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 | 1 Comment

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

The Tattooed Academic

I’ve been in the United States now for 26 years, going on 27. That span of time has seen a lot of changes, large and small. A large one: a wholesale revision of mainstream American attitudes towards LGBTQ civil rights. A small one: when I got here the only beer you could buy was the style I think of as “lawnmower lager.” On a hot day after vigorous yard work, served as near as possible to frozen, it tastes great. Under most other circumstances, it disappoints. And that was the only beer you could get, unless you bought an import. And then Pete’s Wicked Ale appeared, and that seemed to kick off a domestic craft brewing revolution that means you can now find esoterica like Belgian framboise lambic pretty much anywhere. And the same kind of change has been enacted more generally in American cuisine, to the point now that we’ve started rediscovering the humble virtues of the food and drink we’ve spent the last couple of decades running away from. Pabst Blue Ribbon has gone from being what your Dad drinks to being an arch joke to being what you drink ironically to being what you drink with a veneration for American vernacular food culture.

And speaking of Frank Booth, how about tattoos. When I came to the U.S. in 1987, tattoos were associated — in my mind, at least, and in the minds of nervous bougies like me — as belonging to the kind of scary lowlife who populate that iconic moment of Blue Velvet. I didn’t know anyone who had a tattoo, or at least anyone who showed it off, until around 1990 or so, when I was slightly shocked (but also curious and sort of psyched) to see a cellist I worked with roll up his sleeve and show off a simple, unstylized outline of a Hill cello he had tattooed on his right bicep. This was a surprise — not only that someone I had filed in one category (non-tattoo) was actually in the other, but that he was sporting a tattoo that wasn’t about being badass or threatening. It didn’t have skulls and flames and snakes and what-all; it was a monument only to my friend’s enthusiasm for Hill cellos.

In retrospect, this innocently geeky tatt was a sign of things to come. One small but telling thing that has changed completely in the last quarter-century has been the mainstreaming of tattoos. I think I first really noticed this when I moved to Austin about a decade ago. When I would take my kids to the Barton Springs Pool, I would see other young parents piling out of minivans and poking Cheerios into the mouths of fretful babies and doing normal parental things, but sleeved up and sometimes with just about every visible square inch of skin below the neck covered in tatts. And it started to occur to me then that the social meaning of tattoos had changed. There were still lots of situations where you would get the stinkeye for having one – obviously, since there still are now — and to be sure a lot of the tattoos appearing incongruously on the bodies of these solidly domesticated and vaguely middle-aged Austinites were still of the skulls-snakes-flames variety, but still, something had changed. With the new phenomenon of the cool geek came the phenomenon of the geek tattoo. And that’s where we are now.

But in the early 1990s, tattoos were generally assumed to be the domain of bikers, barflies, vets, and rockers, and this assumption informs David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Much of Infinite Jest takes place in a drug recovery center, where addicts from various backgrounds deal with the fallout from the bad choices they made during their years enslaved by various Substances. And in one passage, Wallace makes the tattoo a metonym for all those bad, act-in-haste-repent-in-leisure choices:

Because the whole thing about tattoos is that they’re permanent, of course, irrevocable once gotten–which of course the irrevocability of a tattoo is what jacks up the adrenaline of the intoxicated decision to sit down in the chair and actually get it (the tattoo)–but the chilling thing about the intoxication is that it seems to make you consider only the adrenaline of the moment itself, not the irrevocability that produces the adrenaline. It’s like the intoxication keeps your tattoo-type person from being able to project his imagination past the adrenaline of the impulse and even consider the permanent consequences that are producing the buzz of excitement.

Now, this passage is told from the perspective of Tiny Ewell, an alcoholic lawyer who is himself untattooed but becomes obsessed with the tattoos of his fellow recovery center residents. So the assumption here that “your tattoo-type person” is by nature impulsive and self-destructive is perhaps only Ewell’s, but I suspect it also pretty much reflects Wallace’s own point of view. It was, after all, pretty much the usual opinion of intellectual middle-class types in the mid 1990s.

Not that Wallace doesn’t have a point. The whole thing with tattoos is that they’re permanent, while the motivation to get them (whether impulsive or well-thought-out) almost certainly is not. A recent NYT chin-stroker makes this point, as does your Mom and at least half your friends. From this point of view, the basic reality of tattoos is permanence. This becomes particularly obvious in the comical-sad litany of misbegotten tattoos in Infinite Jest: tattoos of the names of girls who left, enthusiasms that waned, gods that failed, and mad whims that are sometimes cannot even be recalled. So you’re stuck with a swastika on your chest or something possibly even scarier, and what are you gonna do? DFW takes several pages to consider the question, but it all pretty much comes down to resignation and covering up. And yes, I wouldn’t want to be in this situation, and probably you wouldn’t either.

(Though even in the roughest cases there is some hope.)

But. It seems to me that it is at least as likely that what tattoos really signify is not permanence but impermanence. When I look back over my life, I can find very few things I have consistently loved, believed in, or stood for. I can hardly think of a single thing I felt strongly about in 1990 that I would care to have on my skin now. As much as people go on about their identity as Christians, Trekkies, vegans, or whatever, I always feel that such talk usually makes a false assumption about the stability of any human identity. So given this, my first question would be, what kind of tattoo would be impermanence-proof? I used to think that this would be the really interesting thing about tattoos: they challenge you with a really tough question. But since I can never think of a foolproof answer, I’m not so sure. So now I’m thinking the real question re. tattoos is, how do you square yourself with the impermanence of your identity? From this point of view, the very fact that we ask of tattoos what they likely can’t deliver is the most interesting thing about them. Seen this way, a tattoo is like a stick in a stream. Sometimes the water looks still — maybe you can’t tell if it’s running or not — but if you poke a stick into it you can tell it’s moving. Maybe the value of a tattoo is in part that you probably will grow past the point where it made sense to get it. The value of the image is less what it says about who you really than how it expresses some past version of yourself. The tattoo’s intrinsic aesthetic value (if any) is compounded with something subtler — a kind of curatorship of the self. Maybe the likelihood of obsolescence is a feature, not a bug.

Or whatever. So theorizes someone who (like Tiny Ewell) doesn’t have any tattoos himself but just bugs his friends to show him theirs. A few fellow academics have been kind enough to share photos and descriptions of their tatts, all of which are gloriously cool and original and seem as likely as any to stand the test of time. The one that got me thinking of this whole line of thought belongs to Brad Osborn, a music theorist at KU whose tatt will be immediately identifiable to music theory nerds:

perspectives tatt

Robin James, a philosopher and sound artist at UNC Charlotte, has a full sleeve:

photo-1

Robin has a thoughtful approach to conceiving and planning a tattoo, and to me it really paid off. She writes,

I just wanted a visually interesting tattoo–something more “design-y” than representational, something that looked good from a distance (you can still see the pattern/design). The two images are Sputnik 1 & Voyager 1. I picked those because I’m a longtime scifi/space opera fan, so that sort of imagery is really appealing to me, as is the mid-century design of those ships. I guess I also picked them b/c they’re historically significant, but mainly I picked them b/c they look good on my arm.

Phil Gentry, a musicology prof. at U. of Delaware and longtime musicoloblogger probably well-known to most of the Dial M readership, has a tattoo of a score by John Cage:

54_548750921616_7543_n

Phil writes,

My standard joke is that I got it so that when other John Cage scholars challenge me, I can whip it out and question their commitment to the subject. In reality, I got it in graduate school for sappy sentimental reasons–it’s one of Cage’s “62 mesostics re: merce cunningham,” which is to say, closest thing to a love song Cage wrote.

Those are the academic tattoos that colleagues have shared with me, but in the interests of fueling my creepy obsession with other people’s skin art, I strongly encourage my tattooed readers to send me pictures of their own. It’s a new reader challenge! Haven’t had one of those since like 2008 or something. Drop me a note at my uni email: fordp at indiana dot edu

A few more geeky academic/artsy/intellectual tatts before you go. One I wish I’d thought of is Jonathan Lethem’s tattoo of the Ubik aerosol can from the cover of one of Philip K. Dick’s trippiest and best novels:

lethem ubik tattoo

You can’t really see it; this is the design:

ubik_f

Another writer, Carey Harrison, has the entire first page of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia tattooed on his back:

adorno tatt

Librarians, for some reason, seem particularly prone to getting tattoos, and as librarians tend to be awesome, so too are their tatts. My favorite is a card from some alternative-universe tarot deck — Arcanum XXII, “The Librarian”:

librarian tatt

If you do a Google image search of “music tattoos,” you get a pretty mixed bag. A lot of music tatts land in what my wife calls “piano scarf” territory. (You know, like those music-novelty gifts bedecked with treble clefs and noteheads that your aunt gives you for your birthday because she knows you’re a musician.) But as Phil’s tatt shows, avant-garde graphic notation offers real scope for a distinctive and visually-interesting design. Here’s one last tatt — a score to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports:

eno_tattoo

I don’t think I’ve exhausted this topic yet.

Posted in Academia, Geeks, Uncategorized, whatever | 5 Comments

End-of-year death spiral

We have now entered the “death spiral” stage of the academic year.

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