View From the East: Fascinating Rhythms



Greg Sandow

Wow. That’s one response to the outpouring my last column provoked. I had a few e-mails warning me that the discussion abandoned the issue I’d raised, but I’m glad it did. I was talking about something important, maybe, but also pretty limited—how critics should respond to the crisis in classical music. Whatever sense my call to arms might have made, the crisis itself is far more important, and that’s what nearly everyone addressed. So my thanks to the people who liked what I said, and Seth Gordon, I couldn’t agree more with your suggestion: “GIVE BAD REVIEWS.” That’s not the only thing critics ought to do, but without it, everything else is pretty useless. As you more or less said, Seth, who’s going to believe a jerk who says that everything’s great?

But now into the open ocean, to chase the big questions. Kyle Gann raised the most important one, at least as I see it. Who cares what happens to classical music (meaning all those big-orchestra renditions of Brahms and Beethoven)? If the mainstream classical music world is moribund, why should composers try to save it? Instead, we should fight for new music. Or to quote Kyle directly (and I envy his direct, considerate, and forceful way of putting things):

I own many thousands of recordings of old classical music, and I’m deeply attached to a lot of it, but I don’t believe that nurturing an appreciation for Bach among the general public helps people appreciate my own music more, or makes it easier for me to get a hearing—perhaps just the opposite. I realize perfectly well that getting a widespread cultural hearing for new music, especially in the current atmosphere of ignorance and rabid conformity, is going to be a massive uphill fight. But I don’t think saving “classical” music is going to make it an easier fight—and it may even make it more difficult.

As Kyle states this, he may well be right. I remember Kevin Stalheim, who runs Present Music (the wonderfully successful new music group in Milwaukee), telling me a few years ago that for his audience, Brahms was a much harder sell than John Adams. He said the same was true for him. Brahms seemed (if I remember rightly what Kevin said) distant, classical, remote, while the pieces Present Music plays seem just like…well, music. In the classical concert hall, this picture is reversed. Brahms sounds comforting and normal, while new music can be edgy and unwelcome.

(Kyle, I might note, made a larger point, which is that classical music might not by dying, but romantic music is,

… and it’s about damn time. Styles die, and lose their audiences….[D]uring the 20th century, the big orchestral music of the Romantic era went out of style. The fact that it continued being played was a historical anomaly. But it’s kind of perverse for a culture to continue taking an interest in music hundreds of years old, made on a distant continent and expressing a foreign worldview, no matter how great music it is. I consider Josquin and Monteverdi composers as great as Beethoven, and how often do we hear their music these days? The time is bound to come when we hear Beethoven no more often than that.

This resonates, I think, with Kevin Stalheim’s view. To many people, 19th century pieces often sound like movie music, hard to take without a dose of irony. Our current sensibility works better with pre-romantic music, and of course new music. Or, wait…was that only true in the 20th century?)

But when I talked about the decline and possible death of classical music, I was talking above all about classical music institutions. Classical radio stations are disappearing, classical record companies are in major trouble, media coverage of classical music is getting scarce (compared even to where it was 10 or 20 years ago). Will orchestras be next, along with opera companies, string quartets, and music schools?

That raises a question somewhat different from Kyle’s. Suppose the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic went out of business, along with Juilliard, the Manhattan School, and Mannes. Suppose the Emerson Quartet disbanded, and Alice Tully Hall went dark. How would this affect new music? (Forgive my New York perspective; it’s just what I know best.)

Maybe we’d be fine. Maybe we’d get all the money those institutions get, or at least some of it.

Or maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe we’d get less than we get now. Funding, at least in my experience, seems to follow fame. The big groups, conservative by nature, get most of the cash. Barry Drogin demonstrated this quite nicely in his post last month. He studied what the National Endowment for the Arts (the NEA) reported funding in 2001, and found (among other things) that

…at least a third of the “Creativity” grants are not for the creation of new work, and the largest grants are going to conservative work. This is hidden in the numbers, for it would certainly seem that there are a large number of grants going toward the creation of new work, but those grants are relatively small in size. You would think that the commissioning, creation, rehearsal and presentation of new work would cost more than the presentation of pre-existing work, but the NEA doesn’t want to spend its money that way.

Also, by giving only matching grants, the NEA perpetuates a not-for-profit institutional culture that must raise money from major donors or a large number of smaller donors as part of an artistic mission. The more conservative institutions attract the richest donors and largest donations.

This is exactly right, and if anything isn’t strong enough. Government arts funding in this country only exists, as far as I know, because the big institutions (along with their politically powerful supporters) said back in the ’60s that they needed help, which unfortunately makes total sense. Who has the power? Who has the visibility? Which names, to the public at large (and of course to Congress), are synonymous with art? Hint: It’s not John Luther Adams (whose piece In the White Silence Kyle mentioned, which gives me a chance to say I love it, too). Or John (non-Luther) Adams. Or, most likely, even Philip Glass. If we ramble on about civilization, culture, and the duty of a great nation toward the arts, and Congress actually listens to us, as they listened to arts supporters in the ’60s, who will they think they should give money to? The obvious suspects: the Boston Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the L.A. Philharmonic.

And that—in cold reality—is why composers get even a tiny share of it. First the money goes to the big institutions; then it trickles elsewhere. I’ve seen that close up, when I worked at the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) in the ’70s, and served on funding panels for the NEA and many other groups in the ’80s. NYSCA came into being, as the NEA did, in large part, as I’ve said, because of pressure from the largest institutions and their powerful supporters. But once it’s there, disbursing money, it has to spread the wealth around. It can’t just fund the Met. What would taxpayers in Syracuse, New York, think of that, when they have their own orchestra and opera company? What would state legislators think?

So the money has to go around the state, and everybody gets a claim on it. So it doesn’t go just to substantial upstate cities, but to rural areas, and it doesn’t just go to the Syracuse Symphony and the Syracuse Opera—it goes to a Syracuse new music group as well, and of course to innumerable new music groups in New York City. These groups got far less money than the New York Philharmonic, but they’d often get a far larger proportion of their budgets funded by the state. And all because the funding trickled down.

I saw this even more dramatically at the NEA, where I served on panels for the Opera-Musical Theater Program. That program was created in the ’80s, after lobbying from powerful interests. Opera companies had complained they weren’t getting enough support from the NEA’s music program, and non-profit theater companies that produced musicals complained they weren’t getting enough from the theater program. That brought a lot of clout to bear—the Met, in effect, joined forces with everyone on Broadway, since Broadway by that time depended on non-profit theaters to develop musicals, to get them ready for commercial runs.

And then what happened? People like Meredith Monk said, “Hey, we’re music theater, too,” so they got funded. And the same thing happened with private funders interested in music theater. What started, at the NEA and elsewhere, as a two-prong effort, funding opera and Broadway, became a three-lane highway, with the avant-garde (as, in those circles, it was often called) accepted as an equal partner—equal not in money granted, maybe, but in consideration and respect. I’ll never forget one panel meeting at a private group, when a Robert Ashley piece came up for funding. Some people, who’d never seen anything like it before, thought it wasn’t theater or music. But then John Kander—who with his partner Fred Ebb wrote Cabaret, Chicago, and “New York, New York“—spoke up, and in a soft voice said, “I don’t know what it is, but I like it!” Ashley got his money.

These examples can be multiplied. How much funding, from all the sources that support new music now, comes to us only because the mainstream classical music world is also funded? Quite a lot, I’d bet. And what would happen if the classical music world started to collapse (more seriously, I mean, than it’s collapsing now)? Wouldn’t they get some money we’re now getting, in a last-gasp effort to keep them alive? And why, after they died, would these funders give it back to us? Part of our funding may well come because we sell ourselves as the future of the mainstream.

Though of course, if the mainstream disappears, maybe funders will have to turn to us, because we’ll be all that classical music (or art music in the western tradition, or however you define us) has.

But we’ll lose other things. Composers do get work from mainstream institutions. They play our music; they hire us as composers-in-residence. How much work and how many performances would we lose if the mainstream went belly up, no matter how small a part of their focus we might be? We teach at music schools. Would we lose those jobs, if music departments—structured as they are around classical music—folded, or changed dramatically? How many performances do we get at music schools?

And where would musicians come from? What would happen if we wrote for orchestra, or if we wrote operas? Who’d perform those pieces? Of course, many of us don’t write in formal concert styles, but many of us do. The death of the classical music world as we currently know it would send shock waves into our community. Are we prepared for that? How about music publishers? They sell our music, but they can do it, at least in part, because they sell the older stuff as well.

Wait, though. I was the one who first said that classical music might well die. So in some ways I’m the one predicting this. And Kyle offers a solution. After all, even if classical music as we know it disappears, it won’t happen overnight. We won’t wake up one morning and find—after, let’s say, the sudden death of Lincoln Center and the Cleveland Orchestra—that we’re composing in the midst of ruins, and now we don’t know what to do. All this, if it happens at all, will happen gradually, and doubtless some kind of new world will emerge from the old one. Kyle shows us what that new world might be. A concert world built on old music might transform itself into one built on new work.

The question then might be how large that new world could grow. Would it be as big and powerful as classical music as we know it now is? Maybe not. Maybe we’ll never have as much support as Beethoven, whatever the enterprise of playing Beethoven (and playing, and playing, and playing him) in the current world might mean. Maybe the question goes like this: Are we a feisty, under-funded corner of the classical music world, or are we our own form of alternative music, standing on our own apart from Lincoln Center and the Cleveland Orchestra, making our way alongside world music, underground dance music, and non-mainstream jazz.

I think we’re both. As an enclave in classical music, we still get more support than we might get as a genre of our own. But because we think we’re still part of that large, uncaring mothership, maybe we neglect some opportunities. Here one model for our future might be Bang on a Can. Sometimes they’ve worked in the mainstream. They had CDs released by Sony Classical; they’ve held their marathon at Lincoln Center; the Bang on a Can All-Stars have performed there. In all these cases, surely they were getting money only available because of Bach and Beethoven. But otherwise they’ve been on their own. How much of their support is completely separate from the classical music world? How big could they, or another institution like them, grow if the classical music world should disappear?

And now some other issues. I could write endlessly about the things that everyone brought up. Poor Beethoven, for instance, whose name always gets slammed around whenever we talk about the future of classical music. Many people talked about his popular success. But let’s not exaggerate it. During the last part of his life, the most popular composer in Europe, by miles, was Rossini.

It was, in fact, during Beethoven’s last years that the very notion of classical music emerged—the notion of a music that stood apart from what was popular, because it was more artistic. According to William Weber, a historian whose book, Music and the Middle Classes, ought to be required reading for anyone who talks about these questions, people in the first half of the 19th century talked, much as we do, about popular and classical music. Classical music was Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, along with composers like Mendelssohn and Schumann who followed in their wake. Popular music was opera and Paganini. Popular music was far more popular, and got denounced, says Weber, much as Elvis was denounced by conservatives in the 1950s. So when we say that Beethoven was popular, we should carefully define exactly what we mean. Popular among which people? How many of them were there?

But the discussion that most intrigues me is the one about fascist dance music. That started last month with Daniel d’Quincy, who, after saying that he’d been a pop musician, playing with the likes of Gladys Knight and Donna Summer, wrote:

Pop has a way of getting certain juices flowing. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and it seems to me that, especially when it comes to things like disco, some of those juices are distinctly fascist in content.

Kyle then wrote:

I was interested in d’Quincy’s comment that the “juices” of some disco and dance music are fascist—harks back to Cage‘s identical comment about Branca‘s Third Symphony at New Music America 1982. I’ve always had that feeling about a lot of pop music myself, that it’s intended to make the listener/dancer relinquish control and lose him- or herself to the physical beat, in such a way that the pitch/harmonic content doesn’t matter—much like military music and political rallies which can work a crowd into a lather and then sell them anything.

And then Brian Newhouse:

If that sort of musical experience is to be equated with fascism—and there is a parallel with fascist glorification of the Fearless Leader—what does it say about us that so many of us enjoy that kind of musical experience, even though we decry its political equivalent?

And from Lindsay Eck:

True, jerking to the beat was mindless but, unlike the marching at Nuremberg to a military beat, the dancing was not followed up by any attempt to indoctrinate or exploit. There was no ideology at all except for “Shake Your Booty.”

Now, I’m not going to tell anybody what music they should like, and I’m not going to defend disco (or attack it). But what surprises me is the mind-body split everybody seems to endorse, at least implicitly. Why should we assume that dancing’s mindless? Why should anyone demean it as (merely) “jerking to the beat”? And if it really should be mindless, why would that be bad? Do our minds really have to be in control, every minute of every day? In any case, does dancing really make us lose control? And what kind of control would we be losing? Here, since Kyle was kind enough to play devil’s advocate with me, I’ll do the same for him. (I only wish I had occasion to wish him happy birthday, as nicely as he wished the same for me.)

To begin, would we say that any music with a steady beat is mindless? How about African drumming, with the dancing that goes with it? How about gamelan? Well, sure, somebody might say, those styles are fine, they come from healthy cultures, but rock/pop/disco/house/techno, that’s another story. That’s cruder music, more contrived, less varied, less developed.

And maybe it is. (Though if you ask me, there are tasty compositional niceties in lots of techno tracks, but let it pass.) (And isn’t there a danger here of playing a venerable but none too attractive game, called “any century but this, any country but our own?” I’m vaguely quoting or paraphrasing a line that I think comes from Gilbert and Sullivan. Help me, somebody! Anyhow, we might be liking grooves and dancing from other cultures, safely distant from us, which we can idealize. But when these grooves come close to us—run! It’s the end of culture!)

And do we really think that people dancing in a club are suddenly like Germans at a Nazi rally? Start with the historical fact that disco culture grew first among blacks and gays, not exactly prime recruiting ground for Nazis. And that freeform dancing, of the kind you see in clubs, emerged among white people back in the ’60s—among hippies, who weren’t exactly Nazis, either.

And also there’s a counterimage. Picture people dancing in a group. They could be joined together, united in community, celebrating something joyful. I’d also think that there’s a difference between dance music and a military march. That difference is rooted in the body. Dance music, physically, makes us loose. Or at least it does for people who like dancing to it. Military marches make our bodies tight. When soldiers march, when brownshirts saluted at a Nazi rally, they hold (or held) their bodies stiffly, locked erect. That’s far from dancing. Dance music fosters relaxation; fascist music fosters tension, violence (to your body, first of all), and forced unanimity. If you go to a dance club, you’ll hardly see two people dancing in the same way. (My favorite memory of a dance club, actually, has nothing to do with dancing. One timeless night in the early ’90s, at Sound Factory, somewhere between 2:00 and 5:00 A.M., I saw a guy in shorts, sitting right on top of one of the enormous speakers, paying no attention to the dancing or the music as he calmly read a book.)

Which brings me to the mind-body split. This goes far back in western culture. The body, the West has long believed, is unreliable. It’s sinful, and needs to be controlled. The mind is what controls it. We have minds; we’re good. Animals don’t have minds; they’re physical, they’re dangerous, they’re violent. (“You animal!”) Children’s minds are undeveloped; they can’t control themselves. Oh, and “native” peoples (including, in America, our own citizens of African descent)—they can’t control themselves, either, or so white people used to believe, so it wasn’t a surprise to learn that their “native” music featured pounding drums.

Ours, by contrast, is controlled by reason. It’s full of pitch relationships on which our minds erect imposing structures. So classical music is good. It comes from the mind. Dance music is bad; it comes from the body. But haven’t we learned that we can’t keep our bodies down? (And that we can’t repress “native” peoples, either?) Or that when we disparage drums and dancing, that maybe we’re rejecting a vital inner part of ourselves? (I once saw a free soul at, of all things, an Alfred Brendel concert, pounding his fists to Beethoven, giving at least partial vent to lusty body rhythms.)

And no, this doesn’t mean that Kyle should write music with a steady rhythmic groove (or, for that matter, that I should). But I am surprised to see a line of argument like this emerge. I thought, or hoped, our culture had moved beyond that. I don’t mean that everything that happens in dance clubs has to be wonderful; of course it isn’t (drugs, violence, mob control).

***

But I do see the emergence of jazz and rock & roll in white America as a correction of the lame old Western view of mind and body—as, in fact, one way that the dominance of western culture at last has been eroded, giving our western bodies freedom, making us more tolerant and less uptight. (And please, no screeds against George Bush here. We have problems in our society. But just compare the way we look at women, dark-skinned people, and even foreigners, compared to how we looked at them in 1903. We’re worlds ahead of that. The left political response to this might start with Herbert Marcuse‘s concept of “repressive desublimation,” the apparent liberation of repressed energy that in fact remains repressed. Like half of America, jumping up and down in aerobics classes; that’s physical, but is it liberating? Or Condoleeza Rice as national security advisor. A black person can rise high in a right-wing administration, but does that advance black culture?)

There’s a long, fine essay on this (on, that is, the way rock and jazz brought physicality into Western culture) by Michael Ventura—”Hear the Long Snake Moan,” in his book Shadow Dancing in the USA. Here you’ll find an argument that it’s precisely through pounding beats and dancing that our minds get freed. Or, as George Clinton so famously put it, in a universe of funk and rhythm that seems worlds away from all the talking we all (including me) do here: “Free your ass, and your mind will follow.” What would happen if we all danced for an hour before we wrote another word?