An Experiment in Criticism: in which I defend Western art music

[NB This post has since been edited for clarity and typos] 

This post is the result of a number of recent confluences, among them my post on Lawrence Kramer’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Twitter conversations (more my lurking than conversing), and side-reading (C.S. Lewis again—when will this infatuation end? Never, I hope).

A few weeks ago, I became aware, via Twitter, of a Slate article by Ethan Hein, who has, I believe, now graduated from NYU with his master’s in music. His article has caused a fair amount of Sturm und Drang in the community of music theoreticians (at least those who are active in the online community). Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer have published well-written responses to Hein on their respective blogs, and I know others have as well, but I haven’t taken the time to read them all. Hein has made dubious assertions on his blog like:

Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

I disagree with such statements for a variety of reasons, but I won’t go into all of them here. Many people labor under the assumption that the ivory tower of the academy (and, yes, I admit it is too often an ivory tower) perpetuates outmoded and perhaps arbitrary ideas of what constitutes important (I would go so far as to say vital) musical experience. However, my purpose in this post is not to add yet another response to Hein in an internet already teeming with criticism. I bring up his words only because it is a recent iteration in a long line of “progressive” thought that keeps trying, seemingly, to knock down the columns of our cultural and expressive history so that the real estate can be used to erect a McDonalds or an interstate bypass. I exaggerate, of course. Some of those McDonalds will turn out to be TGI Fridays, and their Jack Daniel’s burger is DELICIOUS!  I’m scraping my metaphor-butter over too much toast, but I hope you can see my point. There is a certain distaste in postmodernity for “canons” and “rules,” believing them to be prescriptive. Saying that something is better than another has its pitfalls, but it can also be the very tool that separates the dross. Just as different metals have different melting points, so different repertories require different standards of evaluation. As democratic as it may sound, one cannot hold that “all [musics] are created equal.”

Therein may lie part of the problem—in many ways, this seems a uniquely American pathology (although I know it’s not exclusive to the New World). Some don’t like Common-Practice music because it’s too European or it’s too old. America wouldn’t know “old” if it toppled over and crushed it under a thousand years of recorded history. As to European-ness, prior to the 20th century, American music seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the longer tradition of Europe. Look at what Nicolas Slonimsky wrote to introduce Richard Burbank’s 1984 reference book Twentieth-Century Music:

American music in the 19th century was but a faint reflection of German music. Edward McDowell, regarded as the first American composer of stature, received his musical training in Germany; his harmonies follow the Germanic mold. It was only after the First World War that the German influence on American music began to wane . . ..

Even so, composers still sought their education in Europe, exemplified by Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, et al., who were all (as Slonimsky puts it) “wet-nursed” in Paris by Nadia Boulanger.

It took a long time for America to feel that it was coming out from under the shadow of the “mother continent.” But like adolescents, some Americans can still chafe at times against what they view as hoity-toity European-ness. Watch a recent episode of Downton Abbey and you’ll glimpse this conflict between the Old World and the New, between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future. We Americans (not all of us) love our fast food and our high-rises. New = better; if it’s not new, it’s disposable. 

When I toured Italy with Asbury’s Collegium Musicum, I was amazed at how many people came to our concerts—concerts filled with music too old to even be colloquially called “classical,” i.e., pre-Common Practice. At home in America, we would nearly have to pay our own friends to be part of inattentive audiences of half the size; and then, only if there were free food afterward. That’s not to say that all Europeans love “old” music, or drop whatever they’re doing to hear it performed. What I do mean to say is that I experienced a greater appreciation for the past, for “whence we come,” when I visited Europe—a quality I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in America.

But I doubt any of those reasons will change anyone’s mind who is not already so inclined. They are, in my opinion, some of the unacknowledged underlying factors in a debate that goes beyond any one argument or pundit. I’m actually reminded of a 2011 debate at Cambridge University between Stephen Fry and DJ Kissy Sell Out (I understand videos are available on YouTube, but I’ve only read summaries) on the statement “classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.” Both decried the elitism of some art music enthusiasts, with which I couldn’t agree more, but they came to very different conclusions. On one hand:

. . . ‘classical music does not represent or embody the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of our world’ and that ‘pop music is by far the more creative field.’

—Greg Sandow, Juilliard, took the side of  DJ Kissy Sell Out*

On the other hand:

‘You can like two different things at once and not explode or be a hypocrite. Surely if education in a university is about anything it is the fact we can accept and absorb all kinds of ideas and celebrate and love all kinds of human expression.’

—Stephen Fry*

*Quotations excerpted from a write-up in Limelight

But what really sparked my fingers into motion today was reading yet another of C.S. Lewis’s writings, a bit of An Experiment in Criticism, in which he discusses people’s tastes in literature. As so often happens when reading Lewis, he has already eloquently orchestrated the tune echoing in the back of my mind. Although he is writing about literature, much of what he says is reflected in music as well, if we make a rough equation between great literature and Western art music. Admittedly, vivisecting what he said and placing it before you in a few pieces does him a disservice.

. . . the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

This has been my experience, most often of art music, almost never of popular music; and that is why it deserves to be studied by students of music theory. Lest you think me a fuddy-duddy, I listen to popular music too, and I enjoy it. Indeed I have found examples worthy of deeper study, and I know other scholars have too. But it rarely has the capacity to move me as art music has.

Though I shall concern myself almost entirely with literature, it is worth noting that the same difference of attitude is displayed about the other arts and about natural beauty. Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls ‘look so bare without them’; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years.

I freely admit there is value to be found in popular musics and non-Western traditions. But let us not forget that we are, for better or worse, in the West. We should remember that there are traditions beyond that sphere of influence, yes, but the Western tradition is our tradition. Yours and mine, even if your ancestors hailed from a non-European continent. We share it because it has influenced the world. Only in the last 100 years has the tide of influence begun to give more weight to the world’s influence on the West, at least in terms of musical influence. As much as Jazz or Rock or Country seem to contrast with art music, they all owe a great deal to that tradition while simultaneously reinventing it.

It is a simple, practical impossibility to find enough time to teach students an entire world’s-worth of music; some things must be chosen to the exclusion of others. Sometimes I wonder at those who rail against the notion of canon. As if some esoteric oligarchy sits in a fusty room somewhere (probably in Europe, by all accounts) sending down judgements from on high. That room’s probably in Rome. First the Caesars, then the Pope—Rome must be a magnet for people who want to tell the world what’s what. The truth, I suspect, runs more like this: the best endures. There were plenty of composers of the Common Practice about whom we never hear. Why? Because their work wasn’t up to snuff. Like it or not, there will be a canon of 20th-century popular music in a hundred years. In fact, we already see it forming. How many popular songs from the early 20th century can you sing? Not nearly so many as were written, I’d wager. I’ve been teaching myself lots of them on the ukelele. They’re loads of fun, but they’re also drivel, and if I have to choose which to teach, I’m going to pick Stravinsky over Irving Berlin every time, even though I’d often rather listen to Berlin. The Beatles have already established a revered precedence in popular music. Is anyone talking about the Monkees? They both gained popularity around the same time, they both named themselves after animals, they both couldn’t spell those animal names properly. The two bands even interacted. So why have the Beatles endured to a greater degree? (No doubt, some would say, because they’re European.)

Canons form and evolve—like language. Some words never go away, some fall out of use, some are revived, some are newly invented. Dictionaries have to be updated to reflect the passage of time; we have dictionaries of British English, American English, urban slang, and on and on. Yet some words persist, and even the newer ones usually have their roots sunk deeply into ancient languages like Latin. People said Latin was dead too, you know; but without Latin, we wouldn’t have the vocabulary to argue how poorly the old vestiges of European culture serve us today.

To say that popular music is worthy of equal or greater attention in the classroom, if it is to be said at all, will require more time. Time sorts out many things, not least of which is the worthiness of a piece of art (be it music, literature, architecture). If it is truly as attention-deserving as one believes, then it will stand the test of time, whether or not one feels the compulsion to beat to quarters or release the dogs of war over it, in favor or against.

But I will let Lewis have the last word, because he, unlike me, is able to stick to the point and remember why we study the arts in the first place.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Part the First: in which we talk Twitter, cyborgs, and the uncertain future of art music

I recently began reading The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (OHNAA) for a book review for Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. One of the ways I hope to gestate the book’s essays is by reflecting on them here, processing and synthesizing ideas it contains with those I’ve encountered elsewhere, with the intention of making a proper review easier to write. We’ll see how successful the outcome. But I should be clear that what I will write here is not so much a summary of the authors’ points, perspectives, or arguments, as it is my impressions, contemplation, and response to their essays. I’m less concerned with accurately representing the authors’ position (although there will inevitably be some of that) and more concerned with being able to articulate what I got out of their essays and where it sits in my larger experience.

Today’s essay: “Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition” by Lawrence Kramer of Fordham University.

This essay begins Part II of the Handbook. (For reasons I don’t unite understand, Part I was the introduction to the rest of the book. Why it wasn’t simply called “Introduction” and Part I given over to first contributed essays, I don’t know.) This essay is about classical music (in the broad colloquial sense of the term, which I don’t prefer; henceforth, I’ll be using the term art music in its stead), social media, cyborgs, and humanity. Yeah! All in about fourteen pages. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a flurry of tweets today making reference to these concepts.

Music as Space

One of my increasingly favored areas of inquiry is that of conceptualizing music in metaphors of space, distance, weight, and other physical properties that it does not literally have. I don’t mean the physics of sound, which has various properties that operate in actual spaces. I mean the metaphors of physical bodies through which we perceive and experience music, not mere sound. Not the cold rationality of quantifying a sine wave, but the rich warmth of an encounter with, say, Beethoven.

One of the first elements Kramer raises is that of distance. The distance between man and machine, between person and person, between art music and modern audience. These are, of course, not literal, physical distances; they are psychological, emotional, technological ones. It is here that Kramer posits a possible reason for the long-trumpeted “death of ‘classical’ music” (which should also not be taken too literally). He states:

Digital media project a model of mind drastically different from the model that has informed classical music for more that two centuries. The music acts through time and depth; digital media act through space and surface.

—OHNAA, p. 39

Typically, Twitter and other social media consist of rather shallow interactions—probably why many academics have been so slow to adopt Twitter as an academic tool. This shallow interaction seems at odds with the profundity associated with the great works of Western art music. Live-tweeting a concert or recital, then, might seem to ensconce the sublime amid the ridiculous.

Like all new-media technologies, Twitter involves a collapse of distance. Tweeting is prosthetic telepathy; it transports virtual thoughts like a kind of mental telephone. But the collapse of distance is also the collapse of nearness.  In the twittersphere, ‘near’ and ‘far’ become meaningless terms.

—OHNAA, p. 40

Kramer then invites us to consider how much we are “near” the music—near in the sense of timely. A live performance of a given work only happens once in the history of the universe; the experience is unique to its time and place. Are we near that place when we attend such a performance? From my own experience, I know that even though music recordings may be note-perfect, I have been more often moved at live concerts than when staring at my iTunes playlist. But this metaphor of distance conjures feelings of the immediacy, intimacy, and subjectivity of being “near” the experience of those fleeting moments, or else the detached, remote, and objectivity of being “far” from them.  Kramer points out that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which he has been using his point of departure, is itself a study in distance. He says:

The symphony is a musical essay in distance: distance lost and won, distance enjoyed and regretted. There is the distance sought in nature from the troubles of urban life and moral confusion, and the distance from nature imposed by the artifice of representing it. There is the distance in history that prevents us from being too credulous about the pastoral ideal (the pastoral is dated, and always was), and the distance from history that gives the ideal its continued allure (the pastoral is timeless, and always will be).

—OHNAA, p. 40


“My name is C-3PO: Human/Cyborg Relations.”

This dichotomy between distance in and distance from mirrors the dichotomy I’ve been alluding to all along,—that of  the rich, warm, subjective, immediate, qualitative human-ness of the “near” versus the rational, cold, objective, recorded, quantitative machine-ness of the “far.” I don’t mean to imply one of these is inherently better than the other, or that an event can only be experienced through mutually exclusive bifurcation. After all, the idea of warm has no meaning if we do not also have an idea of cold.

Kramer points out that humanity has increasingly used machines for music making, graduating from voice to ever more complex instruments to increasingly sophisticated sound reproduction technologies. We are becoming posthuman as our lives are increasingly mitigated by technology. The distance between human experience and machine becomes ever smaller. This is where the cyborgs show up—the singularity—an event forewarned by numerous writers of science fiction and hailed by some futurists like Ray Kurzweil.

The increasing naturalization of the machine–human interface has led to an emergent reconnection of the body.

Thus the body is merely extended by the technology we use as a kind of prosthesis. In what ways, then, has recording technology altered the way we experience music. In some ways, music recording has opened up new vistas—wider dissemination, new audiences. At the same time we have had to pay a price for those vistas—orchestras around the U.S. (and other countries, I expect) are closing because attendance is too low to sustain local ensembles. Why go to a live performance when I can download the songs I actually want, keep them, and  return to over and over again?

Kramer suggests:

The distance of the machinic—the distance from the human that becomes the distance of the human—is now lost. In its absence the distinctions between the human and the machinic and between consciousness and the flow of information become meaningless.  . . . the music loses its audience, not in the sense that fewer people listen to it, but in the sense that the figure of the human, the fiction of ‘man,’ to which the music is addressed has become vestigial.

—OHNAA, p. 45

Even in the use of earbuds, says Kramer, we merge machine with man.

Earbuds exceed the older headphones in this respect; with earbuds the apparatus is taken into the body cavity and thus literally incorporated. The earbuds become prosthetic eardrums in which the music itself becomes prosthetic, less a sound transmitted to a listener than a making-audible of what might otherwise be heard only in the mind’s ear.

—OHNAA, p. 46

The Musical Work

. . . it involves the transmission not only of the classical work but also of the distance between music and audience on which the concept of the work depends. The work asks to be contemplated; contemplation requires distance.

—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added

That last sentence in particular struck me, as I have considered the notion of contemplation, or rather Contemplation, in earlier posts (1, 2). C.S. Lewis’s “Mediation in a Toolshed” seems to be becoming a theme for me. The work asks to be contemplated, and that contemplation demands a certain distance. If I understand rightly, this is very much in line with Lewis, who says that in order to Contemplate the beam of light, one must move outside of it. When one is within the beam of light, one cannot Contemplate it because one is experiencing it; we must have distance. At the same time, distance, in this sense, seems to fall more on the side of objectivity, rather than the subjectivity I’ve been ascribing to the moment-to-moment experience of live performance. Perhaps the distinctions I’ve ascribed to these different modes of thought are false, but they at least help me think about it.

Kramer describes five conceptual pillars that supported the traditional modus operandi of art music:

  1. the music is a psuedo-object
  2. the musical work is an integrated totality (i.e. works made up of movements or sections that go in a particular order)
  3. the music addresses the listener from a psychological distance to allow contemplation
  4. the musical work is mysterious, requiring musical and conceptual interpretation
  5. The music is to be attended to in activity of nothing but listening

The cyborgian nature of the way in which we now experience most of our music distorts these. (1) Music is less like an object than perhaps ever before. We cannot even pretend to hold it; there is no record or cassette tape or CD. We still call them “tracks” even though the term is the remnant of when records actually left analogue tracks visible to the eye. We may have purchased the right to listen to our digital recordings forever, but that is hardly the same thing. (2) With the iPod’s shuffle feature, the connective tissue between the many parts of a musical work begin to dissolve.  (3 & 5) I think the third point may be closely related to the fifth, in that focusing attention, what we might call active listening, provides space for contemplation. In contrast, passively hearing the same music does not prompt one to cognitively engage with it. (4) How many people buy all the available recordings of a given Schubert song cycle? Or even just all the recordings of a single one of his songs? Not many, I’d wager. This limits one’s experience of the piece to probably one (at most, a handful) of interpretations of the work.

Doom and Gloom or Unprecedented Opportunity?

Kramer suggests we “rebrand” (my choice of word, not his) art music as “something that cannot be recorded but only simulated” (p. 49). This nebulous ideal of the standard-by-which-all-other-performances-are-measured might be traded in for a conceptual approach that looks at the uncertain and potential of each unique performance experience.

In concert [the body] would be charged with making the event of music happen and making the music happen as an event, with the outcome uncertain until the last note has sounded.

—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added

Reminds me of Schrödinger’s Cat. The musical work is both alive and dead until we hear the final strains and open up that box. That very reframing of the the live performance in these terms fills me with greater anticipation of such an event. As we become increasingly disembodied in our interactions with other people, and increasingly integrate technology in our everyday lives, perhaps the live performance will become again the unique and exciting exception to the rule of recorded monotony. Art music would again be an “uncertain adventure” (p. 51).

So I will end with the apt words with which Kramer himself ends his essay:

. . . classical music may claim a renewed value not by invoking long exhausted claims of transcendental expression, but by securing a space in which the infinity of the posthuman interface yields to the plenteousness of a simply human finitude.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much joy I got from Kramer’s use of Brobdingnagian in his last footnote. Until this morning, I had never seen the word in print, but was even more delighted than I knew what it meant (thanks this scene from The Big Bang Theory).

—OHNAA, p. 51