Monday, July 24, 2017

A Shout Out to Musicology Now

If you look at my "popular posts" list on the right hand side, you will see a new entry: How Now, Musicology Now. This is a post I put up just last week and the explanation for why it has suddenly leapt into the popular column is that one of the editors of Musicology Now, the official blog for the American Musicological Society, Robert W. Fink, linked to the post from the AMS FaceBook page. He also, courteously, left a comment:
Bryan - As one of the editors of Musicology Now, let me thank you for your attention to our blog. We could definitely publish more content, but our situation is slightly different than that of a single-authored blog. The editors don't publish their own material, and, as you note, publishing a piece in Musicology Now does not advance one's career like peer-reviewed publication. We're always looking for more material, but since no one really "owns" this blog, we do have a problem getting people to put stuff out there for the no-so-tender consideration of the internet at large.
I'm shamelessly linking to this attack on the blog in my FB feed, on our page, etc. in order to rouse the collective pride of the Society, and perhaps drum up more submissions. I'm not sure the result will be to your intellectual taste (chacun, etc.), but we can all agree that it would be great to have more material to the AMS blog.
Thanks for your help. :)
Let me just say that this is great! Who wouldn't love a big launch from the AMS? As far as I can tell, the post has attracted about 1200 more pageviews than it would have otherwise. Prof. Fink describes my post as an "attack" and it was certainly a thorough bit of criticism of the blog. But after a new, and even more objectionable, post appeared on Musicology Now a few days later, I put up a more extensive critique in this post in which I described a curriculum proposal as a "Maoist re-education plan." I think that that one has attracted some traffic from AMS members as well.

So as of now, perhaps a third of the 3,500 AMS members may have visited this blog, or at least a post or two. Frankly, what I expected was a great deal of critique of my critique, widespread disagreement, spitballs, rancor, opposing arguments and possibly thundershowers. What I got, apart from the comment from Prof. Fink was, wait for it: nothing. Nada, nichts, rien!

What's the deal guys? Do you agree with everything I said? Or are you just afraid to leave a comment? Will we see some changes over at Musicology Now? As of today, the last post on their site is still the one from last Monday about racial and gender diversity.

Here's the thing: there are unending articles about the dire situation of classical music and what we need to do to reverse the trend. A lot of them stress that the "accessibility" of classical music needs to be increased. Frankly, with millions of clips on YouTube of classical music, I don't see how it could be MORE accessible. The solutions described usually involve changing the nature of classical performances so they resemble popular music performances more which might attract more people who usually listen only to popular music. This often doesn't go too well because the one element you can't change too much, or replace for that matter, is classical music itself. The truth is that the portion of society, in North America particularly, that is able to listen to classical music in an appreciative and discerning manner is not large and seems to be decreasing. If we pander to them too much all we will do is throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As I know from spending a month in Europe recently, the situation there is quite different. Concert halls are full and the audience is larded with young people. The reason is that in Europe, the proportion of educated listeners is much greater.

To me the solution is obvious: we in North America have to provide a better introduction to the music through educational outreach. And it has to be real and substantial, not the feeble and diaphanous efforts that usually pass for educational outreach. Who in North America possesses the greatest wealth of knowledge and expertise in this area? The American Musicological Society would seem to be it. How do you reach out? I would think the same way that I do. The purpose of this blog is to talk about music in an entertaining and informative way. Surely the AMS blog should be doing something similar. But you ain't! So give it a go. I think it is important for the future health of music.


Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, I've very much appreciated your blog since I stumbled upon it, because you ask the right questions and you dissect the inner workings of music that withstands the corrosive and obliterating effects of time. Not just states but languages, cultures, ideas...they all wither and dissipate over the centuries, yet certain art (and a few other cultural artifacts of mind and custom born in long-lost times and places) survives because it has a universal or at least elemental significance that survives the dissipation of the social and historical circumstances of its birth. I don't have a philosopher's technical vocabulary to explain the qualities that make for this survival, but I have come to instinctively recognize when I am in the presence of art of such caliber. Some of it is the technical skill of the artist, and some of it is in the sheer originality ("creativity"), but there has to be much more. There also has to be some allusions to elemental human experience that transcends immediate circumstance, that transcends the identities and issues of the local moment, and that can affect the human heart just as powerfully in completely different time, place and circumstances. Something beyond the literal and granulated meanings found in, say, a newspaper, something rather with a meaning that touches eternal and primal essentials that do not die with the passing of the individual or the historical moment. How that gets articulated into principles of aesthetics I haven't a clue, but, like the difference between art and pornography, "I know it when I hear it."

Regarding "Musicology Now," I brought the site to your attention (I now know you had been quite aware of it in previous years even if attention had lapsed lately) because I searched for a musicology site hoping to find more of the kind of writings you produce, and instead I found mostly a constant stream of identity politics wrapped in a supposed discussion of music but it is obvious music is not their real interest or main inquiry. Further, I brought their site to your renewed attention because in the past few months since I found it, I often made comments and found zero discussion, almost nobody discusses anything there beyond a few "right on!" encouragements from people who I presume probably know the author. The single "most frequent" commenter there are various fictional people all promoting some commercial writing tips website with spam comments not even removed by the Musicology editors! So Bryan I came to YOU for discussion of their ridiculous politicization of musicology because I could not get any discussion at the site itself!

Bryan Townsend said...

If I were a Musicology Now editor or contributor reading this, I would be wincing uncomfortably right about now. I think that what you and I have exposed is the fact that the Musicology Now blog is a rather minor vehicle for racking up career points. The more serious venue, where all the serious articles appear, is the Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS) which is only available to the members (or perhaps by subscription, I forget). But the AMS is a professional organization, so, for many if not most members, the facts of life are that in the early stages they are fighting to get their dissertation accepted, then fighting even more to get a job--usually something very precarious like a sessional lecturer or non-tenure track. Then a tenure-track position and then the pinnacle, tenure! After which the temptation is to rest on your laurels. So a great deal of your life is simply the struggle for career survival in a field heavily overpopulated with PhDs and very, very few jobs. For all that, there are some really great scholars out there, like Richard Taruskin, who do superb work.

Frank Benjamin said...

How does one outreach with history? The great body of Classical Music is "Classical" in the sense of style and time. This fascinates musicologists but is of minor interest to the average person outreach programs are geared towards. Where I live, the community orchestras have youth programs to encourage interest by the young. People do attend some actually find interest. But the general public has little interest regardless of outreach because they are surrounded by more socially immediate music that does not require any kind of appreciation to comprehend. Folk music has always been this way: It is immediate and comprehendible by the average person. It fills a social function that doesn't require classes and learning before appreciation.

Except for Asia which has taken on many Western styles, our education system no longer feels it important to educate to the culture. There is something like 20 minutes a week in K-6, no appreciation classes, and no structured singing from early grades on. Much of the music taught in schools is simplistic at best and designed to get results so it "looks" like kids are really learning something. But most are learning to avoid music. Getting a boy in choir is really problematic even though we have rock star after rock star say they got their start in some choir and were inspired by a music teacher. The reason? We don't demand that our education methodology, at least in America, highlights our culture.

We are more interested in producing a product that is as compliant as possible and that means downgrading Western Culture in comparison with all other cultures? After all, why care about art considered great if one is identified as a sexist or elitist by admiring it? Why spend any time with Classical Music if one is identified as supporting an oppressive system? Why learn Shakespeare to be labeled an anti-feminist because no women acted in his plays? Why spend time involved with a culture that professors and peers are saying is not only outmoded by dead? It will be replace with some world view in which a person sitting at a stoplight beating on the bottom of a plastic drum is as musically profound as Wagner; maybe more so because the person beating the drum is doing so for recognition of some self-described oppressed group or individual.

Musicology should study the trends that are made. It can't project into the future. It can't show direction and it is a craft like any history that is highly subject to opinion. For example: How does on determine significance? Salieri was a much better known musician than Mozart. The impresarios who produced the operas and the librettists were more in demand than composers like Mozart. So when significance is examined it is done from our perspective based on previous music history. It can't be that significance is determined by output because Telemann would be the most significant and Berg would be but a minor footnote. Webern would be a non player. In a way, what we call classical music suffered from social issues then just as music does now. It appears that the Enfant Terrible was as much a factor then as Miley Cyrus and other youth oriented "pop" icons are now. So how does a musicologist get involved with musical outreach when everything they do is involved with what has been done?

Bryan Townsend said...

Frank, I think you have provided us with quite a few examples of the problem. To my mind the solution is to try and disseminate a better understanding of aesthetics and quality. Great music is qualitatively different from run of the mill music. How is that?