Those Strange Bedfellows, Politics and Music

October 1, 2001

One mark of the rational society is its ability to learn from experience, to use hind sight as a governing check on foresight. Even if flawed, conceptualizations of the past offer incomparable perspectives on future plans. Our history is filled with commanding examples. One that comes to mind is especially worth a revisit by musicians.

It was in August of 1949 when Poland's vice-minister of culture, Wlodsimierz Sokorski, set out new guidelines for composing politically correct Polish music of the future. In his words, such music must "express socialist content in a national form." Fleshed out, his canon found an immediate mark in public denunciations of Witold Lutoslawski's first symphony; even more profound was its continuing resonance for those who failed to question the application of socio/political ideology to aesthetic values.

Let us remember such ideological encroachments, one category of thought forced onto another. They can be instructive as we ponder recurrent demands from colleagues that elemental revisions be made in basic music literature courses to meet certain current social and political goals. Almost every new issue of the CMS Newsletter carries yet another plea that (1) the diverse cultures of the world be duly represented in such enterprises, and that (2) "women in music" must become a carefully tended historical property within all curricula, righting the males-only wrongs of our past. Anyone familiar with the rebarbative "post modern," "deconstructionist," "politically emancipatory" hermeneutics in academia over the past three decades will recognize the origins of these urgings for reform.

They, and Bruno Nettl's gentle reminder, "There's Room for Us All,"1 are the direct motivation for this essay. Professor Nettl speaks to the broader issue of preserving and revering all of our culture's musical wealth, both inherited and indigenous. His concern isn't curricular. But to the degree that his lively essay might be taken as a warming blanket for such narrower concerns, I'm compelled to inject this reminder. It can provide "the presence of ethnocentristic conservatives," which he deems essential to the integrity of any culture.

One arbiter for reform dotes on that magic bullet "diversity." "In our increasingly global society," he tells us, "all educators have a responsibility to help students understand and respect diverse cultures." A second writer adds to yet another recurrent lyric: music appreciation texts and classes "have not fully included the contributions of women in music" Both are hopelessly "based on the assumption of the centrality of Western 'classical' music." And authors are particularly at fault. In their texts "Non-European musics, including music composed by European women, are delegated to curio 'Cultural Perspectives' sidebar exhibits in the margins of the main text."

The pleas are sincere attempts to right imagined wrongs, they are made by professionals whose motives are unimpeachable. But the most honorable intentions cannot long hide simple facts. Like Sokorski's recipe for politically correct music, the two plaints derive from flawed motives. Both would apply socio-political criteria to enterprises for which they are not relevant; one is confused by an illusory conception of music's history.

Let us deal first with the demand for diversifying repertoires, its intention to make fair curricular game of any music untainted by European trappings. A typical form of the argument spells out the new and better way of doing things. One teacher's approach (and thus presumably ideal) "connects his students better to the diverse people and cultures out there in our internet-connected world." There is in such testimonials the covert suggestion that music literature courses must now assume responsibility for making good citizens; developing their abilities to interact with artfully made music is no longer sufficient. But its more encompassing underlay is of greater import.

Its base argument is tacitly supported by a popular socio/anthropological fetish of our time, a sentimental view of otherness the French writer Pascal Bruckner has called "Third Worldism."2 It's a nostalgia traceable in modern times to Rousseau, a state of mind that glorifies what is not an authentic part of one's own modern culture. In Bruckner's words, the Third Worldist "looks to the orient, to the tribal, to the primitive not for what they really are but for their evocative distance from the reality of modern European society and values." Such a perspective leads the Third Worldist to overlook intrinsic values in things, mainly because it is motivated by an external ideologylike politics or theology or anthropology.

For an art, like music, the view can impose shabby criteria for what teachers are to teach. It ignores intrinsic values and relevancies in favor of cultural exoticism. It clears the aesthetic decks, regarding a ceremonial chant of Ghana as an equal-rights contender with Opus 131. It implies that the 16th century Chinese opera The Story of the Laundress of Fine Textiles contributes as heavily to musical maturation as Wozzeck. It balances a raga performance with La Mer. To be bogged down in West-European "masterpieces," it argues, is to fall prey to one's own cultural bias. All musical works are created equal; only in the ear of the beholder do meaning and value take shape. And thus all authentic artifacts are equally valuable.

The sheer nonsense of this view can be elusive when one has been seduced by the cant of Third Worldism. All cultures and their artifacts are in fact not equal. Unmasked, Claude Lévi Strauss' admonition that we must not rate cultural differences hierarchically boils down to "Forget values, folks; they only complicate anthropology." As Roger Sandall observes in Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, "most traditional cultures feature domestic repression, economic backwardness, endemic disease, religious fanaticism, and severe artistic restraints." These happily are not the distinguishing features of our own culture. The truth is that with all its faults, our West-European past has nurtured the most marvelous social, political, and artistic establishment yet achieved.

A traditional criterion for content in basic music literature studies has been the acknowledged value, the aesthetic indestructibility, if you will, of some works. The products of less developed societies, like those of the American pop repertoire, can be thoroughly captivating. But who actually finds even an ultra-sophisticated Cole Porter song a match for Bach's Mass in B-minor? The Navajo songs recorded in 1927 by Laura Boulton are a delight to hear and to think about as manifestations of their human roots. Can we really compare one of them, as sonic message, with a setting by Copland of an Emily Dickinson lyric? Many of us grew up playing jazz in mid-20th century America, so the music of Parker and Gillespie are dear to us. But it's hard to equate any recordings by those masters with the expressive sweep and depth, the sheer richness of Hindemith's suite from Mathis.

To imply that the treasures stored away in our music closets are equaled by those of other cultures of the modern or ancient world is hallow sophistry. William Henry (In Defense of Elitism) provides a fair and decisive perspective when he notes that "Every corner of the human race may have some thing to contribute. That does not mean that all contributions are equal It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose."

The Western stream from Machaut and Tallis, through Bach and Mozart, and on to Bartôk and Adams is unmatched by any corpus from any other of the world's music cultures. It is engrossing at multiple levels of engagement, music created by artists of unparalleled competence. It is demonstrably superior—it is, at least, if one holds dear such criteria as aesthetic size, the power to engage, hold, and fulfill the attentive listener. As a repertoire, it is an appropriate basis for teaching people of any society what can be so fetching about music, some of which is not immediately apparent to the untutored ear. On the other hand, if the proper goal of the new millennium truly is to "help students understand their own sound world," our task is charted and it is simple. We merely shift repertorial gears with each new Beatles and Beach Boys and Brittney Spears and Eminem who comes along to top the charts. That is their sound world.

Aside from the foolishness of mixing social and political ideologies with aesthetic/pedagogical doctrine, the assumed factual basis—the justifying cause—for such a perspective is itself fanciful. Music from other cultures can provide captivating and insightful ancillary objects for our comparison. But they are rightfully ancillary; they individually and collectively warrant but minor roles in the kinds of basic courses targeted for revisionism.

And then there is the matter of gender equities. The plea for increased coverage of women is in part a product of their intensified professional roles during the past half-century. It is a cause ideologically justified by the feminist movement. As a general motivation it is fully meritorious. To the degree that it can be carried out and not distort history, it is a just cause. But as a controlling criterion for planning a curriculum it fails: it confuses categories. Its argument for an equal piece of the action rests on the slippery fable that females have in fact played a comparable role with males in the history of world music. In most societies they have not, whether in or out of the West-European orbit. The idea that "equal time" gained retroactively can right wrongs of the past arises from a notion that is as mean-spirited as it is fictive. It is that female composers' names are sparse in our histories and our anthologies, dictionaries, and recording catalogues only because a reigning conspiracy has ignored their contributions. The simpler truth is that those contributions were not prodigious, and for reasons that had nothing to do with talent nor fortitude: The mores of human societies in general, and the motivating energies of most males and females in particular, wrought a different scenario from that envisioned by those who make the charge. For better or for worse, women of Europe and the U.S. prior to the mid-20th century did not routinely operate in the creating/producing/preserving/reporting businesses of music. And thus there isn't a lot stored up to talk about—unless one finds distorted history a valuable resource for our children.

And there is yet another misconception harbored by the "equal time" cry. Music history's essential and primary content is not people. It is music. The 'identity' of any workwhich I take to mean its sonic essence—is wholly demonstrable without knowing its origins. Whether Dufay or Duffy composed a particular piece is of pressing relevance mainly to those who keep the account books. The names that populate our histories of the art, regardless of gender, only provide tags for what is really central: individual compositions. If our history had been equally packed with the produce of women composers, their names would be preserved appropriately as testimony to that fact. The desire for equal rights, regardless of its ideological attractiveness, is not an acceptable excuse for rewriting history. When the art of music and the chronicling of its wares become vehicles of affirmative action, only empty formulas remain; the music and its story have ceased to possess the freedom that makes real art and dependable history possible.

1In Symposium 40, 24-30. Editor's note: Bruno Nettl was invited to write a reply to this essay, and declined the invitation.

2In Le Sanglot de l'homme blanc, 1983.

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