You say you’re tired
How I hate to hear you use that word

—Warren Zevon, “Never Too Late for Love” (1982)


Those who have truck with musicologists may have noticed a certain despondency, in recent days, in their Facebook posts.  Quite a few (of my friends, anyway) are talking (again) about leaving the listerv of the American Musicological Society, AMS-L, or of leaving the Society altogether.  A bit of background on what can get musicologists riled to the point of such a firefight:

Several days ago, someone posted an innocent (to me) query about language requirements in Ph.D. programs; they’re revising their requirements, do we all still feel two languages are necessary, is German required to be one of the languages, and so on.  Several people chimed in (myself included), extolling the virtues of language requirements, two languages at least for translation purposes, some said yes on German and some not necessarily, and so on.

A pause for background: German was the native language of the young discipline of Musikwissenschaft in the nineteenth century, and as such much of the crucial literature on many topics of research—which, in classical musicology, meant music of the middle ages and Renaissance—was in German.  I finished my undergraduate degree in fall, 1979, at about the time that the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the first edition, 1980, as distinguished from the older Grove’s Dictionaries) appeared; before that, the only comprehensive music reference source was “MGG,” Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart [Music in History and in the Present], and all classical musicians, not just musicologists, were told that learning German was a necessity, myself included.  We thought those were the rules, and that was that.  My doctoral program required two languages; before I entered in 1986, I reviewed my junior high and high school French and spent five hours per day for a month or so pounding through Debbie’s undergrad German textbook. I passed my exams that registration week, and entered the program on Day 1 with my language translation exams completed.  Yay me.  Anyway, back to our story:

One person had enough of the all the agreement and posted a bitterly satirical letter of “support,” a real boilover, making arch reference to the “time-tested customs from half a century ago” (the irony is apparent to those familiar with the musicology job market), making the point (via sarcasm) that plenty of musics are studied now that are not dependent on German- or any foreign language capability for familiarity with their scholarly literatures, that there are plenty of other literatures beyond traditional musicological publications that need to be mastered, and so forth.  (This person is a friend, incidentally; I wrote privately, surprised by his tone, and a long and frank dialogue ensued.)

Following this, the conversation continued on his and others’ FB pages.  Things got a lot more heated, personal, sometimes insulting, and occasionally weird.  On the listserv and the FB pages, there were charges and counter-charges of privilege—privileging of classical repertories over others, the privilege of those who had the opportunity to study languages and lecture have-nots about the benefits of language acquisition, so as to make them, presumably, and more like mid-century polylingual European emigrés, that other important literatures are ignored when we emphasize the traditional German scholarly literatures…then the counter-accusations: the privilege inherent in speaking English as a first-and-only language because so much scholarly literature is now in English so anglophones are expecting other people to accomplish what they never had to, the idea that related literatures (e.g. post-colonial criticism or Queer Theory) are by no means only in English and that to assume so betrays an underlying hegemonism…you get the idea. The claims of a very short time ago that anglophones ought to learn languages to better understand each other and other cultural values and thought systems (even as reflected in their scholarly literatures) suddenly evaporated into bitter objections to being made to follow traditional degree requirements, and the implied invalidation of those requirements.

So we’ve all seen, recently, a certain amount of ugly and dismissive writing. It is no wonder, really, that when people treat each other this way some consider bailing from the Society, period.  Still: the AMS is not a monolith; it’s a society made up of humans.  I’ve been a member for over thirty years, and have seen bitter critiques of the Society for its traditionalism and conservatism, and (contrariwise) for its pandering to newfangled and fashionable but ephemeral subdisciplines, for its lack of interest in teaching (which many of us do) in favor of a kind of lordly, they-can-like-it-or-lump-it-but-look-at-my-important-research focus, or (contrariwise) its exaggerated interest in teaching, which excludes independent scholars (those without jobs), for its lack of improving the dire job situation, and so on.  Really, the Society—were it a single Being—should feel quite proud of itself for having such power and influence over everything.  It should also feel wretched about itself for (apparently) failing at absolutely everything.

Let me offer one key point, and gloss it.

Beware words like “privilege” and “entitlement”. Whether originally so intended or not, those words are now wielded like nightsticks.  Facile comments like “Check your privilege!” and “That’s because of your entitlement!” (true story: a guest lecturer from Berkeley once responded to a question from my Doktorvater with “You wouldn’t ask that if you weren’t a straight white male!”) too often betray a glib lack of reflection. There are different kinds of privilege: the privilege of being blissfully monolingual, or the privilege of being polylingual, whatever the circumstances that got you there.  A tougher one: the privilege of being safely part of the majority culture vs. the privilege of biculturalism, of standing outside it enough to gain an understanding of what others don’t even notice.  Some consider biculturalism a disadvantage, some an advantage.  The privilege of having enough money for anything you want vs. the poor-little-rich-kid syndrome where one essentially has no friends, talents, or even identity because one never had to work for anything or be anything; all was provided, and all scrapes could be smoothed over with money.  [Example deleted: a certain Reader felt that the would-be assassin I used as an example was inappropriate.  We all know such cases, though, and despite their privilege often pity them.]  You may feel like a lifelong victim because of your ethnicity, gender, or gender preference, but another might wave all that aside and look longingly at your teaching position and see you as one of the privileged few—very, very few.  It is virtually impossible, I think, to avoid a certain blindness: I got my job because of the quality of my work, whatever my background; with others however, class, or ethnicity, or gender (whether the box is prominently ticked or prominently unticked) obviously played a major role.  I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, in other words, but other people had lots of help and advantages I didn’t enjoy.

This is natural human psychology, and it’s hard as hell to tame it, especially in straitened times of scant resources and dicier contemporary culture—thinking of the open tolerance (if not encouragement) of racism, victimization of women, and much else. The deep stresses and concerns we feel are real, yet turning on each other and scrambling to the moral high ground with our banners of self-righteousness is not going to get it done.  Another key point:

Too often we unknowingly become others’ demons.  The language discussion outlined above exemplified that we can over-analyze at the drop of a hat.  Someone’s warm endorsement of the benefits of language study can become, in another’s mind, the very embodiment of an stereotypical authority-brandishing, tyrannical academic figure.  The very mention of one of the newer critical schools might raise hackles as one remembers an unhappy faculty meeting or Q & A session after a paper.  Simply to advocate for the importance of something you like must really mean that something I like is being marginalized and disrespected.

We all do it, on various levels, and it’s infantile.  We have to do better.

Finally: for those considering leaving the AMS, I think you shouldn’t.  A professional disciplinary society is only as good as the people in it, and those who leave cede any claim to further representation or influence in it.  (Not to mention the other obvious point that those who are not invested in it have no right to offer criticism later on, or ask for support—join up, or shut up.)  If the character of the organization troubles you, step up to lead and change the attitude and discussion.  A past president once congratulated me for an exasperated E-Mail I once sent that made this very point: you think everything is run by swells from the Ivies and the east coast? Send an E-Mail offering to serve on a committee or two! No, you may not get your first choice immediately, but there are many committees and the AMS Board is always looking for people to serve on them.  Don’t sit and sulk by the phone; let people know you’re interested and get involved.  Apparently, this frustrated E-note had had some success and some younger people had gotten involved.  It’s still advice to consider: you don’t like what you see? Work to change it—you may learn something about other people and other constituencies in the process.

The Warren Zevon song quotes above continues

Who am I to say
I know the way you feel
I’ve felt your pain
And I know your sorrow

True; and I don’t know your rage either.  Here’s the thing, though: you don’t know mine.  As long as we give ourselves permission to go off on each other, personally, for such elusive reasons as what another “obviously” represents, we are being self-indulgent rather than constructive.

These are not pretty times, culturally, in the good old U.S. of A.  Angrily shooting inside the tent is hardly going to make things better.  We all may have more allies than we think, if we could stop looking through the gunsight enough to see them in real life.

Posted in Academia, Musicology | 1 Comment

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

Update: Right after I posted this it occurred to me that I had posted video of fascists marching (from 2015, btw) and missed my chance to insert the perfect reaction gif:


Posted in Image post, Politics

Good prose is written by people who are not frightened

This summer has been, for me, the summer of Twin Peaks. I am a huge David Lynch fan from way back. Twin Peaks gives me all kinds of things I can write about, not least of which is my theory that DougieCoop is Parsifal. But when I sat down to write something about it a couple of nights ago, the words got caught in my throat. I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote a single page and finally threw it out in disgust. This has been going on for months. Everything I write looks so paltry on the page, so feeble and colorless and trite. It feels dishonest, for some reason. I have been trying to figure out why.

Officially, I don’t believe in writer’s block. As Garrison Keillor once pointed out, plumbers don’t suffer from plumber’s block, and writing is, among other things, a craft you can practice whether or not the muse decides to pay you a visit. And yet I have been struggling, day after day, to write this one goddam thing I promised the Los Angeles Review of Books (sorry, Lee), straining like a sick man on a toilet, trying to squeeze out so much as one little compacted turd of a paragraph. I know what I would tell a graduate student who came to me with this problem: keep writing. Focus on drafting, not revising, when composing your thoughts. Give yourself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls the Shitty First Draft. Sound advice, usually, but it isn’t helping me now. The problem lies deeper.

In his 1940 essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell argues that the novel is the characteristic “product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.” And the decade just behind him, the 1930s, was uniquely hostile to writing born of free minds:

From 1933 onwards the mental climate was increasingly against it. Anyone sensitive enough to be touched by the zeitgeist was also involved in politics. Not everyone, of course, was definitely in the political racket, but practically everyone was on its periphery and more or less mixed up in propaganda campaigns and squalid controversies. Communists and near-Communists had a disproportionately large influence in the literary reviews. It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship (‘Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?’) was at work in nearly everyone’s mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.

What Orwell says of novels is equally true of my own preferred medium, the essay. Fear, I think, is why my writing has dried up.

One of Orwell’s insights about totalitarianism is reminiscent of Foucault’s panopticon bit: the most effective way to control people is to turn them into their own jailers. Once you have been disciplined to ask “ought I to say this? Is it pro-Trump?” — or for that matter, “could this be construed as being racist/sexist/ablist?” — the censors need not tell you to fall in line with the ruling orthodoxies. You do it for them. If you retain some memory of happier and freer days, when you could write without fear of a mob, real or virtual, visiting professional ruin and personal disgrace on you, you are reproached by the ghost of your former integrity as you vacillate weakly over the choice of a pronoun. Your mind turns about smaller and smaller spaces. Like a veal calf, it eventually discovers it can’t turn around at all. You can’t think freely, so you can’t write worth a damn.

And that’s what’s up with me. I write something down; the inner censor frowns; and I start trimming and shaping what I’ve written, not in order to make it more vivid or precise, but to avoid violating the rules, whatever they are.

We are never really told what they are. For our self-appointed minders, this is a feature, not a bug. Anna Holmes wrote an essay about “cultural appropriation” in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, which concludes with Holmes saying “You can’t always prove appropriation. But you usually know it when you see it.” Which means that Holmes has reserved for herself (and whomever she deems sufficiently woke) the privilege of deciding what appropriation is. In a world where a university can insist that a free yoga class for disabled people be cancelled because of the “cultural genocide” of British imperialism and an artwork accused of appropriation can trigger a petition that it be destroyed, this is no small amount of power.

You know you are dealing with tyranny when the rules are never precisely formulated or written down, so that you can never know in advance when you are violating them. You know you are dealing with tyranny’s ideological enforcers when they make themselves the sole arbiters of the rules — when the rule becomes consubstantial with the rule-givers. And you know you are dealing with a tyrannical rule when merely questioning it is tantamount to breaking it.

The mood in American society at large is more hostile to free minds and free speech than at any point in the 30 years I’ve been here. Not only in the White House — that’s obvious — but also in academia and its outer orbital rings, the culture industry, stocked as it is with the gleaming and toothy spawn of America’s elite private colleges, busily putting the ideas they learned at school into Facebook-ready form. It is a time when any random professor can accidentally say or do something that aggravates the horde of the perpetually aggravated, which then sets about making an example of the offender. Remember Pierpaulo Polzonetti? Remember when Polzonetti made it weird there for a second and we all lost our minds? What did he do wrong, again? Oh yeah, he used the words “frightening crescendo” to describe the voice of a black prisoner getting upset. For this, Polzonetti was called a racist, a white supremacist, etc., and classical music itself — the music that Polzonetti wanted to teach prisoners — became “the music of white supremacy.”

This insane inflation of concepts (white supremacy goes from denoting David Duke to anyone who plays the bassoon) is something intellectuals are prone to. In graduate school, I took a seminar in neo-Marxist philosophy from a student of Herbert Marcuse. He invited a friend, a cranky old German philosopher who had known Adorno, to come speak to us. As worshipful acolytes in the cult of St. Adorno, we all wanted to know, what was he really like? And to our disappointment our guest replied, “he was a fanatic, like all intellectuals.”

If you have read much Adorno, you know what he means. Reading Adorno’s writing on the “culture industry,” you can see him striving to make a theory that covers everything, a theory that brooks no exceptions and from which there is no escape. Freudianism and Marxism (two especially important sources of Adorno’s thought) are the epitome of such totalizing theories; it’s not an accident that academia is the only place they still have much currency.

(Wait, Adorno, Marx, and Freud were all Jewish. Could someone accuse me of anti-Semitism here? Maybe I should throw a non-Jewish name in there, just to be safe …)

And the only thing that intellectuals like more than totalizing ideas is being the ones to whisper them in the tyrant’s ear. This is what Mark Lilla means by the philotyranny of intellectuals, of which there is a long and sordid history.

Many of the ideas that progressives are using as cudgels — for example, “cultural appropriation” — were originally ideas of limited provenance applied in skilled and disciplined ways by people trained to think precisely, which is to say, by academics. But the intellectual’s tendency to fanaticism means that we are never satisfied with the limits we have learned to place on ideas. And so “cultural appropriation” starts off as an intelligent way to discuss why you shouldn’t wear blackface and ends up with campus activists bullying white girls for wearing hoop earrings. Marshall McLuhan was onto something when he suggested that any idea, pushed as far as it will go, reverses into its opposite. And so anti-racist activists end up telling people to stick to their own kind.

Sound like anyone we know?

I hardly need to remind you of Donald Trump’s authoritarian intolerance of thought and speech at odds with his own. I don’t think anyone is in any doubt about that. Even the diehard Trumpists, the ones who will never abandon him no matter what he does, the ones for whom Trump will always be Bonnie Prince Charlie — a loser and pretender burnished to the high shine of a romantic Lost Cause — even they know perfectly well how hostile Trump is to free speech. They like that about him.

But this isn’t the whole danger Trump poses to public discourse. The bigger danger has to do with the fact that he is the first reality-show president. He is must-see TV: his power is to make us incapable of not talking about him. Sure, Trump the man wants nothing but adulation, but Trump the media phenomenon is the ultimate fulfillment of the old maxim that there is no bad publicity. Earlier this summer I was in London for a conference, and there was no escaping Trump; later, I went on vacation in Canada, and there was still no escaping Trump. Trump is everywhere, on everyone’s lips, on their minds, in their Twitter feeds, on TV, in books, in classrooms … Trump has single-handedly recreated the monoculture. Even in our fragmented media world, finally there is a show that everyone is watching. The unspooling disaster of Trump’s presidency is your favorite show. Admit it. You hate him — fine. You still love the show. You say you hate the show — fine. You’re still watching it, and how you feel about it doesn’t make any difference to website click-counters. Trump is a virus, a zombie virus that propagates in our minds: get bitten and you become another shambling recruit in the army of the undead, mindlessly attacking the dwindling band of holdouts who are just trying to live their lives.

You want to know when we will finally be rid of Trump? When we no longer find him entertaining.

You must admit that  Trump’s drive to put his brand on everything — Trump University, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump water, Trump this, Trump that — has been wildly successful. Trump has stamped his logo on the mind of practically every public thinker and writer in America today. His extremes have prompted complementary and opposite extremes in his opponents, just as the embossment on a document is the obverse of the stamp. The intellectual options have narrowed down to two: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. But it’s still all Trump. A precise negation of Trump leaves a Trump-shaped hole, which Trump’s ideological enemies fill with their own rages and resentments. And so Trump’s certainties, his brutal simplifications, his foreclosing of all debate, his refusal to talk to other human beings like, well, human beings … all these things appear in an inverted mirror image opposite him.

(I pause to wonder: will this post get picked up by some odious snitch at a site like Campus Reform or The College Fix? You know, those websites that aggregate conservative complaints about liberal professors and send out the flying rage monkeys to write them death threats? Maybe I should tone down the zombie stuff … )

Thus we have lately seen a steady drip-drip-drip of attacks on professors from both the Left and Right. This Chronicle roundup gives a useful overview of the harassment and threats of violence that various unlucky academics have had to deal with. If you are wondering if there is any empirical measure of the vanishing space for the free expression of ideas, check out FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a sort of ACLU for academics) and its database of speakers disinvited from college appearances.* In the early naughts, this happened roughly 10-12 times a year. In 2016 it was 43.

One phrase I have heard a lot lately is “I’m done.” As in, I’m done talking to cis white men, or I’m done talking to social justice warriors, or I’m done talking to you. It’s a satisfying rhetorical flourish, this verbal equivalent to storming out of the room in outrage, cape whirling behind you. (You’re wearing a cape because you’re a hero.) It’s very tempting to say “I’m done.” How much easier life would be without having to make yourself understood to people you don’t like, or to understand them. When we say “I’m done” we might imagine we are one of the characters left onstage after Don Giovanni has been dragged off to hell — my new life stretches out before me, free at last from a troublesome companion.

(Hmm. Left activists don’t like being called “social justice warriors.” I think I’m using the phrase in a suitably ironic and distanced way, as the thing that people say, not what I say, but irony is always the first thing to go in this kind of discussion. Maybe I should change it …)

This way of thinking is totally illiberal. We should be ashamed to announce our unwillingness or inability to talk to those different from ourselves. The fact that everyone seems proud of shutting down conversations is a depressing sign of the times. In his piece on the burgeoning genre of the “How I Felt On Election Night” essay, Carlos Lozada quotes Katie Kitamura, who in a letter to her young child writes “I worry that you will grow up in a time of ideological haste, a time of wild conviction and coarsened thought.” A world of wild conviction and coarsened thought is exactly the world in which writers must make themselves at home now. The enemies of ungoverned speech, thought, and writing are lined up on every side around a rapidly vanishing space of freedom.

Of course, there are those who will automatically discount everything I have said here because I am a white male. Rebutting that notion would take a whole other post. Actually, though, you can never rebut a comment designed to demean you by erasing your individuality and treating you only as the instance of a type. Which is another thing that intellectuals are very good at doing, by the way. And anyway, it’s not as if people usually come back at you with arguments about this sort of thing. What you get is mostly the customary internet attitude of snarky condescension — Aww, did you get your little privileged white-guy fee-fees hurt? To which the only real rejoinder is the one Margaret Atwood imagines for her protagonist in Cat’s Eye, a painter unhappily married to a guy who is suspiciously similar to my Dad.

Jon sits in the living room, having a beer with one of the painters. I am in the kitchen, slamming around the pots.

“What’s with her?” says the painter.

“She’s mad because she is a woman,” Jon says. This is something I haven’t heard in years, not since high school. Once it was a shaming thing to say, and crushing to have it said about you, by a man. It implied oddness, deformity, sexual malfunction.

I go to the living room doorway. “I’m not mad because I am a woman,” I say. “I am mad because you’re an asshole.”


So if you care about any of this, what are you supposed to do? I’ll tell you what I am doing. For a couple of years now, I have been engaged in an extraordinary correspondence with J. F. Martel, filmmaker and author of the brilliant book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, on subjects related to what I have called “Weird Studies.” And guess what domain name was available? So J.F. and I are going to put to use the 200000 or so words we’ve written to one another by launching the Weird Studies Podcast. The original name for it was “the limits of the thinkable,” which is a bit clunky but nevertheless conveys the point of the show: to discuss ideas that our comfortable habits of mind resist. As J.F. wrote in his own announcement, we “both have a strange attraction to the weird and value the affordances it grants those who choose to look at the world through its lens.” My hope is that one of those affordances — maybe the main one — is the possibility of expanding our limits of the thinkable.

Plus I think we’re going to do a show on Twin Peaks …

*”Disinvited” here can mean a variety of things: the rescinding of a formal invitation, “no-platforming,” shouting down an invited speaker, the old “we can’t guarantee your safety” ploy, etc. This database counts both successful and unsuccessful attempts at disinviting.**

**As I finish writing this, an old friend calls me up and I tell him about what I’ve been writing. “Don’t get fired,” he advises. It’s true, this is a world where craven university administrations sell out their faculties again and again and allow professors to be dismissed for trivial and trumped-up reasons. I suspect that this is due to a wholesale surrender to the customer-is-always-right ideology of the neoliberal university, but this is a topic for another day. I’m looking on the bright side: if I get fired, I will at least have a lot less committee work to do.

Posted in Academia, Podcasts, Politics, Weird Studies | 6 Comments

Dayan ha-Emet

Or, “the True Judge.” We say, “Blessed are you, the True Judge” when we hear of a death.  It is a reminder of who’s Who and what’s what; I don’t believe it implies acceptance, approval, or anything of that nature.  Which is good: I do not accept, I do not acquiesce, and I bite my thumb at fate, and the laws of physics and medicine that took from us a monumentally humane, influential, gloriously productive, learned artist who taught, inspired, and collaborated with so many…while continuing to suffer so many abject morons, poisonous, hurtful, sub-insect lifeforms, to survive and flourish.

Today I heard that my piano teacher in high school, Paul R. Bishop, died in his sleep last night. I imagine it happened after midnight, so I am writing on the very day (well, posting on the day after) he took his bow and went on to his next Engagement. As always, I am reminded of Liszt, who to the end of his life mourned the premature death of his student Carl Tausig, and that God suffered so many fools to continue living while removing Tausig from this mortal coil.  Paul spent his life teaching and accompanying and being a musical force around Claremont, California, my hometown. In recent years, Paul and I had had the pleasure of reconnecting through Facebook; on one visit to Claremont perhaps three or four years ago, I was able to hear a concert he played in and to talk to him after, perhaps thirty years after I’d last seen him. It was a joy to be in touch again; he told me that he remembered what I first played for him (Mendelssohn, Rondo Capriccioso—this was 1971, and I was 14) and that he had thought, “my God, this kid is prodigious.” He was a young teacher then, and I assume he later came to understand that fast fingers with no brain don’t mean nuffin’, that I wasn’t all that impressive.

I’d begun studying with Paul because the relationship with my childhood piano teacher had begun to deteriorate.  Eloise Wilder was a fine, lively, nurturing musician, but as a tween I was finding the old-lady-piano-teacher thing … well, you can imagine.  My mother said, “Well, I wonder if it isn’t time for you to study with a man,” and I thought that would be a good idea.  (This is, I suppose, sexist: I recently brought it up to Mom, now 91, and she said, “Listen, Eloise knew exactly what I meant,” and that was that. Mom is a trained teacher, and says what she thinks and for the most part that’s how. it. is., and she got it right that time.) So Mr. Pierce, at Ralph Pierce Music, recommended Paul, who was one of the new teachers in the studio that was opening next door to his music store.  Early on, Paul asked me if I wanted to make music my career, or at least major in it in college, and I was sure I did not—I’ve always been wonderfully self-aware!—so he said fine, I could study whatever I wanted.  This meant, then, loads of Bach little preludes and fugues, Scarlatti sonatas, and he introduced me to the sonatas of Antonio Soler.  Also Scott Joplin, before The Sting came out, and he even let me play a dismal 1894 potboiler called “The Great Chariot Race March” by E. T. Paull, a piece later associated (somehow) with the silent movie version of Ben-Hur. I believe a colleague of my father’s found it and brought it to me—he had a thing for Lew Wallace and Ben-Hur—and I learned it. I even played it in a recital, to Paul’s amusement.

Such long-forgotten, disrespected consumer-market music has resurfaced in my life, in recent years, thought that’s a story for another day.

Paul was the first music teacher I ever had who made me aware that there was cool stuff out there beyond the notes on the score—a knowledge side, in other words. He was an organist and harpsichordist in addition to being a pianist: Baroque player, in large part, and he one day drove us out to Kasimov’s Pianos in Pasadena in “Golda,” his campily named, gold-colored Mercury Capri, a car I coveted much as I coveted his sight-reading ability, German fluency, knowledge of every goddamned musical thing, etc. Kasimov’s was one of two U.S. importers of Blüthner pianos at the time, an East German brand, and they handled Neupert instruments as well.  Now, Neupert is known, today, for the metal-framed, plucked-Steinway school of harpsichord construction, models that were quite ahistorical in many ways, but I certainly didn’t know any better.  For me, that day, the musical world blew open. I played harpsichords, I played Blüthners, I played a clavichord, I played the Neupert version of a Mozart-era fortepiano, and each instrument was a revelation. We went out for lunch afterward, and talked it all over, and I was pretty much beside myself.  I’m a high school kid, but this is something much bigger: suddenly there was this secret side of music, encompassing languages, stuff to know, strange ornaments to figure out, scholarly disagreements on what Elizabethan ornaments meant. Suddenly my native academic world and my acquired musical world intersected, and beyond gibbering I really didn’t know how to respond.

Paul had studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and that was in large part why I took interest in that school and eventually went there (my parents were really not very helpful in terms of higher-ed guidance in music, which I eventually did decide upon as a major)…the faculty were almost all different from those he knew by the time I got there, but I think it was the only place on earth I belonged at the time. That I’d spent so much time playing Baroque music and early Classical music in high school meant not that I was a Baroque specialist, but rather—far more importantly—that I had something I liked, something to which I was drawn. Paul fed my sense of being excited by something.  So although that “something” later changed—at UCSB, I was drawn more to medieval and Renaissance music, and then to nineteenth-century piano music, and so of course the world blew open again and again—it was that I knew how to be drawn to things, whatever they were, to reach out and grab them, without being placidly limited to what my piano teacher next handed me.  Paul was no dictatorial Master; my crazes and weirdities, though it may seem surprising, were not typical among piano students, and Paul had a good sense of how to handle someone as wildly undisciplined but energetic as I.

(I remember the lesson where we talked about the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina,” which I had just discovered—“OK, so it’s a raised fourth,” he said, “and the strings…” To me, it was magic, and the idea that a piano teacher, of all people, would be willing to discuss a 1960s pop-song with me blew my mind.)

If I found his reaction a bit calm, there was a good reason. At UCSB, he himself had been in a band called Jaim—they even released a couple of singles, and an LP.  My record-collector brother subsequently found me the singles, though I never owned the LP (Paul loaned it to me long ago, but I never recorded it).  I had the pleasure of giving Paul my copies of the singles within the last year or two; he was grateful because his copy of the album had been borrowed by a “friend” and not returned.  He had no recordings of that material. The songwriting (which he had nothing to do with) was, unsurprisingly, iffy, but the arrangements were charmingly folk-progressive: variations on the first Bach prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier as background in one song (“Ship of Time,” the single, I think), and earnest playing throughout.  I do have mp3s of the four sides of the singles, which I made before I gave him the records.

And so we came back in touch, exchanging jokes and memes and recordings we liked and so on. In recent months Paul had had an operation—cancer-related, I think, though he didn’t advertise—but he was looking forward to completing his chemo, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and he was, so far as I could tell, optimistic. Once, recently, he was less than clear (in a drug-addled state, as he later admitted), he referred to me to a mutual friend as H. Pr. Bellman or something. Sweet, but sorry: to Paul Bishop I would forever be a student, not H. Prof. anything.

And so I read of his departure.  “Can you believe I’m going to be 65??” he had asked when we met, a few years ago.  I was in my mid-to-late 50s then, I think, and I’d studied with him when I was in high school, so yeah, I suppose… But I’d assumed we might have a couple more decades of exchanging jokes and musical material. After all this time, right? Isn’t that how the story would go?

There’s a particular kind of pathos, for me at least, when I as a teacher lose one of my own teachers.  I don’t blubber and sob, but as one who chose to spend, and was privileged to spend, his professional life in the Great Chain of Teaching, there is something of the sense of being orphaned, somehow, whenever one of my beloved teachers takes the Next Step. I have received such wonderful inspiring stuff, such nissim, that it seems that the people who gifted me with it will always be present, somehow, available to answer questions and chat.

And, indeed, so they will: they with me always, as my father is, and chat with them and thank them is something I do regularly. But Paul: one of my unfinished projects is an article on Scarlatti—“Three Scenes from Scarlatti,” I was going to call it—and I was going to dedicate it to you.  I still will, but since you introduced me to Scarlatti I’d hoped you would read it. Damn it.

Forn gezunt: go well, Paul, fly high, soar. You touched so many of us, and it is our privilege to try to pay it forward. I will never play Bach, Scarlatti, or Soler without thinking of you, with gratitude. For now: find rest and renewal, and the multitudes here wish your soul a glorious journey onward.

Posted in Ave Atque Vale, Education | 1 Comment

Trump vs. Trudeau: An Analysis

I suppose it’s a sign of what things have come to when we celebrate a successfully defended handshake as a famous victory. But I’ll take it. I have never been prouder, as a Canadian, than when Justin Trudeau shrewdly countered Donald Trump’s attempts to big-dog him:


As we academics like to say, there’s a lot to unpack here.

Rupert Myers notes that Trump is the living embodiment of those books that promise to reveal the secrets of power and dominance:

The handshake is the ultimate focus of anxiety for a certain sort of self-conscious man, and there are none more obviously fixated by these self-help books than Donald Trump. Just as Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person looks like, he also does a laughable impersonation of an alpha male.

From the over-long red tie and gold lift to the ridiculous photographs and the dyed comb-over, Trump has imbibed deeply from the well of bad self-help guidance to project success.

The apogee of his performance is the handshake, the “Trump Pump”; for all the catastrophes of his Presidency, we shouldn’t overlook how ridiculous the pump is, and how symbolic it is of his approach.

Let this little essay be a first, halting step in the great humanistic project of grasping the complex symbolism of the Trump administration. And grasping it, one hopes, with the same manly vigor with which Trump grasps the hands of his adversaries.

The defining feature of the TrumpPump™ usually comes a few seconds into the handshake. The sequence goes like this: Trump’s target comes in range and extends a hand; Trump grasps it, gives it a few ordinary pumps, and then suddenly yanks it away from its owner’s body. The TrumpPump™ victim loses possession of his center of gravity and is forced to lurch forward into Trump’s personal space. A win for the Big Dog.

For instance, you have probably seen Trump yanking Shinzo Abe’s hand like he’s trying to start a rusty lawnmower.


But this is not a new move. On the campaign trail, Mike Pence repeatedly looked like a Hoosier getting his arm caught in the thresher:


There is a supercut of Trump handshakes, and a little editing shows the strange invariance of this tugging maneuver.


Until he met Justin Trudeau, Trump was the Ronda Rousey of handshakes. Like Rousey’s famous armbar, the TrumpPump™ claimed one victim after another, and even if they knew it was coming, they were powerless to stop it. But like Holly Holm, Trudeau had studied his opponent’s technique, and, drawing on his experience as a boxer, used control of distance, positioning, and timing to defeat his formerly invincible opponent.

A look at Trudeau’s 2012 boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau — “the thrilla on the hilla” — is instructive. Brazeau is what trainers call a swarmer, a hard puncher with a smothering, high-pressure style, always trying to come inside his opponent’s range and overwhelm him with flurries of strikes. Trudeau, a 3-1 underdog going into the fight, is more of a true boxer, an out-fighter who relies on his longest strike, the jab, to keep his opponent at distance and open up opportunities for power shots. It is usually said that a swarmer beats a boxer, and indeed in the first round Trudeau was getting the worst of it as Brazeau waded in, winging hooks to the body and head. But towards the end of the first round, Trudeau was starting to time his jab and hit Brazeau as he was coming in.


Here Trudeau throws a weak pawing jab as Brazeau is telegraphing a left hook, and although Brazeau gets off first, both punches land at almost the same time. Brazeau throws with more power, but his looping punch takes longer to get to its target. Trudeau’s punch is light but straight and covers much less distance to find its mark. So Trudeau can see Brazeau loading up his left and use Brazeau’s momentum coming in to spear him on the end of his jab. Trudeau gets cuffed across the face, but Brazeau looks like a man who just walked into a patio door. Here Trudeau shows us how timing and positioning can beat power. You don’t need to put everything into your punch; if you time it right, you just put your fist where your opponent’s face will be when he comes charging in.


And this moment in the first round tells the tale of the fight as a whole. In round two, Brazeau slows down (his conditioning was clearly not up to sustaining the blitz of the first round) and Trudeau finds the timing on his jab. Now he doesn’t have to take one to land one; he’s continually cracking Brazeau with his jab and pulling his own head back to avoid counters. Remember, Brazeau’s style relies on getting inside his opponent’s reach and into the “pocket,” the close-in space where he can dig in his hooks. But after the first round, Trudeau uses his longer reach from a bladed stance to keep Brazeau stuck on the outside, where he is forced to eat shot after shot. In the clip below, Brazeau takes several hard jabs and covers up, at which point Trudeau comes inside to land a six-punch combo that ends in a thudding jab that snaps Brazeau’s head back:


So, long story short: in this fight, Trudeau used timing, distance, and positioning to beat raw aggression.

So let’s look at that handshake again:


Trump is all raw aggression. He engages you on the outside and hauls you inside, where he can control the space around your body and immobilize you. In the TrumpPump™ supercut, everyone makes the same mistake and tries to stay on the outside. But Trump is a big man, I’m guessing 260 pounds, and at distance he can easily put his considerable mass in motion to haul you in. This is what that tugging motion is about. It’s like it’s like when you yank on a frozen car door: you can get more purchase on the door if you grab the handle, stand back a little, and flail your weight around at the end of the lever (your arm) than if you stand in close and use only your arm strength to pull the door open.

So the first thing we notice is that Trudeau denies Trump distance, moving in quickly and clinching with him to smother his attack. Timing is key to managing distance: in fighting, time is space*, and if you get in on an opponent’s attack quickly you can deny him space to move. Which is what Trudeau does. With Trudeau’s left hand on Trump’s tricep, Trump can’t move back to get the space he needs to put some mustard on his tug.

Also, notice that Trudeau comes in with a boxer’s bladed stance, side-on to Trump’s chest. This gives him a big mechanical advantage, as a fighter in a bladed stance is much harder to move off his center of gravity than one that is squared up and directly facing his opponent. As you can see from the video clips above, this is another mistake almost everyone makes with Trump, coming into range squared up and open to being off-balanced.

From this bladed, side-on stance, Trudeau can extend his right arm forward while keeping it held tight across his body. You can control a limb that is tight in to the body’s center mass much more easily than one that is held away from it, and Trump is thus unable to pull Trudeau’s arm across his center line.

The moment is reminiscent of a key episode from Holly Holm’s fight with Ronda Rousey. (This is mixed martial arts, not boxing, but the same basic tactics apply.) Rousey tries to set up a Judo uchi mata throw in order to get Holm to the canvas, where she can lock in her famous armbar. Previous opponents had never had much success blocking this sequence. But as Firas Zahabi points out in his excellent analysis of the fight, Holm positioned herself by the fence to deny Rousey the space she needed to gain purchase on the throw. This also put Holm in a position where she could keep her arm in close to her body and jerk it back when Rousey briefly pulled it out. (See the first five minutes of Zahabi’s analysis but especially the part around the four-minute mark.) Without control of the arm, Rousey couldn’t get the throw and was forced to stand and box with Holm, who was by far the superior striker and ended up knocking out Rousey in the second round.

So, to recap: Trudeau uses superior positioning, timing, and control of distance to defeat Trump’s high-pressure style just as he did in defeating Brazeau’s. In this instance, anyway, boxer beats swarmer: technique and ring smarts beat size, strength, and aggression.

I imagine that readers who came here to read something about music may be disappointed to see a close analysis of a fight instead, the analysis of fights being an enthusiasm some of my readers doubtless do not share with me. But like Norman Mailer, I am fascinated by the similarities between fighting and playing music: both are places where human wills can contend through the medium of energetic bodily performance. Both, then, offer opportunities for reading the minute traces of social contention, of attack and counter, aggression and resistance; both offer the analyst a microcosm of social life more generally.

So what larger conclusions can we draw from the Trudeau/Trump bout? First, Trump is, like Rousey, a pressure fighter, a swarmer. This is a style that understands force and only force. Pressure fighters are comfortable moving forward and taking the initiative, but when they can’t, they become vulnerable. Second, the pressure style works a lot of the time, partly because it looks like it should work. Pressure fighters often give fans the impression that they are invincible: think of Rousey, Mike Tyson, or Conor McGregor. But (third) no one style will always prevail. Fighting styles are like rock-paper-scissors, where a swarmer beats a boxer, a slugger beats a swarmer, and a boxer beats a slugger. Usually, anyway. But clever fighters can win even in a bad style match-up by understanding the nature of their opponents’ game. This is what Trudeau did: he knew that Trump thinks aggression and force are the answers to everything, so he was able to make adjustments that made Trump’s aggressiveness a liability for him.

Which actually seems like it might be a pretty good strategy for dealing with Trump more generally.

*Look at that slow-mo gif of Trudeau and Brazeau again. Trudeau has less time to land a shot than Brazeau, because he is reacting to a punch that is already being thrown. But because Trudeau’s jab is straight and has less distance to travel, both attack and counter land at the same time. Trudeau economizes on space to give himself time; conversely, Brazeau takes up more space and gives up time. In fighting, as in Parsifal, time becomes space.

Posted in Athletics, Gestural analysis, Politics | 1 Comment



Me at the Bloomington “No Ban No Wall” protest today. So much for my short-lived “I’m not talking about American politics” thing. Trump affects the lives of people around the world, including Canadians. Viva la résistance, wherever you are.

Posted in Come at me bro

Protest Songs I

In my last blogpost, I asked where the protest songs were.  That post, “No Pasaràn,” was posted on Saturday January 21, and on that very date that a fine protest song (rehearsed online and performed for the first time at one of the Women’s Marches) saw the light of day.  I speak of “Quiet,” by Milck, here performed on the January 25 Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (on the link, it starts at 4:25 or so).  What I like about it is that—like many of the best protest songs—it gently straddles the personal and political; it’s musically strong (already rare enough) and has a personal message that is still sufficiently universal that one can imagine throngs of women singing along with it.

A day or two ago, Fiona Apple released “Tiny Hands” (Link found in this Washington Post article—“We don’t want your tiny hands/anywhere near our underpants”—that’s it), a chant intended for marches.  To my ear, the flaccidity of this release cannot be overstated.  Of course, the coverage (probably by her publicist) called it a “strong statement.”  No, it was a lame-as-hell statement.  Instead of actually saying anything that a wide swath of women might want to join in with, there’s a kind of elementary-school transgression (“She said ‘underpants’!”), coupled with a sort of premeditated confrontation.  In my world, at least, nothing is more boring than premeditated confrontation, and this example is informed (in the broadest, most charitable sense) by a sort of paleo-aesthetic of the mid-60s.  I—being of a certain age—have friends that can’t bring themselves to put on a pussy hat, however much they support the whole enterprise; it doesn’t look nice, it’s distasteful, really, must we be on this level?  Whether I agree or not, I’m in no position to judge the sentiment, and the wider question is raised: how wide a cross-section of women would really chant this kind of thing at a march, or after the moment has passed?  Is this barely existent—ah, “release”—really what is called for?  (Consider the clear concern, by the current occupant of the White House, of the size of a particular part of his anatomy.  “There’s nothing to worry about, believe me.”  Really.  Actually, pal, I hadn’t asked, and had not been inclined to think much about it.  I don’t think anyone else asked, either.  That you are inclined to talk about it redefines the entire idea of “distasteful.”)

Never mind that.  Another really good one is Alicia Keys’s “Holy War,” another of those deeply personal takes on a universal sentiment.  This one is also musically strong, and touches a deeply personal note—how is it that war (=bloodbath, fractured lives, unending grief) is noble while sex is obscene?  Is sex not a universal, or nigh-universal, experience and need?  How has this Land-of-Upside-Down worldview become a respected (or even tolerated) aspect of our national culture?  “Maybe we should love somebody/Maybe we could care a little more” is not a radical idea to a family-type guy like yours truly, or to many other familiar American types, but it’s actually a justified protest—since the 1980s, I think, Rush Limbaugh and other sub-insects have been making blame, resentment, contempt, and loathing utterly normal.  In such a culture, it is far too easy to forget that the baseline human experiences are lying down next to someone one cares about, rocking a baby one loves, wanting to veritably melt into the food-and-drink-and-hugs-and-family that is the clan-gathering of one’s own.  These songs remind us, at this most precarious of times, that the human default is connection (even for introverts!), and that if you care about, or have cared about, one other person, then it is no more than an extrapolation to care about the rest of your fellow-creatures.  It you’ve either found The One or would like to, the well-being of others (from other countries and cultures, from different classes) becomes a requirement for existence.  This is essentially indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders’s “If you hurt, I hurt” worldview: everyone should have love, medical care, education, opportunity, enough to eat, a safe place to live…the rest, we can argue about at our leisure.  But those are non-negotiables.  So Ms. Keys’s question is an old one: how is it that sex is obscene and war (agony, bloodshed etc.) is somehow OK?  What the hell is wrong with us?  To whom have we been listening, to our shame and detriment?

Now: these songs are all by women.  No one with even half a functioning synapse would say that women don’t have good reason to be infuriated by the current occupant of the White House.  Still, gentlemen, have we not had sufficient motivation ourselves?  I think of “Strange Fruit,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Eve of Destruction”—an infinite number of angles, tones, approaches.  When will our county be heard from?  Bring it, guys.  This isn’t just Vietnam or Civil Rights, it’s everything, all that and more: gutting of the rights of citizens, abuse of those seeking to be productive citizens in the American experiment (a long way from over, so don’t even think about it), the abuse of religious and ethnic minorities of all descriptions, gender equality of various kinds, tolerance of religious fascism to buy political approval…the whole shootin’ match.  Where are our songs?  I like Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”; but does that really answer the red-alert call of the present?

Everyone: get your guitars out.  All hands on deck.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics | 1 Comment