Posts Tagged ‘Music’

Was surprised to learn a while back that West Side Story (1961) was being remade by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that Steven Spielberg. Among the spurious reasons (I gather) for the frankly unnecessary remake was a desire to recast with actors of the proper ethnic origin. Ugh. Sure, the original actors who portrayed Bernardo and Maria were Americans of Greek and Russo/Ukrainian descent, respectively. So what? Spielberg’s casting didn’t get much closer (Canadian and American/Colombian, respectively), though the newly cast actors certainly look like they could be Puerto Rican. Any further updating of this particular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of many) for today’s woke sensibilities was also foiled considering the plot (starry-eyed, ill-fated, would-be lovers divided by rivalrous families/gangs) remained essentially unchanged and the original 1950s NYC setting was kept. In addition, the original musical score (altered — more on that below) and choreography (updated? I can’t tell) were used. It wasn’t a shot-for-shot remake, and I presume some of the dialogue was changed, but I didn’t make direct comparisons. Lastly, considering the 1961 original won numerous awards, who exactly was crying out for a remake? Unsurprisingly, the remake was also nominated for awards.

Aside: In arts and entertainment media, remakes are restricted to cinema. No one rewrites a book. Restaged theater and musicals are merely new productions. Rerecording a pop song is understood as a “cover” of the original, not a remake. The rather large discography of classical music includes many, many different versions of the same works, e.g., Beethoven symphonies. (Some suggest, “Does anyone really need yet another version of Beethoven Symphony No. 5?” That question loses legitimacy when asked about live performance.) One might argue that those, too, are remakes, except that there is rarely such a thing as a definitive original. Moreover, consider that music is a dynamic art typically practiced live, in real time. A musical recording fixes that experience, whether live in concert or in the recording studio, on a playback medium intended for repeat play. Comparison of different performances can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Further, a recording of a sporting event might be made for more convenient rebroadcast shortly afterwards and/or for archival purposes, but repeat experience (i.e., rewatching the 1985 Super Bowl vs. listening repeatedly to a favorite music album) is anathema when the outcome has already been seen. Similarly, repeat viewing of TV shows and movies is best at wide intervals, after memory of original viewing fades. Cinema, in contrast with music, has always been a fixed form. Cinema is also not understood as a recording of a live experience. Its genesis as playback differs from stage theater or musical theater. (Some critics and superfans — especially the YouTube variety — don’t wait but instead immediately go back in search of Easter eggs and continuity errors.) Finally, only a modest number of TVs shows have been remade or rebooted, whereas remaking and rebooting movies is comparatively commonplace, which has been characterized as “Hollywood out of ideas.” Take note that West Side Story was first a stage musical and only later committed to film.

(more…)

Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

Medieval Pilgrimage

Posted: November 16, 2020 in Artistry, Culture, Music
Tags: , , ,

Listening to the recording shown at left, my mind drifted to various cinematic treatments of Medievalism, including The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia, and too many others to cite. Other associations also came tumbling out of memory, including my review of The Hobbit (the book, not the movie, though I reviewed both) and a previous blog post called “What’s Missing.” That post was a rumination on community and meaning lost in modern technocratic societies. In light of fetishization of the Medieval Period, including for example the popularity of Renaissance Faires, there seems to be more to say about what’s missing.

The Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (English: Red Book of Montserrat), known as such because of its 19th-century binding and its being held the Monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia (a region of Spain), is a collection of devotional texts also containing late Medieval songs. The Wikipedia article indicates that the monastery also holds the shrine of the Virgin of Montserrat, a major site of pilgrimage at the time the Red Book was compiled. Accordingly, its songs and dances were probably intended for pilgrims to the shrine and were part of a well-developed oral folk tradition. The 14th-century manuscript does not identify authors or composers. Furthermore, it predates modern musical notation, so performances and recordings today are reconstructions.

The music on the recording fuses sacred and secular (folk) elements and strongly suggests communal participation. In contrast, the modern concert hall has become the scene of rigid propriety. Audience members try to sit in stone silence (notwithstanding inevitable cell phone interruptions) while performers demonstrate their, um, emotionless professionalism. Live concerts of popular musics (multiple genres) instead feature audiences dancing and singing along, creating an organic experience that transforms the concertgoer into a participant situated in the middle of the flow rather than at the distant receiving end. Middle ground, such as when symphony orchestras perform film or video game music, often draws untutored audiences who may want to participate and in doing so frankly offend others trained to be still.

Is there cultural connection between pilgrimages, processions, and parades? The first is plainly religious is motivation, such as visits to Catholic shrines, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or Mecca. Processions are more ceremonial and may not be religious in orientation. A wedding procession is a good example. Parades are more nearly civil in character, unless one insists on nationalism (e.g., Independence Day in the U.S., Bastille Day in France, Victory Day in Russia) being civil religions. The sense of devotion, sacrifice, and hardship associated with pilgrimage, historical or modern, contrasts with the party atmosphere of a parade, where Carnival, Mardi Gras, and Día de Muertos in particular invite licentious participation. Typical U.S. holiday parades (e.g., Independence Day, Thanksgiving) feature spectators arrayed lazily along the streets. There is even a subgenre of march form (used in band concerts) called a “patrol” that employs a broad crescendo-diminuendo (getting louder then fading away) to depict a military column as it marches by.

I suspect that modern processions and parades are weak echos of pilgrimage, a gradual transformation of one thing into something else. Yet the call of the open road (a/k/a wanderlust) resurfaces periodically even when not specifically religious in motivation. The great westward migration of Europeans to North American and then Americans across the untamed frontiers attests to that venturing spirit. In literature, Jack London’s memoir The Road (1907) describes the hobo life hopping trains in the 1890s, while Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) tells of traveling across America by car. Another expression of wanderlust was penned by forgotten American poet Vachel Lindsay in his self-published War Bulletin #3 (1909):

Let us enter the great offices and shut the desk lids and cut the telephone wires. Let us see that the skyscrapers are empty and locked, and the keys thrown into the river. Let us break up the cities. Let us send men on a great migration: set free, purged of the commerce-made manners and fat prosperity of America; ragged with the beggar’s pride, starving with the crusader’s fervor. Better to die of plague on the highroad seeing the angels, than live on iron streets playing checkers with dollars ever and ever.

Lindsay invites his readers to embrace a life better lived traversing the landscape in a voyage of self-discovery. His version lacks the religious orientation of pilgrimage, but like the Medieval cultures depicted in film and music from the period, possesses tremendous appeal for modern Westerners starved of meaning that arises naturally out of tradition.

The Anton Bruckner symphony cycle recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (the Wing Cycle to some collectors) has long been known to me and cherished. Based on Amazon reviews noting remastered and improved sound over previous releases of the same recorded performances, I decided the relatively low cost was worth trying out Blu-ray Audio, my first such disc. Although the entire cycle fits on a single Blu-ray Audio disc, nine CDs are included in the box. Duplication seems unnecessary, but the inclusion of both may be desirable for some listeners. Pleasingly, original cover art (the aforementioned wing) from the LPs appears on the 2020 rerelease. Shamefully, like another recent set of Bruckner symphonies, DG put the conductor’s name above the composer’s. This practice ought to stop. This review is about comparing versions/media in addition to reviewing the performances. Caveat: a superior stereo system is a prerequisite. If listening on some device not intended for high fidelity (phone, computer, etc.), save your dollars and find the recordings on a streaming service. Both CD and Blu-ray players in my system are connected to the preamp via digital cables to use the better DAC in the preamp rather than those in the players.

My comparison involves four releases of the cycle: (1) original LPs from the 1970s and 80s, (2) 1990 CDs, (3) 2020 CDs, and (4) the sole 2020 Blu-ray Audio disc. All are the same works and same performances. Direct A/B/C/D comparisons are difficult, and I didn’t listen to every version of each, which would have required far too many hours. Rather, I focused on two representative movements well established in my ear: the 2nd movt. (Adagio) of the 5th and the 4th movt. (Finale) of the 8th. Because every recording has its own unique characteristics borne out of the era (typically divided by decade), the engineering team, and the producer, it’s normal for me to attempt to “hear through” all the particulars of a recording to the actual performance. For a recording to be badly flawed or unlistenable is fairly exceptional, and I still tend to make mental adjustments to accommodate what I’m hearing. Similar perceptual adjustments in the visual spectrum known as “white balance” reflect how outdoor lighting and color shift as the sun transits across the sky. Accordingly, there is probably no such thing as authentic or natural sound as one’s perceptual apparatus adjusts automatically, accommodating itself to what is heard to fit circumstance. That said, it’s obvious that some recorded media and listening environments are superior to others.

Easy part first: comparison of (2), (3), and (4) revealed only minor differences at best. A tendency toward bright, treble-heavy equalization was not ameliorated with (3) or (4) as other reviewers suggested remastering had accomplished. With the 4th and 9th symphonies especially, sustained timpani rolls often mask the orchestra and were not appreciably rebalanced or improved. For ease or due to laziness, I tend to cue CDs before any other media. The Blu-ray disc offers substantially the same sound but lumps all the tracks together in one extended, numbered sequence (no track titles). Selecting a particular track is a minor inconvenience and requires the TV screen be on, at least initially. Given that, CDs will likely continue to be the first medium I reach for. Perceptual accommodation may also account for my inability to detect much difference among any of the CDs and/or Blu-ray Audio. However, no surprise to audiophiles and despite their drawbacks, LPs proved to be the warmest, most pleasing sound. A huge amount of gain (volume) was needed to bring the LPs up to the sound level of other media, which overcame surface noise handily. Of course, LPs wear and become distorted over time, and quality of the playback equipment matters quite a lot. But for focused listening sessions, LPs win the media challenge handily.

Hard part second: these performances are remarkable for two principal reasons, namely, consistently excellent (even definitive, some say) interpretations and uniformly sumptuous orchestral sound. Karajan is renowned for his three Beethoven symphony cycles and how he grasps and communicates structure far better than most. The quality is subtle but unmistakable, and the same is true with Bruckner. Like Wagner, Bruckner performance style has developed into a cult of slow in two aspects: passages best realized at surprisingly slow tempos (difficult to maintain and control) and the stately pace at which symphonic form and discussion unfolds. Many individual movements top 20 min. in duration. The Berlin Philharmonic handles them exceptionally well, meaning without apparent impatience or hurry. The Adagio of the 5th is one such example, where the slow introduction exhibits breadth and beauty of tone and critical evenness of pulse (pizzicati in the low strings). Although quite slow, the intro holds one’s attention without flagging, meandering, or luring listeners away toward more obvious excitements. The string tutti that follows immediately is among several passages in Karajan’s recorded oeuvre that overcompensates (for what is unclear) in glorious fashion. My LP is decidedly worn from repeat playing of this movement. No other recording of the 5th (to my knowledge) dares to approach Berlin’s volume and intensity in these first few minutes. Similarly, the Finale of the 8th barrels in with a declamatory tutti that has never sounded better. Everything about this movement works to the credit of the Berlin Philharmonic, especially when the orchestra slots into an ideal combination of tempo and balance at 5:45. This particular passage rarely fails to inspire me, but no other recording captures quite the same authority. Similarly, the gorgeous Wagner tuba solo in the Adagio of the 8th and the rolling, swinging momentum of the Scherzo of the 8th, through many iterations of the same basic motif, are achievements unmatched by other recordings. Further observations could be made throughout the cycle, specifying moments that remain unparalleled.

Overall, none of the symphonies in the Wing Cycle is weak. Each possesses Karajan’s characteristic, dignified approach. Worth noting is that numerous flubs and misalignments are left in, which some critics assess as sloppiness — a quintessential characteristic often mentioned regarding Karajan recordings. To note counters, these represent unforgivable errors to be covered by retakes and/or editing. However, this human quality, audibly distinct from the overproduced and heartlessly punctilious perfection of many modern recordings (especially multitrack, quantized recordings found in pop and rock music), does not detract. Rather, a certain verisimilitude is presented, just like live performance. Truly being in the moment means accepting minor flaws to preserve the larger musical flow. Maybe this is how Karajan embodies a structural vision of the works, obliterated in other recorded performances by piecing together too many disparate parts. Hard to say.

Digressing somewhat, three orchestras dominate the field when it comes to recordings of Bruckner symphonies: the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO), and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The BPO and VPO are similar in approach and sound and are well represented in their respective discographies. (The VPO lacks a unified cycle under one conductor.) However, the CSO achieves its fairly unique results with this repertoire through an unusually high level of technical mastery — both individually and in aggregate — and through sheer, overwhelming, even outrageous volume and focus in the tuttis, led by the storied CSO brass section. Critics may complain of brass players swamping the orchestra and turning the whole endeavor into a wind symphony, such an overweening approach being better suited to overt hysterics of Russian symphonists such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. That judgment is rather reductive, considering how Bruckner scored his orchestral works with ample time devoted to each section of the orchestra. As performer and brass player, the blazing thrills delivered by the CSO (in its heyday) have an extraordinary pull on my musical sensibilities.

The CSO’s two cycles under Barenboim and Solti are less consistently good than the Wing Cycle, but when individual entries are good, they’re very good indeed. For instance, the opening horn solo of the 4th (CSO under Barenboim) is perfection, as is the amazing modulating chorale undergirded by the tuba later in the movement. The main climax of the Adagio of the 4th (still CSO under Barenboim) is probably the most exuberant, shattering symphonic climax I’ve ever heard (Shosti 7 under Bernstein may exceed it but only by virtue of the double brass section). Solti’s highlights are the extended coda of the Finale of the 5th, the coda of the 1st movt. of the 9th, and nearly the whole of the 6th for its raw power and precision. Lots of other recordings I could mention, including Giulini’s two remarkable 9ths (frankly terrifying with the CSO but more cosmic with the VPO). The only orchestras that match the CSO for power and intensity are the BPO and VPO. However, European orchestras perform differently together and seldom display the same technical brilliance or volume of American orchestras. Instead, they sound more soulful. These characteristics are impossible to quantify, like the sound of LPs vs. CDs, but are readily apparent upon hearing. Further, both are valid approaches, able to satisfy musical tastes and objectives differently.

In the introduction to an article at TomDispatch about anticipated resumption of professional sports currently on hiatus like much of the rest of human activity (economic and otherwise), Tom Engelhardt recalls that to his childhood self, professional sports meant so much and yet so little (alternatively, everything and nothing). This charming aspect of the innocence of childhood continues into adulthood, whether as spectator or participant, as leisure and freedom from threat allow. The article goes on to offer conjecture regarding the effect of reopening professional sports on the fall presidential election. Ugh! Racehorse politics never go out of season. I reject such purely hypothetical analyses, which isn’t the same as not caring about the election. Maybe I’ll wade in after a Democratic nominee is chosen to say that third-party candidates may well have a much larger role to play this time round because we’re again being offered flatly unacceptable options within the two-party single-party system. Until then, phooey on campaign season!

Still, Engelhardt’s remark put me in mind of a blog post I considered fully nine years ago but never got around to writing, namely, how music functions as meaningless abstraction. Pick you passion, I suppose: sports, music (any genre), literature, painting, poetry, dance, cinema and TV, fashion, fitness, nature, house pets, house plants, etc. Inspiration and devotion come in lots of forms, few of which are essential (primary or ontological needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy) yet remain fundamental to who we are and what we want out of life. Accordingly, when one’s passion is stripped away, being left grasping and rootless is quite common. That’s not equivalent to losing a job or loved one (those losses are afflicting many people right now, too), but our shared experience these days with no bars, no restaurants, no sports, no concerts, no school, and no church all add up to no society. We’re atomized, unable to connect and socialize meaningfully, digital substitutes notwithstanding. If a spectator, maybe one goes in search of replacements, which is awfully cold comfort. If a participant, one’s identity is wrapped up in such endeavors; resulting loss of meaning and/or purpose can be devastating.

It would be easy to over-analyze and over-intellectualize what meaningless abstraction means. It’s a trap, so I’ll do my best not to over-indulge. Still, it’s worth observing that as passions are habituated and internalized, their mode of appreciation is transferred from the senses (or sensorium) to the mind or head (as observed here). Coarseness and ugliness are then easily digested, rationalized, and embraced instead of being repulsive as they should be. There’s the paradox: as we grow more “sophisticated” (scare quotes intentional), we also invert and become more base. How else to explain tolerance of increasingly brazen dysfunction, corruption, servitude (e.g., debt), and gaslighting? It also explains the attraction to entertainments such as combat sports (and thug sports such as football and hockey), violent films, professional wrestling (more theater than sport), and online trolling. An instinctual blood lust that accompanies being predators, if not expressed more directly in war, torture, crime, and self-destruction, is sublimated into entertainment. Maybe that’s an escape valve so pressures don’t build up any worse, but that possibility strikes me as rather weak considering just how much damage has already been done.

One of the victims of cancel culture, coming to my attention only days ago, is Kate Smith (1907–1986), a singer of American popular song. Though Smith had a singing career spanning five decades, she is best remembered for her version(s) of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which justifiably became a bit of Americana. The decades of Smith’s peak activity were the 1930s and 40s.

/rant on

I dunno what goes through people’s heads, performing purity rituals or character excavation on folks long dead. The controversy stems from Smith having a couple other songs in her discography: That’s Why Darkies Were Born (1931) and Pickaninny Heaven from the movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). Hate to break it anyone still living under a rock, but these dates are not far removed from minstrelsy, blackface, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) — a time when typical Americans referred to blacks with a variety of terms we now consider slurs. Such references were still used during the American civil rights movement (1960s) and are in use among some virulent white supremacists even today. I don’t know the full context of Kate Smith having sung those songs, but I suspect I don’t need to. In that era, popular entertainment had few of the sensibilities regarding race we now have (culture may have moved on, but it’s hard to say with a straight face it’s evolved or progressed humanely), and uttering commonly used terms back then was not automatic evidence of any sort of snarling racism.

I remember having heard my grandparents, nearly exact contemporaries of Kate Smith, referring to blacks (the term I grew up with, still acceptable I think) with other terms we no longer consider acceptable. It shocked me, but to them, that’s simply what blacks were called (the term(s) they grew up with). Absolutely nothing in my grandparents’ character or behavior indicated a nasty, racist intent. I suspect the same was true of Kate Smith in the 1930s.

Back when I was a librarian, I also saw plenty of sheet music published before 1920 or so with the term darkie (or darkey) in the title. See for example this. The Library of Congress still uses the subject headings “negro spirituals” (is there another kind?) and “negro songs” to refer to various subgenres of American folk song that includes slave songs, work songs, spirituals, minstrel music, protest songs, etc. Maybe we should cancel the Library of Congress. Some published music titles from back then even call them coon songs. That last one is totally unacceptable today, but it’s frankly part of our history, and like changing character names in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, sanitizing the past does not make it go away or any less discomfiting. But if you wanna bury your head in the sand, go ahead, ostrich.

Also, if some person or entity ever does some questionably racist, sexist, or malign thing (even something short of abominable) situated contextually in the past, does that mean he, she, or it must be cancelled irrevocably? If that be the case, then I guess we gotta cancel composer Richard Wagner, one of the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. Also, stop watching Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films (among others), because remember that time when Walt Disney Studios (now Walt Disney Company) made a racist musical film, Song of the South (1946)? Disney’s tainted legacy (extending well beyond that one movie) is at least as awful as, say, Kevin Spacey, and we’re certainly not about to rehabilitate him.

/rant off

I’ve been on the sidelines of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians’ union labor action — a strike now extending into its second month with no apparent resolution in sight — and reticent to take a strong position. This might be surprising considering that I’m a natural ally of the musicians in at least two respects: (1) my support for the labor movement in general, and (2) my sustained interest in classical music as both a listener and practitioner. On balance, I have two objections that hold me back: (1) difficulty empathizing with anyone already well compensated for his or her work (CSO base salary is more than $160K per year; many make considerably more), and (2) the argument that as a premier arts institution, the organization should take no heed of economic effects being felt universally and visited on many who actually suffer deprivations beyond lost prestige.

To buttress their position, the Musicians of the CSO (why do the musicians operate a website distinct from the organization as a whole?) issued a press release in late March 2019 (PDF link). I’ve no desire to analyze it paragraph-by-paragraph, but I want to bring a few bits forward:

For more than 50 years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been touted as the nation’s finest – able to draw talent from across the globe. [emphasis added]

Music is not a championship endeavor despite the plethora of televised lip-syncing singing contests. No one orchestra can lay reasonable claim to being the best. Smacks of hubris. Simply change that to “as among the nation’s finest” and I’m OK with it.

In the last seven years the Orchestra’s salary has not kept up with inflation. Further, the Orchestra’s benefit package has fallen behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, the Association is attempting to change a fundamental tenet of the security of the Orchestra – and American life – our pension plan.

Well boo hoo for you. Many of the fundamental tenets of American life have been steadily stripped away from the population over the past 40 years or so. The very existence of a pension plan is exceptional for many in the labor force, not to mention the handsome salary and other benefits, including a 20-hour workweek, that CSO musicians enjoy. (Admittedly, a lot of outside preparation is necessary to participate effectively.) I understand that comparison with sister institutions in LA, SF, and NYC provide context, but cost of living differences at the coasts ought to be part of that context, too. Keeping up with the Joneses in this instance is a fool’s errand. And besides, those three cities suffer considerably with homeless and destitute populations that line the sidewalks and alleys. Chicago has somehow managed to displace most of its homeless population (mostly through harassment, not humanitarian aid), though one cannot avoid a phalanx of panhandlers outside Chicago Symphony Center on concert nights. Still, it’s nothing compared to conditions in downtown SF, which have gotten so bad with people living, peeing, and shitting in the street that an infamous poop map is available to help pedestrians avoid the worst of it. (I’ve no idea what the sidewalk outside Davies Symphony Hall in SF is like, but the location appears to be in the area of greatest poop concentration.) LA’s skid row is another district straight out of hell.

With many of the musicians already vested, our concern is truly about the future of the Orchestra – its ability to retain and attract great talent – a concern shared by Maestro Muti, Daniel Barenboim, and many of the world’s other finest orchestras and leaders.

This is not a concern of mine in the slightest. Sure, musicians play musical chairs, swapping around from orchestra to orchestra as opportunities arise, just like other workers traipse from job to job throughout their working lives. So what? A performing position with the CSO has long been a terminal position from which many players retire after more than 50 years of service (if they’re so fortunate to be hired by the orchestra in their 20s). I cannot estimate how many top-tier musicians forego auditions for the CSO due to perceived inadequacies with compensation or working conditions. Maybe that explains the years-long inability to hire and/or retain personnel for certain principal chairs. Still, I’m not convinced at all by “we’re the best yet we can’t compete without excessive compensation” (or shouldn’t have to). Similar arguments for ridiculously inflated CEO pay to attract qualified individuals fall on deaf ears.

An overview of the musicians’ strike was published by Lawrence A. Johnson at Chicago Classical Review, which provides details regarding the musicians’ demands. According to Johnson, the public’s initial support of the strike has turned sour. Comments I’ve been reading and my own reaction have followed exactly this trajectory. Lawrence also uses the term tone deaf to describe the musicians, though he’s diplomatic enough to avoid saying it himself, noting that the charge comes from commentators. I won’t be nearly so diplomatic. Musicians, stop this nonsense now! Demands far in excess of need, far in excess of typical workers’ compensation, and far in excess of your bargaining position do you no credit. In addition, although season ticket holders may express dismay at lost opportunities to hear certain concerts, soloists, and repertoire due to the work stoppage, the CSO is not a public utility that must keep working to maintain public wellbeing. Alternatives in greater Chicagoland can easily take up your slack for those in need of a classical music fix. Indeed, I haven’t been to a CSO concert in years because they’ve become anodyne. My CSO love affair is with the recorded legacy of the 1970s and 80s.

By striking, you’re creating a public relations nightmare that will drive people away, just as the baseball strike and take-a-knee controversy in football (and elsewhere) sent sports fans scrambling for the exits. You’re tone deaf regarding actual workplace and contract insufficiency many others confront regularly, as well as the economic realities of Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. and indeed the globe. Get over yourselves.

In the lost decades of my youth (actually, early adulthood, but to an aging fellow like me, that era now seems like youth), I began to acquire audio equipment and recordings (LPs, actually) to explore classical music as an alternative to frequent concert attendance. My budget allowed only consumer-grade equipment, but I did my best to choose wisely rather than guess and end up with flashy front-plates that distract from inferior sound (still a thing, as a visit to Best Buy demonstrates). In the decades since, I’ve indulged a modest fetish for high-end electronics that fits neither my budget nor lifestyle but nonetheless results in my simple two-channel stereo (not the surround sound set-ups many favor) of individual components providing fairly astounding sonics. When a piece exhibits problems or a connection gets interrupted, I often resort to older, inferior, back-up equipment before troubleshooting and identifying the problem. Once the correction is made, return to premium sound is an unmistakable improvement. When forced to resort to less-than-stellar components, I’m sometimes reminded of a remark a friend once made, namely, that when listening, he tries to hear the quality in the performance despite degraded reproduced sound (e.g., surface noise on the LP).

Though others may argue, I insist that popular music does not requires high fidelity to enjoy. The truth in that statement is evidenced by how multifunction devices such as phones and computers are used by most people to listen to music. Many influencers laugh and scoff at the idea that anyone would buy physical media or quality equipment anymore; everything now is streamed to their devices using services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Prime. From my perspective, they’re fundamentally insensitive to subtle gradations of sound. Thumping volume (a good beat) is all that’s needed or understood.

However, multifunction devices do not aim at high fidelity. Moreover, clubs and outdoor festivals typically use equipment designed for sheer volume rather than quality. Loud jazz clubs might be the worst offenders, especially because intimate, acoustic performance (now mostly abandoned) set an admirable artistic standard only a few decades ago. High volume creates the illusion of high energy, but diminishing returns set in quickly as the human auditory system reacts to extreme volume by blocking as much sound as possible to protect itself from damage, or more simply, by going deaf slowly or quickly. Reports of performers whose hearing is wrecked from short- or long-term overexposure to high volume are legion. Profound hearing loss is already appearing throughout the general public the same way enthusiastic sunbathers are developing melanoma.

As a result of technological change, notions of how music is meant to sound is shifting. Furthermore, the expectation that musical experiences are to be shared by audiences of more than, say, a few people at a time is giving way to the singular, private listening environment enabled by headphones and earbuds. (Same thing happened with reading.) Differences between music heard communally in a purposed performance space (whether live or reproduced) and music reproduced in the ear (earbuds) or over the ear (headphones) canal — now portable and ubiquitous — lead to audio engineers shifting musical perspective yet again (just as they did at the onset of the radio and television eras) to accommodate listeners with distorted expectations how music should sound.

No doubt, legitimate musical experiences can be had through reproduced sound, though degraded means produce lesser approximations of natural sound and authenticity as equipment descends in price and quality or the main purpose is simply volume. Additionally, most mainstream popular musics require amplification, as opposed to traditional acoustic forms of musicmaking. Can audiences/listeners actually get beyond degradation and experience artistry and beauty? Or must we be content with facsimiles that no longer possess the intent of the performers or a robust aesthetic experience? These may well be questions for the ages for which no solid answers obtain.

Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

(more…)