20 June 2022

Unanesthetized Link Sausage Platter

Going to visit the Audrey Two this morning — and yes, I would like some nitrous oxide.

  • In a startlingly ignorant review of a depressingly shallow book, the WSJ "arts" column entirely ignores economic factors in decrying the lack of recently-composed classical music. Let's see, now; what economic factors might be in play?

    • All too appropriate to this official recognition of Juneteenth, one must consider demographics, especially (but not only) race. Bluntly, the cohort of composers of so-called "classical music" is — with very, very rare exceptions — whiter than sour cream. Particularly since 1945, the audience (and, for that matter, the musicians) can't say the same. And the potential audience for "music as a whole" is different, too; talented, credentialed musicians who choose to go into jazz and rock and other "non-classical" forms aren't playing classical music.
    • Let alone composing it. For the century from about 1830 until 1939, "composer" and "performer" were quite distinct in classical music, with the occasional rare exception. Although there's certainly a movement toward the "songwriting collective" in popular music today — very few very-top-of-the-charts performers are the sole composers of their works, and vice versa — the overall repertoire is different. And broader. And more specialized, very much like the difference between the Renaissance-era guild system and modern specialty parts makers funneling products into just-in-time factories.
    • Then there's the economic difference between "concert" and "recorded." The audio quality of a concert in 1945 vastly exceeded the audio quality of recorded classical music, for about the same price and not much difference in convenience. By 1955, the shift was already apparent. Now, that $15 CD plus the $39 CD player provides a vastly higher quality listening experience than the $150 (plus parking!) concert ticket. Repeatedly. On the listener's schedule. Without having to get a babysitter for the kids or fend off fundraisers at intermission (admittedly, that's largely just for the classical end of things; the price considerations are similar across types, though).
    • We shouldn't forget the source-of-material issue, either. Many of the "standards" of the nineteenth-century classical music repertoire are drawn from folk music — the "Hungarian Dances" of Liszt and Brahms, the mazurkas of Chopin, probably half of the output of Tchaikowsky and the Great Five, and those are just the obvious and easy and acknowledged-and-well-known ones (and, well, at least white-adjacent; anyone who tries to counter with "but what about Foster and Gershwin? or ragtime?" is going to get an earful in fifteen-party cacophony). But folk music often does not translate well to orchestral settings and instrumentation; popular music, with its sparer instrumentation (a chorus of five voices, not fifty; a melody on a single piano or guitar, not a dozen tuxedoed toffs drawing horsehair across catgut) and more direct performer-to-audience connection, does better. Nothing from the Childe Cycle does well orchestrally, but diverse "popular music" interpretations and derivatives of similar material do rather well.

      And after the three decades preceding 1945, the "common folk" had quite rightly had enough of having culture dictated to them by their betters. That, however, is for a few decades later.

    • Last, and far from least, is the support-of-the-composers aspect. In the "old days," composers could support themselves entirely from the earnings of their compositions, even well below the top levels; a university chair, an orchestral composer-in-residency, a festival celebration were just bonuses. Now, that's simply not possible by remaining in purely "classical" (which is to say violin-dominated chamber and orchestral, with a few outliers) mode; one must slum in film music (hackcough John Williams) and other forms and means of making a living… and still, if one wants to deal with those violins, overcome yet more barriers absent being a whiter shade of pale.

    This review gets a D+ for ignoring not just the elephant in the room, but the room itself. The underlying book gets a C– for most of the same reasons, on many of the same axes, but at least it acknowledges the very existence of demographics as an issue.

  • Which sure beats yet more arguments over authenticity. The problem is not the identity of the speaker (and, one should add, the "speaker" includes the pasty-white-upper-middle-class-dominated publishing industry and the pasty-white-upper-middle-class educational and bookselling establishments); it is what the speaker says. A lazy-ass failure to actually internalize that "authenticity" — like, say, D'Souza; or the dominance of other factors that submerge that "authenticity" — ditto; or any of a variety of other failures to do the work to connect the "authenticity" to the "product," is just as (if not more) undermining as a focus on "authentic voices" themselves. Having an "authentic voice" is just one of several starting points toward producing worthwhile writing (and that includes nonfiction, of even the most serious sort… like judicial opinions, and isn't unpacking the authorship of that one a snarling refutation of "authenticity" in itself!).

    An "authentic voice" and "shared experience with a protagonist/viewpoint" are just starting points, pushes up the learning curve (in Rawlsian terms, "advantageous original positions"). There's a lot of research and pondering to follow; that research and pondering had bloody well better veer well away from pontificating to the great unwashed, but other than that the objective is insight (even when the surface characteristic/marketing meme is "pure entertainment"). The argument is more about parts being out of synchronization than the parts themselves; if they weren't being run through an existing system that is inherently nondiverse (and never will be diverse so long as inherited right preselects the demographics of both the ownership and senior management), there's going to remain an argument over authenticity. And as usual, music had this problem a while back and generally managed to overcome it (Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz "won out" over Pat Boone), or at least push it away from the most immediate consideration. Which is, in the end, what will happen in publishing, too — after a lot of needless pain and bloviating and shrieking that will not actually advance the conversation because it will be targeted at the wrong people and institutions. (Disturbingly parallel to the preceding sausage!)

  • And both of those highly questionable link sausages are more digestible than considering not what's "In the Gallery" but what's in the museum. It's certainly worth considering the… unrepresentative demographics of "museum attendees in general," "museum donors," and "museum staff" (especially considering who can afford to get a degree in Art History and why).

    Of course, it's entirely possible that 96% of contemporary artists don't produce "objectively museum-caliber" works. Leaving aside the obvious question of what makes a work "museum-caliber," that calls the definition of "contemporary artist" into question even more than the demographics of those making such decisions. After all, this guy was a relatively contemporary artist<SARCASM> but with my visual acuity issues, I have no authentic voice on the visual arts, even if I can spot a nekkid emporor without being able to distinguish between Rembrandt's brushstrokes and Wyatt Gwyon's. </SARCASM>