Color Me Frivolous

Riffing off of politics again for a moment, I truly hope it is redundant for me to point out that everyone who is worried about the nature of political discourse in this country should be reading Glenn Greenwald over at Salon every day. He is a brilliant researcher and fiercely relentless critic of mainstream media news coverage who has forced some of the worst offenders at Time and the New York Times to modify their rhetoric and admit mistakes. His column today is especially gratifying, as it takes up the use of the epithet “serious,” the term that habitual Bush-supporters use these days to distinguish themselves from Democrats and liberal commentators. Dick Cheney and Joe Klein at Time, in this usage, are Very Very Serious because, while they’ll take issue with the President here and there, they understand the basic rightness of what he’s doing; Nancy Pelosi and Michael Moore aren’t serious, because, even though they were right a million times where the Neocons were always wrong, they were never on the Bandwagon to begin with.

The thing I love about it is, of course, that “serious” has also long been the word that High Modernist composers use to distinguish themselves from composers who try to appeal to the audience, who think about accessibility, who are influenced by pop music, who don’t build up dramatic climaxes, who appreciate Erik Satie and Virgil Thomson, who don’t try to impress each other with the sophistication of their techniques. “Serious” is a condescending but tolerant-seeming word that connotes, well, yes, these postminimalists are composers too, and amateurs may find in them a certain entertainment value, but we must not forget, of course, who the really serious composers are. I’ve long speculated that, if artists are, as they are called, the “antennae of the race,” that trends we hear in music may subsequently filter through the rest of society; and that, since we had a generation of composers who were so in love with their own power within the profession that they didn’t feel they had to give a damn about the audience, we now have a generation of politicians so in love with Beltway power that doing good for society no longer even occurs to them. In short, Neocon ideology may be more or less the 12-tone music of politics. By this analogy, of course, the lightening up of music in the last 20 years may presage a similar lightening up and return to sane reality in politics. The analogy may well be totally misplaced, but it does allow me a certain optimism.


  1. says

    Ah, if only I were so optimistic…

    In the same vein, many years ago, I stopped off to buy some records before going to a theory class with a teacher who is also a composer. This was in an institution that is not renowned for its progressiveness; Schoenberg was a bit avant-garde for them, as my teacher was more of a Stravinsky person. Anyway, he noticed I had just bought a bunch of records, and out of curiosity asked to see them. I whipped out a recording of the Stravinsky Cantata (one movement of which we studied in that class for two years in a row), and he beamed. Next out was the original Tomato Records recording of Einstein on the Beach, followed by the original ECM recording of Music for 18 Musicians. His expression turned more serious and he looked at me and said “Well, I suppose it’s nice to dance to,” and that’s all he said. Guess it wasn’t “serious” enough for him.

    I still make a distinction between the cold, analytic serialists of the 50’s (Boulez and many others) and the earlier folks, including Dallapiccola, who were much more emotional and less rigid, at least in my opinion. The former certainly have analogies with the neocons, but I’m not convinced that S/B/W/D were evil. Far from it—they all composed music that is incredible, at least to me. Both Cage and Feldman adored Webern, as does La Monte Young. Even AS, who some people might justifiably consider a bit of an asshole, reportedly never wanted dodecaphony to be taken so strictly. Nor did he want to replace tonality, although he said different things about this at different times.
    KG replies: Ah, you’re thinking Schoenberg and Boulez, I’m thinking Davidovsky, Wuorinen, Babbitt, and their ilk. Whether Europe produced any true musical neocons is a more subtle question.
    On second thought, I take that back. There’s hardly a composer I like less than Schoenberg, musically and especially personally.

  2. says

    it is very sad that the Greenwald column is behind a subscription wall (though I got in thanks to Perrier…). his stuff should be on the front page and editorial pages of every paper in the country. Or at least freely available to all.
    KG replies: Ack!! Never thought of that. Everyone, give everyone you know a birthday subscription to Salon, and don’t wait until their birthday. There’s never been a better reason.

  3. says

    Hi Roger,
    If you click through a link from any blog post to a Salon article, you are supposed to be able to read the linked article without going through the whole site-pass dance. In fact, I I just cleared out my cookies and cache and tried it via the link above, and it took me directly to Greenwald’s post.
    Not that I want to discourage anyone from signing up for a subscription, as per Kyle’s excellent suggestion. But they do try to make it easy for non-subscribers who enter via a blog link.

  4. mclaren says

    Arr, me mateys. Arr! Google is your friend.

    Not sure why you say Glenn Greenwald’s columns are locked up behind any kind of wall. Do a google “search site Glenn Greenwald” and you’ll typically get a direct link to the latest Greenwald column. Ditto for the sites,, and, which also often give free links to Greenwald columns. Or you can use cookie755.html or cookie756.html appended to the URL to tunnel through the subscription wall. 755 tells the linux server to allow read permission of that file.

    In any case, here’s the column Kyle was talking about. AFAICT it’s wide open to the public:
    I got there through this reddit link:
    on this reddit page:
    You’ll find similar free links to Paul Krugman’s supposedly Times-Select-only editorials on Do a google “search site Paul Krugman” and follow the links.

    Information wants to be free. Arr, me mateys!

  5. says

    Mr. Greenwald’s fine work (along with everything else at Salon) can be read for free using the Salon “Day Pass”, which is really just an ad you can click through.

  6. says

    While I largely agree with the sentiment here, I think your analogy has a significant problem: there’s nothing inherently wrong with Serialism itself, but the neocon “Pax Americana” ideology is fundamentally toxic.
    A better analogy might be between the Neocon ideology and the ideology of High Modernism — musical progress, superiority of classical music over popular music, superiority of complexity over simplicity, that aesthetics are unversal laws rather than culturally derived preferences. Serial/12 Tone music just happens to be one of the musics that was selected by the High Modernists as superior — but if one were to have an analogous set of beliefs and select Minimalism is the fetishized style that would be just as bad.
    Another way in which my variant on the analogy works is that Neoconservatism and High Modernism are both dead-end holdovers of the nearly universally accepted beliefs of the past.
    And certainly in both cases the term “serious” is used to promote the preferred ideology and delegitimize other options without having to engage in actual analysis or philosophizing.
    I also disagree in part with your claim that “we now have a generation of politicians so in love with Beltway power that doing good for society no longer even occurs to them.” I really think that what looks to you (and to a lot of people) like not caring about doing good for society is actually instead a belief that they know what’s best for society (society’s own opinion on the matter be damned) and that the ends justify the means, so by consolidating power they can more effectively achieve their noble goals. The “permanent Republican majority” that the white house was working toward for a long time is about arrogantly presuming that Republicans are best for the country and the people can’t be trusted to make their own choices about what’s best for them.
    Which is actually quite similar to the High Modernism ideology — we’re right about what music is best and about what is best for the culture; if the audience likes inferior music that’s because they’re wrong so why should we care what they think; we have a right to power and funding because we’re on the side of the angels.
    Obviously I’m painting with a very broad brush here, but you get the general idea.
    KG replies: well, I said “High Modernism,” and that’s what I meant, adding “more or less 12-tone” later as a kind of shorthand, so we’re in agreement. As for the idea that Cheney and Co. are actually doing what they think is best for society, I just can’t imagine anything more far-fetched.

  7. says

    so by consolidating power they can more effectively achieve their noble goals
    While I think this is transparently false (how does commuting Scooter Libby’s sentence, for instance, or letting the Attorney General blatantly commit perjury, in any way be construed as “doing what’s best for the country”), I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of difference what their motivations are. Having good intentions does not in any way expunge your bad deeds. I’m sure there are lots of very sincere Klan members out there who are convinced they are doing the right thing for the country.

  8. mclaren says

    High musical modernism was an heroic project which radically overhauled the musical praxis of the previous 2500 years and threw out their catastrophic weaknesses and foolish shortcomings
    and blindly pointless old conventions, in order to replace them with even more catastrophic new weaknesses and even more foolish new shortcomings and even more blindly pointless new conventions.

    Theory is when you know something, but it doesn’t work. Practice is when something works, but you don’t know why. High modernist composers combined theory and practice — their music doesn’t work, and they don’t know why.

  9. says

    The neocons put a lot of thought into selling their message to their audience. Now that the selling is over, they don’t have to care if the audience hates it, but they would still prefer us to love what they’re doing. They’re criminals. If criminals can con us into loving them — great! — but even if we hate them they’ll keep committing their crimes until somebody stops them.
    It might be charming if there were a serialist equivalent to George Bush — the cipher/frontman who sells the ticket on false pretenses and presents himself as someone “you’d like to have a beer with.”
    “I think I’ll buy some Babbitt records, because Pierre Boulez is someone I’d like to have a beer with. Terry Riley is such an effete snob. Boulez is a guy’s guy kind of guy — a guy-ly guy.”
    It’s mind-boggling that Bush got close enough to winning the 2000 election that his collaborators could steal it for him, all on the basis of “he’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a beer with.” Depressing, hilarious, however you want to call it.
    Also, as you said, the Republicans really haven’t cared about “what’s best for the country,” and I have never gotten the impression that the serialists were anything other than sincere — they really did think their stuff was “what’s best for music.”
    You’re right, though, that the two teams’ use of “serious” is eerily coincidental, and equally infuriating and insulting (though, of course, with vastly different consequences).

  10. says

    Interestingly, in Europe the high modern has usually been associated with the radical left wing (See Nono). Now of course quite a few of the neocons were marxists before they were against marxism.
    What I usually find more pressing: how can we avoid that ‘serious’ will ever be applied in this way to promote the way *we* like to see the world of music? How to navigate the tenuous balance between being right and being a pundit?
    KG replies: High modernists in the U.S. are almost invariably politically liberal as well, and it’s always puzzled me that they can’t see the contradiction between their musical attitudes and their politics; almost as though they channeled the authoritarian streak in their personalities into only the professional sphere. (I have been told by those who know them, however, that Babbitt and Wuorinen express rabidly rightwing attitudes.)
    Your second question is indeed interesting, and one I used to give a lot of serious thought to. But it now seems to me that to anyone with a decent sense of humor, a healthily humble view of themselves, and no ambition to control others, the pitfalls of the authoritarian personality are not difficult to avoid. I insist that the body of music I call “totalist” be recognized as a movement, but I never claim that the best music is all totalist, nor that everyone should be writing totalist music, nor that there’s any historical inevitability to totalism, except insofar as it took advantage of certain notational properties inherent in minimalism. As a musicologist I am a specialist on the development of minimalism, but there is plenty of recent music I am vastly impressed by that owes nothing to minimalism, and there is plenty of boring minimalist-based music. Even insofar as I harbor any kind of musical ideology, it gets subverted in my own music, and composer KG often writes music by which the poor critic KG is rather shocked. I can’t imagine ever even feeling, let alone succumbing to, a temptation to characterize my own style of music as “serious” versus some other style, or revelling in the “victory” of my collective musical aesthetic – I would immediately start wondering what anti-reaction is coming next, and wanting to be part of that. “Serious” doesn’t have positive connotations for me in any sphere of life, whereas “subversive” and “irreverent” do. And I’d far rather be “sane” or “commonsensical” than “right.”
    I have to think there was something in the project of musical High Modernism that attracted a certain kind of power-seeking personality into the composing field, and reinforced their worst tendencies once in. I feel that I was susceptible to it when I was young, and even attracted to being the kind of authority that laid down rules for others to follow. But at some point I simply turned away from it. Erik Satie was a great model for me, and as Satie said, “Show me something new and I’ll start all over again.” The continuing childlikeness of American baby-boomers is taken to be a massive collective character flaw, but one excellent result of it, I think, is that we are unlikely to calcify into a bunch of authoritarian empty suits.

  11. says

    Fascinating discussion, but at heart I am not always clear where these kinds of generalizations get us, the demonizing of various aesthetics and equating or likening them with political ideologies. I am not convinced that certain musics “work” or don’t “work” based on their ideology or construct. Composer rhetoric can be a huge distraction, turn-on or turn-off, but this polemic doesn’t necessarily need to color or limit the listening process. There is always the argument that serial music isn’t “psycholgically real” (see Lerdahl’s writings on cognitive constraints), but, as a player and listener, I just don’t buy this. For myself, I find power in Feldman, Cage, Satie, etc…. but I find a different power and beauty in Schoenberg, Babbitt, Webern, Boulez…I am not even so sure much of the time that it’s possible to generalize about what is “12-tone” or “High Modernist.” There is that something to be said for opening ears and minds beyond these inflammatory labels…as in my own experience, they tend to antagonize, or hinder, listeners.
    KG replies: In general, I completely agree with you, Marilyn. When I was in high school, Babbitt and Cage were my favorite composers, and I made no such distinctions. But as I entered the profession and met and listened to people like Davidovsky, Babbitt, Carter, Berio, and so on, I found that all those composers definitely *did* make distinctions, and that those distinctions excluded Cage, Feldman, Satie, Reich, Young, jazz, pop music, me, etc., etc., from serious consideration. The High Modernists (a rather recent neologism after all, but one that has found widespread acceptance) created, and continue to create, vast resentment against themselves by setting themselves up as the gatekeepers and excluding tons of wonderful music. It’s a basic problem of constructing any democracy: How do you include in your discourse people who insist that there is only one Truth and that they possess it, and everyone else is wrong? I’m complaining about people who make such distinctions – why complain to me about making the distinction?

  12. richard says

    Sometimes I think there is some sort of “Truth” but I doubt we’ll ever find it, and if we did find it, I’m damned certain we wouldn’t recognize it even if it kicked us in the butt! God deliver us from the wrath of the ideologues!

  13. says

    Whatever you may think of Barack Obama, it seems that what most of us find refreshing about him is his vision of unification: there are liberals in Red states and conservatives in Blue states, and we need to put aside our differences and work together towards healing the country. Kyle, you have great advocates among the “High Modernists” and detractors among Downtown composers. Marilyn has a good point, and so does Obama. Do we really need to perpetuate an “us” versus “them” stance, even if “they” started it in the first place? Or can we find some common ground?
    KG replies: A hundred replies that have gone through my mind all boil down to one well-worn phrase: if you want peace, work for justice. As you do, Sarah, continuously and admirably. The above post and comments draw a situation not analogous to Republicans and Democrats, but to Neocons and the rest of the population. I haven’t seen any evidence that finding common ground with the neocons (nor with anyone else who believes that They Alone Possess The Truth) is going to work.

  14. says

    Well, if, as you say, Kyle, the analogy between “High Modernist” serialist composers (whoever they are) and cultural/political Neocons is “totally misplaced,” why pursue the analogy this far? (It also does a disservice to the often progressive, if not radical, politics of many of these composers.)

    In any case, the dismay shown here seems to be with argumentative polemics. Any music or work of art must “speak for itself” (though I often wonder, in an age of compulsive knee-jerk ironic critical expression, how true this is any more); and though it’s dangerous to mistake the art for the polemics that surround it (and vice versa), writing in defense of one’s own aesthetic can be, for many artists, as much a necessity, an impulse, an obligation, as the work itself.

    All right, this polemic may seem argumentative and self-serving, donning a mantle of “seriousness” that the polemic would deny to another kind of art. But this is a process of mature critical and artistic discrimination; the drawing of distinctions is the activity of a mature aesthetic consciousness. “Serious” is a good, useful word. So is “trivial.” I’ve been a critic myself, and I doubt my criticism would be of any use or value whatever if it weren’t for that discrimination and ability to draw distinctions.

    Exclusion and discrimination in art is different from exclusion and discrimination in politics. It could be argued that what is necessary in one pursuit is entirely beyond the acceptable pale in another.
    KG replies: This kind of thing can generate so many misunderstandings among those who weren’t in on the original context that I hesitate to go any further with it. What I was afraid might be “totally misplaced” is the theory that artists are the antennae of the race, and therefore trends in art will be followed by trends in life. My point of departure was Glenn Greenwald’s wonderful series on the authoritarian personality in current politics, which has done a fantastic job of isolating and explaining the harmful behavior of many Beltway pundits and politicians. I have frequently alluded to the authoritarian personality in music, and I was struck by some parallels with his important and more articulate work. I’m sure there are many people who would rather not have those parallels pointed out. It knocks down a lot of sacred cows, and attaches guilt to many highly respectable figures who derive tremendous advantage from the unfairness of the status quo. The fact that powerful people are inconvenienced by what I say has never struck me as a reason to stop. I’m sure a hell of a lot of important people in politics wish Greenwald would stop too.
    Personally, I would never use the word “serious” to compliment a piece of music. Virtually all music is serious, and should be taken seriously, rendering the word redundant at best; and generally the more “serious” a composer consciously tries to be, the more pompous and forgettable his work becomes. But that’s just me. I’m just writing a blog here, and I tend to put my opinions in it. They bother a lot of people.

  15. says

    Just as an example of how tricky it can be to make artistic/political analogies – from the European end of the telescope, many composers wouldn’t see much difference between a hardline Neocon free market agenda and the pursuit of wide audience appeal as a measure of value.
    KG replies: “Wide audience appeal” as in Steve Reich, or as in Brittany Spears?

  16. says

    thanks for all the Salon navigational tips, folks!
    and the great discussion.
    humans are very good at naming, and hence, including and excluding.

  17. mclaren says

    A music critic’s repeated and deliberate use of the words “unserious” and “trivial” is clearly trivial and unserious.

  18. says

    I’ve been thinking of this post for like 24 hours.
    Umm…I just think it isn’t a good idea to equate politics with art. Granted, there are plenty of politics in the arts, but our governmental politics affect our real lives (housing, civil liberties, infrastructure, corporate regulations, international relations, natural resources); you know, the things that our lives depend on.
    While I think the arts are intrinsic to the experience of life, I would never stretch to claim that any extremity of rhetorical jingoism by even the most stringent serialist has ever resulted in the death of a civilian (or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis), or the unnecessary incarceration of an individual, or widespread suppression of an entire minority population.
    Fascist rhetoric in the arts tends only to affect the lives of those in the arts. And I can’t say one way or the other that this system should be fair. It seems that’s actually what the arts are more and more about; what’s in fashion, who’s getting performed and where, who’s getting money, who’s in vogue. The arts, which still include classical music funny enough, are part of a world based on aesthetic biases. That’s kind of the point.
    Globalization has spurred Western interest in all kinds of musical cultures. And while I would promote an eclecticism of interest in terms of music appreciation (for the individual and at large), when it comes to composition, I think that’s where we’re allowed full throttle to trash-talk, smack-down, and otherwise disparage work that we find principally deficient, erroneous, or simply full of shit.
    With that said, neo-Romanticism bites. And I’m voting GREEEEEEEEEEN!!!