Critical Can Opener

Critical Can Opener

There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you
find it?
—Richard Brautigan, Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt (1970)

This week I am taking a complete break from going to concerts after going to one or more every day for nearly two weeks. It is a much needed hiatus after reaching what I’m worried might be a serious philosophical impasse.

Nearly a year ago, I began writing a series of short essays on these pages in which I outlined a critical goal of attaining tastelessness. But after some of what I heard last week, I’m finding it hard to practice what I preach. Not wanting to say something hurtful or dishonest, I found myself running out of a couple of concert halls hoping not to make eye contact with anyone. I know this is the stance of many a music critic and one that I have always deplored as socially irresponsible. I have no desire to cast aspersions on any composer or musician, so I still won’t name names. Suffice it to say I walked away from these events extremely disappointed and confused.

Let me explain: My M.O. has always been to seek out experiences I might not like at first, yet later love. There is so much music that I initially loathed that I now profoundly treasure because I forced myself to examine it more closely—everything from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (believe it or not), the symphonies of Franz Schubert, and the Triple Duo of Elliott Carter to Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKA’s Most Wanted. Indeed, most of the significant compositional epiphanies of my life have resulted from following John Cage’s famous advice: If you’re bored by something you’ve heard for five minutes, listen for ten; if you’re bored by something you’ve heard for ten minutes, listen for twenty, etc. But right now it’s very difficult for me to fathom a reason why I would ever want to rehear some of what I sat through this past week.

I’m approaching my birthday; could it be possible that my mind is starting to close up a bit? I’m reminded of my tirade against curators and other cultural arbiters whose taste results in de facto censorship of a great deal of artistic expression. Could I be turning into one of them? Whatever happened to the glee I had when I purchased scads of LPs of music I had yet to find interesting?

The last thing I ever want to subscribe to is the mainstream classical music canard of only extolling masterpieces that everyone acknowledges, yet I cannot deny the basic human urge to spend my limited free time doing things I already know I’ll enjoy. It’s why certain people always order the same entrée every time they go to a certain restaurant. I’ve always been someone who tries to order something different. But what happens when nothing else on the menu tastes good to you?

While my approach to critical listening has had untold benefits on my compositional process, could my compositional aesthetics now be getting in the way of my ability to accept everything I hear? In February 2005, we published an essay by San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman in which he explained his distrust for critics who are also composers arguing that behind the criticism there’s always the risk of a hidden and sometimes not-so-hidden compositional agenda. As someone who self-identifies as both a writer of music and a writer about music, I’ve always vigorously fought for the importance of such a dual mantle. A critical response to work will inevitably offer far greater insight into the critic than the criticized whether said critic is a composer or not. The heart of the critical stance is supposed to be objective subjectivity, an oxymoron that’s hard to top. But what insight might you glean from someone whose only goal is just to listen and not formulate opinions that get in the way of that listening?

But herein lies the contradiction. Though I eschew passing judgment when I write about music, I make judgments all the time when I am writing music. Not to flog a dead horse I targeted here previously, but no matter what your compositional aesthetic, the very act of composition is a subjective process based on making judgments. Even when you are allowing your compositions to be completely determined by chance, as did Cage, you are ultimately still making a judgment about process and therefore somehow limiting the possibilities. Listening to music, on the other hand, should always be about being open to something outside of yourself. Like meditating, truly listening to something requires getting your thoughts out of the way.

But being a composer makes it difficult to always listen with non-judgmental ears. What happens when what you hear is diametrically opposed to what you would do yourself? Is it ever possible for a composer to hear the value in something that is so contrary to his or her own standards? I’ve found that opening myself up to standards that were not mine expanded my compositional aesthetics, but there are still places I won’t go as a composer. Does this mean there is music I will somehow never “get”? And, if so, what am I losing as a result both as a composer and as a listener? I’ll continue to probe this when I next find myself sitting in the audience, but not until next week at least.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

9 thoughts on “Critical Can Opener

  1. william

    I think that for the most part Frank walks his talk. NMB is refreshingly eclectic and balanced in the sorts of music it presents. There is, it seems to me, a little something for everyone in these pages. (Even the New York-centric focus seems to be diversifying.)

    One might ask why the new music scene, especially in NYC, ended up so strongly divided into ideological encampments in the first place?

    Was part of the problem our conception of the “new music concert?” For at least four decades, the publics for new music were often comprised largely of composers and specialized “new music performers” seemingly suffering from forms deafness created by their aesthetic ideologies. The aficionados were literally unable to hear music outside of their encampment, because they refused to genuinely listen. A good example was the BMI Awards starting in the 60s and going well into the 80s. For the most part, they might as well have said that composers writing something other than New York Bebop Serialism need not apply.

    In the last ten years, new music and its publics have become a little more diverse. Post-modernism’s analysis of how power is allocated made the sources and weaknesses of aesthetic orthodoxy more apparent. But the old totalizing habits of mind remain. Ironically, deconstruction now seems to be moving toward becoming the latest all-encompassing ideology. One example might be the almost faddish incorporation of elements of pop into “classical” new music concerts. It is almost an obligation in some circles – a hip jeering at power that has ironically become the new center of power. Composers who might question such a reliance on pop are ironically seen as part of the “opposing camp.” And, of course, we are to forget that pop is the essence of the corporate music business, and one of the largest manifestations of cultural isomorphism in the history of humanity. Once again, a kind of cultural and social deafness is setting in.

    When I lived in Manhattan in the 70s I couldn’t embrace either the Up- or Downtown scenes, even if I enjoyed some of the music that they made. Like many composers, I didn’t like carrying party-cards, and I have largely stayed away from the new music world ever since. I felt, more or less, that composers should write for performers who then take the composer’s music to publics. This might seem obvious, but it wasn’t. Instead, many composers seemed to write music primarily for a narrowly defined audience of other composers who shared a similar aesthetic or school of thought.

    An extraordinary atmosphere of cronyism evolved. Careerist composers hardly considered wider publics, and instead sought to write music that would consolidate their position within a specific collective of composers who shared their style. This cronyism inevitably led to aesthetics that became ever more rarified and socially alienated. At least two or three generations of composers almost openly accepted a sort of quid-pro-quo form of careerism that seemed to slowly kill critical thought or dissent within the ranks. This seemed to contribute toward an enormous loss in professional standards. The “objective subjectivity” Frank mentions was often completely lost. The standard became, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours so we can strengthen our power base. As a result, the Up- and Downtowners often tried to colonize institutions where they could get a foothold. Many of our better-known schools and journals are still shaped by this history. It is one thing to try to create a school of thought, but another when it becomes totalizing and careerist.

    Another aspect of cronyism was created by the poor funding of the arts in the USA. We ended up with only a small number of cities that significantly supported new music (essentially only Manhattan) with the result that a large number of composers were concentrated in small areas. This seems to have become a breeding ground for rarified orthodoxy and cronyism.

    In a similar way, cronyism in new music was further compounded by America’s educational class system. A few very expensive, elite schools became the arbiters of taste and jealously held the reins of power in new music. Differing views, and especially dissent, were seldom tolerated.

    Are cronyism and a loss of critical dissent still a problem? If so, what are the solutions? I know some of the usual approaches. Juries are rotated, but often among the same set of narrowly defined peers. And there has been an attempt to widen our appreciation of musical styles. The Pulitzers might include a jazz person now, but how much has that changed the tinge of cronyism that seems to color the prize? Our schools have become less shaped by aesthetic orthodoxies, but there are several very famous and powerful schools where quasi-totalizing philosophies still seem to be practiced.

    I wonder if some organization like the AMC or a university might host a symposium addressing the problems of subjectivity and objectivity in new music, and with a specific focus on how to analyze and deconstruct some of the totalizing aesthetics and cronyism that have shaped our recent musical history. It’s almost as if it is an embarrassing topic we do not want to mention.

    William Osborne

  2. Garth Trinkl

    “We ended up with only a small number of cities that significantly supported new music (essentially only Manhattan) with the result that a large number of composers were concentrated in small areas.” …

    Thank you, William and Frank both, for your interesting and thoughtful essays.
    (I actually read you both yesterday, but couldn’t remember my log-ins when I wanted to make a few comments. I want to comment now, briefly, before this goes off the screen.)

    I would very much like to see support given to William’s ideas for the AMC and other organizations — perhaps universities or cultural centers — to plan a Strategy Conference to address a future, progressive new music cultural funding policy for America in the post Reagan-Bush years (assuming that Jeb Bush is not illegally place on the throne.)

    I would be most interested, personally, in a progressive American music cultural policy that greatly enhanced the ability of American orchestras, opera companies, and choral groups to program additional American new, and American 20th c. work, and to hire American Associate Conductors to help them accomplish this goal. Funding of additional rehearsal time may also be required; as well as educational outreach and public cultural broadcasting. (William will know what I am referring to in regards to cultural broadcasting, if not Frank and those younger readers who may never have heard of the PBS.)

    William, I will disagree with your comment that I highlighted above. I believe that America did have a somewhat “successful” New Music America strategy in the 1970s and 1980s; which was decentralized and which attempted to feature some “local” artists as well as the New Music America and N.E.A. insiders and favorites. (While Frank I will assume would, I would not myself look forward to seeing the New Music America strategy revived.)

    Frank, would it be possible for the AMC and NMB to help William develop the idea of a New Music Strategy Conference further? Perhaps William, you could contact directly the Executive Director and Board of the AMC with your interest in developing a concept for such a National Conference.

    Sorry that I don’t have more time now to comment more coherently on this topic; but I did want to get these brief impressions down in the hope that you might see them before this NMB discussion page gets pushed off the cliff by more gossip and post-modernist fun culture by the NMB “team” of commenters and chatters.

    Renaissance Research

  3. william

    Thank you for your thoughts, Garth. Issues like public funding for the arts, and a critical analysis of new music’s peer review processes, are so political and volatile that I think the AMC would have difficulty creating a forum for them. And if NMB were to show a clear leftward lean, such as questioning America’s meager, plutocratic cultural funding, or strongly questioning aspects of the musical establishment such as its cronyism, or if it questioned the effects of our educational class system on music, they would put their own funding at risk, both private and public. From the advent of McCarthyism onward, that sort of questioning is seldom tolerated in American cultural institutions. I often feel awkward even raising such topics in these forums. I think they might be very discomforting. And I couldn’t help but notice that this thread was relegated to the back pages much more quickly than some of the others.

    On the other hand, universities are more autonomous and often hold forums for such highly politicized themes. Maybe something along the lines you mention will eventually happen in one of them.

    The commentary you linked about Australia’s economic system as an alternative to those in Europe and America is excellent.

    William Osborne

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    I’m usually the first kid on the block to come up with conspirary theories, but I have to challenge William Osborne’s comment above:

    I couldn’t help but notice that this thread was relegated to the back pages much more quickly than some of the others.

    The reality is that we now have so much daily changing content on the site that nothing in the Chatter section can stay on the homepage for more than a day or two. But the last five Chatter posts stay on the Chatter index page, and, as long as folks keep responding to this particular thread, which I hope they will, this thread will stay on the top of the list of Hot Topics on the Chatter index page, which is still pretty visible.

  5. william

    Thank you for the clarification, Frank. I think I see what you’re saying. The thread is still quite visible, even if not as conspicuous as those with longer lasting positions on the home page.

    It is probably just another one of those “objective subjectivity” questions. Some things are just “Chatter” and some are “Matter.” Even short of conspiracy theories, analytical readers might wonder how these hierarchies are determined, and what the causes might be. Some topics, such as the one you raised about critical dissent, are clearly a bit touchy, and I am sure editors are left wondering how to position them. (One example might be that the old NMB site virtually collapsed under the weight of a lot of rather petty, undistinguished bickering in the forums, and this seemed to be part of the motivation for establishing a new format.)

    I am also sort of curious what you (and others) might think about the observation that cultural institutions in the USA seem to shy away from the political out of fear for their funding, and that this might even force the arts away from progressive social issues they would normally be inclined to address in a less restrained society.

    Did events like the Mapplethorpe Affair cast a sort of semi-unconscious shadow over even institutions like the AMC? Or is that merely another one of my conspiracy theories? And are there far more subtle forms of these fears that might constrain critical discussion even among colleagues? How have these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) social forces shaped American new music over the long term?

    There is an excellent book by Frances Stonor Saunders that addresses some of these issues from a larger historical perspective, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. This review provides a good summary of the book’s arguments — though from a very left-leaning perspective:

    I’m sorry, I know answers are difficult to find.

    William Osborne

  6. william

    I thought I would add a little more substance to my questions above with some material from recent articles by a couple well-known critics – in the off chance anyone would like to respond. In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott reviewed a retrospective of visual art and its relationship to the NEA. (“You Shouldn’t Have! On the NEA’s 40th, the Art of Politics”, Washington Post, May 15, 2006; Page C01.)

    He begins with a discussion of the intimidation of artists created by funding threats:

    “In 1990, as the New York City Opera prepared to stage Arnold Schoenberg’s classic ‘Moses und Aron,’ the climate was radically different. Staffers in the development department felt obliged to circulate a worried memo asking, “Will the three naked virgins in ‘Moses und Aron’ jeopardize our NEA grant?” Fear, perhaps even paranoia, was in the air.”

    He observes that this atmosphere might have caused a change in many artists’ relationship to society:

    “Parallel to the art of engagement has been a politics of disengagement, at least when it comes to arts funding. The only reason the NEA could meet in the midst of this exhibition without a firestorm is that, politically, the NEA has disengaged not just from funding this kind of art, but from the people, artists, curators and audiences who are interested in it. The ‘art of engagement,’ most of it left-wing and left-coast (the current exhibition is drawn mostly from the San Jose Museum of Art), exists in a different world, utterly removed from the new NEA’s focus on education, arts access, reading groups and promoting things like Shakespeare and poetry.”

    He also observes how much freer the relationship between politics and art is in Europe. He describes the politicians attending a ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize:

    “The bell-ringing ceremony — with European politicians respectfully participating — reflects a comfort with art and its public symbolism that is decidedly not a part of the American political landscape. You simply can’t imagine important American politicians submitting to the web of meaning that an artist who makes peace bells would construct.”

    And in an article entitled, “Political Cacophony” (Telegraph, May 11, 2006) Ivan Hewett discusses the same situation.

    He notes that political protest in art seems to be something practiced only by an older generation:

    “The retreat to the purely aesthetic in the past 30 years has led to a depressing lowering of the emotional and intellectual temperature of new music. We hear so many safe, high-gloss pieces that seem to have no urgent reason for existing. However, the good news is that the radical spirit hasn’t gone. It’s just that, as in pop music, you find it in people who might be old in years, but are marvellously young in spirit.”

    He adds:

    “I was struck by how similar things are in classical music. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, everything seemed charged with political energy, but it wasn’t shown in obvious ways, such as protest songs. It was to do with changing our perception. The effort to create new languages of music felt like part of a bigger enterprise for a better world.

    “Sometimes, the connection became overt. The Italian composer Luigi Nono tried to raise the consciousness of the proletariat with his car-factory concerts in Turin. Another Italian, Luciano Berio, wrote memorial pieces for Martin Luther King. The German composer Hans Werner Henze had a sudden flush of revolutionary fervour when he met student leader Rudi Dutschke, and then went off to Cuba. Even someone as purist as Pierre Boulez was rumoured to have been communist in his youth.”

    The article continues with discussions of other political composers such as Cornelius Cardew and Frederic Rzewski. The latter is American, but notably spent much of his career in Europe where political art is more readily accepted.

    Reasons to protest and politically engage society have hardly left us. There is, of course, the Iraq War, but long-term social issues meet us perhaps even more directly. For example, only about 50% of African-American and Hispanic students graduate from high school. It is thus no surprise that the performers, composers, and public for our new music concerts are almost 100% white. Occasionally one sees political art, like the new Neil Young CD. And now and then there is a brief rumbling in some classical work or another. But still, one has to ask why America the Beautiful has become America the Silent.

    Did all of that rarified artistic collusion of the second half of 20th century American composition weaken our sense of social engagement, and perhaps even aspects of our artistic integrity?

    William Osborne>>>

  7. Garth Trinkl

    William, thank you for your additional postings to this thread, which I feel you made under circumstances that I know you found less than ideal. And thank you for the additional links to other critical resources — links I hope to find time to turn to soon.

    I wanted to comment briefly on two matters: one is the censorship issues that you raise, and second, the matter of trying to find a perhaps international and university based forum to address a future progressive musical and cultural policy.

    While I don’t want to go too far into the subject of NEA censorship, a subject to which I was once uncomfortably close for bizarre reasons (one of my NEA submitted libretti mentions the description of a Soviet prisoner’s tatoo, which someone in the NEA Administration — and subsequently someone on the National Arts Council — found pornographic); I will say that I think that ‘n*dity’ is indeed allowed in American operatic production and is something which is seen as a tease by the largely upper classes which attend “non-peoples” opera here in America.

    And while, frankly, I don’t recall the n*ked virgins in the NYCO staging of Aichim Freyer’s Bonn Opera production of “Moses und Aron”, which I attended sitting probably in the last row, I do happen to recall the self-gratifying babies in the opening scene of Aichim Freyer’s production of “Hamlet”, as staged in Berlin. I also don’t recall the conservative Kennedy Center Opera House being shut down when “Salome” last bared her “n*ked chest”.

    Rather, I would rather focus on the artistic and intellectual censorship which the New Right has carried out in America over the past generation. Antal Dorati and the National Symphony, and Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra, once were able to premiere major humanisitic, but controversial, works by Roberto Gerhard and Luciano Berio at Washington’s Kennedy Center — respectively, “The Plague” in the early 1970s and “Coro” in 1982. I doubt that the NSO or the Kennedy Center would again allow these controversially humanistic works to be revived under the current political climate.

    William, do you know of any Australian, Austrian, E.U., or German opposition groups which might be able to help organize the ‘international cultural freedom and support’ conference that you propose? Do you, or anyone, know of whether the conference organizers at such places as the Columbia University, the Johns Hopkins University, or the John F. Kennedy School of Harvard University might not have the academic freedom to host such a musical and cultural conference?


    PS. I erred earlier, Frank. I hadn’t read NewMusicBox in a while and hadn’t realized that you had expanded the list of invited “chatters” and “bloggers” beyond yourself, Molly, and Randy.

    Renaissance Research

  8. william

    Thank you for your thoughts, Garth.

    You mention working with European groups to address the problems of arts funding. Actually, the EU is under strong pressure to reduce its arts funding as well. “Neo-liberal” economic policies were established as the norm to be used for Europe’s economic unification. Many Europeans long took for granted the generous arts funding provided by their social democracies. They are only now realizing that the unmitigated forms of capitalism propounded by neo-liberalism will cut off their arts funding, and thus significantly curtail their freedom of expression and their ability to preserve their cultural identity in the global community.

    Even though neo-liberalism comes from America, most Americans do not even know what it is. Its technical economic meanings differ from the common American political usage of the term “liberal.” Neo-liberalism, which was largely formulated by Milton Friedman in 1971, refers instead to the historical policies of market-liberalism as freed from government intervention or involvement. This includes eliminating public expenditure for social services such as health insurance, education and cultural programs. This is consistent with its other policies, such as the deregulation of the market to allow the free flow of capital and limit restrictions caused by issues such as environmentalism and job safety; privatization of state-owned enterprises such as schools, parks, toll highways, hospitals, utilities, and water supplies; and the replacement of traditional concepts such as “the public good” or “community” with values emphasizing “individual responsibility.” This philosophy is almost diametrically opposed to the tradition of large public cultural funding found in most of Europe’s social democracies.

    About two years ago, European voters began to rebel. The European constitution was voted down by both France and the Netherlands, two countries that had previously championed just about everything involving unification. And Gerhard Schroeder, the Chancellor of Germany who championed neo-liberal “reform”, was voted out of office. It remains to be seen where all of this will lead. The financial elite will form new strategies for establishing neo-liberalism.

    I hope that American universities will more closely examine neo-liberalism, and its effects on arts funding and concepts of freedom of expression. Outside of concertizing, I have never been a part of academia, so it is unlikely that I will be involved in these discussions, but I hope they will happen. For now, I think the best that can be hoped for is to write articles and raise discussion in forums such as this.

    As we see even here, there is a great deal of apathy about these issues, even among American artists. The causes are probably based more on ignorance than ideology. There is little discussion or information available, because the corporate media is hardly inclined to address issues that might encourage social democracy. And our cultural institutions avoid these issues because they are utterly dependant on corporate funding. America’s extreme form of capitalism is a culturally isomorphic system. I too would have never considered alternatives if I had not lived in Europe for the last 26 years. I was able to experience first hand the advantages of the European economic system.

    William Osborne

  9. Garth Trinkl

    William, thank you very much for your continued posting here on these important but ignored topics. I think that your explanation of the meaning of ‘neo-liberalism” will be helpful to the few who see it. A few years back there were some general discussions in some of the mainstream press discussing “neo-liberalism” and its relationship to “globalization” and “anti-globalization”.
    In my view, “globalization” and “anti-globalization” are as important to culture as to economics, politics, and sociology.

    And I agree with you that many artists in America are well into an apathetic phase.

    I wanted to point to the Japanese press item that I highlighted this morning which says that classical music adventurism in Tokyo — based upon the hiring by Tokyo Orchestras of some dynamic, younger European conducting talent — is now being threatened by sponsorship issues, mergers, the replacement of more independent minded Presidents of orchestras by less culturally aware business leaders, and — generally — “neo-liberalism”. Note in particular the article’s final sentences.

    Perhaps one could invite Japanese universities to participate in a forum on “cultural freedom and support”.

    Renaissance Research


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