This Year’s Model (or, That’s What They Don’t See)

In C, Taylor Swift, and Cultural Canonization: A reflection in 53 phrases.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

In C #11.

Heinrich Heine, from Die romantische Schule (1835): “[E]very epoch is a sphinx which plunges into the abyss as soon as its problem is solved.”


The most telling commemoration of the 50th anniversary, last month, of the San Francisco premiere of Terry Riley’s In C—maybe not the most sublime or the most grand, but the most telling—was the In C iPad app. Developed by Matt Ingalls and Henry Warwick and released by the software firm Sonomatics, the app lets you conjure up a performance of In C all by yourself. It is compulsively fun. Up to twelve different virtual “performers” work their way through the piece’s 53 fragments, moving from one fragment to the next at the tap of a finger. Each channel is completely customizable: volume, instrumental sound, transposition. The level of control is exhaustive.


The mere fact that we have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of In C (the app is just the tip of an iceberg of performances, recordings, and tributes) indicates a collective decision to exempt the piece, in a way, from Heine’s rule. In C has been cantilevered over the abyss of its own musical epoch. It’s hardly the first piece of music to have been thrown such a lifeline. There’s a whole group of such works. We call it the canon.


Back in 2009, when the 45th anniversary of In C was marked with a massive Carnegie Hall performance, and when Robert Carl’s essential study Terry Riley’s In C was published by Oxford University Press, Carl—in an interview on this site—both acknowledged and deflected the work’s canonization:

I should mention that it still is in many ways a prophetic work, because it’s one of the greatest examples of human beings getting together to agree to do a communal action where they maintain their individuality yet with a prescribed goal. I think it’s a political statement. More than Cage, I think it’s an example of a structured anarchy which is very positive. And as such I think it remains a useful idealistic model for us in terms of all the political and social issues that we have.


By sidestepping the communal premise of In C—its prophetic core—the In C app provides only the most obvious example of the way canonization has both expanded and contracted the interpretive space around the piece. Maybe that’s one small advantage to such anniversaries: you can see past the incremental nature of the journey to just how far you’ve gone. In C at 50 is a long way from In C in 1964. The one-time experiment is now a favorite ritual. The manifesto is now scripture. The cooperative happening is now a one-player computer game.


None of this changes In C, the piece of music, its ever-shifting cloud of melodic fragments—each player repeating each fragment at will, moving to the next fragment at will, a haze of tonality kept in sync by the bright, insistent high-C pulse (suggested by Steve Reich, one of the original performers). And all of this changes In C, the musical work, the harbinger of the minimalist style, the marginal experiment that is now, in spite of itself, a monument.


Classical music canonization tends to be only gradually bestowed and, while not necessarily a permanent label, it’s still an impressively sticky one, historically speaking. In comparison, pop music has made canonization a disposable consumer good. The prototype of pop-music success is a kind of unabashedly ambitious, near-instantaneous, omnipresent, and utterly temporary canonization. It’s commodified canonization; but, then again, one of the neat things about commodification is how it brings out the most essential and—in the literal, mathematical sense—radical aspects of whatever is being commodified. Which is why I’m going to talk a little bit about Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off"

Screen shot from Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”


Listen to the hi-hat samples. In Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” the inescapable pop hit of the first half of 2014, the underlying four-beat drum loop features an open hi-hat on the third beat. In Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” the inescapable pop hit of the second half of 2014, the underlying eight-beat (but nevertheless extremely similar) drum loop features an open hi-hat on the first beat. But the pitch of the hi-hat in “Happy” is flat, neutral. The pitch of the hi-hat in “Shake It Off” rises.


Those hi-hats might sum up the difference in mood between “Happy” and “Shake It Off”—ineffably laid back vs.insistently upbeat. But, in “Shake It Off,” that slight upward sizzle takes on added significance because of the comparative stasis of the rest of the song. Like “Happy,” “Shake It Off” never modulates; in fact, it goes “Happy” one better by never even changing its harmonic progression. Verse and chorus are a regular tread—ii-IV-I-I, ii-IV-I-I, in sæcula sæculorum. That fillip of hi-hat is the only upward trend in the song. Maybe it can be heard as the equivalent of a safe, prudent investment: the unchanging status quo dotted with a periodic, predictable appreciation of interest.


Is that too much? That last paragraph could well be a parody of the sort of writing that has sprung up in response to Swift and “Shake It Off.” But it says something about the cultural place and purpose of the song that such writing is so easy. Money has been so bound up with the publicity around the song, the commentary about the song, the mere fact of the song, that it is difficult to not hear financial considerations wending their way through the production. Taylor Swift, after all, is the center of a formidable corporate enterprise. The discourse around “Shake It Off” and 1989, the album featuring it, has never been far from industry matters. The album’s completion of Swift’s turn from country-pop to pop? An occasion to analyze the navigation of genre-based and artist-based fan bases. The impressive rate and quantity of the album’s sales? An invitation to make a state-of-the-industry address. Swift’s much-noted decision to pull her music from the streaming service Spotify? An indictment/day of reckoning for streaming services as a whole. And so forth. This is what it means to be located within the cultural establishment, when the values of the establishment are congruent with those of the market.


The disparity between the countercultural trappings of rock and pop and its indubitable position as the soundtrack of the current American establishment has, by this point, been noted to a probably adequate extent. Interestingly, though, like any such canonization (aspirational or actual), pop canonization tends to push interpretations of the canonized repertoire to extremes. This might be why “Shake It Off” loudly, proudly, and a little bit obsessively asserts a kind of critical unassailability. Haters gonna hate. I’m just going to shake it off. (It cannot possibly be a coincidence that each phrase of the chorus is punctuated with an “ooh-ooh-ooh” more-or-less directly lifted from Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” the musical version of nonchalantly scratching your nose with your middle finger.)


In an odd way, this places “Shake It Off” in an orbit shared by In C: music defined, in part, by going against the critical wind, whether as a pose or an aesthetic choice. But that creates interesting dissonance—immediate in the one case, a long time coming in the other. “Shake It Off” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart; In C is now an acknowledged masterpiece. One way or another, the counterculture becomes the culture.


Sometimes, fans or critics or marketers or, occasionally, artists themselves will try to elevate a pop canonization into something closer to a classical canonization. The results, even if on some level reasonable, nevertheless usually come off as clashing. To liken (as both Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem did) The Beatles to Franz Schubert is, as much as anything, an example of how canonization has distorted both, how it has added another screen to the way we interface with their music.


A more recent example: this past autumn, Sr. Cristina Scuccia, an Ursuline nun and winner of the Italian version of the singing-competition television show The Voice, released a cover of Madonna’s 1984 single “Like a Virgin.” Scuccia characterized the song in the kind of universalizing, levels-of-meaning terms that often accompany efforts at canonic enhancement. “Reading the text, without being influenced by previous interpretations, you discover that it is a song about the power of love to renew people [and] rescue them from their past,” she said. The Rome-based, bishop-affiliated Servizio Informazione Religiosa was not convinced, calling the recording a “reckless and calculated commercial operation.” Scuccia and her churlish detractors speak to our instincts: we can tell when canonization is happening on terms too contrived, too tangential, or too far removed from artistic quality. Or can we?



This is a drawing of a Madonna by Peter Cornelius (1784-1867), the most famous of the Nazarene school of painters. The Nazarenes were a group of 19th-century German and Austrian artists. For many years, they lived together in an abandoned monastery in Rome. A Madonna or two was practically a password to get into the Nazarenes: they were inspired by Renaissance artists (Raphael, in particular) and devoted to religious subjects and imagery. (And not just in their art; the name of the group was a mocking reference to the artists’ habit of growing their hair and beards long, in a Jesus-like manner.) There is a good chance you have never heard of the Nazarenes. In the modern narrative of art history, they are mentioned only in passing, if at all. But in their own time, they were quite popular. By the 1850s, according to French poet and critic Théophile Gautier (in his survey Les Beaux-Arts en Europe), Peter Cornelius was an institution. “Rarely has an artist enjoyed in his lifetime a glory equal to that of M. Pierre de Cornelius,” Gautier wrote. “He is admired as if he were already dead.”


Heinrich Heine disdained the Nazarenes. In his younger years, Heine had studied drawing with Cornelius at the Dusseldorf academy and recognized the artist’s technical skill; nevertheless, Cornelius’s works seemed “to have been painted on Good Friday, while the doleful songs of the processions swept through the street, and re-echoed in the atelier and in the heart of the painter,” as Heine wrote in his Reisebilder. Cornelius’s figures are “drawn with dream-like accuracy, powerfully true, only they want blood-throbbing life and colour. Yes, Cornelius is a creator; but if we look at his creations it seems to us as though they could not live long; as though they were all painted a few hours before death; as though they all were prophetic signs of approaching dissolution.”


It is impossible to separate Heine’s characterizations of the Nazarenes from his—and their—political station. Their ascetic, otherworldly trappings notwithstanding, the Nazarene painters were supported by the conservative Prussian powers-that-were of the time, in the form of commissions, patronage, and official positions (for instance, that Dusseldorf post for Peter Cornelius). Heine was an outsider: a Jew, a Saint-Simonian, a critic of aristocratic, reactionary privilege. His books were banned. For the last 25 years of his life, he lived in exile in Paris. That the Nazarenes found favor with the regime that rejected Heine inevitably figured into his criticism.


Heine eventually expanded his view of the Nazarenes into a universal category. In his 1841 book Ludwig Börne. Eine Denkschrift, Heine divided the world into Nazarenes and Hellenes—the former moralistic, devoted to concepts, divorced from feeling, and oppressive; the latter sensual, hedonistic, alive, authentically human, and free. (The book itself is a chronicle of a friendship dissolved. Ludwig Börne was a pioneering journalist, an afflicter of the comfortable, a muckraker before the term was invented; despite their similar political leanings, the two eventually fell out over what Heine saw as Börne’s excessive Nazarene tendencies. The posthumous tribute was, perhaps, testimony to Heine’s recognition that Börne—and, indeed, Heine himself—could not be so easily categorized.)


Heine was not sanguine about the contest between Nazarenes and Hellenes. Near the end of his life, he published a darkly whimsical essay called “The Gods in Exile,” a series of vignettes describing the supposed historical fates of the Roman gods once they were cast aside in favor of Christianity. Apollo, for example, after many centuries, was working as a shepherd in Lower Austria. But the beauty of his singing gave away his true identity, and he was hauled before the Inquisition and convicted. Asked if he had any last requests, the god sought only his lyre and the chance to sing one more song. The music was so beautiful, and the performance so exquisite, that all who heard it— particularly the women—were overcome with emotion. As a result, Heine reports, the authorities made sure to drive a stake through Apollo’s corpse, just in case such power was, in fact, due to vampirism.


But Heine’s criticism of the Nazarenes was at least prophetic: the work of Cornelius and his confederates faded into obscurity with alacrity. And so we remember Heine, because he saw something that history later confirmed. Or do we remember Heinrich Heine because his poetry was set by Mendelssohn and Schumann and Brahms? Do we put more stock in his opinion of the Nazarenes because he got into the canon by dint of his other writing?


Or—do we remember Heine because his art criticism was coming from a specific political place, one that made later political theorists more readily adopt his artistic opinions? Heine’s aesthetics were echoed by Ludwig Feuerbach, whose works, in turn (along with Heine’s own), were a crucial source for Karl Marx. As Margaret Rose put it in her book Marx’s Lost Aesthetic

the Nazarenes… are of central importance to an understanding of Marx’s critique of the cultural politics of his time as well as to the description of other critiques, such as those given by Heine, which helped to form Marx’s ideas on the patronage given to the arts in early nineteenth-century Prussia

—which provided the basis for a Marxist, materialist theory of art and aesthetics that became increasingly influential as Marxism itself did.


In other words: the historical fate and reputation of the Nazarenes, their journey from favored to forgotten status, their place (or lack of) in the canon—a lot of it was fueled by forces and considerations a long way from the actual paintings. The Nazarene painters might have welcomed the patronage of the Prussian aristocratic establishment, but it’s not like they sought it out with their aesthetic choices. Heine, for that matter, might have been just as dismayed with that part of his own canonization: the overwhelmingly conceptual nature of classical Marxism is about as Nazarene as it gets.


The idea that success is as much of a trap as failure is an old one. In his Denkschrift, Heine quotes an especially wry observation from one of Ludwig Börne’s letters. Börne notes that, with unrest on the increase across Europe, crowned heads have been particularly concerned over the safety of their porcelain factories. “You have no idea, my dear Heine, how having fine porcelain keeps one in check,” Börne writes. “Look at me, I once was wild, with little luggage and no porcelain. But with possessions, and especially with fragile possessions, comes fear and bondage.” The fear becomes pervasive: “Truly, I feel like the damn porcelain inhibits me in writing, I am so mild, so careful, so anxious….”


Literature’s most well-known Nazarene painter is Adolf Naumann, a minor character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke and her husband, the pedantic clergyman Edward Casaubon, meet Naumann and his assistant, Naumann’s cousin Will Ladislaw, while honeymooning in Rome. Naumann insists on having Casaubon model the head of St. Thomas Aquinas for a large allegorical painting. Having been thus elevated to the pantheon, Casaubon and his wife return home, where Casaubon alters his will—suspicious of the friendship between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, Casaubon decrees that, should the two marry, Dorothea will forfeit his property—and then suddenly dies. His legacy, in essence, imprisons the characters for the rest of the novel.


Elvis Costello, from “Living in Paradise” (1978): “Meanwhile up in heaven they are waiting at the gate, saying, ‘We always knew you’d make it, didn’t think you’d come this late.’”


In C was eligible for the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in music, but Terry Riley did not win the award. Nobody did. In what has become the most infamous snub in modern musical history, the jury (Winthrop Sargeant of The New Yorker, Ronald Eyer of Newsday, and Thomas Sherman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) recommended that, in lieu of the usual prize, Duke Ellington be given a special citation, a recommendation the Pulitzer board chose to ignore. Sargeant and Eyer resigned from the jury and made the story public.


The nomination letters the 1965 Pulitzer music jury sent to the board, particularly the ones from Sargeant and Eyer (Sherman seems to have been content to defer to the more insistent New Yorkers), are fascinating reading—which was probably part of the problem. The most fascinating is the one by Sargeant. “A few weeks ago” (Sargeant begins) “a cellist-composer named Charlotte Moorman gave a concert in which she played the cello, shot off a pistol and dived, fully clothed, into a tank of water. This all before a small audience.” (This, incidentally, is a conflated reference to two of Moorman’s collaborations with Nam June Paik: the Variations on a Theme by Saint-Saëns and Paik’s arrangement of John Cage’s 26’1.1499” for a String Player.) Sargeant goes on: “There is a great deal of this sort of thing going on, and, in our preliminary meeting, Mr. Eyer, Mr. Sherman and myself decided that such things should be eliminated from competition for the Pulitzer Prize.” In somewhat more perfunctory language, Eyer concurred: “Inconclusive and frankly experimental music could not be considered.” The Ellington award would have been, in part, a riposte to what the jurors saw as the unacceptably avant-garde tendencies of American new music: the canon as a zero-sum game.


What’s more: both Eyer and Sargeant—in their nominating letters, mind you—went out of their way to disparage the one Ellington piece that would have been eligible for the award, the Far East Suite. They couldn’t even be bothered to get the name right. Eyer: “[W]e wish to make it clear that we do not take into account his most recent composition, ‘Far Eastern Suite,’ introduced here recently, which we do not consider comparable to the best of his output.” Sargeant: “The only composition of his that had a first American performance during the past season was something called ‘Far East Suite’ or ‘Impressions of the Far East’ or something like that. We heard tapes of it, and found it to be inferior to the best Ellington.”


Sargeant and Eyer were right about Ellington, and wrong about Ellington. Criticism of any cultural artifact is (often correctly) deflected by accusing the critic of failing to understand, of missing the point, of not getting it. But approbation can come from a very similar place. Admittance to the canon is sometimes on grounds far removed from what the creator intended. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Praisers gonna praise.


(Interestingly, some of Ellington’s (scrupulously private) anger over the Pulitzer incident focused on Sargeant and Eyer’s decision to go public. “Why the fuck,” Mercer Ellington remembered his father saying, “did it have to get in the newspapers?” Maybe he realized that the publicity would, in effect, forestall any future reconsideration on the part of the Pulitzer board, that the jury’s unorthodox canonization would fix that part of Ellington’s stature as permanently as a proper canonization would.)


For the 1965 music Pulitzer jury, the concept of certain works, the idea behind them, automatically disqualified them from consideration, regardless of the musical production. Similarly, the idea of giving Duke Ellington a Pulitzer Prize trumped their opinion of the musical substance of his only eligible work.


“Shake It Off” and In C are both conceptual works: the idea of them is as important as their musical substance. For “Shake It Off,” the concept is the assertion (or, maybe, the revelation) of Taylor Swift’s established persona as completely congruous with 21st-century pop music. The importance of In C is inseparable from its status as a foundational document—“the Sacre of minimalism,” as Robert Carl aptly put it. On the surface, the production of each piece—the strategy by which the substance expresses the concept—is divergent: deliberately loose parameters in In C, intensive control in “Shake It Off.” (Like everything else in the song, nothing about those rising-pitch hi-hats is happenstance.) But the concept still governs the production.


Like the videos for other Taylor Swift songs, the video for “Shake It Off” is designed, first and foremost, to make us like Taylor Swift. Swift appears in a series of established dance contexts: classical ballet, breakdancing, twerking, modern dance, finger tutting, and so on. In each, she is the odd girl out, an unskilled and clumsy interloper in a troupe of disciplined experts. The final scenes feature Swift and a group of likewise untrained, “normal” people dancing with a kind of freeform giddiness, sealing the video’s inverse relationship between expertise and likability, between proficiency and fun.


More than a couple commentators have caught more than a whiff, however unintentional, of cultural appropriation in Swift’s goofing on the more African-American-associated dance styles. But there’s a divide of class and race to be found in the very idea behind the video: that Taylor Swift, a blond white girl, would be considered likable for her lack of skill stands in contrast to the generations of African Americans that grew up knowing they would have to be “twice as good” in order to succeed (in the more cynical version of the saying, “twice as good to get half as much”). At the very least, it is a reminder that performing some act of skill in an amateur, casual way is, on some level, an act of privilege.


(Duke Ellington, from “Ninety Nine Percent” (1963): “Ninety-nine percent / won’t do / ninety-nine-and-a-half / ain’t enough / If you love yourself, be good to yourself, be one-hundred-percent wise / that’s the ticket to heaven, and there is no compromise.”)


Robert Carl begins his study of In C by emphasizing how “transgressive” the piece was in the context of its time: its pulse, its tonally centered modality, its open instrumentation and form. “And perhaps most threatening to a sense of professionalism in the classical avant-garde,” Carl adds, “it welcomed performers of varying levels; one did not need to be a virtuoso to participate in a successful performance.” Nevertheless, as Riley continued to perform the piece, he did feel the need to set down a baseline of proficiency; what was once a single page of music is now, in the current edition of the score to In C, a single page of music and two pages of instructions: “It is important not to race too far ahead or to lag too far behind.” And: “All performers must play strictly in rhythm and it is essential that everyone play each pattern carefully.” And: “It is advised to rehearse patterns in unison before attempting to play the piece, to determine that everyone is playing correctly.” (S. Alexander Reed, in his 2011 article In C on Its Own Terms: A Statistical and Historical View,” has ingeniously analyzed how, over the years, Riley’s additional instructions—both in print and in rehearsals for various performances—have gradually massaged the piece into a more specific structure, the arrangement of the modules’ diatonic and chromatic pitches made to reveal a traditional arch form infused with forward-directed, goal-oriented momentum.)


The rehearsal process for that November 1964 premiere of In C was catch-as-catch-can, with a different subset of performers at every practice. Interviewed for Carl’s book, Riley remembered one of the last rehearsals before the premiere. “[W]e had one which was almost everybody, including a couple of hippies who came in off the street, and who tried to blow over it, and Steve [Reich] threw them out, because he was totally intolerant of anything like that,” Riley said. “I would have probably let them play!” Preparation and improvisation, expert and dilettante, belonging and exclusion: Michel Foucault would have loved that story.


(In C, in fact, grew out of an idea Riley had for a fully notated piece; frustrated with that effort, Riley, in a “flash,” realized that he could design a similar piece that would work on the principle of controlled improvisation. An irony: Riley had hoped that the abandoned, through-composed piece would be performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival; its descendent, the partially improvised In C, became a classical music standard.)


One of the more hardy internet memes of the past couple years has usually gone under some variation of the moniker “You Only Had One Job”—a photo of some incredibly mundane task that some person has nevertheless still managed to screw up. If you wanted a quick pop example of how deeply corporate, assembly-line assumptions and value systems now pervade every human interaction, you could do a lot worse than the fact that the humor of the “You Only Had One Job” meme almost always centers around the incompetence of the worker, and never around the absurd monotony of the work.


It’s possible to hear In C as a triumph of industrial efficiency. A single page of short, simple, repetitive actions resulting in a complex, added-value final product. The individual workers have room for initiative—repeat each phrase as many times as you want!—but, at the end of the day, that sense of freedom is subsumed into the larger task: the ultimate trajectory of the music remains unchanged, the template producing another In C performance to add to the stockpile. Frederick Winslow Taylor would have loved this piece.


No, of course that’s not what Terry Riley intended. Nor is that how most performers and listeners have chosen to hear In C. But that’s at least partially because, for so many years, In C was perceived as a countercultural artifact. Before the canon caught up with it, it was easy to hear In C as a celebration of community and cooperation, of easygoing anarchy producing a temporarily harmonious society. But, going forward, there may never be another generation that doesn’t hear In C outside the canon. Why wouldn’t In C, now situated inside the establishment, start to sound different? What’s to stop those future listeners from hearing the piece as an ingenious aesthetic rationalization of one of the most common human conditions of late-capitalist life—the sense that one is only a cog in the machine?


The In C iPad app can even be interpreted as underlining the factory-like aspects of the piece. The performers, the cogs—the workers, just like so many others—have been replaced by technology: cheaper, more efficient, more pliable.


The chorus of “Shake It Off” sounds a bit like a litany of insistence that the line between one’s identity and one’s work has been thoroughly erased. Players gonna play. Haters gonna hate. Heartbreakers gonna break. Fakers gonna fake. You only [have] one job.


If it wasn’t already obvious, I am incurably intrigued by the way a piece of music, an ephemeral object, can go on to have a rich and unexpected existence beyond the control of its composer or performers. All bits of culture have this potential, but it seems especially strange and potent with music, just because music is so slippery to begin with: temporal, insubstantial, with a built-in disconnect between page and performance. That such fragments, really, can be invested, over and over again, with entire encyclopedias of meaning is incredibly weird. Canonization both acknowledges and fixes that process, in a way that both invites and demands further investment.


The neatest, most appropriate peroration for this essay would be an expression of hope, a wish for In C to shake off the weight of history, to preserve its lightness, its informality, its identity as “the scruffy longhair shuffling its feet at the doors of the exclusive club,” as Robert Carl describes it. But that is incredibly difficult. Remember, canonization pushes interpretations to extremes—performers try to recapture a work’s original power by amplifying it, try to recapture its original novelty by distorting it to the point that it can again seem disorienting. This is already happening with In C. (The 45th anniversary Carnegie Hall performance went big: 70-some performers, 90-some minutes.) And as the interpretations become more extreme, the implications become more extreme. We’re more likely to hear the edges in music that’s been sharpened to a point.


That might be why, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I have been more inclined to hear In C through a skeptical lens. That doesn’t lessen the piece (a great work can encompass many vectors) or my affection for it. But, in the atmosphere of late-2014 America—an atmosphere of division and disillusionment—In C‘s idealism feels awfully stark. From a political, civil-society standpoint, In C is a fairytale, in way that can feel especially fictional in our particular here and now: the system is simple, the system is transparent, the system is democratic, and the system works.


In a 2007 essay called “For the Birds/Against the Birds” (reprinted in her collection Elective Affinities), Lydia Goehr collided the idealism of In C with Theodor Adorno’s famous/infamous postulation of art after Auschwitz:

The composer Terry Riley once wrote that “music has to be the expression of spiritual categories like philosophy, knowledge, and truth, the highest human qualities. To realize this, my music necessarily radiates balance and rest.” Why “balance and rest,” Adorno asks again of his contemporaries, in a world that no longer admits of either in truthful form? If art is to mirror life, why think of the life or nature that appears under the spell of society’s untruth? Why not focus on the concealed or lost life, on the life brought historically to death, on the life that no longer appears to the eye?


The framework of Goehr’s essay is a contrasting analysis of Theodor Adorno, the musical conscience of the Frankfurt School of philosophy, and Arthur Danto, the philosophical conscience of the New York School of music and visual art. Between them, Goehr locates an essential, unresolvable tension in modernist and post-modernist aesthetics. “[T]he dialectic that starts out between art and nature becomes over time one between art and the commonplace, where the commonplace increasingly becomes a concept demonstrating the loss of what the concept of nature once implied: namely, beauty and freedom,” Goehr writes. “If this is right, then it also plausibly follows that the artists of the 1960s (and after) who sought a meaning for art in the commonplace were too content to accept the loss of a certain sort of meaning in art. Or, those who still saw beauty in nature or art were too content not to find beauty in the commonplace.”


Canonization, a historical holdover that persists in the contemporary world, runs smack into this conflict. By both confirming a work’s artistic standing and claiming it as a universal commonplace, it situates the work at the exact point of tension Goehr identifies. Once in the canon, a work is no longer just meaningful or beautiful, it is saddled with the expectation of being meaningful and beautiful, in ways that contradict each other, and even the work’s original intention. The danger of the canon is that becomes a prison of frustration.


Is that too much? In C is a great piece and deserves to have its greatness acknowledged. Its persistence is a sign of optimism; its variability is a virtue; its celebration is surely an instance of society, for once, recognizing something good in its midst. But the mechanism of canonization ought to be checked, calibrated, investigated. Because pieces of music are hardly the only things that get canonized. Society and culture—which are simply terms that deflect our own complicity—are organized around what is in and out of various canons. We don’t always see the mechanism—another screen. We are the mechanism. We are the ones doing the canonizing, enshrining not just music, not just art, but ideas, morals, standards, truths and truisms, be they common sense, religious, political. A lot of things get canonized. A lot.


Heinrich Heine, from Die Romantische Schule (1835): “In the world’s history every event is not the direct consequence of another, but all events mutually act and react on one another.”


Elvis Costello, from “The Beat” (1978): “There’s only one thing wrong with you befriending me. Take it easy. I think you’re bending me.”


“…when each performer arrives at figure #53, he or she stays on it until the entire ensemble has arrived there. The group then makes a large crescendo and diminuendo a few times and each player drops out as he or she wishes.”