There's Room for Us All
Irritations. Did our esteemed editor assign me to respond to "In Support of Art" because he thought it would irritate the ethnomusicologist in me? Well, Richard Franko Goldman did present a point of view strongly, writing with a self-righteous tone and a bit of hand-wringing, trying to make some of us feel that we hadn't been doing the right thing. Taking the perspective of a pettifogger, I have to note that the article pooh-poohs the accomplishments of most of the world's musicians, past and present. It mocks the value of history, suggesting that intuitive perception does more for understanding than the knowledge of context. It can't decide whether art is a product of everything humans do and think, or whether it has an existence that is isolated from everything else. But as he made his various points, the author pulled his punches, assuring us that the music before 1720 and outside Europe, which he has just got through scorning, is after all somewhat interesting; that it is "pleasant, and even useful, to understand . . . the links in a chain of historical change."
Inspirations. So, I'm grateful for the opportunity to comment on some of the statements Goldman made, but I confess to a bit of embarrassment at voicing objections and even irritations as the author is not here to rebut. I'm writing from today's perspective, and he, seeing today's musical world, might say quite different things; but even so, the way he sees the musical world isn't all that different from the way my colleagues see it today. So let me say, first, that in this article, the distinguished bandmaster and administrator was willing to say honestly what he thought (even though he sometimes contradicts himself) and to present his opinion in a charismatic if not scholarly way, and to make us confront certain fundamental assumptions about our way of thinking about music and art and culture. In a way, I find it in some respects an inspiring statement, and think that he (using the term he doesn't like) "deserves credit," and that I feel a bit mean-spirited to be taking his views to task. The following paragraphs represent the more or less random thoughts, in free-association style and with no organization, of a middle-of-the-road ethnomusicologist concerned about the educational system in which he works. Musings, but no conclusions.
A Foot in the Door. Had I heard Mr. Goldman give this talk in 1975, I would surely have been irritated, because for one thing it sounds as if he were trying to push the ethnomusicological foot (and all musicological feet) out of the door and slam it shut, drawing his wagons into a circle because he feared ethnomusicological inundation of the Viennese classicists. It was once a widespread attitude—a music department hires one ethnomusicologist, and suddenly, it's a case of "the ethnos taking over." Today, ethnomusicologists are teaching their field and making their contributions everywhere, but they have hardly "taken over." The "world music" and "world beat" movements have become powerful forces in the realm of popular music, and crowded out older genres, but that has always been happening and is hardly the fault of ethnomusicologists. And the Viennese classicists are secure. But their stature derives in some measure from their own musical broad-mindedness. Goldman in 1780's Vienna might well have been scandalized that Mozart, evidently a member of the 18th-century world music movement, claimed to be able to write Italian, French, German music, old and new, mixing in Bohemian and Hungarian and "Turkish" styles. Academics are required to complain, and to argue and fight; but in the end they too are broad-minded, and so I think since 1975 we've come to understand the complementary contributions of various kinds of scholarship and creativity to the central enterprise of musical education. So today, it's odd to see Goldman insisting that on the face of it, the music of the Middle Ages and Afghanistan (a special bète noir, perhaps?) is less interesting—to anyone—than Bach/Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert (BHMBS).
Straw man. What surprised me most in the article was the contradiction between the emphasis on civilization, the principal result of intellectual activity, on the one hand, and on the other, the suggestion that it is unhelpful and trivial to know things. One reads, "Which is more important to us: to be able to give the correct dates for the artists . . . or to be able to say, quite simply, 'How beautiful and how moving!' . . . Which has more to do with education?" It reminds me of undergraduate conversations: "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like;" to which came the response, "Yes, but you've got bad taste." How can one have learned without having acquired knowledge, have taste without knowing what one is tasting?
The foundation for Goldman's excursion of flagellating facts may have resulted from an old-fashioned musician's exasperation with musicologists, including "ethno-musicologists," who, he believed, spend all their time dissecting, quantifying, cataloguing, accumulating facts. Even ignoring all that has happened in musicology since 1975, this would represent a remarkably uninformed reading of musicology, a field which does accumulate hard data but which strives, in the long run, to provide interpretation, show coherence, explain relationships. This was a straw-person if I ever saw one.
Living up to the stereotype of ethnomusicologists, I should now be taking a relativistic stance, but give me a day off. Goldman extols the great composers, BHMBS, sounding awfully ethnocentric. Well, I must tell you, it's in the nature of human societies to be ethnocentric, and while it is my job to teach about music with a relativistic perspective, I believe that the integrity of a culture probably requires the presence of ethnocentric conservatives, and debate between conservatives and progressives. There must be people willing to change, but if there aren't some who oppose change, chaos may ensue. To have the grand Western culture which the article envisioned (or any coherent culture), we need both the Goldmans and the people he is chastising.
Whose Peak? Architecture in Medieval France, painting in Renaissance Italy, music in 18th century Austria and Germany, the novel in 19th-century England and Russia. They're the peaks. I'll buy that, but only on those days on which I take the option of seeing the world of culture as a vast mountain range. But there are other models—an aggregate of fields producing different crops for different climates and tastes, or a Noah's Ark of species each of which has its niche. The peaks are all creations, if you will, of dead white men, and it hardly makes sense that these greatest works of art, all of them, were created by one small sector of the world's population, who were chosen to become the guides for showing us "what we could be." It makes me suspicious of the criteria, and I wonder whether we do ourselves a favor by maintaining a rhetoric of constant critical comparison.
Anyway, how does one decide, even using criteria on which everyone can agree, whether they are everybody's peak? Goldman's approach to this was not intellectual—analysis and understanding cultural context may ruin us, he implies—but emotional, maybe almost in the realm of longing rather than acceptance of real life. And so I would ask him, if I could: Isn't it enough to say "quite simply, 'how beautiful, how moving?'" If that's Goldman's reaction to BHMBS (and often mine, too), isn't this everybody's reaction to some music? Did Goldman want to restrict our emotional reaction to a kind of "musical correctness?" Or was he into a kind of wishful thinking in which I too sometimes engage: If only my students could feel how great that performance of a Raga is, rather than just learning to count the various notes and ornaments; if my daughters could only see, as I do, how this Blackfoot Indian song represents strength, masculinity, a closeness to the spirit; if my friend could only understand how moving is this song cycle by Janáček, instead of telling me that I should be listening to "Pelléas" instead? Bach usually doesn't "move" me, but I know that when it came to working out intellectual problems, he is there with Gödel and Einstein. But "moving" and "beautiful?" That's the music I heard when I was a kid, or which I associate with moving experiences—music of India, the Blackfoot, the Czech composers, along with Mozart and Schubert. So Goldman does not inspire me to stand up in praise of the great Viennese, but to stand up in praise of music, of all kinds. Goldman should have his BHMBS, and I'll join him, but others should have it any way they want, learn everything and make their choices.
Cathedrals and Igloos. "The cathedral of Chartres is not the same thing as an igloo." I doubt that anyone would say it is. We admire Chartres as great art (but art which we can't do any more; and if we did, people wouldn't accept it, art which we can only admire as bystanders). It's great as "art," but more important, it took a lot of skill, planning, coordination, and patience to put it together, and people did all this work not mainly to impress each other, but because they thought it was needed to serve God as one must, so that humans could survive. An igloo—well—it is also necessary for humans to survive, and believe me, it takes a lot of planning, skill, and coordination, and one can't take years to build one. I dare say that Inuits couldn't build Chartres, but also, those craftsmen in France would have been lost in the Arctic without the skills the Inuit had long developed. Cathedral and igloo are equally interesting, but not for the same things, and we can absorb both, there is no reason not to value both. Don't worry, Chartres will outlast lots of igloos; but igloos will be there as long as they are needed.
Defining culture. "In Support of Art" contrasts culture and civilization—culture in simple societies, civilization in the West—and it implies that the concept of "culture," once revered by the likes of Matthew Arnold, was subverted by anthropologists. As a brief corrective, I quote the earliest anthropological definition of culture, by E.B. Tylor: "That complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other habits or capacities acquired by man as a member of society." (Published in 1871, it's still my favorite, and the only thing I alter is to change "man" to "humans.") Tylor insists that there is something that ties all activities and concepts of a given society together. All aspects of culture don't express the same thing, as it is "complex," but yet it is a "whole." Its conceptual domains are actually 1) ways for the members of a society to interpret the world—knowledge, belief, art—and 2) rules for behavior—morals, law, custom. Tylor showed elegantly how the domains of culture are integrated, and that art plays a role. All human societies have knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, customs. The distinction between culture and civilization is specious.
Achievements? Goldman asserted that "great" music reflects the achievements of Western civilization, distilling them into a paradigm. I think the great music of any society—all societies have their "great" and their "trivial" music—provides a paradigm of culture (and I've tried to show it in print for Iran and South India, and the Blackfoot). At this point, discussing cultural synthesis, Goldman sounds like an ethnomusicologist. The achievements of Western civilization? Well, they are considerable. For sure, I prefer living in comfort in Champaign-Urbana instead of a village in India or a crowded city in West Africa. But maybe that's largely because I'm used to it. Certain villagers, seeing the advantages of good health care, lots of material culture, freedom to marry and associate as you wish, getting to vote for local aldermen, may nevertheless decide that their villages represent culture—values, concepts, ideas—that is better for them.
But we are to love the great composers because their works represent the great achievements of their culture. Achievements of Western culture in the days of BHMBS? They include colonialism, forced religious conversion, slavery, indenture, male hegemony, child labor, the evils of the industrial revolution, religious intolerance. Or later, when some of these achievements had been superseded by advances: total war, threatened and carried out; the secret police organizations; oppressive class structures; discrimination of all sorts; homelessness and starvation in the midst of plenty. Are these synthesized in the great music? Music whose central values are the class structure of the orchestra, the inequality of solo and oompah-accompaniment, the conformity of harmony, counterpoint, and the marching band? There must be better reasons for clinging to this tradition.
Art as object. But in presenting music as a synthesis of culture, Goldman contradicted himself. Because he implies that music does not reflect the culture from which it stems, with its visual art and literature, but rather, a work must be judged as an object, not by its history or context. So, the fact that a work was written by Mozart or Schubert does not itself mean very much, it's what's in the work that counts. But if that's so, why does Goldman (and all of us) talk about music as mainly the result of a particular personal and thus historical and cultural context? Who composed a piece provides the work's identity. If a painting attributed to Rembrandt turns out to be by someone else, it loses most of its monetary value, although it's still the same work. Or is it? What happened to the poor Jena symphony when the backers of the Beethoven ascription backed off and let it stand as a work by Friedrich Witt? Art exists only seen in its history, in its context. It does reflect its culture.
Harmony. "The unique achievement of Western music is harmony." A widely held view; to most of the world's societies, that harmony is the hallmark of Western music. Other peoples, Goldman might have said, have rhythm and melody, but so do we (i.e., those guys ca. 1800); yet the "others" don't have harmony, at least not proper harmony. Well, they do; different, and probably less complex, but I've heard Indian musicians turn the tables: Your composers do harmony wonderfully well, but we are far better at creating melody; African musicians might say the same about rhythm, and Indonesians about sophistication in timbral interrelations. Here Goldman really pulls out the ethnocentric stops, saying, in effect, what "we" are best at is the standard of the world, and it's the presence of harmony that is the ultimate criterion of greatness in music. (Because we have better guns and bombs? I'm sure he didn't want the argument to lead to this.)
Nostalgia: I get the feeling that Goldman wished he had lived in 18th-century Vienna, where everyone understood Mozart's works, went down the street whistling "La ci darem la mano," and knew the difference between culture and civilization. We all have such wishes. But digging out from the emotional nostalgia, he knew better: the great synthesis of Western thought was readily accepted by some few musicians, certainly not all. Philistines among the music lovers thought it was too difficult. Mozart felt at one point that nobody in Vienna appreciated him, and went off to Prague. Certainly the population of Viennese cobblers, washerwomen, grocers, and laborers hardly understood the significance of "Don Giovanni." And while I once wished to walk along the Rhine like Schumann/Heine's poet (but getting the girl, to be sure), I know that Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel weren't known to many, and were misunderstood by some in ways leading to . . . you know what. Those good old days when everyone knew the great music for its aesthetic and moral value, and thus became a good person leading the good life? Gimme a break. I guess I could go along with the notion that art can "show us what we could be." The proof would be in the pudding; did it actually ever move people closer to what they could be? I doubt it. But even to discuss this issue, you have to accept the concept of art being closely tied in with the rest of civilization.
Under Siege. Reading in Nicolas Slonimsky's Dictionary of Musical Invective, I'm struck by the degree to which the nasty things said by critics about Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, Brahms, Wagner, were written as if from a fortress under siege. We can find the same things said about jazz and popular music, and I guess the conservative art music world has always 1) resisted change, 2) insisted that it was in danger of demise, and 3) insisted that it be kept separate from the rest of the musical world. I ran into the same thing in India, where a noted scholar thundered to me, "there is no room for change in Indian music," and in Iran, where my teacher insisted that I write a book about what I had learned, lest the world forget it all. This in the midst of exceptional flowering of Indian and Persian music, flowering indeed, though coming under foreign influence. But then, foreign influences had always been around, one couldn't live without them. Even so, the art music world in America seems to me always, in my experience, to have seen itself besieged, and thus ready, maybe like Goldman, to throw hot oil at the attackers. That itself is a characteristic of the culture of great art: the "consumer" (a word Goldman wouldn't like) thinks that only a few people can understand, that others ought to be taught to understand but won't learn, that in the end only they themselves can see what's so great. In the end, Goldman is crying, in his wilderness, "but you don't really understand!"
Well, one can't have it both ways: Art cannot be both isolated objects, and reflections of the quintessence of culture. It can't be something worth knowing for its own sake, and also the device for teaching us to be human. It would be terrible education to say that the music of Africa, Native America and, yes, Afghanistan is interesting, but only so far. Rather, let's present all music, to the extent possible, to all people, and let them decide that Beethoven and Schubert are the greatest if they will.
Meaning. Goldman worried that Schubert and Mozart no longer meant anything to us. What was the concept of "meaning" in this instance, and who were "us?" Maybe it was different in the 1970s, but in the 1980s and 90s, Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert are all over us. Public debates about the sexuality of Schubert and Handel, NPR series on Bach, several pianists recording the complete Beethoven sonatas. My favorite composer of them all, Mozart, has been routing the field, with "Amadeus," "the Mozart effect," the "Mostly Mozart" festivals, "Elvira Madigan." "Mozartkugeln" in the drugstore and Mozart cafes everywhere, new productions of the operas throughout the world, Eine kleine Nachtmusik on commercials. Yes, that's not the kind of listening Goldman had in mind, but "mean nothing to us?" Goldman's Mozart (the man who wanted to get into the popular culture of Vienna) was different from Haydn's, Beethoven's, Saint-Saëns' Mozart, and it's different from the Mozart of 2000. That's what it means for Mozart to be part of "our" culture, to mean something to "us." If in the 21st century the general public remembers anything of music composed before 1900, it will surely be by BHMBS. Not to worry.
I worry, rather, that of the musics 1720-1820 (and other periods, and other cultures), we'll only remember these few greats, and fail to preserve in our educational system the Salieris, Myslivečeks, Pichls, Dittersdorfs, Voglers, the many contemporaries who provided the context in which the biggies could rise. We're in danger of seeing the eighteenth century as a small group of great compositions created and living in isolation.
Jupiter Symphony. The fundamental problem of "In Support of Art" is the fear that there won't be room for us all; that our 250 million people can't sustain the many kinds of music available to us and therefore that some of it—like BHMBS—will fall between the cracks. But if there's one thing I've learned in ethnomusicology it is that small societies can have rich musical cultures, and that it doesn't take a lot of people to keep a style, a repertory, a genre alive. There's room for us all, conservatives and progressives, radicals and reactionaries of the arts, ethnocentrists and relativists. We can have it all, and we'll learn from the grand variety of the world's music, past and present, "some ideas of order and harmony and perfection," and in the view of the world's peoples, "what we could be."
We can have it all, and we must, I maintain, because it's part of being human. I'm following the ethnomusicologist John Blacking who, writing roughly at the same time as Goldman (1973) said that "In a world such as ours . . . it is necessary why a madrigal by Gesualdo or a Bach passion, a sitar melody from India or a song from Africa, Berg's Wozzeck or Britten's War Requiem, a Balinese gamelan or a Cantonese opera, or a symphony by Mozart, Beethoven, or Mahler, may be profoundly necessary for human survival."
Following the more restrictive path suggested in "In Support of Art," however, might lead to the kind of future seen in Anthony Burgess's novel, The End of the World News, in which fifty survivors of an interplanetary explosion go off in a spaceship, playing a record of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. One imagines that this (did Burgess think it was the ultimate musical peak?) was the only piece they ever heard after that; and that it was enough to sustain their musical appetite. Or did they maybe miss their monthly half-hour of music from Afghanistan?
Last modified on Wednesday, 17/10/2018
Bruno Nettl was born in Prague, immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1939, received his PhD at Indiana University, and spent most of his career teaching ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois, where he is now professor emeritus of music and anthropology. His field experience has been with Native American people, in Iran, and in India. Best-known books are Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (1995), The Study of Ethnomusicology (rev. ed. 2005); and Nettl's Elephant: On the History of Ethnomusicology (2010). Most recently, Becoming an Ethnomusicologist: A Miscellany of Influences was published by Scarecrow Press in 2013. He has served as president of the Society for Ethnomusicology and as editor of its journal, Ethnomusicology. Since 1990, he has held visiting professorships as Harvard University, University of Chicago, Northwestern, Syracuse U., U. of Washington, and other institutions. In 2012 he was named Charles Homer Hoskins Lecturer for 2012 by the American Council of Learned Societies and the first recipient of the Tai Ji Traditional Music Award (scholarship category), by the China Conservatory, Beijing.