Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Revisions to OHWM

This is a few weeks late, but I just saw that Tim over at The Rambler noticed a significant revision to the paperback edition of Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music. Briefly, a few years ago Tim argued that Taruskin's discussion of Penderecki was rather flawed. Apparently, those flaws were fixed up in the new paper edition, with a citation for Tim and everything. A nice move on RT's part.

But it makes me wonder--how many other changes are there between the hardcover and paperback editions? Neither the Oxford site nor sales outlets like Amazon make any note of changes. Apparently an Oxford rep claimed in at least one instance that the editions are "essentially identical" with the exception of "stray typos and minor items" being corrected. I guess the Penderecki could be thought of as a minor item, but it makes one wonder.

This seems particularly apropos now that we're all being inundated with sales calls and emails from eager little Oxford representatives about the forthcoming one-volume textbook edition, which will no doubt be a formidable player on the textbook market when it comes out. I certainly would never fault Taruskin and his editors too much for problems like that noticed by Tim, given how much music history he dealt with. Nor do I have a problem with the erudition and utility of OHWM; like most of us working musicologists I use it all the time to help prepare for my teaching. When you're teaching a survey for the first time, especially material far outside of your own research interests, it's a great source for getting updated on the contemporary scholarly issues for a given time period.

But--and this is a big "but"--I do have great reservations with the project as a whole. I think one of the biggest challenges facing our discipline is our tendency towards monophony. We're a very small group of scholars, of startling uniformity of background, and for various historical reasons we operate under a tremendous amount of "discipline," in the Foucauldian sense. That is, attempts to introduce new methodologies and subject matter into musicology are tightly regulated and usually prevented full scale. Not by any one person or institution, of course, but by the manner in which power circulates in musicology. Just look at the experience of someone trying to introduce, oh, let's say, feminist criticism into musicology in the 1990s. Not exactly a radical proposition given that other scholarly fields had been doing feminist criticism for several decades, but we all know how that went over.

I worry that a project like OHWM only serve to discipline us even more, boiling what limited diversity of voices and opinions we have down to that of one man. I'm sure that is not Taruskin's intention at all, but I just don't think its existence augurs well for musicology.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A User's Guide to the Recent SFJ Column

Theoretically I have a degree and a day job that makes me an expert in dissecting the swirl of politics and performances that make up the intersection between"black music" and "white music." Indeed, I am giving a paper at AMS in less than a month on just this intersection, albeit in the early 1950s. But I find the idea of saying something new and different about Sasha Frere-Jones's recent New Yorker column on the end of hip-hop totally exhausting. And yet, musicologists should be following this discourse, so here are some links in lieu of analysis:

The original column by Sasha Frere-Jones, "Wrapping Up: A Genre Ages Out"

A few blog entries by SFJ on the subject, including an homage to Greil Marcus.

SFJ's infamous "Paler Shade of White" column from a few years back, and Wayne Marshall's discussion thereof.

An already widely-read response from the guys of Das Racist. (Who have previously quarreled with The New Yorker.

The Myspace page of Freddie Gibbs, SFJ's hip-hop savior.

Pardon me while this musicologist flees back to the security of discussing music written by people who are now mostly dead.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How Not to Go to College

It's a wild Saturday night here in Phoenixville. With Mary off working the 4-midnight shift, and my plans to go grocery shopping thwarted by local flash floods, I settled instead for baking chocolate chip cookies and watching TV, which turned out to be the trashy college comedy Accepted. Which, I had forgotten, stars a young future Serena Van der Woodsen, along with Justin Long and a memorable Lewis Black as a poor man's Paul Goodman.

I was struck, however, by the portrayal of the college admissions process. Mind you, the whole point of the movie is that Justin Long doesn't get into college, which means that a good deal of the movie examines the college admission process, in some detail. And yet it manages to get nearly every detail wrong, starting with the premise: are we supposed to believe that the ambitious parents of the main character would not have paid any attention to their oldest son's college admission process until it was all over?

Things were even more egregious in last season's college admissions storyline on Gossip Girl. The Upper East Side denizens are falling over themselves to wine, dine, and blackmail wealthy alumni donors, admissions deans, college counselors, and the like for admission. Even better was that somehow Dan's ability "get into the Yale English department" (?!) hinged upon a professor reading his work and agreeing to write a letter of recommendation for him. I worked in admissions at a fairly elite northeast school, and I can say that all of this is ridiculous.

Nobody says that movies and TV shows are realistic, but the target audience for these things are high schoolers and twenty-somethings of the middle and upper-middle classes, kids who are intensely sophisticated about the college admission process. Wouldn't they find these weirdly unrealistic plot elements as distracting as I do? And I'm going to guess that the writers, directors, and producers of these shows are from the same sort of bourgeoise background as the target audience, and also went to college themselves, and thus presumably make these things knowing full well how wrong they are.

Anyways, back to the cookies.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blacklisted Musicians

Although we tend to throw the term "blacklisting" around a lot, it's actually a hard term to define. During McCarthyism there was rarely a concrete "list" of people unfit for employment due to left-wing associations. Senator McCarthy's own list of Communists in the State Department famously fluctuated based on the time of day and how much he'd had to drink. We might think of blacklists as more of a threshold--the line at which mutterings about an individual's loyalties became a distraction to corporate sponsorships. And of course, anti-communist persecution took many other more insidious forms than simple blacklisting.

But in the entertainment industry, there was one concrete blacklist that was tremendously influential, and therefore tremendously damaging to the careers of those on it. Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television was published in 1950 by a group that called themselves the "American Business Consultants." Like many anti-communist groups during McCarthyism, the forces behind the publication were somewhat mysterious; it seems to have been made up of conservative industry executives based in New York, with the help of some former (and probably some current) FBI agents. It is simply a list of 151 names, job titles, and a list of the individual's transgressions, most of which took the form of having signed petitions or lent their names to honorary boards and the like. Unlike some attempts at such blacklists, this one was taken up with enthusiasm by Hearst newspapers, and was widely publicized.

You might be interested, as I was, in how many musicians were on the list. Here they are, together with their job titles as printed in the book. (Which can be amusing; Gypsy Rose Lee is listed officiously as a "Strip Teaser.") In this list I included performers like Zero Mostel and Martin Wolfson, who weren't necessarily known as musicians, per se, but who had successful careers in musical theater.

Larry Adler, Harmonica Player
Leonard Bernstein, Composer, Conductor
Marc Blitzstein, Playwright, Composer
Oscar Brand, Folk Singer. Master of Ceremonies on folk song program
Aaron Copland, Composer, Writer
Dean Dixon, Musician, Conductor
Olin Downes, Music Critic of NY Times
Alfred Drake, Actor, Singer, "Kiss Me Kate"
Richard Dyer-Bennett, Folk singer
Tom Glazer, Folk Singer and Song Writer
Morton Gould, Composer of popular music
Horace Grenell, Musician, Children's Record Guild. Formerly President of Young People's Records
E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Composer--Stage, Screen
Lena Horne, Singer--Stage, Screen, Radio
Burl Ives, Folk Singer, Entertainer
Felix Knight, Singer--Radio, Opera
Tony Kraber, Guitar Player
John La Touche, Writer, Lyricist--Radio, Stage. Co-Author, "Ballad for Americans"
Ray Lev, Concert Pianist
Ella Logan, Singer--Radio, Stage
Alan (Allan) Lomax, Folk Singer--Composer--Author book, "Mister Jelly Roll"
Zero Mostel, Comedian
Lynn Murray, Choral Director, Radio Composer
Earl Robinson, Singer, Composer. Wrote score for "Ballad for Americans"; also for motion pictures "The Roosevelt Story" and "A Walk in the Sun"
Harold Rome, Composer
Hazel Scott, Pianist, Singer
Pete Seeger, Folk Singer
Artie Shaw, Orchestra Leader
Josh White, Singer of Folk Songs
Ireene Wicker, "The Singing Lady"
Martin Wolfson, Actor--Radio, TV, Stage--"South Pacific"

You'll have to wait for "the book" if you want the analysis! But I will say this--there are only 31 names on this list. Blacklisting in the music industry worked very differently then in Hollywood, or TV.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Music and Segregation

Nobody but me will care about this, but this is where Sonny Til, lead singer of the Orioles, grew up:

I've also just learned that in high school, Til was in a singing quartet with the school's music teacher, W. Llwellyn Wilson, a legendary figure in Baltimore's music scene. In addition to teaching music at Douglass High School (which served black students in West Baltimore) he was principal cellist and then conductor of the City Colored Orchestra, and music critic for the Baltimore Afro-American. One of the ambivalent facts of life before desegregation was that segregated black schools often had amazing faculty, with a startling percentage of teachers holding doctoral degrees. The music curricula at segregated schools in the urban northeast were often particularly noteworthy, featuring a level of training in music theory not to be found at many schools today. This was all due, of course, to the fact that talented and well-educated black teachers like Wilson were usually summarily rejected from university teaching positions, leaving segregated secondary schools as their only option.

But this is all to say, although Til always claimed not to have formal musical training, that story might actually be bit more complicated!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

True Confessions of the AMS-L

My favorite genre of AMS-L discussions is the "hey, let's think of music about X" post, followed by thirty million bored musicologists chiming in with suggestions. Currently the obsession is representations of Satan. Past fun "topics" have included music about trains, music with lydian scales, five-movement piano sonatas, classical music used in films, films about composing, film music that uses other film music, "pre-1835 descriptive piano pieces" get the picture. I think it says something about our discipline that we seem to expend an awful amount of energy making lists.

My true confession: sometimes I am very tempted to spark one of these "discussions" with a nonsensical suggestion that would truly send us down the rabbit hole. Like, "Is there any music that references goats?" Or something ridiculously broad, like "what are some pieces of classical music that begin in D major?" I know our discipline, and you can bet that if I asked for pieces that began in D major, AMS-L would probably explode as hundreds of musicologists contributed their two cents.

If a phony-sounding email address asks such a question some day, don't tell on me!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Maybe This Time; or, Was Gluck Right?

I don't what you all think, but after this week's episode of Glee, it feels like the show's promise is finally coming through like a breath of fresh televised air. I certainly loved the pilot episode last summer, and enjoyed the first two episodes of the fall season. Lingering in the back of my mind, however, were two problems: first, was the show's play of high school stereotypes old and cliché, or a fresh working within-and-against sort of thing? And secondly, what about the music? The performance of "Don't Stop Believing" at the end of the pilot was awesome, but in the first two episodes, the music seemed secondary to the show, and this musicologist doesn't like that.

My first quandary was solved thanks to Jill Dolan's trenchant analysis. (Hey--she's at Princeton now? When did that happen?) And the second quandary has been resolved by this most recent episode. In the scene where Kristin Chenoweth and Lea Michele duel on "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret, I was totally sold. Two spectacular performances, cleverly cut together, presented so as to give us insight into the characters' interior lives, and all the while advancing the plot. Bravo. After suffering through American Idol year after year, it is so wonderful to hear professional musicians do their thing, you know, professionally. Is that too much to ask, American television?

Speaking of American television, thanks to the show's Wikipedia entry, I was directed to a Times interview in which the creator of Glee, Ryan Murphy, said this:
“I wanted to do a sort of postmodern musical,” he said. “Fox was not interested, and neither was I, in doing a show where people burst into song.” People do sing, of course, but there are rules: the singers will have to be onstage rehearsing or performing, or a song will come in the form of a fantasy in a character’s head. They are the type of rules that made “Chicago” such a successful film, he said. But “Glee” also draws on “American Idol.”

“We’ve learned some lessons about why that show works,” he said. “I think the key is to do songs that people know and interpret them in a different and unusual way.”

Interesting, right? You hear this sentiment a lot these days from those who work in latter-day musical theater. I can't cite off the top of my head, but I seem to recall Joss Whedon saying something similar about Once More with Feeling, and Stephen Trask with Hedwig. It's interesting that so many of these guys feel a need to define themselves against golden age Broadway musicals, which after all were kind of killed off three decades ago. In reality, what made this most recent Glee episode so effective is the same thing that made "Once More With Feeling" effective: it obeyed the old-fashioned rules of the musical, in that the music portrays inner emotions and advanced the plot. Just because they found a plot excuse to include singing doesn't actually change the narrative function. In fact, Robyn Stilwell has pointed out that musical numbers on recent television shows often actually imbibe the music with more seriousness and dramatic import, offering as an example those episodes of Scrubs where musical numbers can contain unexpected gravity.

In other words, I think Murphy has it backwards: there's nothing more postmodern than spontaneously bursting into meaningless song! For me, the strength of Glee comes from its old-fashioned gesamtkuntswerk, rather than the creator's attempts at ironic distance.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The end of the world as we know it

Now that fully one-half of traditionally-aged college students were born in the 1990s, I conducted one of my periodic unscientific classroom polls about music consumption. I asked my class of sixty upstanding young music historians yesterday when they had last purchased a physical CD, the actual piece of plastic.

As I expected it had been about two years since most of them had bought CDs regularly. There were a few romanticists, of course, and a few vinyl fans, but for the bulk of the class, the only CDs purchased in the past two years had been special for some reason: a memento of a concert, or a rare disc that is not available online even illegally.

That isn't the end of the world though. The end of the world is that one student had NEVER bought CDs in her life.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have crossed a threshold. For now it might be the young, and the technologically adept, but we are entering uncharted waters.