Occupying New Music: Guest Blog

My friend and colleague John Halle is the most politically astute and engaged composer I know. He was one of the organizers, with Judd Greenstein, of the Occupy Musicians web site that I featured recently. Now John has written a two-part article about issues surrounding what he perceives as a relative lack of commitment to the Occupy Wall Street movement on the part of composers, suggesting that our interests are sometimes entangled with those of the 1%. Unsurprisingly, the article has been turned down as overly provocative by several music publications, so – natch – old Kyle “What Have I Got to Lose” Gann offered to publish it here. I find it extremely thought-provoking, and expect you will too.

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Occupy Wall Street, Composers and the Plutocracy:
Some Variations on an Ancient Theme

By John Halle

I.

In the six months since its difficult birth in mid September, Occupy Wall Street has attracted a widespread and largely favorable reaction among the public with a recent poll indicating 46% support, far higher than most political institutions, established parties and elected officials. Of course, the reaction has not been universally favorable. The political right wing has been withering in its criticism, but they have not had a monopoly on their viewing Occupy as a alarming, corrosive and even sinister development in political consciousness. Indeed, some of the most brutal and violent assaults against Occupy encampments have been undertaken by municipal governments in Oakland, Albany, Portland, and Chicago having the reputation as at least liberal, and even on the radical left.

So the question of who supports Occupy is by no means as unproblematically aligned on the left/right spectrum as it initially appears. As for specific social classes and professional categories, matters are just as confused, with supporters claiming a broad representation from all walks of life and critics of Occupy denigrating participants as trust fund babies or slacker college grads who need to “get a job”. When it comes to artists generally and composers in particular the question of how involved we are is more problematic still, and is likely to remain unanswerable for the forseeable future.

But that doesn’t mean that composers can’t usefully discuss the question with an eye to learning more about who were are and what makes us tick. And it is with that in mind that I will offer the following short answer: based on my experience as a relatively active participant in the movement and my having attempted to organize support for it among composers here, I don’t think that we have been well represented in the Occupy Movement. This, however, needs to be accompanied by a disclaimer; more than most professional categories, composers are profoundly committed to what we do. Keeping our distance from OWS prevents us from getting mired in the swamps of politics something which we would avoid as we would anything else which takes us away from our work.

That said, we know this cannot be the entire explanation. For example, many of us will recall having devoted considerable energy to the Obama campaign, demonstrating that composers can be highly political when we want to be. With this in mind, we can return to the original question: why have we not been involved in a movement whose stated objective is advancing economic justice for the 99%?

Now a somewhat more problematic answer suggests itself: for centuries, composers were beholden to the one percenters of their day, the feudal aristocracy. And while aristocratic patronage would decline during the 19th century, the traditions and political allegiances inherited from this golden age live on. While we are not, like Haydn, required to wear powdered wigs and military uniforms, the barriers separating us from the plutocracy are significantly less pronounced than those obtaining in other professions. And as the degrees of separation diminish, we are more likely to view economic elites as individuals who, like any others, deserve our respect rather than as a class that has earned our contempt.

That we are in relatively close proximity to them can be seen in the following tour of some of the premier arts institutions with which we are associated or at least hope to gain favor. Having familiarized ourselves with these surroundings, I will continue with some reflections on the broader picture which emerges, and conclude with some thoughts on how composers who choose to become active in the OWS movement can most usefully direct their energies.

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A good place to begin is with the winner of this year’s Alice Ditson Prize for the promotion of American music, the New York Philharmonic. Much of the credit for this programming goes to the recently appointed music director, Alan Gilbert. But the financial wherewithal for these programming decisions is provided by the NY Philhamonic board and its chairman, Gary S. Parr. Mr. Parr is currently CEO of Lazard, his bio on the NY Phil website informs us, in which capacity he “has recently advised on transactions such as the sale of Lehman’s North American investment banking business to Barclay’s; the sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorgan; he served in numerous capacities at Morgan Stanley, including as vice-chairman — Institutional Securities and Investment Banking.”

Accepting a commission from or performance by the New York Phil in no way implies that we are sympathetic with these activities—for example, the “sales” of Lehman and Bear Stearns underwritten by the extortion of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. But it does mean that we have an indirect financial stake in concentrating wealth in the hands of one percenters like Mr. Parr who provide the ultimate financial basis for our work.

The same can be said about our relations with Sanford Weill, the chairman of the board of another pre-eminent uptown musical institution, Carnegie Hall. In this capacity, composers are grateful to Mr. Weill for helping to foot the bill for the impressive range of contemporary music under Carnegie’s auspices. This Mr. Hyde is complemented by the Dr. Jekyll who was the former CEO of Citibank, the company perhaps most responsible for the marketing of subprime loans which were to blow up the economy, immiserating hundreds of millions, while helping itself to hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout funds.

Returning to Lincoln Center, we find ourselves truly in the belly of the beast upon entering the David Koch Theater, named after the notorious sponsor of far right initiatives, and home to the New York City Ballet, a frequent and consistent advocate for American composers. Also in this category is the New York City Opera, whose orchestra is now being subject to a vicious union busting campaign by its director, George Steel, which Mr. Koch and others of his ilk would undoubtedly heartily approve of. A few lateral steps will land us in the Metropolitan Opera, whose $300 million budget is underwritten by a board including billionaire heiresses from the publishing and oil industries, a managing director of Goldman Sachs, and former CEO of Texaco. Among the more problematic features of the Met in recent years has been the Alberto Vilar Grand Tier, the name having been removed following the donor’s conviction on multiple counts of defrauding investors.

Mr. Vilar reminds us that not all of the crimes on which were constructed the great fortunes we benefit from went unprosecuted. Moving a couple of blocks uptown from Lincoln Center provides us with more evidence: Merkin Hall was presided over for many years by Ezra Merkin, the chief marketer of the Bernard Madoff line of investment products, whose once eager purchasers are now required to subsist on Social Security, having lost their life savings to the smooth talking Talmudic scholar, White Shoe lawyer, and music lover. Some of the programs at Merkin have been sponsored by the Milken Center for Jewish Music and here we are submerged in the previous wave of financial crime presided over by the Milken brothers, the notorious junk bond kings.

Major artistic institutions such as these are, of course, well known for their longstanding connections to financial elites, so the above list could be continued almost indefinitely. Given that the latter has become a de facto criminal class, we shouldn’t be surprised that our tour has by now degenerated into a kind of perp walk—albeit perps attired in Brooks Brothers suits with refined musical tastes.

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It was at least partly in reaction to the stifling artistic climate created by these stuffed-shirt connections that the downtown school of composition would arise in the sixties and seventies, though it was probably inevitable that, as it became established, downtown institutions would be underwritten by similarly problematic sources. This became apparent in the nineties when numerous downtown events received sponsorship provided by the pre-eminent rogue corporation of its day, Philip Morris, including a major gift to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Another source was the DIA foundation, established by the heiress of the Schlumberger oil services fortune and most notable for its sponsorship of a six-year residency of the iconic minimalist composer La Monte Young.

Another pole of downtown, the Bang on a Can Festival has now been held for some years at the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center. This merits comment since, as I write this, OWS demonstrators are being violently dispersed by the police at the behest of the Winter Garden’s owners, Brookfield Properties. This dichotomy provides a renewed demonstration that elites have little difficulty countenancing expressions of artistic radicalism. Indeed, they will open their doors to it and—quite literally—invite us in. But when radical style turns into radical substance—that is, when it challenges the economic basis of elite prerogatives and privilege—the one per centers of today, as of generations past, are ready, willing, and able to replace the proverbial velvet glove of acceptance with an iron fist of repression. This is the logic through which the Winter Garden, formerly the site of many years of the classical music world’s version of Woodstock, has just now become a war zone.

Interestingly, one of the board members having signed off on Brookfield’s actions is Diana Taylor, the live-in companion of the Pontius Pilate of OWS, Mayor Bloomberg. The billionaire Mayor himself is also a strong supporter of the arts although, in another indication of the entanglement of the public and private, his contributions frequently compensate for budget cuts enacted in his executive capacity. That there are strings attached to these donations became clear when The New York Times reported that the beneficiaries were expected to enlist in support of the mayor’s controversial ballot initiative to revoke term limits.

It should be recognized that attempts at advancing a political agenda through pulling artists’ purse strings are uncommon. In the concert music world they are rarer still, the only recent instances which come to mind involving donors pressuring the Boston Symphony to rescind an invitation to Palestinian rights supporter Vanessa Redgrave and subsequently to cancel a concert staging of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer. That these instances are so rare might be taken to be indicative of orchestra boards’ tendency to maintain a hands-off policy with respect to artistic decisions. But it would be a mistake to claim that they do not exercise significant influence, albeit in an indirect fashion. As elites have understood for generations, their simple presence at the upper levels tends to insure that they will not have to exercise direct veto on forms of expression of which they would disapprove.

Rather, a climate is created in which artistic decisions are made with an awareness of the location of certain political boundaries, and those at all levels of the organization choose not to transgress them. These decisions don’t need to be conscious as those making them have often, to cite a remark by Noam Chomsky, “internalized the values of the elites themselves” to the degree that they do not require guidance or discipline. The extent to which we do so will be the last subject I will address.

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The claim just made is a slightly more pointed formulation of the suggestion made previously that our long history of aristocratic patronage may offer an explanation for our inherent tendency to throw in our lot with the one percent. But there is more to our identification and affinity with elites than shared history and economic self-interest. First, as composers we function in an executive capacity, one which involves, to cite a pointed remark of John Cage, “telling other people what to do.” Just as the CEO dictates the precise specifications of a product and the conditions under which his labor force produces it, composers, if anything, go a step beyond the most repressive corporate executive, dictating every gesture by a workforce which is almost totally under the control of the choreography we produce for them in our scores. The megalomania of a composer like Wagner and that of a CEO like Rupert Murdoch may not be so different after all, and it should come as no surprise that the Met, a three ring circus of gesamkunstwerkliche activity, is the most generously endowed of all art institutions.

Second, just as CEOs define themselves according to an intensely structured and rigid hierarchy which they have succeeded in ascending, so too do classical musicians take for granted something roughly equivalent. Our training as performers or composers is founded on the notion of the transcendent musical masterpiece—those works whose inherent excellence and structural sophistication have allowed them to survive the Darwinian competition for survival in the musical marketplace of the concert hall. Our own work, insofar as it is successful, also manages to survive and thrive within its own place and time. In accepting this hierarchy, and the basis on which it rests, we recapitulate what are by now familiar arguments of corporate executives in the top 1% as to their own fitness and legitimacy. Given this shared set of attitudes, the mutual affinity of composers and plutocrats probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. And, to return to the original observation, it is more or less natural that we would view with suspicion a movement whose commitment to radical democracy seeks to challenge not just the basis of the social hierarchy, but the notion of hierarchy itself.

Finally, there is the matter of the highly controlled, quasi police-state atmosphere of the concert hall, one which forces audiences to submit passively to the experience imposed on them by the composer. As pointed out by Lawrence Levine in his much discussed 1988 book Highbrow Lowbrow, it is no coincidence that domestic classical music institutions were created by industrialists at the turn of the century confronted with mass popular uprisings. The codes of conduct attached to classical music were seen by them as a means to impose discipline on what they regarded as a dangerous mob and their support for it can be seen as another front in the war waged by elites against “the rabble.rabble” That we might not perceive ourselves as having allied ourselves with them does not mean that we are not objectively supporting their broader agenda.

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At this point, it should be recalled that what I have laid out here are my opinions, which I have reached in the absence of rigorous studies relating to the representation of musicians within OWS, none of which, to my knowledge, exist. That said, there are two pieces of hard evidence, albeit limited and circumstantial, worth mentioning here. The first is the Occupy Musicians website alluded to previously, and the mixture of negative responses and non-responses I received in my attempts to organize for it. Compounding this with the relative absence of names of well-known composers, many of whom were contacted for inclusion and chose not to sign on, provides one general indication that composers have kept their distance from OWS.

The second piece of evidence implicating the unexpressed attitudes towards OWS comes in the form of the numerous comments attached to the viral Facebook posting created by Los Angeles-based composer Eric Guinivan:

While it is always a dicey business to excavate the foundations of a joke, in this instance it is revealing that the majority of the respondents simply register agreement with the proposition, making note of the disproportionate representation of a small number of elite composers in the world’s concert halls, “Sooooo true. Ha, ha!” says one.

But these comments beg the question: why does pointing out this self-evident truth seem funny to us? What appears to be operative here is humor of the classic Freudian type: the joke masks the introduction of a taboo topic, namely that the Darwinian world of the concert hall is a brutal one in which very few of us can be expected to survive either in the here and now or in the future. And so we tend to broach the subject in jest or after a few beers.

Another possibility is that the humor resides in the Pythonesque absurdity of the premise: that programming decisions should be, like the OWS general assembly, radically democratic, granting all composers, living or dead, equal access to public performances. The logical consequence of this philosophy, for example, that the Wagenseil Piano Concerti should be programmed with the same regularity as those of Mozart would strike many as coming close to a dystopia, of course. One commenter’s avowal that “he’s with the 1% on this one” seems to be a recognition that this scenario, equivalent to imaging a hospital intensive care unit staffed by chimps, is perhaps better left to the imagination.

In either case, whatever is the basis of the joke, which I found as amusing as everyone else, the reactions to it are entirely self-referential at best or merely self-absorbed. They give no indication of any particular sympathy or, for that matter, even any understanding of the basic issues which have motivated OWS and its supporters.

***
In laying out some of the reasons for our not having done so, I don’t mean to suggest that composers can’t be active participants in OWS. If there are any doubts of our potential, they will be removed by viewing Alex Ross’s extraordinary video taken on Lincoln Center Plaza following the final performance of Satyagraha at the Met on Dec 1. In what is by now a minor legend, Phillip Glass decided against taking his curtain call on stage and to stand with occupiers on Broadway across the plaza requesting that the Met audience exiting the theatre join them. Police barricades had been erected to prevent precisely this—a demonstration in support of Occupy in Lincoln Center—but Glass’s presence, the message of the opera, and occupiers’ repeated reminder that “the opera is your life,” proved so compelling that hundreds ignored the police orders.

It needs to be well understood that these actions were illegal—indeed textbook cases of civil disobedience; had typical OWS demonstrators disobeyed police orders would have subjected them—possibly hundreds of them—to arrest at least, violent assaults at worst. Indeed, Glass himself could have reasonably been charged with incitement, a serious felony. But, even in the nascent police state into which New York City has devolved under the current administration, such a response would have been unthinkable. The opera audiences engaged in the act are one of the few constituencies which Bloomberg must treat with deference. And Glass himself has by now become an iconic figure, one of the very few classical composers who can legitimately stake a claim to real cultural and even moral authority.

That Glass’s protest appeared in the pages of The New York Times speaks to the unique power which classical music and classical musicians still command. Resting on top of the pinnacle of elite artistic culture, constructed on generations of aristocratic patronage, our work provides us an entry into in the inner sanctum of the one percent. Few of us will ever achieve the status as composers which will allow us this access. And, it could reasonably be argued that Glass, a member of the composerly one percent, knowing that he is immune from retaliation, can exercise his rights to protest in a way which composers of the 99% cannot. Some of Glass’s numerous detractors may see his activism as nothing more or less than another public relations stunt profiting from the “buzz” surrounding the now fashionable OWS movement. But that is too cynical. All that needs to be said is that Glass stepped up to the plate. It remains to be seen how many of the rest of us will.

II.

The tendency of composers to throw in our lot with those Theodore Roosevelt called “economic royalists” will not come as a surprise to some in that it amounts to another form of what the Marxists call false consciousness. Another probably more familiar variant of this minor pathology was personified by the brief celebrity of Joe the Plumber during the 2008 campaign who, it will be recalled, was concerned that Obama’s economic policies would place an excessive burden on him, as a prospective owner of the firm he worked for.

Of course, the difference here is that, unlike Joe, few composers imagine ascending to an economic status where we would benefit from policies designed to enrich the 1%. Rather, our tendency to do so has at least a superficially rational basis: while we will not be the recipients of the flood of cash precipitated by upper-income tax cuts, “right to work” legislation, the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act and the bail out of financial institutions, our close proximity and historical ties to the elites-so the thinking goes- will insure that we will be first in line to collect the scraps from their table. Even if we don’t believe in trickle down economics providing broad social and economic benefits, our narrow interests might be served by the making the richest still richer.

But while we might (as do many others) adopt this morally questionable posture, there are reasons for believing it is shortsighted purely on self-interested grounds. While the initial discussion above focused on the ties between classical music institutions and economic elites, zooming in on the picture a bit reveals that composers are rarely the beneficiaries of plutocratic largesse to the degree many of us would hope.

The reasons for this have to do, first, with the reduced status of classical music relative to other musical genres. A generation or more back, classical music had an effective monopoly on elite philanthropy, as can be seen, for example, in the names attached to the major halls for classical music in New York- e.g. Avery Fisher, Morgan, Frick, Carnegie etc. In recent years, elite philanthropy has tended to balance their support in the direction of diversity, with jazz having been a particular beneficiary. Some have gone even further in their support of what had been, in prior generations, denigrated as “commercial” musical genres. A good example is the former Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen whose major contributions in his hometown of Seattle have gone towards the construction of the rock and roll museum and the purchasing of fan memorabilia associated with icons of rock history. Providing financial support to an enterprise which has shown itself capable of competing most effectively within the marketplace would seem to constitute a kind of coals to New Castle philanthropy. Despite, or maybe because of this fact, it has become increasingly routine among the new generation of financial elites.

Secondly, even within the world of classical music proper, composers tend to be viewed somewhat more ambivalently than instrumentalists. While the latter might be regarded as (at worst) mere technicians, few would question the competence of a violinist able to dispatch a Tschaikovsky Concerto or a pianist able to rip through Rachmaninov Etudes. As I discuss here, composers have had to contend for at least two generations with the charge of charlatanism, emanating not just from philistines but from credible, sensitive and even eminent cultural and intellectual figures, and that our claims for expert status are an elaborate scam to our essential artistic incompetence.

This widely shared, if infrequently expressed, perception of contemporary music as an intellectually and artistically bankrupt enterprise began to take hold in the sixties,and would become increasingly widespread to the extent that it has had a clear influence on the perspective and priorities of economic elites. One consequence is not only are legendary patrons on the model of Madame von Meck, Baron von Swieten, or Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge absent from premiers of significant pieces of contemporary music, they are conspicuously absent from the title pages of contemporary scores. In their place are the names of a hodge podge of foundations whose surprisingly paltry awards often require a “consortium” to be formed to insure anything like a reasonable fee for the composer.

Interestingly, in recent years, composer advocacy groups have tried to resuscitate the tradition of individual patronage by matching donors with composers and ensembles with a personally inscribed final score and an invitation to the gala premier performance. The first and most conspicuous success of this approach was the Daniel Variations, funded by an Oakland lawyer by the name of Richard Goodman.

Aside from obvious, namely, to applaud Mr. Goodman and those who facilitated the commission, two aspects of this initiative are worth noting. First, the sum of $70,000, while certainly generous in terms of the usual fees composers tend to receive, is, in fact, quite small when one considers that the recipient is Steve Reich, perhaps America’s most eminent and widely acclaimed composer. A striking comparison is with paintings produced by equally well-established contemporary visual artists. These routinely sell in the high six figure range-with a solo show by artist Damien Hirst netting the controversial British installation artist over $150 million-far more than most composers, even those of Reich’s stature-receive in a lifetime of work. Even within the concert music world, this fee suffers considerably in comparison to the high five figures which top level soloists and conductors command for a single night’s work. In any case, one trusts that Mr. Goodman recognized his having gotten an extraordinary bargain.

Furthermore, although a partner in a successful and thriving real estate practice, Mr. Goodman does not appear to issue from upper ranges of the 1%, those whose accumulated fees, bonuses and salaries land their incomes in the eight or even nine figure range. For them, such a sum would represent only a tiny fraction of their disposable income, in the same order of magnitude of what they would dole out for a dinner at an East Side restaurant-two orders of magnitude below what they earmark for a child’s bat mitzvah or sixtieth birthday party.

This raises the question of how our world would be different had the traditional sources of elite patronage, namely the highest levels of the plutocracy, decided to make a serious commitment to composers, say to the tune of eight or nine figures. This would not be unprecedented. To take a couple of examples, in donating $200 million to Poetry Magazine Ruth Lilly, an heir to the Eli Lilly fortune, single-handedly greatly expanded the opportunities for the creation, appreciation and dissemination of the work of contemporary poets. Also in this category, colleges and universities are reliable recipients of elite philanthropy with even relatively small schools now able to engage in nine figure capital campaigns. Meeting this goal, as a college development director once observed to me, requires a million dollars a day coming in over the transom. Reich’s entire commissioning fee would therefore require diverting a mere twenty minutes from the firehose of cash which many college and universities take for granted as available to them.

That said, by now we should be sufficiently aware that, barring a freak event- an eccentric billionaire taking an interest in contemporary music- no large increase in philanthropic support is likely to be in the cards. Rather what we know is almost certain to materialize is more of the same. The rich will continue to consolidate their wealth, extracting it ever more effectively from the ninety nine percent, keeping most for themselves and their heirs. A few approved, uncontroversial charities will benefit from the many trillions of dollars controlled by the upper 1%, many of the most deserving of these (as pointed out above) made necessary by policies which the 1% themselves had strongly supported and lobbied for. The arts will remain a low priority for most of the rich, except when, as is sometimes the case in the visual arts, investing in it offers the potential for significant returns.

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The impoverished world which composers must now negotiate is, of course, only a small piece of the broader neo-liberal reality which has obtained for most of our adult lives-one where the victors have hoarded the spoils of a successfully waged class war reducing much of social, cultural and artistic life to rubble. So complete has been their victory that we now see it not as a product of human agency but as the natural environment which we must acclimate ourselves to as best we can. There is, according to Margaret Thatcher’s phrase “no alternative”, all those who believing otherwise being hopeless romantics at best or merely ridiculous. At least, so the story has gone for some years and there is little reason to believe that composers have been any less accepting of it (or at least resigned to it) than anyone else.

There was, of course, a shining moment when it seemed that cracks were becoming visible in the edifice of neo-liberalism. This occurred with the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent election of an African American president running on a platform of hope and change. But these prospects for hope were shown to be a chimera and by now few see any prospect for reversing the ever intensifying domination of our society by money and those obsessed with accumulating it.

Furthermore, artists and musicians had an early preview of the disillusionment with the Obama administration which is by now widespread. These came in the form of indications that, despite the hopes of many, the administration would do little to improve on the starvation regimes imposed on federal arts agencies by Republican and Democratic administrations for two decades. The background can be seen in a Nov. 21, 2008 letter sent to the Obama transition team from a collection of arts advocacy organizations containing detailed proposals for a significant reorientation of federal arts priorities. Central among these was a request for significantly greater federal support for the arts, with the recommendation that the budget for the NEA be increased to attain the real dollar peak reached in 1992.

What made the letter more likely to be taken seriously was the widespread recognition at the time that a large increase in federal government spending was required to compensate for the multi-trillion dollar loss in demand resulting from the financial crisis. Arts institutions had a particularly strong case to make as recipients of these funds on two grounds. First, as has been shown in numerous studies, arts spending, in comparison to other forms of stimulus have a very high multiplier effect. That is, a dollar which is spent on the arts remains in circulation within the consumer economy, producing other forms of economic activity, amounting to, according to studies, six to eight dollars generated for every dollar spend, considerably more than other forms of stimulus, most notably tax cuts for middle and high income earners. Secondly, the projects funded by arts agencies tend to be, to appeal to a phrase briefly in circulation, “shovel ready” which is to say that the infrastructure necessary for the project is already in place such that the funds will be put into circulation in relatively short order– months as opposed to years in the future. For example, across the country numerous presenting organizations are already in place, as are the halls and staff necessary to accommodate the events they book. While they have suffered year after year of budget cuts, most could easily ramp up their activity from two, three or four concerts a year to eight nine or ten, and they could do so within the current fiscal year. This contrasts with, for example, expenditures on the federal highway program requiring years of advanced planning before ground is broken on many projects.

These and other arguments for increased funding were advanced at a meeting with transition team officials in December of 2008. According to those present, the proposal received a respectful hearing with arts advocates coming away encouraged that, if not the whole, at least a reasonable fraction of their $392.2 million request would materialize. Follow up discussions seemed to be favorable and the group made plans accordingly. When the administration released its budget, the proposed figure was $155 million, reflecting no increase over previous years. Subsequent budgets have included not increases but cuts to the NEA. The additional proposals outlined in the letter, including the appointment of a senior and increased cultural exchange, have, like so many of the hopes invested in the administration, withered on the vine.

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One the one hand, this is just another instance of a constituency discovering what turned out to be their bankrupt investment in the Obama brand. But more significant than this is to notice the extent to which the consortium’s proposal was itself indicative of the same neo-liberal mindset dominant in the administration: the proposal, after all, called for an increase in the NEA budget to 1992 levels of funding-namely, those which were obtaining at the height of the neo-liberal era, following three administrations committed to fiscal austerity. What arts advocates should have recognized was that the relevant comparison was not to 1992, a period of comparative economic health but to 1932 when the entire nation was in the first throes of a full-blown depression.

Then, as the legend goes, in a few weeks, the Roosevelt administration created the alphabet soup of federal agencies which began to lift the nation out of the depression. Embedded among these were substantial funds for the arts, most notably through the WPA which sponsored numerous free concerts of new and traditional music, including premiers of works by Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliott Carter among many others. For us, the lesson of this history should be that robust and enthusiastic, as opposed to grudging and palty support for the arts existed, and not so long ago, taken for granted within, indeed, defining the lives of our parents and grandparents generation. There is no reason, aside from a mere failure of imagination that we should be limiting our demands to the worm’s eye horizons imposed on us by neo-liberalism. It is not only in our self-interest to recognize that there are enormous concentrations of wealth which could and should be tapped via taxation to support composers of new music and the ensembles performing it, it is our civic duty to demand that our maximal, and not just minimal needs are met.

For what might seem to be extravagance, not just in the arts, but in all areas of government’s public function, is the bare minimum of what is necessary to prime the pump and return the economy to normal levels of growth and employment. The broader principle, which has been common knowledge among economists for years, has now been again demonstrated through the vindication of the predictions of Paul Krugman and others that President Obama’s $700 billion stimulus would only be sufficient to staunch the hemorrhaging of jobs following the credit crisis and would not make a dent in a 9% unemployment rate. Rather, what was required went far beyond not only what those schooled in the Washington/Wall Street Consensus were recommending but what they could imagine as within the realm of possibility.

As a professional class whose business involves constructing worlds of our own imagination, we are among the best able to recognize the truth of the saying that not only is another world possible but also that it is now absolutely necessary. If it appears not to be so, within the stunted imaginative world of corporate bean counters and Washington technocrats, that is all the more for reason for why we should be demanding the impossible. It is to the great credit of the occupy movement that we are now asking the right questions on these and related subjects and to increasingly able to see what have always been the fairly obvious answers.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks very much for allowing me to dominate your site for a bit, Kyle. I can well imagine-and I’m entirely sympathetic to-those regular followers of your blog who won’t want to slog their way through this. Rest assured that normally scheduled programming will return shortly.

    In the mean time, two minor points.

    1) Judd Greenstein was really the main organizer behind the Occupymusicians site. I “organized” for it only in that I tried to get others to sign on after Judd had set it up.

    2) Footnoted versions of the two parts can be found here:
    http://johnhalle.com/political.writing/composers.and.ows.pdf
    http://www.johnhalle.com/political.writing/nmb.addendum.pdf

  2. Kyle Baasch says

    This essay is totally phenomenal and needs to be circulated throughout the contemporary classical/experimental/avant/etc. communit(ies). I’ll try and do my part.

    A big problem that I think will arise, or has arisen, for the small percentage of composers not victim to false consciousness is how to incorporate the sort of consciousness raising expressed in this essay into their art-making. “…the downtown school of composition would arise in the sixties and seventies, though it was probably inevitable that, as it became established, downtown institutions would be underwritten by similarly problematic sources … elites have little difficulty countenancing expressions of artistic radicalism.” This is one idea that can’t be repeated enough. The confusion of radical substance and radical style constantly causes the disappearance of the former and the institutionalization of the latter. (I’ve been thinking recently that this is what is meant by Ives’ disenchantment with “matter.”) Forms of institutional critique so overt and effective in the 60’s/70’s in both the visual art and music worlds have been institutionalized because their radical aesthetic material, if such a thing exists, has been (and still is to-this-day being) reincarnated in non-critical contexts. How do you escape from a trap like that?

    KG replies: Good response, good question.

    • says

      HI Kyle,
      Thanks very much for the kind words, and yes, I would appreciate it if you made an effort to circulate this more widely. In general, I wouldn’t make this request as I don’t generally feel that what I have to say deserves any more attention-i.e. wider circulation-than what anybody else does. In this instance, the piece was quite transparently a casualty of corporate censorship, which is to say that an effort has been made to prevent the issues which are addressed here from being discussed more widely. The only way to fight this is by figuring out how to get these widely distributed in channels which they cannot control, so i’m very pleased to gratefully accept your help.

      On the substantive point you raise, I quite agree, as you say, that the aesthetic forms of the sixties and seventies, while still superficially associated with a radical critique has long since been co-opted such that it no longer conveys anything of the kind. Indeed, speaking for myself, I tend to associate them, when they are resuscitated, with the exact opposite. So, in answer to your question, I would say that there really isn’t a trap. Rather, takes decent and honorable stands based on uncontroversial principles of justice and fairness, and, parallel to that, one does one’s work in whatever style one feels comfortable. Perhaps, over time, the one will be associated with the other-but perhaps it will not, in which cases, so what? You still have done the main thing-which is to have done the right thing. Hope that’s not too elliptical-and at least somewhat clear.

  3. Ian Stewart says

    As I live in the U.K. I can only comment on the London occupy movement. They do not want a fairer system, they want capitalism destroyed and replaced with another system. Capitalism, with all its faults, is still better than the other totalitarian systems we have experienced in the 20th century. However although they are clearly on the political left, so was the government that allowed the bank abuses to happen. New Labour (a socialist party) changed the law to allow the union bashing private equity companies and hedge funds into the U.K..
    Most people in Britain hate the extortionate bonuses bank directors get, yet it was the left wing Labour party that introduced these. The front bench of New Labour even contained Marxists, yet these extreme capitalist rewards were passed into law. The Labour Party came from the British working class and union movement, so they know better than anyone how to suppress the working class that brought them to power.

    For some reason governments, left and right, will not take on multi-national business. In the U.K. a report in a right wing paper, wrote that the largest companies are not charged tax, the tax office turn a blind eye to their accounts. Instead they chase up small business and individuals. Blair, a left wing prime minister, is exceptionally rich, on an income of £20 million over two years he is reported to have paid less than half a million in tax.
    Unfortunately our experience in the U.K. is that as soon as a left wing party gets in power they become even more obsessed with power and money than the right wing governments. The London occupy movement will achieve nothing. Regrettably they are bunch of misfits and dossers, many with drug addiction problems, demonstrating outside the stock exchange about the banks. That the stock exchange has no power over the banks seems to have escaped them and they are certainly not the political mentors I would follow.

    Regarding creative artists getting involved, I think it is what the Situationists called “recuperation”. Revolutionary ideas are taken up by the establishment and emasculated. I have very rich, union hating, administrators telling me they want”dangerous art”. They do not realise that this came from the post-war Marxist philosphers, who meant art so dangerous, it would overthrow the establishment – now it is the establishment promoting it.
    Classical music, struggling to get an audience anyway, will not influence the political views of its tiny audience, it is more likely to antagonise the few supporters it has. The sad truth is that the banks and multi-national business are now the new government, not because they have armies but because ordinary politicians think that without them our country will go bankrupt. These extreme capitalists are selling snake oil, and politicians are willing buyers.

    • says

      Hi Ian,
      I am familiar, though not to the degree that you are, with the endless capitulations of “new labor” and their role in ushering in a now seemingly unshakeable neo-liberal consensus. Whether the occupy movement there is the appropriate vehicle, is an open question, and one I’m not qualified to pass judgment on. As for over here, Kyle below expresses my sentiments to the letter when he says that the Occupy movement “has done everything perfectly so far” (for all practical purposes). It’s rare for either of us to describe anything as “perfect”, much less the same thing. That should, hopefully, give some indication the profound importance of Occupy, or at least, its perceived importance-which really amounts to the same thing!

  4. says

    “…radical aesthetic material, if such a thing exists, has been (and still is to-this-day being) reincarnated in non-critical contexts. How do you escape from a trap like that? “ Kyle Baasch

    John Halle has written eloquently about the challenges presented to composers of new music by the occupy movement. The sponsorship of performing institutions by the richest 1% puts composers and musicians in the uncomfortable position of seeming to endorse the new economic status quo of disproportionate wealth concentration. And the only other entity capable of providing sufficient support for musical art as we know it is the government, but the current administration – ostensibly a friend to the arts – has already proven to be a disappointment. In any case, as Ian Stewart writes, the government is increasingly captive to the agenda of the 1% and thus Kyle Baasch rightly states that new music – however radical – can only be incarnated into a non-critical context. Is new music therefore doomed to be the hood ornament on the limousine of the rich?

    The answer may be as simple as it is unpalatable – stop writing for the performing institutions.
    The means are at hand for every composer to reach the ears of a worldwide listening audience via the internet. Digital music has already drained away the influence of the recording company gatekeepers – it can also work to deprive the 1% of the legitimacy they seek by underwriting performances of new music. Perhaps the internet – as virtual concert hall – is the context into which new music can be created that will provide critical artistic immunity from the corrosive influence of the wealthiest1% and their money.

    • says

      Paul,
      It may be that the future will necessarily consist of us deepening our investment in high-tech and the internet, rather than figuring out a way to reduce our on-line presence. Certainly Occupy has used these internet resources well. But I’d suggest that it has also forced us to recognize that face to face interactions, GA’s attended by real men and women, and large, angry hordes of flesh and blood person, rather than virtual ones, are the only real currency of protest.

  5. says

    Still making my way through this essay. A lot to chew on! But midway through, I seemed to recall reading on the title page of the score to “The Wound Dresser” that it was sponsored by Absolut Vodka. Whaaa?

    In the meantime, music students should really have their attention drawn to the impact of the WPA and Keynes advocating for Covent Garden, etc. so that more of them can understand an alternative does exist, instead of thinking “This Mahler Cycle was brought to you by Bechtel” as being the only possible way art can be created and fostered.

    I sometimes have there weird dreams whereby some Senator just slips in a billion dollar appropriation for symphony orchestras, and no one notices, and then 50 new orchestras spring up out of the ground with 20 million dollar endowments each. One for each state, people’s orchestras with good jobs, steady work, and investment in musicians in communities nationwide.

    Then I wake up.

  6. Judd says

    Kyle, thanks so much for hosting this. One point of clarification: my co-organizer with OccupyMusicians.com is Daphne Carr of the Best Music Writing series, a fantastic writer and powerful thinker who has done and continues to do a lot to promote excellent discourse around music. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due, especially since Daphne has, honestly, done the lion’s share of the work in that project. (Daphne is also taking Best Music Writing non-profit and needs support, so please help if you can.)

    With regard to this critically important essay, I had asked John to write something about composers and Occupy after I was myself asked to do so by a prominent music publication (I was in a crazy composing/curating period and couldn’t do the topic justice). John’s essay was, as he said, rejected by this publication, apparently not by the editorial staff but by higher-ups who were worried about the repercussions from funding sources that supported the publication — a non-profit entity. In other words, the exact problems that John raises were enacted against him in the process of attempting to publicly discuss those problems!

    (I’ve debated outing the publication but for the time being have decided not to do so.)

    This censorship should be chilling to all of us, not just as composers, but as people who value public discourse. Again, here we have a non-profit music publication refusing to publish a scholarly piece about musicians on the grounds that their funding sources might be threatened. I’m not even saying that they are wrong (though I think they are), but that this is indicative of the culture in which we live and make our work. Censorship can take many forms but we have been taught to only fear the specific form of censorship that the 1st amendment disallows. What about the censorship that comes not from any overt prohibition on speech, but which is instead based on fear or self-interest, due to the underlying power structures of our society? That’s what John suggests underlies our careers as composers, tenuous as they always are, and indebted as we are (often literally) to economic and political actors with whom we may disagree. And that’s what caused this article to not be published until now.

    Since this incident took place, when John sent me the essay and explained what had happened, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can combat this censorship, creating a new set of norms that not only allows but even encourages transparency and open discourse surrounding the production of new culture and the institutions that house and support that production. What would it look like to “mark” spaces as open spaces for dialogue? How can we turn artistic events into opportunities to challenge embedded power? How can our artistic voices amplify underrepresented voices? I agree with John and with the commenters that provocative art is not by itself the answer, when it is displaced from actual critiques of the stakeholders who support the productions of that art, whose actions contradict the claims that they make about themselves through their support of art. In those cases, our art becomes a substitute for actual self-critique, a salve that obscures the need for much deeper treatment.

    So how can these changes happen without threatening the very existence of a musical culture that has traditionally depended on the very entities that would here be critiqued? I don’t think we yet have an answer.

    One final point: too often, we are told to see our work as artists as somehow removed from the “normal” work that “normal” people in society perform. Our work is not seen as “real” in the way that blue- or white-collar work, however mundane or transactional or even immoral, is somehow “real”. Beyond being baldly stupid on its face, this false distinction obscures the way that we, as artists, can impact the workplace in ways that are exportable to other sectors of the workforce.

    In this case, the same forces that threaten us in our precarious position as artists also threaten all workers without workplace protections that allow workers to engage in discourse without fear of losing their jobs. As unions get weaker and weaker, there will be fewer protections in place for workers across the employment spectrum. In other words, more workers will find themselves in the same position that artists have been in for years, burdened with the silence of fear. Artists need to be leaders in the fight against this trend against fear and censorship. We need to enforce the norms that are claimed by the institutions that support us. If we are, we have the potential to recast art-making in its rightful place as a central and critical element in any healthy society.

    KG replies: Hi Judd, thanks very much for the work you and Daphne are doing, which I tremendously admire. Clearly I, too, decided not to out the website that refused to publish John’s article, because I am sympathetic to their reasons for refraining. You’re absolutely right that our work as artists is often not taken seriously, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. Best of luck to all of us, and thanks for your pioneering work.

    • Judd says

      Thanks Kyle. You know I likewise admire the work you do and have done, in your own music and on behalf of others. I will say that I’m not quite as sympathetic as you are to the publication in question, but would be interested — probably in private — in hearing your reasoning.

      KG replies: Well… I have friends there who I know are well-intended, and I have sympathy for a much broader segment of the human race than is probably assumed by my detractors. As Morton Feldman replied when a student accused him of spending his life doing something he didn’t believe in, “That’s the definition of matyoority!” It’s not reasoning, it’s just empathy.

    • says

      Judd,
      Two related responses to this. First, to return to the censorship question, I’m with Kyle in tending to be sympathetic towards those individuals who were in the position where they had to make the decision not to run the piece. They were, after all, merely acting according to their institutional function, and so, like everyone else in the 99%, victims of deeply corrupt and fundamentally illegitimate system. Just as the problem is not isolated acts by individuals, the solution is not individual acts of initiative but collective acts of protest. That’s why I’m so glad to hear that you are continuing to organizing around this issue. As I think I’ve demonstrated in the past, to corrupt Dan Rather’s infamous response to George W. Bush, when Judd tells me to line up, my one question is “where?”

      • Judd says

        Well, considering you got me out into the streets back in September, the last part clearly goes both ways.

        To the former point, of course I’m not suggesting an ad hominem attack on the specific people who made specific decisions in this specific case. But I don’t see a way forward in addressing the issue of censorship without shaming the organizations that engage in censorship on behalf of moneyed interests. When we speak generally about these issues, not only does everyone agree, but even the entities that are engaged in censorship can pretend to line up on the side of justice. It is only when specific instances are brought to light that we see who, in fact, puts their money where their mouth is.

        So the point here would be to point to the institution, not the employees of that institution. As I wrote above, artists and arts workers are in the same position as other unprotected workers in our society, and the power disparities that silence us are not our fault — except insofar as we fail to work against that disparity.

  7. mclaren says

    The most popular blogs commonly host other commentators on a regular basis. Consider Matthew Yglesias’ stable of commentators many of whom produce work at least as interesting as Ygelsias’, John Scalzi’s rotating roster of excellent featured guest authors, and the countless diaries on Daily Kos.

    Aside from the fact that it’s a typically superb article, opening up the blog to other contributors represents a now-standard way of relieving the burden from the main blog contributor. If the alternative is Kyle simply not posting anything, let’s hope he does a lot more of this.

  8. Mike Angell says

    Very nice work, John. Good to hear from you again. I was not aware of the composer flavor of OWS, but followed the unfolding of the main movement with interest. OWS articulated widespread frustration around the very significant issue of the increasing disparity of our nation’s wealth, aided by tax policy. It never did really focus on a specific demand. Most successful social protest movements seem to have had two components: a single goal and a leader with a commanding presence: Civil rights and MLK, Women’s suffrage and Susan B. Anthony, Polish independence and Lech Walesa, Indian independence and Mahatma Gandhi, Ending Vietnam and…RFK (really many others, actually). Anyhow, OWS never really could develop either one. It might have been reinstating Glass Steagal; or maybe a more progressive income tax with higher, pre-Reagan brackets, ending the GW Bush era tax cuts. It never got past the outrage to focus on the demand. (I don’t know who the leader would have been.) I fear that the fate of the contemporary composer is in a similar situation: We know things are bad, but what, specifically, do we *want*? Do we know? Increase in NEA budget? Primary education curriculum overhaul with a compulsory fine and performing arts component? Different paradigms for funding and presentation new work? Even *with* a powerful, charismatic spokesperson, specificity is needed. Otherwise, we are nothing more than the audience for the Howard Beale news show, from the movie, “Network”, fuming with undirected anger, getting us all nowhere. What do we want? How do we determine what that is?

    KG replies: I couldn’t possibly disagree more. My son was distributing food in Zuccotti Park from the beginning of the occupation, and he’s very articulate on the subject. What OWS wants couldn’t be clearer to me: restore Glass Steagal, raise the capital gains tax, overturn Citizens United, reform election funding, and in every way remove the influence of billionaires on congress and make congress accountable to the people, not the plutocracy. I don’t see how it could possibly be clearer. And I think OWS has been extremely shrewd in not tying their fate to specific measures that could easily be picked off one by one by the government and the media and the right wing. Look up David Graeber on YouTube and hear what he says about the movement he helped start. They’ve done everything perfectly so far.

    • says

      Thanks Mike, Nice to hear from you also. I think you’re right that our perception of movements is that they have consisted of realizing the vision of a single charismatic leader. But as Howard Zinn has written, this top down view of the history of movements, and history generally is misleading in important respects. I agree with Kyle that one of the main strengths (as opposed to weaknesses) of the Occupy movement is that is structured in accordance with a critical perspective on these matters. Same goes with its failure to enunciate explicit demands, as Kyle also points out. I would only add to what he says here that making demands of the system assumes its fundamental legitimacy. What many have difficulty grasping is that Occupy is based on the assumption that the system is fundamentally illegitimate. In short, it is a deeply radical critique, but one which is entirely based in, consistent with, and necessary to address the harsh reality we are confronting, as, I think, most thoughtful people are increasingly coming to recognize. On this point, I would also second Kyle’s recommendation of the interviews, polemics and books by my old friend David Graeber who I got to know from our days on the Yale Faculty Labor support group.

  9. john s. says

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    A few points.

    I’m dubious about the value of artists-in-the-role-of-artists taking part in political activism. Why would composers-as-composers be more valuable than teachers-as-teachers or custodians-as-custodians or street-sweepers-as-street-sweepers? Or maybe any collective statement like that is valuable; I’m not sure. I just don’t think that artists have any particular moral authority in our culture — nor do artists, generically speaking, deserve to.

    Right on about the deliberate destruction of the public sphere brought about by conscious under-funding. Education is going through an enormous crisis. Minor symptom: the disappearance of music education from elementary schools. I hate lifeboat exercises, but I’d fund elementary music education before the NEA. Although I agree that the case for arts funding as economic stimulus sounds good. And hear hear! for government sponsorship of free concerts!

    I’m not sure of the point of comparing Steve Reich’s very respectable commission to a top visual artist’s take at a gallery show. Maybe the visual artist’s income should be compared with John Williams’s instead? Or Paul McCartney’s?

    Literary quibble: Dr. Jekyll was the good guy. Mr. Hyde was the baddie.

    Thanks again, and 3 cheers for OWS.

    KG replies: You’re right about the Jekyll/Hyde reference. And, following George Orwell, who is one of my saints, artists should be involved as citizens, not as artists.

    See here.

  10. says

    John, thanks for this really eye-opening article! I’m in Moscow now and have discovered similar issues with respect to artists and the anti-Putin protests. Here the patronage comes not so much from independent wealthy philanthropists but from the government or from people or institutions closely entangled with the government — the corruption is so pervasive that the government may as well be called a kleptocracy/plutocracy. I hadn’t realized until last week the extent to which Valery Gergiev and others of his stature are beholden to Putin, though I probably should have known that much earlier (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/15/magazine/15gergiev-t.html?pagewanted=all#). Some noted artists are participating in the anti-Putin demonstrations, but many are staying well out of it, just as you note about OWS. Sigh.

    • says

      Those who don’t recognize the name Barbara Partee should be aware that she is among the three or four most important linguists of the last half century having been the figure mainly responsible for development of the extremely recondite, technical and profound field of formal semantics. I mention this not because this has any direct bearing on the points she brings up, which are of course well taken, but rather to note that the fact that she takes an interest in these matters-i.e. what composers do and why-is indicative of the lingering prestige which classical music and classical musicians can still take for granted among those whose business it is to think (i.e. intellectuals). As Taruskin has noted, there has been a trahison des clercs among these ranks in recent years. The reasons why may be to some extent connected to the issues raised in the discussion we’re having here.

  11. says

    Oh, one other memory comes to mind: I was in Prague in the fall of 1968, and the leadership of the Velvet Revolution was a wonderful combination of artists and students. And look at the dear late Vaclav Havel. It can happen!

  12. says

    Hi, John – Great to read your article here, and thanks to Kyle for posting it. Sorry to be a bit late to the party.

    You write “The impoverished world which composers must now negotiate…where the victors have hoarded the spoils of a successfully waged class war reducing much of social, cultural and artistic life to rubble.” Well, yes, it’s bloody awful, isn’t it? The effect of the steady, inexorable assault on art via the marketplace is especially tragic as regards young people, who don’t have the opportunities once afforded to bump into something unusual. The result of such “Bumping into” can be profound. I heard Ives Concord Sonata for the first time on a College Radio station, and was rooted in place until the DJ back-announced it. This experience helped galvanize me to be a composer, for better and worse. Yet the station is gone, the practice of back-announcing is gone, and the chance of encountering the music of a composer of the last 120 years, if you are not looking for one, has been diminished to the vanishing point. Even my young students who come from privileged backgrounds, who have had the benefit of playing in youth symphonies and the like, these kids are often wholly ignorant of the canon of 20th century classical music. One is forced to conclude that Stalin was going about it all wrong. To repress the avant garde is to create a frisson of excitement around it, and thus to perpetuate the “Offense”. To simply ignore it has a much more inexorable effect, much like (come to think of it) engineering homelessness and starvation.

    With that said, let me – as briefly as I can – tell you what occurred to me as I read the 2nd half of your article, John, regarding the Eric Guinivan’s Facebook Post, i.e. “Support the redistribution of symphonic repertoire.”

    As you say, a topic rarely broached, is that the “Darwinian world of the concert hall is a brutal one in which very few of us can be expected to survive either in the here and now or in the future. And so we tend to broach the subject in jest or after a few beers.”

    An equally difficult truth, rarely spoken, is that it is not entirely the fault of wealthy philistines that we find ourselves living in the cultural landscape we do. The plot is thicker than that. I’ve suffered through so many programs of new music that it’s hard for me to take entirely seriously the idea that the project of “Musical redistribution” is being stymied by a politburo of the wealthy and influential. If our topic is the narrowing of what is funded and (thus) what we hear, your “Class that has earned our contempt” has done a lot of damage, but they’ve had help, too, and from an unlikely quarter. I am skirting, deliberately, the phenomenon of the composer-with-trust-fund, which makes discussion of this as a “Class” issue messy. What I want to say is that there’s been so much tiresome and exhausting stuff unleashed over the years by composers and music directors, all, lumped together as “new music,” that I think it behooves us to stop and consider what can be expected at this juncture; if composers might have some culpability for programming that has become reactionary. It’s a difficult topic. Copland’s populism did not always result in his best music, and I’ve endured many “New works” that seemed engineered for a Shiatsu massage rather than revelatory listening. This is not what I’m championing. But still (and surely) it’s a problematic enterprise having so much horrendous music defended, en masse, as if anything written outside the mainstream deserved help. Muddying these waters still more, witness the ardent efforts of (some) conductors to drag their reluctant subscribers into a more adventurous musical future. I’m thinking of Kent Nagano, who, during his tenure with the Berkeley Symphony, had an inexplicable talent for picking the most gruesome new works to “Balance out” an otherwise heterodox program.

    If I can reference Ives again (and I’ll try to wrap this up) as a composer who helped pioneer an agenda we might call “Let’s get rid of our audience,” he makes for an evocative illustration. Ives often berated his listeners, and those who undertook to perform his music, as “sissies” who “should learn to take their dissonances like a man.” But not everyone who followed Ives (or Schoenberg, or Boulez) in leading this charge had the talent to support their crankiness. Ideology is easier to mimic than talent, and often, historically, was.

    Your central point, it seems to me (the top half of your article) is that composers, as we orbit around the Occupy movement, should be aware of our place in the cosmos, and how that cosmos is funded. We can thus avoid unwittingly accepting, or applauding, the largesse of those who, when not busy serving on the NY Philharmonic board (like Gary Parr of Lazard) are complicit in some very nasty business. Wallace Shown has written eloquently and often on this phenomenon, also calling us to pay attention, to not be unwitting participants as all we care about is shuffled off the playground. Where we (that is to say, you and I) may diverge is on the issue of culpability for the degradation of our cultural landscape, the narrowing of what is encouraged and enabled. I think it’s a complex matter, with many busy hands contributing.

    KG replies: Excellent points. I’ve been pissing off a lot of composers with a similar critique for some years now. On the other hand, I don’t think John is saying that the sad plight of the composing world is due to the 1%, except to the extent that that is true for everyone else too.

    • says

      Hi Clark,

      As one of the composers who may have been responsible for the “suffering” you describe yourself as having experienced on “new music concerts”, I suppose all I can do is apologize for the crappy music which I and my colleagues have written over the years. Assuming that our music was as appalling as you describe it, it is certainly worth asking why. I have made my own (mostly self-jusitifying) contributions to the “why does it suck” genre of criticism which i can refer you to if you’re interested, though these will provide no more than cold comfort, I’m sure.

      That said, the first part of the piece is asking an entirely different sort of question, namely as stated at the outset, if, as appears to be the case, composers are unsympathetic to OWS, why is this the case? To reiterate, asking this question reveals something about who we are and also something about the elites themselves. And yes indeed, I do regard the 1% as having well earned our contempt. The extent of their crimes goes far beyond the aesthetic. Destroying the standard of living of hundreds of millions is a somewhat more serious matter than imposing ennui on a small audience on a few occasions, I think most would agree.

      As for the second part of the paper, there the question of the dwindling support of elites does come up. Their main reason is largely your reason-we suck. And, also, increasingly, the fact that our music is largely incapable of surviving within the hyper-Darwinian conditions of late capitalism, is itself taken as a validation of our unworthiness an argument you also appear to be sympathetic to.

      The main purpose of the second part, however, is to make what would have been an entirely uncontroversial proposal only a few years ago, namely that the destruction of domestic markets due to the financial collapse must be compensated for by a sharp increase in government spending, investment in infrastructure and in so-called “human” capital, one component of which is the arts and artists.

      Following three generations of market centric propaganda and policies from both political parties, I can’t say I’m surprised that composers, and much of the general public, remain incapable of understanding the arguments for this kind of counter-cyclical investment, whether they derive from Paul Krugman, or OWS When augmented by the factors discussed in the piece maybe the real surprise is that there are any composers who support OWS at all.

      But composers, as you point out, know plenty about in engaging in futile endeavors. So i hope you will indulge my likely futile efforts to attempt to “raise consciousness” as they used to say in Berkeley.

      • says

        People get misread. It happens all the time, and that’s what I think has happened here. I am a long-time admirer of John Halle’s music. I also recommend the Common Sense Composers Collective to anyone who hasn’t heard them.

        I am sympathetic (and then some) to the the Occupy Wall Street Movement, so I – intentionally – lay that to the side in my note. I was, and am, interested, in the points that were raised around Eric Guinivan’s graphic. Which clearly has provoked discussion.

  13. Jeff Winslow says

    Among friends I’m known as a person who enjoys stating the obvious, so let me take a stab at it here.

    We are told that composers have a stake in the financial success of the elite, as if somehow there was a risk of the elite going away. (A stake is what a gambler puts at risk to achieve greater winnings.) But this is nonsense. There will always be a financial elite, if not the obscenely bloated one we have today, and they will always be interested the pursuit of aesthetic pleasures along with all the other kinds. There is no risk. Composers have no stake, and if they put up one they are fools. I recognize that there are individual cases of composers supporting the elite, and of the elite supporting composers with a specific political purpose in mind, and I agree these are problematic at best, but composers in general need feel no guilt about taking the money. I thought guilt by association went out with the end of HUAC. (Not really of course, it’s alive and well and unsavory as ever.)

    Also, can we give this tired and cuckoo “concert hall as police state” analogy a rest already, for crying out loud? No one forces people to buy tickets. No one forces performers to play their instruments. Oh, and haven’t you forgotten something? People actually love to play and to hear Brahms symphonies (to pick just one example). From the very bottoms of their hearts. The facile and self-devouring (or sour grapes) assertion of coercion in this environment does no credit to anyone claiming to think deeply about the relation of music to the 99%.

    The coercion claim would appear to be, ironically, an attempt to escape responsibility by projecting onto the venue an attitude that composers themselves nurtured, most notably in the 20th century, as exemplified by Stravinsky’s comment that he wanted the performers to just follow his directions. The reality of performance, of course, is something different. To pick on Brahms again, a person who would rather listen to Reich may not care much about the nuances of the different performances of Brahms’ symphonies as they happen, but you can bet that they loom large in the perceptions of people who are there because they love Brahms. I even recently heard a performance of Stravinsky which came dramatically to life because the performer did not JUST follow his directions. (I’m sure this is nothing new to the readers of this list.) It’s not the concert hall, or the industrialists that built them, or the orchestral structure which inhabits them. This one really is the composer’s fault. I’m happy to see that this attitude is being left more and more in the dust of history as the influence of high modernism continues to recede.

    • says

      1) The piece neither states nor implies that composers should “feel , , , guilt” about taking the money of the 1%.

      2) That concert hall decorum is maintained by “police state” tactics is not my observation but that of Lawrence Levine who discusses the matter in the context of the elite patronage of symphony orchestras in the early 20th century, demonstrating their connection with an explicitly repressive elite agenda.

      3) “No one forces performers to play their instruments” and neither are Foxconn employees “forced” to assemble I-phones. Rather, these are arrangements entered into freely and without coercion, as Milton Friedman argued in the most influential text of the second half of the twentieth century, “Free to Choose.” Indeed composers continue to be influenced by it, whether they are aware of it or not, as this response clearly demonstrates-consistent, again, with the larger point of the piece.

      • Jeff Winslow says

        Come now, let’s not quibble at this level of detail. Thank you for the clarification in your first item, but you can’t always control the implications of what you write. And I hardly think you would have parroted Levine if you didn’t agree with him. I never claimed the “police state” analogy was your original creation. If I’d read it here first I wouldn’t have been nearly so irritated by it. There may be interesting social connections in the history, as you then pass along from Levine explicitly, but these are sideshows.

        To digress a bit, what goes on at an orchestra performance is no more coercive than any other human endeavor which relies on a group of people following directions to achieve a coordinated result. Any such act of construction may certainly be directed via “police state” tactics, examples are easy to find, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and thus is hardly a characteristic feature of the endeavor. Speaking of “decorum”, some people complain about a sense of enforced quiet, but again this is merely a practical constraint. Unless composers and their audience want to give up the expressive freedom of using a wide dynamic range in their music, putting a few thousand people in the same room to experience it is going to require a little cooperation. It’s hardly the only way to experience said music of course, though traditionally it was the first one available even after the advent of recording, and still has rewards that no recording can match.

        Your analogy in the third item breaks down because people don’t assemble I-phones for the love of what I-phones can do. (It might be interesting to see what would happen if people who do love their I-phones had to assemble a few.) No one plays an instrument just to make a few bucks and put food on the table. There are a hell of a lot easier ways to do it, though maybe not many as satisfying. In any case, as in my original point, we are not talking police state here.

        Speaking of quibbling, I recognize I’m hardly being responsive to the grand sweep of your article. I didn’t intend to be. I’m a composer and pianist, and an engineer, and like many people in those professions am deeply suspicious of economic and political “experts” both. I gladly leave the debate in the latter fields to those who believe they know what they’re talking about. (He said with a smile, and a wink.)