Sunday, February 22, 2015


There are certain ironclad rules you have to follow if you want to be accepted by the PTB (the Powers That Be). The main one is that you have to not only accept, but enthusiastically endorse and support, the prevailing assumptions about the nature of reality that the PTB advocate. A couple of these that we are very familiar with from the world of politics are that the Greatest Sin of all is Racism. Another is that All Cultures are Equally Valid and the sub-directive coming from that is that All Music is Equally Good. A reliable foot-soldier in the ranks will always take every opportunity to push this Commandment.

What the heck am I talking about? Alex Ross, though usually an interesting writer who occasionally has something interesting to say, is one of these foot-soldiers in the ranks loyal to the cultural PTB and so he is always, not only careful, but eager to promote the Cultural Commandments. But since he is a sophisticated and subtle writer, he does so in clever ways. For example, he has just written an essay on Björk excerpted in the Guardian titled "How Björk broke the sound barrier". He remarks:
A few years ago, for a feature on a music blog, I asked Björk to make a selection of her favourite records. Her list included Mahler’s 10th Symphony; Alban Berg’sLulu; Steve Reich’s Tehillim; a collection of Thai pop, entitled Siamese Soul, Volume 2; Alim Qasimov’s Azerbaijan: The Art of the Mugham; Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter; Kate Bush’s The Dreaming; Nico’s Desertshore; Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back; Aphex Twin’s Drukqs; the Ranges’ Panasonic EP; Black Dog Productions’ Bytes and James Blake’s debut album, James Blake.
What’s striking about the list is not just the breadth of Björk’s taste – this is no surprise, given her obsessive curiosity about every corner of the musical world – but also the animated map of genres that materialises in the background. It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent. A grandiose howl of late Romantic agony; a juggernaut of 12-tone modernism; a cool minimalist dance through Hebrew psalms; off-kilter pop from south Asia; a virtuoso survey of Azerbaijani mugham; three defiantly idiosyncratic albums by female singer-songwriters; three pathbreaking electronic records; a raging tour-de-force of political hip-hop; a collection of dubstep ballads: Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.
Let's take a few moments to unpack the assumptions underlying these two paragraphs and what they reveal about the Commandments of the PTB. This idea of "tell us your favorite records" is, of course, a very old tactic not terribly dissimilar from TeenBeat magazine asking George Harrison what his favorite color is. It creates a wholly illusory connection to the artist because it mimics what might have been a conversational exchange. Sometimes, in the case of the list Alex Ross provides, supposedly uttered by Björk, it also has an indoctrinating function: it is meant to teach us what sorts of music to value and why. It is in service to this propagandizing that Ross's prose gets so very purple in the second paragraph.

Now let's look at the details. If I had been in conversation and Björk had come up with this list I would have had some follow-up questions. Such as:

  • You have a wide variety of genres and artists there. Are there some you listen to more than others?
  • Do you spend more time listening to Mahler or more time listening to Public Enemy?
  • Do you find all this music equally appropriate? What sort of mood do you need to be in for Azerbaijani music? Is it a different mood for Mahler? Or Thai?
  • Is this typically the range of things you listen to? Or some weeks do you spend listening just to one kind of music? If so, what?
  • Do you like to take some time, days or weeks, to NOT listen to music?
  • Why do you enjoy such a wide range of styles? And do you enjoy them equally?
  • Do you like some because they are soothing and others because they are challenging? And which is which?
I would do this because I would like to penetrate the mindless listing of different things and try to discern some kind of critical attitude or judgment. We all have minds and the fundamental activity of minds is to evaluate and make judgements.

But look at Alex Ross' second paragraph, his commentary on the list. Instead of trying to make some sense of it, he just keeps underlining what he wants us to take away--what the PTB commands us to believe: that all of this music is equally important and valid because All Cultures are Equally Valid. This imperative overcomes any aesthetic judgment or personal taste. Thou Shalt Not Question This Commandment! How Ross sells us this ridiculous idea is by carefully selecting descriptions of the different musics that make them appear to be equally exciting, even if in different ways--and this very Diversity is another Fundamental Good.

Here are some of the descriptive phrases: "grandiose howl", "off-kilter", "virtuoso", "defiantly idiosyncratic", "raging tour-de-force" and so on. Of course these kinds of descriptive phrases are all of a certain metal: they celebrate the illusory freedoms of the 60s cultural revolution where we are all enjoined to "let it all hang out". The grandiose howling, defiantly idiosyncratic raging tours-de-force musics are actually not all that diverse after all. The virtues they stress are all 60s virtues that, no matter how tired they get, will still suggest youthful rebellion. Björk circumnavigates the globe so she can reinforce her, and Alex' and our basic assumptions about art and the world.

When you cite a list, with no specifying principles, that puts Mahler side by side with ethnic folk music and particularly offensive political rants, then you are saying that there are no aesthetic standards that "All Music is Equally Good". But you are also saying that only some styles and genres are valid. Only some are "authentic". Mahler is ok, as kind of a token art music composer, but he must be put on the same level as Public Enemy and Kate Bush. The one kind of artist or genre that cannot appear on the list are the kinds that I would pick. It is "cool" to do this kind of list that defies aesthetic standards. Doing what I often do, pick out the best of a genre or style, put different performances side by side and evaluate them, this is uncool. And, Thou Shalt Be Cool. But, alas, this whole cultural project of the PTB is to deny civilization in favor of doctrinaire commandments that are, as soon as you state them clearly, obviously wrong. Which is precisely why they must never be stated clearly. Which is why you must dress them up with a lot of purple prose.

As soon as you see someone saying things like this:
the animated map of genres that materialises in the background
 It is as though, in a reversal of tectonic drift, isolated land masses of taste were re-forming as a supercontinent.
 Björk’s list circumnavigates the globe and, at the same time, it overruns the boundaries separating art from pop, mainstream from underground, primeval past from hi-tech present.
Your Spider-sense should immediately activate. All this stuff about overrunning boundaries and reversing tectonic drift is to short-circuit your ability to think and evaluate. Honestly.

I'm not sure, at the end of the day, if the music even matters much. Not next to the Commandments...

I won't go on as I have already made my point, but it is interesting to examine statements like this one:
The partition of music into distinct genres, each with its own history, philosophy and body of technique, is a relatively recent development. Before a global marketplace emerged, with the advent of recording technology in the late 19th century, there was little talk of the classical, the popular and subdivisions thereof
Which is a beautifully nuanced lie. Music has, the whole span of Western Civilization, been created and listened to in different genres and sub-genres: Plainchant, Gregorian Chant, antiphons, graduals--these go back a thousand years and more. Yes, "classical" music has been turned, by modern marketing machines, into just another "genre", but the way Ross describes it in the quote above, is historically illiterate. I won't bother to dissect any more of this tediously long article.

Let's end with some music that would never find itself on a Björk list: an acknowledged masterpiece of classical music:

UPDATE: Browsing through the comments on the Guardian site for the original essay, this is the third comment:
this is very clever marketing, pushing the art/music crossover, in an age where brand identity is more important than ever, an album launch coinciding, roughly, with an exhibition at MOMA, a hagiographic book excerpt (Alex Ross being commissioned) serving as a press release - one of many doing the rounds right now to push the new release.
People forget that, despite her name checking of so called "serious music" composers, her enthusiasm for "experimentation," and the music press's efforts to align her with some kind of popular "avant garde," she is, at the end of the the day, a pop singer, it's pop, quirky idiosyncratic pop, but relative to other things going on (largely unnoticed by the mainstream) - it's just more of the same.
Yep. And it's the back-beat that gives it away.


A.C. Douglas said...

Spot-on! generally but somewhat unfair in singling out Alex Ross even though you've done so only by way of example. I confess I've done so as well on occasion on Sounds & Fury where the class you've labeled the "PTB" I've labeled the "CCSS" (Card Carrying Smart Set) or simply "SS" which I defined in the 2012 S&F entry "Confessions Of An Apparent Reactionary Middle-Brow Bourgeois" (, but Alex is just the highest profile member of that class.

More needs to be written about this business.


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, A. C.! When I write something like this, which is a bit out there, I ask myself as I post it, "is anyone going to read this? And are they going to get it?" So I'm very grateful for your feedback. Thanks for the link to your blog. I had it once, but lost it somehow. The link to the specific post didn't work for me though? And I would love to read that post.

Yes, I do occasionally pick on Alex Ross because he is the most prominent member of the Transnational Progressive Class (another name for them) writing about music. I see from your blog that you are a Richard Taruskin fan, as am I.

A.C. Douglas said...

Link is:

Link is good as before. If, however, it again doesn't work for you, then go to S&F and type the title of the post in the Google S&F search box located on the blog's sidebar and that will bring it up for you.

Re, Taruskin: is there ANY classical music aficionado who is not a Taruskin fan?


Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, I know a few... mostly jealous musicologists.

Ken Fasano said...

"All Cultures are Equally Valid and the sub-directive coming from that is that All Music is Equally Good." Easily disproven, of course. "Beethoven's Wellington's Victory is as good as his Op. 130 String Quartet." Obviously false. "The Greek culture of the first century BC is as great is that of the seventh century BC." Obviously false.

But what is "classical"? Beethoven is; so is Gregorian Chant and John Cage. Ali Akhbar Khan is also classical. Is Miles Davis classical? Also, there exist popular works that are greater than "classical" works. "Revolver" or "Kinda' Blue" vs. Bizet Symphony in C.

So there are a priori assumptions Mr. Ross makes; but there are also a priori assumptions we all make.

Bryan Townsend said...

Brilliant riposte, Ken. My fundamental reply is, yes, we do all have a priori assumptions or operating principles. What is intellectually respectable is knowing and acknowledging them. What is not respectable is not acknowledging them or pretending that they are beyond examination. That is the real problem. The problem of how you evaluate between genres or how you recognise the boundaries of genres or what you choose to include or not in "classical" is simply one more discussion. What I don't like is the smuggled assumptions!