“Why Can’t We Be Friends”

“[Y]ou don’t have to hate in order to love.” —John Rockwell, Preface to the Da Capo Press re-issue (1996) of his book, All American Music

Earlier this month I got all worked up when Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that youth should “fill their time with sport and healthy recreations instead of music.” As I was growing up, sports always felt oppressive; it was sometimes physically dangerous and almost inevitably instilled a competitive mindset re-enforcing a very destructive “us vs. them” instinct which often leads to poor civic behavior. Music, on the other hand, always seems to encourage sharing: in performing, coming together to create something extraordinary that could not be done individually; in listening, opening your mind and heart to someone else’s ideas; and in composing, to find a way to express something unique for others to experience.

This is admittedly a very starry-eyed view, but it is one to which I have steadfastly held on, not just for music but for all of the arts, with some slight amendations here and there. (E.g. outside of the performing arts there usually isn’t a split between those who creates work and those who recreate it through their interpretation, plus most other art forms are about looking rather than listening or at least looking in addition to listening.) But might it ultimately be somehow naïve to believe that the arts always foster camaraderie and generosity?

Right before I left for California, I read a somewhat sobering essay by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian about how artists must be rivals in order to succeed and that the only way to effectively assess art is to evaluate it, or as he put it: “to be good is to be better than someone else.” And Mark-Anthony Turnage, during the composer talk at the Cabrillo Festival, remarked on how competitive the composition scene is in Great Britain. Sound familiar? Clearly everywhere there are a finite number of opportunities and always more people who want to be heard than the total amount of time there is to hear things. But all of this made me feel somewhat queasy since it is diametrically opposite to the way I approach the arts. I like to believe that there’s room for everyone and that if there isn’t a clearly attainable opportunity for something, a new opportunity can be always be created that will ultimately help more than the person who initiated it. It’s a “more is more” philosophy.

And yet, just about every new movement in the history of Western music—whether ars nova, the Florentine Camerata, the Second Viennese School, the New York School around John Cage, minimalism, even ragtime, bluegrass, bebop, rock and roll, punk, and hip-hop—set itself up in opposition to what preceded it. In fact, the whole notion of “new music” implies that there’s “old music” that’s somehow no longer as vital or valid.

Of course, musical traditions from all over the world get their validation by long histories, sometimes going back millennia. It is great to play Indian ragas, Peruvian huaynos, Shona mbira music from Zimbabwe, even actually Iranian gushehs, because people have done so for as long as anyone can remember. However, such indigenous musics also define themselves culturally and ethnic identity is clearly about being different from people who are from somewhere else.

If all of the above examples aren’t clear cases of “us vs. them,” what is? But in the technologically interconnected brave new world of the 21st century, shouldn’t we aspire to a different paradigm, one that is non-judgmental and all-inclusive—an aesthetic in which the distinctions between old and new or native and foreign are ultimately irrelevant? And might such a paradigm go further in making the case that the arts, rather than being a form of luxury entertainment, provide core experiences for all people?

12 thoughts on ““Why Can’t We Be Friends”

  1. rtanaka

    The kinds of things you’re wishing for would require the new music world to become interested in universals, which unfortunately is very difficult right now because individualism and individual expression seems to be what is popular these days. People nowadays want to be unique, distinct, separate-from-the-rest, and the idea of communicating something is usually cast aside in favor of that. Lady Gaga is the manifestation of that attitude taken to its logical conclusion — an image in constant reinvention, perfectly devoid of any meaning or content. She’s very popular right now because I think she represents the majority attitude of both the pop and art world these days. There might be a reaction to this kind of thing soon, but probably not for a while, I don’t think.

    If you want to win lots of awards and have your music played at prestigious institutions, then yes, you will have to compete with others who want the same thing. But this has nothing to do with what the music is trying to accomplish or say. The idea of competition in art comes from people treating music as if it were an object, for the most part.

    If we haven’t given up on the idea that music is a form of communication, then the idea competition itself becomes pretty silly — that would be like trying to compare the conversation I had with my friend the other day and the one I had with my parents on the other. If you know what you’re saying and whom you’re saying it to, then it’s just a message, rather than a thing-in-itself that you can put on your trophy wall.

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  2. mclaren

    Yes indeedy, in the waning twilight of our decadent decaying capitalist society, even the composers must be good little capitalists. You must crush the competition. Drive your rivals into asethetic bankruptcy! Conquer the concert halls, acquire rival compositional techniques, relentlessly expand your share of the classical market, monopolize the airwaves and the internet!!!

    Shorter Guardian piece: MONGOL GENERAL: “Conan, what is best in life?” CONAN: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!”

    What a sick depraved pathetically dysfunctional view of life as a composer. Only in a degenerate plutokleptocratic kakistocracy like America or Great Britain could such sentiments be uttered without immediately inspiring gales of denigrating laughter.

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  3. philmusic

    “..shouldn’t we aspire to a different paradigm, one that is non-judgmental and all-inclusive—…”

    Yes of course. Frank, I believe that many of my own posts relate to your description of the Hobbesian composition world.

    The “new” kind of composer you describe would be beloved by all. (Or on the other hand perhaps considered a ninny). That is a composer who sees no difference between the public and private or the professional and the personal. That’s hard. Other than you Frank I think Aaron J. Kernis comes close as he also supports styles of music other than his own.

    For myself I think I got the sonic part mastered, yet when it comes to the people part–well that’s another story. I have a hard time forgiving or forgetting.

    Phil Fried No Sonic Prejudice

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  4. Matthew Peterson

    Dear Frank,

    I share your “starry-eyed” idealism when it comes to cooperation between, but I disagree with your idealization of the arts in comparison to sport, which you denigrate. You fall on one side of the debate, the Ayatollah on the other, and I think you’re both wrong.

    Over the past few years I’ve heard many artists casually knock sport (including you in your previous article) and this often stemmed from their own unfortunately bad experiences with it. I was a serious competitive athlete (runner, some ball sports) for almost as long as I’ve been serious about composition, so bear with me as I run to its defense.

    You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m sorry sports were a bad experience for you growing up. However, I think it’s important that artists respect sport and perhaps even give it more thought. Especially if we truly want to have a more complete understanding of any human culture. Both sport and art are distinctly human, both are valuable expressions of human spirit, and both deeply satisfy their devotees. If sport is somehow a lesser expression of the human spirit than the arts, then someone needs to explain that judgment to me, because I don’t think it’s obvious.

    If you do believe that sports “almost inevitably” creative competitive mindsets that are destructive and encourage “poor civic behavior,” I could easily make a similar argument (based on my reading this webpage) about the arts. Please excuse me for playing this “mad libs” with your writing:

    ‘As I was growing up, arts always felt impotent; it was sometimes mentally abstract and almost inevitably instilled a solipsistic mindset re-inforcing a very destructive passive instinct which often leads to poor civic behavior. Sport, on the other hand, always seems to encourage sharing: in competition, giving everything for your team to accomplish something extraordinary that could not be done individually; in being coached, opening your mind and heart and body to someone else’s ideas; and in practice, to learn to use your body to accomplish something remarkable for others to marvel and enjoy…but might it ultimately be someone naïve to believe that sport always fosters camaraderie and generosity?”

    It’s easy to focus on the “worst case” examples: our culture is filled with portrayals (both real and imagined ) of loutish, philistine athletes and effete, elitist artists.

    Back on topic, I think that our art culture could learn something about competition from sport.


    It’s impossible (in my view) for anyone in human society to escape competition. What’s more important is recognizing that, and facing it in the right way. Art is rarely “in competition.” Artists are often in competition. Big difference.

    PS – Ryan – I sure hope individualism and individual expression are ALWAYS popular. Just because someone believes in individualism doesn’t mean that their art will be devoid of meaning or content (look at William Blake). “Humans is humans” and we’ll always have symbols and stories.

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  5. holbrooke

    Frank, you might be interested in the theory of sexual selection that has been gaining more and more traction these days. If I understand it correctly it seems to explain our creative, artistic, and even conscious brains as a sort of non utilitarian by-product of competitive mating, much like the peacock’s tail.

    Personally I find it thrilling to think of our ideas, skills, and innovations as being tiny little puzzle pieces competing for success and a place in the future of our evolving species.

    It is also worth noting that ideas and actions that value sharing over competition are not exempt from the long term struggle for survival. Instead, they are just one kind of value among many that is undergoing the ultimate test of time.

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    “As I was growing up, arts always felt impotent; it was sometimes mentally abstract and almost inevitably instilled a solipsistic mindset re-inforcing a very destructive passive instinct which often leads to poor civic behavior. Sport, on the other hand, always seems to encourage sharing: in competition, giving everything for your team to accomplish something extraordinary that could not be done individually; in being coached, opening your mind and heart and body to someone else’s ideas; and in practice, to learn to use your body to accomplish something remarkable for others to marvel and enjoy…but might it ultimately be someone naïve to believe that sport always fosters camaraderie and generosity?”

    Matthew,

    WOW! Your extremely articulate and impassioned prose very effectively and correctly takes me to task here. Of course, you are right. There are far more similarities between sports and music and both worlds would benefit greatly in learning from each other. Thank you for setting the record straight.

    I admit I lost my cool somewhat with the Ayatollah’s pronouncement since it brought back memories of how sports can also have an extremely negative effect on youths, as it did for me growing up. I was never good at it and was always ostracized. I dreaded Phys Ed classes, and to this day I am incensed that they are a daily requirement in schools whereas arts programs are expendable. Music, on the other hand, was a personal salvation and I did not really “find my tribe” until 9th grade when I wound up at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem in the late 1970s (a.k.a. Fame high school which is now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts in back of Lincoln Center).

    I actually had some good friends who were sports freaks. They were about as into sports as I am into music and our obsessive interest in a subject, albeit a very different one, served as a common ground for friendship when they lived in New York City. In 1996, I even composed a sports-themed piece for their wedding. And I’ve written on these pages in the past how the new music community could learn a great deal from the sports business about how to make what we do more relevant to the world at large. (Sorry, I can’t find the link right now, but it will turn up eventually.) And, irony of ironies, a composer who is often unfairly maligned for a lack of interest in audiences, Milton Babbitt is a huge baseball fan. There is indeed common ground between his compositional matrixes and the rules of America’s favorite past-time. Both use complex systems that yield sometimes extremely exciting and unexpected results. In fact, some years ago, Babbitt and I actually talked at length about baseball in NewMusicBox.

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  7. rtanaka

    I sure hope individualism and individual expression are ALWAYS popular.

    Well, yes — this is why Frank’s ideals will probably never materialize because an egalitarian world cannot be created by a collection of people looking out only for themselves. Western society’s greatest trick, I think, was in convincing its citizens that what’s good for them is in fact good for everyone else, even though it’s a flagrant disregard of common sense.

    Individualism does have its advantages, but in many cases it’s defined in such generic terms that it loses all its meaning when applied into artworks. That is, if the artist is interested in defining what they are doing to begin with, which is something that has also fallen out of style. Nowadays you’d be lucky to find a musician who can coherently articulate what they are doing from an artistic standpoint, much less have the best interests of the world in mind.

    That being said, I agree with the competition thing. Art is not a competition, but artists do compete for various prestige-related prizes so it’s probably not doing anybody any good by avoiding talking about it. Though a fortunate byproduct of postmodernism is that the worth of these sorts of things have been diminished to the point where nobody really cares about them anymore. So maybe there might be more room to talk about art now, rather than strategizing the next plan of winning the next award.

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  8. Matthew Peterson

    Dear Frank,

    Firstly, thanks for the compliments on my prose – that’s a first for me for sure. Also, it’s easy to see why you lost your cool; as if Iranian youths would need one more form of oppression handed down from the Supreme Leader. Finally, school phy ed is a hellhole of bullying (I was always young and small for my class, but was very lucky to at least be fast and good with a ball).

    Lest I paint too rosy a picture of sports, it’s important to recognize what side the “national culture’s” bread is buttered on. Super Bowl Sunday is definitely the most devout day of the year in the US. And I grew up in ND, where music is still solidly in the schools in most towns, so I never had to deal with those programs being cut, thankfully, even if they were never valued (financially and culturally) like the Grand Forks Central hockey team.

    Frank, I’ll leave you with this hilarious image: in 8th grade my teammates and COACHES used to laugh at me when I had to leave football practice to go to piano lessons. Every Wednesday I would dread asking head coach Karlson’s permission to leave drills for piano, so I just wouldn’t do it. Eventually my mother would drive up to the field and start yelling out the window that I need to get changed out of my pads for piano. Which made the laughing continue into Thursday.

    Phil – you’re right about the winning thing. Art and Sport are not analogous. That’s why I tell my athlete and “gamer” friends that sports and video games can never be “art” – they are sports and games. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Ryan – I think you’re getting way too hung up on dualities and definitions. Individualistic artistic tendencies are not some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that lands art in one particular location.

    And how is “Western society’s greatest trick” any different than any other large-scale power structure in the world that has ever existed?? Are you trying to tell me that the Chinese emperors three thousand years ago didn’t try to get their citizens to follow their lead and do what they wanted (i.e. “what’s not good for you is ‘good’ for us all” or “what’s good for us is ‘good’ for you”)? Couldn’t this perhaps explain how the government in China today harnesses the “Eastern Collectivist” philosophy to foster a mass inferiority-complex against the West and discourage and quash individual conscientious dissent? Or the Nazis? Or the Soviets? Individualism ain’t perfect, but it’s a dictator’s worst philosophical enemy.

    I believe that an “egalitarian world” (which may never exist) could only be possible by a collection of individuals acting on personal conscience. And in un-egalitarian worlds, like ours, we need strong individuals – William Blakes and Beethovens and Cages and Wildes, et al – to be able to see the world from outside the accepted norms and lenses of the dominant, “collective” culture.

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  9. rtanaka

    I come from a background where there tended to be a strong emphasis on family and social cohesion, which often stands in opposition to many of the values that exist here in the States. I do understand that mindless conformity can sometimes lead to bad outcomes, but then again, individualism can be just as mindless, as the recent economic collapse should clearly show.

    All I’m saying is that the pendulum could probably stand to swing the other way at this point, and at the very least we shouldn’t be afraid to hold composers accountable for the things they are writing. Otherwise the idea of an individual would be, ironically, kind of generic and would lack nuance due to its lack of specificity. Being an individual is good and all, but if you can’t muster the courage to be transparent about it then it’s probably just political posturing.

    The problems with American individualism probably stems from it being founded on the ideas of the Transcendentalists — writers like Thoreau who talked extensively about the “free” lifestyle while at the same time walked into Concord every day for basic goods and would occasionally get baskets of goodies from him mom while he pretended to be the lone wolf of the jungle. People nowadays are little too smart to buy into this sort of thing, so maybe it’s time we came up with a new myth to keep ourselves entertained.

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  10. rtanaka

    Yeah Phil, I agree, and that’s kind of what I meant by the “trick”. Individualism is an idea, so it doesn’t really exist — no person in the world is completely self-sufficient or self-reliant, no matter how much they wished it was so. It’s also kind of funny to think that some people believe that a mass-produced image like Lady Gaga can come to symbolize personal expression or individuality. But that sort of contradiction is what American society thrives on — that we are all unique, yet in the same kind of way.

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