Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Miscellanea

This piece at the Wall Street Journal by David Gelernter reads like a cry in the wilderness. He identifies a few problems, but I wonder if they are not just symptoms:
Most children learn nothing about serious music in school and don’t expect to learn anything. Outside school, the music world is being upended and shaken vigorously. The ways we choose music and listen to it are being transformed by iTunes and Spotify and other such sites.
For most young people, music is a minor consumable, like toothpaste. Musicians and music majors aside, my students at Yale—and there are no smarter, more eager, more open students anywhere—just barely know who Beethoven is. Beethoven. “He composed music”—that is the general consensus.
To know nothing about Beethoven? That is cultural bankruptcy. That is collapse. It goes far beyond incompetence, deep into betrayal and farce.

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You rarely see it stated quite this baldly as we read in the Guardian how "Philosophy has to be about more than white men." This is a representative paragraph:
Critics of the campaign argue that it undermines academic freedom; that all knowledge is of equal worth; that students ought to transcend cultural background in the interest of expanding knowledge; and that there are very good reasons why a philosophy, economics or history curriculum might be full of the works of dead white males. Very good reasons indeed: some of these include the systemic killing of female philosophers, massacres of some of our earliest thinkers such as the Aztec; and the destruction of ancient African cities that illuminate the thinking of old civilisations.
Representative in that it gets tangled up in its own logic, then blurts out some astonishing falsehoods. I doubt very much that critics of the campaign to remove white dominance in philosophy are making the claim that "all knowledge is of equal worth". But I would love to hear the defence of that claim! I am also deeply amused to read what great thinkers the Aztecs were. These same Aztecs who sacrificed a thousand prisoners a day to "consecrate" the Templo Major in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). We read in the Wikipedia article that:
Each day blood ran like a river onto the pavement of the Great Plaza, and the stairs of the great pyramid were literally bathed in blood.
This is the kind of thinking that we are going to replace Plato with? Count me out. I mention this here because very similar campaigns have been undertaken to dethrone the canonic composers as well: white males such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

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There is a pretty interesting discussion about the challenges to musicians in today's online environment in the MIT Technology Review: "Survival in the Age of Spotify." Here is a sample of the discussion:
I’ve been frustrated that artists are not allowed to have a nuanced position. We seem to get shoehorned into the extreme camps of “completely pro–free culture” or “completely anti-technology.” When the record labels or publishing houses get together to hammer out deals with intermediaries (be they ISPs, streaming services, or digital storefronts), we are rarely, if ever, invited to the table and have no choice but to react to what’s already been decided. As someone who loves the Internet but hopes for more creative solutions to “free vs. paid” than the binary extremes we seem to be forced to choose between, I am pretty tired of that language. It’s off-putting to have a book that purports to have your best interests at heart open with so much of that language of conflict.
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Does anyone want to take a stab at explaining what is going on here, aesthetically?

Here is where I found the image: "Jeff Koons churns out new factory art." I see the industrial side of it, which is a bit similar to the industrial nature of a lot of current pop music. But in the visual arts world, I suspect that success depends on doing something as new and peculiar as possible, while in music it depends on doing something familiar, but slightly different.

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String instruments made from carbon fibre are getting better and better quality-wise as shown by this one that shared a prize with an instrument made from conventional wood:

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Two days ago was the 90th birthday of one of the great iconoclasts of 20th century music: Pierre Boulez. The Guardian has a collection of some of the more outrageous things he has said over the years:
His incendiary comments, whether directed at his contemporaries (he has described Duchamp as ‘a pompous bore’, Cage as ‘a performing monkey’, and Stockhausen, ‘a hippie’), or more general topics such as culture and history, however, suggest that he enjoys the controversy.
Boulez seems to have some strange obsessions:
“I believe a civilisation that conserves is one that will decay because it is afraid of going forward and attributes more importance to memory than the future. The strongest civilisations are those without memory - those capable of complete forgetfulness. They are strong enough to destroy because they know they can replace what is destroyed. Today our musical civilisation is not strong; it shows clear signs of withering… […] Conducting has forced me to absorb a great deal of history, so much so, in fact, that history seems more than ever to me a great burden. In my opinion we must get rid of it once and for all.”
To which I reply: name one! Name a civilization that is without memory. Better, name a strong civilization that is without memory. This is a strange obsessive fantasy of 20th century radical modernism. It is an echo of the zero hour of the Russian Revolution when the new man was to be created who owed nothing to the past. This is not only an absurd fantasy, it is a dangerous one, because it always seems to lead to Siberia and the death camps for those who don't want to go along.

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I think this gives us our envoi for today. Let's hear something by Pierre Boulez. Dérive I was composed in 1984. It is a six-minute chamber work for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano which was spun out of sketches for a larger work from 1981, entitled Répons.


Marc Puckett said...

Yes, those Aztec and Mayan philosophers of slave sacrifice! I just shake my head, anymore. The fact is of course that serious historical work in re e.g. the Aztec or the Malian cultures is great, wonderful, fruitful etc, and the CiF sort of academic games-playing is simply destructive, leading, mutatis mutandis, to David Gelernter's Yale students who, doubtless bright!, are also 'open', i.e. in this context anyway vacant-headed. Tsk. While of course that isn't how one has real conversations with real people, God forbid-- describing them as empty-headed, I mean-- that is really how I regard that academic... guazzabuglio.

In spite of his intellectual nonsense, I'll give old Pierre some time on Sunday. Saw people at Slipped Disc the other day wondering where the commemorative post was for an un-named someone, and didn't have any idea who they were referring to.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well yes, setting to one side all his ideological flim-flam, Boulez is certainly a great musician. I am going to be doing some listening myself this weekend to see what I think of his compositions these days.

Marc Puckett said...

What's the point of carbon fiber violins? the first commenter over there pointed out that there's an advantage vis-à-vis the weather but otherwise? Hmm. Cost, perhaps? $3000+; am willing to bet that my sister's violin in school wasn't in that price range :-) but perhaps for professionals' use? No idea. And at first I thought it was only the strings in CF but it must be the entire instrument; hmm. And the advertisement at the bottom of the page was for a 3D printed instrument!

Tomas said...

If we think that human sacrifices made by Mayan and Aztec civilizations justifies discarding every aspect of their thought, then it’s at least strange that we do not judge Ancient Greek philosophers in the same way. How about Aristotle’s distinction between citizens (those with logos; shortly: those who think) and a slave and animal category (those with just phone: voice, noises; those who do not think but can only express pain or pleasure)? Thanks to whom did the Greek philosophers have so much free time to think? We just have to read Socrates’ impassioned characterization of slavery as a fair order.

Of course, I’m far from saying we should assume that attitude, neither with Mayan or Aztec nor with Athens, France or Germany. Between other things I teach philosophy in high school (in Buenos Aires, Argentina), and a large part of the curriculum is about Greek philosophy, which I think is not only beautiful but essential to our times. But at the same time that I recognize this, I cannot stop thinking about the paradoxes of every great human achievement (at the end of the year I like to project this Louis CK video: There’s no “pure” culture, as there’s not .

In my opinion the article quoted in Bryan’s text has been misread by him –and also by Marc, for what I can read in his first comment’s first sentence. The title says “MORE THAN white men”, not “INSTEAD of white men”, and if acknowledging Western philosophy shouldn’t imply denying all horrible things lead by Western civilization, I think it’s only fair –and logically consistent, according to the logic developed by some of those Greek philosophers– to do so with other cultures.

There’s a song by Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, “Língua” (which means “tongue” and “language” at the same time in Portuguese), where among other things he writes about how Europe -and in some ways also the United States- have underestimated thoughts and cultures coming from other than Europe, when they haven't reduced them to clichés and stereotypes (the case of Brazilian music is probably the best example): “Se você tem uma idéia incrível, é melhor fazer uma canção. Está provado que só é possível filosofar em alemão” (“If you have an incredible idea, it’s better to compose a song. It’s proven: philosophy is only posible in German”).

Marc Puckett said...

Tomas, Am just back here for a minute or two but wanted to assure you that it was far from my intention to suggest that the intellectual and moral perversion that allows the ritual bloody sacrifice of slaves 'justifies disregarding every aspect' of that culture-- of course not, as I had hoped I made clear when I mentioned the positive contributions of serious historians etc whether of America or elsewhere; and I have no trouble admitting that no one philosophical tradition contains the summum verum. But I must be off.

Bryan Townsend said...

The point of carbon fiber violins is durability. Wood is notoriously fragile. Extreme heat and dryness can cause cracks. The strings are of conventional materials: wound or plain steel, I think.

Tomas, thanks for your comment and welcome to the Music Salon. I don't think I was misinterpreting the original Guardian article to any significant extent. It is part of a wide and ongoing project often called "check your privilege" which, while superficially appealing as it appears to correct an historical injustice, is, in reality, merely privileging official "victim" groups instead at the cost of wildly distorting the historical record. What we know about the Aztecs includes the blood sacrifice and other aspects of their religion, some architecture and reports from the Spanish conquerers. We do not study their treatises on logic and ethics and politics and poetics for one very simple reason: they didn't write any. Plato and Aristotle did. So it is with deep amusement, as I said, that I read the writer complaining of our neglect of the wisdom of ancient civilizations. If you mean China, well, yes. If you mean African or South American kingdoms that never invented a sophisticated written language, then I think your project is absurd. We don't know the names of Aztec philosophers because they didn't have any.

Tomas said...

Thanks for the answers, and for the welcome! I think there’s a deeper disagreement here, since we depart from different premises (of course this is not a critic, in fact I’m happy to find a music blog with passionate discussions in its comments). I agree that being a victim does not by itself make such a victim great and innocent, as many times we are lead to think specially in “victim countries” (Spanish conquerors were bad, but that doesn’t justify what Inca and Aztec empires used to do with peoples they conquered; or a more recent one: criticizing Bush’s wars doesn’t justify saying that what Hussein did was good). But I disagree in such a trust in “historical record” as if it was a neutral position, and not a biased one. The absence of written legacies might be, from a certain point of view, a proof of unsophistication. But thinking that is the only point of view to tell which societies are or are not sophisticated, hides –between other things– the historical facts about how some cultures were destroyed and its thoughts lost, or how there can be some sort of sophistication not necessarily related to written language (for instance, Mayan people didn’t have a sophisticated written language, but they anticipated in many centuries some mathematic discoveries made by Greek culture, as the concept of “zero”; Socrates and Homer never wrote a word, also, and the former has several “metaphors” criticizing written language, as in the Phaedro debate where he tells the Egyptian Thamus story).

Since this is a music blog, I bring the issue back to that field: it’s true that from a certain point of view Beethoven (whose music is unthinkable without a very sophisticated musical written language) is far more sophisticated than Ancient African music. But is that the only way of categorizing music? Are Stockhausen’s scores necessarily more sophisticated than Beethoven’s? Is every jazz composition necessarily less complex than any written “classical” composition? I think there’s some teleological conception here; this teleological conception (it shouldn’t be a surprise how close the word is to “theological”) has in fact produced some of the greatest music ever, but it has also denied other music to have a respectable position. (This debate is not a secondary one: I think the comments discussing on “The Tyranny of the Backbeat” post could also be useful here, if we’re interested about how and with which parameters we could judge different kinds of music without falling in a dangerous and stupid assertion that “all music is of equal worth”, but also not reducing that judgement to a single criterion).

And speaking about teleological conceptions, this is how Schoenberg saw his own task as a composer. I’ve been meaning to comment in the post about the emancipation of dissonance, but that will remain for another time.

(Sorry for the advertising: although it’s written in Spanish, I leave here for whoever is interested the link to a music blog a friend and I write, although not as frecuently as Bryan writes: “La pregunta sin respuesta” (“The Unanswered Question”),

Bryan Townsend said...

Tomas, some excellent points. Just a general observation: from years of debating various kinds of issues, I think that the free and open discussion of disagreements is the best way to refine one's position, correct errors and arrive, if not at the truth tout simple, then at least closer to the truth.

Yes, you make a very good point that all histories are biased, selective and partial to a greater or lesser extent. A neutral history of the world can be nothing more than a mindless chronicle. BUT, it is a long, long way from that to wanting to displace foundational works such as the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in favor of a vague and nebulous appeal to the wisdom of cultures that we can scarcely know due to the paucity of sources.

Another good point is not to equate complexity with aesthetic quality. I think I have made that very same argument more than once! I am a big fan of the expressive power of simplicity, which is why I am such a big Haydn fan. I think discussions on this blog often turn around what might be valid aesthetic criteria, so by all means, propose some!

Thanks so much for linking to your blog: I am looking forward to reading it. And please, keep contributing to comments here.

Jon said...

It seems to me that the "check your privilege" meme stems from a basic disagreement over the importance of identity. I think the central topic of debate could be framed as, "How important is an individual's identity to their role in the public sphere?"

Since this is the Music Salon, we might wonder how important a person's identity is to their role as a musician, composer, listener, etc. in the public sphere.

I have to admit, as a musician, I have not spent very much time thinking about this topic. And to Bryan's point, I have certainly heard and read a good deal of commentary which uses the identity of a particular group as a club to beat down other points of view.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nor have I, Jon. There are some who claim that the purpose of campaigns like "check your (white) privilege" is for high status white people to be able to look down on lower status white people.

I really don't think that GROUP identity is terribly important to one's work as a creative musician. What is important is your INDIVIDUAL identity. This whole movement from individual to group identity and moral responsibility is, I suspect, an echo of Marxist cultural theory.