Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Blogging Musicology

I sometimes find myself complaining that the program notes you usually find in concert programs are rather inadequate when it comes to the actual music. One example I think I mentioned somewhere had all sorts of biographical details even to the extent of mentioning how much the fellow who commissioned the work weighed: I believe it was 300 lbs! Fascinating, I'm sure, but the discussion of the piece being played was limited to a couple of adjectives. I usually solve the problem for myself by simply not reading the program notes, but I guess some audience members enjoy them.

But when it comes to blogging, where there is no real limit on the length of the discussion, you might expect to find a bit more detail about the music itself---especially on a blog that is labeled to be about musicology! There you should not be surprised to find all sorts of information about the music, even extending to, shudder, actual musical scores! So I was greatly surprised, browsing around on the blog dial "m" for musicology, to find that not only are there no musical examples, but there is virtually no discussion of music either.

Let's have a look at some of the recent posts:

"Othering and smOthering" is about "othering" the medieval mind. What's that you ask? Here is a concise definition from another blog:
Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other. The Greeks’ use of the word ‘barbarian’ to describe non-Greeks is a typical example of othering and an instance of nationalism avant la lèttre. The ease with which the adjective ‘other’ generated the verb ‘to other’ in the last twenty years or so is indicative of the usefulness, power and currency of a term that now occupies an important position in feminist, postcolonial, civil rights and sexual minority discourses.
 This is a methodology derived from cultural Marxism, of course, which is identity politics par excellence. The question to ask is are you really trying to assert that there is no such thing as people other than ourselves? Oh, you are? Well, begone! There, that problem solved. The post on the musicology blog begins with this:
In the comments of my last post, Elizabeth Upton warns me against Othering the Medieval mind. It’s a point well-taken. If we accept the idea that certain ways of thinking about the past constitute a sort of epistemic violence — or at least an epistemic boorishness, drowning out the voices of other peoples with our own self-satisfied monologue — then Othering is what happens when we ignore those things we might have in common with another subjectivity. In saying “they’re not like us,” we deny other subjectivities their full share in the humanity we presume for ourselves.
Ah, the delightful concept of "epistemic violence" which has the dual effect of both benumbing the intellect and shaming the interlocutor! Epistemology is simply the philosophical examination of how we come to know things, the foundation of our knowledge. There really is no logical justification for yoking it with "violence" now is there? Except as a disreputable attempt at manipulation. Recognizing, from the sources of information that we have about the middle ages, that there were some rather profound differences between how we think and act and how they thought and acted is nothing more than the recognition of simple fact. Contorting ourselves to somehow avoid the baseless accusation of "epistemic violence" is ludicrous. If you are looking at sources of knowledge about the middle ages, then how are you "drowning out the voices of other peoples"? This is nothing but a bad and inappropriate metaphor. Saying that there is a "self-satisfied monologue" is simple libel. Adding to this the claim that this is denying other "subjectivities" is just another libel. This is crap piled high on other crap. It's crap all the way down. However did we get to the point that we bought into any of this nonsense?

Ok, that was probably just an anomaly. Let's look at some other posts. The next one, Better Off Not Knowing? starts with a political smear and then wanders into Mick Jagger, ending with some misquotes of composers talking about borrowings:
In an interview I once read, Warren Zevon admitted: “Sometimes you’re better off not knowing where things are from.”  And, of course, there’s the cliché that a student borrows, but only a genius can steal.  (Stravinsky?)  And again, we have Brahms railing against people who seek to identify the sources of tunes, peering into the composer’s closet as it were (I’ve never found that to be entirely what it seems to be on the surface).  What about stealing something that isn’t there?
So let's just pass that one by as it is too confused to critique! The next post is titled The weird and the naïve and a lot of it is just weird. He does make a musical point later on:
Think of it this way. When you’re young, you have a transformative musical experience — you hear a great work of music, like a Bach passion, and you are swept away by its power. You think, this is a work of genius; its power and greatness is intrinsic to what it is; it has the same power and greatness now as it did when it was composed, and it will be as great and powerful in a year, or 100 years, or 10000 years; it is as great here in the United States as it was in Leipzig and it would be just as great on Alpha Centauri; the genius that went into it makes it essentially different from other pieces of music. Then you go to college and are taught genius is not in the music, but something certain people at certain times have attributed to the music, for various reasons that seemed important at the time; in other words, you come to see that genius is historically and culturally contingent, whereas formerly you thought it was unchanging and universal. In short, what we took for a work of genius is merely a “work of genius.” I have written at length about the difference those scare quotes make, and here I would simply suggest that the difference between the un-scare-quoted work of genius and the “work of genius” is the difference between an idea of music as having an essential meaning and the nominalist idea that such qualities as genius, power, and greatness are simply conventional words or concepts we attach to things.
 This seems quite plausible, doesn't it? I mean obviously nothing is truly transcendental: even if every person on earth recognizes that Bach wrote works of genius, we can be pretty sure those aliens from Alpha Centauri won't think so! How do we know that? I've never heard an answer to that, it is just one of those thing we are tricked into assuming. So you go to college and all that plausible stuff about context and attribution soaks in and the final result is that you somehow start thinking that Bach and all those other dead, white guys are just not as great as you thought. There is something sneakily illegitimate about them. We have "scare-quoted" them into something much less. Nothing essential about them at all--genius is just a label and probably an illegitimate one at that. So what those clever musicologists at college do, instead of passing on to new generations the great cultural traditions of the West, is subtly diminish those traditions. The process of education is turned from a detailed absorption of what has come before (Bach, Homer) into a nuanced shaming of us for even thinking there was anything special about these guys at all. Good job, hey?

We can skip the next post as it is about the writer's wedding anniversary. The next one after that is titled Hey, Hey! and it is about the new album by the Monkees. Nothing wrong with that, I mentioned it here a while back. But it is not really about the music. The one after that is about animated gifs. I think I can stop here.

This blog, which purports to be about musicology, is devoted to the "new" musicology, which seems to be fast becoming the "only" musicology. There is never any discussion of the music in any detail. What is discussed are peripheral things or music from the point of view of cultural Marxism whose real function and purpose is to delegitimize all the cultural products and traditions of Western Civilization as a preparatory step before the Socialist Utopia. I'll pass thanks.

Let's listen to one of those historically and culturally contingent "works of genius" that are really just, well, what? Interesting how what the music actually is, or might be, is never part of the discussion. This is the St. John Passion by J. S. Bach with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Concentus Musicus Wien and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir:


Marc Puckett said...

"Works of genius" indeed! such a pleasure to read your sensible criticism of that McClarian/Bellmanian et al nonsense; what struck me about the Slipped Disc post that he refers to at his website (the subsequent post) is how relatively many commenters there seem to acknowledge being aware that 'a care-oriented musicology-- namely... a musicology that upholds interpersonal care as a core feature' (that's Susan McClary, evidently) is, well, nonsense. The older I get the less patience I have for reading those sorts of cultural barbarians so I'm glad you make the effort. You might want to add a tip jar to the blog. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc. See today's miscellanea for a mention of the book you are talking about.

That's a wonderful suggestion about the tip jar!