I have been puzzling about how to react to Jonathan’s recent squall of fury. Long story short: I didn’t like it. I’m not going to get into the politics of the 2016 election, because as I’ve written elsewhere, I think it would be tacky for me to opine about the politics of a country to which I am not a citizen. But what I will say is this: when Jonathan characterizes the people who voted against his own preferred candidate as

people who like open carry and beating minorities and LGBT people to a pulp because they’ve—y’know—had enough, and reached out to those who hate “elites” with a bitter passion while being unable to spell or think clearly

and for whom

shootin’ lib’ruls or other wrong-thinkers

is a sport and who live in places where

the open presence of military-grade weapons, hateful rhetoric, or a particular brand of religious culture

make them places where, he imagines (with disturbing relish), the aforementioned troglodytes are

huddling in [their] basements wondering, increasingly hysterically, if [their] children will make it home safely

all of which renders them unworthy of

help, or infrastructure, or even respect, or medical care, or a safety net, or environmental protections, or safe food standards, or Medicare, from the invasive U.S. government which they find so threatening  

etc., I’m not too happy.

This post indulges in the same tough-guy posturing and eliminationist rhetoric as right-wing rage radio. It is the very opposite of whatever is meant by “humane letters,” dehumanizing the people it deals with and proudly announcing its refusal to understand them. It turns political opponents into political enemies, into vermin fit only for extinction. It’s bad enough when people email me stuff like this; it galls me to see this hateful thing squatting there when you dial up Dial ‘M’, a blog I have spent more than a decade trying to make a welcoming place for anyone with so much as a passing interest in “music, musicology, and related matters” — though I realize that the “related matters” part has occupied more and more space of late.

Of course, it is not my blog. It is our blog, Jonathan’s and mine. In recent years I’ve posted more than Jonathan, but it’s not as if I’m the boss around here; it’s more like we’re roommates. We both write what we want or have to, and we have figured out how to get along. I know I have written stupid, intemperate things that have caused Jonathan to wince and grit his teeth. On this occasion, at any rate, the shoe is on the other foot.

In the run-up to the November election, someone asked me “do you actually know anyone who voted for Trump?” I do, sort of. I’m pretty sure a few of the guys at my boxing club voted for Trump … or perhaps they voted against Hillary? I don’t know, because we don’t talk about politics. We’re there to work on our footwork (still, for me, somewhat impaired by the broken leg) and not to talk politics. I don’t know these guys outside the context of the gym; I wouldn’t know them at all if we didn’t share a love of the sweet science. I do know they are human beings who care about their families and who, by their lights, are trying to do right by them, just as I am trying to do right by mine. They are patient, encouraging, and generous with their knowledge when an aging, unathletic, thick-around-the-middle college professor comes in looking to learn how to box. They do not treat me as an outsider, even though I am, let’s face it. So if one of them showed up in one of my classes, how could I fail to show them the same respect?

Jonathan’s post seems to be saying that the time is now past for this sort of can’t-we-all-get-along kumbayaism. I don’t think it is. Or at least, I hope it isn’t. If it really is too late for understanding and sympathy, then I no longer recognize the country I have been living in for decades now, and I don’t know what kind of future it holds for me or my children. Which I guess is how Jonathan is feeling these days.

The one cheering thing I have noticed since the election is that there is a positive spirit among some of my students: a will not to be overcome, a will not to be a victim, a will to keep building something, just generally a Will. It is not some cheesy fantasy of La Resistance (puh-leeze). It is a spirit that doesn’t necessarily have to do with politics as such; it is more basic than that.

What is that spirit?

I’ll put it in musical terms. This semester I’m teaching the second half of our undergraduate music history sequence, and I started out the class by talking about Beethoven. What I wanted to talk about was less Beethoven himself and more whatever it means when we say something is “Beethovenian.” Beethovenian is a place in the imagination, a certain idea of what it is to be a human being, the Promeathean will to sacrifice and endure and create. I was trying to express what it is about Beethoven that has so stirred the imaginations of music-lovers over the past two hundred years. And part of what is “Beethovenian” has to do with the spirit of the man himself, and how that spirit is communicated in his music. I taught the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, the Eroica (yeah, I know, real original), and led off by quoting a letter from Beethoven to Franz Gerhard Wegeler: “I will seize Fate by the throat; it will certainly not bend or crush me completely — Oh, it would be so lovely to live a thousand lives.” Beethovenian is the image of Prometheus chained to his rock, condemned every day to have an eagle tear out his liver and every night to have it grow back in order to allow the torture to continue, day after day for all time.

I like to imagine that actually Prometheus decides to let his liver grow back every time. The eagle is puzzled by this choice, and, once his delight at an easy meal has worn off, the eagle discovers that he, too, is chained to that rock. He has to come back every day until Prometheus is dead, and Prometheus won’t die. (This isn’t actually in the original myth: this is just my cracked-out fan theory.) So one day, the eagle asks Prometheus, why do you persist? Why this stubbornness? Why do you insist on growing anew each day? And Prometheus says, in response:

“Because fuck you. That’s why.”

That is the spirit I feel among my students, and that I would like to be a part of, thick-middled and middle-aged though I am. That Beethovenian spirit.

Posted in Cognitive liberty, Current Affairs, Education, Sticking Up For The Humanities!, Teaching | 1 Comment

Images from the Dark Land

America is a tune.  It must be sung together.

—Gerald Stanley Lee

Yeah; about that, Mr. Lee: it only works if it is sung together.  I’m thinking more of Johannes Ockeghem, who will be quoted at the end.

It has been months since my last blogpost.  For me, this has been a killer semester; most of the writing and editing of our (Halina Goldberg’s and my) book Chopin and His World, the companion volume to the 2017 Bard Summer Festival of the same name, has had to be done in the last couple of months.  Moreover, I had a pile of guest lectures and other papers to write, and a residence at another university.  I hope to take it easier this semester, though whether or not I actually manage that is always an open question.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been, and that is not what this blogpost is about.

Following the Electoral College vote, we now know that there will be no Deus ex Machina, and that those of us who do not practice hatred as a recreational pastime are in for a long four years (regardless of potential impeachment; look at VPEOTUS and the Congress).  Many of us are dispirited, but we imagine ourselves to build a Resistance by sending worthless crap around on the internet: Leonard Bernstein’s infuriatingly over-quoted “This will be our answer to violence” pablum, jokes about the President-Elect’s hair, wives, etc.  Remember the W-Looks-Like-A-Chimp garbage from 2000, after that election also was stolen?  That did us a lot of good.  Andy Borowitz and The Onion provide some dark levity.  Those of us of the liberal persuasion, true to our nature, have been spending some time—stupidly, pointlessly, infuriatingly—scolding and blaming ourselves.  We somehow should have reached out to low-information voters in gerrymandered districts, had more respect and empathy for people who like open carry and beating minorities and LGBT people to a pulp because they’ve—y’know—had enough, and reached out to those who hate “elites” with a bitter passion while being unable to spell or think clearly.  Yeah, sure, had the Democratic nominee not run such a “bad” campaign, had so many insiders/outsiders/Huma Abedins/X chromosomes, it would have gone differently…

I’m also seeing lots of doomsaying.  Maybe it’s excessive, maybe it’s real, but God knows it doesn’t help me at all.  I see pieties from the mass media, who gleefully, as Les Moonves unctuously admitted, gave the PEOTUS hours and hours of free coverage, to the advantage of the shareholders and no one else.  I will not dignify their hangdog fingerpointing and “sober” handwringing with attention or acknowledgment.  Finally, I see dozens of E-Mails schnorring for money from all the progressive organizations, the Democratic party, etc.

This isn’t about any of that, either.

What interests me, currently, is the idea of survival, psychological and physical.  As a tenured guy with white skin, I may be in a more privileged position than others, and so be in a better position to ride this out.  However, absolutely nothing is a given because there are no relevant precedents; I’ve always been a public Jew (this very day, the targeted Jew-hating is to be found in Whitefish, MT), and I cherish all kinds of people and would act to protect them, so I might well not enjoy much in the way of privilege.  The extent to which we will see real fascism, or more benign (?!) corporate plunderigarchy, or once-and-for-all Dr. Strangelove on 1/22/17 is all up in the air.

How do we stay alive?  I don’t mean how do we continue unchanged, I mean how do we stay alive? After, I mean, upping the regular donations to the ACLU, PP, SPLC, and the local food bank.  No, I’m not looking for your favorite worthy charities, thanks; don’t add them in the comments.  The human race, the glorious American polyglot, gets a Fail on this one, and I’m not interested in sending more money other places.

Some ideas, and your mileage may vary:

1)  We might think very, very carefully about where we travel.  Are there places in the U.S. where the open presence of military-grade weapons, hateful rhetoric, or a particular brand of religious culture would make one uncomfortable?  In many places in the U.S., the prevailing environment is now one where people gleefully jeer and threaten individuals from marginalized groups (“Trump’s in now; you’d better get lost”)—and that is happening everywhere, including my university campus in a blue state—and so I will think carefully about travel, what gigs I accept, and how I get there.  Would I drive through a state in which I feel unsafe, spending my money in that state’s economy, to get to a gig?  Maybe it’s better to fly, or just say no.  If that sounds unfriendly to my fellow American citizens, gosh—y’know, we have to draw the line somewhere, and your state gleefully f—ed the nation, so ….  Taking as an example firearm safety an control (one issue among dozens): the will of the NRA and their legislative toadies and dogsbodies is a threat to my personal safety, and I am forced to conclude that the areas most in support of the firearms industry and culture clearly do not need my help or involvement in any way.  That includes taking an interest when you become Aleppo.  Do feel free to produce an exegesis on the Second Amendment while you’re huddling in your basement wondering, increasingly hysterically, if your children will make it home safely.

2)  More locally: my current feeling is that Learning About Others Different From Me isn’t a good reason to leave a comfort zone/neighborhood anymore.  Sure, they can always load up and come find you, but I don’t think that looking for trouble, or delusionally denying it’s there and believing that “you’ll probably be all right” is all that great an idea.  The people who not only brought this on themselves, but on everyone?  I’m not the person to speak for them, and it remains to be seen if shootin’ lib’ruls or other wrong-thinkers is going to rival Fantasy Football as far as entertainment for the general populace.  Regardless: I don’t want to be, and I certainly don’t want anyone I love to be, the subject of some public official’s hypocritical post facto “thoughts and prayers.”  So, it’s bad in many places?  Few jobs, many opioids, everybody is angry and frustrated and just striking out and easily manipulated?

Actually, no, I don’t have to sympathize.  It’s clear how those people voted, those that did, and the only possible conclusion is that they do not want help, or infrastructure, or even respect, or medical care, or a safety net, or environmental protections, or safe food standards, or Medicare, from the invasive U.S. government which they find so threatening.  Well, this was a matter of choice, after all, and there is nothing I can offer a place like that.  So I won’t try.

3)  I realize on some level—a deeply suppressed level—that malediction does not make for a healthy diet.  Those of us that teach need to cling to that—it will be an increasingly rare opportunity, in these dark times, to be able to light a light every day.  We constantly encounter people who need what we have, so to be able to nourish them—with liberal doses of cynicism, idealism, and above all critical thinking—may do us, our souls, as much good as it does them.  One thing about teaching is that you never have to wonder if you’re making a difference, if what you do is of value, if you’re leaving the world a better place.  Sappy idealism?  Yeah; come at me, Bro.  We teach your children things you can’t, we ignite the curiosity, and we awaken the parts of their lives that will get them through depressions, break-ups, the deepest insecurities.  That’s what we do, every day.  God knows that in the dark hours, in the midnight of the soul, that’s a pretty good thing to know and fall back on.

4)  So how to make it through?  The only possible solution is to find something we believe in with our entire being, and do it—it may benefit others, but we have to do it for us, because to go-along-get-along, to cave to the amorality of the Culture of Lies (they call it “post-truth culture,” and I’ll none) is—we know to our very core—death.  Alcoholism, then death.  It is not available to us, nor should it be.

For the love of God, hold tight.  “Now traitors have the season,” as the text from “Les Desléaux,” a Renaissance chanson by Johannes Ockeghem, has it.  And perhaps there will yet be light, as Thomas Jefferson wrote:

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt… And if we feel their power just sufficiently to hoop us together, it will be the happiest situation in which we can exist. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.

Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, June 4, 1798 in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson p. 1050.

We certainly hope.  Last word from the Boss:

No retreat, baby, no surrender.—Bruce Springsteen

Posted in Cognitive liberty, Current Affairs, Education, Teaching | 3 Comments

Time-binding and the music-history survey


There is an interesting concept popular among occult thinkers (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms) called “time-binding,” which comes from Alfred Korzybski’s theory of “general semantics.” It posits that human beings are unique among animals for their ability to create abstract symbolic representations and pass them along to future generations. Thus human time is not homogeneous, as we might imagine ant-time or antelope-time. It is bound up in a structure of change and continuity. Hence the term “time-binding”: culture is that which binds time, so that your existence takes place within a time in which Socrates and Beethoven and the patriarch Abraham (etc.) also figure as structuring elements. Time-binding is the ability of each generation of humans to learn from the previous one; it is also the human ability to conceptualize time at all, and to understand that what happens now is compounded from what has happened before and will continue to compound in the future. Exactly what “compounded” means varies radically from one culture to another, or for that matter within a single culture.

Time-binding is both precarious and precious to human societies through most of human existence. For a Paleolithic, pre-agricultural tribe* without a writing system, the lore of the tribe — its cosmological stories, its techniques of hunting and warfare, its arts — is literally a matter of life and death. Without written language, its survival is precarious and relies on human memory, specifically the cultivation of collective memory by the tribe’s shamans. Which in turn means that the tribe’s survival relies on the way it trains and initiates generation after generation of shamans. (One definition of the slippery term “shaman” might be something like “a specialized class within a tribe in charge of time-binding.”) Which finally implies a very strong, society-wide force of conservation — conservatism in the most literal sense. Innovation is dangerous. You don’t mess with the formula: that could get your whole tribe killed. People in such a society don’t go around shooting their mouths off about how shamanism is a patriarchal social construct or that the gods don’t exist and this whole shaman thing is a charade. That’s a characteristically modern style of thought, and one that would have been literally unthinkable for human beings throughout a great preponderance of human history.

Now, there is a whiff of sociobiology in my account here, because I am emphasizing the way culture is an adaptive strategy for biological survival and reproduction. But I think it is also important to note that human survival is not such a simple matter. Having a sense of belonging in the world or a role to play in a cosmos properly understood; a sense of what is proper conduct towards the dead; a sense of what is owed to human beings like yourself and to all sentient beings (including gods), past, present and future; in short, a sense of the sacred — this axis of meaning is just as important as mere physical survival for so-called primitive peoples. I emphasize this because it is the habit of a reductive modernist style of thought (of which sociobiology is an eminent example) to view these kinds of meanings as mere window-dressing for more urgent and fundamental biological needs. Like, music and dance is just a means of sexual display — that sort of thing. I absolutely reject this style of thinking, as I have written repeatedly on Dial M.

I think that there is another dimension of “survival”: not just the survival of the body, but the survival of human identity. And by “human identity” I don’t mean any specific identity, I mean human identity as such: the sense of being human as opposed to being something else. I imagine human beings emerging from a biological pre-modernity — Australopithecines separating from chimps, early Homo separating from Australopithecines, each step into the human world of symbol-making and abstract thought accompanied by a shuddering look backwards at the endless night of the animal mind left behind.** In other words, the technique of making a better stone axe is not the only thing worth preserving; human identity itself is as well. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, human identity is what’s at stake in making a better stone axe, or indeed in any means of biological survival. This is why art is so important, even when it doesn’t really contribute much to our material necessities.

So anyway, time-binding has, at first glance, a profoundly conservative function. But time-binding isn’t just about continuity; it’s also about change. Human beings want to conserve the fruits of human cultural adaptation, but they also have to learn stuff in the first place in order to have adaptations worth preserving. If you think of time-binding as a simple equation of T = GN, where time-binding (T) equals generational adaptation (G) multiplied by the number of generations (N), if G = 0 … well, any multiple of nothing is still nothing. Time-binding means that your own generation can and indeed must add something to the previous generation. In a very traditionalistic society, that something might be tiny, but it is always something. The alternative is living as non-human animals do, in a no-time of eternal sameness. Again, human identity is what’s at stake.

Writing immensely speeds up the time-binding process and radically empowers it: now you can store cultural memory far more efficiently and compendiously than you could when everything had to be consigned to a shaman’s individual memory. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, printing squares this power and electronic media cube it. The total of all that has been said and thought by humans, not only in our own culture but across the world, becomes exponentially more available to us, instantaneously and simultaneously (as McLuhan liked to say).

Perhaps paradoxically, the rate of cultural change increases in proportional measure to the increase in cultural memory. Writing and its successor media of prosthetic memory enact a contradiction: the easy preservation of cultural memory enables us to break with the past, to unbind time. At its furthest extremes, this is manifested in the familiar and dismal spectacle of fascist and communist regimes, impelled by intellectual notions permitted by the intensified time-binding of literacy, imagining utopias that will “wipe the slate clean” and trying to force people to live in a world entirely divorced from the bound time of social/cultural tradition. (Think of the Khmer Rouge.)

There is a useful idea, also vaguely occultish, that Jung called enantiodromia. (I write a bit about this in the fifth chapter of Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.) This is the notion that when something is pushed to the furthest limit of its potentialities, it reverses into its opposite. This is the ruling principle of the I Ching, where broken ying lines reverse into solid yang lines and vice versa, and we can supply many examples from our observation of everyday life: the familiar les extrêmes se touchent phenomenon, for instance, whereby hard leftists and the hard rightists start to resemble one another. Time-binding also presents a spectacle of enantiodromia. Time-binding is a dialectic of change and continuity, and clearly if there is no change and all continuity, then there is no time-binding, because there is nothing to bind. But oddly, if you push all the way to the other extreme — all change and no continuity — the same thing happens. The condition of culture comes to resemble that guy in Memento who couldn’t remember anything more than five minutes ago. If you live in a permanent now, with one novel sensation succeeding another and no sense of connection between them, no possibility of holding them in mind and making a shape from their succession, it is hard even to imagine having a human identity at all.

It is the latter cultural condition that postmodern theorists have been writing about since the 1970s. The loss of human identity vouchsafed by cultural memory is what the French postmodern thinkers meant by “schizophrenia,” though they didn’t think of it in terms of time-binding. An interesting recent book, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, makes a similar argument.

If the technologies of time-binding accelerate cultural innovation to the point that it becomes runaway feedback cycle, then the survival of human identity itself it at risk, and it becomes a cultural imperative to tap the brakes. Here, we can see the value of all kinds of conservative structures that used to be hardwired into society: censorship (picking and choosing which cultural innovations to bind into our temporal structure), hereditary forms of government, religious taboos and prescriptions, and assigned gender roles. The point isn’t their content: it doesn’t matter whether your society decides to be exclusively Christian or Muslim or anything else, it matters that you decide to be something and stick to it. This, in effect, is what Edward Gibbon writes about monarchy, which he cheerfully acknowledges is absurd but which he nevertheless defends:

Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy presents the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself, and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.***

Modernity is the point at which almost everything becomes a matter of individual choice. You can choose you religion, gender, and government, and much else besides, and no-one is telling what you can and cannot read. But the problem with this is that once all those aspects of human identity are seen as elective and a matter of individual choice, the genie is out of the bottle. Once you have deposed your kings, you can’t just decide to have a king again, because the whole thing about kings is that they aren’t chosen by anyone: they are part of the natural order that enfolds each individual subject. This is why it is always a bit comical when alt-right fringoids call for a new monarchy. Guess who they have in mind for the job? Ross Douthat amusingly writes that American neoreaction has a “’look at me, Ma, I’m a pirate‘ sensibility.” What he doesn’t say (it would doubtless cut too close to the bone) is that being a religious convert has the same sensibility. There is a whiff of absurdity that comes of trying to reinstall a religious identity once it has been uninstalled. (In my own case, I could never entirely lose the “Look at me, Ma, I’m a Buddhist!” feeling.) And yet those who have uninstalled religious identity, or have had it uninstalled for them, often find themselves yearning for it, and are nevertheless unable simply to believe in the naïve way of someone who has never had to negotiate that aspect of their identity. How do you just decide to believe? This is one of the fundamental quandries of modernity.

So modernity is (among other things) the condition in which time-binding is threatened by its own exponential expansion, and yet where it’s not clear exactly how we are to slow its growth. Very modern people are reflexively opposed to anything that would slow down the acceleration: for them, the essence of the human is change. Reactionaries are reflexively opposed to anything that will speed up acceleration: for them, the essence of the human is continuity. Both are right! Each side, given the opportunity to realize its imagined utopia of change or continuity, would make a world no sensible person would be caught dead in. At times we feel a whisker away from postmodern dystopia (think Blade Runner), and at times we feel that a neofascist dystopia (think V for Vendetta) is about to break out at any minute. If you voted for Donald Trump, you probably fear the former; if you voted for Hillary Clinton, you probably feel that the latter is now upon us.

Now, what has all this got to do with music?

Humanistic scholarship is caught on the horns of the time-binding dilemma. Think of the “classical music is dead” arguments you hear in arguments over music-department curricular reforms. The old-fashioned “chant to minimalism” music history survey is everywhere under attack. “Relevance” is the key word: how is Perotin’s Sederunt relevant to a jazz major? Or a kid who wants to make EDM on his laptop? Recordings constitute another technology of time-binding, and the proliferation of musics in the recorded era — the way that recordings make all the world’s music instantaneously and simultaneously available — means that American culture has en masse withdrawn the western art music’s former unquestioned privilege. Classical music is just another (increasingly dusty, dim, and small) corner of the record shop.

And yet for me the best argument for keeping Sederunt in the classroom is that it is one of the nearly-infinite forms of music that the human mind has contrived, and the memory of those forms — time-binding — is crucial not only to the craft of musicians but to our continued sense of what it is to be a human being.

Now, this argument is as true for Japanese gagaku or Steely Dan’s “Peg” as it is for Sederunt. It does not settle the question of which pieces we put in our syllabi and which we do not. But it does suggest that the survey style of class — the creakiest, most old-school model imaginable, the kind of class we are repeatedly told is dead, dead, dead — continues to serve a function in the modern world, and always will. The survey is not just (as we are also repeatedly told) a covert imposition of race, class, and gender ideology. Nothing is ever “just” anything: it is only the reductive modernist style of thought that tells us otherwise. No, the music-history survey is the repository of cultural memory, and the preservation and care of cultural memory has an autonomous value, regardless of what that cultural memory is. To tell the story of who we are is to engage in the scholar’s highest mission. It is the gift that shamans give their tribe.

Yes, that’s right: I am suggesting that a music history professor is, or can be, a shaman. Go ahead and laugh. I find this to be a productive way to think of my own work. At least it beats thinking of myself as a “content provider” or “thought leader” or any of the other feeble roles to which neoliberal educational ideology seeks to reduce us.

*We usually assume that human history properly begins with agriculture, which is both chronologically wrong — consider that the time between us now and the Neolithic revolution is only a third of the way between us and the cave art at Chauvet — and historically has served as a warrant for genocide, since people whose cultures resemble those of the Paleolithic, like the Australian aborigines, tended to be seen as pre-humans by their conquerors.

**This is not to denigrate non-human animal consciousnesses. I am only suggesting, speculatively, that as the human species evolves through different forms it collectively rejects the consciousness associated with its previous form (Adorno wrote about this in The Dialectic of Enlightenment), rather as children reject their own earlier selves, sometimes with appalling ferocity. Children will love their stuffed animals when they are five and make a big show of rejecting them a few years later; likewise, the child of 13 will look at the enthusiasms of the child of 9 with similar contempt and will vigilantly police any sign of backsliding, either in themselves or in others. At each stage, the previous stage of mental development is rejected utterly, and its appearance out of season (a ten-year-old boy caught clutching a well-worn teddy bear) is a childhood taboo. But of course the parent’s heart melts at the memory of a child snuggling a teddy bear; to the parent, all stages of development are equally valuable. 

***I used this quote in my last post (on monarchy, etc.). Thought I’d mention it, in case you were experiencing déjà vu.

Posted in Education, Music, Philosophy, Sticking Up For The Humanities! | 2 Comments

God save the queen!

In the past I’ve been known to spit tacks at things in American political life that irk me. Jonathan and I started Dial M ten years ago, as of August — somehow I missed the chance to congratulate myself on the anniversary — which means that I started blogging in the later years of the GW Bush administration. And I had no shortage of things to complain about. But in the intervening years I have grown a bit tired of the political horse-race, and have also come to the conclusion that it is in poor taste for someone to criticize the politics of a country in which he is a guest.* So I will leave to it Jonathan to weigh in on American politics in general and, if he wishes, the recently-concluded election. For my part I will say only two things:

  1. I don’t … uh, much care for Donald Trump. (Can I say that much?) But I refuse to join in the contempt and outright hatred being shown Trump’s supporters, who may include white nationalists and out-and-out fascists, yes, but who also include decent people whose motivations for voting for Trump should be taken seriously by American progressives — and also by those outside the United States who might be tempted to reach for certain convenient narratives of American lumpenness. I encourage you to read Chris Arnade on the troubles of those American working-class people who feel that they have been sold out by the undeclared ruling class of meritocracy. And if you want a polemic on just how badly we of the scribal classes have been ignoring such people, I recommend this piece by Glenn Greenwald.
  2. I may be a bit of a lapsed Buddhist, but I am still enough of a Buddhist to quote the Dhammapada: Hatred is never appeased by hatred. Hatred is only appeased by non-hatred. This is the eternal law. Of course, to think such a thing is to be an unpolitical person. Well, so much the worse for politics.

In case you want to know what my own politics are, I have said elsewhere that I think the height of civilization was reached in Canada during Trudeau years, precisely because it was not a terribly efficient political system. I am a big fan of parlimentary monarchy. God save the Queen! And I write that in the same spirit as Trudeau’s famous pirouette behind the royal back:

trudeau pirouette

Which is to say, it is possible to acknowledge the absurdity of monarchy while valuing the very fact of its absurd and incongruous preservation within a modern parlimentary democracy.**

Most of my readers are Americans, who might be divided on every other political question but will unite in anger and disgust at any suggestion of monarchy. Rebellion against King George III is the most indispensable ingredient of the American national myth. Well there, I have made my own contribution to the reconciliation of a divided people. You can all agree that I am full of crap.


*In my case, a very long-term guest: since marrying my American wife 20 years ago, I have been a permanent resident while remaining a citizen of Canada and the U.K. My family on my Mum’s side is English, and while I grew up Northern Ontario, I had an English accent when I was little, a distant trace of which still comes back when I’m nervous. (When I first plucked up my courage to phone the girl I would later marry and ask for a date, I got her roomate, who told Helen that “some old English guy” had called while she was out.) Most of my extant family lives in the U.K., but I’ve never lived there and have only visited a handful of times. My Dad’s side of the family is Canadian, but I know almost nothing about them. My grandfather was an English orphan who was “adopted” (i.e. bought as a kind of chattel slave) by a brutal farmer in Barrie, Ontario, a bit more than a century ago. He ran off to fight in WWI when he was 15 or 16, and my understanding is that the mud and blood of Vimy Ridge was actually preferable to life in Barrie. Now that I think of it, it’s odd that I and my family bear the name of some random exploiter we’re not at all related to.

So insofar as I have a political identity at all, it is complicatedly Anglo-Canadian, though with a lot of love and sympathy for the nation I have made my home for a good long while now.

**Edward Gibbon: “Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy presents the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself, and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity? Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colours, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master.”

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

AMS annual meeting blog post, the “I’m not going” edition

It turns out that I’m not going to AMS Vancouver. My leg is healing, but not miraculously, and while I might be able to handle the actual travel to Vancouver — it would be fun to be one of those people who gets to ride around on those little airport cars —  I would have to spend most of my time in my hotel room with my leg up on a pillow, which somewhat defeats the purpose of going on the trip in the first place. My surgeon looked at me like I was nuts when I asked him if he thought I could go. Such is my devotion to musicology that I even contemplated it …

So I’m staying put. What will I do with my time? Well, I’m reading a lot, as you might imagine. A few books I have on the go right now:

  1. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous — a terrific and thoughtful book on the style of magical thought proper to so-called animist cultures. It touches on a lot of my favorite topics, including magical thinking (obviously), orality and literacy, abstraction and immediate experience, etc.
  2. Sohrab Ahmari, The New Philistines. One of the things that has long bugged me is the seeming inability of educated moderns to think of art in any but the most crassly utilitarian ways, whether that means reducing art and music to a useful preparation for taking standardized tests or judging artworks solely in terms of how well they serve the current goals of progressive politics.* The New Philistines is a short polemic against the latter.
  3. Edwin Haislet, Boxing. Jack Slack calls it the “bible of striking.” I started boxing this year, and one of the things I hate most about my broken leg is that I can’t train for months. Reading is a poor substitute, but it’ll have to do. Those who were offended by no. 2 (above) will no doubt find a sinister coherence in my enthusiasms for aesthetic autonomy (i.e., letting art be art) and ritualized combat.
  4. Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing. Possibly the best essays on boxing ever written, and that is saying something. Boxing has a literature unrivalled by any other sport.
  5. The Daniel Clowes Reader, a typically excellent Fantagraphics anthology that my friend David Brent Johnson gave me.
  6. Volume 2 of Ernest Newman’s 4-volume biography of Richard Wagner. A long read, this. Those offended by nos. 2, 3, and 4 (above) will doubtless find yet more sinister connections between my fondness for aesthetic autonomy, ritualized combat, and Hitler’s Favorite Composer.
  7. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West. I just started this, but I don’t know if I have the stamina to read the whole thing. Teutonic longeurs abound. What’s interesting to me about it is that it is, in Ramsey Dukes’s terms, a magical theory of human history. A lot of heavyweight German intellectuals from Spengler’s day (including the music theorist Heinrich Schenker) created vast wissenschaftlicher theorien that are actually a lot more magisch than their authors and adherents would probably want to admit. I, of course, am not saying that like it’s a bad thing. It occurs to me that Spengler has a bit of a reputation for being a German reactionary. Oh dear. The sinister coherencies are piling up, aren’t they?
  8. Speaking of Ramsey Dukes, I’ve been revisiting a lot of his stuff lately as well. This morning I enjoyed re-reading a passage in which he addresses the common accusation that magic is a selfish pursuit of those who only want money, sex, power, and similarly low-rent and profane things. Dukes acknowledges that a lot of people start out this way, but suggests that sustained practice leads them away from their starting-point. Quoth Dukes:**
  1. I wish to be rich, powerful, successful!
  2. Hey, there’s this thing called “magic” that promises to make me rich, powerful, and successful!
  3. Great, all I have to do is to make myself perfect!
  4. How will I know when I’m perfect?
  5. Answer: when I no longer wish to be rich, powerful, and successful.


It’s Step no. 6, “oh shit,” that I particularly like. The regular utterance of that phrase is one of the ways that magic can be reliably differentiated from religion, it seems to me.

I’ve been sitting on that GIF for a while now. Perhaps this whole post was just an elaborate pretext for deploying it. In my weakened state, though, I am not clever enough to think of set-ups for a few other GIFs I’ve been hoarding. Perhaps I could have written a post on the perennial appearance of the “death of classical music” trope,*** a death notable for having been going on for 800 years, with no end in sight …


… which would have allowed me to post this GIF, taken from a video of a ball endlessly falling down a Penrose staircase.


Classical music: always going, never gone

Now let’s see, what else do I have lying around …


That’s a young Eugene Levy in an SCTV commercial for “Poochare,” the New Wave dog food. Strutting his stuff. On two fully functional legs. The way I would if I were able to go to AMS, which I’m not.

But let us not succumb to self-pity! Let us instead return to the happier subject of boxing and watch a GIF showing Daniel Geale in the glorious moment of landing a punch on Gennady Golovkin, just before GGG counters him into the next time zone.


Which could be a visual metaphor for all sorts of things that might happen at the AMS annual meeting in Vancouver.

Have fun without me.

*Writes Freddie De Boer, “I do think that we have seen a wide scale, passionate embrace of art criticism that presumes the purpose of criticism is to adjudicate whether and how well art fulfills the functions of contemporary social liberalism. In the era of Takes, there is an entire wing of criticism – a large and growing concern – that asks to what degree any given work of art confirms the kind of vague intersectional race, gender, and sexual politics that have become the default language of our culture industry. That art is considered well crafted which best dramatizes the stories that this form of social liberalism tells about the world. This type of Takes criticism also judges how well a given work practices socially liberal principles through diversity, either the diversity of its perspective or the diversity of its creators. Both of these are laudable goals, though Takes criticism has an uninspiring track record when it comes to fairly and consistently sorting what failure or success looks like in this regard.”

**The fuller version of this argument can be found in Dukes’s essay “Blast Your Way to Megabuck$ with My Secret Sex-Power Formula,” which is the best essay title of all time.

***Musicologist Will Robin wrote a great piece about this a couple of years ago, quoting Charles Rosen’s great line, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” 

Posted in Academia, Athletics, Books, GIF post | 1 Comment

“The magical turn”

Hey folks, sorry I’ve been a bit scarce on Dial M. Broke muh damn leg.


“The Anderson Silva Special”

Don’t want to write about that, though. I want to write about fads.

If you’re in a band and are looking for a genre identity, you can always just add -core to the end of whatever it is you do. Do you have an accordionist? Call it accordioncore. Does your music sound like shit? Nothing says “it’s supposed to sound like that” better than calling it shitcore. Is your music just kind of normal? Call it normcore and tell the world that you’re being post-ironic. Or something. Regardless, the -core suffix announces that you are part of a larger trend. On your own you’re just a shit band with an accordion; as a shitcordioncore band, though, you claim your small share of world-historical importance.

Humanities academics have their own version of this: we are very fond of “turns.” I was just writing about “the ontological turn,” which joins “the cultural turn,” “the linguistic turn,” “the historical turn,” and a great many others. Humanities academics can apply the “[X] turn” formula to pretty much anything they want to claim as the next big thing. So I predict we’re all going to be be talking about magic pretty soon, and maybe already are. Voilà, “the magical turn.”

Signs and auguries are everywhere. A coolhunting brand-consultancy called K-Hole releases a “Report on Doubt” and announces that all the cool kids will be into Chaos Magick. (Paging Ramsey Dukes!) Vodou vévés are appearing on socks. In a possibly related development, demonic possessions are on the rise, and the Vatican announces a shortage of trained exorcists. And Salon has announced that normcore is out and “‘Mysticore’ is the new norm.” Of course they’re calling it “mysticore.”


Finally, not one but two music-academic journals announcing special issues devoted to magic and the occult. I am editing one of them; the other was recently announced in Popular Music

It’s good that magic, mysticism, “the Weird,” etc., are finally getting an outing in that quiet academic neighborhood where I make my home. Now it is musicology’s turn to grapple with the problems that anthropology and history have puzzled over for decades: what to make of people who believe things that our modern education tells us can never be anything more than illusion. I have written at great length about these issues here on Dial M and to a lesser extent in my book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. I’m excited about Popular Music‘s planned special issue on popular music and magic, and I encourage anyone with an interest in the topic to start thinking about submitting something right now:

Music and Magic: Call for Articles

This special issue of Popular Music will focus on the intersection of popular music with ‘magic’, however authors may wish to define the term.

Back in 1981, Simon Frith insisted that myths and magic existed insofar as cultural participants believed in them and found them comforting, giving the example of rock songs that conjured up, for those who so desired, a working-class street culture. Eric Weisbard (2005) similarly proposed to focus our academic study on the ‘magic moments’ of musical experiences, insisting that scholars should accept and recognize those instances when rapture, accidents, a sense of vertigo or one’s perplexity (‘the quizzical, not the categorical’) takes centre stage in life, and all thanks to music.

These different interpretations of magic relate to control, with magic offering an illusion of coherence and confidence to artists, consumers and critics, and having the ability to re-enchant an implicitly and excessively rational world –whether this is interpreted as welcome comfort or as political disengagement.

So, when is magic actually mobilised in and around music-making? What does the mobilisation of magic reveal about the values and practices that underpin our contemporary popular music culture? What does the idea of magic bring to music, and to our understanding of the world?

This special issue seeks to explore these issues.

When this CFP came through the musicology listserv, though, something seemed off to me about the wording. I suppose it’s the words “comfort” and “comforting” that bother me. Do academic Marxists, for example, say that they find the idea of a classless society “comforting”? No: comfort is something that silly and sentimental people take from ideas that cleverer folks understand to be problematic. Comfort is “false consciousness:” it’s always something that other people seek. Academics pride themselves on being able to handle the hard truths — in this case, presumably, the truth that magic isn’t real. Which of course invites the question, what do you mean by “real”?, along with all the other threshold questions that we have been entertaining on Dial M for a couple of years now.

What I’m saying is, we’re only beginning to figure this stuff out for ourselves. I’m not blaming Popular Music for a passing awkwardness of CFP wording. It’s unavoidable, given the amount of epistemic heavy lifting that has to happen before this topic even becomes usefully available to academics. Doing serious academic work on magic is playing the game on “hard” mode.

My question is, are we up for it? The vulgarity and hubris of the K-Hole “Report on Doubt,” which reduces magic to “branding,” is easy to see. But intellectuals shouldn’t get too smug. Commodification of magic isn’t that different from strip-mining it for articles and books you can cash in for tenure points.

Wait, have I been doing that? Strip-mining magic for academic currency? Naw, probably not.


The Salon piece ends by quoting Pam Grossman, a real-deal academic humanist and real-deal witch, saying  “Magic is a shape-shifter … It doesn’t care what form it takes. It just wants to flow and be known.” This is profoundly true. But it also never wants to be known too well. It will find odd and circuitous paths into our lives, and yet when it finally gets our attention and excites our curiosity, it also finds ways to vanish just as we are closing our hand around it.

Remember Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street? In the first few years of that show he was Big Bird’s imaginary friend, and every time BB went to get an adult to prove to them that Snuffy existed, he (Snuffy) would wander away by the time the adult showed up. The gag got stale, I guess, so at length the producers decided to let Snuffy join the consensus reality. But I’ve always thought that early Snuffy is a pretty good figure for the tendency of magic to disappear whenever anyone tries to nail it down.

Magic teases you when you don’t pay attention to it, and then when you do, it runs away. Not for nothing is the figure of the magician traditionally that of the Trickster.

Consequently, the history of magic is discontinuous, a series of sudden revivals and equally sudden reversals into infamy and obscurity. Every revival looks a bit different — the 1960s magic revival was conditioned by the wider counterculture, whereas the one we have now is conditioned by the internet* — but they all seem to have the same general boom-bust shape.


A page from a 1960s underground newspaper reprinted in Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975, though unfortunately this unsourced excerpt is all we get.

This fragment of an article from a mid-late 1960s Bay Area counterculture rag starts by noting the hipster I-was-into-it-before-it-was-cool attitude that members of a formerly-exclusive scene usually adopt when all the tourists and normies crowding in. The author hopes, however, that the hipster magician’s prediction (“Never fear, these naïve assholes will blow up their friends, freak their minds, and it will all be over in six months”) doesn’t come true. Sadly, it did, though it took more than six months to get there. Stuff like that always seems to happen when enough people get the Trickster by the tail — or think they do.

What always happens with various academic “turns” is what I’ve written about in my piece on “interdisciplinarity.” They start off as unstable zones of risk, experimentation, and excitement, in the cracks between the stabilized positions of conventional academic study; and then they stabilize and crystallize out into the same reified, professionalized forms as the ones they have displaced. Once they start policing their own borders, the fun is over. Now you can’t say anything without checking it against canonical writings in the field and fighting for your own little postage-stamp square of terrain within it. (“Whereas Professor Pastmaster applies a Deleuzo-Latourian lens to understand the gender modalities of Witchcore**, I use a Latouro-Lacanian lens to understand Witchcore’s racial matrices.”)

It may be that humanities academics are beginning to sense the stirrings of new intellectual interest around magic and see in it the possibility of hanging out in one of those fun, not-yet-crystallized, in-between zones. On its own, this is all to the good. I like having people to talk to. But academic mental habits don’t change much, and there’s no reason to suppose that an academic-humanities version of the “mysticore” fad — a “magical turn” — won’t end up trying to normalize magic to some degree, professionalizing it by refracting it through this or that “interpretive lens.” At which point it won’t be magic, but (in Ramsey Dukes’s terms) Religion.

I’m not really worried about that, though. There’s nothing we can do to magic that hasn’t already been tried. The Trickster is always going to be too smart for us. If you piss him/her/it off, though, things have a tendency to go sideways in a gruesome and blackly comic way.



*Technology is a common theme of 1960s and latter-day mysticism, though. For an outstanding (and amazingly prescient) book on this topic, see Erik Davis’s indispensable Techgnosis.

**Just made that genre up, Googled it, and sure enough, it exists.

***Note for those who haven’t read all my other stuff: please don’t think I “really believe” that there is a literal Trickster — some ectoplastic little guy with a cap and bells — much less that such an actually-existing guy broke my leg because I write about magic in a somewhat academicizing way on Dial M. I’m not into “really believing” things. I am into digging things, which is quite different

Posted in Academia, Magic, Pop Culture, Weird Studies

Billy Joel, Piano Culture, and Rock’s Road Not Taken

Here is the paper I gave on October 8, 2016 at the wonderful Billy Joel conference organized at Colorado College by Ryan Bañagale and Josh Duchan, an exercise in Public Musicology that was a huge success by any measure.  One of the culminating events was an hour-long phone conversation with Billy Joel (currently in NY, recovering from sinus surgery); he spoke very self-deprecatingly about his own pianistic ability.  With respect, Mr. Joel, I strongly disagree, and this paper will reflect that.


Please bear with me while I acknowledge a debt.

Billy Joel’s Piano Man came out in my junior year of high school, followed by Streetlife Serenade when I was a senior.  Now, I loved the pop-gospel-influenced playing on the first seven or eight Elton John albums, and enjoyed Leon Russell’s meaty honky-tonk, and (naturally, as a piano guy myself) had an ear out for piano guys in general.  But this Billy Joel—whoever he was—could really play.  No doubt about the classical training—you could hear it in the ease of his technique, the way blues and rock licks were extrapolated all over the keyboard, at warp speed—and there was no relying on stiff-armed right-hand chords, as was characteristic of so many other players.  This guy had chops, and I obsessively listened to his album, and then to the next one.  And ultimately, I realized that whatever would happen later, I had to study music; I had to be a better pianist than I was, period.  And I ended up at a university where I could make up for a lot of lost time, and I also encountered a musicologist or two, and things went on down the lane, pretty much—I suspect—as would most have delighted my parents, who liked piano fine but really endorsed and understood academics.  So, Jonnie wants to study music.  Good; the operative word for us was “study,” so since I wanted to study something, all was in order.

But I state publically: had it not been for Billy Joel’s early albums, I would probably not have been impelled to become a music major, and I don’t want to think of what my life would have looked like had I not risked it.
*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Now: I have had decades to think about this, and the question I’d like to ask is why GUItar slingin’—both the playing and the pose—is somehow culturally definitive of Rock’n’Roll, while the piano is not.  Rock did not begin that way; New Orleans ivory-ticklers like Huey “Piano” Smith and Fats Domino presided from the keyboard, and “greatest show on earth” shaman Jerry Lee Lewis burned audiences down with his playing and wild-man antics.  Of course, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly played guitar, but in those early days there was a balance: you had your guitar people and your piano people, both with origins deep in American vernacular musics that antedated Rock, and both completely legitimate.  What happened, and how was the piano “Betamaxed” out of its initial position?  The reasons are both cultural and musical and Billy Joel’s early solo career provides an apt illustration of the how, and why.

The Pianist as Cultural Icon has a particular flavor in the U.S.  It is easy to imagine Leon Russell and Fats Domino—to choose two random examples—pounding their American-roots-music hearts out (Russell in Oklahoma, Domino in New Orleans) on thrashed upright pianos, probably in church.  The roots of their respective piano styles include boogie-woogie, novelty rag, gospel, and blues—and whether the result is New Orleans style, Texas barrelhouse, or honkytonk depends more on the proportions of these cocktail ingredients than any essential difference.  Regardless, there’s a revelatin’ authenticity to the sound: it may be technically unfinished, yet it is cosmically true.  Repeated chords, rhythm-and-percussion left hand, grace-note rolls fattening the right-hand figures, blues-scale spice throughout…somehow it all happened in the absence of proper classical lessons.

Inevitably, the situation with a Billy Joel from Levittown, Long Island, NY would be different.  His German-Jewish father had been classically trained at the piano, So piano-playing was high-stakes in the Joel household. By his own account, Billy got the one real parental beating of his life for a musical infraction: “The only time I ever got beat up,” he recalled, “I had a Beethoven piece, one of the sonatas, and I started boogie-woogieing to it. And my old man came downstairs and smacked the hell outta me. It was the only time I ever remember getting beat up as a kid.”[1]  And unquestionably, the Rock mythology of primitive/vernacular roots, whether rural or city, would not have attached to a nimble-fingered, classically trained, first-generation American, last name Joel, who looked as Billy Joel did.  (An aside:  There is a point to this somewhat politically incorrect remark: while Billy Joel grew up in legitimately straitened and stressed financial circumstances, by the first solo albums he wasn’t looking like it at all; he was looking like the sort of talented, intelligent son of whom any mother could be proud.  Such a gifted boy!)  It was hard to hear someone who played as he did on the early albums, before different hand injuries took their toll, as a rebel, whether or not he actually behaved as one or thought of himself that way.  To the American mind, the kid who can play like that is the kid who did practice the piano, as opposed to sneaking out to play baseball.  Such a young person was in the living room, practicing dutifully, not withdrawing into some kind of fearsome, newfangled Rock’n’Roll consciousness.  In popular culture, the pianist is far less of a rebel then the guitar-player, anyway; the discipline required is great, and as a rule parents don’t complain about that awful noise—quite the contrary.  So in sum, a New York boy taking classical piano lessons is hardly the stuff of the Rock’n’Roll origin myth.

By the 1950s, after all, the piano had accrued more than two centuries of history, repertoire, and cultural associations: Beethoven’s heaven-storming sonatas, Chopin’s melancholy apotheoses of song and dance, Liszt’s virtuosic barn-burners, Debussy’s dreamlike soundscapes, and much, much more.  Up to that point, the electric guitar was a relatively recent American invention, associated with Jazz, country, and swing musics, often as a rhythm instrument, so Rock playing was a natural outgrowth of that.   Consider: a besotted young guitarist, having discovered guitar either from Chuck Berry and the 50s rockers or the Beatles and the other British Invasion bands, could either lock himself away to get better—incidentally, rejecting all civil conversation with the family—or go out and play in technically basic rock bands that both entertained and attracted curious females.  The phallic symbolism of the guitar, as exploited by the Detroit band MC5, Jimmy Page and many others, was pretty much unavailable to the person camped out behind the piano. All this is to illustrate the point that choice of instrument, particularly for a young Billy Joel, establishes much about the artist’s reception and cultural profile from the outset.

So what does such a pianist do with the instrument?  First off, our hero does not consider himself to be all that great a piano player, though the aforementioned series of hand injuries may have colored his view:

Because of the damage to my hand, there’s no subtlety to my playing, no real nuance at all.  For Rock and Roll, I can hold my own, but in classical or Jazz terms, I stink.  I mostly use two fingers on my left hand; I play octaves.  Most people are right-handed, like me, so to be able to manipulate the fingers in your left hand, to do the stuff that greats like Bill Evans could do, is a real gift.  Bach teaches you that both hands are equally important, because they’re both playing melody.  I never really studied enough to emulate that.[2]

Still, he could still tear off blues-rock piano solos to challenge all comers.  The solos from “Traveling Prayer” (off Piano Man, 1973; the solo begins at 2:10) and “The Entertainer” (off Streetlife Serenade, 1974, but this is a Karaoke version in which the solo is much easier to hear; it starts at 1:57).  Aside from brute speed itself, there is a relaxed sound, a smoothness caused by economy of physical motion (a hallmark of classical training), as opposed to the showmanship-first aesthetic of a Jerry Lee Lewis.  Note: economy of motion and relaxed ease of performance is almost anti-Rock; that which does not exude sweat, hormones, effort, and display is apt to excite an audience less than a performance that leaves much of one’s body chemistry on the stage.

And for another angle, here is Nocturne (off Cold Spring Harbor, 1971, but this is a live recording made in 1976), an instrumental that started life as a song—an early demo or working tape with lyrics can be heard here—in which a controlled, classical legato and careful pedaling are both evident.  Again, this doesn’t come without lots of lessons and practice.  Finally, here’s the opening to “Prelude” (off Turnstiles, 1976), the toccata-like opener to the song “Angry Young Man.”  The technique required here—an advanced hand-coordination combined with sufficient relaxation so as not to overtax the pianist’s stamina—is beyond the usual ability of of a functional pianist-songwriter.  It is reported that “When performing live, Joel plays the fast-paced prelude himself, but performs the song early in the setlist, largely because the prelude section was easiest to manage during the adrenaline moments of starting a show, as opposed to being attempted after he had already expended much of his energy for other songs.”[3]

Cultural aspects of the piano notwithstanding, Joel was quite aware of his classical upbringing—but acknowledged its influence more in his songwriting: “I grew up playing classical piano,” he said, “so I have tension and release philosophy from that training. I hate boogie for the sake of boogie; it’s got to be tension and release. I hate to beat an idea to death.”  To this, critic Dave Marsh commented, “Which is probably why rock remains an easily hidden aspect of his songs: rock & roll feeds on excesses, not discipline—it is the idea beaten to death.”[4]

And here, I think, is where the piano itself defines Billy Joel, and also moves him out of the pure Rock frame of reference (however much that irks Rock purists and taste-shamers).  The piano has had many incarnations: Everyman’s Orchestra, Composer’s personal workstation, convivial living-room entertainment, musical accompaniment for houses of ill repute, virtuoso vehicle, and exponent of the Popular Song.  It is probably impossible for someone from New York to have been unaware of this last role, or not to have been seduced by it; this was the instrument of choice for George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Carole King, and numerous others.  And Joel acknowledged precisely that, in a 1982 Rolling Stone interview: “When I did Cold Spring Harbor, I didn’t want to be a rock & roll star so much anymore. I kinda got that out of my system… I wanted to be a songwriter.”  A songwriter he already was, obviously, and—despite the stardom, world tours, rock-solid band, performances in Russia and Cuba and so on—it was his songwriter incarnation to which he remained truest.  Billy Joel’s songs distinguish themselves with self-examination, narrative, and nostalgia; what is virtually absent is the staple Rock’n’Roll format of let’s-get-it-on in a twelve-bar-blues.  Ultimately, his songs incline toward people who can allow a good story to unfold, whose lives to date have consisted of more than typical adolescent fantasy, and that—much like his choice of instrument—will always affect the purity of his Rock’n’Roll status.  As his disposition and career arc have demonstrated, in other words, the piano leads its players in too many directions to be as essential a Rock’n’Roll instrument as the guitar, hence its secondary role.

The coda to my reflection on Billy Joel and the piano is the 2001 album of piano solos of his own composition, Fantasies and Delusions. He has described how he composes incrementally, one theme or a section at a time, and the album— clearly a love-letter to the piano and the study of it—shows it; there is a pastiche character to a lot of the pieces, a block-by-block construction that enables us to identify the composers he was probably thinking of.  Taking “Waltz No. 1 (Nunley’s Carousel)” as an example, the sections run from a Schumannesque introduction, through Schubert, Brahms, and Chopin textures, all colored with a certain thoroughly American, sophisticated Jazz-Impressionism.  The spirit of Bill Evans is stronger in some of the other numbers.  But all of these styles are the natural inheritance of a musician from New York, where classical piano, Jazz piano, and popular song are all pervasive.

And piano culture is what, at the end of his recording career, Billy Joel saw fit to return to.  Here is his own account, from a 2011 NPR interview:

I wanted it to be recognized as, “Oh, he’s trying to write classical piano pieces…like, for students.”  I wanted a piano teacher to be able to go, “You want to play Billy Joel?  Here, take this book home”…and there is a music book, with the notes in it…“and learn Opus 1 or Opus 2 or Opus 3,” and these kids’d be “This…this is hard, y’know?” and cursing me out, but the piano teacher would have something they could learn with.  That’s what the point of this was.[5]

The lesson here, I believe, is that Billy Joel has piano roots first and foremost, and as a rocker—even given a straight-up Fats Domino tribute like his song “Josephine,” which was never released—he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about a mythical delta or slum upbringing, as rockers are more or less assumed to have.  Piano is a great blues instrument, certainly, but it can also imitate other instruments, transition into a solo role, and serve as an entire musical world at the fingertips of the imaginative composer.  This is where Billy Joel firmly situates himself: not only as hot player and writer, but essentially as narrative artist with a cinematic imagination.  The film noir soundtrack gestures of “Prelude” or the Coplandesque Americana of “The Ballad of Billy the Kid”—pieces that avail themselves of the film vocabulary in order to evoke film-like images and sequences—these musical strategies, every bit as much as his lyrics, enable him to tell his stories.  And this approach goes back centuries: as eighteenth-century composers evoked an idea with a familiar musical gesture like horn fifths or the drone of a musette, so Joel uses the film-music vocabulary.

Ultimately, despite piano technique far in excess of almost all other Rock pianists, Billy Joel’s piano serves his songs, and he is a songwriter above all.  And my suspicion is that the multifaceted history of the piano and its manifold capabilities are what led it to second place (at best, if not lower) as a Rock instrument.  Anyone in love with the piano is immediately led to classical music, to Rag, to boogie, to Jazz, to a variety of different musics, each with its own peculiar groove—often, one that somewhat contradicts the Rock foundation.  Rock evolved early in the electric guitar’s history, and they developed in tandem; the piano’s heyday, in contrast, was already a couple of centuries old when Fats Domino appeared on the scene.  And when Billy Joel exited, stage right, from his recording career with Fantasies and Delusions, Rock was nowhere to be found: just Preludes, Nocturnes, Fantasies, and the Baby Grand.

[1] Quoted in Dave Marsh, “Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street,” Rolling Stone (14 December 1978), <> (accessed 21 August 2016).

[2] Fred Schruers, Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2014), 161–62.


[4] Quoted in Marsh, “Billy Joel: The Miracle of 52nd Street.”

[5] NPR Interview from 2011, <>, accessed 2 October 2016.

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