensions of aesthetics, and so on, this student opened up an already sprawling text file on his laptop and was overtaken seemingly in an instant by a classic case of paralysis-by-analysis. There was at that point no possible way for me to continue with the arduous project I had begun, not even if it has yet to entirely cease appearing as the logical and necessary next step in the portion of my life's work concerned with education.

This only feels like a setback. It certainly looks like a setback as far as the right sidebar of this blog is concerned. In reality, it is a realization that had to be made in order for me to move ahead, final confirmation of something I've known for a long time but haven't been willing to fully accept: that everything I've written prior is fundamentally naive, no matter its learnedness on particular subjects here and there; that I've learned just enough to emerge from naivete but not nearly enough to be considered wise; and that until I obtain the requisite book smarts, everything I write subsequently will issue from the middle ground between these two poles, which is the absolute worst place to be in every way both as a thinker and as an artist. And so as most anyone else would, I did initially absorb all of this as a setback, emotionally at least. This is the primary reason for the long silence here. The other reason is the immense amount of time I have been investing in offline reading projects with an eye towards pushing through this impasse. (Against my better judgment, I am now tracking all of this through a Goodreads account if anyone wants to make contact there.) There is not much for me to write passionately about right now other than to post book reports on esoteric authors as a way of laying my proverbial nuts on the floor. Having read plenty of these book reports in the course of my first decade of blogging, I've chosen to forgo this thirtysomething rite of passage until I've had time to digest the material and conceive some more original insight.

Such it is that the final nail has belatedly but inevitably been hammered into the coffin of my intellectual adolescence, of which there can be no doubt this blog has served as the focal point since its inception. I do not intend to give up blogging, nor to cease raising the occasional ruckus over mainstream music education's myriad vicissitudes of expedience, but it is high time to admit to myself and to anyone who cares about me and/or my work that things simply cannot remain as they have been, and that the necessary changes are not all comfortable ones to make.


II

I remain most interested in and committed to what for lack of another term with greater contemporary currency I must anachronistically continue to call "absolute music," or at least to the ideal of it if that is as far as the skeptic and the populist are jointly willing to indulge me on the matter. Nothing has yet convinced me that the abstract musical experience is somehow pathological or degenerate in any of the many ways it has frequently been made out to be, and I hasten to single out the accusation of escapism for an especially pointed disavowal. Rather, it is precisely because I have always been quite preoccupied with the bigger picture that music has always seemed both overwhelmingly ineffectual as activism and itself vilely disfigured by the weight of being asked to do so much more than it is capable of. Ignorance and/or apathy vis-a-vis the copious observable evidence in favor of this position has always stuck me first and foremost as a profound insensitivity on the part of those who would otherwise like to position themselves as the feeling, humane party to this debate, in contradistinction to the emotionless, tone-deaf formalists1. Whatever the shortcomings of formalism, a blind faith that "music can change the world" in no way follows directly from them. Such blind faiths betray not sensitivity but numbness, not altruism but self-absorption; in other words, they betray precisely the condition which they themselves most customarily ascribe to formalism itself. Perhaps it takes one to know one?

I am, I will confess as if it were not so obvious from virtually everything I've written here, quite sensitive in this way and in other ways too. As a result, it is true that constitutional factors are at the root of my inability to abide the more-is-more aesthetics of so much contemporary art regardless of any of its alleged epistemological (un)moorings that may also contribute. At a certain point it makes no difference to me whether the artist's intentions are manifested as overbearing political content, multidisciplinarity, abuse of dynamic extremes, conceptual provocation, or, as befits the trope, all of these at once and more; eventually my fragile viscera simply reaches overload and I have to sign off.

I see a Hollywood movie in the theaters only every couple of years, and I feel downright autistic from the moment I enter the lobby to the moment I depart it. Contrary to the formalist stereotype, I am hardly oblivious to the calculated emotional roller coaster; rather, I am usually on the verge of tears and simply have to go home and sleep it off in order to come to my senses. The fact that such an overwhelming majority of my cultural compatriots not only willingly endure this but in fact actively seek it out and repeat it compulsively merely confirms that they must be wired differently than I am2. At that point I am tempted to throw up my arms in a conniption fit of relativism and say, "Live and let live! We agree to disagree! It's all so byooo-tiful! " I have certainly flirted with this mindset during the recent dormancy period here, for reasons outlined above. But of course it is difficult (impossible?) to fully live up to this intention, it is an intention which is unlikely to be reciprocated by much of anybody else, and besides all of that, I would say that any time we neglect to unpack what is going behind the scenes of such a contentious issue, we evince a certain apathy that is unbecoming of a socially engaged artist. So let's continue to hash it out, no? I promise that dormancy periods here are only ever temporary, no matter how long they might seem to go on.

The oversensitivity defense certainly is a useful deflection for me to invoke here provided that the prosecution is capable of understanding this term matter-of-factly rather than in the pathologized sense so often invoked by faux-liberals eager to defend their habitual microaggressions. Even if I were a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist, though, I think that after several years of concert-going in Los Angeles I would still greet the exceedingly rare opportunity to experience live music without the ubiquitous multi-media projections exactly as I do now; that is, with no small amount of relief. As it is, notwithstanding the inevitability of the (very) occasional masterpiece in virtually any idiom, it only seems clearer that the present inescapability of mixed media is a textbook case of turning up the volume of the conversation simply in an attempt to be heard over the chatter of cultural overproduction and oversaturation. If formalists are to be aggressively held to account for their alleged self-referentialism and sophistry, then conceptualists should be at least equally compelled to answer for their various excesses. I would say that they actually should be held to firmer account because the culture within which they operate incentivizes such excesses in wild disproportion to most every other modus operandi. What perplexes non-believers most about formalism is the difficulty of establishing motive; what perplexes about conceptualists is that there are so many motives to choose from that you can never know for sure which ones are real, intentional, or sincere, or in fact if any of these descriptors apply at all3. I think that what I just wrote is absolutely an instance of hating the game and not the player. Hence, as the Theorists would have it regarding more pressing social identity issues, we really do need to see difference here rather than simply reenacting the familiar relativist abdication of judgment, because difference is in fact political in this instance as in so many others. Aesthetic relativism is, as I have written before, both a social grace and a social ill, so let's indeed answer for ourselves even if no one asked and see what insights this exercise generates. Triangulation is most detectable where cheap thrills are appealed to the most shamelessly, but it would be a mistake to pretend that it was not at play elsewhere, including in absolute music itself. To be clear, I am all for cheap thrills; even so, we know what eventually happens to people who eat only junk food.

See how you can be a socially conscious musician without burning effigies of politicians during your concerts? It's not impossible, people. Get over yourselves.


III

Of course, my frozen essay was not to be about absolute music, activist art, or multidisciplinarity, but rather about particular technical aspects of music pedagogy in young brass players. I'm taking this diversion only to head off the accusation of hypocrisy, that is, the notion that my awakening to the inadequacy of my extramusical learning is an indictment of my previous insistence on absolute music-making. To the contrary, this awakening has only confirmed more strongly for me that musicianship and citizenship are overwhelmingly separate spheres. I've never advocated for ignorance or escapism, just for a necessary degree of compartmentalization as dictated by the facts on the ground. It is a compartmentalization which, in my humble opinion, any human being capable of wiping their own behind ought also be capable of maintaining without spiraling uncontrollably into the nihilism and narcissism of the archetypal Formalist strawman. I certainly consider myself amply capable of this maintenance (I've had some practice), and if lengthy reflections such as this one aren't enough to earn at least a modicum of credibility on this front, then I should probably just give up trying.

I will at least concede that the narcissism is kept at bay far more easily than the nihilism which seems to lurk around every ontological corner4. I suppose it was only a matter of time before nihilism started to penetrate the part of my self-constructed intellectual inner sanctum most explicitly concerned with people; that is, with pedagogy and "The Theory-Technique-Creativity Nexus," which was to be the title of my paper. Disembodied works of art are easier to get along with on a daily basis than people are, even if there's no such thing as perfection in either case. Such it is that I find it (perhaps temporarily, but in any case quite thoroughly) impossible to spill another ounce of effort inveighing against scale nazis, pattern pushers, or passive recreators, each of whose conditions I am now compelled to see as ineluctably contingent upon their wider cultural worlds, and which I hence have no hope of meaningfully reforming, no matter how well-conceived or well-executed my writing on the topic might be. Members of these groups, some of whom I count as valued colleagues and collaborators in other ways, will just have to lie in the beds that they have made for themselves, and I in mine. These people will continue to dominate the pedagogical scene as long as the culture at large continues to produce them in such numbers and favors their paint-by-number expediency over the long road of pan-stylistic internalization. Having reached that conclusion, belatedly it would be fair to say, it is no longer worth my time to agonize over how to best communicate ideas that will not be received with action, even if they are received with a variety of more superficial, ultimately meaningless praises, as some of my earlier pedagogical writings have been. To be sure, I have no illusions of being able to change the larger culture all by myself either. That is a larger task, not a smaller one. But at least an ill-fated joyride in that direction sounds interesting to me; at least I can be stimulated by it; at least I can sound smarter, if not actually be smarter, by investing earnestly and intensely in extramusical learning for the first time since my mid-teens. As friend and bandmate Max Kutner aptly put it in a recent conversation, reading French Theory is great as long as you don't start writing tunes about it. I really couldn't have said it better. I have a different relationship to "tunes" than I do to people, and I think that makes me a scholar, not a hypocrite.

Responding to incredulous, disbelieving rejoinders when I reveal that I have not earnestly practiced scales since 10th grade, that I credit this very intentional decision with helping me get to where I am today creatively on the horn, and that I later discovered a modicum of laboratory support for my youthful conjecture in the form of the "exposure effect" is something which no longer interests me as it once did. I would like to think that thoughtful contributions to this effect could be considered part of good citizenship broadly construed, but at this point it feels more like an entropic blowing of smoke in the direction of old dogs of all ages who are incapable of learning new tricks. Therefore, unless you are my student or otherwise make a conscientious inquiry on such matters, I am done with them for the time being. Let's talk about culture, and then let's "escape" into music-making as whole people and conscious citizens without either forgetting or being limited by what we've learned.


notes

1. By the same token, the next time you see a musician or their work described as "introspective," ask yourself, "Can one become an artist of any caliber, by virtually any value system, without a fair quantity self-reflection?!" I think not, which seals the fact of the co-optation of the term. It also seals the diagnosis of (b)latent sexism when this term is indiscriminately applied to the work of women musicians.

2. On the other hand, Jon Wagner's Contemporary Film Theory class at CalArts not only served as an ideal survey of Critical Theory but also made me realize how easily I could get sucked into Second Cinema. I had to bald-face lie my way into this class, for which the prerequisite is "an abiding interest in film." By the end of it this was only a little white lie. Only Mrs. Stammers' IB Theory of Knowledge has had the impact on my intellectual life that this class has, and it meant a tremendous amount to me to receive a totally unexpected email from Mr. Wagner at the end of the term thanking me for my papers.

3. If no one else who went to CalArts is willing to speak what we all saw, then I will: multidisciplinarity at CalArts is first and foremost a way for third year BFAs to keep in touch with friends from other programs after they all move out of the school-mandated dorm stay and into their own far-flung apartments spanning the seven boroughs of Santa Clarita. Operating in parallel to this surfeit of juvenilia are a handful of graduate students, many of them working professionals and fantastically talented, who seek out the school specifically for its emphasis on collaboration across disciplines. I lost track of all the bitter stories I heard from this latter contingent about how departmental turf wars undermined access to resources they needed to do this work. You may socialize free of charge, but equipment and space cost money.

Contrary to my stated anti-relativism, those who know me offline know that I'm a very good sport about being involved in projects which don't necessarily align with the "absolute music" orientation I outline in this post. At school I almost always had fun performing in multi-disciplinary projects (as I say, I think that was the point of most of them), and occasionally I learned something of enduring value too. Overwhelmingly, though, what struck me most immediately and intensely about the bulk of the multidisciplinary work made at CalArts was its sheer callowness. The work I've seen out here in the postgraduate Real World is only slightly more encouraging, and really, how could its evolution be any more than slight having incubated in such an environment?

While on the whole I wouldn't trade my time at CalArts for anything, this was and is all very dispiriting. How could the social and turf war issues possibly be unrelated to it?

4. Early returns indicate that reading more books is making me less certain about important issues, not more, and hence more readily threatening to toss me to the dogs of nihilism rather than snatching me from their jaws. But at least I've found the ability in early middle age to have fun doing something other than music and sports.

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