Escape from the Pack of Peers

As I’ve said before, peer review is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? My Concord Sonata book, of which I’ve completed about nine of fifteen chapters, has certainly been passed around through the ranks and meticulously examined. Or rather, bits of it have. Yale UP didn’t want to send more than a couple of sample chapters out to readers, which I rather understand. And, in search (futile so far) of funding to take a semester or year off and devote myself to the remainder, I’ve had the book evaluated by a number of grant-giving panels whose comments come back to me. (My favorite so far: “This looks like a project that will get completed whether Gann receives funding or not.”) Only they don’t get to see the actual book, but rather my outline, argument, bibliography, and so on. And the bibliography is restricted to a page, which even in 11-point font leaves off a lot of books I’m reading, and the outline of the book to three pages. In short, it’s been quite an extensive range of music professors judging how good Essays After a Sonata: Charles Ives’s Concord will be, based on excerpts, quotations, outlines, and so on.

What’s amusing and a little perplexing is that these professors themselves don’t seem to understand how the process works; because, based on these meager crumbs of information they have to judge from, they are alarmed at my potential sins of omission. “What, I don’t see Professor X’s book listed in the bibliography – he’d better not try to write this book without consulting it, it anticipates much of what he’ll want to say!” “I don’t see what Gann can add to the topic that Professor Y hasn’t already said in his own book, he’s set the bar very high!” “Gann reveals no awareness that Professor Z has already covered this territory thoroughly!” They all have their favorite Ives authors, which may be themselves for all I know, since it’s all anonymous, and they seem petrified that I’m going to venture out into public without reading the available literature. And yet they compliment my previous productivity, and my overall knowledge of American music, so they don’t seem to imagine that I’m a rank amateur.

I’m a conscientious guy, and I don’t like making a fool of myself in public, so I dutifully note their prescriptions. Beneath the end table next to me as I write this, to my wife’s despair, stand three two-foot-high stacks of scholarly books about Ives that I’ve been methodically plowing through. It’s true I am accustomed to writing about music that is almost devoid of previous commentary, but in this case, I recognize that dozens of books have dealt with the Concord Sonata at some length. My strategy has been to read maybe half of them first (they all repeat the same information quite a bit), to then mostly write my own book in draft, and afterward to go back and read the rest of the literature, and reread much of what I’d read, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Given that I approached this project, like all my projects, with many things I already wanted to say on my own, reading the entire literature before I started just seemed terribly inefficient, as though, at my age, I were going to be able to hold all that information in mind through the rest of the process. So, yes, I wrote some sample chapters without having yet scoured all possible sources.

And you know what? I have found that the bulk of what I want to say about the piece hasn’t been covered before at all. Somehow I already knew this, because if my curiosity could have been previously sated I wouldn’t have launched on this project in the first place. But it turns out Professor X’s book barely mentions the Concord, and contains almost nothing I can use. Professor Y’s book looks at the Essays Before a Sonata from a completely different standpoint than I do, and his book and mine hardly overlap. Professor Z argues from premises I consider bone-headedly mistaken. No one else before me has untangled the rhythmic processes at the end of the Hawthorne movement, or even noticed them. No one else has read Henry Sturt’s 1909 article “Art and Personality” to find all the unacknowledged influences on Ives’s Epilogue. No one else has asked why Ives intentionally altered the Hegel quote he uses. I am ominously warned that I will only reinvent the wheel (and even if so I might roll it more entertainingly), but this mountain of books hardly touches on the aspects of Ives that fascinate me. The Concord Sonata, and the Essays, are, from my increasingly well-informed viewpoint, practically virgin territory. Everyone talks around them and says very little about them.

What puzzles me is the simultaneous admiration expressed for me and also the collective fear that I’m suddenly going to break ranks and lurch out on my own, abandoning the rest of the profession. Academia always gives me a sense that I risk offending if I fail to keep my aims modest, even timid. I am supposed to be adding a few bricks to the magnificent edifice of knowledge that we’re all involved in; god forbid I should run out and build a nice sturdy storehouse out of planks I cut myself, on the shore of my own Walden Pond. We all like to be quoted, and I am as guilty as anyone of picking up a new book on a topic close to my research and immediately scanning the index for “Gann, Kyle, 13, 39, 122.” But I have also seen myself rather inordinately over-quoted, and wondered if the author had trouble coming up with much to say for himself. I wish the community had a little more interest in what I have to say, and considerably less fear that I was going to neglect to quote all the right people. Ives wrote his Essays at age 45, I’m now age 57 and I’ve been reading them for 44 years. Given that I come to this from a lifetime of involvement in post-Ives American music, and also a background in philosophy and aesthetics rare for a musicologist, I assert that I should be able to write an interesting book about the topic without ever having consulted any other book at all! And even so I do my scholarly duty.

One of the debilitating misconceptions in the composing world today is that music is always a strictly individual project, that collective creativity plays no role at all. Academia seems to have the reverse neurosis, that we should all link arms, each new book adding only a modicum of detail to the outline already established. I suppose I am not yet ascended to the level of someone like Charles Rosen, so that my musings on musical topics are generally considered, in themselves, worthy of note. Fair enough. But I do, likewise, evaluate book proposals for publishers myself, and if the author seems in general to know what he’s doing, I do not jump to the conclusion that if he hasn’t said a particular thing yet, that he’s in mortal danger of never saying it at all. I think I am more generous to other academic authors than some of them are to me, and aware that there’s only so much that one can get across in a prospectus, and – even more importantly – that large projects can evolve into something quite different from what was previously envisioned. I do not exult, as they tend to, over petty mistakes that an editor would have easily caught. (One academic once doubted my ability to write an American music book because I momentarily forgot there was no k in Frederic Rzewski’s first name.) It takes a certain amount of imagination to read a proposal, or prospectus, or sample chapter, and envision the latent trajectory of the whole; it takes none to chip away at vulnerable details out of context. And I find this collective impulse on the part of scholars to rein in their colleagues and discourage originality rather disheartening, distasteful – and uninsightful.



  1. says

    Go for them, Kyle, let ’em have it in their gonads. I can’t wait to read YOUR Concord! Just an afterthought: did you ever get to talk with Henry Brant about this? and will you be covering Henry’s orchestration of the sonata? I hope so!!

    KG replies: Never did, though I’m certainly mentioning it. I wonder if it’s possible to get the score….

    • GMS says

      I can see both sides here. No doubt there is some ego involved when reviewers make certain suggestions re: whom you ought to consult (i.e. whom they’ve consulted). But you mention that a number of the sources repackage the same info. Taking a more sympathetic view of the reviewers, it seems like they want to help ensure your book is free from such restatements.

      KG replies: Welllll, maybe. But my book can’t be free from such restatements, if it’s going to be a definitive book about the Concord, because it has to include everything. And about all the books all include is that the four movements are about Emerson, Hawthorne, etc.; it uses the Beethoven 5th motive; the Human Faith theme comes back in every movement; the Hawthorne movement uses those clusters; the Essays are about substance versus manner; and that’s about it. Aside from all the famous “borrowings,” some of which I dispute, no one really says much more than that about the sonata and essays themselves.

      I really think it’s that, they don’t want to give me a grant, they want to give the grants to someone else, and they have to come up with a reason to make me look less deserving, and they can always find or invent something.

  2. says

    Not being familiar with the academic world, these posts of yours read like anthropological dispatches from weird, isolated societies. You call them a “pack” in the title of your post, but “herd” would seem a more appropriate description – and you probably seem a little wolf-like to them 😉

    KG replies: Nicely said, though I think the crabs in the bucket metaphor – all of them pulling back down the one who looks likely to escape – might be more apropos. I also think we need to acknowledge that the culture of academia, with all its emphasis on empiricism, verbal definition, and left-brain stuff, tends more and more to exclude intuition, spirituality, creativity, and any kind of holistic common sense. We’ve always known this, and it’s a stereotype going back almost centuries, but it is so self-reinforcing that it becomes more and more difficult to remain aware of the imbalance – especially since, in our age, the only widespread counterbalance to it is a corporate culture at least as self-deceptive. It’s easy to sit back in academia and cast scorn on the corporate, mass-media world without ever reflecting that we’re its mirror-image in some respect. I come more and more to think that our culture is caught between two partial views of the world, one corporate and one academic, and there’s little room in the middle to remember what being a total human being used to feel like.

    One of my favorite books ever is John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards, which is about how an increasing reliance on rationality alone poisons society.

  3. Bob Gilmore says

    I find it amusing/odd/exasperating that publishers seem to want their prospective authors to take up almost every suggestion in the readers’ reports, even the pointless or stupid ones, and even if (as is often the case) the readers know considerably less about the book’s subject than the author.

    KG replies: That is certainly often the case, though I have had some success in arguing back and convincing an editor that the objections are without merit. Even in that case, though, they seem to want to contact an extra reader, which delays publication by several more weeks. I’ve been lucky to have some editors hold sufficient faith in me in this respect, but when applying for grants the pedants’ word is final and there’s no appeal.

  4. says

    Clearly your reviewers need to brush up on their Emerson — “Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought.” Set at naught, dudes, set at naught . . .

    KG replies: That is so over-the-top appropriate that I had to walk around until my laughter subsided. I think perhaps their greatest fear is that I will fancy myself a Moses, Plato, or Milton. Thanks.