Exoticism and Racism and the Whole Damn Thing

Writing for the Atlantic group online (initially Quartz, “a digitally native news outlet launched by Atlantic Media in September 2012—it provides a 24/7 digital guide to the new global economy designed to serve business professionals who travel the world, are focused on international markets, and value critical thinking,” later on the Atlantic website itself), Far East Specialist Gwynn Guilford takes on musical exoticism in “It’s Time to Stop Using ‘Exoticism’ as an Excuse for Opera’s Racism” (July 23, 2014). My suspicion is that Guilford did not provide this title herself, because the article is more nuanced than that. For this I give her credit, and I also give her credit for consulting with and quoting authentic jan-yew-wine musicologists. Still, I can’t help but wonder where someone with no stated musical or theatrical background gets off writing so ambitiously about what ought to be happening in opera. I may have opinions about (say) the Chinese government’s approaches to environmental and food safety, but I’d be setting myself up a pretty thorough drubbing were I to go public with such thoughts, given my lack of background. As usual, an expectation of disciplinary preparation doesn’t seem to apply to the arts.

Guildford’s starting point was worse, far worse. The columnist Sharon Pian Chan had written a July 13 article in the Seattle Times about a forthcoming production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, titled “Yellowface in Your Face,” which observes that “The opera is a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy,” continues with the dark and highly problematic observation that “the caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II,” and concludes “But this production? This is the wrong show—wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country, and wrong for this century.” And suddenly becoming a dramaturge, she counsels, “The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society could, for instance, partner with the Asian-American theater group Pork Filled Players to reinterpret the opera.”

Yes, the art world should be grateful for her informed advice. Briefly:

Gilbert & Sullivan were English, and that the entire purpose of the high-camp invented “Japanese” was to satirize English politics and mores. Nothing at all to do with the U.S. So, the stuff about the homogenous U.S. and the internments? Entirely irrelevant—it was potential disloyalty and working as a fifth column in case of a Japanese ground attack on the west coast—not at all what she is claiming—but thanks for feeling the need to spew it and blame a country and culture entirely uninvolved. When the character Yum Yum says

Yes, I am indeed beautiful! Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world. Can this be vanity? No! Nature is lovely and rejoices in her loveliness. I am a child of Nature, and take after my mother.

…she is satirizing any number of things, none of them being actual Japanese. It is true that opera is an artistic artifact that touches on myriad aspects of its own culture, but it is likewise true that two-dimensional, anachronistic critique of operas a century and a half old makes the critic look stupid, not the opera.

I might point out, for those who remember the old National Lampoon satire magazine, that they used to excel at this. Anything having to do with Black people was a ludicrous send-up of urban white fears. “Help! Negroes!” characters would say, when Black people so much as appeared, and the satire got far subtler—ridiculous, outsized takes on sexual mythology, etc. It would be easy to criticize the magazine for its use of stereotypes, but the stereotypes were the entire point: this is what you, reader, might be thinking, so we’ll blow it out of proportion and make you sob with laughter. At yourself!

Sharon Pian Chan wanted an excuse to write about “Yellowface,” and so she did. Awkwardly enough, her closing suggestion about teaming up with an Asian theater group seem to echo the Miss Saigon kerfuffle, where demands were made about Asian actors being cast in the American production of that musical—including lead Lea Salonga, who as a Filipina was apparently the wrong sort of Asian. It ended up going nowhwere, after a lot of press, and looked like little more than a hiring shakedown: our people could use the work, so here is a windy, self-righteous argument that on closer inspection looks like a defense of/insistence upon stereotyped casting, as long as lead roles were involved. It seems awfully close to a demand for racially “appropriate” casting when many directors are abandoning such two-dimensional approaches, and indeed when many artists of Asian descent seek to go beyond such roles—not comfortable ideological position, it seems to me, to stake out

Guilford’s main point about traditional “Asian” roles is stated toward the beginning:

The funny thing is, many more serious operas—Madame Butterfly and Turandot come to mind—do exactly the same thing. And it’s always been done that way. This is peculiar behavior for an industry said to be “dying.” When directors preserve cultural cliches simply because they were exotic a century ago, there’s an opportunity cost to those choices: the chance to move audiences anew. The tighter they cling to tradition for tradition’s sake, the more they rob the world’s most powerful art form of its relevance.

“Said to be dying” is not much for an outsider to build a case on: the precarious existences of opera companies have much to do with Boards, financial (mis)management, and so on. Interest in opera as an artform flourishes in universities and in many smaller companies, and before we roll our eyes about externally supported museum culture we should remember that symphonic wind ensembles do also, and their military, civic, and pedagogically entwined history is the very opposite of that of an elite museum culture. Further, a call to “make it more relevant” is a fairly naïve thing to say—“relevant” concepts of (say) Shakespeare plays are hit-and-miss, depending on the quality of the concept and how thoroughly they have been thought through. So, relevant to whom?  This one writer? There are a couple of further issues, too:

Opera itself is about nothing if not stereotypes. Cultural stereotypes, yes, like the meek, dependent Asian female. But what about gender stereotypes? Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata, Tosca in Puccini’s eponymous opera; flawed past, too much “generosity” (insert primal scream here—oh, and did I mention Grizabella in Cats?), possible chance for redemption in a harshly judgmental environment, these are hardly original, nuanced characters, yet one doesn’t hear gender representatives demanding rehabilitation…such stereotypes are the very essence of the entertainment form. Theatrical make-up is, after all, the extension of ancient Greek masks: exaggeration of features to help the audience follow the conceit. Hence, Black actors in the mid-twentieth century putting on make-up to do Blackface, manly men wearing make-up that makes them look more like pitiless tyrants (another operatic stereotype), and so on. The innocent girl, the ardent lover, the disapproving father—these are all cultural two-dimensionalities without which opera would not exist.

And for everyone taking offense at a racial depiction, I’ll raise you one disapproving father. Not that I’d know anything about that, of course.

The essential problem here is that the multiplicities of meaning in musical exoticism—a phrase that can become, in the hands of cruder composer and critic alike, something of a blunt instrument—so the layers of meaning an additional culture can provide are brushed aside in favor of surface meaning only. That’s hardly how art, even entertainment-art, works, and to her credit Guilford’s discussion moves in this direction: layers of meaning may be added by either intuitive or counter-intuitive ethnic casting, which would have lain well outside composers’ expectations. It is not that this is a recent realization; Eastman professor Ralph P. Locke, who has thought and written about exoticism for decades, has written about the various contexts and concentrations of exoticism that one finds in opera: including musical style, not including music but including text, gesture, costumes scenery, etc. The various possible combinations of exotic content make for myriad interpretive possibilities. Why, then, is it necessary take offense and proscribe this or that approach? The Seattle production followed, apparently, traditional lines (as did a stupendously good Opera à la Carte one I saw in my late teens). Why are opera’s gender stereotypes, for example, shrugged off while action is demanded on the most comic, campy, and exaggerated ethnic ones? (And yes, I’m aware that the racially insulting lyrics to “I’ve Made a Little List” have been changed. That’s a different case: they are completely non-integral to the work or even the meaning of the song…indeed, they are sufficiently dated as to dilute the song’s effect.)

Audiences are not ineducable, and my civil rights-era upbringing leads me to become especially annoyed when someone else instructs me about what I should find offensive. Often, such guardians are against innovative interpretations; in this case, by contrast, the traditional approach is to be eschewed, but a particular kind of innovation prescribed. I have difficulty understanding how this kind of pre-defined “relevance” helps the cause of any art.

To close with a fragment of a new theme: I note that popular music frequently avoids the the kind of censure that seems to be open game in opera. The Stones’ “Brown Sugar”? “A rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis,” says Robert Christgau primly. So the almighty Mick gets a pass: the race and gender stuff in the lyrics are apparently off limits for criticism, regardless how much the original song is played on oldies stations. I mean, come on! It’s the Stones! Don’t be like that!

Especially given how problematic the “Yellowface” oversimplification is, I’m going to say that this Gilbert and Sullivan classic gets the same privilege.

Posted in Concert Culture, Criticism, Current Affairs, Ethics, Opera, Politics | 4 Comments

How to put a dollar sign on everything on this planet

Capitalism makes everything fungible.

lennon

But it’s how capitalism makes things fungible that’s interesting. And in looking into the question, we also see the relationship between capitalism and scientific ways of knowing.

For the kind of thinking I want to discuss here, the main thing is to find the most basic unit. For the physical sciences, this quest for the smallest, the foundational particle has led to atoms, and then electrons and protons and neutrons, and then quarks, and now string, which may or may not exist outside the mathematical equations used to describe them. When you get all the way down there, the solidity of the fundamental particle begins to waver and break, and the very notion of “particle” becomes fraught. Perhaps there is finally no real distinction between the smallest particle and the calculation of it. Could it be the same with capitalism? At first thought, the basic unit of capital is perhaps the smallest unit of currency—say, a penny. But this is naïve: stock trades hinge on fractions of cents, and fractions can keep receding into infinity. And in any event, the principles of fungibility extend even to places where no exact currency amounts are specified. How much do you have to spend to hold your table at a Starbucks? It depends. How are you dressed? Commodity relations drift from things to people—this is old news. But how do we make sense of it?

Perhaps the foundational unit of capital is not to be measured in currency but in time. Again, though, the smallest common unit of the clock can be infinitely subdivided: microsecond, nanosecond, picosecond, femtosecond. However, time subdivided is still time quantified. As with the distance traveled by the arrow in Zeno’s paradox, we can keep subdividing forever and still come up with some definite amount. The main thing is not any particular subdivision of time, but that time is subdivided. Time itself has no marks; humans superimpose the marks of the clock face upon it. The quantization of time is our invention and exists only insofar as we act as if it does. But everybody does, and this has incalculable effects on everything in our lives.

In considering the foundational unit of capital and seeking the smallest unit, we are going about it the wrong way. Whether we are talking about currency or time, what is foundational is not some particular entity but the very principle of quantization—the assumption that, for a quality (money or time) to enter into reasonable discussion, it must be put on a footing whereby it can be counted on a uniform scale. Once we have determined the scale, we can assign value. Once we can assign value, we can establish a basis for exchange. The unit of measure is just a detail.

The foundational unit of capital is not a unit at all but is itself the principle of exchange. The principle of exchange is the very fact of exchangeability. The idea that there are identity relations that could be set up between unlike things forms the necessary basis of exchange. Human presence is not the same kind of thing as a cup of coffee, and yet a capitalist society will seek always to find the common denominator between them, so they can both be entered into calculation. The value of your presence at Starbucks on a busy afternoon is variable, some complex and moving equation of the latte you just paid for plus your own social capital (itself indexed by dress, grooming, race, gender, the possession of a smartphone or laptop, etc.) plus the time of day (early morning rush or midmorning lull), itself given a value by a whole set of other equations derived from the start times and break times of the sum total of workers in a given area, etc., etc. Perhaps no human being could ever run all the numbers. But there is some instinctive rule-of-thumb by which we all operate and which we assume in the course of our daily lives, and the foundational understanding that vouchsafes that rule of thumb and makes it real in all our human interactions is the abiding awareness that the intangibles of human life are in fact not so intangible, that they have been (or eventually will be) figured out, quantized, assigned a value, placed on a scale. That somehow there is a value to be assigned to a human presence in any given place at any given time. That there is a value to human beings, and a value to everything that humans value. Everything is quantized. Or, more precisely (though more clumsily), everything becomes part of the regime of quantification.

Imagine a scene from the libertarian utopia, that dream that is to the neoliberal state what the classless society is to Marxists. In this utopia, all schools have been privatized, market principles hold inflexible sway, and the best education can be had for top dollar. Only rich people can send their children to the best schools, but this is as it should be, as wealth is an index of hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Wealth is a matter of will: poor people are poor because they have failed. But wait, says someone, we cannot blame children for their parents’ idleness and stupidity, can we? And the thoughtful libertarian scratches his head and says no, I guess we can’t, but (here he brightens a little) there is, after all, no problem that the market cannot solve. And behold, a market solution appears: sports apparel corporations are willing to tattoo children with their logos and in return will fund tuition at expensive schools. So in return for turning their children into walking billboards, poor parents can afford decent education.

I doubt that, for the libertarian true believer, there is anything wrong with this arrangement. But I also doubt that most parents would happily consent to it. We feel that children have some quality that should be protected from exploitation, and however we might define “exploitation,” this thought experiment offers a pretty good example of it.

But my libertarian interlocutor would spot the weakness of that last sentence right away. What do you mean by “some quality that should be protected”? Define it! Well, uh, maybe we could call it innocence . . . Then what do you mean by innocence, and how do you propose to “protect” it? And at this point our conversation might take a predictable turn. Libertarians would try to pin me down to what specific harm concerns me, and by “specific” they would mean some measurable harm. This puts me in a bind.

On the one hand, I could say that innocence cannot be measured or assigned a dollar value, but in a positivist age (as ours surely is), such an answer is no answer at all, because qualities that cannot be measured or assigned a value cannot be said to exist at all. Or at least such qualities cannot render themselves accessible to rational speech, which amounts to much the same thing. Such talk is what the logical positivists of yore meant by “nonsense.”

But if I concede the positivist’s threshold assumption that there is no quality in human life we can meaningfully discuss that cannot be quantified, then I am forced to redefine a metaphysical term like “innocence” in physical terms—which is to say, redefining it to mean something that suits the terms of my interlocutor’s worldview. And this amounts to redefining it out of existence. Innocence with a dollar sign on it is not what I mean by innocence. Maybe not what you mean by it either. One of the things we want children to be innocent of is the inescapable aspect of valuation and exchange that torments their parents. Children need unconditional love and deserve to feel that the care they receive is likewise unconditional. If everything has a value, then love must as well. In the libertarian utopia, there is no unconditional anything. The tattoo I’m imagining in my thought-experiment is the ineradicable mark of the exchange of parental care for cash on the barrelhead. It is a mark of the supremacy of money over whatever it is we mean by “unconditional love and care.” This is why it is indecent. In the face of such indecency, I would have to insist: children deserve* protection from a world that demands something of them for the mere fact of their existence. They will learn the brutal truth soon enough; grant them a few years of innocence.

But for me to make this argument at all, I cannot place it on the grounds of quantification. To demand that I do so is to demand that I surrender the warrant of my argument, which is that you can’t put a dollar sign on everything.

HICKS

This same debater’s trick — insisting that the your interlocutor’s terms be redefined in such a way as to confirm the warrant of your own argument — is played by neopositivists of all stripes. Richard Dawkins is often accused of being ignorant of the religions he attacks, and he will sometimes respond by saying that one can only be responsible for knowing facts, not lies or fairy tales, and will then ask his critics to name one fact that religion has uncovered. A glance at atheist Twitter feeds will confirm that this is a popular argumentative move among Dawkins’ followers, who will sometimes turn it around and ask what facts Dawkins has gotten wrong.

dawkins flow chart

Fig. 1: Something I retweeted

positivist tweet

Fig. 2: Some guy responding to the thing I retweeted

But such arguments are misleading, because they assume that facts are all that count, and in religion they surely aren’t. It is only fundamentalism—the strange twin of neopositivism—that insists that religious knowledge lays claim to facts in the same way that science does. For that matter, while there are certainly facts regarding poetry and music, poetry and music themselves don’t concern facts, either. There are a lot of music-analytical and music-historical facts about, say, Wagner’s Ring cycle, but what facts might we learn from listening to that music? Do we learn metallurgical principles from the forging scene in Siegfried? Can the Rheinmaidens teach us to swim? Of course you would have to be an idiot to expect such a thing. Centuries ago, Jonathan Swift lampooned such excesses of scientific zeal by parodying those who complained of Homer’s factual inaccuracies: “We freely acknowledge Him to be the inventor of the Compass, of Gunpowder, and the Circulation of the Blood: but I challenge any of his admirers to show me in all his Writings, a complete account of the Spleen. Does he not also leave us wholly to seek in the Art of Political Wagering? What can be more defective and unsatisfactory than his long Dissertation upon Tea? And as to his method of salivation without mercury, so much celebrated of late, it is to my own knowledge and experience a thing very little to be relied on.”** It is ironic that neopositivists, so keen on the progress of knowledge — so insistent that the only legitimate knowledge is that which progresses — should be making the same crass blunders as their intellectual forebears from three centuries ago.

One thing that this line of thought might suggest is the intimate relationship between neoliberalism and neopositivism—the latter the intellectual operating system of the former. This comes as unwelcome news for those despise both the Christian and libertarian Right and see scientific skepticism as their salvation — people who are psyched when Neil DeGrasse Tyson appears on the Jon Stewart show or who put xkcd cartoons on their Facebook walls. That’s most of my friends. That’s me, for the most part.*** If you think that intelligent-design activists are endangering American education and that climate-change denialists are endangering the entire planet — and I do — then it is natural to assume that scientific skepticism is a force of progress against the forces of reaction. We might then assume that our side is a plucky little band of dissidents manning the barricades against the hegemonic Right. It feels disloyal to question the philosophy that motivates our allies against the obscurantists. But what if, in adopting the neopositivist worldview, I were to discover that “I was not shoring up the revolutionary barricades: instead, I was cheering on the Tsar’s cavalry”?****

Here is what’s at stake in all this. Most people think of philosophy as just another abstruse academic pursuit, or worse. Unsurprisingly, neopositivists hate and fear nonpositivist philosophy, since it can undermine their arguments in ways they cannot effectively defend. But what I want to suggest is that philosophy matters, because whether or not you know it, you have a philosophy, and it is probably making you miserable. And it is probably the very philosophy you hoped would make your life better. 

It is often said that the most basic problem facing the left today is the problem of hope, or rather the seeming impossibility of imagining a future that looks any different from the present. As Frederic Jameson wrote, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. The Left finds itself confined to figuring out an agenda that seems always to have been dictated within someone else’s terms and having to shrink its visions down to suit the confining worldview of some invisible master. I want to suggest that the master is a philosophy, a way of thinking, and that it is how our best friends think.

Somehow we have to find a way out of this. The chains that bind us are forged in the mind, and it is in the mind that they must be broken. Karl Marx famously said that philosophers have only interpreted the world, while the point is to change it. In our own time, it seems, we will only change the world when we find a new way to interpret it.

*What do you mean by “deserve”? asks the libertarian. This is perhaps the root of my quarrel with libertarianism: the libertarian does not believe in any inalienable right save one, the right to property. You have no right to clean drinking water, medicine, education, food, shelter, or anything else, only the right to buy these things. This is why the “freedom” espoused by libertarians feels so much like slavery to those who are not libertarians. Despite whatever flattering ideas libertarians might cherish about their own beliefs — and I know what I’m talking about, as a kind of libertarianism is one of the many stupid political ideas I have tried on and abandoned over the years — libertarianism is actually about control and domination. As Corey Robin has noted, even Robert Nozick was moved to write that his fellow libertarians were “filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being.”

**Jonathan Swift, Tale of a Tub, section V, “A Digression in the Modern Kind”

***Well, except for the xkcd part. Some of the jokes are OK, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part this cartoon, which treats illustration as a mere delivery device for verbal content, is the best illustration I can think of for the threadbare, talky, tacky, boring aesthetic sense of contemporary geek culture.

****This is from an essay titled “Why I Am No Longer a Skeptic,” by Stephen Bonds. This essay appears to have been taken down, but you can use the Wayback Machine to find it.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Universal Language?

My mother is in her late 80s, and does not remember every last pearl of wisdom she dropped on me when I was growing up, but I enjoy reminding her of the ones that stayed with me. I cannot remember the context, but at some point (maybe before a Shakespeare play?) she gave me þe olde writ: even thought it’s about kings and nobles and ladies and whatever, the point is that the Truths contained therein are universal; even though it’s about all the archaic types of the old class system, the Art was so Great we—high and low among us—can find great Truths that apply to our own lives. I did not bridle at this, nor (probably) did I even take much notice; because we were raised in a cult of art and literature and education, such things didn’t need any justification. It’s Bach! It’s Shakespeare! Who needs a justification? I’m old enough to be taken to it, now!

Of course, the critical thought of recent decades has taken this traditional view head on. Everything is contingent upon culture, and it is the most offensive thing imaginable to forcefully tell people that something from your culture automatically has value for them if they could only realize it, especially when it’s your high culture and they’re not educated (of course we mean indoctrinated) to “properly” understand it. The best we could hope for was that such artworks could be problematized, thus reinvigorated for contemporary audiences who could now appreciate their underlying discourses; at least, though, we would be forever free from the relic-worship of our false religion of “high” art that only served to inscribe the power relations of…

Resistant as I have been (I won’t bother denying it) to this line of thinking, it is undeniable that many interpretive doors have been opened by it. The cult of the Great Masters Only has now been (rightfully, in my opinion) compromised by the study of minor masters and popular and consumers cultures and the entertainments of common people and so on, of various historical periods. For some time, it has seemed to me that the great masters are better understood for not situating them in a heavenly Empyrean but rather in their proper cultural contexts, and we are asking ever more incisive questions.

It is also true that Shakespeare has not suffered much from the inquiry. Shakespeare’s plays continue to anchor summer festivals, high school competitions, and so on. (Two of my father’s colleagues at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, ran a Shakespeare competition for all the surrounding high schools: scenes and soliloquies, and some of the most passionate competitors were from the lower-income high schools…you’d just see the kids from those places burning like torches by what an inspiring English teacher gave them: so—in cases I remember—a large, fey Latino boy, and an otherwise shy Black girl, just came alive in their soliloquies because life, clearly, hadn’t presented them with anything like this before. This poetry, these emotions—whatever it was, and whether or not they understood it as they would twenty years down the line, their speeches turned them luminous…indeed, nuclear. Would I make the case that they should forget their own valid cultures? Of course not. But Shakespeare clearly had something for them, and anyone who has spent any time in music school has seen what The Classical Repertoire can do to and for people of any nationality and class who get the fire, whether of European descent or not…or, to those of us who discover medieval and Renaissance church music, whether of Christian descent or not. Our pre-exposure identities are entirely valid, of course, and not under discussion; what said art supplies is a mind-blasting and transformative experience, and what we walk away with is far greater than the sum of the combined cultural parts.

Why am I testifying in this somewhat old-fashioned way? Here’s a link to a Guardian article about group of young people from Soweto, under the guidance of English violist Rosemary Nalden (I believe it’s “l” not “r,” regardless of the link). Youtube links are found in the article; listen especially to the way they play Rameau. Rameau’s music is indisputably great, but it is as much a part of its culture as anything there is: the specific dance rhythms, the ornaments, the underlying grace and noblesse that lies at the core of the French Noble Style. (There’s also the first movement of a “Soweto Suite” that seems to be a minimalist treatment of the ancient song “L’homme armé,” but it wasn’t loading properly for me.)

[The good reader listens.]

So what are we to make of a bunch of poor Black young people from Soweto playing music that reified the absolutist French monarchy, in all its aspects, perhaps second only to the music of Lully, Rameau’s predecessor? The criticism writes itself: how dare we offer them this indoctrination, with unavoidable colonialist superiority, as if their culture has nothing to offer them? The imperial obscenity continues: here we are, again, replacing their cultural expressions with ours, and (worse yet) with those designed to concretize the unjust power differentials of the eighteenth century…

I’ll let my musicological friends fill in a hundred more paragraphs. That stuff bores me, honestly.

Let’s return to the musicians and their performance. They also do arrangements of African music, local songs, etc. They incorporate dancing in their performances (which I, actually, have not seen). A friend who has worked with them informs me that Rosemary Narden is very conscious about the performance practice, and tends to lecture those about to hear performances: “Now, this may sound odd to you, but I assure you that the ornaments are actually correct, and…

That aside: I hear a sinuous rhythmic strength, one that in no way threatens the inherent grace of Rameau’s elegant art. The music-making here is of a life-or-death variety, as if the musicians understand that the resolution of a half-step can pack a titanic significance, a simple sequence a spiritually transforming journey. All the standard formulas musicians take for granted by virtue of their very familiarity, in other words, seem to become vivid, pulsating, stand-in-the-fire expressions for these musicians, each rhythm and scale-step having a physicality, a bodily resonance, that one can only hope to hear in all live music. So, given this authority and command, is this What Rameau Wanted?

This is the performance practice conundrum. We cannot know what the musicians sounded like in the pre-recording era, whether or not they played timidly in the presence of the aristocracy in attendance, whether or not they were paid well enough to be excellent, whether or not the fashion was for them to play as if it mattered, or if they were background for singers and dancers regardless—just shut up and get out of the way. Anyone who has ever worked as an accompanist has encountered this latter approach.

If this isn’t what Rameau wanted, I’ll say it’s what he should have wanted. The amperes and sparks that rise from this playing are validation enough. So, for these Soweto musicians, this isn’t the music of “their” culture; they’re speaking a foreign language. Are only French people to play this? Europeans?

My feeling is that our finger-wagging parents were right after all. We were right, too—other musics are valid and worthwhile and worth cultivating, however much the custodians of High Culture dismissed them. (A cherished friend, on hearing that I was doing a paper on a Rock topic, once arched an eyebrow and said, “Well, if you can hear any difference in that stuff…”)

Just look and listen, though, at what the High Culture of white Europeans does for these people.

No apologies.

Posted in Concert Culture, Education, Performance Practice | 2 Comments

Romantic Power of Music, The

A forthcoming conference takes on the idea of public musicology: roles, responsibilities, possibilities. I’m unable to take on new projects now, but I’m all in favor because the ratio of informed discussion to glib pronouncement is, let’s say, not ideal. The idea of “public musicology” is one of the reasons I continue to blog, after all. Still, from the “who am I to blow against the wind?” file comes this:

On the Atlantic website on June 24, one Cody Delistraty publishes “The Romantic Power of Music,” (argh) an article on musical ability as both largely sex-linked characteristic and a strategic come-on, a characteristic associated with attracting partners. He read at least some parts of Alan Walker’s Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years, quotes Heinrich Heine on the Lisztomania of the time, makes the hackneyed comparison between Liszt and rock stars, the Elvis/Beatlemania/Jagger trifecta, and finds a couple of quotes linking musical “complexity” to the sexual attractiveness and fitness to procreate sensed by potential female mates. The hotness/desirability of the male musician is of course another mythologized commonplace of the musical world, one that makes those of us attached to female musicians look a tad foolish—“What? Be impressed with him?” is the awe we get—but there it is.   Also unaddressed: the evolutionary value of musicianship in females, which has also been documented…

The article seems to have been written to a familiar template:

1. Historical anecdote

2. Juicy historical quotes

3. Grandiose, unsupportable hypothesis

4. Sloppy summary of a couple of recent studies (whether valid or questionable)

5. Cutesie tagline to end.

From Benjamin Charlton’s (Sussex University) abstract: “Here, I provide the first, to my knowledge, empirical support for the sexual selection hypothesis of music evolution by showing that women have sexual preferences during peak conception times for men that are able to create more complex music. Two-alternative forced-choice experiments revealed that woman only preferred composers of more complex music as short-term sexual partners when conception risk was highest.

Create more complex music? This is, Delistraty explains, based on “four piano pieces of increasing complexity”: those who were on days six through 14 of their respective reproductive cycles overwhelmingly preferred the composer of the most complex song.”

What we don’t know includes: why the author doesn’t know the difference between a “song” and a “piece,” how well each piece was played, how complexity is defined, how the pieces were chosen, and what other theories there might be for music beyond Darwin’s: “Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.” To be übercharitable, we’ll call this “speculative” and leave it. For another theory, I will once again mention Steven Mithen’s Singing Neanderthals (2005), which is far more nuanced and much less susceptible to such oversimplifications as Delistraty’s observation that “It seems that thanks to evolution, a well-handled violin is somewhat like a sharp suit or a high-paying job.” (This statement is a problem, given that one of his points is to distinguish between circumstances that make the gals hot for some primo guitar-picker baby-juice vs. the lame-O that will pay for it—and her—for decades to follow.) Delistraty’s set-up anecdote has us picture Liszt’s performative flamboyance, at age 30, as he “dove into Händel’s ‘Fugue in E Minor’ with vigor and unfettered confidence.” The piece was 120 years old at the time, and Liszt didn’t write it. Fugues are complex in some ways, and in other ways more modernistic music would have been more complex. And on and on.

OK, look:

Congratulations to Mr. Delistraty on his May 2014 graduation from NYU in Politics and French, his Phi Beta Kappa, and his acceptance to do a graduate degree at Oxford (this information from his atlantic.com bio). Now, henceforth he should simply stay away from writing about music, because he is both hopelessly outgunned by his subject matter yet so self-confidently unaware of it that the felony is invariably compounded. Never mind the aforementioned piece-vs.-song issue, which is cleared up in every freshman-level music appreciation course in the country, there’s this gem: “Liszt was known for his great improvisation, for the way he could lead his audience through a musical narrative, creating characters through unique musical gestures.” What does “unique musical gestures” even mean to someone with no musical background, as least as described in his bio? Liszt didn’t use the musical equivalent of nonsense words; as a composer, he “spoke” a language that would resonate, in some way, with listeners, which means that they would have heard most of his “gestures” before, even if they were transformed and creatively redeployed; Liszt wanted to reach his listeners, not bewilder and alienate them. Even more importantly, the music he wrote to wow audiences was likely to be the least complex but most flashy (pro tip: those are different things). And as just pointed out, the piece mentioned was not by Liszt and it did not use “unique musical gestures” anyway. Fugues are not what you usually play to get girls. (Not that I know what one does play; I just know it isn’t fugues. One waggish description of them is “that musical genre wherein the voices enter one after the other and the audience members leave one after the other.”)

Meaningless. The kid (ageism? fine; whatever, sue me) hasn’t the vaguest idea, The Atlantic doesn’t know any better, and once again the price for having non-musicians write about music is paid by the reader. For articles about music to be written by people with little training or understanding (as when arts and culture critics get bigger and bigger journalistic beats so newspapers can “consolidate,” i.e. fire people) is not inclusive or informative, nor does it demonstrate that a newspaper or magazine has a commitment to the subject. Rather, it shows disrespect: the subject is clearly so trivial that some newbie part-time journalist non–musician is given the assignment. Unprofessional and insulting.

Why is there an appetite for people writing about things they don’t understand? Is it because glib ignorance is more comforting than actually learning something?

Oh, look what I started. Click “close,” please. Now.

Posted in Performance, Science and Music, Writing | 7 Comments

Whoa, Trigger!

More Higher Education than music per se for this one.

Roughly two weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article on psychological triggers, trigger warnings, how this may affect the universities whose responsibility it is to expand our minds. The implication was clear: oy vey, what will happen to My CurriculumTM?—My CurriculumTM being (and I fully realize I will enrage a large number of people with this statement) clearly cognate with Bill O’Reilly’s My AmericaTM, a fictitious and in some measure noxious construct wherein one assumes that one’s own memories of something are equivalent to a universal experience, What Is Right, How It Always Was And Should Be. In My AmericaTM, students behaved in class, parent beat ’em by God if they didn’t mind what they were told (and quite right, too), politicians were honest, people were neighborly, and of course Blacks weren’t uppity. In My CurriculumTM, we received substantial intellectual and moral challenges by the Great Works, which made us properly uncomfortable (and, of course, we never rolled eyes or were disinclined to learn righteous lessons from our always intellectually responsible and always tip-top teachers, etc. Said Works often used bad language and depicted bestial treatment of our fellow humans and challenged us and by God we were grateful and now they’re tearing it all down with their lily-livered hypersensitive political correctness and O tempora O mores…

I went to high school and college in the 1970s, and I don’t remember it quite like that. Some of the Great Works left me singularly unimpressed; I’ll simply cite “The Minister’s Black Veil,” presented in high school as a masterpiece, which I considered to be a pile of dark, joyless, Puritan shit. My English professor father did not particularly appreciate that opinion, or perhaps he really didn’t appreciate that it was worded just that way and bellowed at the top of my lungs across the entire house…but there it is. And don’t get me started on William Blake, or Silas Marner. So, yeah, the Great Tradition can be a mixed bag, and genuflection is a suspect response to anything, regardless how authoritative the finger being waggled in our collective faces actually is.

Responses—on various FB feeds, I mean—to the Times article were predictable: we’re a nation of wussies, how dare they refuse to have their minds opened, this hypersensitive trigger warning stuff is all bullshit, what do you expect from those infantilized, spoiled kids today, when I was in school we manned up and read the N-word, by God, and weren’t we brave.

(Bona fides: When I was 9, Mrs. Warren, one of my 4th grade teachers, said the N-word aloud when she read us Huckleberry Finn, and in high school we actually had a campus visit from two members of the American Nazi Party, who explained their position to us [be it said: unsuccessfully]. We saw films about the Holocaust from junior high on, films like The Twisted Cross, Minister of Hate, and Night and Fog, and they had the real horrific footage. So, on the—ah—mean streets of Claremont, the schools didn’t protect us overmuch.)

This discussion took me back to a year or so ago, when I was invited to do a presentation on “Music and Social Change” for an Education Methods class for Ed majors. Well, party time!: you’ve got the Depression, you’ve got workers’ songs, you’ve got the Civil Rights movement, you’ve got Vietnam…I don’t think I made it as far as Vietnam, actually. Although I thought the presentation went well, I subsequently heard that one of the students had strongly objected to my use of the song “Strange Fruit”…see, I played a youtube video that matched the song with photographs of actual lynchings: disfigured Black corpses hanging in trees while white southerners milled around, grinning, proudly pointing, posing, strutting. The student found such images to be disturbing, and felt it was inappropriate. Of course, the teacher of the class responded with some firm words about college being where you get your mind blown, Dr. Bellman did exactly what he should have done, etc. What do you expect, we may think: some little pansy wanted to stay in the womb, comfortable and protected…but not on my watch, Buster. I’m a Professor, by God!

What nags at me is this: I don’t have PTSD, I was never raped, I have not attempted suicide, I have never endured famine or an oppressive, murderous political regime. I am really not in any position to judge how justifiable the demands for trigger warnings are, or are not. Triggers are a valid phenomenon, a known psychological response; in my parents’ generation, they talked about veterans who suffered shell shock, as it was called, and who (say) had to go lock themselves in the bathroom when family fights got too loud. My gut instinct is, predictably, much like the common academic opinion: “Man up! Art is uncomfortable! Real life is uncomfortable!” Then one can point to this truly idiotic case of a teacher being forced out because he taught about Blackface entertainment in connection with American race relations. But, truth? My opinion on this very real issue isn’t worth crap. I don’t know what it is to be set off, entirely out of control, in a fearsome, unworked-out psychological place where all I can perceive is terror, by an image or sound I didn’t see coming. And in the Good Old Days, My CurriculumTM made no allowances for such. Can’t hack it? Tough Scheiß. Don’t go to college, Lame-O. Stay out of Real Colleges, like the other women and minorities.

How does this square with our moral responsibilities vis-à-vis women, Blacks, Latinos, etc. and the cultural centers and assistant deans devoted to them? We were all in favor of those, remember? We all waggle our fingers as the language forcibly evolves (cis-gendered, queer unusable, queer! being very different, “American of Eurasian Descent” rather than “Chinese,” etc.), and we adapt, I have to say, rather quickly—lexicographically and conceptually both. What about teaching the Boston Marathon bombing, say in a Contemporary Issues class, and one of your students is one of these people? Do you, from a premium doctoral program, lecture them about their having to confront things? I hope to hell not.

One more factor, here: I’ve heard about trigger warnings for some time, and I’ve seen concern about them come from three very different directions. One is, yes, the feminist advocacy side, rooting out all kinds of sexism and micro- and macroaggressions, indefatigably Making Us All Aware, and so on. (There is an interesting response to this perspective in the trigger alert story on Voxxi, a news outlet with particular interest in a Hispanic perspective.)

Another is the religious side. Forgot about them, did we? There’s nudity; I shouldn’t have to see that piece of art. You didn’t warn me. This depicts drinking; I’m against that and you have to make a different assignment for me. This is the symbolism of another religion; I shouldn’t have to look at this. Artwork X depicts same-sex relations, or different-race relations, or whatever, and I shouldn’t have to look at it. Your discussion of the criminal issues facing the Catholic Church is anti-religious. I’m a Creationist and I shouldn’t have to study evolution. Here’s my lawyer. (Don’t laugh. It’s out there.)

There’s also the differently abled community, who are also highly attuned to triggers, risks, etc., and are very interested in accommodation of all different kinds of behaviors and awareness of all different kinds of needs.

So here’s a very cynical observation: there is clearly a need for awareness of all our differences, but it is undeniable that those who shriek the loudest and most persistently are, y’know, good for business. Activism is activism, and if your gig is to be an activist, the goal is to get the other side to blink/accommodate/pay—it’s an oppositional situation. Activists want to score and win, not open up deep philosophical debates.

Thus: needs, accommodations, hypersensitivities, insensitivities, exaggerations, willful ignorance. Solution?

I don’t have one, and moreover I think this entire issue should be handed over to real professionals. We have medical ethicists; I’m sure there are educational ethicists (and/or philosophers) who can help with this, spelling out the issues, balances, risks, faultlines. As angry and frustrated as any of us get, we’re still more inclined to reason from our perspective, our main sphere of interest. And our perspective is, too often, little more than our convenience and habit.

Any grown-ups out there who can help with this? I’m not convinced that I’ve yet heard from anyone with a sufficiently broad view, educational and humanistic both. It is a fact that whether or not it should be, it amounts to a turf fight: all sides feel they have territory to defend or (potentially) to gain. There have to be voices more reasonable than those we have so far heard who can suggest reasonable limits, common ground, and practical approaches.

Posted in Academia, Current Affairs, Education, Ethics, Teaching | 9 Comments

A Mozart Rediscovery and an Ethical Question

An incomplete C-Minor Kyrie by Mozart, known of but missing since 1936, has resurfaced and is going to be auctioned by Sotheby’s. Musicologists are, legitimately, barking at it like Fido at a tennis ball. A new Mozart manuscript? This is the best day of my life!

The extent to which something like this gets news coverage, by the way, seems to vary. I still remember the public-radio tizzy in September 2008 when a single Mozart violin part was discovered, given a high-profile “premiere” with the violinist surrounded by microphones and press and all that. It was, of course, breathlessly termed “a rediscovered Mozart masterpiece.” Masterpiece. A single violin part from an unfinished work. Leaving that aside: such discoveries happen, periodically, and the extent of news coverage probably depends on what else is happening in the news and media moguls’ feelings about arts coverage. There was the unknown J. S. Bach strophic aria that surfaced in 2005, for example. Just recently, a previously unknown, complete Mendelssohn song, “The Heart of Man is Like a Mine,” has likewise appeared, and premiered on a BBC show. Whether they are “masterpieces” or not, such pieces invariably tell us things we didn’t know—that young Sebastian composed in an archaic form, for example, or how Mendelssohn composed when he was writing a private commission. As I’ve written before, all musicologists dream that someday someone will open a drawer and there will be…your heart’s desire, be it Berlioz’s early Prix de Rome cantatas, Orphée and Sardanapale, the Brahms style hongrois pieces that, if I recall, Eugenie Schumann remembered his playing but never found in his published works, more lost symphonies from Debussy’s Russian sojourn in the early 1880s, whatever. Hope springs eternal.

So here’s this incomplete Mozart Kyrie, the beginnings of a large-scale work. Naturally, interest and speculation are at high pitch, and I mean in the scholarly community, not just culture marketing types and NPR. On the American Musicological Society listserv, however, a question was raised about the relationship between such scholarly interest and bidding price, with the pointed observation that people in the art world would keep shut about a similar discovery because generating additional interest would have a clear effect on the money such a thing would generate. Shouldn’t we all keep shut until the thing is safely sold? This stuck in my craw, and I responded:

“I don’t see an ethical issue with the discussion of a newly emerged, long-lost manuscript.  Name your top ten Mozart scholars: if every last one of them gets in a lather about it, they still teach at universities and are not in a position to buy the thing themselves.  Curators of Special Collections, librarians in major institutions etc. are well aware of such things anyway, and would be ahead of the Mozart scholars in making their plans.

“If, say, Mozart’s lost trumpet concerto K. 47c were to suddenly appear (presumably surrounded by Du Fay’s Requiem Mass, Chopin’s Veni Creator, all of Monteverdi’s lost operas, and everything else burning a hole in my subconscious, wanting to be heard), I cannot imagine that scholars of those composers would somehow be expected to keep shut until the manuscripts had disappeared into private collections and became unavailable for consultation.  Far better that people should be aware when such things surface, so that the interest generated would make it more likely for people to at least get their hands on high-quality reproductions.

“Besides, I find the ethical issues involved in expecting people to muzzle themselves about important discoveries to be far more problematic.”

A ridiculous subplot: my letter was not published on the list because 1) there were two appended letters to my post and regulations allow only one, and 2) alternative wordings for “gets in a lather” and “muzzle themselves” were suggested, because it was feared that some would find these phrases inflammatory. While acknowledging the first point, I simply drew the line on the other two. My suggestion that unnamed Mozart scholars might “get in a lather” about something is unacceptably inflammatory?! I withdrew the post, on enough-is-enough-and-that’s-how-I-write-goddammit grounds (with the huffy observation that such heavy-handed editing might have something to do with the moribund status of the AMS list, which earned me an even huffier response), and so I print it here.

That silliness aside, I’d just like to say that I find the idea of self-censorship when an important discovery occurs completely unacceptable. When Beethoven’s own additions and modifications to the Fourth Piano Concerto surfaced, were we required to keep shut? No, and the debate merrily continues: Beethoven made later emendations and we should all play the piece this way, now; no, that’s ridiculous, those were only to beef up the piano part for a performance with string quartet, we should play it as we normally do. If some celebrated Lost Work is discovered, the idea that we are to keep quiet while waiting for it to be sold, possibly into a collection where the scholarly world would have no access, is both impractical and wrong. I confess to the same sort of frustration, here, that scholars have had with the Dead Sea Scrolls people, about whom there have been myriad complaints over the years—moving too slowly, gatekeeping, materials unavailable for study, and so on. Although there is the natural inclination to be the first to get something out, musicologists tend very much toward the hive-mindset regarding availability of sources and discussion of what they mean. The internet has been a boon for us in this way (and probably virtually all other disciplines, also): find something interesting, slap it out there, and let’s start talking about it.

The idea of staying shut so that unimaginably rich people and auction houses can pursue their business without such “interference”? Especially given the why-can’t-you-get-good-grades-like-your-older-brother tone, with deferential hat tipped toward another discipline (in this case Art History)?

Don’t bring it up again, please.

Posted in Ethics, Manuscripts, Musicology, New Discoveries | 6 Comments

On Cultural Reclamation

Author’s Note: having now completed the most taxing semester in memory, I openly acknowledge that I have been a blogging failure in recent months. I apologize, though it was due to circumstances largely beyond my control, and intend to restore the balance.—JB

Theodore R. Johnson offers a contribution to the National Public Radio blog, tracing the tune apparently played by many neighborhood ice cream trucks (not mine, as it happened) to an old racist song based on “Turkey in the Straw.” He acknowledges the musical relationship between the racist song in question (words by Harry C. Browne, the 1916 “N****r Love Watermelon! Ha! Ha! Ha!”—why, whoever could fail to fall in love with such a genial ditty?) and the earlier tune, in part mediated by the earlier racist contrafact on the same tune, “Zip Coon.” Aside from the relationship between the tunes, though, and a line from the introductory patter on the 1916 recording that calls watermelon “the colored people’s ice cream,” Mr. Johnson is a bit vague on the actual connection between racism and the dairy treat:

The ice cream crossover happened concurrently: 19th century ice cream parlors played the popular minstrel songs of the day. After World War II, the advent of the automobile and the ensuing sprawl required parlors to devise a way to take their products to customers. Ice cream trucks were the solution, and a music box was installed in them as a way to announce their presence in neighborhoods. Naturally, the traditional minstrel tunes of the previous century were employed to evoke the memorable parlor experience.

And this is the story of why our beloved ice cream truck plays blackface minstrel music that sends kids dashing into homes in a Pavlovian frenzy searching for money to buy a Popsicle.

Methodologically, that assumption is a FAIL. The assertion “naturally, the traditional minstrel tunes of the previous century were employed” is based on…what, exactly? Just how “natural” would it have been to use songs of half a century and more ago, at precisely the time when America was inventing Youth Culture as both a discrete cultural force and targeted market? Johnson’s greater point is the dissonance he will feel, now and forever, when his children gleefully scamper after the ice cream truck when it plays this troubling (to him) tune. I understand the doubts, but I think they are unnecessary; as a relatively recent discovery of his, they are more of his own making than not, and I think there’s a better way both to think about and to deal with that kind of troubling cultural association.

When we lived in Oakland (1984–86), between my masters and doctoral degrees, I would take BART into San Francisco, every day, to accompany ballet classes at the San Francisco Ballet. I would either bus to the downtown station or walk to the Lake Merritt station, and thence to the City. One day, in Lake Merritt, I was whistling a bluegrass tune that I’d recently learned: “Golden Slippers.” No, I didn’t know that it had initially been a spiritual made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, nor did I know that it had been given new text by (the African-American composer) James Bland and made into a popular minstrel song. All I knew was that, after learning it from hammered-dulcimer player Tony Elman’s “Shakin’ Down the Acorns” album, I couldn’t get it out of my head. So here I was, in a crowd of African-Americans, merrily and cluelessly whistling this minstrel song.

A gentleman with a very resonant whistle, walking the opposite way, picked it up from me, and until we were out of earshot we maintained a duet. I never so much as saw him, and I can’t say how I knew that he was an older man—something about the strength of the sound he made. There was just something avuncular about the “I’ll take that, young fellow!” way he picked it up.

The complications here are obvious: my unknowingly whistling this tune amidst a bunch of Black people, a Black man who knew the tune retrieving it from me and obviously enjoying it (gracious! was he a self-hater?), the survival of an old minstrel tune in the relatively starched bluegrass repertory, etc. In the moment, it felt like secret communication: “Yes, young man, you and I Get this tune. About the rest of these people, I don’t know—you and I understand and enjoy it, though.” A tune we both dug, period, trumped all other considerations.

Still, the complications of the pop-culture minstrel need little glossing. So when, in a world we hope is evolving away from that kind of thing, we are reminded of that aesthetic in a discomfiting way, how much self-consciousness and concern should we all feel?

I’m going to say: scant to none. Returning to “Turkey in the Straw,” I believe that we make a mistake when we accord sole cultural ownership of an old tune to the most recent person to (mis)use it. Mr. Johnson’s thoroughly American children, scampering out with their change on summer afternoons to chase the ice cream truck, are simply taking the old English tune, as legitimately American as anything in our received vernacular repertoire, back. Whatever words some schmuck racist put to it in the first part of the last century are a matter of cultural interest but no more. If an exorcism is needed, those troubled by the racist sideshow can learn the different, older words and hum them along until they’re the default, not the racist glop. (Much more innocently, I play this game with “The Star-Spangled Banner” sometimes, faux-ardently singing “Anachreon in Heaven.”) So the tune will be a part of the very sinews of these children, making them part of a two-hundred-year-old American tradition, and the other thing Johnson discovered in his researches will be little more than a footnote, which is necessary even though it’s more than it deserves.

I call this an unqualified win. Plus, it’s a great tune.

Posted in Aesthetics, Hearing, Old Honkytonk Monkeyshines, Pop Aesthetics, Pop Culture | 2 Comments