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Defining Musical Quality

Defining Musical Quality

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I will devote my entire final post here at NewMusicBox to quality. I’ve defined this word several ways. In my first article, I called it “an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it.” In the next post, urgency turned into need. I wrote about how need comes from within, not from outside pressure—a necessary thing can supply its own reasons for being. Artworks of necessity thrive in non-coercive social situations. In my second and third articles, I spelled out ways in which the neoliberal culture of coercive production changed new music. By defining quality against neoliberal labor conditions, I gave the word a social dimension. I cannot separate quality judgment from social critique. In this article, I want to expand quality into agency—a thing can only advocate for itself if it can speak.

I’ve spoken to many people who have different words for quality. Of course, I encountered quite a few people who considered displays of technique with form, pitch, or other musical parameters as indicators of quality. This type of quality judgment, though, gauges the education of a composer along some pre-written path. If I judge quality simply by technique, I tend to leave the weird, strange, or novel works by the wayside. A friend of mine said that quality music gives him the “ability to sense that the music isn’t an exercise.” He meant something more complicated than a technical evaluation—some pieces allow him to believe that the music exists for non-technical reasons. Many people I’ve talked to about this project name quality “seriousness” or “depth”—I repurpose these ideas for myself as “heaviness” or “gravity.” Some equate quality with arthood. Arthood, in this case, transcends music, it exceeds it—“that’s not just music, that’s a work of art.” Some people associated quality with a sense of disembodiment, with the feeling of being part of (or under the control of) something bigger than one’s body.

I associate quality with “heaviness.” I wish my music could somehow contain only barometric pressure, perhaps even less. I want to feel my music first in the heaviness of the air. I can’t measure this heaviness, but I can feel it. Quality music makes the air heavy. When I feel this weight, I don’t associate it with a physical quantity. Instead, I find myself face to face with some enormous thing, some collective project that exceeds my relationship to it. It’s huge—I sense its gravity.

Truly, music is “bigger” than the people who make it; it contains more mass. Pieces of music belong to storms of material—possibilities, concepts, notes, institutions, people, chairs, bodies, bows, strings, noises. I like to think that I act upon this material inasmuch as this material acts upon me. Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter both describe similar whirlwinds of capable objects, in which people (and our own internal assemblages of objects) participate. If I trick my brain a little, I can convince myself that out of music’s “big-ness,” parts of it—parts that aren’t even human—can act. I feel the heaviness of the air when giant globs of matter accrete, squish together, and move things with their gravity.

If the gravity metaphor feels unsatisfying, the “gaze” might be a nice alternative. If I listen to music and sense that a chaotic pile of nonhuman things somehow acts in concert, I have a very strange reaction. The subject-object relationship switches, I become an object to a process. Jacques Lacan calls this sensation “the gaze.” Instead of the heaviness of gravity, I feel the weight of something’s imposing stare.

Both gravity and gaze depend on the transition between a pile of stuff and a thing. Like many others before me, I call this process “emergence.” I like Elizabeth Barnes’s definition of emergence in her essay “Emergence and Fundamentality.” Paraphrasing, her emergent thing has two qualities. An emergent thing is “dependent”—music relies on an enormous quantity of parts and exists as long as these parts persist. An emergent thing is also “fundamental”—some music adds up to more than the sum of its parts. One can’t take music and break it down into a determining set of pieces.

To my ears, quality music emerges out of its context and becomes its own thing. It acquires some strange autonomy from its circumstances. I attribute quality to the sense of this transformation, to music’s tearing of its own constitutive fabric. I associate quality with the gravity consolidating musical goo into identity, or the pressure of being stared at (or through) by a piece of music. Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example—this thing exists almost in another dimension. It’s beyond music, beyond even being a cultural artifact. Timothy Morton might call it a “hyperobject”—a thing so huge that it exceeds our ability to really think about it. However, I’ve definitely experienced it, or at least a fragment or a flash of it during a committed performance.

Now, I don’t put forward this wacky ontology just because it allows me to judge things. Thinking this way raises some serious implications for the practice of music. First, it breaks the causal stream from composer to performer to music. Instead of composing or playing or listening to music, I participate in its preconditions. If musicians think of music as its own thing, like a ghost waiting for summoning, they change their orientation towards it. Sure, the composer and performer and listener roles can still exist, but they also drift towards each other—they require each other more. Everyone becomes a different type of listener equipped with different instruments of hearing. They can fail together. I don’t feel the heaviness of the air often. Many times, I don’t sense that a piece includes almost anything. If this is the case, then there must exist some conditions that prohibit music’s emergence.

Composers can create hostile work environments for music. Instead of writing music badly, composers can facilitate bad situations. For example, a composer may write a work riddled with notational mistakes or ambiguities. Such problems don’t destroy the music, they just make a performance situation harder or an informed audience member cynical. Deeper problems could include a lack of structural consideration, an overdisplay of musical rhetoric, whatever—they exist as problems only insofar as they stifle a performer’s comprehension or an audience member’s belief. Performers, in turn, can make a well-written piece into a bad piece. (They can also beat the odds and enable a poorly written piece to come into itself). Hierarchies dissolve into a statistical wash. One never ruins music on one’s own, but one can make things difficult. Quality means something entirely relational—everyone, at every stage, is implicated.

Larger, slow-moving institutional organisms affect this process as well. As I discussed at length in weeks two and three, new music’s infrastructure makes quality harder—it encourages the overproduction of works and performances. Neoliberal institutions require fungible commodities; music must assume an inert state. Music built to serve an economic end rarely prioritizes its own immanent needs. Performances that reify scores (build products) make simulacra. These performances signify themselves—they are empty, they do not add anything. Consequently, there is less stuff, fewer resources from which a music-thing might build itself. Institutions, compositions, and performances aren’t just filters, though—an outstanding and sensitive performance might introduce new stuff, dimension-crossing stuff, stuff in service to a collective project. A quality composition, in my eyes, unleashes a concentrated stream of stuff, where squashed molecules bash against their limits and into one another. An empowering institutional framework gives people time to make stuff together, to curate intentional stuff, to make their stuff public. A quality listener witnesses and testifies to the remaining stuff of music, the stuff that exceeds composers and performers. These forces spill against and over each other. There is no good or bad, only different types and degrees of empowerment and agency along a long and complex stream of actors.

Quality means empowerment. One doesn’t need to buy my musical ontology to believe that a piece of music is bigger than one’s own actions. Even the most hermetic composers (and I’m certainly among this crowd) have to own up to the fact that their music exceeds the capabilities of their solitary hands. By admitting this one, simple reality, composers and performers and institutions and listeners might realize that the entire community needs to find ways to empower its members. The community should start with music itself and move outwards. If the new music community recognizes the agency of music, its ability to affect people, places, and things, then it might account for just how much has been lost. Music is charged matter. It requires care.

I’d like to thank the dozens of people I interacted with over the course of this project. I won’t mention any of you by name (though I wouldn’t mind doing so!), but please know that the collectivity of our efforts over the past few weeks literally provided me with the meaning of quality.

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.

45 thoughts on “Defining Musical Quality

  1. Jack Decker

    I have to admit, this is all too wishy-washy for me. Having read your article I don’t have the slightest sense of what in practice you would consider a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (high or low quality) piece of music/performance. These qualities you mention—emergence, the gaze, etc.—seem to me entirely subjective, in the sense that if I got myself in the right frame of mind I could will myself into hearing anything as having these qualities. I get the dissatisfaction with various unpleasant realities of being a composer—the apparent necessity of churning out perfunctory pieces, lackluster performes, etc.—but I think if you’re going to make the actual quality of musical works part of the argument (in this case it seems to me that quality is the chief casualty of the above unpleasant realities) then your criteria for quality should be more concrete. I happen to agree that the facts on the ground in New Music have affected musical quality, but I have a comparatively more rigid conception of quality (that you’d probably disagree with) in terms of which to make that judgment. As it stands it’s hard for me—if I’m applying your conceptual framework—to look at actual recent works and their composers and say, “Yeah, works/composers X, Y, and Z are clear evidence of the damage being done to musical quality by the current state of affairs w/r/t festivals, professional obligations, etc.”

  2. william osborne

    Thanks for the interesting article. Your essential message seems to be that high quality art is transcendent. You describe this with a number of metaphors such as “heaviness, gravity, mass,” and as something bigger than the individual, the “weight” of something’s “imposing stare” when “giant globs of matter accrete, squish together, and move things with their gravity.” This is interesting because transcendence is more commonly described as something weightless and beyond materiality.

    It might also be interesting to analyze this language not only in terms of superiority, but also in terms of manhood, power, and dominance. Mass, heaviness, weight, and imposing stares squishing things together rescues transcendence from the feminine fruitiness of Madam Blavatsky, but lands it somewhere near Brutus Beefcake and the World Wrestling Federation.

    Still, there’s something to be mined here. These metaphors of weight are related to Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence — the idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum. He tells us this imposes a “heaviness” on our lives and on the decisions we make. This, he says, gives our actions “weight.” (In German, the words weight and importance are etymologically related (Gewicht and Wichtig.) This seems to influence Nietzsche’s conceptions of art because he felt some artists spoke from a kind of universality, that they were a part of the universe’s weighty patterns of eternal recurrence. As you put it, this kind of art is “a thing so huge that it exceeds our ability to really think about it.” (OMG, the lady might say.) Great art and the artist-prophet become heavy weights staring us down from beyond – a rather German idea happily embraced by cultured Americans.

    I like your ideas that transcendent art is more than its constituent parts, and that it rises beyond its context or genre. Fairly common ideas, but interesting in the context of your essay.

    Others, like Hegel, have defined these kinds of great art works as often being the culmination of historical development, those apex points in history when an individual is able to finally draw together the work and ideas of many generations into a consummate expression. That is to say, there could have been no Beethoven without the many 17th and 18th century musical developments he was able to capitalize upon. Transcendent art is revealed during the apex moments of a culture’s evolutionary development.

    As you note, transcendental concepts like these stand in contrast to the extreme commercialization of art in America. As Baudrillard notes, conditions become so reduced and efficient that we often end up with only a simulation of art (Hollywood, the music industry, etc..) There is, however, a historical weakness in your argument. These conditions were already established by the mass media by the 1940s, which predates the embrace of neoliberalism in the USA by about 30 to 40 years. By the 1930s, the Hollywood studios completely controlled the artists who worked for them. The central purpose was to make money without regard to artistic quality. This ethos was cemented in place during the 1950s when Roosevelt’s New Deal social democracy was fully dismantled. This set America on a very different course from Europe.

    We should also note that the publish or perish ethos of academia existed long before neoliberalism came along. More to the point is that it was only beginning in the 1980s that neoliberal ideas began to influence funding and aesthetic philosophies for the high arts to such an obvious and conscious degree.

    There are many other ways modernists were deeply shaped by the transcendental concepts they inhered from the Romantics. Maybe I’ll write about this sometime later. Again, thanks for the interesting article. I’m sure that many appreciate the hard work you put into these four essays.

  3. Peter VZ Lane

    I’ve really enjoyed reading all of these posts. They have been truly insightful, well-written, thought-provoking, and passionate.

    A point that has bugged me about all of them, however, is the suggestion that the ‘new music’ community (one, that I think has been incorrectly assumed as an appendage of academia . . . but this is no doubt a reflection of the writer’s and many many composers personal experiences), is somehow uniquely complicit in its own shortcomings in establishing quality. These articles highlight an important non-compatibility between neoliberalism and what is (or what should be) the philosophy of academic institutions in general. We’re not just making bad music in the 21st-century quasi-capitalist university, we’re also creating promoting compromised educators, biased humanists, scientific research with an agenda, etc.
    In my opinion, much of the criticism pointed here at ‘new music’ (though, not all of it. . . there are many points made in these articles that are sage advice for artistic introspection that any artist should appreciate), is in fact an indictment of academia. The music world outside of academia (where ‘music’ and ‘new music’ is much less encapsulated) has a lot of its own problems, but they are largely distinct from issues of quantity-over-quality, lack of empowerment, or capitalist dogma. Some of them are actually quite the contrary. And overall, despite a legitimate case made here for serious deliberation on ones creative statements, the process of writing a good number of pieces (most of which will be bad) is necessary. Having outlets (however compromised) to have them realized in some way is still important. Accepting the plethora of artistic failures (in my own music, and in others) and optimistically engaging and celebrating the sliver of originality/honesty/ingenuity in them is, in my opinion, a big part of what makes having a community of composers worthwhile.

  4. Michael

    During my third undergraduate year, I was fortunate to study composition privately with the visionary teacher, Don Funes. At the end of one lesson, he surprised me by asking for a written definition of quality for our next meeting. There was no internet at the time, and I did not consult the dictionary either. Instead, I thought about it, and came up with the following: “Quality is epiphany illuminated by a jewel of the lotus.” (“Jewel of the lotus” refers to the individuality of the utterer, and “epiphany” refers to something extraordinary, as opposed to commonplace.)

  5. Ray Kohn (@Tecchler)

    “Artworks of necessity thrive in non-coercive social situations”: so I suppose Shostakovitch did not really thrive?

    “I associate quality with “heaviness.””: so maybe the last movement of the Mozart’s final symphony has no real “quality”?

    The real problem that Marek shares with all those who wish to write about the effects and emotional content of music is that verbal language is not up to the job.

    1. Ian Power

      Hey! I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really think you need to go back and listen to that Mozart again.

      1. Justin Scheibel

        LOL Screw Mozart,

        The problem is that Marek is trying to use a psychological phenomenon to express a subjective experiential relation instantiated as physicalist process in the quality (property) of the object, and this property of “quality” is supposed to be universally applicable to artwork regardless of it’s convention, genre, social organization and operative symbolism, and yet it is supposed to acknowledge that judgments of quality are not universally agreed upon and differ with social subset? It’s a fivefold category error.

  6. Lansing McLoskey

    I’m just old enough to have been a teenager during the waning years when the term “heavy” was slang for “good” (“That was heavy, man…”). I guess the hippies were on board with your definition, Marek.

    But here’s the thing: While I find Lutoslawski’s Jeux Vénitiens to be totally “sick,” I certainly don’t find Weihnachts-Oratorium to be “sick.” And while The Melvin’s Houdini, Naked City’s Leng Tch’e, and KP’s Polish Requiem are “heavy,” I’m not sure For Bunita Marcus or Music For Airports are.

    You see, the problem is that while “heavy “ — and “boss,” “groovy,””cool,” “totally awesome,” “bomb,” “sick,” and “glob of heavy transcendent urgency” — are all words used to describe quality, none of them mean quite the same thing. I know you avoided a much simpler term for quality like the plague — “good” – and for good reason. But by doing so, I think you chased a warren of rabbits down various holes. You gave me an impalpable definition that is so abstract yet so intensely *personal* as to be meaningless.

    You started off “Quality Wars: Episode I” by saying “Instead of an audience problem, I think new music has a quality problem.” An intriguing perspective, which I dare say resonates with many (perhaps a majority) of composers and “new music people” (conductors, performers, presenters, critics, teachers). But by “Revenge of Gravity: Quality Wars, Episode IV” I had completely lost the plot. In the end, I almost think that you gave us a strange prequel, where your definition of quality becomes, in fact, exactly what you denied in Episode I: i.e. It is an audience problem all along. But now the audience to which you refer is, well…you. And me. The composer/creator/listener.

    If you do maintain that, in fact, the problem IS one of “quality,” then I’m afraid that Episode IV did nothing to clarify the issue at all. The Glob of Heavy (hmm, sounds like a great name for a sludge-metal band) of which you speak is so idiosyncratic and vaporous that it provides no guidance, protocol, or criteria whatsoever. What is quality? What is – gasp! – “good?” It defaults to the current system: Quality is determined by the [composer, adjudicating panel, conductor, audience, DONOR], regardless of definition.
    Heavy, man.

    1. Justin Scheibel

      The problem is that any attempt to describe the metastate of art as related to social and non-social, individual and collective, systems and dissolution requires a few words to carry hefty theoretical implications in order to argue about their interrelation. If you are unfamiliar with emergence theorems and their relation to metaphysics as well as the psychoanalytic work of Lacan, it is difficult to understand what Marek is suggesting quality might be.

      Good isn’t a useful word here because it bears too great a relation to neoplatonic philosophers of music like Roger Scruton and and Alexander Nehamas, who gravitate toward incorporating ethical theory into aesthetics. Marek, I think, doesn’t wish to make “Quality” a morally obligatory concept, but rather a metaphysical object with ontological origins that presents a pragmatic solution to dialectic diversity.

      There are different kinds of emergent theories and systems. For instance, the possibility of AI is sometimes analyzed as an emergent phenomenon, where a certain level of complexity and interrelation amongst differentiable parts results in a “gestalt consciousness”(if you will) that is not reducible to its constituents. Consciousness has been analyzed by some theorists as emergent (Hofstadter’s “strange loops”, panpsychic theories, quantum emergence, systems theory, etc.).

      More specificity would be required on how exactly a work of art would be an emergent phenomenon that transcends its social context, especially for those of us not familiar with Barnes.

      From a different reading of the text:

      The problem is that profundity is linguistically contextual, and the “experience of quality”in an artwork may be dependent upon contextualist epistemology (that knowledge of the quality is limited to the scope of social implications and interrelation as well as the propositional knowledge that is being brought into the particular system). If this was the case, it may be possible that there is a metaphysically transcendent “Quality” that is limited to local works of art, but that global, invariant knowledge of it is not possible and any knowledge of it is contextually dependent, meaning “Quality” could never be ascribed to any particular work on the basis that such evaluations are conventional approximations. It supposedly has psychological effects such that a vague identification might be possible, but the identification and its psychological impact wouldn’t be universal due to neuro-atypicality and standard divergence amongst psychological composition.

      If this is the case, we end up with a world in which there is such a thing as Quality, but we can never know if something has it. If Quality is to remain an epistemologically skeptical view of works (in other words, we ascribe Quality in a limited sense as a modal proposition “this is possibly of Quality”), it does remain politically and subculturally neutral, since anyone that claims to know what Quality is would be wrong and their insistence on particular works’ quality would be taken as tongue-in-cheek. Meanwhile, from a subjective perspective, one could “act towards the concept of Quality” in that it remains an ever distant goal towards which one is always becoming but never becomes. One never knows if one has produced a work of Quality, but one can produce works toward the idea of Quality in whatever cultural/genre/political/ideological form one creates.

  7. william osborne

    Transcendence by definition refuses to be contained. It thus tends to appear in forms that are the exact contradiction of how it is defined. Italo Calvino’s “Six Memos for the New Millennium,” written for the Norton lectures at Harvard, discusses the qualities of great literature. Speaking very broadly, they seem to reflect a more Italian sense of lightness and dexterity than Nietzsche’s 19th century, Germanic concept of heaviness. His topics for the lectures were:

    1. Lightness
    2. Quickness
    3. Exactitude
    4. Visibility
    5. Multiplicity

    He died before he could leave Italy to give the talks. The 6th lecture was to be on consistency. The Memos might be a good model for the next time anyone takes on the task of defining quality and arts relationship to society.

    Milan Kundera’s book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is a riposte to Nietzsche’s concept of weight and eternal recurrence. The book addresses the idea that if we only live once in this infinite universe, how can our life have any significance at all? What gives it substance? What is the role of responsibility to others in giving life and art meaning?

    Perhaps some summer reading.

  8. Philipp Blume, y'all

    Wonderful article! You can tell by the sheer number of unrelated tangents it seems to have engendered!

    Sure, ‘heavy’ is a metaphor. If the word had been replaced with ‘green’ or ‘coarse’ or ‘hairy’ the gist of the argument would not have changed. I think Nietzsche is the wrong allusion here.

  9. Justin Scheibel

    I would argue that what Marek describes is the sublime, and that this is applicable to any unbounded object and is dependent upon the interrelation between subject and unbounded object, meaning that the perspective of the subject is what realizes it and can perceive it at any moment, so it is not ontological but rather phenomenal (the artwork is produced by the viewer for itself according to its will to define it as such). I disagree that an artwork is an emergent phenomenon, that quality can be a property of a discrete network or that it can be scalar. The basis for these assertions is that the “artwork itself” cannot be delimited—insofar as the artwork is not discrete, there can be no specific instantiation of emergence except for “an intuition that remains undefined”, a “sense of depth” without being able to point to it in all seriousness to say “here is the depth!”

    The definition of parts and fundamental are dependent upon the interpreting perspective. What “constitutes” the work cannot be delimited as evinced by much of the work of John Cage and extrapolations of Lyotard’s concept of sublime. “Art objects” which raise the concerns of mereological skepticism are highly problematic for an idea of quality.

    So, I agree with Marek that the sense of “expansiveness” is “present”, but that it is resultant of inability to confine an artwork to a single domain or network, and, as such, one never can remove the wonder if there is an artwork at all. The expansive doubt is an engagement with questions of the very existence of the work; we may think we’ve spotted it one moment and then wonder where the artwork ends the next, if there was one at all. This is sublime as “the wonder of the possibility of nothingness in continuous oscillation between hermeneutic particularity and total differance that in turn makes us wonder of ourselves.” What we discover is not that the work is deep or that there is any hyperobject, but that the artwork is reflective of our own sense of philosophical questioning; it turns our focus inwards to wonder about horrifying and fantastic possibilities and to “unrealize” the work as an object situated in order to think of it as a mental representation with which one can play in any way one desires, even as different kinds of situated object. I consider an artwork to be a question, and to try to discern the quality of one’s questions, one first has to be able to bound the question.

    I’d advocate quality only as a self-defined and unabsolute measure for how much one’s own work lives up to one’s philosophy of life—its social dialogue only exists in the possibility of mutual introspection in which transformative ideas “about” the work are shared for the sake of curiosity. In experiencing a work of art, I never find myself the object to a process, but rather a tinkerer who plays with an object in any sort of way he/she sees fit, that the process is not external to my mental representation of the “objects” and the non-finite ways in which it can be conceived. This may be similar to “the beyondness” of the work as the article described, however, this concatenation of possibilities cannot be called “the work” and thus is not a function of the “quality of the work”. It originates out of the will of the subject. There is no voiding of the will of the subject by the work, nor of its ability to generate new and even negating concepts of the object. The listerner always has the option to stop viewing said “work” as a “work” or to view “non-works” as “works”.

    (In other words, there is no such thing as quality external to arbitrary conventions. And the individual should wrest control of the concept of quality to divorce oneself from pull of these conventions to satisfy exploration of curiosity and creativity.)

    Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room”

    I find the sociopolitical-economic analyses of academic music to be poignant (although I sense that “new music” is suffering a veiled unstable opposition with “non-new music?” “popular music?” “non-academic intellectual music?” “‘outsider’ artists?”, and that it ignores that music often bleeds out of the cyclic academic infrastructure into the ears of a plethora of different individuals who choose to do with it what they will. A question: how does this analysis account for Penderecki as a major influence on Radiohead who is now an influence on Reich, where does Postmodern Jukebox fit into this picture, Punch Brothers, Vi Hart, Ken Nordine? The analysis of the sociopolitical state of “academic new music” is dependent upon the ability to isolate it from continuous dissemination into the “public sphere” as its ideas are transformed into new ideas. There is plenty, if not more intellectualization that occurs outside the university amongst personal networks of artists and thinkers. The academy is “a delusional attempt at isolation”.)

    I would dare Marek to give a series of examples of “quality music” and “not quality music”. Hesitation to avoid doing so is suggestive that “quality as a musical presence” is ambiguous, or perhaps, there is fear of the plural opinions different individuals have of the works. I for instance, generally feel that Beethoven’s fifth is a bland, unstimulating work, unless I decide to make something of it via interpretation.

    (Even providing a list of examples would have to ignore the obligation to show that that the domain of “quality” is consistent and complete.)

    Ken Nordine’s “7 + 1”

    Radiohead “Kid A”

    Punch Brothers “Kid A (original)” cover of Radiohead

    Postmodern Jukebox “Come And Get It – Vintage 1940s Jazz Selena Gomez Cover ”

    From the Soundtrack of “Escape from New York” – Synth Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie”

  10. william osborne

    There are many important, abstract philosophical questions about art and quality that need to be discussed. I think there are also much more pragmatic approaches that might be useful, especially since they can be at least partially related to objective measurements.

    One example would be to ask why many of the composition professors (past and present) in our elite schools have such high status within the USA but are performed very little internationally. (The number of international performances, for whatever its worth, becomes an objective measure.) Why do they seem to lack the same kind of international status and exposure as people like Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Oliver Knussen, Thomas Adès, Wolfgang Rhim, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Louis Andriessen , György Ligeti, György Kurtág, Krzysztof Pendereski, Dmitri Shostakovich, Arvo Pärt, Benjamin Britten, Henryk Górecki, and quite of few others, past and present.

    A few American composers have or had that kind of international status, like John Cage and Morton Feldman, perhaps Elliot Carter, but the numbers remain low if compared on a per capita basis to Europe. Some American minimalist composers are well-known and performed often in Europe, but for some reason don’t seem to garner the same kind of high status as the Europeans I mention. Examples would be John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.

    I think one of the reasons might involve America’s lack of cultural infrastructure relative to Europe’s. We don’t have the massive system of support for state orchestras and opera houses; we don’t have a system of state run radio orchestras whose mission includes performing new music; and we don’t have large, well-funded new music festivals like Donaueschingen, Darmstadt, the Munich Biennale, or Ars Electronica.

    This affects quality because American composers don’t have the infrastructure to develop their work due to the relative lack of orchestras and opera houses that perform a lot of new work. These orchestras and houses often specifically support local composers.

    The lack of infrastructure also affects the perception of quality. Even if composers in the USA have opportunities to develop artistically, they lack the infrastructure to promote them internationally like the Europeans often have. Cultural diplomacy is deeply valued in Europe. In the USA it is neglected.

    Anyway, I hope we don’t become so lost in the weeds of philosophical abstraction concerning quality, that we miss some pragmatic aspects of the problem that are staring us in the face.

    1. Justin Scheibel

      Europe also didn’t have Woodstock. Here in Austin during SXSW, the whole city becomes a musical organism so large in scope that official events only account for less than a third of the actual performances. But, by the dropping of “elite schools” in your explanation, I can fathom a guess as to how you feel about such events, and why you might feel that the US has limited musical infrastructure.

      Let me remind you that Philip Glass started his own ensemble to play his music because no one else would, and he started out as something of a pariah. The thing is, the minimalists were mostly collaborators with the beatnik movement, which was generally anti-academic intellectualism, something that became respected in Europe since it stood for anti-capitalist hegemony and openness to liberal and progressive reform. Terry Riley used to play his synthesizers on the streets of San Fransisco; a friend of mine used to sit down and listen to him. Lets not even talk about how John Cage, Morton Feldman, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives built their careers. In the US, there is a romanticization of the self-made, chip-on-the-shoulder genius who was questioned by the powers that be (why is Shostakovitch so popular here? hmm), mostly established by the rich countercultural history in the US. It is that counterculture that is most influential on art in Europe, and thus it is no wonder that the countercultural composers in the US are the most played in Europe (let me point out that they are still quite disliked—in all my time studying, I couldn’t once get a performance of Philip Glass with any of the new music ensembles).

      The reasons why individuals become of note internationally are, contrary to your assertion of possible objective measurements, far too complex and depend upon non-quantitative variables. Don’t get me wrong, I listen to all the composers you named. Not to be a hipster, but I probably even listen to experimentalists you haven’t even heard of, individuals that are pushing the boundaries much further than anything that goes on in a conservatory. I’ve also got a band and love Frank Zappa. To be quite frank, I don’t think half of the so-called “respectable compositional professors in US conservatories” had half the artistic genius, creativity, audacity and output as that man. The conservatory is stale in the US so musicians look elsewhere.

      Music in America works differently than Europe. In Europe, freedom of artistic expression is cloistered into the academic institution (depends on where too, there’s a huge academic class gap in the UK) unless you are strongly anti-establishment. In the US, an individual can become renowned for their creative work without any university endorsement, without conservatory training, without reviews from the academic powers that be. In fact, most of the successful American composers you listed made their names without the endorsement of US academia. In the educational institution, my compositional work and aesthetic ideologies were censored by pompous professors. But outside of the institution the opportunities are incredible.

      1. william osborne

        Actually, the new music scene in Europe is far less academically oriented than in the USA. (I’ve lived in Europe for the last 35 years.) In continental Europe, for example, doctorates in composition are not even offered because it is considered a non-academic subject. There is also a much stronger cultural infrastructure which allows composers to work outside academia, while classical new music composers in America often have few other options. Suffice it to say that Woodstock and SXSW provide few opportunities for even the most postmodern hipsters among classical new music composers.

        That’s why the American counter culture has been the most influential in Europe. Due to our limited cultural infrastructure and our dysfunctional arts funding system, our counter-culture predominates at the expense of the so-called high arts.

        It’s true that there are many complex factors that create international success for composers. Effective cultural infrastructures and funding systems play an enormous role. We see this in the predominance of European composers and conductors.

        1. Justin Scheibel

          Your comment about opportunities of experimentalists at such events at SXSW is inaccurate; its actually quite hard to perform there if you are not genre-bent in some way. (And no, I’m not a “postmodern hipster”. I know a little too much analytic philosophy to be classed solely as that.) If you haven’t been to SXSW, it is pretty fantastical. The entire city shuts down for music. There’s a different music festival in Austin almost every other week. It’s a John Cage dream come true. (Except for the residents who don’t really like how big it has become.)

          Well, in Europe the academy of music is just situated in a powerful orchestral world. So, no it isn’t considered a formal university study, but it is a formal academic study within the dominant cultural modes. And as I said, it is dependent upon country as well (which is also true for the individual states in the US). Norway, for instance, has a fantastic economic dynamic between different genres. You’ve got independent artists/band Moddi, Kaizers Orchestra being awarded national grants while the Oslo Phil is still a strong artistic force, and none of these are in competition with each other. And yet, most of the “non-classical” music falls into the genre of “chamber pop”—a “classical-crossover” style of music that combines the formal structures of pop with “classical” instruments and compositional techniques.

          Now, there is no such thing as “high arts” except as an arbitrary mode of conspicuous consumption. I have found incredible technical skill, intellectualism, profundity, complexity, “weight”, even the so-called “Tradition” in every single “genre” outside of the non-existent category of “contemporary classical music” or “new music”. There isn’t a “genre” that fails to have a recursive history and embedded symbolism.

          The need to build this so-called infrastructure is not dissimilar to the desire of Chicago’s politicians and moneyed individuals for “urban renewal” and gentrification, to delete the homeless and poor from the streets/export them to other cities and the peripherals because the detached upper-class doesn’t know how to interact humanly with the street vendor. You should read some of the work of sociologist Jane Jacobs. It is assumed that this somehow creates “safer, more culturally viable streets”, but what it really does is distill the isolationism of the highrises into the lowrises and street-corners such that strangers no longer interact at all and local community artwork and culture disappears. And the streets become less safe because the community already had an infrastructure to monitor the safety of its members. I’ve always posed the idea that “maybe this kind of infrastructure is not a necessity so much as it is the desire to make the world a certain way by a handful of individuals who know little about the existing world outside their own and wish to make their own world everyone’s world.”

          I liken the desire for large-scale “contemporary classical-new music-whatever” infrastructure to this because the goal is to somehow bring back the brief heyday of the orchestra in America or perhaps the explosion of modernist music with the advent of the radio (except without the modern part, I guess, though the number of individuals interested in writing extrapolations of serial music in the conservatory is somewhat baffling). Yes, the current diversity of musical artwork and venues does hinder the economy of the so-called “high artists” but that is because there is little belief and desire in the US for a hierarchy of artistic respect based in what kind of music you write or perform. It’ll just become another case of “your culture is invalid because you aren’t part of the dominant ‘ordained’ infrastructure, you’re poor.” If this “high art” infrastructure can integrate itself with the rest of us “low brow” people in such a way that it doesn’t run around claiming to be “the righteous supreme art” like a lunatic prophet, it might actually catch on. But it won’t look like this grand idiom that presents opportunities to all “worthy” composers.

          I am highly distrustful of this desired “new infrastructure”because I have seen what happens when a single group of individuals rules the art scene and controls all modes of delivery. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s advertising slogan is “One city, One symphony”! I lost 2 or 3 jobs to orchestral musicians because they shoved their foot in the door to lobby pressure to supplant those already working. The orchestra musician in Cincinnati controls everything: they teach everywhere, they control the gigs, they bribe and pressure venues. As a result, all non-classical, non-orchestra musicians are destitute and live in the slums.

          If you don’t know where the art infrastructure is in the US, you aren’t looking close enough. It happens in the particulars, in the micro-structures, and it permeates personal networks across the country, on the internet. It is amorphous and constantly changing. The answer is, if you can’t find a venue for your music in the US because there aren’t “officially ordained performance channels conveniently at your disposal”, you aren’t thinking creatively about presentation and venue.

      2. william osborne

        It might be interesting to note that Germany’s Ensemble Modern was the most prominent performer of Zappa’s music in the classical music world. His larger works are also often performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain. The USA does not have any full time, large new music ensembles like these (around 30 full time members.) The reason is our lack of a public arts funding system to support them. Zappa’s larger works were thus left mostly to Europeans.

        Here’s a film of Zappa as an avant-garde composer/sound artist on the Steve Allen Show on March 4, 1963. Th ethos and *quality* of programs like Allen’s vanished within the next decade, but to some extent continued in Europe where privately owned television companies were largely banned until the late 80s. (Much more detail about this could be discussed.)

        1. Justin Scheibel

          Oh, I know. I have all of the discography for Ensemble Modern and Zappa and love it! I also watch that era of television quite often.

          I will admit that having a few ensembles of this kind in the US would be desirous. Arts funding in the US is dismal, but at the same time I feel one of the greatest difficulties facing these ensembles is the classical orchestra which tries to weed out all competition from larger music organizations in whatever city they happen to spring up. I have some friends who have been working on establishing such organizations to perform new music, and boy do they go through hell trying to fight off the political oppression of the classical orchestra.

          I’m not sure I would use television’s decline as a parallel to the decline of creative broadcasting. Most of the experimental arts programming has moved to the internet.

          1. william osborne

            I agree with your concerns about orchestras and opera houses hogging funds, which happens under both American and European systems of arts funding. I refuse to write for orchestras because they are aesthetic and social anachronisms. (And my life experiences have given me particular reasons for disliking them.) And I agree that collectives like orchestras form a kind of syndicate within cities that can be oppressive. Their conservatism often stifle’s the creative potential of music communities. This is an important topic that I hope NMBx might address more.

            On the other hand, we are also agreed that the USA needs a few ensembles like those I mention, and that a better funding system could support them. Americans are less encumbered by tradition than Europeans. If we had a good public funding system, I think we might use it more progressively than the Europeans do.

        1. Justin Scheibel

          Hmm, then what music is one supposed to create to “be totally detached from the influence of cultural infiltrators”? It’s an assumption that interest in creating new genres and freely experimenting with genre is necessarily a “neo-liberal”agenda, when it is being exploited like anything else that has a legitimate message that catches on with a number of individuals. I create the music I do because I find Sartre and Derrida to be very interesting. I would love it if socialist institutions backed my music, but they do not; they don’t exist here. And if they did, they still wouldn’t fund me because I don’t fit into the kind of music that is generally considered Quality by whomever would be pulling the strings of that arts funding in the first place.

          Of course, there is interest for the upper class in the US to appropriate exploratory and experimental music. For some odd reason there is a bid for the wealthy to own everything here. They’ve already appropriate the little arts funding that exists, the classical music world, the classic rock world, hiphop, etc. Genre-bending is the futile attempt by artists outside of ultracapitalist record labels to create something that isn’t already absorbed by the music industry. And duh, they are going to try to endorse certain artists within that field of music in order to wrest control over it. Lindsey Stirling and East Cameron Folkcore are not the same thing.

          So, please enlighten me. How am I supposed to eat and not have my message distorted by capitalist media control and appropriation? How can you be certain your own music isn’t being appropriate or hasn’t been appropriated yet? No one is safe from a lot of money channeled to particular effect. Vulnerability does not delegitimize a kind of art. I am deeply offended that you would associate my experimentalism with neo-liberalism.

          Ultimately as an artist, you have to create for yourself out of your own principles because otherwise you’ll be trapped in perpetual paranoia, wondering who controls you. Most of my work address that very issue, being a slave.

          But I guess I am supposed to just starve until the European arts funding model comes over here to save me.

          1. william osborne

            Thank you for the interesting commentary. The reactionary character of the neoliberal/postmodern market paradigm is inadvertently revealed in your comments. The hip leveling of postmodernism has become so ideological that it’s difficult to trust the polemic surrounding it (hence this discussion about quality.) Just like serialism and its off shoots in the 60s and 70s, postmodern ideology has become a totalizing norm. It is ironic, because the basic tenant of the philosophy was to counter such absolutist constructs.

            Under this sort of polemic falls the idea that building a cultural infrastructure is an equivalent to misguided urban renewal. Middle class people don’t know how to interact with a street vendors. Cultural infrastructure would only serve orchestras and opera houses, etc. (Ever been to Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, or Stockholm and seen how widely their cultural funding is distributed, at least in comparison to the USA.) So much hip polemic, so little reasoned argument and documentation. And ironically, expressed through an accomplished use of academic language revealing a kind of white, suburban privilege that is the very object of criticism. The ironies of postmodernism in America are tearing it apart. It is little wonder that the French philosophers who developed postmodern theory largely distanced themselves from its parochial bowdlerization in the USA.

            As for the urban renewal analogy, the same social, political, and economic forces that destroyed our cities in the first place also caused the neglect of our cultural lives. America’s philosophy of unmitigated capitalism rejects most forms of social democracy. We are thus the only developed country in the world without things like national health insurance and comprehensive systems of public arts funding. The social conditions created have also given us the largest prison population in the world in both absolute and per capita numbers. And by far the highest illiteracy rates in the world – a lack of education also mirrored in our cultural lives and support for the arts.

            Those who stand opposed to social conditions like these are accused of harboring some sort of liberal view involving white privilege. Commercial music and the market is to be our sole salvation. And the poor in our racially informed ghettos are to simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like good capitalists. We are told it’s all about liberty.

            Americans thus rationalize the poverty of their cultural lives with the idea that it’s found in the micro-structures. Micro indeed. Our impoverished, small time, and parochial cultural world is elevated to the status of profundity for the simple reason that Americans often have little else to turn to. Americans refuse to admit that adequate financial support makes a fundamental difference in cultural richness and quality, for the simple reason that they don’t have an effective system of funding the arts. Never mind the bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York City Opera, the San Diego Opera, and countless other arts institutions. It’s all just white privilege. Commercial music and the marketplace will lead us to the truth. Rand Paul and the Koch Brothers will show us the way.

            In the same manner, we are to believe that American pop is so superior that it can achieve in 80 years what Western culture took 800 years to develop with its classical traditions. And just coincidentally this fits well with the cultural hegemony the American music industry pushes on the rest of the world. It also fits well with the American centered, neoliberal attempts to dismantle
            Europe’s social democracies. And of course, as a proponent of American music supported by financial interests like ASCAP, BMI, and others, it is difficult to avoid the fear that NMBx also feels pressure to support this philosophy.

            There’s nothing hip about the collapse of Detroit and so many other of our cities due to neoliberal economics. There’s nothing hip about the fact that 80% of the black men in Detroit are functionally illiterate. And there’s nothing romantic or progressive about the continual collapse of our cultural institutions into bankruptcy. To face problems like these isn’t just some sort of liberal, white interference or mentality of superiority. These are real social problem that needs to be solved for the sake of everyone.

            Anyway, it might be useful to think about why the neoliberal/postmodern ideology is so big in Texas, and what sort of façade Austin is covering.

          2. Justin Scheibel

            1. I’m an autodidact.
            2. I haven’t had more than $200 to my name for the past several years. I lived in the ghetto in OTR. I did have some decent upbringing at the beginning, but now I am fighting day by day.
            3. Postmodernism isn’t big in Texas. It is big in small part of Austin. And trust me, people in Texas hate people in Austin. That is a fallacy of generalization. There are also two postmodern ideological camps.
            4. As I’ve said, I am not a postmodernist. I’ve integrated analytic philosophy and existentialism. The second camp is not “hip” not “hipster”. I have a very good reason for everything I do, unlike these yuppie appropriators.

            Your retaliation and initial accusations of neoliberalism typifies the illegitimate re-interpretive move that pervades contemporary politics: without actually knowing the particular kind of work I do in art, the particular philosophical ideas that operate within it, you over-generalize your opposition with a strawman that enables you to substitute whatever disdainful ideology suits your purposes without considering that the varied ways .

            No, it is not NECESSARILY THE CASE that cultural infrastructure is always akin to misguided urban renewal, but the personal empirical evidence I have from past experiences suggests that the current models used for implementation are this very thing. OTR is my case study. What is happening there is some of the most despicable and blatant gentrification I have seen. Austin is an example of a city that is further along in this process. I came here for the cultural outskirts, not the ultracapitalist. already-gentrified CBD.

            I am posing the comparison between misguided urban renewal and cultural infrastructure models because, as in individual who endorses this, the ball is in your court to specify a more or less particular method of implementation that avoids the failings of what I have mentioned. Simply pointing to Europe and saying “but this here!” is not a response to the problem I presented. How would one go about establishing a sister system here without lapsing into the gentrification status quo of the US? I have misgivings about it because it has been attempted before, and the “model cities” of Austin and Cincinnati for this implementation now are failing in the way I described. As I said, I am all for arts infrastructure and diverse arts funding as long as it doesn’t lapse into a monocultural power structure.

            Austin is divided between the ultracapitalist bastion that is building hotels and highrises and tearing down the existent cultural infrastructure to create a theme park, and individuals like myself that are trying to protect the culture of the city from this appropriation. SXSW is a strange phenomenon because it is a perfect illustration of the clash. All of the performances that occurred downtown in the expensive restaurants are defended and populated with super-rich yuppies. I tried to go see one of these “hipster postmodern classical experimental composers” at some god-awfully overpriced restaurant downtown because his work sounded philosophically interesting, but my poor rear was barred from it with utter disdain. Meanwhile, in the outskirts of the CBD, a lot of independent artists like East Cameron Folkcore were open to the public. The performances occurring within the CBD are mostly huge name, record-industry-endorsed performers from other cities and countries, and the groups that are stuck in the outskirts in the dive-bars are the bands that grew out of the city.

            As I said, you are conflating multiple kinds of postmodern ideologies and influences that have developed in opposition to each other because it makes your accusation of neoliberalism tied to all postmodernism easier. There is nothing about postmoderist thought that implies neoliberal economics and political philosophy. In one camp, you have the vacuous yuppie neoliberal appropriators who don’t have a freaking clue about postmodern ideas other than they are cool and radical ironic; these are the “hipsters”. And in the other camp you have individuals who actually have depth and apply postmodernism in limited scope. These are the “outsider intellectuals”. I’m a poor writer, visual artist, musician, composer that believes in local community action. I’m not a rich white cosmopolitan yuppie sipping $30 cocktails and listening to hip hip-dub step genre crossing, without realizing how despicable this appropriation is.

            In other words. In one camp you have Lindsey Stirling and in the other camp you have East Cameron Folkcore. Lindsey Stirling is an international sensation that has been totally transformed into a tool for neoliberal proliferation. East Cameron Folkcore is fighting to maintain its identity and not be turned into capitalist propaganda. It keeps its performance and marketing limited to Austin locals and its following in Germany.

          3. Justin Scheibel

            I guess I deserve being called a polemical hipster because I can be a bitch at times.

          4. william osborne

            You make a very important point about how capitalism appropriates protest. Jean Baudrillard wrote a good deal about this. He felt resistance against power only strengthens it, because it is just a mirror image of that system’s delusions. He said those systems of power could only be destroyed through “singularities” – forms of thought so completely outside the norms of society that its conventions are shattered and the illusions it creates come crashing down. (BTW, you put some comments in quotes I didn’t even remotely say.)

            These singularities are extremely rare in the history of art. I’m not sure it is something most of us can reasonably aspire to. In the meantime, a funding system would allow us to perform Zappa’s large ensemble works might be of help.

            Explorations of new genres is obviously not a neoliberal agenda. It’s more the embrace of the idea that the marketplace should be the ultimate arbiter of almost all human endeavor. A broad aesthetic leveling of commercial and non-commercial music is part of that agenda. It’s one thing to appreciate good pop music, but another to embrace a music industry that is often corrupt and debasing.

          5. Justin Scheibel

            Just because I am against a monocultural implementation of non-commercial arts funding, doesn’t mean I am for sacrificing arts to the neoliberal economy. If there is a way to fund the arts without a single group of ubiquitous views controlling who gets the funds, I am for it. It has to be shown that this is possible to implement into the particular situation of the US economy, regardless if it is theoretically possible as demonstrated by Europe. I also have to consider my particular situation, where I’ve been worrying about when I’ll be able to afford rent. And in these limited circumstances, I am forced to do what I can to acquire enough money to scrape by. At the moment, I am not sure if it can be done, and I definitely don’t consider neoliberalism to be the alternative solution to arts funding. Hell, I’ll fight for arts funding.

            In order to do this, it is likely that people like you and I with differing ideological influences must work together. Neither you nor I gets to determine the meaning of quality.

            I apologize for the quotations. Some of the quotations were not applied to you, but rather to some of the generalized opinions I have heard before + added snark.

            I am partially reading into your views and partially reading into some of the general views of members of this site, which is not fair to you. The topic is definitely an emotionally volatile one for me because I’ve dealt with so many modes of artistic oppression throughout my studies and output. There are threats on all sides to individuality.

          6. Justin Scheibel

            I suppose your primary accusation of cross-over artists succumbing to “neoliberal infiltration” is based in the fact that they side-step the orchestral and classical music world. Fed up with the elitism of the conservatory and the narrow, Enlightenment-era views they are brainwashed with (“you must channel the composer’s intent, young padawan”, “art always has emotional content”, “there is no death of the composer”, “you have to feel the music”, “your interpretations have to fit with tradition”, “your vibrato can’t be too wide”), cross-over artists are doing their own thing, flaunting their training and success at the conservatory. They do so because that classical music world is utterly impotent and provides no work opportunities, no opportunities for self-expression and creative production. Its narrow-mindedness censors musicians with certain ideological preferences that run counter to it. Its large-scale network of panopticon control—“the word of mouth” damning that classical music gossip provides—is completely damaging to individual freedom of expression and liberty to pursue new ideas and concepts. All you have to do is not have the right hair, not wear the right shoes, not go to the right elderly parties, not have the right sexual preference, not endorse the right composers, not play the right music, not have the right interpretation, and some orchestra musician or conservatory professor lets all his or her buddies know how much of an insolent rouge you are, and you can say good-bye to your classical career.

            Your analysis of how cross-over music and postmodernism is distorted and appropriated into a neoliberal economic agenda is utterly incorrect. Cross-over music is a reaction to a deathly-ill conservatory, university and orchestral systems that are so bass-ackwards, that they train incredible music technicians (not artists) with no work opportunities, ridiculous competition for the few available jobs given up by the tenured elderly elite, and has the gall to expand to take on and train MORE musicians each year in a money-grabfest, while placing these students into debt slavery. The system is ridiculously broken, so ex-classical musicians and composers are realizing that in order to live, they have to create new modes of marketability and communication and completely throw out ties to this old conservatory world.

            The worst accusation that can be made about cross-over artists is that they are resourceful. When there is no room in this world for your personality, art, ideology and curiosity, you become an entrepreneur of your own work.

            What works in Europe does not necessarily work in the US and visa versa. This is the very first fundamental rule of intercultural exchange and foreign aid.

            So yeah, maybe the orchestral world isn’t quite an elitist hegemonic tool of upperclass control and conspicuous consumption in Europe. BUT it is here. And it will remain that way because that is what it has become entrenched as.

            Veiled accusations of “selling out” lobbed against cross-over artists sounds like professional jealousy because this “out-of-tune” group of young people
            already has an international label.

          7. william osborne

            Just for the record, I side-step the orchestral and classical world too (as I clearly explained.) And I have no problem with cross-over. The issue for me is the concept of letting the market rule artistic expression to the exclusion of non-commercial approaches of making music.

            I should mention that one major reason classical music is not dominated by wealthy elites in Europe is because they don’t fund it. Almost all larger ensembles are owned and operated by governments. This doesn’t eliminate cronyism, but it does limit the forms of cultural plutocracy that exist in the States.

          8. Justin Scheibel

            I’ll concede your point. It would be nice if there was a hybrid balance between capitalist-run and state-run music organizations. This would enable minority, non-commercial artists to have a variety of methods for promoting their work when it might not be able to sustain a market if left to a pure capitalist economy.

            I actually run into this problem with the avant-garde language, conceptual and lyrical poetry I write. There is no market for it, and few publishers are interested in taking a risk on non-economically-viable but important literary explorations. Trendiness is fine when it still allows for the creation and dissemination of not so popular works and ideas. I agree with you on the idea that neoliberalism is problematic for a plurality.

            I just have a problem with your over-generalizing. I am in poverty, and I am part of the impoverished local community’s artwork networks. It is an incredibly rich and diverse in aesthetics but it remains local. Unless you are here in this particular community or elsewhere, you really can’t know anything about it. Nothing at the local level is disseminated in mass media.

          9. Justin Scheibel

            I appreciate the dialectical monaism of this article. I suppose some “prefacing” is required in what I mean by community action, insofar as “prefacing” isn’t trying to dismantle the entirety of claims and present them wholesale as “wisdom”.

            The network of community action in the arts is akin to the nebulous clarity of “harmonious inner locality” and the blurring at the penumbra of cultural identities and place. It isn’t purposefully engaged in the active or passive distancing involved in identity politics (the withdrawal into the familial). Nor does it engage in the ethical egoism of unfiltered global capitalism. I would characterize it (if it can be characterized at all) as an underground web, like roots of trees spanning across continents and beyond borders, in which collaborators find new points of contact between very distinct styles, cultural idioms and worldviews, between individuals. When I say that it is microscopic, this is because the totality of it cannot be seen, a only particularist instance (the moment of collaboration that occurs at a community level); it is, in fact, vast in scope but not in focus enough to discern. For example, I just recently interacted at length with a few traditional Azerbaijani musicians who came to perform at a dive-bar for an international music festival. I’m currently collaborating on literature with friends in Germany and Hong Kong.

            In other words, when I said that you have to be in Austin or Cincinnati to know what is going on in the arts here, it isn’t because these represent self-contained microcosms. It is because each city and community is a nexus of national and international collaborations that connects to many different locations in the world. And being in the location where a collaboration occurs won’t provide one with a picture of where else these nexuses entangle.

        2. Justin Scheibel

          Put simply:
          Unbiased arts funding across the board = YAY!
          Arts funding controlled by “new music, ‘new classical music'” composers with some elitist sense of Quality = BOO!

        3. Justin Scheibel

          “When we read authors like Alex Ross (The New Yorker) or Greg Sandow (The Wall Street Journal), we should remember that these publications often represent very particular segments and viewpoints of a white, financial elite.”

          I mean, seriously, here I am talking to you about an article on a website where I can’t even swear and curse. Everyone’s got an agenda buddy.

          1. william osborne

            Cussing or not, at issue is how we fund the arts. Can they be completely surrendered to the marketplace? How will this affect quality? Should commercial and non-commercial music be allowed different systems of support and aesthetic evaluation? What happens when these systems become mutually exclusive?

  11. Phil Fried

    A music delivery system that would provide quality assurance is an interesting proposition.
    Perfection can certainly be achieved abstractly except for one thing.

    My problem is that unless we attach the system to actual music we have no idea what is what.
    On the other hand there is good reason not to mention any music at all, because if you mention specific composers you will create problems for yourself, your colleagues, and your teachers. Real music would spoil the perfection of the system as folks endlessly argue the merits of this composer or that. (Or this teacher or that).

    Since quality doesn’t equal success, real musical examples are dangerous because those who are deemed unworthy have a disconcerting ability to remain and prosper, and occasionally have influence on your career. Despite the tradition of inter school rivalry the teachers of the “poor quality” composers also frown on such criticism.

    Acceptance of the musical world can not be bound by any system unless its a system of acceptance. We must all learn to live in a messy world.

    1. Justin Scheibel

      Thank you for proposing something reasonable. I would only point out that sometimes the distinction between quality and success is highly ambiguous, since avant-garde works as well as culturally ideological works can have fledgling-developed aesthetic vocabulary and technical precision but are nevertheless important breakthroughs. Sometimes a work can be of quality on the sole basis of its being successful, if it was an ideological treatise, for instance, and was targeting and motivating a specific social transformation. Cue the simulacra.

  12. Phil Fried

    A music delivery system that would provide quality assurance is an interesting proposition.
    Perfection can certainly be achieved abstractly except for one thing.

    My problem is that unless we attach the system to actual music we have no idea what is what.
    On the other hand there is good reason not to mention any music at all, because if you mention specific composers you will create problems for yourself, your colleagues, and your teachers. Real music would spoil the perfection of the system as folks endlessly argue the merits of this composer or that. (Or this teacher or that).

    Since quality doesn’t equal success, real musical examples are dangerous because those who are deemed unworthy have a disconcerting ability to remain and prosper, and occasionally have influence on your career. Despite the tradition of inter school rivalry the teachers of the “poor quality” composers also frown on such criticism.

    Acceptance of the musical world can not be bound by any system unless its a system of acceptance. We must all learn to live in a messy world.

  13. william osborne

    One of the most difficult aspects of discussing neoliberalism and postmodernism is that most musicians involved with postmodern ideas do not see how their work might relate to an economic philosophy like neoliberalism. In that sense, they are unwitting participants in furthering socio-economic concepts that are being increasingly questioned and that all too often promote forms injustice.

    We need to more clearly define the limits of postmodernism’s relativism in terms of aesthetics and economics so that we are not duped into furthering agendas whose results we might find deplorable.

    + How do we distinguish between open mindedness toward commercial music and the debasing characteristics of the music industry?

    + How do we balance the challenges of reaching out to our publics while also maintaining artistic integrity?

    +How do we combine the obvious advantages of the marketplace with comprehensive public funding systems like all other developed countries have long had?

    +How do we relativize aesthetic concepts without undermining the unique aesthetic and economic conditions of classical music which is already marginalized?

    1. Justin Scheibel

      Let me put it this way: There is nothing particular to postmodernism that implies neoliberalism that any other, utterly unrelated philosophy couldn’t also possess. Within the theoretical constructs and absences of postmodernism, there is no logical necessity from which neoliberalism follows or visa versa, no bi-conditional. That some factions of postmodernism are associated with neoliberalism is a contingent a posteriori truth (in the sense of logician Saul Kripke) as opposed to a metaphysical a posteriori necessity.

      It just so happens that in the possible world we live in, some postmodernism is appropriated like a slew of other unrelated concepts.

      The thing about a totally materialist economic perspectives like neoliberalism is that it doesn’t matter what you believe or think. Love Jesus? Well we’ll sell you Jesus figurines! You like atonalism? We’ll put Schoenberg on a shirt for you with obscure music theory jokes! You’re a vegan? We’ll sell you vegan pins and tofu while we slaughter cows in the subsidiary we also own. Just like corporate profiteering in supplying weapons to both sides during war, the neoliberal megastructure doesn’t care what ideology or lack-thereof one has. They’ll sell to you and your supposed enemy just same, a supplanting image without abstract conceptualization.

      Just look at how exploration of environmentalist, deep ecological ethics and posthumanism during the 90s and early 2000s was appropriated by neoliberal economics into the “new health craze” freak of today with your Paleo-crap and Non-GMO organic BS conspicuous commodity market. I’m an animal rights activist in the tradition of ethicists Peter Singer and Tom Regan, and it is horrible that I can’t say this without being associated with a bunch of vacuous, touchy-feely trendy fools.

      My solution is to return to existentialist thought, taking the lessons learned from postmodernism, psychology and philosophy of language and mind. This enables the conceptual isolation of self from amorphous identity and will-to-action from reactionary ideology. One acts from abstract principles with the understanding that these are not totalizing; one maintains one’s own moral axioms while engaging in a particularist case-by-case interaction with alternative moral systems. This frees up the choice to accept or reject the ‘particularist adaptation’ by falling back on a system of moral valance.

      Neoliberalism cannot indefinitely distort an invariant principle of action because it is a metaphysical necessity that neoliberalism and the principle of action will not form a consistent and complete set, given their distinct premises. I don’t think this invariant principle is a matter of “quality” but rather a composite personal ethics and aesthetics. In other words, when one holds “ethics as the first philosophy” in the sense of Emmanuel Levinas and evaluates this against concrete empirical situations, one is beyond neoliberal corruption regardless if one adapts facets of a postmodern aesthetic.

      Postmodernism does not inform an ethics; it questions the possibility of a coherent ethics. This is the primary problem. The exploration of ethics and postmodernism has be labeled by some recent theorists as metamodernism.

  14. william osborne

    Some numbers might illustrate the concerns I have expressed in this discussion. The top-selling classical album last week was Hafez Nazeri’s “Rumi Symphony” which sold 1100 copies. Vivialdi’s Four Seasons sold 243 copies. The top-selling cross-over album was by the violinist Lindsay Sterling which sold 56,038 copies. The trailer for the album has already had over 4 million hits. Watch it here:

    1. Justin Scheibel

      If Lindsey Stirling is the only example of a contemporary cross-over artist you can provide, please do more research. She is a “dubstep violinist” and not at all representative of a tremendously diverse field that runs the gamut of economic success.

    2. Justin Scheibel

      I think you are just misinformed. Look at that! None of these groups are American! Woah! And these are some of the primary influences of a lot of the cross-over musicians I know. It is an international artform. But, okay. You’re totally right. The real problem is that I am living in America. I’ll just move to Europe so that my artform is suddenly valid! :-D

      Daniel Hope and Ludovico Einaudi (Italy)

      Kaisers Orchestra (Norway, Alternative Rock)

      Clockwork Quartet (England, Raconteur-style Drifters)

      Jambinai (South Korean, Postrock with Traditional Korean Instruments)

      Olafur Arnalds (Iceland, Pop Musician Turned Classical Composer)

      Moddi (Norway, Self-Taught Chamber Pop)

      Caravan Palace (France, Gypsy Jazz)

      Hilary Hahn plays with Hauschka (German Nightclub Pianist and Composer)

  15. Pingback: It’s what the composer intended: Part II in a series on composer-performer dialogues | Soonest Mended

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