Stealing the Devil’s Fiddle

Not a lot of blogging going on here over the last few months. What to write about music when the world is blowing up around us? Fiddling while America burns, and all that…

There is something to be said, something to be found in our work as musicians that can meet the moment and move us to a new place, a new understanding, but I’ll be goddamned if I can figure out what it is. I’m going to try anyway, but the combined plagues of the past year have left me stunned and stupid; I haven’t even had Covid and I still feel brain-fogged.

Little triumphs: at the start of the pandemic my wife, Caroline Stinson, and I started doing concerts on our porch for the neighborhood. Intended at first as a gift for all the shut-ins on our block, it quickly became apparent that we needed it as much as they did, needed to perform for someone we could see, whose energy we could feel, needed to feel needed by other human beings seeking musical connection. People started coming from around the area, bringing lawn chairs, setting up on the curb, distanced while grooving to Bach, Haydn, Honegger, Coltrane, improvisations, whatever we could throw together on a week-by-week basis. It transformed our spring and summer. One good thing.

Teaching has also been a blessing. Fall was weird, like some masked, alien courtship ritual, bodies taking up their positions at 8-foot intervals, a somber, distanced cortège at ingress and egress, half the class Zooming in from Seoul, Ankara, San Francisco. And yet we made it work, felt the current of elation that bound us to Black, Brown and Beige of Ellington, Milestones and Bitches Brew of Miles, 9 Levels of Greg Osby, and felt it running between us, one to another, closing the gaps that separated us. We also shared the chill dread of facing down the minstrel show; the terror of touring the South; the offhand dismissal of an entire cultural tradition by the Classical establishment; the sotto voce tarring of Ellington as uppity for having the temerity to imagine a Jazz symphonic in scope, presented in a temple of high culture; Miles beaten by cops as he stood outside Birdland between sets. The racism that runs through the Jazz narrative as a volatile, lethal accelerant was mirrored in the streets around us like a malefic instance of quantum entanglement. The racist past gave context to the violence of the present; the present laid bare the evolving now of the past. And we lay awake at night, the thoughts looping in deafening orbit around our heads: what if I get Covid? will the election go off as planned? will democracy survive? will we be consumed by hate? And, most of all, what can we do?

What can we do?

We have a Black Lives Matter sign in our yard; two, actually, one the standard-issue lawn sign from the BLM website, the other made by a local artist. Virtue signalling, yes, unfortunately there is probably that aspect to it, it must be said. But at the same time the signs form a curtain of strength around the area, stretching well beyond our little university bubble into the suburbs and countryside beyond. I’m proud of Durham for that. And they tell friends who stop by our porch, as well as the faithful cadres of delivery workers who keep us well-supplied during the weird times, virtually all of whom are people of color, that in our yard they’re on friendly ground. That is not nothing.

But it’s not much of anything either. Of course throughout the summer and fall we marched, we wrote letters to voters in swing states, gave money, wrote senators and congresspeople, worked (we’re still working) to open up representation in our music festival, and have aspired to kindness, compassion and respect for all with whom we’ve crossed paths, the while maintaining an imaginary six-foot blast wall around ourselves. And like musicians everywhere we’ve created, we’ve streamed, written pieces in response to the twin plagues of Covid and hate, dedicated performances on our porch to the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, countless others. Many artists have done much more, with a much broader platform, to raise consciousness, raise a fist, say the names. It’s all essential. And yet the tide of hate rushes on.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone, this murderous flowering of racism. It certainly hasn’t surprised Black folk, nor has it come as a shock to immigrant or LGBTQ communities. And any white people paying attention could have followed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s monthly advisories over the last forty years which have laid out the threat in no uncertain terms. The tea leaves were written in neon: WE ARE IN TROUBLE. And yet…

Back in 1988 I wrote an orchestra piece called The Train. Based both in spirit and in rhythmic shape on the words of Dr. King and Sojourner Truth, it was intended as a rumination on the nation’s still-evolving history of racial injustice. The piece got around a fair amount for a few years, which made me happy for all the obvious reasons but also because I hoped it might quicken the conversation just a bit, might get the molecules of discussion dancing just a little faster. At a pre-concert event in Los Angeles I was asked, “But why this piece now? Where’s the urgency?” I answered, “Because racism is the number one problem facing this country.” Huh?? Really??! Didn’t we get that all sorted out twenty years ago? The molecules stopped dancing, the subject was changed.

I don’t tell the story to suggest that I was prescient, I tell it to state the obvious: The Train didn’t prevent one mortgage from being denied a black family, didn’t save one person from inadequate health care, didn’t ameliorate the asthma of one child cursed by environmental racism, didn’t come between one young black man or woman and a policeman’s bullet. It did express both my reverence for the civil rights movement and my alarm at the current state of affairs, and it certainly assuaged my conscience. And perhaps it got a few people thinking, inspired some reflection, some renewed sense of activism on the part of someone who had thought the matter settled. It was not a waste of time, it was a work of art. It lives on as a trace through which one can access one specific, personal experience of a collective tragedy, and that has value. But it had no material impact and, even as a kind of musical homiletics it couldn’t possibly reach across oceanic cultural divides and speak to the people who needed to hear it most. Decades before Facebook The Train’s whistle echoed inside its own finite chamber.

Of course the main objective in making socially conscious art is to bear witness, to say “Here it is. What are we going to do about it?” The Train certainly does that. I’m wondering at this point, though, whether those of us who are committed, however imperfectly, feebly, awkwardly, to work for the tearing down of structural racism need to keep bearing witness to each other. There is power in the mutual support such witness provides, but its echoes keep reverberating across the same rounded, resonant landscapes. We now have at our disposal an incredible range of tools for the remaking of our racial consciousness, a rich and quickly-expanding library of works by Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nahisi Coates, Henry Louis Gates, Mikki Kendall and many others (not to mention the literary canon we should have been reading in the first place: DuBois; Wright; Hurston; Ellison; Baldwin; Morrison; Wideman, et al. Say the names!) that taken together have utterly transformed our awareness of the pervasive, endlessly-mutating nature of racism and our complicity in perpetuating it, however inadvertently, however much we thought we were doing the opposite. The term now on our lips, the only one that can possibly do justice to the reach and foundational nature of the thing, structural racism, has become an irreplaceable part of speech in the national conversation. For anyone ready to take the first steps toward rewiring the archaic cultural circuitry imprisoning them in an imagined hierarchy of bogus racial categories, help is on the way.

Not everyone is ready to take that step. As the past few weeks have shown us, there is now a monstrous amalgam of creeping, sulfureous, disjointed forces unleashed upon the nation fueled not only by systemic racism, but even more importantly by the ravening, bilious, active force of hate. They’ve been there all along, under the floorboards, but all it took was one infantile, narcissistic sociopath validating and inflaming their sense of grievance to bring them scuttling out into the light. Seen collectively this bizarre consortium of the hateful represents evil in its purest, most uncut, unadulterated form. It must be forcefully resisted and wiped out utterly. Seen as a mass of individuals, however, it presents a different picture, that of fragile, broken, frightened human beings, crippled by ignorance and desperate for belonging, susceptible to a range of increasingly hallucinatory delusions. And we ignore them at our peril. We must reach out to them, but how?

Anyone who has tried over the last four years to have a productive exchange with someone wandering blindly in the Trump miasma knows that it is virtually impossible to cut through the fumes, to see and be seen authentically as fellow souls worthy of mutual respect. This has been exhaustively documented by everyone from the Pew Research Center to the late-night comedy hosts. The problem is less acute with principled conservatives who hate what has happened to the country but they, unfortunately, are in the minority. We seem to have reached an impasse so deep as to require the solving of magical riddles to cross to the other side. We’d better get to it. And we’ll need to start with something better than “What is your name? What is your quest? What is your favorite color?”, this offered not just as an Easter egg for Python fans, but to say that much of what has been tried so far is at about that level of efficacy and integrity. We tend either to take refuge in wholesale demonization (they’re all nuts, they’re all idiots, just forget about them) or, and this means you, NPR, a kind of flabby, feel-good validation of the looniest, most toxic fantasies in the hope that the fantasist will feel “heard” and thus will begin to listen to reason. This never, but never works in trying to uproot racism and nationalist extremism. There is nothing to be gained in even pretending to understand and appreciate the assertion that one’s perceived station in life is the result of an attack on one’s whiteness.

But listening does not equal validation. There are a number of models out there, from the Truth and Reconciliation rituals in South Africa and Rwanda; to the Rx Racial Healing Circles following the T&R template, being implemented now on college campuses across the country (many thanks to Prof. Charmaine Royal for making Duke faculty aware of these); to the Community Wide Dialogues facilitated by InterFaith Works of Central New York, that allow for the unimpeded sharing of personal experience without judgement, but also without the expectation of being affirmed in one’s opinions. The point is to sit together, listen, and work toward the discovery of commonality, of shared humanity.

I’m wondering if there isn’t a role for music here. Music being perceived as a universal language (it isn’t, but it does often cross cultural boundaries much more effectively than speech), could we envision a musical project of exploring the mechanics of division and proposing a fix? Isn’t this one of the things music does best anyway? What if, instead of always expressing our rage (again, I’m not pointing fingers, for if I do they will inevitably and forcefully swivel back in my direction), we were to work toward a… a what? Like I know. Let’s say, a voice, at once familiar and arresting, a color born of stark juxtapositions, a distinctive rhythmic character, all of the above, a whole aesthetic, joined to a historical, or literary, or dramatic point of departure sharp enough to get at the deep, wide roots of marginalization in this country that connect so many of us.

Better yet, what if rage were still a primary agent in this music, but was directed toward the forces that have divided and conquered white and black working people since the founding of the republic: bosses, both corporate and union, whose entrenched racism has been matched only by their hatred of the poor? How about an opera on the Big Branch mine disaster, with Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blackenship as a Scarpia for the 21st century? Of course Gangstagrass got there first with their song Big Branch, but there’s still room for an operatic treatment. Reaching further back, what about Grover Cleveland’s response to the Pullman strike? Or how about an imagined musical tribunal for the Kochs? For the Sacklers? For Richard Mellon Scafe? Or a monodrama on the life and repulsive career of James Buchanon 2.0, not Lincoln’s predecessor in the White House, but the principal architect of Libertarianism, a man whose hatred of democratic norms landed him clients like Augusto Pinochet, for whom he drafted a new, fascist Chilean constitution (Look it up! Check out Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains). How about a California-based residency that explores PG&E’s role in torching the state and then shutting off its power? Or its collaboration with Enron to raise prices and gouge its customers? That would be something. The thing is, many of the people who stormed the capitol last week, many skinheads, neo-Nazis, Oath Keepers, Identity Christians, Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, many who make up the whole foul tangle of nested resentments and paranoid apparitions that haunt the nation, are marginalized and oppressed, just not by the people they’ve been taught to vilify.

None of this is news, of course, but it does seem to get lost in the shuffle of outlandish and previously unimaginable crises assailing us on a daily basis. We hear vague rumblings of a “forgotten working class”, of depression among middle-aged white men, of the loss of jobs to immigrant workers (a fiction), but little about the landed interests whose program has from the beginning been the separation of white and black workers and the fostering of a sense of white fellow-feeling (that is to say, keeping their eyes off the prize) through the maintenance of a perpetual African-American underclass. The most immediate, most volatile, most potentially fatal challenge facing us as a nation is racism, systemic and overt, and it needs our undivided attention. Whatever is shared by people of different flavors who are buried under the social ladder, it is not being disproportionately targeted, incarcerated and murdered by police. That distinction belongs to black and brown people alone, and we must keep that disparity in front of us at all times. But the causes of active, intentional hate, the rich sources of recruitment for a movement that has already placed an as-yet incalculable number of true believers in the ranks of law enforcement, with the stated intention of fomenting a racial holy war, must be named and eradicated as well.

As for the music that arises from a dive into this mess, a central question would be where it should be performed and for whom. New York, it seems to me, would be less than useless. Building on the residency programs already extant from New Music USA, the Jerome Foundation and others, in cooperation with state and county arts councils, the music should be planted in the communities that need it most. There are obviously myriad political and diplomatic issues here that would need careful attention. But I wouldn’t rule out the project’s potential to connect with seemingly unlikely audiences for new, activist music (one of the two – count ’em! – standing ovations a premiere of my music has ever received was in a high school auditorium in Swannanoa, North Carolina). Any composers who happen on this essay will no doubt take some umbrage at all of this, rightly protesting that they’re already doing residencies in all kinds of out-of-the-way places. That is certainly the case, and the infrastructure those programs have created is exactly what we need to build upon in prosecuting the musical case against divisive and exploitative forces all over the country.

Blogs are often prescriptive, this one included. Cue slide: Where Do We Go From Here? This time around I can offer little other than the suggestions given above. Everything we’re talking about right now is complicated and rendered all but hopeless by the disintegration of truth, of agreed-upon notions of truth, in our public commons. Forget about truth: we no longer have agreement on the need for, or even the existence of, the commons itself. There’s a reason that in the equation for racial healing reconciliation follows truth; without the one, the other is impossible. Whatever else we take on, finding our way back to some kind of shared reality has to be number one on the to-do list, and for that the Left will finally have to reckon with its own responsibility for tearing truth to shreds in the first place; we can’t continue to assume a superior moral posture and simply blame the Right, as we generally do. This is not just one constituency’s problem, and everyone is going to have to work like hell to fix it.

Whatever progress we make in achieving something like a national consensus around truth, respect and racial justice, I know that music will play a role, just as it always has. It won’t make all the crooked places straight, but it can help to wipe away every tear. It can’t magically make racism disappear, but it can give powerful voice to the effort. No matter how limited the impact, if it can escape the closed circle of like-minded composers and new music advocates and get released into a broader community then something like the project I’m imagining will be worth trying. It seems to me that now is a good time, an essential time, to think both about what activist music should say and who we want it to reach.

Why the 9th is Essential

My kids have laminated me in the Ode to Joy. I hear it pretty much every waking hour, on the piano, guitar, cello, hammered dulcimer, whatever is at hand. Our daughter Audrey played it beautifully in her first, Zoom-enabled piano recital. Soon after I find that our son Henry has searched it on YouTube and has pulled up a video with a community orchestra and choir from Sacramento. No matter, the performance is still really good and the piece shines through. You can’t kill it. Then I find several more and we compare and contrast (my favorite is the Proms performance with Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the London Youth Choir). We’ll listen to it fifteen times a day, even in the car (Berlin with Harnoncourt), doesn’t matter. We never get tired of it, and they insist on hearing it again, and if they can’t listen to it they’ll just get back to playing it. The fact that they never get past the tune itself doesn’t matter either: those first few phrases act as a kind of homeopathic marker of the entire symphony, carrying as much emotional charge as if we were hearing the whole thing from start to finish. It’s better if you do that, of course, but if time is short the Ode has magic.

So of course, we’ve talked a lot about it, this benevolent meme that seems to carry all of heaven and earth in its scant sixteen measures, about the melody, the symphony as a whole, the chorus, the soloists, and of course the words. I realized the more we got into it how much I, like perhaps many of us, have taken it for granted all these years. As is the case for most of us, Beethoven is more than a bust on a piano for me, he’s a spiritual father; more than that, he’s among the contemporary composers I value most. I’m not being flippant, and I don’t mean this just in reference to the late works, the ones composers like me generally cherish as giving some kind of prophetic intimation of modernism; I mean it in terms of the whole enchilada, everything from the early string trio to the Hammerklavier. Everything sounds fresh, unexpected, revelatory, formally unshackled, cathartic and transformative. And yet the 9th seems to get shoved aside in favor of Op. 109, or 110 for that matter, or the Op. 59’s, Op. 129, 135, the Eroica, or, or, or, or, or, or…. It’s like the 9th has been cast in marble, an icon of greatness, shorthand for immortal utterance, so much so that when my kids started harassing me with the Ode I was, at first, just a tad dismissive. Stupid, really stupid, and I even knew better. I’d done a pre-concert presentation on the piece for a Syracuse Symphony concert years ago (when there was, alas, still a very special, first-rate Syracuse Symphony) and I’d emerged blown away by what I’d found in a piece I’d assumed I already knew a good deal about. So the process of meeting, coming to understand and then neglecting this signal achievement in human history was clearly cyclical. And here I was again.

But then we started focusing on the words, Schiller’s great cry of shared humanity, and the lines Thy magic binds again, what custom strictly divided. All people become brothers where thy gentle wing abides. I’d told my son that this was Schiller and, perhaps even more importantly, Beethoven saying “So long kings! So long class and so long racism! You’re through here!”, and we had fun making various only-slightly obscene gestures as we sang the tune and kicked the bastards out. When we came to that line a few days later while listening in the car, I lost it, blubbered like a baby, I just couldn’t take it. Allowing for the Parent Effect, which ensures that you will cry at the drop of a hat, often for reasons that remain opaque and to stimuli that are objectively not worth the trouble, it was still a signal moment. For it struck me then, like a laser to the frontal lobe, what Beethoven accomplished just in the setting of those few words, their context in the symphony as a whole, and how as a syntactical process the music has already encoded the meaning of the line before we’ve even heard it sung. More than that, thanks to the power of that process I felt not just a kinship with humanity writ large but with Beethoven himself, this poor, ungainly misfit who couldn’t abide individual people but was overwhelmed by a love for the whole human race so powerful that it all but annihilated him. That love is the power animating the 9th as a symbolic construction, and it just blew up in my face while listening with my kids; I wanted, as we all want when we hear the piece, for it to be, to be real, this embrace of the millions, this kiss to all the world.

In the weeks since, and in this past week in particular, I’ve wanted it even more, wanted so badly to see it realized, embodied, acted out, and almost everywhere have seen the opposite. The vision remains elusive if it has not, in this nightmarish, catastrophic, violent time, utterly vanished.

But at home we keep listening, singing, thumping it out; it is now a constant of our compressed, anxious but still lovely and privileged life in lockdown. And I just grow more and more in awe of it, more open to its fearful power, the fury of its evocation of joy as the birthright of all people everywhere, regardless of how custom has divided them. One needn’t look far into the Ode movement to find that message being graven into our consciousness, as if we ourselves were the tablets atop Mt. Sinai. After the long-breathed melodic arc of the third movement (what is this music? is it grieving? is it serene? is it even possible to choose?), in which the shape described by the melody keeps broadening its repeating circle, a strange attractor tracing a loop of terrifying emotional potential, the 4th movement opens in chaos and panic, with a dissonant form of the tonic d minor made excruciating by the addition of Bb in the flutes, oboes and clarinets (to geek out a bit, it’s a tonic 6/4 with Bb laid over the top, a dissonance that not only screams for resolution down to the eventual A of the following measure, but screams against the A already being hammered out in the timpani). After this, or more to the point, as a result of this we hear the improbable yet inevitable-seeming instrumental recitativo, coming from the ground up, through the most lowly, workaday voice in the orchestral division of labor, the double basses. So, taking stock of what makes just the first 9 and a half measures in the movement radical, we have the opening chord and its syncopated placement on the pickup quarter-note; the aforementioned complex of dissonances; and the operatic treatment of the double basses as the principal dramatic voice in a long, fragmented recitativo. And this is all just at the surface of the music.

No sooner has this bass recitativo started then it is cut off by a series of dream-reminiscences of the symphony’s previous three movements. This does more than stir echoic memory, creating a conscious linkage between movements over the course of what for the time, for any time, really, is a very long piece of music. It establishes reminiscence as a structural principle in the movement’s discourse, and it ensures that when we hear, after the first three movements have surfaced only to be interrupted by the basses, the first strains of the Ode to Joy it is as memory, as a reference to something already heard and awaiting development. The phrase even moves (to geek out again) to a V7 of IV in A Major, in other words another unstable tonic, suggesting motion away from A and back to D in a developmental process already under way but just coming into hearing. This is an extraordinary thing to pull off, for it means that when the basses finally sing the tune in full in measure 92 it is as the flowering of something we feel we already know. This effect is just as powerful the hundredth time you hear the piece as it is the first. The placement of the first, partial statement of the melody in the context of cross-cut fragments from the previous movements establishes its tangible reality as something we already know.

This amounts to more than just a re-wiring of our form-and-meaning-making capacities in real time, though it is also that, and that is remarkable in itself. It has implications also for how we receive the text, for when we are told that joy is a divine spark that breaks down barriers of convention to make all people one, we receive the message, along with the melody, as something we’ve always known, something we recognize as being basic to natural law, to the divine order of the universe. Rather than a storming of the Bastille, an act of rebellion, it’s the claiming of one’s natural place in the cosmic social architecture; not something to be demanded, but something that was there all along, to be rightfully taken. If it upends the long-sanctioned prerogatives of kings, popes, and all who would keep the world’s riches for themselves then so be it. Resistance is futile.

This squares perfectly, of course, with the enlightenment ideals at the heart of both the American and French revolutions but, unlike those world-changing yet ultimately murderous exercises in the acquisition and maintenance of power, Schiller and Beethoven’s vision is of a revolution that was accomplished eons ago, in the creation of the universe, by a (decidedly Deist) god who willed it so. That Beethoven does more than just set the text in an effective or even beautiful manner but actually causes us to experience its meaning as a musical/discursive process is central to our understanding here. In musical terms it amounts to the rejection of polemic in favor of an experiential proof of the poem’s truth. Rather than just declaim the words, or even to text-paint around them, Beethoven allows us to live them through a direct, unfolding cognitive relationship to the work’s always-evolving structure, itself an embodiment on every level of the text’s ferocious intention, its sense of agency, as if the words themselves were composing their own incarnation as music.

Everything to come in the movement advances our quickening relationship to the text: the “Turkish” march, with its stereotyped bass drum and triangle, there not to invoke the exotic but rather to welcome Austria-Hungary’s ancient enemies into the joyful fold of humanity with the words Go on brothers, your way, Joyful, like a hero to victory; the transfigured, trippy setting of Be embraced , Millions! This kiss to all the world!, with its eventual summoning of the creator above the starry canopy amid echoes of Palestrina and possibly Schütz; the recapitulation, in which the Ode melody appears in an entirely new variation, becoming the basis for a massive double fugue joining the conceits of joy as an independent force with the god who lives beyond the stars; and finally, a formal process that embodies two common archetypes, sonata and variation forms, without fully realizing either, the resulting fusion providing both a sense of inevitability to the whole while allowing each section maximum freedom from what custom has strictly divided. This approach to large-scale form is typical of Beethoven, of course, and is not unique to the 9th; it’s a matter of degree here, the degree to which his determination to engender in us an organic, vivified sense of the text inspires maximum formal flexibility.

All these things are and aren’t important, or maybe it’s simpler to say, they aren’t until they are. In other words, the galvanic experience we associate with the piece, like the one I had in the car, is sufficient, until we’re curious about why it poleaxes us so. Then, in an effort at understanding we find that the piece is messing not just with the rhetoric of revolution, but with things as basic and inviolate as our sense of the arrow of time. Once our thinking on that score is rewired then pretty much anything can happen, and it does. But that’s only possible if we listen through, not just to the Ode but to the whole symphony, that we consecrate 70+ minutes of our time to a dense, challenging, thrilling, mind-altering experience of pure, expressive thought. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to be baffled on the way to being transformed. It is the diametric opposite, the sworn, enemy-to-the-death, of the Tweet. This is why it is essential, to all time, to our time.

There is a popular notion out there at the moment, an explicit understanding among progressives (and, strangely, many populist conservatives, but for different reasons) that this music has nothing to say to us, that it is the product of an archaic, elitist, hegemonic system that is rightly discredited and should not be perpetuated. This is true as far as it goes; it is also nonsense, little more than an ideological smear. What it misses is that the old system, in producing art that privileged individual expression in the context of an exacting creative technique, sowed the seeds of its own destruction and eventual transformation. Without it we don’t get Voltaire, Zola, George Eliot, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Goya, Turner, Francis Bacon, Debussy, Henze, Rzewski, Mingus (yes, Mingus) or Beethoven. This is why, again and again, at moments of extreme social upheaval, whether in Berlin in 1990, or in Chile in protest of Pinochet, or in Beijing at Tiananmen Square, the 9th has been raised as the standard of tolerance, defiance of tyranny, and the unity of the human family. And it is one of THE indispensable anthems of the fragile, now-deeply-threatened American project. I’m not saying it’s the only music that will do. There’s so much that speaks to the moment we find ourselves in: John Coltrane’s Alabama; PE and Fight the Power; Berio’s O, King; Anthony Davis’s X; Mingus with Fables of Faubus and Remember Rockefellor at Attica; Nas and Cops Shot the Kid; Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On; John Harbison’s Abu Grhaib; Jimi Hendrix and Machine Gun. The list goes on and on. What gives the 9th its unique power are its scope, its formal brilliance in the service of emotional revelation, and, maybe surprisingly, its familiarity: when something old is understood to speak directly to a current crisis, when something deeply beloved turns out to contain the seeds of a timeless radicalism, the effect, the expressive power, is exponentially magnified.

My kids gave the 9th back to me, put it right in my face in this time of Covid, and now in these days of the brutal tearing away of the bandages that have hidden the foul cancer of American racism and racial violence. Listen to the 9th! Sing ALL PEOPLE BECOME BROTHERS, correcting for pronouns, of course, cry your eyes out, then say GO TO HELL! to all who would murder and keep down our brothers and sisters. Then say the names, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. That will just about get you through the last three weeks. Then keep going: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan Mcdonald, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Walter Scott; keep going, back to Eleanor Bumpurs and James Byrd Jr. and Michael Donald (and, as of January ’21: Rodney Applewhite; Jacob Blake; Rayshard Brooks; Damian Daniels; Joshua Feast; Andre Hill; Deon Kay; Dijon Kizzee; David McAtee; Daniel Prude; Marcellis Stinnette) keep on going, it never stops, for the past is never dead, it’s not even past, as Faulkner wrote and Beethoven proved a full one hundred twenty-seven years earlier. Then teach your children, your students, your colleagues, speak up, march, make music, demand more, more, more. Do it again and again.

Say the names, sing the 9th, weep for this nation, repeat.

Keeping it Real?

I am haunted by the J. Evans Pritchard scene from Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams, as Mr. Keating-as-Robin Williams, has his charges read aloud the formula for the “Pritchard Scale” from their poetry textbook, only to dismiss it as “excrement” and order them to rip it from the book. There are many things to ponder here, not the least of which are the implications of what amounts to a kind of proto-progressive book burning (did we really need to hand the Right the raw meat of our violently purging ideas we don’t like and then destroying the evidence?). But that’s not what most concerns me at the moment. It’s the idea that Pritchard’s valiant but misbegotten attempt to quantify poetic greatness amounts to a zero-sum game, one in which an admittedly narrow and unimaginative aesthetic yardstick must be expunged utterly, to be replaced by an approach in which the only viable path to appreciating poetry is for the reader to be carried away on waves of emotion to their own unique, entirely personal understanding. Unique and personal understanding is certainly the destination most of us would want for our students; the nagging question is, how will they get there? And on what will that understanding be built? And are we so certain, in the year of our lord 2020, that waves of emotion are the mode of transport we most want them to take?

J. Evans Pritchard never existed, of course; he’s a personified abstraction, based in part on the real-life scholar and prolific textbook author Laurence Perrine, in whose widely-used text Sound and Sense a version of the “Pritchard Scale” text appears. Let’s agree that we don’t want our students, or anyone for that matter, grading works of art with an instrument that locates greatness at the highest point between axes measuring constructive technique and meaning. As an interpretive construct, an aesthetic glyph, it is absurd, pitiable, freighted with analytical hubris. But as a way of facilitating the first, halting attempts to understand why we should care about poetry, or by extension any art, beyond a purely sensory, and likely binary (that is, either on or off) aesthetic experience, is it really irredeemable?

It may be obsessive, loony even, to argue pedagogy with a fictional character, but for millions of moviegoers, especially of my generation, Mr. Keating is a living voice of liberation, not just an expression, but the expression of the overthrow of a discredited, oppressive and hegemonic cultural system; for those who love Dead Poets Society (and they far outnumber those of us who don’t), Keating is a real presence, a lodestar in throwing off the shackles of their own emotionally impoverished educations. So I’m not engaging in friendly debate here with Wile E. Coyote, I’m taking on a cultural icon. And I’m here to tell him he missed a golden opportunity to educate his students. By ripping the Pritchard Scale from the book he deprived them of the chance to engage with Prof. Pritchard and to try and understand why he wanted to construct his daffy scale in the first place. A guided application of the scale’s two-axis formula would quickly reveal its limitations, and with them the futility of attempting any absolute aesthetic judgement. At the same time, it would give them a window into the shared need to understand the relationship between what is being said and how it is being said. Having done none of this the students lose the opportunity to grapple with the problem of quality, of assessing a work and then constructing a meaningful artistic measure that allows for an evolving, conscious relationship to everything from one’s own guilty pleasures to works deemed essential to the canon. More than that, they lose the chance to enter into the maintenance of that canon, to understand its significance to culture while at the same time interrogating it, criticizing it, demanding its transformation. With the right teaching the “Perrine Scale” could be a subversive tool rather than a cudgel of numb intellectual conformity.

My purpose here is not simply to beat up on Dead Poets Society. Others have already taken that on, most notably Kevin Dettmar in his Atlantic article from a few years back, Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities. I’m more interested in the long term impact on music culture of a now multi-generational reaction against Modernism and what one might call an aesthetics of construction, in favor of a Keatingesque aesthetic of personal assertion. Why assertion? Because the phenomenon I’m trying to describe is one in which the assertion of personality replaces the expression of a genuinely personal creative voice, one heard first as spiritual force and then revealed as the product of a deep technical practice. In other words, a personality that speaks clearly and powerfully because it has found the necessary constructive means to do so. It has the requisite chops.

That technique is a dirty word in much recent music-speak, whether around classical or pop music, will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever read a review of Coldplay. Thrummed repeatedly for being trite, weepy, and simplistic, they are most viciously trolled for being too good: for arrangements too beautifully realized; melodies too expertly constructed; textures too rich and sonorous; production values too high; or, as a New York Times review put it back in 2005, “not having an unconsidered or misplaced note” on the entire album in question (in this case, X & Y). I’m not a huge Coldplay fan, and I share with many of their critics a concern for the robotic precision expected of performers in a time largely defined by recorded music. What I’m startled, and disheartened by, is that on every other point the criticisms are vague, ephemeral, emotionally charged; there is a quality of deeply incensed lashing-out that makes them often funny to read, but hysterical and wholly ineffectual, like getting mad at the weather. On the subject of technique, however, they become precise, well-documented, and weirdly Javert-like in their determination to hunt Coldplay down and force them to answer for their sins. There are other bands that have enjoyed Coldplay’s level of success with, as the Times put it, “moony high school girls and their solace-seeking parents”, but they are not consigned to the same lower circle of hell as are Chris Martin and company, and the reason seems to center on this issue of technical precision. Apparently no one this good should be this popular.

Were it a matter of the band being dismissed as merely technical I’d get it. I experience my own Gethsemane moment each week when my daughter gets to watch a few episodes of her beloved Sophia the First on Netflix, and I hear the Disney song factory cranked up to a near-apocalyptic pitch, producing songs of technical perfection proclaiming the joys and perils of the Disney-princess life, songs I loathe and yet cannot for the life of me get out of my head (Why is she allowed to watch, you ask? Do you have a 5-year-old? Never mind. I know many strong, defiant, brilliant young women who went through their Disney-princess phase. Check back with me in a year). From the deeply problematic Disney mythos to the work of Leni Riefenstahl examples abound of technical brilliance being put in the service of the morally repugnant. But Coldplay hardly falls into this category.

No, one suspects that somehow the band has been tarred with that soviet-style brush of all-purpose condemnation, of “not keeping it real”. In music this accusation carries a particularly venomous charge, and is hurled without warning even by artists of other disciplines who themselves are highly skilled, exacting craftspeople, but who like their music raw and unadorned. The more out of tune, rhythmically feeble and vocally paint-removing the better. In the unintentional but no less viciously racist group-think of some corners of the Left, the fiercest of this opprobrium is reserved for African American artists who are deemed not sufficiently “black” by virtue of their technical sophistication. Thus, Robert Johnson or Big Mama Thornton, good; Earth, Wind & Fire, or Prince, bad. That both Johnson and Thornton were, in their respective styles, also highly technically accomplished seems not to register at all.

One would think that this attitude would not obtain in classical music criticism, but one would be wrong, at least where composers are concerned. Performers are still held to a technical standard that often drowns out any mention of expressive imagination or interpretive intelligence; instrumental and vocal technique are given the status of a god, or maybe, more to the point, a golden calf. This is less true in online journals that cater to a highly informed readership, but in the major media outlets performative athleticism, leavened here and there with references to “delicacy of phrasing” and “intimacy of utterance”, still rules the roost. Of course, even a superior technique cannot shield a performer from abuse when they stray from interpretive orthodoxy in the 19th century canon. Patricia Kopatchinskaja learned this the hard way in L.A. last fall when scorn was heaped on her Tchaikovsky concerto as being mannered and distorted. She stood her ground, pointing out that her approach hewed more closely than most to Tchaikovsky’s markings, but to no avail. Classical performers remain tightly boxed in by the accrued residue of interpretive tradition.

Composers, on the other hand, can get away with pretty much anything, as long as they make an effort not to appear too smart; nothing slays at a pre-concert talk like a folksy antipathy to crazy modern music. “I’m not like that”, we essentially say, which is code for “you’ll like my music, really”. Presenters, conductors, and the press buy into this, and the audience (always smarter and more open than they’re given credit for, but still looking for a way through the labyrinth) feels they must go along in order to be in on the joke. The dead elephant in the room is the whole history of post WWII music and its whipping boy, serially-based high modernism in all its forms. Often composers of a certain age (well, my age, and a little older, to be precise) summon the aesthetic dragons they were forced to slay in their youths as if they were still circling the hall and setting it ablaze, even though the war they seem still to be fighting was won somewhere back in the early 1980’s, when the old serial order was definitively overturned. Since that time nothing has given critics more fodder for their cannons than even the possibility that a composer is working according to some unholy system, unless, of course, the system is one in which literal repetition is subject to gradual transformation. I don’t have it in for minimalism, I’m down with the majority that considers its masterpieces, especially those of Steve Reich, to be among the great creative achievements of the last 100 years. I just wish that critics, scholars and anyone else who writes about music, would recognize the hypocrisy in denouncing serialism as inhuman while celebrating minimalism as nothing short of divine revelation. Taken at face value this has primarily to do with minimalism’s surface (sensually triadic) vs. that of stereotypical modernism (angular, disjunct, dissonant), but the bad blood goes much deeper than that.

Steve Reich acknowledged that in conceiving of music as gradual process he was rejecting one system in favor of another, and clearly articulated the difference between the two: it wasn’t system he despised, he simply wanted his to be audible. Never mind. For the legion of critics who glommed onto his music in the mid-70’s it was all about the hypnotic, trance-like, indeterminately spiritual nature of the experience (Robert Christgau wrote of Music for 18 Musicians that it “sounds great in the evening near the sea”). The idea that one would drill down into the phasing and gradual turning of the variations and actually hear the process at work seemed to occur to almost no one, other than a frustrated Steve Reich. This convenient refusal to acknowledge the technical rigor, the constructive genius of Music for 18 left critics free to assail composers on the other side of the aisle as mad scientists of a horror-movie form of musical AI.

The terror has abated somewhat in recent years, with a resultant, gradual opening of the critical imagination, but the superstition that fueled it remains deeply rooted in the cultural psyche. Take the case of Boulez, for example. After being pilloried for decades, especially in the States, for having been in his youth not only an aesthetic Dr. Frankenstein but a pugnacious loudmouth to boot, he achieved the status of musical granddad, with both his conducting and his music being increasingly viewed with reverence, even love. But when critics (I use the term here broadly and not limited to those who write reviews for a living) turned against him, as they did up until his death, their complaints turned most often on the imagined Klingsor’s Wound of his technique, no matter that he had not employed the technique in question in over fifty years. The stain of his having had the audacity to imagine a new constructive basis, in integral serialism, for music after the second world war not only could not be washed away, it seemed to make him worthy of being tied to a rock and having his liver consumed on a daily basis by avenging eagles.

But Boulez was more than a composer/conductor, of course, he was both a cultural and political force, one who became emblematic of the hegemonic aesthetic doctrine that became, for many composers in the 60’s and 70’s, a kind of metastatic incarnation of the Pritchard Scale. Rigid, dogmatic, hierarchical and unyielding, it permeated the entire contemporary music funding and performance infrastructure with terrifying malignancy. Operating with the cold efficiency of what in New York politics is known simply as “three men in a room”, the various panels and foundations serving as high-culture bouncers stifled the innumerable voices who chose to reject the postwar norm as a viable creative option. A delicious irony here, one generally missed thanks to a seemingly willful historical ignorance among many in our current gate-keeping ranks, is that this oppressive system was itself a repudiation of an earlier, discredited hegemony: that of the whole sweep of European romanticism, seen as having reached its apotheosis in the war itself and, most importantly, in the Holocaust. As Boulez put it by way of explaining the fractured, improvisatory rhythmic sense of his music, “when I hear” 4/4 time “I hear marching.” But, this initially radical impulse notwithstanding, by the late 70’s it was clear that the modernist vise-grip on new classical music culture had to be broken. Even composers who had come up in and materially benefited from the system, such as George Rochberg (himself a Schönberg/Sessions rather than Boulez/Babbit modernist, it must be said), turned against it.

As for what to replace it with, that question was gleefully answered with an apparently limitless range of options: 80’s collage (pioneered by Rochberg himself); neo-tonality (not really tonal); minimalism; post-minimalism; neo-romanticism (not very romantic); the Bang-on-a-Can ethos; and everywhere identity as a core compositional value; writ large the answer was anything that’s not it. There was a beautiful, life-affirming freedom in this, one that still obtains in and, at its best, nourishes the current contemporary music ecosystem. But with everything gained, something was lost, and Mr. Keating is its poster child. There is now in contemporary classical music no shared basis, no set of first principles, for assessing quality. Any discussion of new music proceeds from the assumption that quality still matters, but when it comes to making the difficult call as to how it should be measured the assumption is revealed to be a mere haunting, a repetitive acting out of a past action with no agency, no point of view, no real presence. We treat the haunting as an actual ghost, an entity to be interrogated, a unifying spirit, when in fact we dare not address it directly lest it vanish. In the resultant void we turn to any number of external factors to justify our own musical attachments: identity; appeals to social justice; genre-bending; relevance to digital culture, to the cult of youth. Every one of these can be, and often are, important, and are legitimate measures of the strength of a work’s relationship to its cultural context. But they say nothing about the music itself.

This amounts to a 180 degree reversal of the old order, in which extra-musical programs and grand social pronouncements around a piece of music were anathema in the sacralized process of determining value. One felt the presence of Hanslick, like the murdered Petrouchka, hovering over the award panels, shaking his fist. Only the music, and for that matter, only the pitches and their internal logic were to be considered in assessing a piece’s worthiness. Of course the panels often got it wrong; how could they not? But they often got it right, and our sense of the discursive potential, the imaginative range, the expressive depth, of music was enriched in the process, thanks to fiercely intelligent, dramatic, visionary works by composers both celebrated and (now) entirely unknown. Be that as it may, we’ve already agreed that the damage done, both in terms of squeezing the bandwidth of possible creative approaches, and in the fact that the system’s rewards went overwhelmingly to white men, made it untenable. But in overturning it we have not, in fact, healed the slowly advancing sickness at the heart of new classical music. Why not?

One problem hiding in plain sight is that our progressivism where style, cultural source and identity are concerned has led us into a weirdly anthropological position vis-à-vis the musics we turn to as we reinvent the concert tradition. All of the source materials regularly mined in making new concert music, whether Carnatic; Balinese; West African; Navajo; coming from jazz; hip-hop; Appalachian roots music; in short, anywhere in the world, are the products of long-held, clearly delineated and strongly argued expressive values and technical standards. Even in cultures in which there is no such thing as “music” as a distinct realm of experience, there are agreed-upon parameters for making and performing social rituals in sound, which allow for a valuation of relative levels of performative success (check out Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s study of Inuit laughing-song games in his Music and Discourse). In lifting those materials from their original contexts and using them as the basis for say, a string quartet, an orchestral work, or a chamber opera, have we lifted the standards as well, or have we placed the elements into a standard-neutral zone in which any attempt at technical evaluation is off-limits? The answer depends upon who is asking the question and why. When we like the result of the process it’s called eclecticism; when we don’t it’s called cultural appropriation. What drives the liking, however, has little to do with music and everything to do with the political lens through which it is viewed.

Debussy increasingly takes it on the chin, for example, for his role in perpetuating exoticism in Western classical music, thanks to his reaping the riches of a variety of Asian musics in his own work. The charge is that Debussy, as the beneficiary of the European rape of African and Asian lands and peoples, is treating the gamelan, or the Khmer classical ensemble, as his own musical rubber plantation, completing the colonial project in musical form. On its face the charge is unarguable, and Debussy clearly guilty. One can argue (as many have) that Debussy, as a product of his time and place, can hardly be held accountable for a system that predated him and in which he was marinated from cradle to grave. But there is no question that he, like most Western artists at the turn of the century, came to view the world’s artistic traditions as a treasure-trove of exploitable resources. Where Debussy’s own politics are concerned the record is helpful but still murky; he was clearly more woke than the average Parisian, but certainly not to our contemporary standards. Mostly he seemed reluctant to weigh in at all, saying most of what he wanted to say through his music. But the music itself stands as exhibit A for the defense. Having gone on the record as deeply respectful of the sources in question, recognizing in them levels of harmonic brilliance and dramatic sophistication far surpassing that of the European music of the time, he then integrates a transliteration of those materials into his own exacting technical practice, rejecting the normative “Turkish” or “Asian” evocations of the supernatural, of the mysterious other typical of his contemporaries, in favor of a fully realized musical syntax that de-tunes and remakes Western music from within. Debussy loved his sources enough to honor them with a music as true to its own principles as they were to theirs.

Of course, one must still reckon with some of Debussy’s music for children, stylized ethnic portraits that are closer to paternalistic travelogue (and from our perspective overtly racist) than to the genius of Pagodes or Reflets dans l’eau; pieces like Le petit nègre or Golliwog’s Cakewalk do nothing to advance the view of Debussy as anything other than a musical colonizer, though in the French imagination of the time they were part of a larger celebration of all things African and African-American. But if Toni Morrison could acknowledge Faulkner as a spiritual father in spite of his having claimed, to W.E.B. DuBois, that the yearly decline in lynchings in the South was a sign of cultural progress, than I guess one can accept that Le petit nègre exists. I just never want to hear it performed. Nonetheless, if Debussy is to be damned, without consideration for the degree to which his adoption and transformation of non-Western elements is both musically revelatory and socially progressive for its time, then who is to be saved?

Contemporary parallels abound, but a particularly vexing one is to be found in the case of Paul Simon vs. David Byrne. Why is Simon still routinely called out for appropriation on Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints, while Byrne is not for pretty much the entire Talking Heads catalog? The two Simon albums are scrupulous, both in the technical mastery of the musical result and in the crediting of the artists involved, both live and sampled. Byrne, on the other hand, performs Once in a Lifetime (to take just one example) over a video montage of religious exoticism, with unnamed African, Japanese, and rural American religious figures serving as backup dancers to his choreographed, stylized parody of religious ecstasy. In the band’s concerts a white-hegemonic pop music norm is perpetuated, with Byrne out front and Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell, Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt behind in supporting positions. It was Byrne’s band, of course, and the music at its best is a galvanizing fusion of New Wave and R&B, so it all makes sense. Or does it? Why pick on Paul Simon but give David Byrne a pass? It would seem that Byrne’s downtown Manhattan pedigree and the perception of him as a cross-cultural trailblazer account for much of the cognitive dissonance here. What is conspicuously absent in most discussion of both artists is what it is that makes the music any good in the first place. There are things people like about it, but that’s as far as it goes. And Simon, like Coldplay, sometimes has his technical brilliance held against him. Not real enough.

The connection with new classical music may seem tenuous, but Byrne in particular and Simon, to a lesser extent, are both now viewed essentially as classical composers. So determined are we in concert music to fit in, so culturally on the ropes, that we have embraced a view of our own art that allows for it to be almost anything. The cultural specificity and the technical mastery that we embrace in our found objects, whether the finding is viewed as celebration or larceny, we flat-out reject in our own discipline. We just like what we like, for reasons that remain opaque. This is, not surprisingly, especially true in the classical press. Take the Times 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2019. Where the new works are concerned there’s not a single window opened into how the pieces work or why they matter, beyond either an extra-musical hook or a specific detail the critic happens to appreciate. These are snapshots, to be sure, but there’s no reason to think that extended reviews would be any different (a work of mine was once dismissed in the Times as “leaden”, with no explanation whatever. I was less injured by the wholesale rejection than I was fascinated to know the reasoning behind it. A bad review can be bracing, hilarious, or instructive, sometimes all at once. So no, I don’t hate the Times. But a single adjective is just cowardice).

All of this flows naturally into the other big problem with our current scene: our confusion around our own notions of quality have led us to adopt a marketplace model of greatness. One of the deficits in the old system was that it encouraged composers into an increasingly hermetic existence, almost entirely out of touch with the broader world of music, to say nothing of the general culture. The drive to turn this around over the last 40 years or so has been, by any measure, a spectacular success. Young composers are now professionalized before they’ve written a note, with websites and social media presences that speak to a level of engagement with the world-as-it-is unimaginable for composers of previous generations. And the most savvy, or at least the luckiest, work at a level of public visibility also unthinkable just a few decades ago. It could be time to turn the focus away from a problem that, arguably, no longer exists (the composer living solely in an imaginary world of her own making), and toward the question of what creative values a young composer chooses to espouse. But in making this choice our once culturally oblivious composer finds that she must now choose based on a new funding model that has imposed a new hierarchical imperative, one no less unforgiving than the old one.

In both crowd-sourcing sites like Kickstarter and Hatchfund and, more importantly, one of the major grant-awarding platforms open to composers today, the money flows through complex mechanisms that reward personality, presentation, and digital likability. With the self-driven sites the deal is clear, unapologetic and, for artists willing and able to play the medium like a violin, hugely effective. Full disclosure: I’ve benefited enormously from both the aforementioned platforms, funding two CD’s and one major commission through them. They descended like benevolent aliens dreamed up by Arthur C. Clarke when they first appeared, and they’ve facilitated an enormous volume of artistic, technological and social creation since. But no one should have any illusions about how they work: the success of a project hinges on the relatability of the artist and the internet-friendly appearance of the proposal (that and the artist’s having a network of likely donors to start with). The evident artistic merit of the work in question in no way figures into meeting the funding target. If the promotional video along with the work samples and the supporting rap around the project do their job then the coffers fill. This is late-stage internet capitalism bent to the will of artists with few other avenues to pursue in realizing their creative visions, an ingenious neoliberal cultural hack.

More troubling are the funding panels ostensibly concerned with artistic merit, but forced in the end to cede their authority to the same market forces as the crowd-sites. “Three men in a room” has been replaced by panelists who never meet, spread across the country, judging work in isolation from each other. Charged with taking into account not just the work itself but also the social media presence and likely professional viability of the projects they evaluate, and deprived of the opportunity to compare notes, to discuss competing notions of quality, they do their best and submit their ratings, only to have the final decisions made by the blunt algorithm of majority rule. Having served on such panels I can say without hesitation that under this system, no less than under the iron rule of serial-based modernism, independent voices incompatible with the values of this new classical marketplace are stifled, ignored, and remain unheard beyond whatever local community of like-minded musicians they have managed to cultivate. Plainly speaking, this is a terrible way to foster a thriving, independently-minded music culture. It encourages conformity not to an egg-headed aesthetic of impenetrable musical logic, but rather to a shallow and fleeting construction of market-friendly hipness, an attitude about music, not the music itself.

There is a staggering amount of excellent music being created right now, by composers of all flavors, in every part of the country. But there is also an alarming surplus of work that is sloppy, derivative, program-dependent, or simply unwilling to demand anything more of its listener than a quick listen and an admiring tweet. Our predicament is that our funding models increasingly create a false equivalence between these two extremes, projecting the sense that for us it’s all the same, it’s all good. In our defenestration of the three men in a room we’ve thrown our critical discernment out the window with them. If panelists doling out the largest share of funds to needy artists are unable to communicate directly to each other their own deeply-held convictions around expressive and constructive quality, how then is the culture to coalesce around a dawning consciousness of its own artistic imperatives? And what does a culture say about itself when it has no sense of its own priorities beyond the effective marketing of a political position? By political here I mean not only in reference to a social justice, or environmental, or indeed any other worthy cause, but more generally a public position relative to the stereotypical memes and tropes of Classical music. I mean the politics of crafting and projecting a persona, an economy of public perception. If this is all new classical music has to offer the world then it is well on its way out. If that’s what we want, if we agree with the young composer who recently opined in NewMusicBox that it was time to “let classical music die” then so be it. But if we believe in the uniqueness of what we do, not the universality or even the greatness (admittedly a 19th-century metric), and certainly not the superiority, but the uniqueness, the capacity to do things that other musics don’t, then it’s time to talk about what we mean when we say that one work is better than another.

I’m not here to say how that should happen, nor what a shared aesthetic standard would look like, should one emerge. It will have to develop over time, as the result of intentional, often combative conversation. That the music flowing from it will perhaps sound little like what I think of as music; that it will encompass vital contributions from all comers, from all corners of the world, black, white (whatever that means), Latinx, Asian, straight, gay, trans, not-yet-defined; and that it will do in ways as yet unimaginable what all great music has always done: strike at the heart of what it is to be human, at every level of the human experience, I have no doubt. But to be real it will need to reflect a standard, of making and performing (and doing both at once), that forcefully expresses the values of a musical community, values communicated through the music itself. A Pritchard Scale, no thank you; a dogma of construction, hell no. But a privileging of music that challenges, that stretches cognition, that moves the listener deeply through its own integral processes, whatever they may be and whatever they may sound like, I think that would be a good start.

Why is this so important? Why can’t we just let Keating seize the day and say that if it makes us feel good, if it makes lots of people feel good, then it’s great, no questions asked? Do we really, in the year of our lord 2020, really need to ask this question? If, in the reliably progressive, left-leaning world of contemporary classical music we damn the experts, photoshop out the problematic aspects of our past, obsessively collect likes and shares, say that a thing is something just because we say it is, with no possible appeal to any aesthetic principle other than a possibly solipsistic view of reality, and let the market decide who among us should advance, should hold sway in the musical commons, then does it really matter how we cast our votes come November? We will have already helped to pave the way for the next rough beast in his slouch to Washington. We don’t want Keating or Pritchard. Believing in our work and in the necessity of articulating its core principles means not following either one of them to our doom.

Can Music Make Us New?

Henry Louis Gates, in his elegiac history of reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, Stony the Road, states flatly “While all art, inevitably, is political, one cannot launch a political revolution through art alone.” Gates’s point of reference in this instance is the work of the Harlem Renaissance, as the cultural expression of a so-called “New Negro”, a social and political construct intended to counteract the corrosive evils of Sambo art and the pervasive stereotypes of the minstrel show. What Gates reminds us, and what black artists and intellectuals of the time learned through bitter experience, is that what was needed was not a new negro, but a new white person. The sheer tectonic force of racism in American culture was not about to yield to the undeniable but politically weak reality that African-Americans were not, in fact, childlike yet dangerous savages unworthy of both the franchise and full inclusion in the human family. All the collected works of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Florence Price were not going to make a dent in this grim truth without a sustained, relentless program of agitation and activism. The persistent need for that program is still made manifest in every morning’s headlines, every status update, every cellphone video, every tweet. All of us who hope to count ourselves among the “New White People” forged in the crucible of this work of generations are continually reminded that ours is no salvation by faith alone, but of the daily recalibration of our assumptions, our relationships, our actions as citizens. We often reveal ourselves to be, regardless of our age, very old white people indeed.

All of this is swimming in my consciousness as I sit in a coffee shop in Copenhagen, readying the premiere of a new piece of mine inspired by the work of James Baldwin. Called Now, the Fire, the piece tries, somehow, to conjure an emotional, cognitive experience of the conjunction of seething rage and transcendent love that defines Baldwin’s beautiful, seminal, The Fire Next Time. I feel Gates over my shoulder, gently chiding, interrogating: what do you hope to accomplish with this? Is Baldwin your new negro of the moment? Baldwin would, did of course, have something to say about that. Gates might add In Copenhagen no less? What the hell? All good questions…

I’m not a “political” artist, it should be known. While I’ve composed a number of works with political or social contexts, when it comes to the actual, tangible power of art to effect social change, I’m with Gates. There are exceptions, of course, but they generally have little to do with an artist’s intentions and more to do with the serendipitous alignment of a particular work with a volatile historical moment (Guernica; The TImes They Are a Changin’; or Do the Right Thing come to mind). To project undue political significance onto art is delusion; to imagine art as wholly apolitical is fantasy. The early quartets of Haydn are no less politically charged than the Requiem for a Young Poet of Zimmermann: they both reflect their composers’ relationships to stylistic norms; modes of construction; psychological, literary and cultural contexts; means of dissemination; and creative economies in ways that anchor them in flesh-and-blood political realities.

But of course they are both more than the sum-totals of all that. They are unique traces of thought and feeling, describing varied narrative arcs, enriching the cognitive potential of the listener, all in ways that can be read, understood and felt as entire and self-contained. Their fullest experience comes in the interaction of that wholly constructive level with those of personal and collective history and experience, to be sure, but their integrity as expressive traces is objectively independent: nothing in the score of either is dependent upon our sharing a political worldview with either composer. It can be (and often is) argued that music only really becomes accessible to us when its worldview, when the conscious intention of its creator is known to us, but this, of course, is cultural narcissism of the first order. We stand in stupefaction at the cave paintings of ancestors at a 40,000 year remove, without any, or indeed any hope of attaining any, sense of the artist’s daily experience, let alone his or her theology or political philosophy, beyond a basic set of assumptions around a nascent sense of the image as a powerful totem, in what we assume to be a generally animistic spirituality. We don’t have any idea, to use the metric most hallowed at present, whether or not we’d even like these people, let alone think of them as appropriate role models for our children. And yet the paintings reach us.

So what of Baldwin in Copenhagen? At its heart the answer is not very impressive. The group and series that commissioned the piece, the Rudersdal Kammer Solister, were mounting a set of concerts around the image of Fire, in all its various natural and emotional significations. A subset of performances was to be centered on fire as an image of love. I was reading, when the request came, the Baldwin. I wanted, as an American in Denmark, to approach the commission with something unique to my culture, something underrepresented on the world stage to which I felt deeply connected and of which I was deeply proud. And (even more suspect when viewed through a purely political frame) I needed a starting point that could expand into music, something that allowed me to hear, not just material, but argument, shape, a whole musical action. Baldwin.

There is perhaps no single document in the entire American literature of race more direct and unsparing in its expression of rage than The Fire Next Time. Even the title carries an apocalyptic encryption, coming as it does from the spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep, and the line God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time. This is not a portent of post-racial schoolchildren celebrating MLK day but of a culture destroyed by fire as a result of its own wickedness. But Baldwin doesn’t stop with rage, isn’t content with what could have been an excoriation of mustache-twirling villains, but writes with equal passion of the absolute necessity of love in transforming human society. More than that, he states with fierce defiance a personal intention to love whom he will, prevailing pieties be damned. One can read this, of course, as a veiled expression of Baldwin’s identity as a gay man, but one need not go that far (though it is, no doubt, part of the larger picture): he states flatly that he will love white people, even as he declaims without hesitation that there is no good reason not to see all white people as a race of devils. In this he seems perfectly in line with the thinking of Elijah Mohammed, with the result that he is invited to the reverend’s home. But Baldwin will not join up, will not commit to an ideology of demonization: for him the line between looking evil in the face and, at the same time, refusing to take that evil into oneself in an act of violent, mass repudiation, is clear. He will know the white man for what he has proven himself to be, but he will nonetheless love white people when they prove themselves worthy. He will accept the possibility of the New White Person.

Even as I write this I am moved by Baldwin’s fierce humanity, his cultural genius, the elegance and force of his writing. But as a composer, I’m also excited by the tension in his work as a potential musical catalyst. Baldwin’s rage/love dichotomy becomes both an expressive inspiration and a technical challenge: how can I channel the rage, without succumbing to either bathos or melodrama, the Scylla and Charybdis of musical aesthetics, while at the same time infusing it with love, with the possibility of transformation? And how to find a shape, an arc necessitated by the conflict driving the material? I hit on an opening that traces what I think of as a ritual of anger, a litany of phrases gradually spinning out into increasingly dissonant counterpoint; when this goes up in flames it leaves a new kind of litany, composed of unison melody, slow, implacable, itself repeatedly splitting into related but argumentative strands, girded by harmony that is lush, pregnant, always teetering between sensual indulgence and chaos; the fire is always present, in the piano, licking at the edges of the texture, then receding; melody surges up, explodes in the fire gestures, now shared by the whole ensemble, shot through with both the love harmony and the anger ritual, now spread over 5 octaves, now engulfed in rage. Sounds good, right? Hopefully so. If I’ve come close to what I wanted the audience can have an experience of something like what I feel in reading Baldwin. They will not have found a substitute for the book itself, but potentially a parallel, a kind of acting out of its emotional trajectory. If I’ve gotten it right.

Even if I do get it right, what can it mean to my Danish audience? They come with no history of chattel slavery on their soil, no living legacy of Jim Crow. True, they share with the rest of Western Europe a shameful record of conquest in Africa and Asia, as well as profit from the slave trade, relinquishing the last of their stolen holdings only in the 1950’s, but the specific imprint of slavery and its aftermath within their borders is a scarlet letter they are only too happy not to wear. Moreover, they have now constructed and are the beneficiaries of a social democracy defined by tolerance and compassion. Or for the most part, at least. The Danish government’s recently-enacted policies toward refugees and migrants suggest that they cannot claim to be a nation of New White People, not yet, but on the whole that is a cultural, national aspiration. There will certainly be little, if any, resistance to the notion of basing a work of classical music on a book by an African American. Accepting that I can’t micro-manage their response to my piece anymore than I can with any audience at any time, what I’d like as a minimum is for the conflict in the music, and its gradual transformation, its acceptance of its expressive poles as simultaneous and equally essential, to be vivid, palpable for them as they listen. Beyond that, I’d be a fool even to speculate. There will be as many responses are there will be bodies in the hall.

With regard to those bodies, however, there will most certainly be more of them than there would likely be back home. This is not nothing. With two performances comes the possibility that anywhere from two to four times as many people will hear the piece here as would hear it in New York or Boston or Durham. If they take from the performance, the current toxicity of American, and indeed European, politics aside, that American artists care about their own history, about justice, about the role of art in helping to quicken a sense of shared humanity, then I’m good with that. I don’t have to hide and pretend that I’m carrying a Canadian passport.

But back to Gates. Will Now, the Fire by itself change anything? In a word, no. Could it even if it (delirious, infantile, gleeful speculation) were to become a global sensation? Almost certainly not. Could it open a perceptual door, help to slide a long-awaited sense of cultural understanding into place among the individuals who hear it? Possibly, but only if it’s effective as a piece of music. There is at this point no universally agreed-upon set of principles that would definitively answer that question, but I at the very least need to be as certain as I can that I’ve done my best to make it so. And that’s where I see my job as composer most closely aligning with the the political imperative of the moment. To commit unyieldingly to an ideal of construction that I must, as a human being, never fully realize; to return to it, again and again, following a daemon that may seem utterly incomprehensible to my fellows but that honestly reflects what I want to hear; to do that without regard for the accumulation of likes or hits, recognizing that I’m as susceptible to praise as anyone; and to want to follow a musical discussion through an extended process that unfolds over long stretches of time, with multiple potential outcomes; now there’s a political statement. To tip my hand for a moment, the long and heroic legacy of Baldwin, of everything and everyone he represents, has been and continues to be the one, overarching individual and communal concern of my life, at least as far back as my middle school years in New Orleans. Its martyrs were my heroes, its musical voices, both mentors and peers, the forces that made a human being out of me. It feels entirely natural to want to give expression to that in my music. But at this point in our history it could be that the most subversive thing I can do, as an American, as an artist, is simply to make art, and to make it the best that it can be. Artists can’t achieve the revolution, but we can model it. In this our constructive choices, our lives of creative labor, matter; they matter whether or not the work in question carries any explicit political resonance.