Book vs. Music

They noted that there were certain things which were impermanent and other things to which the word impermanence did not apply. – Perfect Lives

I spent June composing and July writing a book. Both are enjoyable and self-fulfilling activities; I am fortunate. The first feels like I’m taking care of myself and developing psychically, putting myself first; the second feels like I’m adding to my authority and piling up ammunition for future writing and debate. It saddens me that the book feels like so much more solid an achievement. The music might never get played, it might get played badly, there might not be a recording, people might not like it or not get it, it may disappear into the ether. The book, being from an academic press, will go into 500 libraries automatically and sit there on the shelves waiting to be tripped over. It will be used by other researchers and quoted in other books. Every time I open the book, it will read just as eloquently as the first time; the music, I’ll have to worry again about every new performance, whether it will go well and sound good. Physically, the result of my composing will mainly be a PDF out on the internet. If I’m lucky and find some money, a compact disc may result, which feels a little bit like a book, but doesn’t get distributed as well. CDs seem to disappear, whereas when I go to friends’ houses, I notice my books sitting on their shelves. Books impress my employers, which my un-prize-winning music doesn’t, and the books bring me lecture gigs, which my music rarely does. (Economically, oddly enough, they’re about the same: I’ve made more money from music commissions than book advances, but the quarterly drip of book royalties offsets that.) After Music Downtown I thought I might not write any more books and just focus on my music from now on, which sounded great. I could do that. But I got seduced back into books as a much easier path toward the appearance of achievement. I could have written all my music and still not be taken seriously by a wide variety of people, but the books (peer-reviewed, published at someone’s expense, permanent, not misunderstandable) give me a kind of irrefutable clout that I can’t deny enjoying. And now I have three more books I’m thinking of working on down the road.

Ultimately, I believe that the artist outranks the scholar because of his vulnerability. After all, the clout I get is borrowed from the vulnerable artists I’ve made myself an expert on. But vulnerability ain’t for wimps, if ya know what I mean.


  1. says

    Hi, Kyle!
    Boy, do I relate to this post. My first (trade) book of history writings is being published in a couple of weeks and I am astonished and a bit rattled by the fact that everyone seems genuinely impressed and all that by the fact I’ve got a book being published…more attention being paid to this than to the idea of a new album coming out. I think it’s a sad commentary on the dissing of professional music-making in our culture.

  2. peter says

    Maggi, Kyle — It’s part of a bigger and longer-running cultural trend than merely dissing of professional music-making. For about 350 years, modern western culture has favoured written communication over other forms (oral, musical, visual-artistic, tactile, etc), words over pictures and diagrams, the formal and mathematical over the informal and unquantifiable, the (allegedly) universal over the local and particular, the eternal over the here-and-now, the permanent over the ephemeral. Fixing this bias, as the philosoper Stephen Toulmin argued in his book “Cosmopolis”, will take some doing.

  3. says

    I’m sympathetic to your dilemma. I don’t think it is ultimate, but I do think it is interesting.
    At some point, either the human race will simply become extinct and not even be succeeded by another race able to remember us, or the Sun will swell up and vaporize the Earth, or the whole universe will fly apart in the Big Rip of dark energy overcoming all other forces.
    So obviously there’s no such thing as human achievement that lasts forever. So what do you — or we — want? My feeling is that there is no such thing as forever, but some things are more real than others. If you are a theist, as I am, then those are the things that God wills to exist. If you are not a theist, those are the things that are subjectively the “most real” to us at our best moments.
    About your feelings that your books will last longer than your scores, does this mean that glory is “more real” to you than musical excellence (nothing intrinsically wrong with that), or does it mean that you are better at writing these books than writing music (but I doubt that, I’ve heard enough of your music), or is it that you are simply disappointed in your level of musical fame, or what?
    The other comments are interesting too. I do think there is a pervasive devaluation of art music in our society. I do not know what to do about that, but the solution obviously does not involve making less art music. But I don’t agree with peter that the situation is caused by elevating the written over the unwritten, since obviously much if not most art music IS written.
    Mike Gogins
    KG replies: Thanks for your thoughts, which are on a much more elevated level than mine. What I’m going through is that I’m 54, and I figure I shouldn’t count on anything more than two decades left, if that. I imagine the human race itself will only last a couple of decades longer than that. And I don’t want to spend those two decades working my butt off as I have been, and keeping up some naive faith that the lively new-music world of the ’70s will ever come back, which I feel as though I’ve been working all these years as though it might someday. I want to enjoy myself after all these vacationless summers, and I’m having to totally reorient myself to even figure out what that would mean. I’m trying to learn to be short-term practical and hedonistic, none of which comes easily to me.

  4. peter says

    Michael — We don’t disagree, since you are arguing my case! Why is art-music today mostly written, rather than (as in Bach’s day, say) being improvised or only written using a figured bass? Because our modern culture strongly favors the written form over other forms of communication.

  5. says

    I doubt the human race will be gone anytime soon. I think the surface of the planet would have to be boiled for several days to accomplish that. Or permanently frozen. Neither a nuclear war nor any likely asteroid impact nor global warming can accomplish that. This is not to doubt the possibility of any of these events which may kill millions or even billions. But big change is not the same as extinction. Our species has expanded into every large animal niche on land, sea and air, displacing or marginalizing all competitors. We may evolve into something else or be exterminated from outer space but otherwise we’re here until the Sun expands.
    My take on art music is that, today, good parts of it are “pop music” (e.g. ambient, IDM, much dubstep) and this, too, is “improvised” or, at least, tracked (assembled by overdubbing material that is more or less improvised). In my view it’s art music if you seek it out just to listen to it. It’s not dance music (although you may enjoy dancing to it) and it’s not background music (although you may sometimes play it in the background). It’s music that you seek out just so you can listen to it without distraction.
    But even with this extended view of what is art music, our society has devalued it in comparison with the past. Its share of the economy, of the labor market, and of people’s time has shrunk while other media have expanded (social networking, computer games, who knows what).
    KG replies: I hope you’re right, but if the only people who survive are the Bushes, Cheneys, Clintons, Halliburton CEOs, and Goldman Sachs employees who’ve had enough money to cushion themselves from the collapse of civilization, that’ll do me for the end of humankind until the real thing comes along.

  6. says

    I think it’s a shame that you and other writers/musicians feel like this. But as mentioned above, might be a sign of the times, something written and material mgith count more than something which creates a feeling.

  7. says

    Richard Taruskin’s sketch of the Progressive theory of music history (in his article on Schoenberg reprinted in “The Danger of Music”) made me wonder whether the traditional Fine Arts (music and poetry particularly) lost their prestige once people stopped focusing on the historical narrative of increasing freedom in the arts — more chromaticism, followed by greater dissonance, followed by atonality, followed by a breakdown of the distinction between music and noise. The modernist story of “increasing freedom” flattered the culture as a whole (capitalist culture), and once that story got dropped, by about 1960, more or less, the culture by and large lost interest.
    It’s a great narrative, but it seems to me that everything related to the modernist story after WW1 (Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Russolo in music; Stein in poetry; Kandinsky and Duchamp in painting) has been (often gorgeous) footnote and elaboration. Without the modernist narrative to claim special attention, Concert Music Descended from European Court and Church Music Traditions is just one (group of) style(s) among many.
    Great critics are far rarer than great musicians. While “Music Downtown” would be in my Top 50 All-Time Favorite Music Books, and “Private Dances” probably would not be in my Top 50 All-Time Favorite CDs, I still love “Private Dances” more; have listened to it far more times than I’ve read “Music Downtown.” Harold Schonberg was a lively writer, but will his writing outlast Feldman’s (or, say, Mingus’s or the Beatles’) music? I’d be shocked.
    KG replies: Thanks for the thought-provoking (and flattering) perspective. You bring up an interesting point that I’ve been thinking about for decades and have hardly ever written about. It seemed to me that after musicians achieved absolute artistic freedom, bringing about a kind of disintegration of music, that it was my generation’s job to put the pieces back together again, and to create a new order, a new common language from which composers could draw without having to reinvent the wheel in every piece. And once a new order evolved, I thought wider social significance would return. I thought this was the significance of postminimalism. But, possibly because the image of the artist as rule-breaker and outlaw had become so deeply ingrained, the narrative I tried to create gained no traction whatever. I thought you could have two kinds of artistic heroes, those who broke the rules and those who, in the absence of rules, created new ones – as Schoenberg did, after all, with the 12-tone row. But in 30 years I have yet to find a single person convinced that the postminimalists were doing a great thing by putting back together a collective musical language we could all draw from, even though I thought they did that. I have never been able to get the cultural resonance needle to budge from 0.00000 on this point, and have given up trying.

  8. says

    Since Coleman and Taylor broke all the rules in jazz, jazz has shared the struggle of classical for cultural relevance, and not only that, but it has lacked a coherent consensus narrative as well. And without the modernist narrative of “successively breaking rules,” popular music styles have never had a coherent consensus narrative at all. For instance the “easy listening” piano duo Ferrante & Teicher [who, by the way, started out as avant-gardists playing prepared pianos] sold millions of records and had Top 10 hits in the 1960s, and they’ve never figured in any pop music history that I’ve seen.
    So, a coherent narrative isn’t necessary for cultural relevance. Minimalism has had cultural resonance, with Glass’s success (and influence) in Hollywood, and Reich’s relationship with pop dance-music styles. I mentioned the question of whether art will last, but I doubt that Emily Dickinson’s posthumous stardom was any consolation to her. To get back to the question your post raises, at this time in your life, I would ask how much you need to add to your authority and pile up ammunition for future writing and debate.
    P.S. I regret the “Top 50 All-Time Favorite” formulation. Silly to rank one’s loves. A more pertinent way to put it would have been to say that “Music Downtown” would probably be among my Favorite Music Books, of which there are a few dozen, while “Private Dances” would probably be among my Favorite CDs, of which there are hundreds. (I haven’t inventoried and don’t really want to.)
    KG replies: Well, I think in the absence of public discussion a narrative arises by default, and in the default narrative (conventional wisdom) jazz ended with bebop (so Wynton Marsalis would have you believe), and, in effect, classical music ended with minimalism – meaning postminimalism doesn’t exist. Seems to me that anything that isn’t *in* the narrative, coherent or not, won’t have any resonance.