Tag: cultural context

The Appropriation Problem


“In Love Like Music” by Kool_Skatkat on Flickr.

In my last two articles for NewMusicBox, I defended composers who interact with cultural streams outside the one we call “new music,” and explained why I think those interactions are good for the arts. But, as several commenters pointed out, not all borrowings are morally or politically equivalent. The big question that I haven’t addressed yet is, when does influence become exploitation?

I spent a while debating whether I should write about this topic. I know my perspective is limited: I’ve never had the experience of watching people from more privileged social groups appropriate an artistic tradition that played a central role in my life. That’s partially because I’m white, educated and American, which means I’m the more privileged one in a lot of situations. It’s also because I tend not to feel very connected to the minority cultures that I am a member of. I’m queer and trans, but I haven’t participated much in radical queer and trans counterculture. I’m Jewish, but I’ve never felt a strong connection to Jewish tradition. (I’ve also spent my life in liberal cities and college towns with big Jewish populations; what little anti-Semitism I’ve experienced has been in the form of personal insults, not systematic exclusion.) Most of the time, if you put me in a room with what’s supposed to be “my community,” I’m going to start wondering what I’m doing there.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be right for me to write a series of articles about interactions between musical traditions without talking about the ethical and political issues involved. And I have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about those issues, because most of my music explores the cultural meanings of sounds and styles, and I don’t want to do that in a way that’s exploitative or disrespectful. I’ve had some pretty heated conversations, and I’m sure I’ve made bad judgment calls—but I do think I’ve learned something over the years. So I’d like to offer some thoughts on the topic, with the understanding that this is all provisional, and that I welcome other perspectives in the comments.

* * *

I’d like to start with something I’ve noticed in discussions of cultural appropriation. They often frame the problem in one of two ways: in terms of cultural property or in terms of what composers are “allowed” to do. In my experience, both of these approaches tend to result in the conversation getting sidetracked. The former leads to increasingly abstract musings about what it really means for a group of people to own a musical style, usually while ignoring the power dynamics that make inter-cultural influence so fraught in the first place. The latter leads to impassioned defenses of composers’ freedom of expression, which—much like the arguments that pop up whenever a public figure is criticized for saying something prejudiced—typically ignore the point that just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.

Another way of framing things, which I think might make for more productive conversations, would be to say: music is a kind of social interaction. It’s written by people, played by people, and heard by people. I know there are musicians who, wary of the vagueness and unpredictability of things like “meaning,” prefer to see music purely as a collection of structures with objective properties. But denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.

Case in point: there are a lot of white composers who draw influence, inspiration or sonic materials from other musical worlds—gamelan music, for example, or hip-hop. I don’t think that’s exploitative or disrespectful in and of itself; to my mind, it really depends on how you do it. (More on that later.) But some of these composers seem to take for granted, without even realizing it, that everyone who hears their music is also going to be white and probably a fellow classical musician, too. It’s not that they’re malicious; it’s that they’re so caught up in their own perspective, and in the often alarmingly homogeneous new-music social scene, that it never occurs to them to think about how their interpretation of another culture’s musical ideas might be perceived by someone who is actually from that culture.

“But you can’t predict what meanings people will find in your work!” some will say. That’s true, if “predict” means “know for sure.” But you can certainly be aware of the meanings that people might find in your work. Human reactions to art aren’t totally arbitrary. Sure, they’re affected by a lot of idiosyncratic factors, such as personality, taste, and mood, but they’re also affected by more predictable ones—symbols, values and meanings that are held in common by many people. That’s why, for example, it shouldn’t have been hard for Katy Perry (or her agent or her label) to predict that a performance assembled entirely out of Orientalist stereotypes would not go over well. Those images have a long and well-documented history.

* * *

So let’s say you’re a composer, and you’ve come across something that strikes you in some way. Maybe there are sounds in it that spark your imagination. Maybe there’s a story that moves you. Maybe there are structural ideas that could get you out of a compositional bind. Maybe you want to illustrate a more abstract point about the nature of authorship or history or global politics. Maybe you just find it exciting and want to pay tribute to that excitement. And let’s say that this thing you’ve found comes from a tradition that’s pretty far removed from the new-music world that you work in. What do you do?

The two simplest answers are both problematic. “Everything is fair game, so do what you want” is easy, but it can lead to insulting people, taking credit for their work, or stepping on things that are profoundly important to them. “It’s not yours to use, so don’t even think about it” is straightforward, but it can lead to a kind of separatism that keeps contemporary classical music insular and disconnected from the rest of the cultural landscape. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to follow advice like “remember that music is a social interaction,” or even “remember that real people from a variety of backgrounds might be listening.” So I’d like to talk about a few of the questions that I find helpful when I’m trying to figure out whether a piece of music is doing right by its influences.

1. What’s the power relationship between the composer and the source?
JacobTV has built a career out of music based on recorded speech. But he’s oddly indiscriminate about whose speech he chooses to sample — and there’s a big difference between The Body of Your Dreams, which uses clips from weight-loss infomercials, and Grab It!, which uses clips from interviews with black prisoners on death row. The former is about as safe an appropriation as I can think of: if there’s one group of people you can confidently say has never been oppressed, it’s advertisers. (It’s worth noting that in the visual-art world, where the word “appropriation” often has a more positive tone, it usually refers to taking elements from advertising or commercial pop culture.) Grab It!, on the other hand, takes the voices of people who are already disenfranchised, and effectively censors them by cutting them into such small fragments that it’s almost impossible to understand what they’re saying—other than the word “motherfucker.”

Sometimes, though, the power relationship isn’t so obvious. What about, for example, composers that use ideas from pop music? On the one hand, pop music has vastly more economic power, cultural presence, and media support than contemporary classical music does. On the other hand, classical music has historically enjoyed a kind of prestige that popular music didn’t have access to until pretty recently, and there are still people in the classical world who think that way—enough of them that even composers who use pop-cultural tropes out of genuine love and respect risk being misread as trying to “improve” or “upgrade” something they see as inferior.

The phrase “popular music” covers a lot of ground, too—especially if you’re using the very broad definition that classical musicians tend to. Taking ideas from Public Enemy has a different sociopolitical meaning than taking ideas from Radiohead. Although here too, the answers aren’t always obvious: Chuck D thought it was “great” when experimental sound-collagists Evolution Control Committee used his voice in a mashup without permission.

2. Is the composer reinforcing existing cultural hierarchies?
When I first discovered the polystylistic music of Alfred Schnittke, I heard it as a brash declaration that all musical styles are equally valid. I was disappointed to learn that he was actually a big believer in “high” and “low” art, to the point that he consistently described the popular and historical styles he quoted as “banal,” “vulgarly functional,” and “the lower layers of [my] musical world.” When I listen to a piece like the First Concerto Grosso now, the ironic quotation marks around the tango and late-Romantic violin solo seem obvious.

John Zorn, on the other hand, has angrily denounced the idea of stylistic hierarchies: “The idea of high art and low art … is a bunch of fucking bullshit!” He’s also spent as much time playing in bands as writing concert music. I have a hard time imagining anyone taking the trippy noir jazz in Spillane as an attempt to “upgrade” something by giving it “high-culture” status. Since I’ve read interviews with both composers, it’s hard to know for sure whether I’m reacting more to their music or their rhetoric, but I can say for sure that I find Zorn’s attitude much more progressive.

3. How well does the composer understand the source?
The usual argument is that if you’re going to take elements from another tradition, you should know it inside out. For example, I’ve seen relatively little criticism of Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-influenced pieces, and that seems to be partially because he’s lived in Bali, collaborated with Balinese artists, and played traditional gamelan music for decades. He’s done his homework; you can’t accuse him of ignorantly and haphazardly grabbing elements of another culture without knowing anything about their real significance (as people have said about Katy Perry’s AMA performance).

But I wonder if there might also be value in totally misunderstanding something, so that what you create in response comes across as “inspired by,” rather than “borrowing from,” the source material. I’m thinking, for example, of Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto. It also includes passages influenced by gamelan music, but they’re so utterly Poulenc-ified that you might not even realize what inspired them if you didn’t already know. And yet power dynamics have a way of creeping back in. Poulenc first heard gamelan music at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition—an event explicitly designed to whitewash French imperialism. Once you know that, the piece takes on a darker tone.


* * *

All of these questions are riddled with complications. And there are plenty of other questions you could ask: What’s the original meaning of the material you’re drawing on? Is your work the result of a collaborative interaction, or of looking at another tradition from afar? Are you using your source material to portray people in a stereotyped way? Are you making money off it? Every one of those issues deserves further discussion, but this article is long already. So instead, let me ask you: What do you think? How do you distinguish beneficial cultural exchange from exploitative cultural appropriation? Leave a comment and let us know.

Pull Up A Chair

Pull Up A Chair
First of all, if you haven’t yet read Ellen McSweeney’s excellent article from yesterday, take the opportunity now. Thanks to Ellen and composer Reena Esmail, I decided pick up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and even though I’m just part way through chapter three, I see quite a bit in those pages not only of myself, but of so many other women around me. The information is not necessarily new, but it is presented in a clear, succinct manner that paints a remarkably accurate picture of the working world from a female perspective.

Conveniently, over the past couple of months I have also been connecting with a greater number of female composers than usual, partly by chance. Time and time again I feel both overwhelmed with pride for the amazingly talented women making music in our world today, and fantastically frustrated by the lack of recognition many of them receive. Some of that frustration, as Sandberg’s book neatly outlines, is due not only to external social structures, but also to the internal challenges that many women face on a daily basis. These matters are all so complex, and there are so many wide-ranging issues in play, that it is going to take a long time and a lot of people of both genders to continue improving the landscape for female composers and musicians.

The thought that keeps popping into my head as a crucial element in this tangled web is that women are not culturally encouraged to ask for things. In a professional setting, men, in general, tend to have little problem asking for whatever they want and/or need, while not only do women tend not to ask for things, they sometimes are not aware of all the things they could ask for, and as a result, don’t. To pile onto that, the very act of a woman asking for something is often perceived differently than the same request made by a man. This falls in line with Sandberg’s “likeability factor,” which points out that success for a woman causes her to be perceived as less likeable (the opposite is true for men). It’s perfectly natural for a man to ask for a thing, while if a woman asks for the same thing in the same way, she is more likely to be seen as self-serving, which counts as points against her. This seeps into myriad nooks and crannies of life, from negotiating salaries and composition commissions to navigating daily schedules, work habits, and personal relationships. A colleague recently told a story of a man who offered a position in his company to a woman. The man said, “I would have happily given her $X more if she had just asked for it.” It is notable that the woman did not negotiate, even when negotiation for job salaries is a cultural norm in the business world. However, had she negotiated her salary, it might have affected her employer’s opinion of her in a possibly negative way. It’s a messy, vicious cycle that needs to be broken somehow.

In the music world, I see and experience other women not asking for stuff all the time. And believe me, I get it—asking for things can be truly difficult. Often more than one try is necessary—that is true for anyone of either gender—when submitting grant applications or making proposals for creative opportunities. I have experienced situations in which asking for something for myself was almost physically painful! But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Recently I challenged myself to do some asking of a sort that I normally would not, and while it was by no means easy to do, the answers turned out to be yes! In fact there were responses like, “Oh! Sure, we can do that. Thank you for asking!” And really, even if the answers had been no, would that have been so bad? I don’t think so. Wonders can be wrought through the power of asking nicely.

Last week I attended a concert that included a work by a female composer whom I know personally, and whose music I think is exceptional. The ensemble had issued the invitation. When the composer and I spoke in person at the concert, this is how our conversation started:

Composer: “I’m so glad to see you! I was hoping you would come.”
Me: “Oh! You know you could have contacted me directly, right?”
Composer: “It’s just that I hate to impose….”

This sort of thing happens a lot. But I cannot think of even one instance in which a male composer has considered contacting me directly to attend a performance to be “imposing.” The guys are, frankly, all up in my face 24/7.

Similarly, the lack of asking here at NewMusicBox is very pronounced. Despite the fact that we are crystal clear about wanting to hear music by composers of both genders, are we flooded with CDs and emails from female composers? Quite the opposite. I would guess that over 90% of the recordings we receive contain music by male composers. In the almost three years that I have worked here, I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of female composers who have contacted me specifically asking for, well, anything that pertains to the music they are creating. And we are not the only organization for which this is the case. Several record labels have mentioned that they wish they received more CD proposals from women.

I honestly think that if every female artist—or every female of any profession—asked for one specific thing that they really wanted or needed, this could begin to shift our culture in a pronounced way. Sandberg writes in her book about the need for women to “sit at the table,” and the act of asking for something is an important way to pull up a chair and be part of the conversation.

What will you ask for?
Who will you ask?
When will you ask for it?
What are you waiting for?

The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals In New Music Leadership and Innovation

female and male figures
I once had a conversation with my violin teacher that I will never forget. I was at a crucial stage in my development as a musician. The path to a career as a professional violinist was becoming clearer to me, and my passion and talent were becoming more evident. I was in my lesson; I had a stack of music on the stand and several important auditions coming up. Turning to my teacher and mentor, I wondered aloud how viable this path was really going to be.

“I would advise you to think very, very carefully about all of this,” she said grimly. “Being a musician and having a family is extremely difficult.”

I was fourteen.

My quartet once sought feedback on a Barber quartet from a male coach I had come to love and respect. “Honestly, you sound like a bunch of polite women,” he said during the coaching. I likely don’t need to clarify that this was not a compliment.

In another coaching, one of our most beloved mentors referred to our sound as “voluptuous.” This was not a compliment, either.
In graduate school, I worked on the Glazunov concerto. In front of my entire studio, my teacher said: “Please forgive me for saying this, but you are playing it like a woman.” When I played the passage better, she made it clear I had achieved the goal. Although I remained a woman, I had played it like a man.


Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, explores the question of why more women have not risen to the top echelons of management and leadership in any industry. Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and has begun to use her enormous platform to sound the alarm about women’s roles in the workplace. In Lean In, she cites the dismal number of female heads of state, members of parliament, and chief executives worldwide, and launches into an in-depth discussion of women’s internal barriers to success. Sandberg acknowledges the height of society’s external barriers—such as lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that collides headfirst with the biological clock—but her focus is on the more personal, internal blocks to success. What self-limiting attitudes has our sexist society created in women, and how are these attitudes holding them back from the kind of career success and freedom that men enjoy?

At first glance, you might think that the field of contemporary classical music doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the high-powered corporate tech world. And you might also think that, in the arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. Never mind that hardly any women conduct, and leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles. In just a couple of generations, it does seem like the gender balance of American symphony orchestras has shifted dramatically—a shift we can confirm simply counting the number of women in orchestral chairs all over the country.

But in the art music world outside of the American orchestral scene, it’s harder to quantify how far women have or haven’t come. This is a more informal economy; we can’t count female full-time hires because there are hardly any full-time jobs. Women “rising to the top” in the contemporary music scene means coming into a position of social, cultural, and aesthetic influence. That’s a kind of success that’s harder to identify. Are women equally represented among prominent art-shapers and cultural decision makers? Are they curating the most cutting-edge concert series in town? Are women the people whose concert reviews you eagerly anticipate? These questions are harder to answer with any certainty, but in what follows, I’ll argue that—at least in Chicago—the answer is no.
Every year, the Chicago Tribune chooses “Chicagoans of the Year” in music, often praising these artists for work that is visionary and groundbreaking. Since 2008—as far back as the online archive goes—all nine of the honorees (George LePauw, Lupe Fiasco, Mark George, Bruce Iglauer, Paulinho Garcia, Syl Johnson, Riccardo Mutti, Mike Orlove, and Local H) have been men. The writers selecting these visionaries have also been exclusively men: Howard Reich, John von Rhein, and Greg Kot.
Chicago magazine has a similar honor; since 2006, all three of its honorees (Ken Vandermark, Ramsey Lewis, and Kimo Williams) have been men.
A recent Chicago magazine new music “power list”, written by a man, included seven men and one woman. The men on the list are men I admire and know well: artistically adventurous, socially connected, innovative, and ambitious. The only woman on the list, Mei-Ann Chen, is a conductor pursuing a fairly traditional career anchored by a major Chicago orchestral institution. The type of “power” articulated in Chen’s career has very little overlap with the kind of self-made creative power shared by honorees Marcos Balter, George LePauw, and the Spektral Quartet. Chen’s inclusion seemed out of place—but sadly, it was the first time since at least 2006 that Chicago magazine has bestowed this kind of honor on any woman musician.

Most of the new and influential creative organizations in our scene—the organizations whose creativity and dynamism will form the heart of our cultural and professional lives—are run by men. To give a small sampling: the Spektral Quartet is all men; ChicagoMusic.org is run by Paul Giallorenzo; all six of the staff at Elastic Arts are men; exciting new venue Constellation is run by Mike Reed. Beethoven Festival, which has been honored as one of the most exciting new cultural initiatives in Chicago, has six musicians on its executive committee. Only one is a woman, and she is in charge of educational outreach. At the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, which is changing the face of our city with its investment in contemporary music, all four of the wonderful people in charge of cultural programming are men. I say this not to shame anyone for being a man, working with men, or for being successful. I simply say this to point out that among the most exciting, successful, and innovative new projects happening in Chicago, women’s participation is not equal.

Among Chicago’s contemporary music ensembles, 63% of the performers are men.[1] Among music writers with a regular byline in a major publication or radio outlet, 82% are men.[2] At Pitchfork Media, a Chicago-based publication which is increasingly paying attention to “indie-classical” artists, only 6 of the 40 staff writers are women. (Though two-thirds of the interns are female.)

Lest it seem that I am pointing the finger at other organizations, let’s look at one of my own. During a recent meeting of Parlour Tapes—a new Chicago record label I’m part of—we were assembling the list of contributors to our October compilation release. As we surveyed the list, we realized that more than 75 percent of the invited artists were men. We didn’t intend our first release to have such a gender imbalance—it had just happened.  How could our team—which includes two women and two men—have missed that?

As I reflect on the problems mentioned above, I think of those women in our community who are highly visible leaders. Melissa Snoza of Fifth House Ensemble was a huge role model for me when I founded my own ensemble. Composer and aperiodic director Nomi Epstein consistently innovates. And of course, Chicago continues to feel the profound influence of MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase, years after she moved to New York. However, we should view these women not as proof that “there’s no problem here,” but as having achieved success in spite of the challenges they face. As Limor Tomer put it at the Chamber Music America conference in New York this year, “In the phrase ‘old boys network,’ the operative word is network.” In contemporary music, as in most fields, networking is power. Despite admirable achievements from outstanding musical women in Chicago, the fact remains that women often aren’t making it onto “power lists”—whether informal or in print. The men in our community have been far more successful in amassing social capital and using it to advance their musical careers.
Why is this the case? Why aren’t more women being recognized for visionary artistic leadership in Chicago’s contemporary music scene—and why aren’t more women providing that visionary leadership in the first place?

As it turns out, the research Sandberg discusses in Lean In can help us answer these questions.

1. Women musicians, like all women, pay a “likability tax” when they are self-promoting, assertive, and successful.

One of the most important sociological facts Sandberg emphasizes is that success and likability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. A strong body of research demonstrates that if a man has an ambitious, thriving, and successful career, his peers will find him more likable; if a woman has the same kind of career, her peers will find her less likable. Two studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology called this the “penalty for success.” Women artists pay a social tax for their professional achievements that men do not. Women musicians cannot promote themselves in the same way that men do without facing negative consequences in the way they are perceived personally. This is particularly problematic for performing artists, who must cultivate personal connections and an enthusiastic fan base (read: people who like you) in order to survive. Women find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. We shouldn’t be surprised that they might shy away from career developments that would make them, say, Chicagoan of the Year in Music—or that when it comes time to choose, journalists don’t find those women leaders quite as appealing.

2. Women musicians are less likely to embark on high visibility projects, take professional risks, and conceive of themselves as leaders—which leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in developing entrepreneurial careers.

Research in “gender differences in task choice” has demonstrated that, when given the opportunity to choose a more challenging or risky task at work, women were far less likely than men to choose that path. Other research has demonstrated that millennial women are less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as leaders and visionaries. This does not mean, of course, that women cannot take risks and establish visionary careers; it means that, due to gender socialization, they are statistically less likely to even conceive of that as a possibility.


3. Women consistently underestimate their own talents and abilities, leaving them at a disadvantage in the essential realm of self-promotion.

Research in Lean In indicates that even when women and men perform equally well as surgeons, the women are likely to believe that they have performed worse. When it comes time for women artists to announce a new commission, upload a new performance video, or send a press release, how might this chronic devaluation of their abilities affect them?

4. When choosing who to hire, men are significantly more likely to choose a man.

The consulting firm Innovisor found this to be true in more than twenty countries. So in a field where most composers, conductors, curators, music writers, and “visionaries” are men, the situation of a mostly male circle of influencers is likely to perpetuate itself.

5. Similarly, senior men are more likely to mentor young men than young women.

Sandberg, drawing on research from the Journal of Vocational Behavior, notes that “mentoring relationships often form when the younger person reminds the more senior person of themselves. This means that men will often gravitate towards sponsoring younger men, with whom they connect more naturally. Since there are so many more men at the top of every industry, the proverbial old-boy network continues to flourish.” This means that fewer women musicians are being sponsored and mentored by influential, senior men in their field.

Having a mentor relationship misperceived as a romantic or sexual relationship is also a problem. Research in The Sponsor Effect shows that 64% of high-ranking executive men are hesitant to have a meeting with a more junior woman, and half of junior women avoided close contact with senior men. This means that in crucial social settings, like post-concert beers or a brainstorming coffee date, young women are less comfortable seeking out mentorship that could yield enormous professional dividends in the early stages of their careers.

6. Women are taught from an early age to worry about whether they can have children and a career.

Five years before I had my first real boyfriend, my violin teacher was talking to me about balancing work and family life. Let’s face it: this seed of anxiety was never planted in the minds of my male colleagues. Sandberg cites research which shows that in two Princeton University studies—one conducted in 1974, one in 2006—there was a dramatic disparity between male and female students’ perceptions of whether work and family would be a conflict for them. In both studies, twice as many women foresaw this as a problem. This inner worry, Sandberg claims, means that women who want families “lean back” from their careers rather than leaning in.


I bring these findings, and my own experiences and observations, forward for three very important reasons:

1. I believe that women rarely get the opportunity to discuss the psychological and emotional limitations that gender socialization has created within them. While I know some of Sandberg’s research is deeply discouraging, my hope is that it can also serve as a point of inspiration. I hope that some of my female peers will recognize themselves in these words, and be encouraged to push through inevitable feelings of self-doubt and fear. My hope is that every woman can become the composer, performer, writer, curator, and art-shaper that she dreams of becoming.

2. I believe that many men are not aware of these issues, because their life experience has not required them to be. Men may feel helpless when learning about this research; they may find themselves feeling defensive or skeptical. But I also believe that my male colleagues care deeply about equality and want a thriving musical ecosystem where all voices can be heard. By examining their personal lives, their beliefs, and the practices of their ensembles and organizations, I believe men can become essential allies in acknowledging women’s unique challenges and encouraging them to live up to their full potential.

3. As a woman writer and musician who has benefited from the encouragement and mentorship of countless men and women in the Chicago scene, I am in a position of relative privilege. As I read Lean In and realized how powerful its findings are, I came to feel that I had a responsibility to share what I had learned. My hope is that this article will generate a discussion that acknowledges that we have a problem—and that we all share the responsibility to make it better.

1.Ensembles counted: Palomar, Anubis Quartet, Chicago Chamber Musicians, Chicago Q, Dal Niente, eighth blackbird, Fifth House, Fulcrum Point, Gaudete Brass, ICE, Maverick, Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, and Fonema Consort.

2.Media outlets included: Tribune, Sun-Times, TimeOut Chicago, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago Reader.

Granting Audiences, Pt. 2

One of the things about American music that I find fascinating is how effectively the American Culture Machine has eradicated the connection to human experience beyond the adolescent’s frustration with changing hormone levels. While not completely successful (as any of us who engage in a musical living know), the effort has managed to make musical morons out of the majority of Americans who listen to music. While this is no revelation to those involved in making music on a daily basis, the ramifications of this practice can be detrimental to the act of making music.

My post last week generated a comment that I feel the need to examine further because it goes to the idea of whether or not a work of art is temporally sustainable despite “shifts in ou[r] perception to existing artworks” that might render them irrelevant to a naturally evolving culture. The commenter’s argument rested on the predicate that art is “generative,” which is a pretty broad term that insinuates a degree of randomness regarding the creation (generative art) and perception (by different audiences and/or through the critical reception) of an artwork. I believe that the commenter was regarding the latter (perception) as key to a work’s relevance as acceptable art and agree wholeheartedly that an audience’s “experience of the art is to some degree a creation” of it. However, I don’t agree with the commenter’s suggestion that the bottom line is that “artwork,” or rather individual works of art, “cannot ‘survive’.”

The theme of building (or rebuilding) audiences for certain musical genres by their practitioners and aficionados is not, in my mind, one of trying to reverse a chemical process; just as art is not science (which is not politics or business). True, there are certain scientific methods, especially mathematical formulae, which can be used for the generation of art, and there are examples (most famously Albert Einstein) of scientists who play music to inspire analytical thinking, but this does not place physics and poetry in the same sphere. The arts and sciences can enhance one another, but cannot substitute for one another. There has been a pernicious fallacy that music sets up moods and can be used for the control of the masses, a tenet that equates the arts with government and/or religion. Again, the arts can enhance the methods used to shape the thinking and actions of groups of people, but cannot be equated as a method for doing so. Our binary of “major = happy” and “minor = sad” only works in a cultural context where the listener has been trained, as most Americans have been, since childhood. This is an aspect of American culture that remains in force (and enforced) and works that follow that dictum will survive as long as the paradigm does. It is a distinctly Eurocentric paradigm and is only a part of the overall American musical experience, but an important one to the American Cultural Machine, which is not an artistic, but rather a business institution. And art and business are not part of the same discipline.

The problem with American improvised music(s) is that they counter the Eurocentricity of the American Culture Machine. Even jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, genres that were identified and labeled by the music industry, are not examples of Eurocentric music or musicianship. What made jazz popular in Europe was the difference between its performance techniques, formal organizations, and sonic textures and those of European art music. In America, it was the dance steps that were associated with the non-Eurocentric cultures that produced the music. People didn’t Lindy or foxtrot to Sousa marches, but they did to James Reese Europe. This bespeaks a dissatisfaction with some of the Eurocentric aspects of the American Culture Machine (and the European Culture Machine as well). So-called “proper” Eurocentric American culture had (and still has) the need to disassociate itself from a highbrow bourgeoisie, which was well-educated in the arts. As the development of jazz (and later rock ‘n’ roll, funk, soul, etc.) offered musical experiences even more disconnected from the Eurocentric ones that represented the elite behind the American Cultural Machine, audiences flocked to these popular forms and their messages of discontent with bourgeois society. Jazz was closely associated with the Socialist Party up until WWII, when Glenn Miller made it the music of the American military, which marked the beginning of its decline as a popular music. It was in the 1970s, when rock, funk, soul, etc. were popular (and being countered by the cultural machine with disco) that music education in public schools began its descent into virtual non-existence. Now there are music programs in public schools, especially inner-city schools, that are little more than sing-alongs to popular tunes. The actual nuts-and-bolts of music making don’t enter the picture. It should be a point of shame that so many of America’s public schools don’t have musical instruments, since playing musical instruments helps students learn and function in the world.

With this in mind, the job of building an audience for a given music might become one of shaping the music into something more palatable to an audience that knows little of or about it, while educating that same audience to its distinct and vital elements; a kind of “watering down” of art in deference to America’s cultural machine. Another is to associate one’s music with forms and elements of non-Eurocentric musics, since American audiences prefer listening to them. I’d like to know of other ways that we think might foster better listening in America.