Tony Robbi…I mean John Adams’ commencement address

Let’s pretend I am a nearly universally respected composer – a real heavy-weight in the world of music (this will take some Herculean pretending).  What can I say about music to graduates of perhaps the most high-profile music school in the world?  What can I say about music to the world via my immensely popular blog?  How about if I go on and on about the cool, hip clothing and hairstyles composers wear these days?  How about if I tell everyone to “Keep it fresh!  Do something new!  Something surprising!”?  Would you feel I’ve lived up to my reputation?  Would you feel I’ve said anything of substance?

I realize a commencement address isn’t the place to get into the nitty-gritty concerning how music really works.  But surely someone who enjoys the musical authority Adams enjoys could say something more meaningful about the current state of things musical than “[composers these days dress] like Justin Bieber with red high-tops…[or wear] fishnet stockings and her great-aunt’s pendant earrings.”  Honestly, why mention clothes at all?  Do the clothes worn by someone have any bearing on the quality of his or her product?  Talk about judging a book by its cover.  And the last thing a new generation of composers needs to be told is that this kind of frippery is somehow important and in fact does have bearing on their product.  This attitude is already pretty much pandemic.

My real gripe with what Adams has to say, however, is that he almost goes so far as to say people who choose to be artists are better people than everyone else: smarter, more stoic, more in touch with what it means to be human, etc.

The arts, however, are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult…[a]rtists are people who’ve learned how to surrender themselves to a higher purpose, to something better than their miserable little egos. They’ve been willing to put their self-esteem in a Cuisinart and let it be chopped and diced and crushed to a pulp.

This in contrast to other, “painfully literal-minded” people who just don’t get it, and who would be only too happy to see art go the way of the dinosaur.

[P]oliticians and other painfully literal-minded people during times of budget crises (which is pretty much all the time now) can’t wait to single the arts out for elimination…[t]hey consider that what we do can’t honestly be compared to the real business of life…

The arts can be difficult.  I’d never claim they weren’t.  But gimme a break!  I’d also never claim that what I do, or what Adams does, or even what Bach did is on a par with what Stephen Hawking does, or what Isaac Newton did, or what any of a host of other “literal-minded” “Philistines” have done.  Adams claims artists are the ones who have surrendered their egos, but these quotes suggest just the opposite to me.  There’s no shame in recognizing the place we artists occupy in the intellectual food chain.  Indeed, honesty is very much an intellectual virtue: a committment to reality.  I think the arts today could use quite a lot more “literal-mindedness.”

And just where does he get this idea that the awful, “scientistic,” “literal-minded” types don’t appreciate art?  He should spend more time perusing some science blogs.  The appreciation is there.  Full frontal appreciation.


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