Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some thoughts after reading another critical survey of 20th-century music

Dear composers:

In this season of "Ten-Best" lists, and year-end rankings, having recently read another taste-making book that sums up a whole century of music-making by lionizing a few "heroic geniuses," I offer a few thoughts:

If we read the histories or the newspapers, we might be forgiven for thinking that the most important thing for us to do is to get to be the one in the history book, in the newspaper, or on tv. We might be forgiven for thinking sometimes that what we are really supposed to be making is not meaning, but successes of ourselves.

All too often, it may come to seem that only by raising ourselves up above the people around us can we gain entry into the small group of artists who actually matter to our cultural institutions. Somehow our critical surveys and our peer reviews and our competitions make us believe that our true value will come to be known only when the determination is made about who gets listed in the biographical dictionary, the reference work, or the certified results of 100 years of critic’s-choice selections. It may seem that the best way to “matter” is to busy ourselves with becoming famous now. We make the mistake of trying to justify ourselves to institutions, instead of writing our music for people in a one-to-one exchange.

We might be forgiven this sin, the sin of constantly measuring ourselves and our work against some kind of projected external judgment, because the very premise of much of our interaction with institutions, and indeed of all criticism and scholarship is to tell us about which artists matter, which ones don’t, and why. Determining what is of enduring substance and what is faddish and empty, what is good and what is bad, what is worthy of our attention, and what is not, and then cobbling those conclusions together into a hierarchical belief system is the unstated project of much of our thinking, writing, and talking about art. I say we are deciding what is worthy, but when it comes down to it, we are really talking about who is worthy and who is not, since it seems to me that in both our elitist and our mass culture we lack the ability to distinguish between artists and their work. We may be asked what music we like, but we usually respond with a list of proper names: “I like Beethoven, I like Bj√∂rk, I like Berio…”

In fact, so much of what surrounds any act of creation, (once one bites the apple and seeks to share one’s creations with others) seems to be geared toward coercing us to participate in the race to the top of some imaginary heap. I have come to believe that the rock-bottom core-belief vibrating beneath that heap (and behind much of American culture) is that nothing matters unless it is validated with fame, prestige, money or marketing numbers.

If it can be made true that Art only matters if it is discovered and validated by the mechanisms of our commercial institutions (even the very marginal ones of the symphony orchestra, the critical survey, or the academy), then we will find that to follow out the logic of those institutions leads to a kind of dystopia where only the one or two most famous practitioners of any art are of any significance at all, since they have all the fame, prestige, and money that makes art important.

But consider, though, that if we allow the sick world of our own “official” values to hold sway, then the local folksinger whose heart-breakingly sad songs you overhear for free in out-of-the way places and who regularly moves you to tears would not count, and neither would your tears, since they are not money, and they can’t take the place of fame.

This is not what we aspire to in our hearts. One sincere tear must certainly be priceless.

According to the worldview of the New York Times, American Idol, or our Universities, your mother’s quietly wavering voice singing as she empties the dishwasher also would not matter, as she is not a professional singer, and we cannot buy her songs nor even find them on YouTube, nor will she ever receive a major award from the American Academy of Dishwasher Singing.

Yet we know that intimacy and vulnerability, even a certain kind of peace itself are learned from those unself-conscious songs, and spiritual poverty is the result of ignoring or devaluing them.

Similarly, the kids belting out “Down by the Riverside” in protest as bombs fall once more on the children of a foreign country would not matter by our perverse institutional logic either; not the local high-school band playing their hearts out, nor the regional orchestra, nor the amateur chamber musician. By our own clearly articulated institutional values, most of our absolutely essential expressions would be evaluated as insignificant.

The fact that we are implicitly encouraged to think such heresies ought to break our hearts.

I admit that I labor the point, but I believe that the point is an important one: if we follow the logic of the market or the institutions that presume to evaluate our musical offerings and rank them in terms of importance, then some of the most essential musical utterances around us are judged worthless. I am reminded again of something I learned from Salinger’s Franny and Zooey: that another word for what we call "worthless" is in fact "priceless": things that exist beyond exchange value are free from a limit on their value, and therefore can have a value that transcends marketplaces.

So when the institutional book of “Which Music Matters” gets written, (and it is written again and again in our press and our institutional lives) it can come to seem to us more like St. Peter’s book than anything else. But though the great ones listed in its pages do indeed get to enter into some kind of constructed pantheon, I believe that it will not be any kind of heaven.

That’s why my heart and mind are with the countless inspired people who spend their lives giving full voice to their humanity by taking the weight of feeling within themselves and breaking open into sound, helping us to enter the kingdom of heaven right here on this earth.

So let’s throw away the checklist of who matters, and find another way. Look, we can gather around in a circle, and sing our songs together. We’ve been doing it a long, long time as a species–I think we can remember how.