Dayton Hare: Questionable answers

Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 6:17pm

Some weeks ago an article by the composer and performer Elliot Cole appeared on NewMusicBox, an e-zine which is one of the most interesting media outlets dedicated to contemporary music today. The piece, entitled “Questions I Ask Myself,” duly made its way around the social media circles of the hip and with-it of the contemporary classical music community and managed to provoke more than a few interesting conversations. In it, as one might expect, Cole cycles through a series of inquiries he has put to himself about the nature of the compositional profession in modern society, at least from his perspective. And, as he discloses at the beginning of the text, it works not so much as a “coherent critique of anything,” but rather as something that he has put out into the world because the questions are ones he “wrestles with” — and, it turns out, ones that a lot of the rest of us wrestle with too.

As I imagine was the case for many who saw it, reading Cole’s questions made me feel vaguely guilty, as if I were somehow being accused of something. Part of this, no doubt, comes from the fact that several of Cole’s questions were the sorts of things I also ask myself, usually before quickly stowing them away in some rarely-used corner of my mind, the sorts of uncomfortable things about music culture that we don’t like to talk about. Another part of it, no doubt, is that I am being accused of something, along with everyone else who’s part of this community. To a certain extent, it’s an entire creative culture that stands trial.

Cole’s article serves as a sort of solitary Socratic method, wherein he airs a question but doesn’t really endeavor to answer it. But in order for a Socratic style to be completely effective, there really has to be someone to play a responsorial role. Everyone can do this for themselves, on their own, but the following are my own reflections on some of the questions that struck me the most.

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Am I just trying to impress people and get famous?

This is obviously a question that is more personal than about musical society at large, but nevertheless I think that it has implications about the kind of culture we cultivate around our art. And there really isn’t a simple answer to it. The easy way out is to just say “no,” but that probably isn’t entirely honest. While a classical-style composer may never be famous in the same way that a pop star might become, there’s certainly an allure to being well-known and well-regarded amongst a particular ingroup (a group which, not coincidentally, there’s a damaging habit of regarding as somehow “better”). More than that, the history of the genre since the 19th century is that of a slow-burgeoning museum culture, rife with cults of idolatry. In the temples we erect to our art, the great concert halls and houses of symphony orchestras, it’s not uncommon to find architecture that serves as a literal Pantheon of classical music, with busts of the deified great masters of the genre — Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and the like — arranged around the rim of a great dome structure. And what pianist, for instance, when she hears the reverent tones in which Martha Argerich is discussed, doesn’t wonder to herself what it would be like to be talked about in that way? On the whole, the entire way we have set up our institutions — the competitiveness, the perfectionism, the Hobbesian free-for-all of finding the best gig — betrays a spirit ill at ease with itself, and an obsession with at least localized fame.

Have I used esoteric musical preferences and interests to feel different from (superior to?) other people? Has that isolated me? Can I in good faith encourage others to do the same?

This question is in some ways related to the first, but only tangentially. In my larger community, the one outside of exclusively classical music circles, the idea of my being a composer seems to impress a fair number of people (which, relatedly, never fails to make me feel embarrassed and trigger an acute attack of imposter syndrome). I sometimes worry that, in the beginning, when I was a middle school student or so, this element was part of the appeal. I grew up in a relatively rural community where I often felt extremely alienated, and throughout the process, my inability to connect deeply with many people led to a gradual immersion in art, first books and then music. As I grew more and more engaged in these sorts of things, it grew harder and harder to connect with others, in a sort of endless feedback loop. And this certainly augmented the process of isolation. Only by physically leaving the place have I been able to escape. While I feel that I can encourage people to pursue esoteric tastes and extraordinary musics, this encouragement must be coupled with an admonition to avoid the mistakes of my younger self. My self-isolation and artistic entrenchment gradually took on a harmful and condescending tone, a sort of self-congratulatory “get a load of these rubes” internal dialogue, the sort of thinking that is cancerous to both a healthy mind and a healthy society. Which leads perfectly into the next question I’ve chosen, the concise but poignant:

Am I a snob?

To which the answer is: “Probably, yes, but I’m working on it.”

What’s the difference between being a champion of my community and being a partisan, fighting to expand the size and status of a little kingdom just because I happen to belong to it?

Again, each of these questions is related to the others in some way. In my view, part of this has to do with not being a snob. Obviously I love the music that my community produces, but I’m never going to convince anyone else to love it by brute force. Partisanism is often one of the most counterproductive ways to create converts. Proselytization only works if people are willing and ready to hear what you have to say, and the best way to create an environment in which that’s the case is to be ready to listen to what they have to say. You can’t go into it thinking that your way is the best way, unwilling to hear things different from what you know. I fully believe in spreading the music of my community, but the process should be far closer to commerce than conquest. Kingdoms have to make way for democracies.

Am I OK with an aesthetic ideology that values making people uncomfortable more than making people happy?

This pertains mostly to the vanguard of contemporary classical, the spectralists, the composers of New Complexity and other descendants of the 20th century avant-garde. And I also feel that it’s far easier to address, at least in my mind. To me, the answer is “yes, sometimes.” I don’t believe that music shouldn’t ever just exist just to make people happy, but I think there is certainly value to be found in discomfort. Whether or not you believe in any gods, it’s probably fairly easy to agree that we live in a fallen world. I don’t see a reason why our art shouldn’t reflect that, shouldn’t express our distress at the state of things. And this certainly isn’t an exclusively classical music phenomenon: Look at some of the great art of recent years in the genre of hip hop, for instance. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly certainly isn’t a cheery album, and if you’re really engaging with it you should probably feel pretty uncomfortable afterward. But it’s great art, and making people happy doesn’t have to be the first priority of artists.

Our whole disposable capitalist culture is obsessed with novelty and progress. Is a value system based on the newness of music really as countercultural as I think it is?

This is harder to tackle, and I think the answer really depends on what exactly the “newness” of an artist’s work is. Oftentimes I think that art can genuinely be used to subvert expectations, to poke holes in our imaginary conception of what our society is. On the other hand, Cole is right to question new music’s ability to be countercultural. Sometimes (maybe most of the time, but I hope not) it can be used to support existing structures and hierarchies, cloaking reactionary effect with revolutionary language. Especially with something like orchestral music or opera, sub-genres that require large financial means, music can be used to serve the capitalist class and propagate the neoliberal order. An excellent example of this is Mason Bates, as Marianna Ritchey points out in an article published this last summer. Bates, who was the second-most performed living orchestral composer in America, after John Adams, in the 2014-2015 season, is famous for using technology in his music. Especially in our political era, art is inseparable from ideology, and the type of music the Bates writes — sometimes on commission from monied interests with a stake in the status quo — easily slides into the neoliberal mold. It’s a symphony Silicon Valley style. And Cole is right to be concerned about this state of affairs. Perhaps my own political ideology is showing, but to me art — to the extent that it can be — should be used to pull down our ivory towers, to empower the powerless and to change the way we look at the world in a revolutionary way.

Obviously, Cole’s questions are just the beginning of a larger conversation, but they offer valuable material for the discussions that we need to be having within our community. The few I’ve addressed here are just a sampling of the larger collection, and not necessarily the most important, but if everyone took a few minutes out of their day to think them and the rest over, we might build a better world around our art. And isn't that, at its heart, what doing art should be about?