Auld Acquaintances

Auld Acquaintances

As we prepare for the new year that is upon us, our instinct to look behind and remember who won’t be joining us has been sated by quite a few media institutions. Some separate out their “in memoriam” lists into various categories and sub-categories, while others create more comprehensive remembrances–often combining musicians and other creative artists with scientists, politicians, celebrities, and other names (or at least their contributions) that might be recognized by a portion of the public. Looking through these projects can be maudlin at times, but often these recognitions can engender renewed interest in the works of those who have passed and, if nothing else, remind us to treasure those who are still here.

Recently there was a bit of a dust-up between Alex Ross (of The New Yorker) and Wm. Ferguson (of the New York Times Magazine) on this very topic. For the past five years, Ferguson has been creating a multimedia “collage” of audio and images of musicians who have passed away over the previous year. His collages are technically well-constructed and thought-through (as far as production values go), and they range beyond the well-known celebrities to touch on artists that may only be recognized by aficionados.

But, as Alex Ross points out, these collages are completely devoid of any mention of performers or composers from the ranks of Western classical music. Ross states:

The omission is particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter. Almost every other genre has been represented at one time or another, including avant-garde jazz (in the person of Rashied Ali). If the feature were labeled “non-classical music,” that would at least be honest. But the editors seem reluctant to admit their bias, which extends also to print: you won’t find Fischer-Dieskau or Carter–born in this city in 1908, astoundingly active until the very end–in the 2012 “The Lives They Lived” issue.

This obviously touched a nerve over at the NYT Magazine, because two days later Ferguson responded with a missive of his own attempting to defend his choices. In his explanation that the project wasn’t intended to be all-inclusive, Ferguson begins to let his own mindset show through:

The unspoken (and rather obvious, if you ask me) criterion to inclusion is that these are artists who have affected popular culture. They are, in the broadest sense of the word, mainstream. The songs in the mix are part of the popular soundscape. Elliott Carter–no doubt to our impoverishment–is not…

This is not a bias against classical music. Every year rock musicians are left off the mix, and every year I hear about it…

I don’t mean to be coy. I fully empathize with Ross and devotees of classical music. I, too, grew up a fan of a music that was marginalized and ignored by the mainstream. Such was the life of punk acolyte in suburban Pittsburgh in 1982.

Here you have one person with distinct views of what does and does not belong in the “mainstream” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by consistently ignoring musical styles that are outside of his wheelhouse, yet suggesting through mislabeling that his projects are both stylistically diverse and qualitatively encompassing (in his words, a “K-Tel greatest hits compilation”). The editor is using his position to shape that “mainstream” by adding a few names that only indie, rock, and punk devotees would recognize while, at the same time, protecting it by disavowing not only classical music but Broadway and film music as well in addition to including only two jazz artists in six years. (Marvin Hamlisch, Hal David, Claire Fischer, Von Freeman and Richard Sherman are notably missing).

The intentionality of these decisions can be seen much more clearly when one looks at several other newspapers and magazines who did similar projects–both Carter and Fischer-Dieskau, for example, were named as notable passings in the New York Times itself as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, as well as Carter being listed in US News & World Report and Fischer-Dieskau being listed by USA Today. Each of these newspapers/magazines made their own editorial decisions on who to add or leave off–the New York Times added Hans Werner Henze while the Tribune left off Etta James and Johnny Otis and while NPR and US News failed to mention Earl Scruggs–but the Times Magazine stands out as being the only high-profile institution not to mention anyone from the classical, film, or Broadway genres.

For someone like myself who is working on a long-term project that forces me to decide who to include and whom to leave out, such a blatant reliance on one’s own tastes and biases in such a public and influential setting is indeed troubling. Alex is right to call for a protest, but positive measures must be seen to as well to ensure that Ferguson and others realize the importance and place of these musics within our culture and society.

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9 thoughts on “Auld Acquaintances

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    You put it very well, Rob!

    I’m not surprised about the attitude of some media. But I’m a little tired of that overused word “mainstream”, and certainly tired about particular labels like “indie”, that horrible trend that champions very shallow music and ways of dressing.

    (Ferguson also omitted Michael Dunford, the leader and guitarist of British rock group Renaissance, that were succesful in the US during the ’70s, but it must be very difficult to make everybody happy with these lists)

    At least, it seems that Alex Ross’ action had a possitive impact.

  2. Phil Fried

    “a blatant reliance on one’s own tastes and biases in such a public and influential setting is indeed troubling.”

    I too disagree with the NYTM but you don’t have to be Ms. Ayn Rand to see how this statement looks. I begrudge no one their opinions, or their jobs.

    The problem here is not the author Mr. Ferguson, rather it is the NYTM for using his point of view exclusively. Do we even know if these articles are all his own design or if he is he given a list to chose from?

    Does the NYT think this is the best way to reach their target market?

    1. Rob Deemer

      I think we’re on the same page, Phil – both Alex and I have problems with how Ferguson doesn’t put any qualifiers at the outset, which would settle the matter easily (Ross’s title of his post points to this). He’s the only one with his name on the collages over the past five years and I don’t begrudge anyone their own tastes either, but it still comes across as the only New York Times Magazine’s list, hence my comment that you quoted – if you’re going to represent an entire magazine, then relying too much on your own tastes doesn’t seem right. His statements in his reply to Ross that describe his criteria in regard to the “mainstream” make it seem like he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too…giving us a filtered version of his interpretation of the mainstream.

  3. Phil Fried

    “I think we’re on the same page, Phil”

    I do agree Rob. Obviously there is a difference between an opinion and an opinion invested with the authority of an institution. Certainly it is a circular argument to suggest that “I represent the mainstream because I am its judge.”

    My bugaboo, for what its worth, is that these things; power, and opinion, are slippery slopes.

    Who is immune?


    Phil Fried

  4. Ratzo B. Harris

    Great rant on how the Great American Culture Machine marginalizes some of its most important voices (I didn’t see David S. Ware, either). But the misrepresentation of Doc Watson as a “flat-picking-guitar virtuoso” inherent in the caption of a picture of him playing with finger picks is just another example of the inattention to detail that is rife in the pages of “all the news that’s fit to print.”

  5. Ellen

    It’s definitely troubling that a major publication entrusts a big, important year-end list to someone with a classical music blind spot. At their best, these lists introduce us to excellent new music. In our era of incredible musical diversity, I think it’s dubious to call some things “mainstream.” I think a good culture writer should learn what’s important in a lot of different genres, even if they’re not wild about the music itself.

    The Chicago Reader asked several different writers to contribute best-of lists in specific subgenres, which allowed electronic geeks, metal geeks, indie-folk geeks, etc. to have their say without pretending to be comprehensive. And Pitchfork solicited lists from dozens of writers. This kind of format helps publications acknowledge how subjective (and reductive) year-end lists are.

  6. Ana Cervantes

    Rob, Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking article, which seems to me well-reasoned and sensitive. I agree with Ellen when she comments, “In our era of incredible musical diversity, I think it’s dubious to call some things ‘mainstream’”. Even within what we could loosely group into the “classical” area there is so much going on that it’s extremely difficult to keep tabs on all of it. Well done!

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