Tag: mainstream culture

Reclaiming the Missing Middle

Six bagels on a tray in the process of being baked
Ed. Note: Orchard Circle’s first concert will take place at the DiMenna Center’s Cary Hall in New York City on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 at 8:00pm. Further details are available on the Orchard Circle website.—FJO

Orchard Circle began as a simple conversation among friends. Essentially it’s a new music series that will focus on what could be called the “middle”—the center of the aesthetic spectrum. Saying he loved this idea, John Corigliano noted how “the middle has been neglected far too long.”  I tried to explain it earlier in terms of something Anthony Tommasini wrote, which began with his describing the wide range, quick cuts, and “irreverent mixing” of an ACJW concert presented like a rock band’s release party, which had excited him. Frank J. Oteri recently published a piece in these pages describing the whole new music world in similar terms, expressing the same exhilaration at today’s freedoms, which he saw encapsulated in something written about Henry Threadgill: “Asked about what’s caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well as a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life.” Tommasini’s article went on, however, to discuss how there was, nevertheless, one thing missing from ACJW’s “mix tape” approach. Namely, it had no middle: that is, the concert included similar “Carter to Beyoncé”-like contrasts, but explicitly eschewed any composers one might call the “middle ground” between them, and this set Tommasini to thinking, and to describing this middle ground and his fears for it.

This missing middle is precisely what Orchard Circle is all about.  I don’t think that anyone could deny the simple facts of the matter.  Tommasini’s article was not written yesterday; it was published six years ago, and there’s little question that, by all meaningful measures (media attention, share of commission funding, space in programming, etc.), things have only gotten worse. After having noted his worry that “pieces of more traditional excellence, like Mr. Harbison’s string quartets,” could disappear, Tommasini concluded, “For now this is just a passing worry.” Yet Harbison wrote to me recently:

I have been able to reach a conclusion that it is best for me to accept that my music, and my values in general, hold little relevance for the present moment, and I am able to be most useful and productive by letting go. … My music and that of most of my contemporaries has ceased to have meaning for the world of the presenters, press, and high-powered performers.

I’ve also found some younger composers, coming out of a similar aesthetic, who seem to feel almost as despondent and “finished,” yet they had just finished grad school! Why is no one discussing this? Whatever your own aesthetics, much like the idea that biodiversity equals ecosystem resilience, you should not want to see this branch of creative activity, from composers young and old, squeezed out of existence the way it has seemed to be lately.

What is the accepted intellectual justification for this current state of affairs? Why aren’t at least the internal institutions of the composition community politely bidden to make a thorough reexamination of their priorities, and an overhaul wherever these are seen to have gone awry? In trying to get Orchard Circle going, I noted the depth and extent of feelings that so many of the composers I talked to, both young and old, hold about all of this. I also noticed how among many there is a good deal of reticence to talk about any of it openly. I hope that readers can appreciate my own trepidation in making myself pretty vulnerable discussing all of this quite directly. An open question remains whether these same composers—frequently quite individualistic and proud, and so by consequence forming a fractious, balkanized, lonely bunch, hardly a union—can ever really be coaxed into coalescing.

Orchard Circle’s first concert, at the DiMenna Center, will soon provide the first test, with players from the Berlin Philharmonic giving an election-night bash that explores the notion of a “Weimar America.” Given our theme, it might be fitting to mention a musical thinker who liked to ponder stylistic shifts, a native Berliner who was forced to leave Berlin soon after the Weimar Republic fell (he was Jewish) and who then came to New York City and taught for a long time at NYU—Curt Sachs. “However we seek to define it, there is always something tragic about aesthetics,” Sachs once wrote, noting that a good half of what is created ends up rejected by our doctrines, today as in millennia past, and that we need to think more holistically, where different styles could be seen as “different but necessary parts of a meaningful and well-organized whole.”

Tommasini’s article didn’t fully explore why the aesthetic middle ground was now eroding so completely, but I’d like to throw out a few thoughts. One of the most salient features, it seems to me, of this missing middle is that it is the part of the aesthetic spectrum that has the closest ties to Western classical music’s past. Perhaps the ability to flip instantly through a vast global bonanza gradually desensitizes listeners to the subtle inflections, quasi-linguistic narrative processes, the totality of what I might call the “metabolism”—the complex guts—of classical music?

I might also suggest that the gravitating of so many toward musical languages of greater stasis—pop, minimal, non-Western—and away from the developmental, directional language of Western classical music, might partly stem from the deeper recesses of fear and uncertainty that plague us: who might not crave a bit more stasis, when, for the most basic aspects of our world, stasis has become so fragile and threatened a commodity, while a veritable black hole of looming global change stares us in the face? Yet by that same token, one could therefore cogently argue that there never had been a time in which this wordless language of development, change, and resolution could be deemed so valuable and necessary an asset to the mind, if the intention were really to rationally confront and resolve the outsized risks we now all run.

Sachs liked to study the periodic oscillations of style, sometimes comparing them to a swinging pendulum, but other times to the more chaotic yet still periodic motions of weather, calling them “hot” and “cold” style shifts, yet with subtleties akin to cool summer spells and warm spells in winter. (A few years after he died, one of the first things the earliest researchers reconstructing past climate from ice cores discovered was that such excursions were surprisingly common and important at the time scale of climate, too, and these are now named Dansgaard-Oeschger events after those researchers.)

Aesthetic shifts don’t relate only to periodic oscillation, however, and can track events that suddenly come crashing in like an asteroid, creating cultural “punctuated equilibria”: for example, when 9/11 came crashing in, it played havoc with every aspect of life, and I suspect played a role in the shifts I am talking about, abetting the move towards those musical “languages of stasis.” Harbison mentioned the role of the press in the middle’s decline, and Howell Raines, recounting his time at the helm of the New York Times after 9/11, described in particular a sudden imposed shift at Arts & Leisure just after 9/11, which he likened to having “a new sheriff in town,” and which he said began by suddenly placing an article about a rock band on its front page. Even the language Raines uses creates a striking parallel to Naomi Klein’s notion of a “Shock Doctrine.”

That is hardly a statement of “rock versus classical,” however. I still remember giving Keith Emerson my first composition, copied in the hand of my older brother Sebastian who hadn’t yet begun composing, around the time the childhood photos accompanying this article were taken My mother being a classical composer, I rejoiced as a boy in Emerson’s virtuosic way of bridging the different musical worlds I knew, morphing Ginastera, for example, into rock, and I tried to do this kind of thing myself. Of the older composers who first expressed enthusiasm for Orchard Circle, John Corigliano just had a premiere this fall of a new piece based on bluegrass and Harbison has taught jazz at MIT. In short, I don’t think that anyone affiliated with Orchard Circle seems alienated from American popular culture.

But there’s a big difference between the inclusion of elements into a style, and the exclusion of things from it, which a sheriff or two might like to see enforced. It can be hard after a while even to notice unnamed injunctions:  how long would it have taken you to notice that there were no doubled leading tones, over centuries of musical literature and through multiple revolutions, if you hadn’t been told about this in your theory class? I’m sure I would never have noticed. So I think that some might not even have noticed the quiet, but clear and growing, exclusionary injunctions I am pointing to or that Harbison describes, filled up as they have been by the nearly infinite cornucopia of “music products” available today.


We were forced into having Orchard Circle’s first concert on election night (it was the only date our musicians, members of the Berlin Philharmonic who are here on tour, could do it), but one friend said that, given what Orchard Circle was all about, happenstance had forced it into what was perfect for it. So the program we have put together is built around the election, and we will all watch the returns together on the DiMenna Center’s large screen and high-definition projector, with good food and drink. It should be vastly more interesting than sitting in front of a television at home and being a statistic for some network’s rating!

Of course, some have been so worried that they can’t even envision listening to music that night, and John Corigliano wrote to me recently that he might even be among those himself. But for all of us there in that hall, The Fall of the House: Waltzing through Weimar America will be our rain dance, where the musical thoughts of sixteen different American composers must combine symbiotically as one—from Harbison and Corigliano to Babbitt to Glass, ranging from works of the 1970s to premieres—coalesced (at least there in music, if not personally) into a collective prayer that we find our way back to sanity.





Who Counts as an Expert?

When you read about music industry issues in the news, does it feel like it’s connected to your life? Do you see yourself reflected or hear your concerns included? These questions were on my mind most recently last week, as rapper Jay Z was joined by a crowded stage of pop superstars to roll out the music streaming service Tidal. It’s something I think about every time a big music news story bubbles up.


Among the general population, there seems to be a sustained level of interest in the business of making music that extends beyond our appetite to understand other industries. It’s regrettably difficult to find news coverage about the people who grow our tomatoes, sew our clothes, or assemble our smartphones, but people are still uniquely fascinated with the people who make the music they enjoy.

And yet much of the public conversation about important issues in the music business seems light in nutritional value, or narrowly focused on the concerns and actions of a handful of superstars. If you’re working in a genre or music subculture that isn’t based around mass-market assumptions, your concerns may be absent. We can all read dozens of hot-takes on the latest celebrity copyright kerfuffle, but how many of them examine whether a young composer whose work has been infringed has any meaningful recourse, if she can’t afford expensive legal representation?

One reason for this dynamic is that journalism has been going through many of the same upheavals as other creative industries. Few publications have dedicated reporters assigned to the music industry beat anymore, let alone with a labor emphasis—such topics get passed on to arts critics, or business and technology writers. I’ve only ever really worked in music, so no one would expect me to be able to explain subprime lending or email encryption. But business and technology journalists are often tasked with explaining complicated systems and revenue models, without any specialized training or background.

While some have taken on this challenge and done an admirable job, it’s not surprising that others end up making basic errors—confusing record labels with publishers, or compositions with sound recordings, for example.

FMC Chart: money flow-radio

Infographic from Future of Music Coalition’s “Music and How the Money Flows

There’s also a reliance on faulty conventional wisdom; Future of Music Coalition has published research that squarely debunks common myths, like “musicians make all their money from touring,” but I could spend my entire work week trying to correct these myths every time they appear in popular media and I wouldn’t make much of a dent. Plus click-driven revenue models often incentivize writers to prioritize celebrity controversies over an examination of how non-superstar musicians (the vast majority of us) are impacted.

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

But artists know that things are more complicated. You might even argue that making a life as a musician or composer is partly about getting comfortable with constantly navigating that complexity. We know that an approach that works for one kind of musician is not necessarily going to work for peers working in different genres, or different roles with different assumptions about scale. Strategies or business models that might work perfectly well for a chamber music ensemble may not suit a composer who doesn’t perform. We know that rather than the conventional story of an old model of the music business being replaced by a new one, there’s always been a range of many different models, and we choose the models that align with our abilities, skills, interests, and available resources.

But while adopting “it’s more complicated than that” as a default epistemological position will help you understand what’s going on, it can be challenging to find ways to tell these more complex stories. Not long ago, I was speaking to a TV journalist who wanted to know whether or not our copyright laws were “antiquated.” Now, it should be clear that this is kind of an absurd question to pose as a binary either/or. US copyright laws amount to hundreds of pages, assembled over decades, revised over and over again. I explained that while some current provisions might be due for revision, many others continue to provide important protections for creators and for the public interest. Alas, the journalist really wanted a yes-or-no answer, and when I was unable to give her one, she ended up not quoting me on that issue. It was hard to blame her—she only was allotted two and a half minutes.

Another example: the popular sci-fi novelist and tech blogger Cory Doctorow in his mostly un-recommendable new book Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free suggests an axiom for aspiring artists: “Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it,” a variation on the “obscurity is the real problem” adage we heard endlessly during the file-sharing battles a decade ago. This is, of course, demonstrably false: most working musicians and composers have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture. In fact, there are thousands of professional musicians who will always remain ultimately anonymous to many of the consumers who enjoy their work: touring sidemen, session players, etc. Obscurity alone isn’t so much of an issue if obscure musicians and composers are able to obtain a fair price for their obscure labors, whether from the open market, from grants and commissions, or other revenue structures. But Doctorow’s willingness to speak in such sweeping generalities about an industry he’s never worked in hasn’t been a barrier to his self-positioning as an expert on the music business. It may have worked to his advantage, actually.

This leads me to another observation about perceived expertise: working at the intersection of music, technology, and policy means reckoning with the fact that each of these three arenas carries its own ongoing battles with sexism and racism. What this means for me as a white, college-educated man is my opinions are immediately given an assumed legitimacy in many forums. I can opine about technological issues in music and policy and no one will patronizingly ask me whether I know how to code, to borrow an example from Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil. I may not be able to oversimplify complex dynamics, but at least I look like an “expert.”

If this all sounds rather disheartening, I do see opportunities to push back. Musicians and composers are always the best experts about their lives and livelihoods, and they seem to be more and more willing to tell their stories. As busy, frazzled, and overextended as journalists and editors often are, my experience has been that most genuinely want to get it right and like hearing the thoughtful, factually grounded perspectives of artists of diverse backgrounds, including the kinds of people who will never be invited to stand on stage next to Jay Z.

The need to hear those perspectives is also a reason why sites like NewMusicBox and others that allow creative workers to speak for themselves are so fundamentally important, and I’m delighted to be contributing this month.

Kevin Erickson is communications and outreach manager for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education group based in Washington, D.C. With roots in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk tradition, his experience spans many facets of the music ecosystem, including all-ages music advocacy, alternative interdisciplinary arts spaces, community radio, and brick and mortar independent music retail management. He remains active as a musician, producer, and engineer at Swim-Two-Birds recording studio.

Hatin’ on Nickelback

In this month’s Rolling Stone cover story Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney took a dig at Canadian band Nickelback that has received no small amount of media attention. To wit:

Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world…So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit—therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that! Rock & roll is the music I feel the most passionately about, and I don’t like to see it fucking ruined and spoon-fed down our throats in this watered-down, post-grunge crap.

Hatin' on Nickelback

It’s not the most chivalrous (or least arrogant) way of making the point, which is part of what also makes Carney’s dis so resonant: it’s exactly the kind of thing that a lot of people really think, expressed pretty much just as it must have happened in conversations countless times before.

No stranger to high-profile bashings, Nickelback has endured so many slings and arrows that I’d almost feel sorry for them, if I didn’t think their music was so ass-bad. Recall that this past Thanksgiving nearly 40,000 Detroit rock fans signed a petition calling for Nickelback’s replacement as the half-time act during the nationally televised Lions/Packers game. Given that Detroit is the birthplace of an entire genre (Motown) as well as home to classic rock bands like the MC5, it’s easy to see what motivated music fans to sign the kind of petition they normally wouldn’t be bothered with. In the words of petition supporter Robert Jones, Nickelback “is not rock and roll, it’s a nasty hybrid of the worst manufactured music on the planet.”

Comments like the above are probably on the clean side compared to what many rock fans might say among friends. Why so much vitriol directed at Nickelback, who are merely one of many easy targets in today’s commercially dominated, creatively deficient Top 40 wasteland? Patrick Carney’s original screed—which references people beginning to accept that what is most successful is rarely what is most exciting and unique—underscores a loss of faith in the very foundations of rock as subversive sexual and political expression. Perhaps no other band so aptly embodies the kind of inauthentic, focus-grouped approach calculated to appeal to everyone, and this must be what sets Nickelback apart from the pack of equally unimaginative music.

As a writer who usually gets to choose what I write about, I don’t relish the idea of trashing anyone’s musical choices—I’d much rather devote that same time to something that excites me and ought to be shared with others. So I’m not writing this to heap yet more criticism on a group that has become a favorite punching bag among self-anointed “enlightened” listeners; I’m writing this to point out that what many listeners—and, I think, Patrick Carney—seem to disdain even more than Nickelback is the attitude that many, especially the most “enlightened” and savvy among listeners, have adopted in reaction to the kind of lame, devitalized music that Nickelback exemplifies—that since the most creative music is rarely the most successful, there must be something suspect with desiring success and wide acclaim.

There’s a sense in which Patrick Carney’s latest comment is simply egotistical bluster designed to justify his band’s own choices. All the same, his comments do strike me as indicating a problem that also has plagued the world of contemporary music: mainstream modes of dissemination have become so closed to innovation that many young artists (perhaps too hastily) deduce that there must be something wrong with wanting to reach a large segment of people. Not everyone wants to be the biggest band in the world, and I do think the indie spirit has done much good in shifting focus away from popularity to other aesthetic values. Yet at times this point of view can also lead to a retreat into niches and scenes, and unnatural disdain for the idea of wanting to reach a large audience seems to me just as unhealthy as an unnatural preoccupation with popularity as the only worthwhile indicator of artistic worth.