There is No Them

There is No Them

I’m thrilled to see that there continues to be so many articulate and persuasive responses to my plea to “burst the bubble” last week, but one important observation might have gotten lost in that stew of ideas. While it is extremely convenient to simplify ideas through binaries and compartmentalization, art—and indeed human nature—is rarely so clear cut.

Despite clamoring on about being excluded from “their” list, or not being understood by “them,” this amorphous other is something of a hobgoblin. While it’s easiest to rally a united front by establishing an enemy (we all know this from the current political arena), who exactly is this enemy? We’re not being controlled by aliens who are telling us what to think, or more germane to the discussions here, what to listen to. Nor are we the overlords wielding such power. Once upon a time, colonial paradigms guided ethnomusicological enquiries. People from “our” universities went out and collected field recordings of “their” music. Thankfully, that particular model finally morphed around a generation ago when the watershed realization occurred that “there is no them.”

Part of what makes so much music so interesting, at least for me, is how it defies easy categorization into a specific genre. It exists beyond such mundane containers as classical or jazz or popular or world, which is perhaps the most ridiculous genre name of them all. After all, isn’t any music created on this planet world music?

When I first started collecting recordings I found sorting them by style not only segregational, and therefore ultimately distasteful, but also impossible. Where to put Harry Partch? David Borden and the Mother Mallard Band? Joni Mitchell’s record featuring Charles Mingus? The collaborations between Terry Riley and John Cale or Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso? Sonic Youth’s SYR 4, a.k.a. Goodbye 20th Century? I like to brag that in my record collection at least, there’s an attempt at a level playing field, as much by design as by an acknowledgement of musical reality. The operas of Puccini get filed in between Public Image Ltd. and Tito Puente. Amy Beach is next to The Beach Boys, Earle Brown is pretty close to James Brown, etc. I’ve found that the arbitrary taxonomy of alphabetical order is simultaneously an extremely effective wall-breaker and a very efficient organizational tool.

Of course, it too comes with a bias. People whose last names begin with the letter A are shelved pretty high and require some effort to reach, and the Zs are starting to hurt my back.

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.

10 thoughts on “There is No Them

  1. pgblu

    Organization dot org
    I only distinguish between albums that I bought because of the composer and those that I bought because of the performer. There is no reflection of genre or period.

    On another note, my sister used to organize her books by color, then by height. This was extremely pleasing to the eye.

  2. kmanlove

    Doesn’t the main character of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity organize his collection autobiographically?

  3. Chris Becker

    I wonder though how this broad minded embrace of many musics and cultures actually translates into action when it comes to what concerts we go to, which musicians we choose to work with, even what kind of music we allow ourselves to play and compose. As creative people, we are naturally open in our listening habits. But do we make the effort then to travel out of our way (or neighborhood, more accurately) to jump into a mosh pit? Or get down at S.O.B.s? Or check out some spoken word with music uptown (Harlem)? Or head over to Banjo Jim’s for some Cajun ballads..?

    I don’t mean to be a bummer here…but as we’re patting ourselves on the back for being such eclectic people, let’s be sure that wide viewfinder view of the world comes out in the WORK that we do – let’s make it evident at the gig, in the flesh and in our music.

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Chris, you are indeed right to bring these issues up here. Latter day ethnomusicologists have derided people like Erich von Hornbostel for being an armchair ethnomusicologist. However, in our technology-infused couch-potato coziness of the early 21st century, we’ve all gotten quite confortable in similar armchairs.

    Indeed we can access the whole world from our living rooms, but are we actually interacting with it in a meaningful way? In my own creative work, which at this juncture is something I barely have anytime for, I navigate writing music that is performed in sit-down-and-listen type concert halls and I also make music with my new timey/bluegrass outfit, The String Messengers, whose typical milieu is more likely to be a club or an outdoor space. As a partaker of the live performances of other people’s music, I have to confess that I mostly find myself in concert venues, but I really try to make it a point to always attend events at clubs on a regular basis as well.

    Beyond that, I think it’s important to be open to listening to music anywhere—my master’s thesis was about musicians who perform in the NYC subway system, which in the late 1980s truly was a level playing field stylistically and, in fact, it still is.

  5. Chris Becker

    Right on, Frank. And I would include Nmbx in your “real world” work as a composer / advocate – although I acknowledge the fact that it is a team effort. How many websites are there like this? Not many.

  6. william

    There are many advantages to questioning the idea of “The Other.” Aside from questions of social and musical diversity, the post modern de-centering of power and authority broke down quasi fundamentalist Uptown and Downtown aesthetic encampments that limited musical expression well into the late 70s. For that alone, postmodern theory has served us all.

    It seems, however, that more and more people find postmodern theory a bit worn out. Foucault’s lectures at Stanford in the late 70s crackled with avant-guarde excitement. Those in the know knew something big was up. By the mid 80s, it was clear the theories were dissolving ossified stylistic orthodoxies in Manhattan and other cities. By the 90s the ideas began to stale as problems with the theory’s excessive relativism began to surface. By the aughts, the theory fell to academic cant not unlike the sort of hoarse polemics that surrounded serialism in the 70s. Downtown Lite and Suburban Neo-Romantics began to lose their freshness. Every good aesthetic theory has a limited shelf life.

    Postmodernism had flaws from the beginning (as do all aesthetic theories.) For one thing, conceptions of “high and low” culture (and music) are not very descriptive. They are vague, create confusion, and provoke unnecessary ideological tension.

    And worse, by leveling the relationship between high and low music, the very problematic relationships between commercial and non-commercial culture in capitalistic economies were largely brushed aside.

    Rightly or wrongly, classical musicians (for lack of a better term) asked themselves, why extol artists like Madonna, Dylan, or Springsteen, who hardly need the help, while composers like LeBaron, Shatin, Payne, and Oliveros remain so much less supported? There was often a feeling that “classical” composers like those I mention were indeed different. The creation, production, and reception of their music involved an entirely different set of concerns, goals, and problems. Exercises in leveling the playing field between these musics were extremely imprecise, and created as many (or more) problems than they solved.

    Even though the “high-low” leveling concept eventually became a cannon of “new” musicology, and much of new music, many “classical” performers and composers were reluctant to fully accept the ideology. They felt some of the popular music held up as examples was clearly lacking in musical substance. If these classical musicians criticized the seeming superficiality of much pop, they were quickly labeled ignorant, retro snobs, living in insular worlds.

    In reality, these classical musicians welcomed the way postmodernism opened up new horizons and dissolved the deeply entrenched ideologies within their own fields, but felt that the leveling “high-low” ideology eroded essential standards and respect for the musicianship needed for their kind of music – a music already deeply marginalized.

    With better theoretical work, much of this confusion could have been avoided. If the high-low arguments had also been placed in the context of commercial/non-comercial music (instead of just high-low), some of the ideological confusion and tension could have been avoided. We could have examined the artificial privilege of classical music (in all of its white, classist, maleness,) but also have acknowledged classical music’s special characteristics — especially as problematized in market economies.

    A less ideological contextualization would have also helped us more precisely identitify the positive contributions many pop artists brought to their field. It was ironic how postmodern theory sought to de-center power and authority, but ended up creating an atmosphere where respect for pop came close to being an obligatory and absolutist ideology.

    By the mid 90s, the ideological standpoints between the supporters and detractors of the high-low debate became so dualistic, divisive and entrenched that few dared even address the topic lest they unleash a torrent of harsh polemic. The ideological divisions began to inhibit exploration and creative thought. Like serialism in the 70s, the voices became hoarse, repetitious, entrenched, and boring.

    So now, instead of repeating the same tired postmodern ideas, we need to create new, more differentiated, more workable, and less ideological concepts that will continue to help us better understand the extremely complex relationships between high and low culture.

    I very much appreciate the way postmodernism has opened up new horizons and weakened aesthetic encampments in classical new music, but I also sympathize with the classical musicians who feel an excessive ideology of aesthetic leveling demeans their achievements, which are so long and hard to learn. In some cases, postmodernism has even served to increasingly marginalize classical music.

    William Osborne

    P.S. On the other hand, many Europeans could still learn much from postmodern theory. In Austria, for example, the situation is just the reverse. Classical music is still often absolutist, racist, and sexist. Much of the musical life of Europe remains largely impervious to postmodern thought that would be very beneficial for its creative live.

  7. william

    If there is no them, would it logically follow there is also no us? I have heard there are about 40 thousand composers in the States, but we only hear about 200 or so of them at most. Where are the other 39,800?

    Why do we focus mostly on the activities of only one city, New York, with maybe four others followed more remotely, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles?

    America has dozens of enormous urban areas, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Philly, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Omaha, Phoenix, Boise, Albuquerque, Seattle, Portland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Nashville, Minneapolis, Denver, etc. When it comes to new music, as with most any other form of cultural expression, why are these cities treated as if they didn’t exist?

    Are composers in NYC significantly better than in these other cities? For the most part, no. Why do mediocre events in NYC get so much attention, while good, active work in many other cities is ignored? Why create a cultural gravitation toward one city that produces a supply that vastly exceeds demand, while other cities remain culturally neglected?

    How could we restructure and reorient our cultural lives along fairer and more sensible principles? What could the AMC and NMB do to help?

    Why do we call NYC us when it isn’t at all?

    William Osborne

  8. william

    If we look at how white classical music remains, we see that concepts of “the other” remain. For one thing, people of color often do not have the money to pay for the instruments, lessons, and practice space children need to learn classical music.

    On March 23, 2007 the New York Times noted that white (non-Hispanic) families in Manhattan with toddlers had a median income of $284,208 a year in 2005.

    For Hispanic families with toddlers, the median income was only $25,467. That’s less than one tenth the amount of whites. We might theorize about the imaginary qualities of “the other”, but, of course, they are a concrete part of social reality. (I can send the URL for the Times article if anyone needs it.)

    William Osborne


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