Better Inside Shooting Out

Jonathan Bellman

In the October 22 issue of The New Republic, Richard Taruskin has a lengthy review article on three books (by Julian Johnson, Joshua Fineberg, and Lawrence Kramer) that address, one way or another, conserving the classical tradition. Taruskin opens his article by raging at the Joshua Bell busking experiment, which well deserved his ire. Those already familiar with Taruskin are rightly wondering whether they should cluster about the authors for support or simply bolt for cover. It’s the latter; Taruskin is at his hilarious, blistering best here, because nothing—so far as one can tell—infuriates him like sacralization and its attendant ossification.

The first order of business is to demolish Julian Johnson’s neo-Adornian screed, which is presented as equal parts aesthetic superciliousness and appallingly arrogant dismissals of popular music. He proceeds to Fineberg, with whom he initially shows more patience but then dismisses with a wave of his hand when he is discovered pitching spectralism, which seems to be more cause—or dare I say pose—than technique or aesthetic or approach or anything else that can be usefully described. He has more time for Larry Kramer, yet still bounces phrases like “Nor is Kramer’s account entirely devoid of vainglory and invidiousness,” “Kramer makes his only—inevitably, ignorant and prejudiced—comparisons between the classical and the popular,” and the rather more direct “this is balderdash” in Kramer’s direction. This is the book he takes the most seriously of the three, and far kinder observations are made, but still—one almost feels the whip-crack. As a friend once said to me, “If no one’s gunning for you, cowboy, you really ain’t nobody.” Cold comfort, but I suppose true. By the time Taruskin described Johnson’s book as “a sort of Beyond the Fringe parody of a parish sermon in some Anglican backwater” …Debbie had to tell me to shut up and stop reading choice phrases so she could work.

The fact is that his turns of phrase make me mad with jealousy. I laughed aloud for five minutes at “The idea that in popular culture production equals consumption was already a canard when it was first handed down from Adorno’s delphic armchair.”  Delphic armchair?! I could write for a century and never come up with something that wickedly pithy. The knockout punch follows almost immediately: “That [Adorno’s] followers still parrot him only shows how utterly ideology trumps observation in the world of ‘critical theory,’ of all academic approaches the least critical by far.” Unimprovable, and something I’ve wanted to say for twenty years. Twenty-eight words.

(Tonight my fourteen-year-old son happened to ask about postmodernism, having overheard us mention it in conversation, and he observed that my tone of voice was the one usually I usually reserve for Fundamentalism. I said, “Fundamentalists believe there is absolutely one clear and incontrovertible truth, and they believe it rigidly, dogmatically, and unquestioningly. Postmodernists believe there are no incontrovertible truths, and they believe it rigidly, dogmatically, and unquestioningly.” See what I mean? Lame by comparison: sad, thin gruel.)

I don’t agree with Taruskin’s whole article, by any means. Taruskin is free to dismiss Norman Lebrecht as “a sloppy but entertaining British muckraker” if he wishes (I think Lebrecht’s Song of Names deserves better), but surely Blair Tindall, narcissistic ex-oboist who can’t decide if she’s an oboist, a crusading journalist, or a Bad Girl With A Pen (Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music), merits the same unflinching treatment? Taruskin accords her “the smartest and most constructive take on the situation.” Her book struck me, to the contrary, as an exhibitionistic tell-all (Sex and drugs in surprising locales among musicians! Stop the presses!) by someone boundlessly resentful that whatever myths she internalized as a young person—and there is no indication that some healthy cynicism at a young age wouldn’t have enabled her to prepare more intelligently for artistic life—turned out not to be true. The stew of whiny resentment and confessional titillation had me running for the vomitorium. I never made it past halfway through.

Perhaps the article was so amusing for me because I am in sympathy with the anti-sacralist sentiment: the composers were living, breathing human beings; contemporary musicians of whatever flavor are not only living, breathing human beings but tend to be howlers at the moon and spitters of fire, and no musician I know enjoys the smug, moralizing, clueless blue-hair who pays some bills but insists on dictating, participating, commenting, orating. As a longtime Rock fan, I also share the disgust at those who look down on it while putting classical (or Jazz, or the pop from another [their] era) on a pedestal.

Ultimately, though, this doesn’t take me very far; these are all fairly cheap shots. If the traditional appreesh gambit and eat-your-broccoli approach to classical music is demonstrably counter-, or at best un-, productive, what to do? Of course, that is not the business of Taruskin’s piece, and he doesn’t seem to want to go beyond “keep listening”—not his gig. It’s a subject I continue to think a lot about, though, in measure because of the kind of institution I teach at, in some measure because of my atypical training and route to musicology, and in some measure because what I think is most evident and apparent and interesting, the front door to art music after which you discover everything else, is precisely what very few or nobody at all discuss in terms of music education or appreciation or however you want to put it. So: next blog I’ll try to offer a thought or two of a practical nature, because deep down I don’t think that “just keep listening” answers the call, either, when we are discussing musical repertories a century and more old.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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8 Responses to Better Inside Shooting Out

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Oh, well, I will have to read Taruskin’s article. “Delphic armchair,” indeed.
    I saw Kramer’s big NY Times piece, which had a headline along the lines of “Maybe big orchestras should just admit to being the museums that they are!”, and decided to skip it. That is not the solution to whatever classical music’s problems are.
    So what about your atypical training and route to musicology?

  2. Galen says:

    The Taruskin article is, indeed, fantastic.
    Your definition of postmodernism, however, seems a bit unfair. Certainly there’s a strain of pomo thought and academic scholarship that has the problem you describe, and a strain that tends to indulge in overwrought, opaque, self-absorbed, masterabatory, and ultimately mostly vacuous analysis. But there’s also a perfectly healthy strain which holds that merely _most_ of the things we think of as universally true are not, that it’s worth understanding how our beliefs about these artificially “universal” truths came about, and is open to serious discussion on the matter. Our “anti-sacralist sentiment” is itself a fundmentally postmodern postition, held in opposition to the modernist perspective that certain art is inherently superior and thus deserving of a priviledged place in society; our (my? maybe you disagree with me here) regonition that classical music chauvinism stems from historical class-based attitudes and beliefs about who has the authority to define aesthetic superiority is a postmodern analysis of the origins of the sacralist position. Your claim is akin (structurally, not morally) to saying “feminism is about hating men” — I’m sure there’s an ugly strain of feminism that is about hating men, but it certainly isn’t a fair definition of the movement as a whole.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Galen, I think the only matter we disagree about is terminology. What you characterize as a “perfectly healthy strain” of postmodernism I would call perfectly healthy skepticism, which far antedates pomo. Looking closely at anything–interrogation, close reading, pick your neo-vocabulary word–should always have been part of scholarly process and critical thought. For such a clear-eyed approach to toss the pomo cloak over its shoulders smacks to me of wannabeism, which I don’t respect. Pomo is (again, to my really cynical eye) a pose, an attitude, a movement both in search of and in denial of a methodology. When anything goes, as someone pithier than I once said, nothing matters. I have to define postmodernism by those who claim that (really silly) label. If they occasionally get something right–anti-sacralism, experienced by anyone who likes both Rock and Art Music and doesn’t like windy authority, or close readings of what were supposedly universals, you name it. Because a postmodernist here or there occasionally gets something right, it doesn’t mean that everyone who gets something right is a postmodernist.
    OK. Shield up.

  4. Lester Hunt says:

    I’m still reading the Taruskin piece — Gawd it’s long! — and though I find there are some good ideas in it seems gratuitously nasty. Rather odd is the fact that he keeps moralizing about how others shouldn’t moralize: How dare you say that your tastes in music are moral choices?! How dare you, you scumbag! That’s like racism!!
    How that’s like racism he doesn’t actually say.
    And the way he keeps harping on the fact that the ideas he doesn’t like are German in origin — that seems a lot closer to racism than anything Johnson says.

  5. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Soho the Dog has a few contrary thoughts about the sage of Berkeley, at

  6. Henry Holland says:

    “Taruskin is at his hilarious, blistering best here, because nothing—so far as one can tell—infuriates him like sacralization and its attendant ossification”
    Well, he certainly sees no problem with “sacralization” of the wildly overrated Shostakovich, so why should I take his rants on the subject seriously?

  7. Peter Alexander says:

    Jonathan: I agree wtih you UTTERLY — and with Soho the Dog — about Blaire Tindall. What a trashy book, and I don’t even find it entertaining trash. Yuck. What does it mean when you parade your bad decisions, like exposing your bleeding wounds? And I have to say that while I don’t think serious musicians are all celibate by any means, I’m happy that I never knew *anyone* like her in music school. I’d hate to think that what she described is really typical.
    Her appearance in Taruskin, though, suggests that he is not completely serious here, as several people have suggested. Of course, Taruskin has always had trouble knowing when to stop when his “clever-writing overdrive” kicks in, and I suspect that he throws Blaire Tinall out there just as another way of tweaking the authors he is reviewing. (“Even THIS piece of trash is better than your pompous efforts.”) There’s lots of fun stuff in the review, but we should not take it all too seriously.

  8. Blair(E) Tindall says:

    Mr. Alexander, if you’d picked up the book and actually read it, you perhaps would have spelled my name correctly. Please detail what specific objections you have to the book, so it’s clear that you’ve actually read it.

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