I Am Not My Music’s Fault

Jerry Bowles over at Sequenza 21 raises a provocative, and eternally recurrent, question, that begs to be answered at greater length than I can over there:

The comments under the announcement of David Diamond’s death on the front page [alleging that he was a bitter, petty, often malicious person] raise a question that has always intrigued me as a civilian in the world of the arts and that is: to what extent, if at all, does the character of the creator matter in the evaluation of his or her body of artistic work. Should it matter to listeners whether Diamond was a nice man or not or whether Wagner was an anti-semite?

I think that composers need to be very wary of the attempt to judge musicians partly on their politics and character, and that we need to put up a unified front against critics who write thinkpieces around the hey-this-guy-was-a-jerk-maybe-we-shouldn’t-listen-to-his-music idea.

Let’s take a hypothetical. I’m pro-choice. There are people who think that being pro-choice is as bad as being antisemitic, or worse. Say after I’m dead the prolifers have all their wildest dreams come true, and the country veers to the extreme right on this issue. I can imagine some music critic of 2105 AD writing a thinkpiece in the Times headlined, “Did Kyle Gann Have Baby-Killer Sympathies?,” and people beginning to shy away from my music in response. Given that many people truly consider abortion murder, and therefore just as bad as killing Jews, this is basically what happened to Wagner. He was one of many Germans who felt, however irrationally, that the Jews were standing in the way of German unification. It was a stupid opinion, and his shrill vociferousness on the point embarrassed many of his friends. But not until the Holocaust sank into consciousness did antisemitism come to seem, in retrospect, the evil thing that all sane people now agree that it is.

Remember that during World War I, Wagner’s antiroyalist participation in the Dresden Uprising was taken as a sign that he was politically correct, and therefore it was OK to enjoy his music even though he was German. How fair is it, in either case, to judge a person’s politics based on events that occur decades after he died?

An artist’s relationship to his art and his relationship to politics are entirely different. I have spent my life studying music. My ideas about music have been tested in the fires of professional argument and public opinion. I am a self-proclaimed leader in that field, I come up with my own ideas, and I am not afraid to defend a position of which I am the sole exponent. My reputation will and should rise or fall depending on how much resonance my musical ideas find. By contrast, I have never studied political science. I have never held or run for public office, I have never been given political responsibility, and my political beliefs have never been tested by fire. I am a follower in politics – I read the papers, books, the internet, and I respond to the arguments than make sense to me; I’ll even post political opinions on my blog, though you’ll notice I’m usually passing on something I read elsewhere – and I do not invent my own political ideas. My music is the result of intense and conscious self-scrutiny and continuous evolution; my politics are the vague, accidental, and unsupervised result of temperament (not being personally aggressive, I generally root for victims and the underdog) and environment (19 years at the Village Voice, after all, and 16 in academia). Judge me by my music – but the idea that my music might someday be judged by my amateur political thought is repellent. Might as well judge Nixon’s performance as president based on his piano playing.

When I was a teenager I supported the Vietnam War, because I believed what LBJ said about it. The day I learned that LBJ had lied, my support evaporated. I don’t consider it my fault that I supported that war at first – I was misled, with millions of others. Who knows what political beliefs I may be currently misled about? But in music, however wrong I may be, I am not misled by others.

I don’t see that Wagner was any different. Nothing about his idiot antisemitism suggests that he was on the cutting edge in that department, that he was the first to come up with ideas that others later accepted. Musically he was way out in front of everyone else, politically he carried around some boneheaded ideas that he did not originate. Being German and full of himself, and living in a time in which genius was not quite yet accustomed to being relegated to specialization, he mistakenly thought that his musical genius conferred authority on his political opinions. So because he made this mistake, I’m not supposed to enjoy Die Meistersinger? There are not many parallels to Wagner’s reputation, but remember that when antisemitism is not the crime, the reactionary tendency looks more sinister. Copland was blacklisted for awhile for supposed Communist sympathies, and if you’re as suspicious of Commies as most of us are of antisemites, then the musics of Copland, Nancarrow, Diamond, Siegmeister, and Riegger are avenues of pleasure closed off to you.

And what’s the point of that closing off? Number one, to punish the composer for having been misled; Number two, to prevent enthusiasm for music that might be somehow “infected” with bad character or bad politics. If the composer’s dead, how does neglecting his music punish him? The music exists, it’s there to do with what we want, and if we can benefit, why not benefit? I’m more open to the second argument, that music is a window into the soul, and that bad character will manage to express itself in musical weaknesses. But if this is true, then it must work both ways, and strengths in the music must also be evidence of strengths in the character. Let’s study the music, and if we find weaknesses, then we will assign it a lower position in our estimation. But to read the biography, see weaknesses, and then go searching for corresponding weaknesses in the music is to grant validity to self-fulfilling prophecies.

I’ve analyzed loads of Wagner’s music, and have never run across an antisemitic melody or chord progression. The most compelling argument I’ve seen for antisemitism being expressed in his operas (and I’ve read a lot about it) is the contention that Beckmesser and Mime represent Jewish stereotypes; but since they are not identified as Jewish in the librettos, we can only make this argument by assuming what we set out to prove, extracting what we think Wagner’s stereotype of Jews was and matching it up, more or less self-evidently, with our impressions of Beckmesser and Mime. I do think Wagner’s music has weaknesses – I think the music often rises to an emotive intensity that the libretto fails to support – and I think these weaknesses may well point to a lack of emotional maturity in the composer. But I’m disappointed with the music before I transfer that disappointment to the composer, and what this particular weakness would have to do, directly, with antisemitism, I haven’t the faintest idea. As a person, responsible to his friends and the society in which he lived, Wagner was horribly flawed by his antisemitism. But I fail to see any respect in which his music was tainted by it, and it seems like a different kind of crime – and a category mistake – to assume that we’ll find evidence of that flaw in the music.

As for ill-judging the music of composers whose personalities are considered unpleasant, this puts us on even more subjective territory. Certainly, if one decides not to perform or program music by a certain composer because he’s too big a pain in the ass to deal with, that’s a completely rational response, and an appropriate punishment. But after he’s dead, what point does further neglect serve? One of the composers who’s been trotted out as Exhibit A of unpleasantness is Ralph Shapey. Me, I had a blast with Ralph. I was never his student, I wasn’t connected to the U. of Chicago, I wasn’t the right sex for him to make passes at, and he was thoroughly sweet to me, and I found him delightful. (I seem to have a knack for dealing with composers considered “difficult.”) Likewise, I think I’m a pretty nice guy overall, but I’m aware there are people out there who would put me in the “unpleasant” category. No one is on good behavior all the time, or bad, and I think that there are certain people, like Feldman, who put all their obnoxiousness into their personality so they could keep it out of their music. A person’s artistic expression is sometimes not only reflective, but compensatory.

Not much ill has resulted, yet, from this tendency to cast doubts based on antisemitism on the musics of Wagner, Ruggles, or Varèse, or based on homophobia against the music of Ives (this last a completely bogus charge in my view, but don’t get me started), or based on unpleasantness against Shapey, Diamond, and others. But I fear that if we grant validity to holding composers morally responsible for their lives as well as artistically responsible for their works, listening to their music only if their behavior and views also meet our standards, we leave all artists vulnerable to witch-hunts arising in the ebb and flow of political fashion, based on whatever unreliable biographical evidence their enemies present. I shudder to think what sins I’ve committed, what mistakes I’ve made, what political positions I’ve taken subject to historical re-evaluation, that may be held against my music in the future. I may be responsible for my music, but my music is not responsible for me. When we love the music and are disappointed in the musician, we can only tolerantly shake our heads and wonder at what fallible vessels the Spirit of Music embraces to express itself through.