Monday, July 31, 2017

Tommasini is Wrong if...

A commentator alerts me to a piece by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times on Trump's comment on the symphony. I appreciate the heads up as I quit reading the NY Times back when snarky political commentary started creeping into the Travel and Food sections. I have already talked about Trump's defence of civilization in his speech in Warsaw in a couple of posts, but let's see what Mr. Tommasini has to say:
During one riff, Mr. Trump extolled the richness, history and, indeed, the superiority of Western culture. “We write symphonies,” he proudly proclaimed, as if to prove his point.
Many commentators seized on the line as a clue to the president’s thinking, his “white-nationalist dog-whistling,” as Jonathan Capehart, a columnist at The Washington Post, bluntly put it.
But the president’s smug invocation of the Western symphonic heritage also pressed a sore spot for me as a music critic. Nothing impedes the appreciation of classical music — and keeps potential listeners away — more than the perception that it is an elitist art form, that composers throughout history, and their aficionados today, uniformly consider it the greatest, loftiest and most ingenious kind of music. Few classical music fans, in my experience, argue that the Western symphonic repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or other types of Western music.
It must be a terribly awkward position to be in, to have one's career devoted to the critical appreciation of classical music but to have one's soul riven by doubt as to its quality:
“Eleanor Rigby,” I’d argue, is just as profound as Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. But the Mahler, scored for large orchestra, chorus and two vocal soloists, is a whole lot longer, lasting more than 80 minutes. You have to have a penchant for hearing large-scale structures unfold over relatively long periods to appreciate classical music, though this can be an acquired skill.
It’s this large-scale quality, the sheer dimension of expression that the master composers strove for, that makes classical music different. This doesn’t mean it’s superior.
What would make it superior, one wonders? Better choreography?

What Mr. Tommasini and many of his colleagues seem to have are some deep-seated neuroses about art, history and certain words. As an important part of their role is to educate and shape taste, even though they might deny it, this makes it difficult for them to say good things about classical music. It is long and requires focus, therefore more difficult to appreciate than, say, Eleanor Rigby. So if it does not offer a depth of aesthetic experience commensurate with the greater challenge, then why bother? Why indeed!

I think the problem is that the intellectual elite of our day, which certainly must include Mr. Tommasini, have instilled in them a certain ideology that commits them to a profound guilt about Western Civilization. Part of this is an egalitarian ethos that erases all standards of taste and quality. This is an unquestioned assumption that, if you sincerely hold it, causes you to say that Eleanor Rigby is just as profound as Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. Or, my favorite example, that Justin Bieber is just as profound as Bach. Lady Gaga and Franz Schubert. Hey, we could go on all day. This, by the way, is what we in the philosophy biz call a "reductio ad absurdum."

Here is another manifestation of the ethos:
Few classical music fans, in my experience, argue that the Western symphonic repertory stands apart from or atop music of other cultures, or other types of Western music.
But with just three words Mr. Trump buttressed this unfortunate perception. Did he mean that Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony is simply greater than, say, an Indian sitar master playing a classic raga? Or an exhilarating Indonesian gamelan ensemble?
Well, few classical music fans that are as deeply indoctrinated as Mr. Tommasini, certainly. But whenever I see judgments like this I strongly suspect that the author of them knows very little about North Indian music nor Javanese gamelan. There is a fundamental difference between the way those musics are composed and performed and the Western tradition in music which takes on very different and much more profound aesthetic challenges. Frankly, the doctrine of multiculturalism is pretty much a lie.

Leaving that outrageous statement for you to ponder, let's listen to Eleanor Rigby and, ok, Mahler:

What do you think?


Christopher Culver said...

I think it is a stretch to claim that music critics believe it their mission to advocate the objective superiority of classical music (or whatever other musical genre they write about). Every critic I am personally acquainted with believes that their work serves to attract people to the genre or unlock the secrets of a work only if the given reader is already susceptible to this particular genre.

Critics are quite aware that their particular tastes and judgements are not universal, and of course within a scene where there is so much disagreement about value, music fans have always been encouraged to follow those critics who judgements align with their own tastes.

Jives said...

Tommasini is wrong if he thinks the symphony is not special. He toes the party line beautifully, no?

OK. I'd like to introduce Mr. Tommasini to the concept of "Master Genre" The symphony is a master genre, which requires a large amount of talent, training, focus and experience to deploy. To write a "Eleanor Rigby" requires some musical smarts, (and a good arranger in George Martin, right?) but to write a symphony (a good one) requires a much larger and deeper skill set. You have to do counterpoint and motivic development; know how to write for all kinds of instruments, orchestrate effectively so all your ideas can actually be heard; plot an effective dramatic arc which deserves attention over an extended span of time.

Modern Cinema would be another such genre. Anyone with a good eye can snap a good photograph. But the film director must tie together, plot, dialogue, lighting, cinematography, costume, music, editing.

why is it so hard for Tommasini to respect that? So I imagine that McCartney spent a couple of weeks on E.R., maybe, and Brahms spent 16 years on his first symphony. Is it so crazy to reserve some extra admiration for the latter?

Jives said...

I'll also point out that Trump's speech merely listed the symphony as one of the West's great cultural accomplishments. He doesn't explicitly tout its superiority or compare it to anything. He says, this is who we are, what we do, and what we believe in. There are frankly barbaric forces arrayed against us who do not share those ideals. What do you believe in? Will you defend your culture?
Tommasini says no, he will not.

Patrick said...

Being a practical person, I wonder what someone would do with this conviction that the Western classical tradition is superior to any other music tradition that ever occurred in human history? Should everyone just stop doing everything else and start listening to Beethoven symphonies, and thereby reach a level of aesthetic fulfillment unavailable to the other genres? I jest. But seriously, how would someone be received by the unwashed when he/she comes to them, points out their aesthetic failings and demands they reform their wayward listening ways? Of course, that is not going to happen and one would expect the response to be hostile. Music cannot be forced down peoples throats, so to speak. So what can someone do who loves and appreciates what classical has to offer? Humility would be a good place to start. Try to point out and explain to others in layman's terms what you find compelling. A smug, self-satisfied attitude will only be self-defeating.

Steven said...

'It’s this large-scale quality, the sheer dimension of expression that the master composers strove for, that makes classical music different.' He seems to be arguing in the article that classical music is good because it is long and formidable (*even* a Haydn string quartet, he tells us, is tough going), yet he then goes on to criticise the grandiosity of music post-Beethoven. Am I missing something or is this totally contradictory?

I was waiting for the 'humanistic' Beethoven 9 reference, and there it came at the end, as predictable as sunset.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Though there certainly are famous classical pieces that are vastly inferior to Eleanor Rigby.

4'33" anyone? (though perfect music to go to sleep to...)

Marc said...

Thank you for writing this! I read the Tommasini last night and skimmed it again this morning; have just now caught how condescending his 'you have to have a penchant for hearing large-scale structures unfold over relatively long periods to appreciate classical music, though this can be an acquired skill' is, as if we all of us don't 'acquire' our appreciation of this or that music in one way or another-- as you suggested, the Tommasinis of the world must have a peculiar esoteric insight into which music is laudable that we plebs aren't able to share. I expect I will continue to read AT for his pointers about what is being performed in NYC and elsewhere but as a writer of serious criticism, well, I think that ship has sunk.

Bryan Townsend said...

This post certainly has generated a lively set of comments!

@Christopher: I think it is the word "superiority" that is the spark point here. Neither I, nor President Trump used that word. It was only used by the critics to disqualify the remark. Nothing can be superior to anything else: that's master/slave talk! Also, I said "As an important part of their role is to educate and shape taste, EVEN THOUGH THEY MIGHT DENY IT, this makes it difficult for them to say good things about classical music." Only reading those writers and critics whose ideas and opinions align with your own is rather the mark of a narcissist, isn't it?

@Jives: very well said!

@Patrick: you raise a good practical point. But let's step back for a moment and look at the Western tradition more broadly. Isn't it the case that it was Western mathematicians that invented the calculus? The airplane? Higher-level engineering generally that enables the construction of skyscrapers, suspension bridges, the Internet, modern technology? Most recently fracking and horizontal drilling? How about medicine? Vaccines, antibiotics, heart surgery? You see where I am going, I am sure? The ability to compose higher level musical structures and genres like the symphony and opera is just another instance of technical accomplishment and creativity that was the creation of the Western tradition.

@Steven: yes, it really isn't that hard to argue against these folks, because their ideology is fundamentally contradictory.

@Anon: oh god yes! I often say that 90% of all composed music is probably fairly boring, predictable or just plain bad! What happens in the Classical tradition is that that 90% tends to wash away over time.

@Marc: folks like Tommasini tend to alternate between smug condescension and abasement before the idols of multiculturalism.

Anonymous said...

Tommasini seems untroubled by his own contradictions. This is the guy who recently gave us his own top 10 ranking of composers. This is the guy who wrote in the pages of the New York Times that Bartok was superior to Haydn and Chopin. No problem there. But go suggest that Mahler is superior to John&Paul and he'll come after you.

Too bad Haydn didn't write a pop ditty. Then Tommasini would have conceded that it is wrong to say he's inferior to Bartok.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is remarkable how thoroughly being captured by an ideology can distort your perceptions to the point that you don't notice these contradictions. We need to be as aware as possible of our own ideological biases so we can discount them. This is one reason why I occasionally write about pop music or world music: it is to prove to myself that I don't automatically discount these musics out of bias.

Marc said...

"Still, I’m going with Beethoven for the second slot. Beethoven’s technique was not as facile as Mozart’s. He struggled to compose, and you can sometimes hear that struggle in the music."

It's all about the struggle, man.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh! You are quoting from Tommasini's article on the Top Ten Composers.

Christopher Culver said...

"This is the guy who wrote in the pages of the New York Times that Bartok was superior to Haydn and Chopin. No problem there. But go suggest that Mahler is superior to John&Paul and he'll come after you."

As I said above, when a critic like him draws up their own personal top 10 lists, they are probably only presenting their own subjective tastes to a sympathetic audience, not trying to make objective claims about value. The people that he complains about, however, are claiming that one music is objectively superior to another. I see no contradiction here.

Bryan Townsend said...

I guess you didn't read the original articles by Tommasini in which he spent two weeks making arguments for the objective value of the composers he chose. He also acknowledged the input of some 1,500 informed and passionate comments from readers. So no, by his own claim, NOT a personal top ten list.

I avoid the use of the word "superior" as it seems to have become a shibboleth that people use to express their personal rage. However, I have little doubt that there is such as thing as objective aesthetic value as I have argued in hundreds of posts on this blog. It is far from a simple argument to make, but if you don't make it you are stuck having to say that there is no objective difference in aesthetic value between Bach and Justin Bieber.

Will Wilkin said...

I'll break my comment into a few shorter pieces because over the last few days I've tried several times and it never seems to post....

Bryan, I chanced to read this NY Times article the other day. I thought of you, but decided to spare you the blood pressure rise of bringing it to your attention. The article is obviously written by someone incapable of judging the level of skill and art and beauty and human potential for expressing the sublime that are found in Mahler's Resurrection symphony, which is aesthetically superior to Eleanor Rigby, as great of a song as it is.

Part of the writer's problem seems to be exactly what you said: "profound guilt about western civilization...[including] an egalitarian ethos that erases all standards of taste and quality." And part of it seems to be the immediate political application of that guilt and ethos: the impulse to attack President Trump at any and every opportunity, and to assume the very worst possible interpretation of his words or actions, however implausible that interpretation might be. More and more I consider myself moving into the "conservative" category, though it means something very different to me than the common parlance seems to mean. I have pretty much abandoned politics as a complete waste of time and even a harm to personal and social relationships with zero possibility of any positive effect, so definitely not worth arguing anymore. Whatever people think (or think they think), we mostly have a common interest in making civilization more prosperous and peaceful, and although I appreciate that you and many of your readers are not from the USA, in my case I consider my patriotic love of country essential to my identity and as one of the most important practical grounds for common interest and common identity with others in my daily (and overall) life.

Will Wilkin said...


The problem with many so-called liberals and especially their spokespeople (like Tommasini) is they assume anyone not beating their breast for "racial and gender justice" and "global citizenship" must somehow therefore be a racist sexist imperialist xenophobic privileged exploiter and hater of everyone else. But its just not true, and those kind of assumptions (and their "dogwhistle" call to hate and resentment of white men) helped drive me completely out of whatever was left of "the left." In fact, I consider those people to be the ones who are racist because they insist on using fictive racial categories to identify people. I consider them to be the sexist ones because they insist that women deserve some special sympathy and solidarity based on their gender. The liberals are to a large extent dependent on the continuation and crystalization of these absurd divisions because without these supposed permanent divisions they'd have to acknowledge that some people really do work harder than other people, some people really do make better use of their intelligence than others do, some people really do create better art and more ingenious inventions and more penetrating scientific research than others do. Until then, these well-intentioned global citizens enjoy well-paid academic and journalistic positions promoting a globalization ideology that synchronizes perfectly with the global corporate free trade agenda of moving production to wherever they find the cheapest labor and/or highest subsidies and thus dismantle and offshore the economic (industrial) basis for whatever prosperity and economic security the masses of ordinary Americans (or Canadians or Europeans) once had.

Bryan I'm sorry you had to notice the Tommasini article, I hope you won't let that kind of tripe get to you, please take comfort in knowing there will always be a core constituency for great music and art and literature, that popular culture (including political ideologies and their derivative prejudices) will wax and wane with time but, like you said about 90% of classical music also washing away, the truly good and beautiful and profound and sublime will survive all insults and stand centuries from now after all the superficial and misguided invective has long been rightfully forgotten.

And THANK YOU JIVES for articulating what Mr. Tommasini cannot publicly admit.

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, both Jives and yourself are indispensable commentators! As for politics, I think that it is more a case of defending oneself against politics when it invades our space.