Forget “where’s the beef?” Where’s the fricking music?!

So help me God.  This is exactly the kind of content-free “peripheralia” I detest and which prompted me to start this blog.  David T. Little’s exposition in the NYT Opinionator purports to be about music.  Really?  I don’t see that he’s said much about music at all.  This obsession with tangential, extra-musical superfluities seems to have become not just accepted, but expected in the music world, to the detriment of honest-to-goodness musical thought and understanding.  Professional musicians, professional composers even, hold forth with these “treatises” that pretend to explain what’s going on in their music, supposing that these extra-musical notions (i.e. political messages) can serve as a suitable surrogate for real musical logic.

Before I really get into taking Little’s nonsense apart let me first say that I have no problem whatsoever with using music to advance a political position.  Doing so can be an efficient and effective way of raising consciousness about a given issue.  I have no problem with the idea of programatic music in general (which is basically what we’re dealing with here).  If a composer wants to attach that element to a piece of music, fine.  Great.  S/he can knock him-or-herself out!  What we cannot do is make the leap to claiming that this programatic element has something to do with how the music itself works.

This article is one of those instances that brings the phrase “not even wrong” to mind.  Problems are nested within problems, fallacies spring from fallacies, and the whole nexus of “wrongitude” makes it difficult to find a suitable point of departure for criticism.

So here’s where I’ve decided to start:  the whole piece is presented as a false dichotomy, and Little attempts to argue for one side of it by erecting straw-men that are supposed to represent the other side.  Little asks the question: “Should music be political?”  This is the wrong question.  Well, a wrong question.  Obviously, he thinks the answer is “yes.”  I don’t see how this question can be answered with “yes” or “no.”  As I wrote above, if the composer intends a political message to be communicated, fine.  If not, also fine.  Hence the false dichotomy.  He presents what he supposes are the opposing arguments:

Some wanted to know how a piece of instrumental music could be political, or why I thought classical music was especially suited for this purpose. Others dismissed the political statements within the works as preaching to the converted, or decried the music’s alleged subjugation to a political message. Is all political music leftist, people asked, or can there be right-wing political music, too?

Most of those points miss the boat just as egregiously as has Little’s own.  They strike me as arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  They seem to be asking things and saying things, but if you take a step back, you can see that the whole context in which they’re cast is moot.  He almost got there with the very first question about how music could, in and of itself, convey a political message, but sure enough, he never gets around to addressing this question.

Instead, he offers this as the distillation of the kind of attitude he’s arguing against:

Art is pure, right?  Celestial.  To soil it with base, terrestrial politics feels improper, even rude…

And this is the straw-man: that those of us with legitimate questions about his ideas are simply pearl-clutchers who insist that ART must forever remain in an ivory tower, separated from the mundane, from real people who live in the real world – basically that we want to use it as a prop for our snobbery.

No.  I’ll speak for myself here, but others share my view (commenter no. 7 at the Opinionator page is one).  The problem is that he supposes he’s talking about music.  He’s not.  How on earth would consideration of, say, socio-economic systems inform a composer’s actual choice of pitch?  Don’t you dare answer with something like: “the dissonance here represents the clash between the classes…”  That type of superficial tone-painting has existed for a long time, and it’s obvious to real musicians that there is still a deeper, solely musical syntax at play.  Those kinds of “leitmotivic” gestures say nothing about how the music in fact works.

The kind of thinking this article represents is distressing to me at a real-world level because it puts people who don’t really possess penetrating musical understanding into positions of musical authority.  We all (or most of us – hopefully) agree that gender equality is to be aimed for, that discrimination based on sexuality or skin color is reprehensible, that we should be diligent stewards of the Earth, and take the long-view when it comes to environmental matters.  If your neighbor voiced these views to you, would you hail him/her as a creative genius?  Yet, when these political touchstones are attached to even the most bland, unimaginative, and uneventful pandiatonicism, that’s what happens to the composer.

And let’s say you’re listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, or even better, his opera Fidelio.  If you’re being turned on primarily by the political drama surrounding the composition and dedication of those pieces, I feel sorry for you.  You are missing so much beauty – beauty which stems from Beethoven’s mastery of the logic and syntax of the tonal language.  The locus of ingenuity in the works of the masters is not to be found in the mechanism by which they attached an extra-musical element, if they did at all.  Indeed, what sort of “social commentary” are we supposed to perceive in, say, the Praeludio from Bach’s 3rd Partita for solo violin?  Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers (assuming none of them gives the proper response: wtf are you talking about?)

The music has to work, first and foremost.  The tricks and gimmicks used to associate a specific message with the music, while undeniably of some interest, cannot substitute, in the composer’s arsenal, for genuine musical comprehension.  Little summarizes his approach to composition thus:

The question then became: how can one effectively engage the political without negatively impacting the art?

But the point of what I’ve written immediately above, and the point of this whole criticism, is that this is a meaningless question.  Do the political messages in Fidelio (which, btw, are only intelligible because of the presence of a LIBRETTO) have any bearing on the quality of the musical content?  All notes remaining the same, would Fidelio be more of an achievement without the politics?  Or is the music better because of the politics?

The icing on the cake in this piece is this lovely little instantiation of (was there really any doubt we’d encounter it in something like this?) postmodern relativism:

Each of these positions is right, and each is wrong.  More importantly, each is driven by its own private ideological motor.

This attitude is far too prevalent in the arts.  It’s not the result of considered deliberation over a given topic; rather it is a result of committing the fallacious Argument to Moderation, and also a result of the incapacity or disinclination to think hard and realistically about something.

Even if we grant that Little is not trying to say anything about how music really works (but he is), what is it that he has said?  As far as I can make out, only that he likes to use the music he writes as a means of voicing his political notions.  He hasn’t detailed how he thinks this should be done; he hasn’t explained how he actually has done it; he hasn’t even let us in on what his oh-so-important political messages are.  Well, I like cookies.  What about it?

I can honestly say my eyes were welling with tears of despair as I read this article.  This is becoming more and more representative of what passes for deep thought about music.  I say it’s pseudo-intellectual onanism.  Here’s my own stab at it:  “This piece of music (oh, let’s say it’s basically just a rocking back-and-forth between i and flat-VII, on top of which I slowly pile various Aeolian melodic fragments) represents the current narrative in which the capitalist paradigm exerts a hegemonic influence.  The climax represents my hope for the eventual triumph of the proletariat.”

I can haz MacArthur Grant now pleez?


1 Response to “Forget “where’s the beef?” Where’s the fricking music?!”

  1. December 19, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Two quick responses came to mind:

    1) Listening for politics in music is like going to a sporting event and watching the officials/arbiters/umpires. You certainly have that option.

    2) At the end of LVB Opus 67, I can only think: “Hooray for C Major!!!” At the end of Richard Strauß Op. 64, one could say, “Good night, B-flat minor”, but the temptation is strong to think, “Bavaria must really be awesome.”

    You know, it’s all Liszt’s fault. Making up clever titles for what he wrote. Rhapsodic profiling. That sort of thing.


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