Fear of a Philistine Planet

I just got back to my hometown of Frederick, Maryland, after a few days of apartment hunting in Minneapolis, where I’ll be moving in August. Although my attachment to central Maryland is very deep, I’m relieved that I’ve never been asked to contribute “Scene Scan: Frederick” to this magazine because (as I noted last week) even a modest word count would pose great difficulty: There just isn’t any new music here.

The Twin Cities, however, are notorious for hosting a bevy of festivals, ensembles, and organizations devoted to promoting contemporary music. What’s more, many of these opportunities seem to be located outside the academy, the environment in which most of my compositional experience has been sited. It’s a point of local pride: Minneapolis waitresses can cite statistics about the number of theatre seats and dollars of arts funding per capita.

It sounds like a happening town, but I have to confess a nagging fear: Once new music is taken out of the ivory tower, away from audiences who (ostensibly) have the prowess to put it in a meaningful context, one has to contend with the tastes of normal people. Of course, this is how it should be. Nevertheless, it’s always frightening to leave one’s comfort zone. I can’t speak from firsthand experience, but I’ve heard that the thriving new music scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul is actually very conservative—a consequence, I guess, of its “privatization.”

The future of new music as a product is hotly debated on this website. I think most of us would agree, however, that the most adventurous new music is simply not an appealing proposition to mainstream America. Maybe Minneapolis is radically different—I hope it is—but my experience has been that patrons of music in U.S. cities make their contributions (in part, at least) to legitimize their wealth, and their preference, by and large, is for affirmatory music.

23 thoughts on “Fear of a Philistine Planet

  1. davidcoll

    “normal people”
    I, for one, sure hope these people aren’t too “normal”….i guess i’m prompted to ask what normal is, i sure hope it has to do w/an audience thats curious and generally is more interested in hearing sounds rather than understanding them…whats the minneapolis audience like?

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  2. kmanlove

    I don’t know Colin… the most invigorating concerts I’ve ever put on were at Texas State University, where most of the audience was held captive (due to some class credit). First of all, there are tons of people staring at you with looks of, “Oh, god, I hope he doesn’t throw blood on me,” and that’s just funny. Secondly, you get the greatest responses from that kind of audience.

    Sometimes, we assume (even accidently) that just because people aren’t involved with new music, they aren’t intelligent and capable of understanding, which is completely not true. I’ve been surprised at all of the times that people have understood my music better than I did. I mean, sure, you get a few comments like, “You are awful… that concert shouldn’t even be legal,” but you also get tons of, “Wow, that was incredible; you should really check out these paintings showing at ________ right now… I really think you’d enjoy them.” Or, “Great job! I’ve never heard anything like this in my life… can you give some names of other stuff to listen to?”

    With the good and the bad of it, that kind of concert really makes you feel like you’re waist-deep in it. It’s tons better than some stuffy new music concert, where everyone has heard the sounds, they’re at least familiar with the stuff in your program notes, and they decide in the first few seconds whether the piece is good or not. Rarely are people excited. Colin, I’d be more afraid of going to a school that didn’t do these kinds of festivals. But, then again, I’m not a girly man.

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  3. mmcginn

    kmanlove wrote: Sometimes, we assume (even accidently) that just because people aren’t involved with new music, they aren’t intelligent and capable of understanding, which is completely not true.”

    I witnessed this in my parents when I was in school writing new music and inviting them to electronic music concerts, etc. At first they laughed and thought it was funny (a completely natural first impression) but now they really dig it. I even created a little history of modern music listening set for them with an accompanying booklet introducing composers, pieces, concepts. This was not an easy task as my mom loves Broadway showtunes but it just goes to show…it is possible!

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  4. philmusic

    Dear Colin:

    I can’t speak for all of the composers out here, rest assured no one has ever accused me of being a conservative–talk to these folks:

    American Composers Forum

    If it is possible to have ones compositional career entirely within the Ivory tower, for me that’s preaching to the choir. Composers need disinterested listeners to enjoy their work, and your just as likely to find those in a public setting as you would in the academic world. Perhaps more so in public because as you point out, the academy is where listeners put things into a “meaningful context” -read interested listeners. Art involves risk. Embrace it.

    Whether “conservative” and “affirmative” are two evil handmaidens who are inseparable in the arts, I’m not sure of at all. If think most conservative music seems to come out of negativity.

    Phil’s Page

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  5. philmusic

    Whether “conservative” and “affirmative” are two evil handmaidens who are inseparable in the arts, I’m not sure of that at all. I think most “conservative” music seems to come out of negativity.

    Reply
  6. pgblu

    booklet
    I applaud Martin McGinn for taking such initiative… are you thinking about making your efforts available to a larger public? It wouldn’t be a waste of kilobyteage…

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  7. mmcginn

    In response to pgblu:

    Not at the moment. It would need some major revision work as I wrote it around my second or third year at college. I would like to think that my understanding of modern music has become deeper so I would have to edit some things. But as I was writing it back in the day it did occur to me that it may have a wider appeal. Maybe I’ll post it up on my website when I get around to it…

    http://www.mcginnmusic.com

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  8. pgblu

    This is going to sound pretty snooty, but keep in mind I’m just offering a perspective, not trying to pit one group against another.

    The late Richard Rorty penned the following theses about the humanities, and I assume he means music to be one of them. I certainly do think of music as a humanity.

    Eleven Theses

    I don’t think everyone here is going to click on that link and read, so here’s a quick synopsis: {Thesis 3] So the real social function of the humanistic intellectuals is to instill doubts in the students about the students’ own self-images, and about the society to which they belong. These people are the teachers who help insure that the moral consciousness of each new generation is slightly different from that of the previous generation.

    Rorty essentially sees the job of the professor of humanities not so much as imparting information as opening students’ minds and forcing them to think about and rethink their basic values and assumptions about all aspects of life. So presumably someone trained in the humanities is more open-minded than other people. And since professors of the humanities have had more humanities training than all of us, they’re the most open-minded people on the planet.

    Not saying that that is actually the case, but in Rorty’s world, it would be. Discuss.

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  9. sgordon

    I call bullshit. Since when is the onus on the audience to create a meaningful context, rather than the artist to create a meaningful work?

    You state that contending with the tastes of normal people is “how it should be” – but I don’t think you really believe that. How can you, when you equate “meaningful context” with “being able to do a Schenkerian analysis” or whatever the hell it is you’re thinking? By default, you’re saying their – the “normals” – context is meaningless.

    It can be difficult presenting one’s work to “normal people” for the first time. In school, everything you present you do with an intellectual justification you can argue (if need be) behind it. Emotional connection has nothing to do with it in that context – not because emotion is absent, it could be there or not. But because it can’t be quantified, judged, graded… And out in the real world, the emotional connection is the only thing that matters.

    If the only thing meaningful you can find about your work is what can only be seen by a select few… then yes, you’re probably going to have some trouble with them Normals. But if you’re creating work that speaks to your own “normal” side (we all have one – really, we do) you might be a little more comfortable presenting it.

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  10. jbunch

    creating meaningfulness…
    I think – although if I’m wrong it wouldn’t be the first time – that it shouldn’t be considered so much an onus upon the audience to be inventive when it comes to receiving a piece of new music, but rather an invitation into the creative act. Or perhaps really it is a recognition that the audience does this anyway, and therefore it is a commitment to write music that enables listeners to piece together one of several possible listening through-paths into the music. This is more interesting to me. A Mozart sonata is all too often (unfortunately) pre-digested for you by the performer (or perhaps by its very nature) – and so there is a correct and totalizing sense of what the work is communicating in terms of the relationship between its structure and the experience that is intended for the listener. Perhaps this makes it feel as if “communication” is happening. What I think could potentially be more true to our present situation is that, since many people don’t seem to be convinced by totalizing narratives anymore, we are no longer trying to “communicate” so much as to be “intelligible.” This is more than “regulated babbling.” It is to question what, at heart, makes something intelligible?

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  11. Colin Holter

    In school, everything you present you do with an intellectual justification you can argue (if need be) behind it.

    If I’ve learned one thing studying music at the university level, it’s that “intellectual justification” is by no means objectively arguable. One person’s rationale is another’s straw man. For that matter, who the hell are you to deny a (university) composer’s emotional investment in his music? If indeed “out in the real world, the emotional connection is the only thing that matters,” is it then a given that audiences can be relied upon to be emotionally, if not intellectually, discerning? I become emotional about a scattershot assortment of things, some very saccharine and some very abstract; I’d have to be crazy to assume that an audience will somehow identify with such a bizarre Rohrshach just because it bears the Seth Gordon stamp of emotional authenticity. I don’t buy that for a damn minute.

    Although I appreciate pgblu’s comment on openness and the humanities, I have to admit that the new music audiences I’ve encountered in academia haven’t really been any more “open” than civilian audiences: They’ve just been open in particular areas of which most people aren’t aware.

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  12. davidcoll

    rephrasing
    okay, i think what i was getting at last time is what is really obvious: we all write for different new music audiences. And this isn’t just in academia. For instance in SF i could be writing for Left Coast Ensemble or SFsound. The difference between what is meaningful or the expectations of the audience is enormous- and they’re both new music ensembles, outside academia. Of course you can reel this back to differences b/w mills college and sf conservatory, but in any case its not an academic thing. Okay, err, for a conclusion- i think we’re oversimplifying this idea of “new music audience” and that theres way too many in the closet populists in this group- because i see these differences as strengths…who wants to take over the world, honestly.

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  13. jbunch

    Hmmm David,

    I think the populists on this site are about as in the closet as Joe Solomonese. But unlike Joe, they are typically FAR less diplomatic.

    Reply
  14. sgordon

    For that matter, who the hell are you to deny a (university) composer’s emotional investment in his music?

    I didn’t. I seem to remember saying something about how emotion could be there or not, that it was essentially a non-issue as far as your GPA goes.

    If indeed “out in the real world, the emotional connection is the only thing that matters,” is it then a given that audiences can be relied upon to be emotionally, if not intellectually, discerning?

    To paraphrase Roger Ebert: a work of art is not judged by what it is about, but how it is about it.

    Oh, I’ve the urge to sing all o’ sudden…

    Met de smaak van uw lippen ben ik op een rit…
    U bent giftig, Ik glijd onder uit.
    Met een smaak van het vergift paradijs…
    Ik word geobsedeerd met u,
    bent u bewust dat u giftig bent??

    ?? – you didn’t understand? I guess I can’t rely on you to be emotionally discerning.

    We always rely on our audience to be emotionally discerning. Why else would we present our work to them in the first place? But they rely on us not to, say, read them poems in Klingon. If the only way to discern what you’re trying to communicate is to have the secret decoder ring, don’t put it out there for normal-people consumption in the first place. I’m not saying you should change your style – write for whatever audience you want, but recognize that that may exclude others, and accept it as your choice. I mean, you’ve said nothing to deny my point – in fact, you seem to have reiterated that the experiences of reg’lur folk in relation to your music are meaningless to you. The “meaningful context” you long for is intellectual discernment, it seems.

    I become emotional about a scattershot assortment of things, some very saccharine and some very abstract; I’d have to be crazy to assume that an audience will somehow identify with such a bizarre Rohrshach just because it bears the Seth Gordon stamp of emotional authenticity. I don’t buy that for a damn minute.

    Cripes. Don’t get so emotional, dude.

    Yeah, but – correct me if I’m wrong here – it doesn’t matter to you if they identify with it, so that’s all beside the point. And I wouldn’t want your music to bear the Seth Gordon stamp of emotional authenticity. That would be strange. I don’t think I even suggested that. I would expect – hope, really – your music bore the Colin Holter stamp of emotional authenticity.

    If I’m wrong – and I may be, it happens now and then – if you really want to communicate emotion effectively to Just Plain Folk, well, I feel for ya. Most of us do. But the onus is on you to make that happen. You can either a.) make an attempt to do it in a way they understand, or b.) complain about it online in an open forum where someone might make fun of you. I’ll tell you one thing: if you go into a piece assuming it will get no (or an improper) emotional reaction from someone – it probably won’t. You’ve heard of “self-defeating” – yes?

    Of course, you’re the fella who not too long ago asked the world “Why is it that even my favorite new music masterpieces don’t elicit an emotional reaction from me… ?” Maybe the more fundamental problem is that you’re projecting your own inability – even with your secret decoder ring – to connect emotionally with new music. For all this complaining that the Great Unwashed Masses will never be able to emotionally understand your work… I gots to ask, can you?

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  15. Colin Holter

    But the onus is on you to make that happen. You can either a.) make an attempt to do it in a way they understand, or b.) complain about it online in an open forum where someone might make fun of you.

    In other words: a.) tug heartstrings with focus-grouped signifiers (e.g. minor chords with added ninths), or b.) start to look for a less manipulative solution by asking well-meaning if inarticulate questions.

    My job is not be some sort of musical puppetmaster. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am much less interested in music that makes a statement (be happy, be sad, vote Obama, etc.) than in music that asks questions. Ideally an audience will understand the questions and start thinking about answers, and perhaps that Q and A will strike them in places of emotional investment. I certainly hope so. But even if I knew “a way they understand,” I’d rather pursue that emotional resonance in a way I understand, gambling that the listeners and I might have some of those same emotional investments. Would you agree, if you heard my music, that I walk the talk? I don’t know – again, I hope that you would. In any case, I agree that although you absolutely can push people around with music, I just don’t have any desire to.

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  16. pgblu

    re
    Although I appreciate pgblu’s comment on openness and the humanities, I have to admit that the new music audiences I’ve encountered in academia haven’t really been any more “open” than civilian audiences: They’ve just been open in particular areas of which most people aren’t aware.

    I am not interested in discussing how things actually are in academia, but whether the way they are is somehow inherent in the system; or whether Rorty’s ideals are realistic, and worth striving for. Is music a humanities? (Pardon my grammar)

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  17. jbunch

    I don’t know. From personal experience I found myself occupying a system of thinking, a worldview, perhaps an epistemology in regards to my social/political and spiritual thinking that was at discord with the way I think musically. Once I discovered that cognitive dissonance, I set out on a path to reconcile the two worlds. My starting point wasn’t to toss the old and uncritically accept the new, but to allow the tension to refine what I experienced from both perspectives.

    What I don’t know about is whether or not the Humanities do this for university students, or just being on your own (which for many of us, college was the first time). I wonder if the “hard sciences” don’t have a similar effect? Some country bumpkin studying biology at a research university is bound to face a few challenges to their present comfortable assumptions (I know this bumpkin offspring did).

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  18. rtanaka

    I am not interested in discussing how things actually are in academia, but whether the way they are is somehow inherent in the system; or whether Rorty’s ideals are realistic, and worth striving for. Is music a humanities?

    I’m a big fan of Rorty and everything, although I’m not sure if I agree with his stance that it’s the humanities exists just to “stir things up”. The outside world is disturbing enough as it is, and I don’t think it really needs academia to instill doubts in people’s minds, if you ask me. I’m thankful for my education mostly because it allowed me to make sense of social trends in relation to myself, and I can go about my day with less anxieties about how the world works. But maybe he has a better explanation of what he means by “stirring”, though…from the article you posted it’s somewhat unclear.

    I guess I had experiences where I was “stirred”, but it was mostly because I was harboring preconceptions about certain things that turned out to be naive or incorrect. But it only really changes you if the explanations given are somehow useful or relevant in your own context — watching a crazy person preach on the street is kind of stirring too, but it probably won’t change you in the same (positive) way that a reasonable argument can.

    But I do think that music is part of the humanities in one way or another — the reason why the liberal arts is useful because it speaks something about the human condition. Shouldn’t music be about people on some level too? In my experience the general public tends to be pretty uninterested in abstract ideas than they are of how artworks compliment or speak something about their livelihoods. They’re generally pretty appreciative when an artist has a perspective to share…you know, maybe look at the world a little bit more differently than they did before and such.

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  19. Colin Holter

    I am not interested in discussing how things actually are in academia, but whether the way they are is somehow inherent in the system; or whether Rorty’s ideals are realistic, and worth striving for. Is music a humanities? (Pardon my grammar)

    When you learn “music” in a university setting, you’re learning a poetics of music, a technique of music, a history of music, very often a science of music, etc. – my sense is that this beast won’t easily fit into the definition of “humanities.” For this reason, I’m not sure Rorty’s ideals apply to music, at least not as it’s taught in school. In other words, it’s not necessary to be open-minded when you explain Neapolitan sixths, FFT, and the year Mozart died–and the increasingly blurry lines between these areas of the discipline make it harder yet to separate the objective from the subjective.

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  20. pgblu

    re
    But Colin, doesn’t every humanity have some concrete information to impart like Neapolitans, FFT, and the date of Mozart’s death? These facts are not an end in themselves. You’ll have to make a better distinction than that.

    Ryan, the fact that the world is a harsh or inhospitable place that causes uncertainties is no argument against the humanities being a source of tough questions. If anything, I think the opposite holds. In a university, one has the time to work through these moral, ethical, aesthetic, etc questions before being thrust into the ‘real world’. I see the real world (if we want to maintain that distinction for now) as a place that invites complacency and discourages thinking for oneself, and I think we can all agree that that aspect of things is dangerous.

    Now I’m off to read a book about Wallace Stevens that will make me a better person.
    Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

    Reply
  21. Colin Holter

    But Colin, doesn’t every humanity have some concrete information to impart like Neapolitans, FFT, and the date of Mozart’s death? These facts are not an end in themselves. You’ll have to make a better distinction than that.

    OK, sure. The other humanities might have that kind of hard data, but can we say that, for example, students of American literature have to come to grips not only with the canon they study and its concomitant history but also with an extensive (hard- or soft-) rule-bound craft, a certain sector of physical science, some hardware and software, a and maybe also an applied technique (say, like learning an instrument)? Not being one, I can’t say for sure, but I certainly get the feeling that conveying music in the university entails presenting many more kinds of information, and kinds of information that are distributed much more widely along an objective-subjective axis, than most of the humanities.

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  22. rtanaka

    Ryan, the fact that the world is a harsh or inhospitable place that causes uncertainties is no argument against the humanities being a source of tough questions. If anything, I think the opposite holds.

    I’m not against tough questions, although you have to admit there can be such things as questions that are arbitrarily tough. I can’t tell you how many times I studied my ass off for tests only to have forgotten everything after it was done because it simply had no application outside of itself. These experiences can be pretty demoralizing for some students, to the point where they feel like they’re being belittled for no good reason — I’ve known a few who dropped out of school because of this.

    Since we’re talking about Rorty, it probably makes sense on some level to talk about John Dewey’s conception about education, which I think he would say that it is an necessity to bring some relevance to the things learned toward the student’s needs. I’m assuming that Rorty, being a big Dewey fan and all, is also sympathetic to this view. Their stuff is generally great to read because they know how to bring philosophical ideas toward an audience in a fairly down to earth level. Tough questions can be worthwhile, but only if it shows something about the world that you never noticed before. Otherwise it never leaves the realm of the abstract.

    Reply

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