Don’t Call Me Stupid

Don’t Call Me Stupid

A couple of weeks ago on these pages, rather than attempting to either change the world or to find yet another excuse to advocate for new music (my default positions), I decided to have a little fun instead. So I lightheartedly pondered the possibility of a relationship between the year that a composer was born and the music that he or she subsequently wrote. My head was spinning from reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, which decries our current era’s seeming lack of zeitgeist. And after listening to a series of pieces by composers—both in concert and on recordings—whose music sounded reminiscent (to me at least) of what was going on during their birth years, it seemed a somewhat entertaining and harmless way to get a conversation started about the current state of music. Much to my surprise some folks took it all too seriously and serious debates about my claim continue.

What I’m hoping to get people riled up about today, on the other hand, might seem fairly innocuous at first, but it is something that really gnaws at me as being downright insidious the more I think about it. For the past several months it has been difficult to avoid an ad campaign blitzing the streets and subways of New York City from a clothing company called Diesel. The theme of the campaign is “Be Stupid.” The theme of all these ads is that if you are stupid you are on the cutting edge, cool, and influential. On the other hand, if you are intelligent you’re a hopeless loser. (I include a link to it here not to help drive traffic to them, but just in case some more fortunate person reading this hasn’t yet been subjected to these ads and has no idea what I’m talking about.)

At first I couldn’t quite articulate what I found so irritating about those ads, other than the fact that they are pretty, well, stupid. But after reading a particularly poignant remark in Colin Holter’s post here last week (“Can anyone say with a straight face that the world needs more thoughtless music?”), I think I can venture a guess: In our society, lack of respect for intelligence is constantly being reinforced; to have really deep thoughts about something, anything, is considered a waste of time. And yet to truly empathize with anyone or anything requires much more than a peripheral relationship. One of the reasons that the creation and experience of art—whether music, painting, literature, dance, etc.—is ultimately the most human of activities is that it reinforces a paradigm of empathy, a paradigm necessary for us to co-exist with one another.

The Diesel ads imply that intelligence somehow impedes creativity. I contend that the reverse is true. The more aware you are of something, the more curious you become and that curiosity, and the desire to instill it in others, can lead to an unending well spring of inspiration. But to have a shallow awareness of what is going on around you makes it virtually impossible to create transformative experiences, which is what the most meaningful works of art are. It also makes it impossible to truly look at, read, or listen to something and to be moved by it. Worse still, the inability to pay close attention decreases our ability to empathize with one another and ultimately reduces our humanity.

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.

37 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me Stupid

  1. Joyfulgirl

    I had no idea about this ad. Thanks for enlightening me. The worst part is that they’re telling me to be stupid so that I’ll buy their overpriced jeans, not because they want to teach me a valuable life lesson. I guess as far as the corporate American machine is concerned — the more they can convince the average consumer to be stupid, the more chance they have of getting the average consumer to fall for their silly product.

    On the other hand, who can resist an ad with neon letters flashing across the computer screen and funky techno music?

  2. colin holter

    But to have a shallow awareness of what is going on around you makes it virtually impossible to create transformative experiences, which is what the most meaningful works of art are. It also makes it impossible to truly look at, read, or listen to something and to be moved by it. Worse still, the inability to pay close attention decreases our ability to empathize with one another and ultimately reduces our humanity.

    This is the kind of thing that should go without saying, but doesn’t, unfortunately – so thanks for saying it!

  3. girl in a cornfield

    “The artist brings to our senses and through them to our whole being something of the depth of our world and of ourselves, something of the mystery of being. When we are grasped by a work of art, things appear to us which were unknown before—possibilities of being, unthought-of powers, hidden in the depth of life which take hold of us.”

    –Paul Tillich

    Having spent a bit of time lately reading and thinking about the intersection of philosophy/theology and the arts in the 20th century, I am reminded of Heidegger’s ontological understanding of the work of art as the ‘unconcealment of truth.’ What makes music, painting, dance, or any art powerful is that it in some way embodies and makes evident deep truths about what it is to be human and to live in this world that we all share. The greater the depth of the artist’s understanding, the greater the depth of the work, and the greater the probability that it will stretch or transform the audience. So don’t call me stupid either :)

  4. Lisa X

    Frank, being in NYC you might have missed the Hyphy movement from a few years ago. At the time it seemed like the music (who’s most popular anthem was an incredible song called Tell Me When To Go by E-40), the fashion, the dancing, and most importantly the large social gatherings called Sideshows were a vibrant form of resistance. In this context going dumb or getting stupid were strong critiques of “intelligent” yet failing culture.

    Maybe it was inevitable that ten years later this powerful idea would be neutralized by a marketing campaign, but hell, Bob Dylan sells underwear.

    Also, lets face it, Colin’s recent post about habituation: Instinct vs. Practice and David’s recent post Be Untrue to Your School are basically two fancy ways of saying the same sort of thing employed by the Deisel adds.

  5. colin holter

    Also, lets face it, Colin’s recent post about habituation: Instinct vs. Practice and David’s recent post Be Untrue to Your School are basically two fancy ways of saying the same sort of thing employed by the Deisel adds.

    “Buy Jeans?” Because that’s not really what I was going for. Obeying your habits is a great way to be productive, but not necessarily creative, was my main idea up in there. Maybe there’s an insightful maxim hidden in those Diesel adds that I totally missed! (For the record, I haven’t seen them in person myself.)

  6. smooke

    @Lisa X:

    On a certain level I do agree with you–my post is also about the importance of stepping beyond conventional thinking and letting go of the fear of failure. But I absolutely chafe at the idea of embracing stupidity. I think that this gets at a broader issue in our society. Just because it’s impossible to achieve complete objectivity doesn’t mean that all ideas are equally valid (mind you, I’m not accusing you of saying this, but it is a background idea to the ad). So, while I like the idea of going beyond what we’re told is possible, the idea of being proudly stupid is anathema to me. But I do appreciate your seeing the confluence between these posts.

    – David

  7. Lisa X

    Colin and David, I think we all agree that the Diesel adds are empty slogans. I’m just pointing out that: (1) the Diesel add is using “be stupid” as a slang term that means: resist the status quo; (2) resisting the status quo is a common theme here at NMB; and (3) using “stupid” in this context has origins in the Hyphy movement, as a sincere element within a strong culture of resistance.

  8. Frank J. Oteri

    the Diesel add is using “be stupid” as a slang term that means: resist the status quo

    Except that is so often feels like stupid IS the status quo. Resistance, on the other hand, requires a deep commitment.

  9. Lisa X

    I agree Frank. I just wanted to point out that the use of the word “stupid” in this context has it’s history in an authentic resistance movement.

  10. mclaren

    Colin Holter rips his bustier asunder and gives full-throated voice to the coloratura plaint: “Can anyone honestly say we need more thoughtless music?”

    No one else seems to have stepped up to the plate. So, yes, absolutely, without a doubt.

    We need a lot more thoughtless music.

    In fact, if there’s one thing I’m sick to
    death of in contemporary music, it’s people yammering about musical “ideas.”
    Music isn’t based on ideas. Music doesn’t come from ideas. Music comes from riffs, from a gut-kicking rhythm, from a mesmerizing timbre, from a bewitching melody. Ideas merely interest us, in the way that a bug under a microscope interests an entomologist: but music seduces us, impassions us, enraptures us, unworlds us. Music does what mere ideas
    can never do.

    “Logical decisions aren’t always the greatest thing in art.” — James Bohn

    Ingenuity remains the last refuge of the composer without musical talent.

    Nothing sounds quite as dumb as a composer trying to be really smart.

    If in doubt, stop thinking. Let the notes think for you. Become an empty vessel for the music, turn yourself into something as simple and thoughless as a drop of water.

    “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo DaVinci

    Composers who adore The Idea worship at the clay-footed idol of formal analysis… But formal analysis tends to leave out the je ne sais quois of music. It preserves the shriveled outer rind of the music, but the delicious inner juiciness has been lost.

    The adoration of ingenuity remains the province of composers who like music critics just discerning enough to notice his cleverness, and just stupid enough to admire it. Composers should bear in mind the parable of the Zen master who, in order to produce the perfect example of calligraphy, emptied his mind and let the ink brush move his hand by itself in a single thoughtless instant.

    Out in the real world of real music, the most daring astonishing breakthrough usually involves doing whatever is most obvious. No one else did it ’cause they’re too busy being clever.

    People who are smart enough typically wind up doing unbelievably dumb things when they tie themselves into knots of ingenuity. Be simple. Be crude. Be obvious. Composers usually fail not by lack of sophistication, but because they don’t beat the audience with a big enough sledgehammer for the listeners to hear what’s going on in a composition.

    In fact, if all American composers made it their business to annihilate thought for the next 10 years and work entirely by automatic pilot, abandoning logic and reason and clever plans and complex forms, music in America would take its greatest leap forward since Lou Harrison
    built the first American gamelan and John Chowning fired up the first mainframe dedicated entirely to music in an American music department.

    In the 21st century, the composer’s greatest battles involve fighting against superfluous complexity and pointless technology. Today, musical profundity remains the last refuge of the shallow.

    Thought is the enemy of excellence in music. If you meet an idea on the road to musical composition, KILL IT!

  11. colin holter

    Music comes from riffs, from a gut-kicking rhythm, from a mesmerizing timbre, from a bewitching melody.

    Music comes from a lot of places. Sometimes it comes from an uncritical and unreflective deployment of material, but sometimes it comes from considering possibilities that aren’t immediately at our sensory disposal. If everyone insisted on riffs and gut-kicking rhythms, we couldn’t have Cage’s music, for instance – and we’d live in a much poorer musical world.

    Ideas merely interest us, in the way that a bug under a microscope interests an entomologist: but music seduces us, impassions us, enraptures us, unworlds us.

    Ideas certainly seduce and impassion me. The “unworlding” of music – its restraint into its own cultural pen, so to speak – is one of my least favorite things about music and music discourse (particularly when it comes from worshipers at the “clay-footed idol” of structural analysis that you mentioned, so you and I are on the same team there). Just because music can be demystified doesn’t mean it becomes less wondrous, less embodied, less humanly magical.

    Finally, because of the bustier comment, I’m going to get personal for a moment: How’s all this working out for you, mclaren, whoever you are in the “real world of real music?” Are you changing hearts and minds? Are you achieving success, in whatever terms you define it for yourself? If so, give yourself a pat on the back for having found a way of thinking about music that serves you – and please stop telling the rest of us not to use the grey matter our mamas gave us.

  12. philmusic

    Mclaren your argument here shows anger but I don’t think its very persuasive. Your not talking about thought at all but a kind of musical style you don’t like. Building a mainframe or a gamalon is hardly thoughtless.

    Phil Fried Phil’s still in saint paul page

  13. Johnny Schicchi

    I have to agree with Phil re: Mclaren’s post, but I sympathize with Mclaren’s passion. You have to wonder why Mclaren would be so angry about a certain approach to composition. My guess is that the anger isn’t toward the approach so much as a person who tried to impose that approach on him, or perhaps demeaned his own approach. That can be cause for anger but, assuming my guess is correct, the anger should be directed back toward the person who caused it, or the situation that allowed such an imposition.

    The reason I’m venturing a guess is because the situation is very common in America’s universities and colleges. Most are run by aging Baby Boomers who hold on to their Modernist aesthetic with a death grip. Which is fine, if that’s what they like, but many impose this aesthetic on their students, which is unconscionable.

    One of my undergraduate composition teachers (hey, Larry!) sat me down at a desk in our first meeting and had me compose for 30 minutes. After which he critiqued my efforts and was quite disgusted with all of it…especially the fugue. He played me a piece by Varèse and then said (and I’m quoting verbatim), “I got into teaching to propagate the kind of music I like. This is the kind of music I like. I can’t make you compose this kind of music. But I’m telling you, as someone who is giving you your grade: this is the kind of music I like.” I needed the education, so you can guess what kind of music I became very proficient at writing (and never touched again after graduation).

    I can support any kind of passionate resistance to that kind of aesthetic tyranny. And the odd thing is that I found my situation wasn’t special at all: I’ve heard similar stories from many many composers…even those graduating today, when we supposedly live in an era of “eclecticism” when a composer is free to choose his or her own aesthetic.

  14. pgblu

    Most are run by aging Baby Boomers who hold on to their Modernist aesthetic with a death grip.

    Care to cite some evidence for this? I mean for the word “most”. Anecdotes from your own life are not enough.

  15. rtanaka

    You could just look at job placement and job acquisition rates for those who graduated from composition programs — I think for the most part you’ll find that the system is quite incestuous and has been that way for a long time now. Or just look at who’s heading the music programs at some of the most well-known music schools at the moment and compare it to their output. It depends on the school, of course, but it’s safe to say that the “modernist iron grip” is prominent enough to make their presence known.

    Mclaren’s point of view is actually more typical than you think — I’ve found that I have had a lot more freedom as a performer, because when you’re out there playing music for the public you inevitably run into different styles and approaches towards doing things. It’s basically that the dehumanized approach of modernist composition tends to be anti-thetical towards putting on concerts that might have a chance of creating or connecting to an audience base. As I gain more experience putting on shows in concert and gallery spaces, I find myself dismissing more and more of what I learned in school, which kind of implies that I wasted a lot of time and money there.

    Meanwhile, the new hires in academia are often those who write in the same style as their teachers, except not as good, so they won’t pose a threat to their job position. Unless the administration gets directly involved, the quality of musicianship and instruction gradually erodes. If you’re doing something outside of your school’s style, these are the things that you see, and the story is pretty much the same everywhere, I’d say. It’s hard to get a sense of these things while you’re within the program, but it becomes very obvious once you’re out.

    I’ve heard a number of people say that 40 years is a good rule of thumb when comparing academia to what’s happening in the forefront. I think university programs are warming up to minimal music and improvisation right now, for example, but Glass and Reich were doing these sorts of things back in the 70s so it’s a bit of a time warp. To avoid frustration, I usually tell people to treat the institution as a kind of museum — a good place to learn about the fundamentals, histories and canons of classical music, but if you’re looking for innovation or relevance (to what’s happening right now) that’s something you’re on your own for.

  16. rtanaka

    What kind of “evidence” are you looking for? Job placement records not good enough? Unless you’re seriously expecting a study that says there are x% of modernists working within academia at any given year, anecdotes are probably the most reliable for these types of issues. And it’s not so much that these stories exist that makes them valid, but that in number they vastly overwhelm stories that make the opposite claim, which the latter I have never even heard of. (And believe me, I’ve looked, hoping it would lead to a career path.) How often are students given significant rewards (e.g. job placement, scholarships) for writing in a style that runs counter to their teacher’s ideology?

    Almost never, if not ever.

    So we just kindly ask that people stop pretending like they do, because it’s disingenous and especially confusing for students who have to spend years living under that type of contradiction. None of the anger and resentment would really be there if things were more upfront.

  17. pgblu

    The only study I know (and I admittedly don’t spend a huge deal of time researching this) is the one put together by Josef Straus back in 1999. It doesn’t corroborate what you are saying. But it also only talks about the 1950’s and 1960’s… modernists are currently having a hard time finding their place in academia or in the new music scene as a whole.

    If you want to trade anecdotes instead, though, go ahead. Clearly your personal experiences don’t resemble mine very closely, and that’s fine. But I don’t extrapolate from my own experiences to make claims about the entire state of academia. What purpose (other than a self-serving one) is there in trying to frame myself as a victim of historical circumstance?

  18. rtanaka

    Unless you want specific names and places, which wouldn’t be too hard to do but would probably get too personal and be in bad taste. Anyway, it’s human nature to want to be around people of similar thinking, so I think it’s best just to accept the fact that that’s how the world works.

    For people like mclaren, your point of view seems to be strongly influenced by the peformer’s perspective, which tends to be antithetical to the dehumanized approach of the high-modernists — probably why there’s a lot of resentment involved there. Even if they’re writing in neo-classical/neo-romantic/minimalist styles, the problem I see with a lot of recent compositions is that the parts just aren’t very fun to play because it displays no understanding of what idiomatic writing is. Nowadays composers can point to people like Xenakis (or worse, in some cases, their teachers) and attempt to rationalize their bad orchestrations as “pushing the boundaries” and such.

    Anyway, as a performer, you’re actually in a very good position compared to the rest because you have the means of communicating to the public directly. I’ve abandoned the academic-composer route a long time ago (am currently in the process of jumping ship toward a musicology degree) but haven’t found any shortage of opportunities in terms of getting my music out. But I’d say that 95% of the things I’ve done I’ve also participated directly as a performer myself. I think that the composer/performer “do-it-yourself” model is probably what’s going to be more and more commonplace in near future — best to get in on it early, I think.

    If you don’t fit into the mold of things, it’s not like you have a choice, anyway.

  19. rtanaka

    What purpose (other than a self-serving one) is there in trying to frame myself as a victim of historical circumstance?

    Speaking of self-serving and portraying one’s self as a victim, Josef Straus, “The Myth of Serial ‘Tyranny’ in the 1950’s and 1960’s” doesn’t exactly come across as being unbiased. And pretty much all of the things he’s written have to do with serialism and 12-tone theory so it just kind of reaffirms everything I’ve said above. He’s not a very good example to use, but at the same time I wouldn’t bother defending that point of view because there are no good examples. It’s kind of the case where the problems concerning academia are obvious to everyone except for those within it.

    Anyway, this is a widespread problem, not just in music but in the humanities in general. I think I posted this here before, but this article is a somewhat dismal, but very honest look at the state of the academic job market today, coming from an insider’s perspective. He warns against arguments that comes from points of priviledge, which is what aesthetic imposition can become if the student doesn’t know how to defend themselves from bad (though probably well-intensioned) advice.

    I don’t see myself as a victim at all, actually — I’m happy with what I’ve been able to accomplish artistically had lots of opportunities which I’m grateful for. But I was forced to dismiss a lot of the things that I was taught as a student in order for me to get to this point, which just doesn’t seem right. If you want more evidence, another indication is in the job acquisition rates of composition graduates, which is one of the lowest among all of the music fields.

  20. pgblu

    Anyway, it’s human nature to want to be around people of similar thinking, so I think it’s best just to accept the fact that that’s how the world works.

    No, I totally disagree that we should accept this. It is the road to mediocrity and cynicism.

  21. pgblu

    Speaking of self-serving and portraying one’s self as a victim, Josef Straus, “The Myth of Serial ‘Tyranny’ in the 1950’s and 1960’s” doesn’t exactly come across as being unbiased.

    Care to be specific? Just because he does indeed have a vested interest in the subject matter doesn’t mean he can’t research it…

  22. rtanaka

    The article is here if anybody is interested in reading.

    This article is actually a very good example of disingenuous scholarship that poses itself as objective research so I’m glad you brought it up. There’s so many problems with this essay that I don’t really know where to start, but page 307-308 probably is the most relevant example since it talks about academic presence.

    First off, if you read the methodology that he’s using, he’s using criteria that he defined himself and puts them wherever he sees fit. It’s not that he actually interviewed these people and asked them which category they would fit themselves into, or that there’s really any carefully defined standards that he used in order to categorize them — he just sort of put them wherever he thought would be good. This strikes me as unprofessional, but for now let’s assume that he actually attempted to be objective and didn’t fudge the numbers.

    If you look at the chart regarding academic presense there, it says that there are a total # of “111 composers”, with bar graphs to illustrate its point. Now according to the chart, there are 22 serial composers, 38 atonal composers, 72 tonal composers, 14 experimental composers, which seems to imply the dominance of tonal music. Course we’re talking about modernism in a general sense here, so 74 vs. 72 (60 vs. 72 if you consider “experimental” to be something else) is still actually a very strong number, so it doesn’t do much to refute my argument either.

    If you add up the numbers you’ll notice that it adds up to 146, not 111. He justifies this by saying that supposedly some composers write in more than one style so in those cases they might be counted more than once. Anyway, he doesn’t bother explaining the methodology in how he did the split, so you basically just have to trust him that he’s done it right. (Which is impossible, since there is a conflict of interest involved.) If the criteria is measuring presense in academia, why would you count a person more than once? Schizophrenics should be counted 7 times maybe? The method itself is kind of silly.

    I used to study science — I know what the scientific method entails. This is definitely not it. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt that these numbers were not deliberately manufactured, they don’t really reveal much of anything other than the fact that these observations are just anecdotes written in a scholarly tone. So why all the pretension, when nobody is really buying it anyway? If people were just upfront about their biases and tastes, they probably wouldn’t have to waste so much ink.

  23. pgblu

    Thanks for sharing that link, Ryan. I haven’t looked at it in a while. Now anyone can go ahead and judge the validity of your critique for themselves.

  24. TJOG

    I believe that Straus’ methodology is perfectly reasonable given the issues he’s attempting to deal with. If, in Straus’ study, a composer indicated that he or she works in more than one style, all of those styles should have been recorded in the list since the whole point of the study is to determine if in fact a single style (serialism and its off-shoots) actually dominated academia in the 1950s and 1960s to the extent it is sometimes alleged. Straus makes a convincing argument that more conservative compositional styles were alive and well in the period.

    That being said, I was an undergraduate in the 1960s and believe that those working in the serial style may have enjoyed somewhat more prestige than some of their more conservative colleagues in that period since the serialists were perceived as the “true modernists” of their era. Certainly there were plenty of composers who continued to write tonally-based styles and they were treated with respect (for the most part) by fellow academics and students. But there was, I believe, a sense that the serialists (especially the integral serialists) represented the exciting “new wave.”

    There is hardly anything surprising about this. One would expect informed academics to be interested in current trends. No one would want to be taught by a theorist or musicologist who felt that everything after “La Mer” was decadent. However, it became more obvious in the 1970s and 1980s that there were perfectly legitimate alternatives to serialism in whatever manifestation it might appear. There was also an increasing (if admittedly belated) interest in Cage (both for his use of indeterminacy and his sense of theatricality) as well as his followers and allies. And if the emerging new styles (e.g., the “new tonality” and minimalism) were not immediately embraced, they weren’t ignored either. So, with other valid alternatives out there, it increasingly became clearer that serialism need not be worshipped as the one true God. Or at least it became clearer to most academics. There is no question that some academics, locked into the serialist aesthetic, never really opened their hearts and minds to other perfectly respectable and creative alternatives. Were there some tyrants among music professors just as there are some tyrants in every other field of human endeavor? Of course. Some of them undoubtedly imposed their serialist aesthetic on their unwilling students with no thought to the student’s comfort. Was that (is that) unfortunate? Absolutely. But professors do have a tendency to “profess” a particular point of view. This is especially true of composition teachers, but it holds throughout the arts and humanities. Do the students suffer when their professor is exceptionally single-minded? There is little question that some do. Is the entire system corrupt because of this? I don’t think so. Most students learn what they can from their composition teacher and then move on to compose what most interests them. Who knows? Perhaps in twenty years they will gravitate back to serialism because they become interested in the specific sort of discipline that it offers.

    One last point: I agree that graduate students are sometimes given unrealistically cheery advice about the chances of securing full-time academic employment in the arts (and perhaps in the humanities in general). Any faculty member who has ever been on a search and screen committee (and that’s eventually everybody) knows that there are usually a very large number of applicants for even the most modest position and a number of those applicants are highly qualified. So how do we correct that problem? Do faculty members refuse to encourage promising students because they face an uphill battle in securing permanent academic appointment? I doubt if most students would think that was a good idea. Should faculty plead with potential graduate students to read the article “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” that rtanaka links to? Maybe so, but optimism springs eternal and most faculty sincerely believe that their best students will somehow rise to the top, even if that isn’t a completely realistic appraisal. So I’m afraid that it’s up to the students. Take into account the fact that your professor may be telling you what they think you want to hear and make a realistic assessment of your chances on your own.

  25. rtanaka

    It’s not that I have a problem with people writing serial music (since I was into it too, at certain points) but that composition departments tend to overexaggerate their claims of diversity, as if to imply that what they’re doing encompasses all of what music has to offer. There really shouldn’t be any need for people to point out that it’s impossible for any medium to be inclusive of everything, and the fact that jazz, world, and popular music styles more often than not exist in completely separate deparments should be a clear indicator of this fact.

    The reason why people get worked up about this issue is because the attitudes composers have about their own departments will affect the kind of career advice they give to their students. There’s the academic route, which if you’re serious about pursuing that path you will need to learn how to play the game of cultural politics. You cannot make a living publishing scores. It is possible to earn a living working with audio and recording mediums, however. There used to be the orchestrator -> film composer career path, but due to technological advances that model is dying and is being replaced by privately owned studios. There is virtually no demand for private composition lessons, but it’s possible to earn a living giving performance lessons. Educators should not be depriving their students of this information just because they don’t want to discourage their students. The good ones will do it anyway and will appreciate the honesty if anything, really.

    There are options available for musicians wanting to make a living, but it’s not completely open-ended as some might argue. As the “Just Don’t Go” article says, those types of remarks either come from a point of privledge or general ignorance of the state of the job market right now, so students need to be skeptical of what their teacher is telling them, regardless of its good intensions. The better ones know the limitations of what their medium can and cannot do, and will usually be upfront about where they stand and how they got to where they were.

    Unfortunately that’s the attitude students are going to have to take until the schools start getting their act together and improve their job acquisition rates. Regardless of background or socio-economic status, I do believe that most people who go into music programs have a genuine desire to find employment in their area of study. It’s just that after years of enforcing the study of antiquated skill-sets and giving bad career advice, composition is gradually becoming an leisure activity, available only as a form of novelty. The poor are eventually forced to abandon their craft in order to earn a living, while there’s an air of existential despair surrounding the works of the privledged because they’re unable to see the relevance of what they’re doing in relation to the rest of the world. A major overhaul is going to be needed soon, or the medium will just disappear along with its aging patron-base.

  26. mclaren

    As always, evidence of oppression by composition teachers against students who dare to dissent from the prevailing musiKKKal orthodoxy gets met with hysterical denial.

    No surprise. American history shows that the first and most urgent task of the oppressor remains denial of any oppression. Consider the premier example, the 1921 Tulsa City Oklahoma race riot. All newspaper accounts of that riot, in which the bodies of lynched blacks were described as “stacked like cordwood in the streets,” have been systematically removed from all surviving newspapers.

    The same thing happens in music history, most recently courtesy of the now-infamous exercise in dumping 50 years of documented modern history into the Orwellian memory hole: “The Myth of Serial Tyranny in the 1950s and 1960s” by Joseph N. Straus, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 3, 1999, pp. 301-343.

    Straus’ virtuoso display of casuistic sophistry has of course gotten revealed as a sinister monument to dishonest pseudoscholarship by multiple musicologists.

    The most spectacular and thorough debunking of Straus’ exercise in Newspeak comes from John Halle, formerly of Yale, now on the faculty at Bard. See “Serialism and Revisionism: A Response To Straus,” John Halle, 2003

    Other scholars have of course also shredded Straus’ dishonest rewriting of history. See, for example, “The Myth of Empirical Historiography: A Response To Joseph N. Straus,” by Anne Schreffler, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 84, No. 1., 2000, pp. 30-39.

    So the musicologists have weighed in, and Ryan Tanaka got it right, while pgblu has gotten it wrong. The musicologists agree, the evidence has crushed Straus’ discredited claims, and only the sound of a shovel scraping away the roadkill detritus of Straus’ reputation now makes itself heard on the information superhighway.

    Naturally this fails to deter the committed denialists — as with global warming denial, facts don’t matter here, only ideology.

    And so, time to amass yet more evidence that the watchword in university music departments throughout the length and breadth of America remains (in the immortal words of the rock group Rush) “Conform or be cast out!”

    [Bart Kosko] was already interested in Bach and now committed himself to classical music. “I was really into it,” he remembers. He quickly mastered the mandolin and other string instruments. A friend of his had an upright piano in his basement, and in September 1974, he learned to play it. By the end of that month, he was composing his first violin concerto. He was 14.

    Soon he had written a quartet, an orchestral suite and other works.. (..)

    By next fall, when he was a junior, musicians at St. Mary’s College were rehearsing his first quartet, and soon the Kansas City Philharmonic played his first trio. over the following summer he wrote 100 pieces, including his Overture for the Count of Monte Cristo, which he completed in two weeks. He then won a young composer’s context, which led to scholarships and placed his name in the paper. (..)

    In December, he began applying to college. He was determined to go West and write, score, and direct movies, and USC gave him a full music scholarship. He arrived at USC and discovered that atonalists — who based their art on the 12-tone scale of Arnold Schoenberg — controlled the department. He hated atonal music. He didn’t even want to listen to it, much less write about it, and he created an uproar. Ultimately, the faculty told him he could keep his music scholarship for one year if he left the department, and he switched to a dual-degree program in economics and philosophy. [Fuzzy Logic, Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger, Simon & Schuster, new York: 1993, pp. 194-195]

    I have observed a great number of professional composing colleagues who had great frustration in their student years. …[A] mismatch between their own interests and those of their teachers created the frustration. A good example of this was during the early 1980’s, when young composers at Juilliard and other conservatories complained about not being `allowed’ to write the minimal and tonal music they wanted to write, while their instructors (I heard it from Elliot Carter) were complaining that their students only wanted to write minimal or tonal music. — Daniel J. Wolf

    Source: listserv smttalk, March 2009.

    Keep those denials coming. I’ll just keep piling up more evidence and more evidence and yet more evidence that any music student who dares dissent from the reigning musiKKKal orthodoxy at hi/r institution of higher learning gets shunned like a leper and invited (in the politest of terms) to choose another major.

    As regards Colin Holter’s limp rejoinder: while it might seem startling that no one commenting here recognize the thoroughness with which Straus’ dishonest work of pseudoscholarship has been debunked, the discerning heurist recognizes that this is par for the course. “The distinguishing characteristic of the contemporary academic composer, aside from pedantry, is gross incompetence.” — William Schottstaedt, liner notes to “Leviathan,” Wergo Computer Music Spectrum Vol. 5, 1989.

    We therefore expect no less than a thoroughgoing ignorance of the basic scholarship surrounding papers like Straus’.

    In like wise, we expect people like Colin Holter to completely miss the point of my original remarks — an expectation in which we are (naturally) not disappointed. The point, contrary to Colin Holter’s bogus claim that I was urging composers “not to use their gray matter,” has nothing to do with serialism or with high modernism in music or with avoiding using your brain.

    On the contrary: the point remains that the ill-advised fixation on a single narrow modality of cognition in problem-solving leads to failure, fallacy, and folly. We’ve seen this in manifold realms outside music: the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the housing bubble of 2008, and the collapse of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management in 1997 even though its trades were based on the Nobel-prize-winning options pricing formula of Nobel laureates Merton and Scholes.

    Cognitive neuroscience has shown that the human mind contains more than one useful brain hemisphere. The human brain operates in non-verbal as well as verbal modes, uses intuition in addition to modus ponens deduction, and employs non-linguistic non-rational modalities of cognition to effectively and efficiently solve problems. Cognitive research has amply demonstrated that, contraposed against the familiar verbal-mathematical modalities so zealously worshiped by musical academia, holistic non-verbal intuitive modes of cognition can in many cases solve problems against which verbal-abstract-logical mode of cognition prove wholly impotent.

    Naturally, Colin Holter remains as blissfully unaware of the vast mountain of current cognitive science research demonstrating the existence and importance of non-verbal holistic intuitive non-deductive cognitive problem-solving as he was of the point of my original comment… So at this juncture it seems apropos to enlighten poor Colin about what it really means to “use our brains.”

    “Popular belief has it that science is the preserve of logical Mr. Spocks. A great scientific discovery must surely spring from a series of logical steps, each taken coolly and calmly, in rational order. But take some time to leaf through the pages of history and you will find the surprising truth. Some of the greatest discoveries in science were only made because logic fell by the wayside and some mysterious intuition came into play.” [Chown, Marcus, “What’s Logic Got to Do With It?” New Scientist, 27 July 1996, pg. 40.]

    Moreover, the different modes of musical cognition aren’t as straightforward as left brain or right brain thinking. Although the right and left brain hemispheres do process music differently, it’s an oversimplification, because the right brain hemisphere does on occasion perform some linguistic functions, while the left brain hemisphere sometimes activates when dealing with holistic or non-verbal tasks. The difference between these two modes of musical cognition is more like “contemplative” versus “analytic” or “intuitive” versus “deductive.” It’ very hard to talk about this stuff in words because what we’re discussing is by definition a non-verbal mode of thinking that fails to fit into neat categories of Aristotelian logic.

    “Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy, or ill defined. Deliberate thinking…works well when the problem it is facing is easily conceptualized. (..) But when we are not sure what needs to be taken into account, or even which questions to pose — or when the issue is too subtle to be captured by the familiar categories of conscious thought — we need recourse to the tortoise mind. (..)

    “It is only recently, however, that scientists have started to explore the slower, less deliberate ways of knowing directly. The newly formed hybrid discipline of `cognitive science,’ an alliance of neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence and experimental psychology, is revealing that the unconscious realms of the human mind will successfully solve a number of unusual interesting and important tasks if they are given the time. They will learn patterns of a degree of subtlety which normal consciousness cannot even see; make sense out of situations that are too complex to analyse; and get to the bottom of certain difficult issues much more successfully than the questing intellect. They will detect and respond to meaning, in poetry and art, as well as in relationships, that cannot be clearly articulated.” [Claxton, Guy, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, The Ecco Press: Hopewell, New Jersey, 1997, pp. 4-5]

    The evidence from peer-reviewed scientific journals supporting these conclusions piles up, and continues to mount — see, for example:

    Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge: An Essay on the Cognitive Unconscious, Arthur Reber, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    “On the relationship between task performance and associated verbalizable knowledge,” Lewicki, P., Hill, T., and Czyzweska, M., Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 36A, 1984, pp. 209-231.

    “Knowledge, nerves, and know-how: the role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex skill under pressure,” Master, R. S. W, British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 83, 1992, pp. 343-358.

    “On the possibility of `smart’ perceptual mechanisms,” Runeson, Svrker, Scandanavian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 18, 1977, pp. 172-179.

    “Intuitive prediction: biases and predictive procedures,” Kahneman Daniel, and Tversky, Amos, in Kahneman, D., Slov, P. and Tversky, A. (eds), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982.

    “Activation and metacognition of inaccessible stored information: potential bases for incubation effects in problem-solving,” Yaniv, I., and Meyer, D.E., Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol 13, 1987, pp. 187-205.

    “Intuition in the context of discovery,” Bowers, K.D., Regehr, G., Balthazard, C. and Parker, K, Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 22, 1990, pp. 72-110.

    “Intuitive antecedents of insight,” Bowers K.S., Farvolden, R. and Mermigis, I., in Smith S.M. et. al. (eds), The Creative Cognition Approach

    “Thought beyond words: when language overshadows insight,” Schoolar J., Ohlsson, S, and Brooks, K., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 122, 1993, pp. 166-183.

    “Perception without awareness in the stream of behavior: processes that produce and limit nonconscious biasing effects,” Pittman, T. in Bornstein, R. F. and Pitt, T. (eds), Perception without Awareness: Cognitive, Clinical, and Social Perspectives, New York: Guildford Press, 1992.

    “Implicit Perception,” in Bornstein and Pittman, op. cit.

    “Peripherally presented and unreported words may bias the perceived meaning of a centrally fixated homograph,” Bardshaw, J., Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 103, 1974, pp. 1200-1202.

    “Telling more than we know: verbal reports on mental processes,” Nisbett, R. and Wilson, T., Psychological Review, vol. 84, 1977, pp. 231-259.

    “Emotional selectivity in perception and reaction,” Bruner, J. and Pastman, L, Journal of Personality, Vol. 16, 1947, pp. 69-77.

    “Implicit memory: history and current status,” Schacter, D., Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol. 13, 1987, pp. 501-518.

  27. colin holter


    Do you really think that the presence of serial composers in the academy is tantamount to the existence of a violent hate group? If not, why did you add three uppercase K’s to the word “musical?” If so, what is your goddamn malfunction?

    You cite Anne Shreffler’s excellent response to Straus (although apparently you can’t be bothered to check the spelling of her name) as evidence that Straus’ work is 100% hot air. But Shreffler’s point isn’t that Straus’ argument is incorrect, a few moments of not-so-solid social science on his part aside: Her point is that debating about who was “in charge” of American music in the university is just kind of a silly thing for professional musicologists to do, because the texture of the field was and is much richer than Straus or the people he was trying to prove wrong would have you believe.

  28. rtanaka

    …because the texture of the field was and is much richer than Straus or the people he was trying to prove wrong would have you believe.

    Case in point about exaggerated claims of diversity — anybody who has had ideas shot down by their teachers know that “richness” is something actually very defined and limited to certain approaches. The article is a classic example of someone portraying themselves as the underdog simply because they don’t have entire control of the system — they point to the fact that because tonal composers exist, their influence must be very limited.

    The idea that you can measure influence in terms of numbers is in itself flawed to begin with though. At any given moment there are more students than faculty, therefore students have more control of the curricula than the faculty? No. Influence is measured by power and the ability to exercise control, not necessarily by the appearance of what seems to be. The fact that 12-tone theory is now a standard part of most 4-year theory curricula should have ended this debate a long time ago. If they’re interested in producing objective research, there are much better ways to approach the situation here, though it seems pretty obvious now that that was not the intent of the article to begin with.

    The problem is not so much that composers lack the intelligence to recognize and produce good research, it’s that they’re usually not given the proper tools and training to do it. It’s not that this article has a few weak arguments or a few logical holes here and there, but the approach as a whole is unprofessional and displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the research method in general. It’s not even that good as a propaganda either, because his repeated usage of “I” completely negates any pretense of objectivity, even while he attempts to present his argument in such a fashion.

    I dunno man, the whole thing is just kind of bad, and the composition medium as a whole looks bad when people publish, defend, and reward this type of sloppy work. This is one reason why the field has gotten more and more insular — the pretense has gotten so huge lately that it’s hard for outsiders to point out anything without feeling like they’re attacking their world view and way of life.

  29. colin holter

    Case in point about exaggerated claims of diversity — anybody who has had ideas shot down by their teachers know that “richness” is something actually very defined and limited to certain approaches.

    Sorry, let me clarify this – I didn’t mean that the breadth of different kinds of music being written was particularly rich (although it may have been), but rather that there were a lot of different kinds of prestige, influence, and real and symbolic capital available to composers in the later 20th century and that Straus’ search for a one-dimensional answer was destined to be overly reductive, at least from a musicological standpoint.

  30. bgn

    The point, contrary to Colin Holter’s bogus claim that I was urging composers “not to use their gray matter,” has nothing to do with serialism or with high modernism in music or with avoiding using your brain.


    You seem to be assuming that if all American composers were to stop thinking so much, they would all come out with simple immediately accessible diatonic music that would immediately makes its unambiguous effects with the audience. But let us suppose that some composer did what you asked composers to do–in short, to rely on intuition rather than thinking so much–and that composer came out with the sort of hyperchromatic, hyper-subtle music you so strenuously object to. (E.g. Morton Feldman.) Does that mean that there’s something wrong with that composer’s intuition?

  31. Daniel Wolf

    For the record, mclaren quoted me out of context, in which I was pleading for a better match between students and teachers. In making my case, I could have just as well cited the greater numbers of relatively progressive students who get stuck with too-conservative teachers.

    Given the limits of personal circumstances (geography, funding) and the inherent mystery of the personal chemistry between a student and a teacher, students are ultimately responsible for their own choices of teachers and schools and any student who has not established before application, let alone acceptance and enrollment, whether or not a prospective teacher may be suitable for her or him has failed to meet this responsibility. On the other hand, while some teachers may have a more catholic approach to aesthetics, styles, and techniques, there are clearly limits and teachers owe it to perspective students to be upfront about what they expect in their studios and the particular range of skills and interests they feel competent and sympathetic to teaching.

  32. robin109

    You can choose to study with whom you want. When you walk into a clarinet lesson, the professor does not ask you what methods and pieces you want to or feel like learning about. Teachers teach how(s) not why(s). I personally teach rigorous technique and the ability to explain every compositional choice. You may disagree. You can a. choose to avoid me or better yet b. see if you can learn from someone that does things different than you. I listen to a lot of music I find trivial or dislike. I try to see why I don’t like it. No one has held me hostage. If anything my teachers brought me to places I would have never gone to without a greater understanding of methodology.


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