31 March 2008

The Authority of Bytes and Pixels

I was only born in 1982, but I am still just barely old enough that I don't take things like the internet, CD's, and cell phones for granted. I grew up with a black and white television and a rotary telephone in the house (and also with two harpsichords and no pianos, but that's another story entirely). To this day, I take a certain perverse pleasure in being able to listen to myself on CD, watch myself on VHS or DVD, and not least of all to see my words all lit up on an official-looking website like this one, as if I am some eminent writer. The reason for this is that I remember when not just anyone could see their work lit up on a screen, or hear their music played back by a computer notation program, or burn a CD of themselves for a friend, etc. etc. At first, it just wasn't possible; then it was too expensive; today, it's almost commonplace.

Specifically with regard to the internet, I think it is amazing how much venom is spewed over the fact that a kid born today will never have known a world without such modern technology, and particularly over the worry that this kid will never be able to tell the difference between an authoritative source and a phony one. Might I submit that it is, in fact, those of us who actually remember a time when all of these bytes and pixels were exclusively reserved for raging celebrities who are the problem? We are the ones who are most easily seduced into equating packaging with authority because for us, that used to be a pretty reliable way of judging sources. If that is no longer the case (and we all know it's not), then we are the one's who have a problem, not successive generations who will not know any other way.

Rather than fear the day when there are no people left on the planet who were alive before the internet existed, I would posit that once we arrive at that stage, the populace will, for that very reason, be much more adept than it is today at judging authority among various internet sources, and that perhaps only then can the internet come closer to fulfilling its potential as a constructive, utilitarian resource rather than a capricious waste of time and electricity.

27 March 2008

Music Education: Pro vs. Con

With funding for public school music and art programs in constant jeopardy, it is crucial for all advocates of such programs to be armed with knowledge of their many benefits, as well as some of the counterarguments that detractors may rely on. Here, then, are the views of two esteemed guest columnists. Defending the programs against the philistine onslaught known as the "small government" movement is Ray Dolcissimo, a veteran band parent, self-appointed child development expert, and hack guitar player. Defending the rights of taxpayers to not educate their children is Dave Ruvido, a libertarian activist, truck driver, and junior high school drop out.

Pro: Mr. Dolcissimo
First off, it is well known that teenagers require far more sleep than the average adult, and that failing to get adequate rest each night can lead to underachievement in high school. Listening to music, however, is a surefire way to put anyone to sleep in short order. I can't seem to stay awake for more than 3 minutes of it myself. Though the music of pre-classic Europeans, minimalist Americans, and most smooth jazz artists seems to be particularly well-suited to this purpose, it's a property that all music seems to share pretty much across the board. We must not be left behind in recognizing this inherent value of music, one which much of the rest of American society has come to embrace wholeheartedly in recent times. By developing a love for music in elementary school, students will acquire a proficiency at sleeping that will last well into adulthood.

Second, as an art that deals with the communication of emotion, music is uniquely well-suited to fostering healthy emotional development among students. Who could ever forget the fear created by an upcoming scale quiz, the anger at malfunctioning school-owned instruments, the jealousy directed at the first chair players, or the utter shock of encountering an accidental in one's part? It's a proven fact that kids who study music are better in touch with their emotions. I don't think that's a coincidence.

I'll close with a question: would you want your own kids to be sleep deprived and full of pent-up emotion? Or do you want to raise healthy, well-rested and spaz-tastic young adults who are so excited about going to school each day, they insist on having a car so that they can drive there themselves? I implore you to recognize the undeniable benefits of a complete education, one which includes music and art as well as all of the traditional "core" subjects. We simply owe our kids the opportunity to experience music and all its attendant benefits.

Con: Mr. Ruvido
What's the worst thing that could happen to a kid just because his school had no band for him to play in? Maybe he actually starts doing his homework, or gets involved in a sport, or better yet, gets a damn job and stops freeloadin' off his parents. Now riddle me this: what's the worst that could happen to him if he does join the high school band and starts to kinda like it? I'll tell you what: he tries to make a career out of it.

The last thing we need is more hippy scumbags fighting each other for work and not earnin' any money. They might as well dropout now and get started drivin' a truck. We hear so much blather about certain activities providing kids something to do other than roam the streets and become drug addicts, but isn't that exactly what musicians do anyway? It's hard to understand how music could keep kids off drugs; if anything, it's more likely to lead the to a drug habit they wouldn't have developed otherwise.

Music not only carries the same risks as teen vagrancy, it is a drug itself: it causes musicians to withdraw from family and friends, spend all their money on recordings and instrument accessories, and become despondent most of the time over finding gigs and having enough time to practice. What good is it to keep a kid off the street when he's going to end up addicted to music anyway? I'm not payin' one cent of my hard-earned dough for little Johnny to develop a music habit. End of story.

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.

10 March 2008

Musico-Blogging Glossary

It has been obvious to me for some time now that us musico-bloggers are fond of relying on a certain group of big words to make ourselves sound smarter than we actually are. Many of my recent blogospheric explorations have precipitated repeated trips to the dictionary just to understand all the jargon, foreign borrowings, and literary devices that y'all have such a penchant for. Hence, for the benefit of the uninitiated, I'd like to present what I hope will be a useful compilation of these terms and what they really mean. With any luck, this will save future readers from feelings of confusion and resentment. Without further ado...

profligate: show-off

schadenfreude: taking pleasure in the misfortune of classical music

autodidact: philosophy major

zeitgeist: the moment you realize that a whole bunch of composers already did what you are doing now

ersatz: product of zeitgeist

the long tail: theory describing the distribution of income among professional musicians. A graph of the data begins with a short, pronounced spike (the lucky ones) followed by quickly receding "long tail" (the indigents).

frisson: an accessible piece

pugilist: author of anonymous comments

polyglot: crossover artist

monograph: a blog post that is way too long

prestidigitation: typing many posts within a short period of time

legerdemain: typing many posts within a short period of time, then posting them one by one over a longer period of time in order to give the false impression of consistent productivity

metaphysics: if a blogger posts and no one reads it, does it exist?

To be continued...

06 March 2008


Most instances of overdubbing that I've run across have been effective, but there's one pitfall that I've noticed quite a few times. What makes it unusually obvious that something was overdubbed is when a player's individual quirks are apparent in all of the overdubbed parts (usually it's vibrato or articulation, but it can also just be their sound). It seems to me to be the musical equivalent of cloning (or perhaps incest). In each case, it raises the question of whether the goal really is to give the impression of different people playing together, or whether the player's artistic vision includes the intent to present copies of themselves (or perhaps the intent to not hire any additional musicians for the session). There's nothing perverse about either of these cases; the technology is now old hat. Nonetheless, I cringe a little bit each time I hear an overdub of a player with a distinctive instrumental style. This attribute is elusive for many, and is becoming ever more highly valued in today's musical environment, where many complain of not being able to tell one young saxophone player from the next. Those that possess it, however, may want to think twice about cloning themselves.

01 March 2008

Not Unprecedented

I'm of the opinion that music with supposed political content generally accomplishes less both as music and as political commentary than could be attained by pursuing these two endeavors separately. Extra-musical statements in general are tremendous burdens on composer and audience alike, but more importantly, I think it's high time to admit that making music is a poor substitute for political activism and community service.

Many an artist has fallen victim to that certain strain of bourgeois contentedness whereby they suddenly interpret something they would be doing anyway as also making some larger contribution, hence absolving themselves of the need to take any additional action. This is just another of the myriad forms that our uniquely American brand of political apathy is capable of taking. Everyone is trying to be Bob Dylan instead of Paul Wellstone. The problem is that there are too many intangibles involved in the creation and reception of art for each one of us to assume that we will be successful in accomplishing activist ends through those means.

There is a choice to be made here: we can become political artists and hope for success, or we can become artists who are also politically engaged citizens and know that we are making a difference. My feeling is that the latter path is the one that will facilitate the most immediate and vital contributions to both art and activism. Striking a balance between these two endeavors while keeping them largely separate means finding time in our "busy bee" artist schedules to step away from the canvas and inhabit the civilian world. It also means that when we return to the canvas, we are free to create in the most abstract and non-representational media we choose without any obligation whatsoever for our art to serve extra-artistic purposes or agendas.

I've stated some of these ideas here before, and am working on a much longer essay that goes into greater depth. I have revisited this topic only because I recently stumbled upon a precedent for this position (or something like it, as best I can tell).

Here is a link to an article I read in The Nation about American poet George Oppen (written by James Longenbach):

A Test of Poetry

Here is a link to a bio of Oppen from what appears to be a reasonably authoritative online source:

MAPS Bio of George Oppen

Here are some bits and pieces from the Nation article that jumped out at me:

"...[Oppen] considered the rhetorical excess of political poems–like the rhetorical excess of political meetings–to be 'merely excrutiating.'"

"...[Oppen] refused the notion that a poet could fulfill his social responsibilities by writing any kind of poem, and neither did this refusal engender any contempt for poetry."

"Especially for those readers who are prone to believe that writing itself constitutes political action...Oppen's remark that 'there are situations which cannot honorably be met by art' is problematic enough; more troubling is Oppen's sense that 'some ideas are not politically useful, or useful to the childhood of a daughter'–as if to say that since we'll never know the ultimate value of our work, writing poems is probably less important than being a good dad."

Finally, here's a fragment of a quote within the article from Oppen himself (I tripped over this passage a couple of times, so I've added some boldface to highlight what I assume is the point):

"...it can always be quite easily shown that political action is going to be valuable; it is difficult to ever prove that political action has been valuable. Whereas art is precisely the opposite case; it seems always impossible to prove that it is going to be valuable, and yet it is always quite clear that the art of the past has been of value to humanity."

I feel like something of a charlatan for riding these particular coattails considering that I myself am no great fan of poetry in the first place. I do think, however, that much of what is attributed to Oppen in the article has implications for many (if not all) of The Arts. Perhaps it is a consequence of my own ignorance that I remain unaware of any other prominent artists or intellectuals who hold or have held such views, but it is at least nice to have finally located one.