Saturday, January 27, 2007

Music III: Musicians

There is a whole lot going on out there, and I welcome any visitor to spend a few minutes perusing the links to the right. I am in the midst of politics fatigue, however, and would much rather write about this. I did find an an interesting article at Alternet that is a response to Richard Dawkins. The article itself, by historical theologian Alistair McGrath, is an echo of much of what I have written, and that is why I have little to add to it; the comments, though, are kind of fun because they prove the very point McGrath and others are maing, viz., that there is an almost incoherent rage among atheists at "religion", and it drives them to irrational distraction. I fail to understand the reasons why this is so, but it is almost comical.

Music does not exist in and of itself. It is not a "thing" to which one can point. It is totally dependent upon human activity and agency to exist at all, and as such is part and parcel of human life, not something independent of it. A musical score, a lead sheet, charts, and a musical recording are not "music" but records of various kinds that point to music; a musical recording comes closest to being "music", but only as long as we do not abstract it from the men and women performing. Once we do, we are off into Plato's world again, and much of the discussion becomes mindless drivel. Musicology that focuses on such things as the structure of a piece - its tone pallet and chordal structure; the relationship between various musical modes and the theme(s) of the piece; possible questions concerning the relationship between the musical elements and lyrics - are meaningless if we do not consider that these are a product of human beings acting in certain ways. Meaning in music comes both from those who perform it and the audience - it is a human thing, not a musical thing.

Musicians do a strange thing. They give life to something that would not exist without them. No matter how "durable" a particular piece of music may be (how often it is played, how long recordings of it exist, how long scores of it are republished), the music itself only lives through their action in performance. We forget that music is a fragile thing, dependent upon individuals who are, very often, fragile themselves. Consider Mozart, Charlie Parker, and Jimi Hendrix as just three examples of people who, though geniuses of incomparable depth and power, were too haunted by various demons to escape them. We so often focus on their weaknesses and forget the strengths they each had. We also forget that, as music is a human product of unique, discreet individuals, the weaknesses were as much a part of the creative process as the strengths. We need to hold this firmly in our minds when we listen to a Mozart symphony, "Salt Peanuts", and "Foxey Lady". Dividing up a human life to find some "msucial area" that is immune to all other areas does violence to the human reality that is music and musical creativity.

A couple years ago I heard a discussion on NPR about Miles Davis and the creation of the album Kind of Blue. A caller to the show was outraged that no one mentioned the fact that Davis was, to put it mildly, a difficult person with which to get along, and harbored much hostility toward whites. The discussion that followed, including former Davis colleague Wayne Shorter, missed the point entirely because it tried to create a distinction that cannot exist between Miles Davis the individual who had a nasty temper and did not suffer musical fools and Miles Davis the brilliant and thoughtful musician. First, just because Davis was difficult to get along with shouldn't exclude him from consideration as an important personage; Beethoven was hardly one with whom others could sit and enjoy a pint. Davis' vocal hostility to whites did not preclude him from working with many, many gifted white musicians. His anger was the honest result of frustration over the exploitation of black musicians by an industry that took advantage of and stole from them time and time again. What is to argue with here?

Musicians are a strange lot, to be sure. Yet they are the sole link between us and this strange, wonderful thing that brings us, by turns laughter, tears, rage, love, lust, and the inescapable desire to get up and dance. We rely upon them for so much, and they fail as often as they succeed; how many times have we heard or read of them being frustrated that they could not reproduce the sounds they heard in their heads? Yet, they keep trying because to surrender, to give up trying to make those sounds would be worse than death. That we live in a society that takes advantage of this desire, rewards and punishes these men and women for their failures and successes, makes them heroes and villains, relevant and irrelevant is a sad commentary upon us (of course, as the saying goes, 'twas ever thus). We need to hold on to them, nurture them, not concern ourselves with the famous but with those who give us as much as they can and ask nothing else but to be given another chance to give it to us again.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Music II: Critics

I detest music critics. Music criticism is too often marked by an almost total ignorance of music. It pretends to an objectivity that hides personal preference behind a claimed understanding that too often falls short. Popular taste can become a good measure of musical ability, only to the point where the critic discovers faults with the audience. The best example, given in a review of British progressive rock, Rocking the Classics, is a quote from a review of a Black Sabbath song, in which both the musician and audience are belittled as "neanderthals". Another example (although one with which I happen to agree for the most part) is a quote concerning the 70's stadium band Styx, in which an album was compared to a parking lot full of whale vomit, and it was said that no one liked them except for their fans. At the time, Styx was selling millinos of records and selling out entire tours, so perhaps, depite certain musical failings, they were on to something the critics, in love with Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cramps, might have been missing.

Music critics tend to be Platonists. Despite a veneer of radicalism that in itself shows their shallowness, they would rather ignore the audience, the performers, indeed each performance of a piece, and concentrate on the music as if it fell from the sky somehow, unencumbered by the messiness of actual people who performed and listened to it. They ignore the social setting in which musics rise, become popular for a while, then fade. They hype music that is inconsequential. The most famous example, of course, is the love music critics had for British punk in the mid- to late-1970's, too often to the embarrasment of their own reputations. The quintessential punk band, The Sex Pistols, were a put-on, a get-rich-quick scheme by a plucky, conniving, unscrupulous entrepreneur who used up his musicians in an effort to make money. The musicians were exploited; the press was manipulated - and the critics thought they had something. Even today, the critics protest that, even though all that is true, The Sex Pistols were still important because of what followed in their drug-addled wake. It is true that bands sprang up imitating not only their "style" (which was nothing more than a variation on the roots rock of The Ramones), but their attitude as well. This does not alter the fact that they were as fake and manufactured as The Monkees or The Village People, and possessing as little musical ability as the latter two groups.

What works and what doesn't work for the public is never knowable beforehand; musicians play what they play and the public responds or not, depending upon a variety of factors, many of them inarticulate and unconscious. Even the most gifted musician - Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Eric Clapton, Steve Vai, Miles Davis - has ups and downs (if they live long enough; in Parker's case, I'm not quite sure the rule applies) based upon the vagaries of popular taste. Sometimes a musician comes along who is so different that they are completely misunderstood; Art Tatum was a bop pianist playing in the swing era; Robert Fripp wanted (and probably still wants) to play Kind of Blue with variations over and over again until he and the musicians he gathers around himself get it right (although, one night in New York in 1981, according to Fripp, they did get it right); Miles Davis saw no reason electric instruments could not serve as vehicles for jazz, even with the limitations inherent in such a construction. To reduce these three to, in order, a master of technique; a rocker who wishes he were a jazz musicians; a musician yearning for acceptance and respectability by an audience growing tired of acoustic jazz - these "narratives" are not only shallow, they are, in the end, false because they completely ignore the depth of commitment, the stated preferences of the people in question, and the whole context in which these musicians lived and worked. I use these three as examples because they are so flagrant, but the list could include, for example, those who lump the Beatles with The Rolling Stones as similar bands (it would be better to compare the Stones with Led Zepelin); those who compare The Who with Led Zepelin (it would be better to compare The Who with Marvin Gaye; they were an electric R&B band while Zep was a blues band). Even the dismissal of bands such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, and Loverboy as bad is wrong. They aren't so much bad as they were just middling, mediocre bands, producing not so much bad music (the worst rock music was too often performed by the best bands; can anyone say The Magical Mystery Tour?) as it was music that was dull and uninventive.

Of course, critics complain about the mediocrity of such bands, and often get excited by the wrong new thing, but if a form of music is popular - progressive rock in the early- to mid-1970's (and enjoying a revival for the past decade or so), and heavy metal continually since the late-1960's - but unappealing to critics, for whatever reasons (the aforementioned Rocking the Classics has an interesting, even compelling, but I think incomplete, explanation - a combination of phony elitism and faux-political radicalism combined with that streak of Platonism of which I wrote before), then stand back, because not only is the music in for attack, but the public who likes such music is ignorant, benighted, and being taken for a ride by corporate interests only interested in the bottom line. Such arguments are so erroneous on their face one wonders why and how they could or should be taken seriously, but they are.

Music criticism is based upon the false idea that there are objective standards that can be applied without prejudice or favor across any and all genres of music. Once a critic insists the music he or she is "serious" enough, they get to work applying those standards. It is silly, it is easily disproven, but it still holds. Rarely do critics take a piece of music and let it stand on its own merits, as the product of an individual or group within a broader context, existing within a larger musical milieu with which to understand, appreciate, and criticize.

Music is a human invention, existing not in and of and for itself, but because of, by, and through human agency. As such, it can only be understood as a product of a huge variety of factors, too many to adequately address in its entirety. Rather than say this, and surrender to the inevitable truth that they write about music they like based upon personal preference, they hide behind all sorts of nonsense and an assumed intellectualism to try and prove that they are actually applying standards that make their choices and observations and criticisms true.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Music I: Listening to America

I am tired of politics. I am tired of journalists. I am tired of being told what America thinks by people who have no idea what America thinks. I am tired of the President, the Vice-President, Gen. Petraus. I am tired of John McCain, I am tired of Joe Lieberman, I am tired of Joe Klein, I am tired of Thomas Friedman, I am tired of the whole FOXNews gang. I am tired of people talking about "religion" when they know nothing about it. I am tired of the press pushing the next Presidential election. God Almighty, I am tired of all the nonsense.

Mid- to late-winter brings me around again to another of my annual perusings of Ken Burns' Jazz. Now, before anyone takes me to task, I am well aware of its limitations and faults, not the least of which is the ridiculousness and utter stupidity of some of those - Gary Giddins, Wynton Marsalis - Burns turned to to create this flawed masterpiece. With all its faults, it nevertheless captures something of the essence both of the music and its role in American life that I enjoy. Like all traditional histories, it misses as much as it captures, but it is the first comprehensive look at an art form that is singularly American. Among the things Marsalis says with which I agree are his words in the first episodes in which, to paraphrase, he says that jazz gives us America at its best because it refuses to deny the realities with which we are faced, but forces us to deal with them. It is not tolerance; it is the difficult work of inclusivity, of integration, of acceptance of difference and compromise through the recognition of the legitimacy of difference.

The focus on Armstrong and Ellington - two very different musicians and personalities, the latter of whom I would call jazz only with an asterisk - I find difficult to countenance, although I suppose every such story needs some kind of through-line to hold the viewers' attention. The treatment of Miles Davis, of Charles Mingus, the neglect of such contemporary artists as Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter (only a mention as part of Davis' mid-60's quintet), Cannonball Adderley, Joe Zawinul - these also give one pause as how to make a different history of jazz, an honest, better history. In many ways, like the standard history of rock and roll - The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll - it does the job both right and wrong, and gives us all the strength to figure out new ways of shaping that history to make room for different interpretations.

It is singular, however, because it is comprehensive; it is honest; it gives us a glimpse of both the strengths and weaknesses of the music, those who perform it, those who listen to it - and in this glimpse we see and hear America struggling to be what America can be, although part of that struggling is listening to Studs Terkel and Gerald Early (I guess i can only tolerate my own pontificating, not that of others). I would offer a watch to all who care a whit about America, who desire desperately for a way out, because jazz ofers us a way out - through improvisation, but the genius of improvisation, the genius that has given us America. If we have to put up with James Lincoln Collier along the way . . . oh, well.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Will Thomas Friedman please, for all our sakes, just shut up?

Over at Faith in Public, they have a reprint of today's column from Thomas Friedman, proving once again that blaming the victim is not limited to Bill O'Reilly. Looking around the mess made by the United States in Iraq, a mess, by the way, that was predicted again and again; such predictions dismissed again and again by Friedman as he helped rush us to war - Friedman bewails that there is no Muslim Martin Luther King, Jr. (hence the title of the column, as insulting as it is ignorant) to bring peace between Sunni and Shia. He manages to find quotes from various Arab and Muslim democracy activists and a Syrian poet to create the illusion that he has any idea what he is writing about - and to give his insulting words and ideas the veneer or respectability they do not deserve.

In Friedman's world, it is up to Muslims to fix the problems in Iraq created by the United States. Of course, there is a certain truth to this; yet the idea behind the entire column is one of blame-shifting, very similar to President Bush's statement that the Iraqis have shown little thanks for their "liberation". Wondering why there can't be a Muslim Martin Luther King, Jr. is such an ignorant, awful thing to write, and occurs in a column so filled with ignorance and bigotry - this from a man who accussed liberals of anti-Muslim bigotry because we supposedly refuse to believe them capable of the hard work of democracy - it is hard to figure out where to begin.

It is for that reason alone that I ask, I plead, I implore Thomas Friedman to please, for the love of all that is good and true in this world, to shut up. Don't write any more. Don't appear on television. Realize what an ignoramus you are - please, please, please. Be quiet.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Obama in the Race (Pun Intended)

Over at, Philip Barron has a piece criticizing a piece in by Mickey Kaus and a piece written by Stanley Crouch in The Daily News (which latter piece you can read here) in which the issue of race and the prospective run for the Presidency by Sen. Barack Obama is addressed. The interesting thing about Barron's piece - especially after reading Crouch's column which apparently stirred up a hornet's nest from people who either didn't read it or didn't understand it - is he falls on the very sword he attempts to wield against Kaus and Crouch, viz., they don't understand race all that well. The gist of Barron's criticism of both Kaus and Crouch is that, by complicating race matters (speaking of them in terms much broader than skin color, but the social, political, and historical dimensions in which "race" has come to be understood in the United States) they fail to understand that , quite simply, Barack Obama is a black man.

Memo to Barron - having dark pigmentation is not necessarily what race is about. In the Kaus piece, we are reminded that Hillary Clinton has a record on race matters that Obama does not. Crouch takes the whole issue a step further and discusses Obama's ethnicity (and potential appeal) in terms of "race" as a socio-cultural category. Barron wants us to see race quite literally in black-and-white, and it is not not nor has it ever been that simple. It isn't about "blood" or skin tone. It isn't about who "represents" whom. As Crouch rightly notes in his column, even Obama himself says that he has not experienced racism in the same way other Africa-Americans have. In citing this, Crouch is defending a position that has the merit of resting on American history. Race matters run so deep, and their currents are so strong - so many have drowned in their horrible waters - that to reduce "race" to skin tone is a lowering of IQ (to steal Barron's headline).

Obama is, in many ways, the Democratic version of Colin Powell, an African-American liberals can like. More radical, and well-liked among blacks, leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (both of whom have a longer list of accomplishments than Obama) are unappealing because - well, let's face it, blacks like them so they are unacceptable. As in the case of Powell, who has broader appeal than other black Republicans such as Alan Keyes, Obama is someone white liberals can accept precisely because he has such a short public resume and hasn't made the mistakes of Jackson (fathering a child out of wedlock) or Sharpton (Tawanna Brawley will haunt him until the day he dies) and hasn't engaged in the kind of confrontational politics that both men have done. Obama sounds nice, he talks about appealing across political and racial lines and aboundaries, and he makes white liberals feel good about supporting a black man for President.

None of this is to say that Obama is not, potentially, an excellent Presidential candidate, or that his racial bona fides aren't as acceptable as those of other potantial African-American candidates. What I am saying is that Obama's candidacy, and his appeal to white liberal voters, has much to do with racial politics in America, their history, their complexity, and their hiddenness and unspeakability. To dismiss out of hand criticisms of Obama's potential appeal based upon race isn't racist so much as it is simple-minded. Race isn't about skin color or ethnicity. It is about the whole history of experiences and interactions between Europeans and Africans since the landing of the first slave-ships in Virginia almost four hundred years ago. Obama is a participant in that history, to be sure; all Americans are. It is Obama's place in that story that is being discussed, and how he fits into the larger narrative about race (and implicitly, about America) that is at issue. For Barron to dismiss such discussions because "race makes us stupid" misses an opportunity to really grapple with the issue.

When Bad Journalism Happens to Good Papers and Liberal Web Sites Call Them On It

Those who Ana Maria Cox calls "humorless but dedicated" (as opposed to being full of fun but slackers? full of fun but dedicated? I'm not sure what the modifier refers to here, other than the fact that the media doesn't like someone actually calling them on their nonsense) - Media Matters for America - started the ball rolling questioning a recent story by John Solomon that tried to raise questions about John Edwards recent home sale. Now, not only Media Matters but Talking Points Memo here, here, and Greg Sargent-written spin-off The Horses Mouth continue to pound home the fact that the story lacked substance. In fact, in the Horses Mouth piece, Solomon insists that, though the story lacks anything like sourcing, relevance, or even a hint of scandal (a populist candidate for President sells his house to a corporate player is news?), it still justifies being considered (a) journalism, and (b) on the front page of a major daily newspaper because there are "questions" Edwards needs to answer. What those question are, how, when and in what manner they are to answered we are never quite told; there are implications, however, that simply because the piece may have created a cloud, Edwards should now be on the defensive.

Except, it now seems, from the sources linked above, that it is Solomon who is on the defensive. Even the ombudsman at his own paper is going to go after him - this after two of his fellow reporters questioned the article. We may actually see a journalist brought to heel because of an attack on a Democrat. The heat is not dissipating on Solomon, and Media Matters, TPM, and the rest of the big-time bloggers and web-sites should be proud of the work they have done dragging this particular cockroach out of the corners. As I noted last week, I waffle about the whole taking-on-the-media thing, but we are actually starting to see results - and if the pressure is kept up, we might see even more.

As Glenn Greenwald notes, when journalists actually do their jobs, the results are pretty surpring (this in reference to the attempted right-wing smear of my Senator, Barack Obama, specifically that he attended a "madrasa" as a child living in Indonesia). The funny thing is (perhaps it's funny; perhaps it's just a bit of schadenfreude) that journalists are always taking bloggers to task for their lack of standards, yet it has been bloggers and web-sites that have managed to call this particular journalistic dog to heel. One wonders what the implications of this are. . . .

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Taking the Opponent Seriously

Glenn Greenwald has apparently reached the end of his tether with the neo-con apologists for the Bush Administration, as evidenced by this post in which he says, at the end that the neo-cons hold "twisted and bloodthirsty tenets" which "are not rooted in some rotted, coherent geopolitical doctrine as much as they are rooted in rotted personality disorder." I found myself commenting that such psychological reductionism is wrong because it dismisses the history of the movement, and dismisses as well the commitment to its ideals and principles those who hold them continue to have. I was taken to task by another commenter who insisted that, in fact, the neo-cons do not have political commitments, because it has cost them nothing to hold them. I find such dismissal peurile, and even dangerous; we underestimate those with whom we disagree politically at our peril, because the neo-conservatives have both a history and a wealth of intellectual and political resources at their disposal - not the least of them being access to a variety of media - with which to press home their views.

Gary Dorrien, a professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, has written two books, The Neo-Conservative Mind and Imperial Designs, that trace the history of the movement, the process and change and development of its major strains of thought, through an analysis of its major figures, both first and second generation. In taking the movement, its ideas, and its personalities seriously, Dorrien presents a movement that emerged initially from the disputes within the New York Marxist community and its literary and intellectual outgrowths. There was, and still is, a depth of thought to the neo-cons, and a commitment to America as the world's only superpower that drives them forward. It is precisely because their views are rooted both in a certain Stalinist/Marxist absolutism, only dedicated to American supremacy, that they come across as authoritarian and arbitrary - we are witnessing what happens when Marxists lose their faith; like Augustine after Platonism, they merely transfer their way of thinking to America as capitalist hegemon, rather than the Soviet Union as communist hegemon.

By reducing the politics of the neo-conservatives to facile psychological categories and equating the politics of George W. Bush with neo-conservatism, Greenwald makes two errors. First, he dismisses the seriousness of political opponents in such a way as to make himself a less-serious interlocutor. It is one thing to focus on the nepotism of the neo-cons - I asked in my comment what Bill Kristol or John Podhoretz have done that we should take them seriously - and another to take this a step further and speculate on the psychology behind this nepotism. The other error is that, while George W. Bush does have neo-con support, he is not himself a neo-conservative. Indeed, i find it hard to believe that George Bush has any coherent political beliefs at all, other than the expansion of Presidential power beyond constitutional boundaries, judging by his record as President. By throwing around a term loosely, whether, as I discussed earlier it is "left", "right", "center", "victory", and "defeat" or as in this case "neo-conservatism" - a term which in face has both a very precise meaning, a coherent core of beliefs, and very definable boundaries (William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan are not neo-cons, and both loathe the idea that these Johnny-come-latelies have achieved the kind of political access they have been denied), Greenwald robs the word of meaning, and cheatgs us of a deeper understanding, understanding which we could use in opposition to them.

If we say, with Greenwald, that they're all just a bunch of authoritarian, anti-democrats stuck in pre-adolescent parent-worship because of stunted psychological development, why should we be taken any more seriously than those we quite rightly criticize for their own peurile analysis of liberals and progressives? What is good for the liberal goose is not always good for the conservative gander. It behooves us to take the neo-conservatives as seriously as we progressives wish to be taken seriously, not dismiss them out of hand with shallow psychologizing that might just miss some important facts and realities. Even though we might find their beliefs, and the practical results of those beliefs, reprehensible, we owe it to ourselves and to the country for which we are fighting and arguing, to accept that those beliefs are sincerely held, have an intellectual and (I would argue) even a moral core. We would be much better spending our time discussing the ideas and teachings and results of neo-conservatism than about the neo-cons themselves. We would also be much better making sure we are clear who is in fact a neo-conservative and who is not. It is important, indeed it is vitally necessary, to know one's opponent, and to know about differences within the opposition in order to exploit whatever weaknesses might exist within them. Shallow psychological analysis does not serve us well, and I do not accept Greenwald's argument that we are fully justified in so arguing.

Fighting Meaninglessness

Greg Sargent has a piece at Talking Points Memo on the emptiness of the journalistic uses of the terms "middle", and the correspondent emptiness of the words "left" and "right". Following his lead (alas), I would like to suggest that there are other terms we need to force the media to stop using because they have become meaningless as well.

It has been commonplace since the early 1900's to dismiss much blather about "liberal", "conservative", "left", and "right" as so much left-over baggage from an era where they might have meant something. Their continued use has not pinned down their spcific meaning any more than simply defining them would, and most of us are left wondering what in the world they refer to in the world around us when journalists, pundits, and politicians throw them around, because they do not correspond to anything we might understand about what is actually happening. Labels are useless if they are empty of meaning. They cloud our understanding rather than enhance it (perhaps that is the goal?).

There are other words I would add to the list. When President Bush speaks of "victory" in Iraq, or of "defeat", when he brings up a "new plan", or a "policy", journalists should not just transcribe these words without thought, but press him and others in the Administration as to what they mean. As far as I can discern, neither "victory" nor "defeat" have any referent in the situation in Iraq. Equally non-existent is anything like a "plan" or "policy" as these have traditionally been understood. If there is a policy, the American people need to hear it. If there is a plan, we need to know at least the outlines of this supposed plan besides merely sending more targets for the Iraqi factions to kill and maim (for myself, I will cease to use the term "insurgent" because the situation in iraq has degraded so far that there is no "insurgency" in the singular, but multiple factions killing each other and Americans). Indeed, this is neither a plan nor a policy, but the simple hope that the sheer weight of numbers will create a situation favorable to the United States.

Of course, "success" of this "policy" would not be victory, nor would the failure of the plan be defeat because neither word has any meaning in Iraq right now. We are left, then, back at the beginning, demanding answers with real meaning, real meat on their verbal bones. Perhaps it is too much for us to ask mainstream journalists to either press the Administration to elaborate or to simply stop using these words all together. I think, however, we need to continue to push them for clarity. That would be the function of the press in America, one would think - clear up the messiness so that we can understand, and on this understanding, act.

Virtual Tin Cup

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