Drowning Out the Punditocracy

It’s now been a week since the U.S. presidential election. When last I wrote, the results were not yet in. But if your reading material consists of any other publication besides Oklahoma’s Sapulpa Daily Herald, you know the outcome. CNN actually claims to have set new records for viewers on election night this year, but the coverage hasn’t stopped since then. And I’m still watching it. This campaign has lasted longer than any in U.S. history, but we still can’t get enough.

One of the discussions I’ve been continuing to follow closely is the question of media bias, which is a charge that can and indeed has been leveled by all sides both before and after. Wearing my music journalist hat here, though, I find it all rather curious.

In “big J” journalism, the goal is for the folks covering the news to be completely impartial. Walter Cronkite claimed to have never voted in an election out of concern that casting a ballot would compromise his neutrality. Yet in this same world, the way the media covers music and other cultures is designed to be completely partial—it’s all about a critic telling us whether something is good or bad, rather than telling us enough information about something from which we should then be able to make up our own minds.

There’s been a discussion of late on these pages about the importance of discernment. I agree to its importance, but I have issues with proscribing what others’ discernments should be. My own listening quest has been a constant attempt to keep judgment (the evaluative scales that say something is better or worse than anything else), not discernment (the ability to comprehend something deeply on its own terms), from preventing my learning to appreciate something—e.g. some critic or anyone else telling me something is bad and I shouldn’t pay attention to it. I’ve never allowed anything to simply wash over me; I’m too busy analyzing it. But I strive for that analysis to have nothing to do with my own aesthetic preferences, and indeed hope that what I am analyzing will wind up expanding my aesthetic horizons.

When I was young, I was told that minimalism was bad, but it became a fundamental part of my musical language and remains so to this day. In recent years, everyone has been saying that serialism is bad; the attacks on serialism have made me learn to appreciate the row and compose with it. Being simultaneously inspired and influenced by minimalism and serialism seems contradictory, kinda like being a Joe Liebermann of music perhaps, but I believe that once you ignore what certain pundits say is the only path is when you will find your own path.

Of course, everyone has opinions, even Walter Cronkite, and it’s impossible to completely ignore them. But we should always be questioning them and trying to be as open as possible, especially if we are in a position where what we think has the potential to influence what others think.

5 thoughts on “Drowning Out the Punditocracy

  1. philmusic

    “..kinda like being a Joe Liebermann of music perhaps..”

    Well, I always wanted to be the “Joe da plumber” of music.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  2. William Osborne

    …I have issues with proscribing what others’ discernments should be.

    If perception is proscribed, it is not discernment but judgment. Discernment is a process of discovery, while judgment is a process of evaluation. Discernment avoids judgment because the object it observes is not considered to be adequately known. Judgment, by contrast, must reduce the observed to something knowable and finite. Even if we must make judgments, they are an illusion, because nothing is finite. Discernment sounds the abyss of otherness. Judgment objectifies.

    …discernment (the ability to comprehend something deeply on its own terms)

    Discernment not only observes, it also studies the terms that lie at the foundation of perception and expression. We often do not know or fully understand those terms, languages, or cultural axioms which is exactly what brings discernment into action.

    The degree and rigor of discernment, for example, varies based on musical language. Generally speaking, a classical trumpeter will be far more critically discerning about consistently “attacking” his or her notes than a jazz trumpeter, who might have a far greater appreciation for spontaneous variations of articulation. Aleatoric music reduces many aspects of discernment to a minimum, they are left to chance, while a classical violin sonata places great critical discernment on reproducing a highly defined style. These differing approaches are not so much judgments (or proscriptions) as an intention to complete a specific kind of task. We do not judge the aesthetic, but rather how well it has been presented. And often, we reserve judgment because the variances of language and intention remain unknowable. We can only sound the abyss of otherness in an ongoing process of discernment.

    To discern is to make out the unknown, and as a result it tends to bundle together various forms of perception. When confronting the unknown we often do not even know which sense we can rely on. What we cannot see we hope to hear, what we cannot hear we hope to smell, what we cannot smell we hope to touch. Discernment leads us to integrated forms of sensory intuition that are undefined. Discernment can even lead to new kinds of sensory perception such as the forms of kinesthesia and synesthesia in profound forms of music-making.

    Discernment seems to raise sensory perception to a higher level of integration with the mind as a whole. Discernment is intimately related to the mental analysis of perception, which continually reshapes that perception. This cycle seems closely related the cycles humans use in communication, and might explain why discernment seems key to understanding aesthetic perception. An aesthetic is not perceived, it is discerned. As such, discernment is not only a sensual experience, but also one that attempts to understand the terms of expression that are being used. This seems a key to certain aspects of semiotics.

    Sometimes, a preoccupation with style (perhaps in the form of aestheticism) can incapacitate discernment. When Samuel Beckett was asked why he wrote in French, he said, “So I can write without style.” It seems that without style, he could better discern.

    These thoughts lead to even more complex considerations about the inability of the human mind to be non-judgmental because it is unavoidably shaped by the implicit values of generative grammar — which also seem to affect musical perception. But I have already written too much.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  3. BMD

    FO“I’ve never allowed anything to simply wash over me; I’m too busy analyzing it. But I strive for that analysis to have nothing to do with my own aesthetic preferences, and indeed hope that what I am analyzing will wind up expanding my aesthetic horizons.”

    It’s probably improbable to 100% avoid my own aesthetic preferences, because those are wrapped up in ideas too. But I think a journalist should try to examine, to explain coherently and at least give the musical effort a fair shake.

    Side note: not all musical efforts deserves this level of journalism, so it’s not a prescribed view with me. I generally don’t spend a lick of time examining elevator music, for example. If the story being told is “I’m sonic wallpaper” I’m rather content to let that effort be what it intends.

    As there’s far too little good criticism about, I absolutely support Frank’s advancement of sound analysis that is much needed, especially for musical efforts that have something to say (and might be ignored by the corporate press).

    Reply

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