Answering All Questions

LEXINGTON – Yesterday I spoke at a graduate musicology seminar at the University of Kentucky. The professor, Lance Brunner, bade me not prepare, and used a method for directing class discussion that I recommend to others. The group had been reading my book American Music in the 20th Century, and he had each person prepare a question, the questions all asked in turn without being immediately answered; after which discussion could proceed with all the questions in mind. One question was, did I think complex music like that of the New Complexity guru Brian Ferneyhough had the potential for reaching a larger audience? Can pop music be saved? How much did I, as a composer, believe in keeping the audience in mind while composing? How relevant were Uptown/Downtown issues to a music scene like that of South America? Did the nature of what we think of as “art music” need to be redefined? I can’t remember them all, but as we went around the room, it dawned on me that all the questions were really one urgent question: What kind of music can survive in a corporate dictatorship?

So it was possible to address them all within one framework. I quoted Cornelius Cardew: “Access to [the] audience (the artist’s real means of production) is controlled by the state.” We used to think the state was the government, but it’s now become obvious that the state, in the U.S. at least, is the corporations that own and control the government, and the state’s only interest, musically speaking, is in providing mass distribution to the music that can make the most exorbitant short-term profit, and squelching any musical outlet that threatens to pose competition to that profit. In this respect, Brian Ferneyhough, a cutting-edge pop band, and the most sincerely populist composer alive are basically all in the same boat, because integrity itself, however intellectual, musical, or social in origin, is a quality that impedes corporate profit.

What’s left is, between the musician and the faraway audience lie a number of hurdles which can act both as barriers and facilitators. There is the cadre of performers who are looking for new music to champion; there are the powerful composers who program festivals and determine commissions; there are the small record labels still idealistic enough to take a chance and lose money on music they believe in; there are the huge record labels willing to take no chances at all; there are expensive managers with their hamfisted and usually misdirected assaults on the corporate publicity machine; there is the democratically all-accepting internet, with its inefficient, hit-or-miss navigation layer; there are small, independent performance spaces of limited outreach; there are the critics who, if they “get” your message, might slightly amplify its scope; there are the rare musicologists interested in organizing, within the shadows of academia, how we think about the current music scene and its direction.

Depending on where your musical talent lies and what kind of music you believe in, each of us has to strategize which of these barrier-facilitators might help us, whose self-interest or altruism we might successfully appeal to. Someone might write the kind of music that flatters, without threatening, the compositional ruling class; someone else might write music that performers enjoy playing; some might have a spiel that critics find intriguing; someone else might play the internet lottery and get lucky. An elitist and a populist would certainly choose different paths through the socio-musical pinball machine, and there’s little reason one might not be as successful as the other. And the aim is the same in every case, to manage a small, self-sustaining career in the margins of this corporate-determined life where mass attention is focussed on cultural phenomena none of us can or need respect. (Even the South American question was relevant, because in European and other countries where the government actively promotes cultural activities, a whole different set of strategies apply.)

In other words, the question for all of us is, how do all of us live the kind of rich, rewarding cultural and spiritual life that we deserve to have, that we used to have more of, that we know we could have, in the wake of this corporate behemoth that seems hell-bent on destroying the world for its own monetary enrichment?


  1. Dick Stapleton says

    A great post, absolutely correct and heartbreaking.
    The ramifications of the corporatization of America extend to every aspect of life whether it’s enjoying music or theater, eating in a restaurant or voting for president.
    The aim of the corporations is to level the playing field so that the consumer cannot distinguish between art and decoration, between real music and Brittany Spears, or for that matter between Harry Truman and George W Bush.
    Once the ability to differentiate is gone, the corporation can focus entirely on profit with no concern for quality, substance or even legality.
    Maybe something will change but it’s not obvious to this observer how that will happen.

  2. chris sahar says

    Kyle –
    Although I enjoy many of writing entries I find this entry’s criticism a little too broad.
    First, commerce has supported some remarkable music making — even in the late 20th century, although indirectly (eg Bell Labs, the development of Silicon Valley which stemmed in part from the government/corporate intelligence work in the 1940s and 1950s )
    Also, governments which provide ample resources for the arts do not offer the individual greater room for expression or experimentation.
    Also, corporations do provide new music sponsorship — maybe not as liberal or as experimental as you would like but I attribute some of it to the simple fact that new music or classical music may not be their expertise — Goldman Sachs or Credit Suisse strive to be experts at investment banking (and still fail, just as an excellent composer can still fail). Plus there is the issue of a balance sheet and the degree the government provides tax breaks
    I view cronyism, greed, apathy and coveteousness as the enemies of institutions, large and small – arts and non-arts. When in collusion a large group — that makes a dictatorship.
    Finally some of the questions your group discussed stem two long-range currents which I see as unresolved:
    1) The change in music making habits — it has become for many a passive activity, wherein any involvemnet is somewhat unconscious or unstructured. This is fine but not if it is the exclusive encounter with music. Pauline Oliveras’ Deep Listening addresses this and the increase in Improvisation offerings for non-musicians AND most amateur to professional CLASSICAL musicians is a hopeful development.
    But in the history of music , these are in their infancy.
    2) Our continued struggle determining the function of music in our society and its role in religious institutions. One reason commercial music or well-promoted music can sell comes from the discovery music does not have to have any assigned meaning – the meaning can come from the moment or the individual’s sole interpretation (plus some psychoacoustical aspects of humans).
    A reverse trend evinces it in the Christian church with the rise in popularity of Taize and return to pre-Vatican II rites competing with the emotionally charged music of more evangelical faiths. Both used entirely opposite approaches to establish meaning and context of religious music. The former, a conservative return to a music which shuns the visceral and pop/romantic-influence the latter integrating the popular and romantic music idioms both for the same purpose — almost as if we are in an age wherein Palestrinian and Lutheran ideals are competing!
    Kyle, will welcome a retort as I have some agreement that the distribution of musics is under corporate dictatorship — but I wonder if this is more the dictatorship of the society — something composers have always been subjectto ? For if we look to nature most “composition” is for survival purposes – attracting a mate, claiming territory. Only when an orgnaism has secured these well does it seem to spend time working on their “musics”
    OK, I’ll stop for I am getting way too general now!
    KG replies: Bell Labs? That was 40 or 50 years ago. I’m referring solely to the post Reagan era.

  3. Max says

    Could you please expand on what you mean by the corporate behemoth?
    KG replies: The New Media Group, which bought the Village Voice and fired everyone I knew there, just so they could hire new people at lower salaries, even though the paper was making record profits at the time; the corporate lawyers who are trying to push independent radio off the internet; the lobbyists who are trying to persuade congress to allow Rupert Murdoch to own as many newspapers and TV stations in a given city as he wants; the telecom companies that are seeking immunity for having made a ton of money from the government by spying on Americans; Time-Warner, Sony, Universal Music Group, and the record companies that have given up any idea of nurturing new talent in favor of instant profit; General Electric, which won’t clean up the mess it’s made of the Hudson River; Exxon; Lockheed Martin; and all the Republicans (and Democrats) who get wealthy by promoting the principle that a corporation has the same rights as a citizen, and in fact the right to screw us all over in the name of unfettered and unimaginable profit.

  4. says

    Kyle, this sounds fascinating, and I’m both persuaded and impressed by your ability to perceive the common thread underlying all those questions. I have just one small doubt about your post, which is the phrase “we used to have more of.”

    We did, really? When was that? It’s not a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely curious what period you have in mind. The 1960s? The 1930s? The 1830s? The 16th century? And who was the “we” in each case — did it include poor folks, women, people of color, etc. etc.?

    You know this drill, probably better than most. “Everything was better in the old days” is a seductive trope that goes back as far as Hesiod and beyond. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that it always bears examining.
    KG replies: In the ’60s and early ’70s we were getting a lot more adventurous new music on major labels, for one thing. And yes, I believe that the world used to be more forward-looking, and corporations used to pay more lip service to social responsibility, before Reagan took over and movement conservatism took root. Just as I believe the world was a better place before Bush took up residence in the White House, and that we got more arts coverage before the Times and Voice cut their arts sections by 25 percent and then more. Is that mere nostalgia on my part?

  5. says

    I think that regardless of the path you choose through this ‘maze’, there is one thing that remains a common thread: connecting.
    Whether that be connecting with your prospective audience, critics, “co-conspirators”, record companies: the way you form these connections can take you a long way.
    But I think you do need some clarity for yourself in deciding ‘who you are’, what your way in the world is. If only to know you’re connecting with the right people. And to lead a fulfilling life, you’d also want to stay true to your own personality, but that is digressing from the music.
    A final word (aahh, at last!): connecting also means listening!
    Thanks for your analysis Kyle!

  6. says

    Very well said, Kyle. As you point out, it (corporatism) is a cancer that infects all levels and types of art and entertainment, because it doesn’t allow for the existence of art, only entertainment.