But I don’t have an internet connection at home, so I’m having to write this from the IU music library. If you’re trying to get in touch with me and wonder why you haven’t heard anything, that’s why.
Moving is the never-ending headache it always is, although I always forget just how bad it’s going to be. I’ve heard it said that women experience a kind of amnesia about childbirth, even start remembering it as sort of pleasant, so they can imagine having more kids after a while. Good for the perpetuation of the species. Something similar happens with moving. You think it’ll be better this time, but you don’t count on the little things that always bite your ankles — like, for example, enduring a weary day of driving and keeping yourself encouraged with the thought of a nice cold beer to go with your (probably otherwise indifferent) dinner, and then realizing you’ve pulled into a dry county. I spent my dinner making surly remarks about Arkansas and being shushed by my wife.* I’m all in favor of community self-determination and everything, but, as the Austin Lounge Lizards put it in their song “100 Miles of Dry,” this is taking democracy too far.
It’s nice to be back in Bloomington. I dig this place. It’s nice to be in a town with a good classical radio station, for one thing. I lived in the Twin Cities from 1993 to 2003, during the time Minnesota Public Radio became a public-radio behemoth (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and, at the same time (maybe paradoxically, maybe not), ruined their classical programming. They took away the ability of their announcers to make programming decisions and instead installed this evil technocratic system whereby they would round up focus-test audiences and play little snippets of music for them and the results of their preferences got enshrined in some sort of computer algorithm that would dictate the music most calculated to appeal to some hypothetical audience of people who don’t really like classical music but might not turn it off if it is made sufficiently inoffensive. The clips played for the focus-group audiences were just a few seconds in length and were not intended to establish complete melodies, much less formal sections or any general narrative arc. As I understand it, they were supposed to mimic the experience of pressing the scan button on the radio and hearing a few seconds of some general texture and timbre. You see, some genius figured out that people make listening decisions on their associations with those aspects of sound that can be gleaned from the few seconds of attention they give to a radio station when when’re looking for something to listen to.
This actually makes a lot of sense. When my students hate some kind of music — hiphop and country, often — it’s usually on the generalized level of sound. Someone who hates country only has to hear a bent note on a steel guitar to lunge for the scan button — he’s not going to stick around to find out whether it’s Patsy Cline or Toby Keith. Sort of like the way I only need a glimpse of faux-walnut simulated wood-grain panelling on the side of a cheap toaster oven to plunge me into despair. It’s a basic emotional response to a tactile experience, and MPR’s radio programming was plotted at the tactile level. Which meant no vocal music (people don’t like the sound of a trained classical voice with vibrato), no music with organ (perhaps an association with church?), not a lot of dissonance, obviously, nothing too long, clear and uncluttered texture, not a lot of changes in texture, tempo, and volume. Which meant a lot of 18th-century kleinmeisters (or, as my Dad liked to call it, “that rinky-dink Baroque shit”), but not Bach, who, like Mozart, has too many notes. And lots of Dvorak. That should have been a clue. Dvorak, that most mediocre of composers, Brahms for dummies, the simulated wood grain of classical music, is the very embodiment and avatar of lowest-common-denominator classical programming. If Dvorak had never existed, MPR would have had to invent him. Maybe MPR has gotten better, who knows; I haven’t lived in Minnesota for four years. But when I did live there is was a source of constant irritation, watching MPR raking in money from their legacies, licencing, and corporate donations, grabbing up radio stations, and then two or three times a year putting on their noble-poverty act and managing to shake down credulous Minnesotans, who would donate money so that MPR could continue to play Dvorak and Tartini every goddam day.
A month or so ago David Brooks wrote an annoying op-ed in the New York Times about Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason. I haven’t read that book and don’t really care one way or the other about it, but what annoyed me was that Brooks called Gore a “radical technological determinist.” This is how you write when you’re the house intellectual for a ruling cabal of obscurantists. An example:
[Gore] writes that ”the idea of self-government became feasible after the printing press.” With this machine, people suddenly had the ability to use the printed word to debate ideas and proceed logically to democratic conclusions. As Gore writes in his best graduate school manner, ”The eighteenth century witnessed more and more ordinary citizens able to use knowledge as a source of power to mediate between wealth and privilege.”
Is this a radical thought? Don’t worry your pretty little head; Mr. Brooks has read many important books so you don’t have to. Trust him: it’s a RADICAL idea.
Brooks knows enough to be right that Gore’s arguments are technologically deterministic, but dishonest enough to use the old politician’s trick of sticking the word “radical” in there to discredit what is actually a pretty sound idea. Technological determinism is not, on its own, all that radical. Technology really does determine how people think and act. MPR bet on the power of the radio scan button, and won: their listening audience ballooned when they started feeding it a Dvorak-intensive diet. Examples can be multiplied. I recommend Mark Katz’s book, Capturing Sound, for its elegant inventory of “phonographic effects” and its discussion of how the way we listen to music has changed over a hundred years of recorded sound.
*”Think of it as a cultural experience.” “I could have had this particular cultural experience in Saudi Arabia.” Etc.