Sunday, October 20, 2013

Vulgarizing Ideas

An hour to spare on a sunny fall day in the mountains of western central Virginia. Leaves are changing, the air is brisk. Big, bright sky. Why I brought along Robert Grudin's American Vulgar: The politics of manipulation versus the culture of awareness to read this weekend I don't know.

I read:
Thus the cell phone, for all its intrusive potential, is not a vulgar instrument until it is put to vulgar use. On the other hand, we can call the cell phone a vulgarizing idea, because it carries with it the temptation, even the provocation, to behave objectionably in public. ... [The cell phone belongs to] a nuisance group of machines: devices that invite their users to disturb nature, disrupt public space, or do both.
A month or so ago Mary Ann and I splurged and went to a wine-tasting dinner at L'Auberge Chez Fran├žois in Great Falls, Va. We sat at a round table set for six and were soon joined by a pleasant couple and started the usual pleasant small talk. Just before dinner started we were joined by a second couple who, it must be said, were also quite pleasant. But as they sat down, they did something that, to me at any rate, was quite remarkable – though probably to most people today there was nothing remarkable about it at all. In unison, they both took out their cell phones and placed them neatly above their place settings, just above the desert spoon, as if the cells were an integral part of the array of eating utensils. Thankfully, throughout the meal, neither of them made or received a call. But periodically, the man of the couple would pick up his cell and google something that he thought would explain or color some point in the conversation. For example, the topic turned to ballet. They had met some ballerina who was dancing in Russia. He then googled the ballerina and passed his phone around so we could see pictures of her.

Two things occurred to me about this at the time, and I spent dinner biting my tongue. One was the similarity of the old saw about Americans on vacation taking pictures of themselves everywhere: if you don't have a graphic record of your visit, how will anyone know you were really there? Is the presentation of a googled image proof of a relationship? interest? knowledge? But even more interesting to me was the similarity to countless experiences from the 60s-70s when people would sit down to a meal at a fine restaurant, and the first thing they would do was to take out their packs of cigarettes and cigarette lighters and place them ritualistically beside their place settings, just above the desert spoon.

It's difficult to remember a time when the cigarette was not considered a "vulgar instrument," but an essential social accessory every bit as important as the tails and gown worn by Nick and Nora Charles. If you could go back in time and point out to everyone that not only are they physically killing themselves, but that the cigarette itself is a vulgarizing idea, you would be laughed out of the party. Likewise, without going back in time, it would be entirely useless to point out that the cell phone – now the "smart" phone – is our own vulgarizing idea – our cigarette substitute to help cover our fear of being discovered as socially inept. The cell lights up and the uncomfortable silence goes away.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Rummaging through my computer files this morning looking for things to toss, I came across a quotation from a little book I first read over a half-century ago.  I don't remember why or when I copied and saved it in a folder labeled "Pumpkins."

Reading it again after so many years

   it startled me.

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven. We have adopted Christianity merely as an improved method of agri-culture. We have built for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb. The best works of art are the expression of man's struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten. There is actually no place in this village for a work of fine art, if any had come down to us, to stand, for our lives, our houses and streets, furnish no proper pedestal for it. There is not a nail to hang a picture on, nor a shelf to receive the bust of a hero or a saint. When I consider how our houses are built and paid for, or not paid for, and their internal economy managed and sustained, I wonder that the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him through into the cellar, to some solid and honest though earthy foundation. I cannot but perceive that this so-called rich and refined life is a thing jumped at, and I do not get on in the enjoyment of the fine arts which adorn it, my attention being wholly occupied with the jump; for I remember that the greatest genuine leap, due to human muscles alone, on record, is that of certain wandering Arabs, who are said to have cleared twenty-five feet on level ground. Without factitious support, man is sure to come to earth again beyond that distance. The first question which I am tempted to put to the proprietor of such great impropriety is, Who bolsters you? Are you one of the ninety-seven who fail, or the three who succeed? Answer me these questions, and then perhaps I may look at your bawbles and find them ornamental. The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful. Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation: now, a taste for the beautiful is most cultivated out of doors, where there is no house and no housekeeper.
 Walden, Thoreau

Passing over the question of what Thoreau might . . .
no . . .

no comment

. . . just let it speak for itself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mark Rothko on the popular vs the heroic

[At times it feels that the sense of cultural ressentiment is so deep and pervasive that it is difficult to remember that, just 50 years ago, many artists -- and not just in music -- were unashamed about making non-judgmental distinctions between the esoteric and the exoteric.  This is just not possible today -- too many careers depend on myths born of non-distinction.  The only ones remaining unleveled now are those who produce nothing.  Here is Mark Rothko writing in the early 1940s:]

           " If we examine, in fact, the history of painting anywhere at any time, we shall find a heroic art and a popular art.  In the popular arts we always find a tendency to illustrate the local, and these popular arts, in their fulfillment of this tendency, always exhibit an uncanny dexterity at the imitation of appearances, an ability one might not suspect they possessed from knowledge of only the heroic art.  We can see, therefore, that the unnatural representations found in the heroic art are the product of choice, not limited ability.  Even the Renaissance painter, to whom science and the study of nature were the ideal by which he functioned, also made a distinction between the function of appearances in the execution of the great works of art and the popular."
-- Mark Rothko
The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art
Yale UP, 2006

[I keep asking myself (for no one else will listen): Why is Beethoven's stature so threatening to living generations that many feel the need to erase him?]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A general, a CEO & a violinist walk into a bar ...

& guess who doesn't come out alive.

This will not be my last word on the sad state of support for the arts in the U.S. today.  I'm beginning with a reprint of an article from 1962 (see below) about the disbanding of the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra which was stationed in West Germany and toured extensively throughout Europe from 1952 to 1962.  This article and much more about this deceased orchestra can be found on the web site maintained by former members.

The reason I am including this brief look into the past is that, with all the orchestra problems today -- bankruptcies, closings, loss of public and private support, the confusion about the value of "art music" (if such a thing exists at all or ever has) -- a few people have wondered out loud what future generations will have to say if we allow symphony orchestras to disappear or radically change them from their present form due to purely economic circumstances.

The 7th Army Symphony was a rather unexpected but highly effective warrior in the Cold War.  It closed down 50 years ago due -- in my opinion -- to a kind of idiot tunnel vision on the part of American brass in Europe at the time.  It would be easy to point out the differences in circumstances between then and now, not the least of which is that the 7ASO was a military unit and hence the problems are not comparable to those of a 501(c)(3) today.  But of the things that are similar, I would especially note that the "money issues" cited by the Army's command (think of them as our nearly invisible boards of directors today who generally have as much knowledge of music making as the average  lieutenant general) smell like a very familiar smoke screen.

My own opinion, looking back at this is simply: How could they? What idiots!

And looking around in the present, I'm saying the same thing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Without Comment (7)

Sunday's rendition of the B Minor Partita was simply jaw-dropping in its perfection. A few tempos seemed slow, as she related each "Double" more to its previous movement rather than its own character. And she was inconsistent with repeats, making the piece's structure incoherent.
~ Robert Battey
"Virtuoso violinist Hillary Hahn holds her audience rapt but adds some irritants"
Washington Post
March 1, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Without Comment (6)

And [the Detroit Symphony] should get along as well as it can, but not asking for more than is decent, until Detroit is in better shape.

And if it does this -- if it makes the rebuilding of Detroit its high priority -- I can believe that a grateful city, once it's on its feet again, will remember what the orchestra did, and will rush to support it. 
~ Greg Sandow
Blog:  Sandow
"Detroit Priorities"
February 14, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011

Without Comment (5)

"But what make 'Nixon' especially fiendish are the constantly tripped rhythmic changes and the driving, inexorable two-against-three texture of the counterpoint. This is not rhythmic rocket science—Elliot[t] Carter or Conlon Nancarrow employ much more complex rhythmic collisions."
~ John Adams
Blog: Hell Mouth
January 6, 2011


Without comment (3)

Found on the classroom wall of a school in the Los Angeles School District.



Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Without Comment (4)

"George Tsontakis just wrote to tell me that Milton Babbitt died this morning, just in time for me to get his death date into both my Ashley book and my introduction to the new edition of Cage’s Silence."
~ Kyle Gann
Blog: PostClassic
"Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)"
January 29, 2011


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Without comment (2)

"Anything Joan [Tower], George [Tsontakis}, and I agree on from our disparate and non-overlapping perspectives must contain a degree of objective truth.  Face it: Arnold Schoenberg is O. V. E. R. R. A. T. E. D.  He deserves maybe two, three paragraphs in a comprehensive music history text."
~ Kyle Gann
Blog: PostClassic
September 10, 2010


Without comment (1)

"Solipsisms and oversights indicated Barenboim had only a rough idea of what he was doing."
~ Philip Anson
"Mahler Mauled"
On the Aisle: A Critic's Notebook
March 10, 2001
Review of:
   Chicago Symphony Orchestra
   at Carnegie Hall


Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Open Letter to Greg Sandow

Dear Greg (if I may),

I am sure you will recall that you recently held forth on the Pulitzer Prize.  It was amazing, even for you.  If you can't recall what you said, you can find your posts here and here and here.  And then you may recall that I posted a comment which you responded to.  I quote this exchange here:
ME: You're right, Greg. You're absolutely right.
But until the Pulitzer people come to their senses and start to make awards on merit regardless of genre, I think you personally ought to take advantage of the current situation. I think you ought to submit one of your own classical works. It may be too late for any of the pieces on your most current works list at
But aren't you working on a set of piano variations on a tune by Mahler with an alt-classical kick? That would be perfect. Finish it, get it premiered and recorded (or did that happen already?) and submit it now! Before you're forced to compete with Lucinda Williams! Do it!
YOU: Behind your irony lies a point I've seen made before -- that if classical composers had to compete with nonclassical artists, they'd rarely win the Pulitzer Prize. So I'm delighted to, Steve, to see you highlight the sheer opportunism of that position, even if it amuses you to think I'd like to benefit from it. Normally the people who say these things get up on their artistic high horse, and ignore the current of opportunism -- understandable, but let's call it what it is -- that runs through their thinking.
I think of irony as something more subtle and would have labeled my comment "overtly sarcastic" ~ but never mind.

First thing to get out of the way.  You are absolutely right that the Pulitzer in music is in need of fixing.  What you should point out to your loyal readers, though, is that you are not exactly on the leading edge of this issue nor is your viewpoint new.  I'm no expert and have never myself weighed in publicly on this matter, but as far as I know, the whole thing started to unravel with the literature prize in 1974 over Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.  Music had to wait until 1992 for the Pulitzer board to get up the nerve to override a jury (see an account of the 1992 debacle and excellent commentary on the current Pulitzer situation posted last year on Deconstructing Jim).  Then 2004 came with the news that the Pulitzer board had rewritten the music criteria to be more inclusive. This resulted in a quite reasonable analysis and reply from composer Stephen Hartke on NewMusicBox with the wonderful title "And the Pulitzer Prize for the best apple of the year goes to -- an orange."  (If only they gave Pulitzers for titles!)  Hartke's response then resulted in a lengthy blog post from you in July 2004 under the clever title "Pulitzer prizes."  As far as I can tell, this is the first time you really weighed in to a debate that had been raging both under and above ground (but mostly under) by some well-respected men and women on all sides of the issue for close to 30 years (since the music community, after Gravity's Rainbow was just waiting for the other shoe to drop: 1992 was an outrage but hardly a surprise).  I'm personally elated that you now, at this late date, taking advantage of a possibly crumbling infrastructure, wish to go from making occasional minor snipes to make this one of your crusade issues.  But in all fairness, I think you should at least give a nod to history and note that you are coming late to this game with your own agenda ~ lest the Pulitzer board mistake opinions for expertise and hire you as a consultant.  Or is that what you had in mind?

Second thing.  I don't believe I am alone in being frustrated after trying, at first good-naturedly, to play in your sandbox.  Even those who try to take your side often end up being scolded by you.  You don't want support from the hoi polloi ~ you want to teach them.  At times there's a really bizarre kind of baiting of your readers.  I remember one recent instance where you warned that what you were about to write would anger some people -- you then proceeded to write it -- a reader then made a comment that demonstrated that he was, indeed, angry -- and your response began "Why are you so angry?"  If the price of a wide readership is to make people voluntarily enter a lunatic asylum while trying to stifle a scream, congratulations.  But, for your edification, this is not what a reasonable public debate is all about.  I doubt it will sink in, but I'll try one final time.  Here's a bit of how it feels to try to deal with you on your own turf:
'. . . .  There's glory for you!'
`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
 (The entire Humpty Dumpty chapter can be found here, but I'm sure you've read it before.  Maybe a long time ago.  It's one of those "classic" thingies.)

And now, finally, what I was really trying to say in my response to your Pulitzer sermon and nearly everything I've ever read by you.  You have no qualms about advertising yourself as "composer and critic."  We all know you as critic, Greg.  But I don't know how many have taken the small extra step and listened to your music.  I wanted your readers to all PLEASE, go to your web site and listen to your music.  That's all.

PS: I mistakenly referred to your variations on a tune by Mahler as a piano piece.  While retrieving the link I noticed it's actually a string quartet.  I misremembered.  Sorry.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Forward into the past

. . . . or:  When is a riff really just a vamp on someone else's dime?

I was never a fan of the late Samuel Lipman, the pianist, critic, and founding publisher of the neo-con journal of culture and the arts, The New Criterion.  But recently he provided me with an insight.  And anyone who can do that, whether neo-conservative or alt-liberal, deserves my thanks and respect.

A little over twenty years ago Samuel Lipman was involved in two heated public discusions about the status of "art music" ~ not just contemporary art music, but all of "classical music."

One debate took place in 1987 with New York Times critic John Rockwell at New York's 92nd Street Y.  The subject was "The Future of Classical Music."  The other, with Ernest Fleischmann, was in 1989 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, a continuation of earlier (1987) print exchanges on the topic "Is the Symphony Orchestra Dead?" . . . . Deja vu all over again.

Lipman's contributions to both of these exchanges were included as two chapters in his 1990 collection of essays, Arguing for Music, Arguing for Culture (Boston: Godine, 1990)  Reading this book (a couple of months ago now) I suddenly realized that Lipman had discovered a system that would ensure the supremacy of Anglo-American music bloggery for the next hundred years.  Maybe less.  The following twelve observations were extracted from Lipman's 1990 book.   Here they are in paraphrase:

  1. continuing increase in the scale on which classical music is done
  2. music schools refocused to train primarily for careers in the commercial music business
  3. increasing attempt to tailor the programs of presenting institutions to the demands of mass marketing
  4. inability of younger composers to realize their talents as they grow older – to write music based on their own inner voices rather than according to the artificial considerations of peer-group, critical, and funding pressures  
  5. decline in audience sophistication
  6. increased concentration on a crowd-pleasing repertory
  7. complete failure of “avant-garde” composition, both acoustic and electronic, to win a place in the minds of musicians and the ears of serious music-lovers
  8. total loss of confidence in the idea that writing music is a craft requiring fundamental and structured training
  9. shortage of new performing celebrities
  10. encroachment of academic musicology on the standard repertory
  11. a management revolution in which administrators are replacing practicing musicians as artistic policy makers
  12. weakening of any future audience in large part through the collapse of general music education in the elementary and secondary school
Sound familiar?

It inspires me to try to improve on Santayana:

Those  who dismember the past are bound to get caught sooner or later.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tiny Bubbles

Yesterday Paul McCartney received the "Gershwin Prize."  Good for him.  And he made a great anti-Bush zinger at the end.  Seriously.

But words are cheap.

Right now, here's what Paul McCartney needs to DO.

He needs to fly to Los Angeles and hold a press conference in the airport.  At the press conference he needs to say this:

"I proudly come from 'working class' roots.  If the California legislature passes AB2446 and the governor signs it into law, I will not perform in the state of California again until it is repealed, and I will not perform publicly or record with musicians who perform in that state.  The future of humanity is now, as it has always been, with our young.  To deprive them of (or provide them with) music and other arts based on their personal economic or social circumstances is reprehensible."

He will then turn around and board the next flight out of the state.

This would effectively quash the proposed bill overnight, but if it doesn't, he will be good to his word and not return.


Dream on, Steve.

You see, currently there is no solidarity in the music world.  The musician's union, with all due respect, is a joke.  Most unions are these days.

We can sing "You are the world."  We can do Farm Aid.  And on and on.  But we can't save our own.

We all know what to do, but we can't bring ourselves to support each other enough to do it.  All we do is report the most recent institutional failure, and then kvetch and lament and wring our hands ~ and then go back to fighting among ourselves.

For example (taking just one of a hundred), all it would take to save the Honolulu Symphony right now is not an infusion of cash from yet another rich control-freak hobbyist, but a focused rolling strike at every entertainment venue in this tourism-dependent state.  Call it "Don Ho Solidarity."  Suddenly, the money would appear.  There are dozens of possible variations on Don Ho Solidarity ~ we're the creative class, after all . . . aren't we?   But will this happen?


All we seem to have the spine for is to blame each other ~ and keep our own precious heads down.

Paul, Lang Lang, Yo Yo, are you out there???

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Improving on Thoreau

I would rather sit on a velvet cushion
and have it all to myself

than be crowded on a pumpkin.