“Aspiring to the Condition of Music?” No Way

A friend of mine who will probably appreciate remaining nameless in this connection teaches in a highly interdisciplinary graduate program for the arts. Painters, photographers, performance artists, filmmakers, dancers, and composers all meet together and give critiques of each other’s work. (Still echoing in my head 25 years hence is the comment of a philosophy prof on a paper of mine: “‘Critique’ is not a verb.”) My friend notes that, except for the musicians, all the students and faculty speak the language of postmodernism and deconstructionism: they talk about how a work “engages the Other,” or about its “modes of negation,” or about how it uses “””space””” in some ineffable meaning of the word unknown to most earthlings. My friend, a really brilliant guy who’s added a few wrinkles of his own to the history of music, has no idea what they’re talking about, and neither do his students, nor, to hear him tell it, do the other music faculty. The non-music faculty and students have learned to accept as a matter of course that the musicians speak a completely different language, and can’t participate. One of the big differences is that the composers are the only ones whose work doesn’t necessarily “reference” (also not a verb) things in the real world. The painters, performance artists, et al, assume that every piece is political in intent, and critique (ouch!) every work in terms of its positioning along a social spectrum. In so doing they indulge an elaborate word game virtually unknown in the music world.

Does anyone else find themselves living on the edge of this divide? I admit I’ve been on interarts grant panels that were very similar, on which every artist was judged according to the political correctness of his or her work’s message, and on which composers were brushed aside because their work “isn’t really saying anything, is it?, it’s just music.” Is it perhaps true that, right this moment, music is more isolated from all the other arts than it’s ever been before?