Ring of Fire
Indulge me in a thought experiment.
We’re at a high school in a wealthy exurban district. It’s standardized test season. The stakes are high: Competitive merit-based scholarships hang in the balance. But all is not as it seems; little do the teachers know that a ring of students have organized a scheme to cheat on the exam. One student in particular is the beneficiary of this scheme. He’s no fool, and he probably could have achieved a very strong score on his own if he hadn’t been so busy with other obligations, but in this case he’s leaning heavily on answers provided by his friends. His buddies all do OK—none of them wind up digging ditches after graduation—but this particular student, who boasts not only formidable test results but also a compelling and exotic narrative of the sort that admissions personnel can’t resist, wins a hefty scholarship to attend a prestigious school.
When the ring is eventually exposed, the promising trajectory our successful student seemed to be on is spoiled, maybe permanently. His friends are in trouble too, but in the context of the scandal they come off looking more like saps than like diabolical cheaters. However, mustn’t we ask whether the system that stratifies rewards and opportunities so pitilessly, one whose legitimacy is supposed to rest on its meritocratic process but plainly doesn’t, deserves to have most of the fingers pointed at it?
I don’t like Osvaldo Golijov’s music. I think his musical identity-politics synthesizes and presents a phony solution to the real political problems of globalization. (Almost all writings by or on Golijov, including the Amarillo Symphony program note Rob Deemer mentioned in his comprehensive and very fair post last week, will bolster this impression.) However, in the past I always had to give him his props: He did well for himself in a field whose upper echelon admits very few. The institutions who raised him up on their shoulders and offered him lavish paydays saw something in him, evidently, that they found value in. For better or worse, they wanted Golijov.
But they didn’t get him, as it turns out: They got his well-meaning friends, who must be even more embarrassed than Golijov by this whole squalid thing. The foundation of the mainstream contemporary music economy is that famous composers can get enormous consortium commissions because arts organizations acknowledge them as singular, integral creative subjectivities. In other words, large classical music organizations—businesses accountable for dozens if not hundreds of livelihoods apiece—are willing to deal with a composer who misses deadlines and blows off projects because he putatively has something unique and meaningful to say that a (relatively) wide audience ought to hear. My hope is that this situation prompts arts organizations to have a good hard think about this notion: It would probably be much cheaper, not to mention fairer, to commission Michael Ward-Bergman next time.