06 29 18 All Hands

Today (or yesterday, now) there was yet another shooting, this one at a newspaper office in Annapolis, MD, by a terminally angry, misogynistic stalker white guy with a gun who nursed a grudge against the paper. Five newspaper employees at least are dead. My first admission is that I was formulating this blog post before this even happened, thinking instead about all the other violent incidents: Black people being assassinated by southern police or, y’know, “citizen vigilantes,” Sandy Hook, church shootings, sucker-punching at Trump rallies, what women will face when Roe v. Wade goes down (from self-righteous religious protesters, from incompetent, back-alley medical practice), etc. Then I saw this sticker on a car today.


First time I’ve seen it, though others have told me it’s familiar to them—I feel nothing but a kind of disgusted wonder. Still, a premeditated shooting with multiple fatalities was bound to happen today, because it’s Thursday. Reportedly, gun sales go up after every one of these shootings as the Hannities whip up fears that They’ll Come For Your Guns. If this is the case, Wayne LaPierre and his winged monkeys might well consider mass shootings as successful marketing events, no…?

OK. To the point.

A very short time after his admired friend JFK was assassinated, Leonard Bernstein offered some thoughts at a UJA fundraiser.

This will be our response to violence: to make music more beautifully, more intensely, more devotedly, than ever before.

This sentence is always, always, ALWAYS piously posted by musician friends after violent incidents.  As I’ve said many times before, I hate it; it always struck me as a musician’s facile justification (and who better to reflect validity than the protean pianist, composer, conductor, scholar, and teacher Lenny?) for not canceling or rescheduling a gig…and, having said it, returning to worrying about reeds and fingering and getting paid, which are the kinds of things musicians worry about.  The sentence directly following, which I never read until today, is better:

And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his belief in the triumph of the mind.

The full story of this episode is told here.  Even more meaningful to me are certain other comments from the same Bernstein talk; this passage begins with a quote from Kennedy’s last speech, given in Dallas a few hours before the fatal motorcade on Dealey Plaza.

“America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.” Learning and reason: precisely the two elements that were necessarily missing from the mind of anyone who could have fired that impossible bullet. Learning and reason: the two basic precepts of all Judaistic tradition, the twin sources from which every Jewish mind from Abraham and Moses to Freud and Einstein has drawn its living power. Learning and Reason: the motto we here tonight must continue to uphold with redoubled tenacity, and must continue, at any price, to make the basis of all our actions.

It is obvious that the grievous nature of our loss is immensely aggravated by the element of violence involved in it. And where does this violence spring from? From ignorance and hatred—the exact antonyms of Learning and Reason. Learning and Reason: those two words of John Kennedy’s were not uttered in time to save his own life; but every man can pick them up where they fell, and make them part of himself, the seed of that rational intelligence without which our world can no longer survive. This must be the mission of every man of goodwill: to insist, unflaggingly, at risk of becoming a repetitive bore, but to insist on the achievement of a world in which the mind will have triumphed over violence.

Learning and Reason.  Many have already noted the current contempt for actual expertise, what might be called denial culture, the shrieking conspiracist mau-mauing that feeds the terrorism currently found—and carefully nurtured, from the highest levels of government—in the United States.  Liberals (that’d be me and mine) respond predictably: attempting to mediate, seeking common ground, searching for civil discourse with those who routinely threaten (and practice) violence, and accusing each other of not listening properly, not making ourselves understood, not showing sufficient understanding for the pain of…gun-toting white-supremacist incels, I’m guessing?  We’re still getting robbed and humiliated in the high school lunchroom, in other words, and our strategies thus far are quite as effective as Thoughts And PrayersTM have been in stopping gun violence.

I’m writing this because I’m out of ideas.  I’m an academic raised in an academic family, and at my age my effectiveness at armed resistance would be nonexistent.  I’m of the Luftmensch type, the head-in-the-clouds guy who just wants to think about and write about and teach whatever obscurities interest him.  We go to demonstrations (such as one upcoming), but I wouldn’t have been much use storming the Bastille.  So rather than “making music more intensely,” let me mention with one thing I have always done in my teaching, on purpose:

As a musicologist, I teach the history of music, performance practices, writing, that sort of thing.  I don’t believe I have ever taught a class during which I have not interrogated received narratives, conventional wisdom, etc.  Why did the editor of this anthology choose these pieces?  What is the impression left by teaching music history the way it’s usually taught? Why is it an unquestioned aspect of academic writing to say We and The present author and other such puffed-up idiocies?  What are the implications of blindly obeying what our performance teachers tell us when they are merely parroting the way they were taught?  (Universal?  No.  All too common?  Without a doubt.) What does it really mean when they say, impatiently, “ But everyone uses the XXX edition,” or “Unless you’re convinced that you can do something better, you should just play what J. Famous Editor has supplied here,” or “Really?  So you think you can improve on Chopin?” (Or Beethoven, or Liszt…those are the three I’ve heard myself.)

These are major issues in music study.  Outside our world, they look quaint and harmless.  But what I’m really teaching is always. question., however “authoritative” the entity you’re questioning, and interrogate the agenda behind Common KnowledgeTM, Conventional WisdomTM, and the Standard NarrativeTM.  I especially enjoy introducing this approach to those of stricter religious outlook (and boy, do we have them here): I’m not telling them to question the literal truth of every last letter in the Bible; I’m telling them that they’re entitled—indeed, required, being endowed with a brain by the Almighty—to question their teachers, and authors, and editors.  In all areas of my discipline, I constantly preach/hector/require a kind of prove-it-to-me, and often resistant, reading of musical documents: those written, notated, recorded.  This is one of my missions in higher education, and music (just a “frill,” remember?) is ideal in that it’s under the radar of the terrified authoritarians who are quick to make accusations of political or religious or sexual unorthodoxies.  And I have to hope that the seeds of real critical thinking, both the method and the confidence to feel entitled to it, have been planted in these often extraordinary but straitjacketed young minds.  What’s more, I think they’ve always known what I’m doing, and played along (they’ve faced far worse, after all), but I enjoy watching them when I respond to their questions with more questions, and require them to arrive at decisions for which they will take personal responsibility, rather than “it’s in the book.”

That’s what I—one decaying musicologist at a regional state university—have done and will continue doing.  This nation (and so many others worldwide) is, however, still in cultural, environmental, and economic free-fall.  So this is my cry for help; I always feel like I’m only one or three good ideas away from solving everything so I can get back to nattering away about my specialties.  The feeling of witnessing the unchecked corruption of my country and culture is hardly good for hypertension; what is a lumpy, bald, graying old guy to do that will have a real effect?  I’m disinclined to instruct others about what they should be doing (“Crash the grid! Man the barricades!”) because of the hypocrisy of it, and while we do consistently write checks I’m no longer in the business of making calls and going door-to-door: I end up with too much disgust for other members of my species.  I’ve been through a period of letters-to-the-editor/op-eds; friends have thought I’d be physically threatened, in this community, but instead all I’ve gotten is love-notes and thank-yous from the like-minded.

Comments welcome.  What are your suggestions for having a real effect beyond the worlds of music and the academe?   All hands on deck for these treasonous times.

Meanwhile, Bertolt Brecht’s “Motto”:

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.


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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4 Responses to 06 29 18 All Hands

  1. Nellie B. says:

    This post is as self-righteous as the people you assail. After your whole life in academia, you still don’t understand that the “US vs. THEM” mentality will never work. Your present state of discontent really stems from the cognitive dissonance of your US vs. THEM framework. I enjoy friendships with all kinds of people who don’t share my views politically or religiously. I enjoy hearing a different perspective and there is often respectful and civil dialogue–something that you have abandoned. I’m tired of reading your posts where you villainize some “other” who always seems to be religious. Its not liberals or religious conservatives that are destroying this country, its people like you, who has ceased to extend civility to people who might see things differently or take different perspective. For democracy to work, we have to work together. There are lots of religious people who would be willing to work with you. Your own intolerance is staggering. Interrogate your own biases before interrogating the biases of others. I’m done reading your posts.

  2. N. N. says:

    One response to the Brecht quote would be to point out that there has never in human history been a time so dark that the dark times themselves have been the only thing being sung about.

    But the juxtaposition of the Brecht and Bernstein quotes really brings to mind Michael Tippett’s statement that the artist should hope

    that his work of art will belong in the great tradition. And what is the great tradition? I would prefer, like Yeats, to call it activation of the Great Memory: that immense reservoir of the human psyche where images age-old and new boil together in some demoniac cauldron; images of the past, shapes of the future; images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent; images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division; images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty in an age of fear, mediocrity and horror comics.

    (An exact counterpart to the usual truncation of the Bernstein quote is that the words “in an age of fear, mediocrity and horror comics” are almost invariably either omitted altogether, or outright falsified into “in an age of fear and mediocrity”.)

    This may sound as untimely today as Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” symphony and its programme. But in a time such as the present, where the forgetting of history is a major and seemingly ever-growing part of the “cultural free fall” which you write about, raising the flag for the untimely can be a political act as much as any overtly political one.

    As for the only other comment you have received so far: Sigh.

    • jonathanbellman says:

      Thanks for this; I had not known the Tippett quote. So funny to discover people’s weird little hobby-horses and blind spots that crop up in otherwise thoughtful comments.

      For Nellie B’s comment, my first thought was har har, I haven’t posted in six months, sorry to wear you down with the frequency of such posts…then found that I’d done something not all that different the day after (I think) the election, even down to the Ockeghem cite. Yes, I’ve been very busy with other writing and whatever, but this suggests I—like so many in the U.S.—really am traumatized by the way things are going. That may be understandable, but I think I’m going to fight harder. Watch this space.

  3. “People like me who has [sic] ceased to extend civility…?” Well, *that*’s certainly a fair read of contemporary culture. Fine, Nellie B.; happy trails. I hope you like Phil’s posts better.

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