April 25, 2005


In my current theory class, the terminal course in the sequence, we're undergoing a whirlwind tour of the latter half of the 20th century. Today we compared two articles, Babbitt's "Who Cares if you Listen?"/"The Composer as Specialist" and Susan McClary's "Terminal Prestige." The latter, though written 30 years later, is essentially a response to the modernist mindset embodied by Babbitt. It struck me that both pieces fall into a similar trap, one that is essentially in opposition with the creation of art.

Babbitt's primary point was that contemporary developments in music paralleled those in the hard sciences. Postwar serialism had long overshot the public's perceptual abilities, therefore it was necessary for the university system to support composers of "serious" music (the position is essentially the same as Adorno's in Philosophy of Modern Music, though Babbitt invokes scientific research instead of a class struggle). McClary attacked this attitude, arguing that the "academic avant-garde" is writing itself into obscurity. Those circles should slacken their objective stance and examine other facets of music, such as its social function.

McClary concludes her article with a discussion of an Earth, Wind & Fire song, "System of Survival." She argues that it is sophisticated music, as worthy of scholarly attention as anything out of the university scene. The troublesome point comes here:
"System of Survival" is, in other words, a song that gives no credence whatsoever to the mind/body split or to the defensive autonomy that infects so much of Western music, especially that of the avant-garde which fetishizes intellectual work for its own sake. At the same time, it is an extremely smart piece: musically, socially politically. It draws upon and celebrates forms of sedimented cultural memory that have miraculously survived a history of extraordinary oppression and that threaten to persist indefinitely—even if not acknowledged within the academy.
A trend throughout McClary's writing is an interest in "smart," socially responsive music. While she essentially attacks academics for overvaluing music because it matches up to their arbitrary criteria (complex construction, etc.), she's guilty of the same crime. She often latches onto music because it's ironic, contorts traditional forms, or responds to class and gender "issues." The music itself may not be full of much deep thought or emotion, but if it hits one of these trigger points, it's worthy of attention from her (witness the entire chapter devoted to Madonna in Feminine Endings).

It's very important to respond to these aspects of music, but my inclination is that McClary is picking pieces to use as vehicles for her own ideas, rather than pieces that expose new ones. This is no different than locking into construction as the primary point of musical interest. The topics of discussion are decided in advance, analysis and criticism are merely used to expound on them. The thought developed through analysis and criticism is often stimulating, but it's preferable to let the approach be determined by the subject. It's difficult to find new truths and forms in art when you're busy looking for old ones. A rejection of one system shouldn't lead to a new set of equally harmful habits. Artists, too, can fall victim to this (look at "indie" film or "alternative" music). Art depends on the restless search for new modes of being. Leaning on crutches—objective stances, gender studies, what have you—only draws one away from this mission.

April 01, 2005

You know you're a theory professor when...

...your computer has seen so many German terms that AutoCorrect assumes that everything you type must also be in German.