Technological determinism! RADICAL technological determinism!

Phil Ford

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.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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11 Responses to Technological determinism! RADICAL technological determinism!

  1. Galen says:

    Hey, who you callin’ “mediocre”? Dvorak is so hip he even teamed up with Fergie and the Black Eyed Peas!

    Okay, so that was a totally shameless act of self-promotion, but I actually really love the 9th symphony. I’m sure he’s got plenty of mediocre music, but nobody who can write at the “From The New World” level, however briefly, deserves to be called “mediocre.”

  2. Gus says:

    I admit that Dvorak annoys the hell out of me…but I also have to confess that this weekend I played through his string sextet with some friends and was fortunate enough to play the first viola part. The theme of the slow movement is in that part…and
    it is one great viola moment (maybe even one great 90 second viola moment.)
    This experience changed my view. Annoyance turned to affection…even love…

  3. Caroline says:

    I was expecting this to end with the radical technological determinism of moving. Something to do with free liquor boxes, packing tape, and real estate agents.

  4. ECG says:

    Phil! You’re back! I’m so glad for it (even if you just tore out my chamber music-loving heart [dude — A major piano quartet, op. 81; enough said] with the Dvorak rant) because even though summertime is here the livin’ ain’t easy yet. I hope Bloomington continues to deliver…

  5. I think many of us would do well to be half as mediocre as Dvorak. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I met my wife playing the Dumky Trio, but I’d think it was an extraordinarily beautiful work anyway.) Is it possible that you’re projecting some of your anger at MPR on poor, innocent composers who never heard of radio? Nothing wrong with not being a fan of Dvorak or Tartini (although I think Vivaldi gets really mistreated in these sorts of discussions), but I don’t see how this treatment serves anyone. At any rate, I’ll take Bach’s opinion of Vivaldi and Brahms’ opinion of Dvorak. (BONUS FULL DISCLOSURE: It probably doesn’t help my reaction to your post that I grew up in Arkansas. Maybe that explains my lowbrow Dvorak-likin’.)

  6. Phil Ford says:

    Caroline — the technological determinism of packing tape and real estate agents would probably have made a better topic. Just another missed opportunity . . .
    ECG — Glad to be back, sort of. (I mean sort of back, not sort of glad.)
    Gus — thanks for the recommendation.
    Galen — Sad to say, I can’t hear your remix, ‘cuz I’m on a library machine. I was struck by one of the Youtube comments, though — someone all offended at the SACRILEGE of remixing this “incredible, complexed [sic], and brilliant symphony” with “My Humps.” What is it about Dvorak anyway? Jonathan roasted Wagner a few months back and everybody was cool with it, but say something mean about Dvorak and it’s like you’re chipping the nose off of Michelangelo’s David or something. Dvorak belongs to that category of things that (1) I hate, and (2) inspires in others a kind of sentimental protectiveness whose ferocity is in inverse proportion to the amiable nullity of its object.
    The other great example of this is Garrison Keillor, for whom I feel the same kind of helpless loathing that Yosemite Sam has for Bugs Bunny. Now, having said that, I suspect that any further comments on this thread will consist of spluttering outrage that I should dare to traduce that greatest of Americans, Garrison Keillor. This always happens. People treat that guy as if he combines the best aspects of Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Johnny Carson, whereas I simply see a guy who can’t carry a tune in a Hefty bag and who, every damn week, dines out on jokes about Lutherans and the weather, all the while basking in the love of thousands who just can’t wait to be reassured of their belonging to that tribe of terrific, humble, decent, everyday ordinary Americans just like themselves. (I suspect that this is why people love him so much: the sound of applause on that show is the sound of people applauding themselves.) If I ever see that film version of Prairie Home Companion by Robert Altman (yet another of my hates) it would probably unleash a supernova of hate. (Did they find a way to include music by Dvorak, too?) But whenever I rag on Keillor people who pride themselves on their hardboiled critical sensibility, their ability to say anything to anybody about anything, recoil in horror. “Omigod, not GARRISON KEILLOR! Is nothing sacred?” Likewise Dvorak.
    Michael — Does my overflowing bile “serve” anyone? Probably not. Like Milton’s Lucifer, intellectuals — which, by the terms of Stuart Hampshire’s definition (see ), means pretty much everyone here — have the pleasure of saying “non serviam”. Nothing I say will make the slightest dent in Dvorak’s (or Keillor’s) reputation, but I have the petty consolation of getting to say it.

  7. Galen says:

    Michael —
    I totally agree on Vivaldi — the poor guy gets a terrible rap and I think it’s really undeserved. The Gloria alone should be enough to establish him as worthwhile, and The Four Seasons, while admitedly overplayed, is actually a very good piece. I suspect the Anti-Vivaldi sentiments arise from its status (especially the 4 seasons) as a top choice for the “relaxing background music” kind of listening that became popular during the Baroque revival of the 60s. (Incedentally, Robert Fink’s book on Minimalism covers that phenomenon adroitly.)
    Beethoven’s poor maligned “Fur Elise” has suffered a similar fate — I admit I’m sick of it too, having heard it butchered by so many people, but fundamentally it’s a great little piece. Consise, elegant, and subtle when played right.

  8. Galen says:

    Phil- The thing about Garrison Keillor is that I both love his show (well, a lot of the music doesn’t do it for me, but The News from Lake Woebegone is often brilliant, and the other short radiodramas are often hilarious) AND agree with your assessment of his status as a the Elitist’s Everyman. I hope that makes sense. . .
    I actually saw the Altman movie a couple of days ago and was quite disappointed. Don’t bother. As far as Altman goes, though, I thought Gosford Park was brilliant; haven’t seen any of his other work besides Prarie Home Companion, though.

  9. Lisa Hirsch says:

    ohman. So, David Brooks is an idiot, and he provided lots of proof this week: see his Scooter Libby column.
    I have to bite my tongue about Vivaldi. I used to play the flute, and that’s enough to make any sane person hate Vivaldi. I admit that I don’t know either his operas or sacred music, so if that ever changes, I could limit my loathing to his endless concertos. I admit also to fond memories many years ago when I was taking a music history survey and the teacher sent the class to the complete Vivaldi edition, volume 472, to look over some work or another.
    Dvorak. Um. There was a time when I liked him better than I liked Brahms, but that changed somewhere around my 30th birthday, when Brahms started to sink in and I realized that Dvorak is, comparatively, lightweight. (Hell, who isn’t lightweight next to Brahms?) Still, I do love Dvorak.

  10. Phil Ford says:

    Vivaldi’s OK in my book. He’s a bit like Scarlatti (who I love): not like Mahler or Schoenberg or whomever, with the unique formal “solutions” to musical “problems,” but more like a popular song writer, actually, dealing in repetition with variation. What makes Vivaldi and Scarltti good is that it’s tasty variation. I like Telemann, too, you know. I had a tape of his opera “The Patience of Socrates” that I listened to all the time as a kid.

  11. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, you are so right, Phil, about Vivaldi and Scarlatti.

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