Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Missed Opportunity

Via the NY Times blog ArtsBeat:
The topic was weighty: how music can save the world.

The talk ranged across the role of conservatories, the definition of art and music’s capacity to heal.

The World Economic Forum convened a panel discussion at Carnegie Hall Thursday on arts leadership. The focus? “The role and responsibilities of cultural leaders and institutions in the collaborative process of development solutions to a number of challenges affecting the world.” . . .

They all wanted to make the case for why music is important. When all is lost in a natural disaster, say, all that is left is the spirit, Ms. Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “The arts nurture the spirit,” she said. Conversely, dictators try to suppress and control the arts, pointed out Klaus Schwab, the forum’s founder.

If you check out the program for the event, you'll see that the panelists included various arts administrators, a business school professor, some philanthropists, and so on. Can you guess what profession is not represented? If you guessed those of us who actually study these issues for a living, you'd be right. Not a musicologist in sight.

I don't necessarily blame the Davos crowd for missing an opportunity to lend the event historical perspective and a general de-mystification of the role of music in society. One of the ironic things about our discipline is that although we spend an inordinate amount of time asserting our authority over music, we hardly ever assert that authority out in the public sphere where it might actually do some good!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Selling Silence

Just in time for Kyle's new book, an Acura advertisement in this week's New Yorker shows that silence can mean all sorts of different things.

No word yet if C.F. Peters or the John Cage Trust will be filing a claim. Then again, the versions of 4'33" available from Peters only include the famous "Tacet" edition, and then what they call the "proportional notation" version, the so-called "Kremen" manuscript that uses a rudimentary graphic notation. Instead, Acura is here ripping off the version used by David Tudor at the premiere, which was regular empty manuscript paper carefully measured out into the correct proportions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Theater in Williamsburg

Although it's easy to make fun of the Colonial Disneyland that surrounds William & Mary, the resources of Colonial Williamsburg have been a real boon to my American music class this semester. Did you know that the first purpose-built public theater in the British colonies was in Williamsburg, constructed in 1716? I didn't, before I moved here.

I was luckily to be able to invite Sterling Murray to give guest lecture on the subject to my class. Sterling, if you don't know him, taught at West Chester University and has now retired here to the "'burg," as the kids call it, and is now one of a number of scholars looking into the history of 18th century musical theater in this town. There were, in essence, three theaters built over the course of the 18th century, from the first in 1716, to the last which was torn down in 1773. There were no permanent companies in these buildings, but a fairly regular succession of touring companies came through, part of a theater circuit that included a winter stay in Jamaica, and the stops in Charleston, Williamsburg, Annapolis, etc. The repertoire more or less mirrored London theater tastes, from The Beggar's Opera to later pasticcio comic operas like those of Thomas Arne.

The theaters were mostly built next to where the Capitol building once stood. Unlike, the Capitol, however, the theater has not been reconstructed, despite extensive archaeological research that gives us a pretty complete picture of its contours. The design was based heavily upon London theaters, complete with pricey box seats--Washington sat there on occasion--and the notorious row of spikes around the pit to keep the audience from abusing the performers too much. (You can see them in the Hogarth print above.)

Why hasn't the theater been restored? Money is a problem, I am sure, although apparently there have been some successful fundraising attempts. I am told, however, that the major problem is the worry that nobody would want to go see 18th century British musical theater in its four-hour rambunctious glory, mostly viewed from wooden benches crammed together. Plus, you'd have to worry about fire codes, wheelchair access, etc.

Which is too bad. It's typical of many public history projects that buildings representative of public, official culture--the Capitol, the Palace, the Church, etc.--are restored and reconstructed, while the more complicated and marginal parts of eighteenth-century society are deferred. Colonial Williamsburg, however, has made it part of its mission to showcase the daily life of colonial Virginia, and it seems like if anyone should value the theater, it would be them. And I would give tourists more credit--re-staging a night at the theater, completely with bits of Shakespeare, dancing dogs and jugglers, as well as John Gay, could be quite fun. Four hours is definitely a lot to ask, as is the problem of a crowded flammable theater having only one exit, but you know, it's not like any of these reconstructed buildings are truly authentic, and I bet with a little imagination these problems could be surmounted.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


From yesterday's New York Times:
The fleur-de-lis will be showcased in Sunday’s Super Bowl as the symbol of the Saints.

But it is much more than just the logo of a modern-day football team. Throughout history, the fleur-de-lis has represented many things, including royalty and religion. The symbol, an artistic representation of a flower (a lily or an iris), has been found on ancient Greek and Roman coins.

Like an inkblot in a psychological test, the fleur-de-lis of the Saints can have several interpretations. Some may see it as a most aggressive flower or as the tip of a spear or an arrowhead.

New Orleans players like it but vary in their awareness of its meaning. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he did not know of its floral origin. Linebacker Marvin Mitchell called it a “fleur-de-leaf.” ...

Jonathan Casillas, another linebacker, said of the logo, “I love it, man” and called it “very powerful.” He also said he was impressed to see women with fleur-de-lis tattoos.

Darren Sharper, a defensive back, said that if the Saints win the Super Bowl, he will get a fleur-de-lis tattoo, “so I guess I’ll be a New Orleans Saint forever.”

Apparently, neither the Times nor these players remember one of the most potent uses of the fleur-de-lis in New Orleans history. As part of the French code noir which governed the treatment of enslaved Africans, the branding of the fleur-de-lis on the backs of slaves was part punishment, part record-keeping. After one runaway attempt, a slave received the brand on one shoulder, in addition to losing an ear. After another runaway tempt, another fleur-de-lis would go on the other shoulder, and the individual's hamstring would be cut. A third runaway attempt, and the penalty was death.

Check out the comments to this story for some examples of how the symbol is still much contested in New Orleans.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Politeness, Again

Zoe Lang, over at amusicology, has a thoughtful post up looking at the recent discussions in our field over threatened cuts at many schools--most vividly, the elimination of the important Department of Paleography at King's College. She has several good points about the need to have a diverse "musicological toolbox" available. She also notes that there is a certain undercurrent of hostility in some of the discussion towards what is called "critical studies," a term left somewhat undefined, but which I think can be taken to mean those of us who use methodologies and theories common in the humanities at large, like feminist theory or postcolonial studies or what have you. Zoe very rightly points out that it is exactly in these approaches to studying music that connections with other disciplines are most often found, and that we need as much engagement as we can get.

I promised myself I wouldn't get baited by the AMS-l discussion--not even when my own former but dearly-beloved graduate program was described as full of "contemptible levels of narcissism, waste, and entitlement." Alas, I succumb. Luckily, Zoe says it very well. I would only make it a bit bolder: faced with severe economic pressures as we are, defensively circling the wagons around one's own small corners of musicology is exactly the wrong approach. Frankly, paleography of the sort studied at King's doesn't make an ounce of difference to my scholarship. A lot of musicological scholarship doesn't. If I read Jonathan's new book on Chopin's Op. 38, it would only be out of curiosity, not because I need to. But it would never occur to me to suggest that these other approaches and subfields of study are somehow not worthy of study, and not valuable to the discipline at large. They are both. They are exactly what make our field so unusually rich.

Making the case for musicology, like any humanities discipline, is not easy in the era of the rapidly-privatizing university. There are plenty of folks out there who would love to see the performing arts relegated to extracurricular activity, and the liberal arts banished entirely. Those are the attitudes that need changing, not the fact that you might not like someone applying feminist theory to Beethoven. Bashing the work of your colleagues strikes me as an obviously wrong-headed manner in which to articulate the important of our field. Perhaps we could instead chill out and let each other take our own scholarly paths, respectfully disagreeing when those paths cross. Save that anger for the endowment fund managers and state legislatures. The word, I believe, is "pluralism," and it is the sign of a healthy discipline.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

NAACP at the LoC

If you've never checked out the NAACP papers at the Library of Congress--I blogged about them a little while back--here's a chance to do so without leaving home. The Library has put a bunch of materials in an "online exhibition." The selection of documents (70, with more to come) is only a tiny fragment of what's available, but it should be enough to whet your appetite. There's also an online collection of primary sources aimed at secondary school educators, which is pretty cool. If you're unable to get to DC, remember that most of the collection was microfilmed awhile back, and is in many a research library collection. I prefer the actual ink-on-paper myself--microfilm is no proper replacement for holding W.E.B. Dubois's hand-scrawled letters in one's greasy little hands.

And yes, I learned about this exhibition because I'm a "fan" of the LoC on Facebook. Which is only slightly less nerdy than being a fan of JSTOR, which I also am.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Paranoid Suburbanite

If you'll pardon a brief foray into urban policy, did you see that article linked to at the Times about Obama's "War Against Suburbia"? The author, Joel Kotkin, constructs an argument that goes something like, "Many of Obama's advisors are from Chicago" plus "Obama is putting money into high-speed rail" plus "Obama cares about urban schools" equals Obama is declaring war on Suburbia. And since everyone--EVERYONE--wants to live in the suburbs, they are going to turn on Obama and he will lose horribly his next election.

Never mind that a great deal of Obama's support of mass transit is for projects designed to ease the commute of the average suburbanite. Or that an important reason many leave for suburbs is because they are being priced out of the urban core, not because they necessarily want to. Or that the very idea of "suburbs" as a homogenous entity is laughable, a point Kotkin inadverdently makes himself in pointing out their increasing diversity. Heck, a lot of people these days move to suburbs because they are diverse, closer to work, and more, dare I say, urban!

And the flip side of the coin, as many commenters on the article point out, is that the government puts an enormous amount of funding into subsidizing home ownership. And in many cases, even in the deepest depths of cities, the kind of urban density Kotkin is being imposed on freedom-loving citizens is actually illegal. As Atrios is fond of pointing out, the dense residential neighborhoods of a city like Philadelphia could never be built today--there are too many zoning requirements that require parking garages and such. That's why attractive urban residential areas are so pricey--the housing stock is limited by law. If any kind of war is being fought in this country, it's against those of us who would like to be able to take the bus to work and walk to the grocery store. Instead, we end up with neighborhoods like the one pictured above. That's the "neighborhood" around my Trader Joe's down here in Virginia--a forest of lamp-posts and empty lots as far as the eye can see.

The author, Joel Kotkin, is just kind of a wanna-be policy wonk with no policy and no wonk, but he does give give voice to a certain paranoid strain in American politics. Actually, here's where I can make the connection to some of my academic work. In the United States, at least, success political discourse is all about trying to find an imaginary category to which your audience can imagine themselves belonging, and then constructing that category as simultaneously universal and under attack. In our contemporary scene, that category is the "middle-class", to which we all invariably belong and for which every single politician in this country pledges to be working. Other variations include "families" (everyone fights for American families!) or in the not so distant past, "white people"; a little further back then that, white Protestant men. Kotkin is trying very hard to make "suburbanite" a similar universal-but-marginalized category.

What's actually hilarious is that I then learned that Kotkin also has this theory about what he calls "Gentry liberalism." Apparently it was "so hot a year ago"--seriously those are his words--but now it is in its death throes. If I only had known at the time that I was at the head of a hot political movement!