Today’s Art, Tomorrow’s Trials

This summer, a few musicologist buddies and I decided to embark on a little extracurricular lark: We organized the Weird Tales Reading Group, dedicated to the exploration of fantastical and bizarre pulp stories from the 1920s and ’30s. After making our way through H. P. Lovecraft’s grim oeuvre, we’re now finishing up Robert E. Howard’s steroidal yarns, and soon we’ll be jumping into the work of Clark Ashton Smith, my personal favorite. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know this literature, but in our discussions we’ve often asked ourselves whether we’re reading the weird tales as narratives or as primary sources. In other words, are we encountering stories as readers or cultural products as analysts? Do we enjoy the tales because they’re having the effects on us that their authors intended or because they’re informing us about the conditions of their creation in a compelling way?

I won’t go into great detail about the content of the stories except to say that many articulate, thoroughly reprehensible ideologies—power-worship, death-worship, Spenglerian racial fatalism, and so on. Lovecraft is particularly culpable. In an essay on “Boys’ Weeklies,” George Orwell claims that these kinds of stories are “written in a jargon that has been perfected by people who brood endlessly on violence.” On the other hand, all three of the authors I named above are very striking stylists in both prose and poetry, and they often manage to tell dramatic, engaging stories.

In a way, it reminds me of our project two summers ago: To watch the entire Ring cycle on DVD. Even as my colleagues (musicologists, once again, and theorists) and I marveled at the extraordinary harmonic prolongations, we took every opportunity to slam Ricky Wags for his transparent and unrepentant racism. When the question of whether Wagner was actually a good composer or not arose, the consensus seemed to be that it doesn’t matter: He was a terrible person.

It’s easy to write off Wagner (and Lovecraft) as unacceptable people—and you can do it with an absolutely clear conscience to boot. But it’s always in the back of my mind that someone, someday, might apply the unknowable ethical standards of a future age to me. Maybe American composers born toward the end of the 20th century will ultimately be deemed collaborators or capitulators, implicated in some now-acceptable moral crime. Does anybody else worry about that? It’s only slightly less scary than the tentacled astral horrors that infest Lovecraft’s world.

* * *

This week, newmusicscrapbook.com features the music of Zachary Crockett. Zac, one of the project’s masterminds, is by a wide margin our most Byronic composer at the University of Minnesota. Check out the interview for a close-up of Zac’s adventurous attitude toward music-making and his insistence on the importance of ritual; the electroacoustic piece Techno SineNoMine provides a great representation of this ethos.

9 thoughts on “Today’s Art, Tomorrow’s Trials

  1. philmusic

    the scold from the cold
    “…Maybe American composers born toward the end of the 20th century will ultimately be deemed collaborators or capitulators, implicated in some now-acceptable moral crime….”

    One notices that today an entire musical scene can be co-opted and history rewritten by money and power. (I believe this was first done in a different context by the Blues Brothers).

    Besides that corruption is seen in the small things like; the quid pro quo (only helping those who can help you), the expectation of the trappings of success, the my team right or wrong, the maintaining exclusivity all the while acting as if the world, or a blog, is a free and open place. Ignoring fair play for gamesmanship. Self interest and politics coming before art. Anytime ambition is personal and not artistic. Inhabiting a persona that does not belong to you that you know will sell. That is creating the an avatar of an “artist.”

    Did I leave something out?

    Phil’s how to be an outsider in 3 easy lessons page

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    I suppose Colin if you want to argue that Wagner was merely a careerist trying to get ahead then we are “all” guilty. I thought, for all his musical abilities, he was just a person of his time.

    Then again most of us are.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s Fried Text

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    Future The Hague international tribunals will condemn people in the first world for:

    Gobbling up 60% of the world’s resources while having only 12% of the world’s population (Europe + North America);

    Churning out trillions of tons of greenhouse gasses that will soon make much of the third world cropland too arid to cultivate due to global warming, starving hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people;

    Selfishly burning up 11.4 kilowatts per person (United States), compared to just 6 kilowatts per person in Japan or Germany;

    Empowering rabid vampire corporations like Monsanto that destroy the lives of millions of the poorest third-world farmers with unconscionable “terminator” seeds;

    Raping the third world with outrageous and unaffordable fees for drugs that could save billions of peasants’ lives if the price were lowered;

    Selling armaments to dictators around the planet, enabling them to torture and murder millions of their own people.

    A hundred years from now, future audiences may well shun the late 20th/early-21st century composers of Europe and North America with the exclamation, “Who wants to listen to music by those assholes who partied while billions of the world’s poorest people suffered and died because of their greed and oil-addicted short-sightedness?”

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  4. pgblu

    Since we’re going down that route
    Since we’re going down that route, here are a few more links:

    On the impact of climate change in Africa

    Gulf of Mexico oil spill still pales in comparison to the oil plague in Niger River

    On Colin’s topic, I must say that if the human species is around in a century or so, then it takes an optimist to hope that the music ‘contemporary composers’ write will still be anywhere in the cultural memory, or whether the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” will still be in the parlance. Certainly art of the past has 99% of the time served politically regressive rather than progressive purposes, an escape from rather than a confrontation with reality. This is, at least in my estimation, no less true today.

    I don’t wish to discourage anyone from composing; for all this seeming pessimism, the world would still be an even worse place without people devoting their lives to unbridled creativity. But I think that creativity needs to come from a place of awareness about the world and a realistic notion of art’s relatively humble position in the grand scheme of things.

    OK, looks like I’m still not quite on topic, but that’s all I have time for today.

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    “..I think that creativity needs to come from a place of awareness about the world and a realistic notion of art’s relatively humble position in the grand scheme of things…”

    Who’s world?

    In my world art is the most important thing.

    Then again, I’m not a professor of music.

    Phil’s very unreal page

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  6. pgblu

    Then again, I’m not a professor of music.

    And I am not speaking here as a “professor of music” either. What exactly is your beef?

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  7. philmusic

    What exactly is your beef?

    I think its reasonable to assume that a certain amount of effort went into becoming an academician. Therefore it seems odd that you, and other around here, occasionally pretend that the work is not that all important.

    “..a realistic notion of art’s relatively humble position in the grand scheme of things…”

    To me that’s gamesmanship. Professional gamesmanship. On the other hand if you really feel that way I have no comment.

    Its not unreasonable for you to say “I’m not speaking as an academician.” Or to make a distinction between your professional opinion and a personal one. (That opens a very different can of worms). Yet since you are an academic and so many of your posts reflect that how can I tell which is which?

    Phil’s win a popularity contest page

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  8. pgblu

    My music, its reception, and all that surrounds it is extremely important to me. There’s no contradiction between that and the previous things I said.

    gamesmanship, n.

    (1) The art or practice of using tactical maneuvers to further one’s aims or better one’s position: “a sometimes wry, sometimes savage look at the players, political gamesmanship, turf battles and outright chaos that permeated Washington” (David M. Alpern).
    (2) The use in a sport or game of aggressive, often dubious tactics, such as psychological intimidation or disruption of concentration, to gain an advantage over one’s opponent.

    Please confirm that this is what you are accusing me of, Phil.

    Reply
  9. philmusic

    “..On the other hand if you really feel that way I have no comment..”.

    Ok you don’t feel that way. That was not clear from your post.

    Thanks for the correction.

    Phil’s page

    Reply

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