As I read through my earlier essay, I was a little embarrassed by the youthful fervency of what I had written. It occurred to me, however, that things really haven't gotten much better. Mitigating the older-age discomfort caused by my younger zealotry was chagrin at realizing that I hadn't done much myself in the intervening years to address the problems I described in the article. Instead I had become preoccupied with the various obligations and short-term responsibilities of my job at Columbia University. If I'm honest, I would have to admit that I became comfortable in the trappings of contemporary academia; the sense of protection and entitlement that leads to an unhealthy insularity. I could also hide behind the tired excuse: "I've already written/said/discussed this before, so why drag it out and bore everyone again?" Been there. Done that.
However, regarding what I wrote about decade-and-a-half ago, the underlying motivation for the article still exists. Indeed, our current cultural situation isn't much better than it was. If anything, the world has certainly become worse. Attitudes of fear and paranoia adopted by many have led to an increasingly hostile global environment. Cherished and treasured human values are trampled beneath a host of vitriolic "we're better than you" convictions.
Where do these attitudes come from? Obviously there are large political and social issues in play, but essentially it is each of our individual viewpoints that form the foundation for collective cultural beliefs. It is in these personal perspectives that I locate the roots of my discontent. Our social imagination, made manifest through creative arts in particular, expands the range of possible social templates available to us. We adopt our private point of view based upon the cultural models we know. Music acts as one of the most distinctly individual and communally engaging activities we do. It can work directly to shape and suggest different ways of "being human".
This is what still bothers me about the current state of our musical culture, especially the small corner that we as academic computer musicians inhabit. To be sure, our direct influence on modern culture-writ-large is minimal, but we have the corresponding freedom of irrelevance. Our work isn't strongly tethered to external influences. We are able to explore unusual compositional approaches and alternative working methodologies without overt public or commercial concerns. Of course, this also implies a marginalization of our activities in today's consumerist world, but the trade-off is a creative liberty difficult to imagine in other occupations.
What have we done with this relatively untrammeled freedom? Have we taken advantage of it to broaden our outlook, to expand our cultural imagination? Have we pushed to adopt new forms of expression, new ways of constructing music? I don't think we have. Instead, I have noticed a growing musical conservatism, a reinforcement of hegemony and privilege during the past twenty years that has worked to curtail a more open-ended, a more inclusive environment for musical creativity. Some might argue the opposite of this, pointing out the percolation of technology beyond the academy walls and the number of smaller, more diversely-focused conferences and festivals -- often as adjuncts to established conferences -- as healthy signs of openness. I am unconvinced that a segregation-by-type is a sign of wellness, and my specific critique is aimed at those of us working inside academia.
Examples of this reactionary academic entrenchment are easy to find. Every semester when our list of invited composition colloquium speakers gets announced, I just get sad. A cursory scan of our guests for the past several years reveals a narrowly-focused and significant aesthetic bias. Even the basic idea that music is something that can flourish beyond the confines of a darkened concert hall seemingly doesn't exist. I suppose that in and of itself, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I can appreciate the rationale for supporting a non-commercial, rarified academic music, especially when new-music "concert culture" forms such a small part of the larger musical scene. It is music that is worth sustaining. However, given the broad expanse of different (and equally 'alternative') musics extant in the world today, why is this support allocated so unequally to one culturally circumscribed approach? The implication is that this becomes the only music/context-of-choice for serious discussion. The social baggage that gets packed with it becomes the accepted standard for "how real music gets done".
This ordination of a particular musical methodology with its accompanying sociocultural codes has unfortunate real-world consequences. For instance, in one of our most recent composition faculty job searches, our initial applicant pool (over 160) contained only 16% female applicants. The minority numbers were even smaller. Surely this is a sign of some kind of cultural dysfunction, unless you are willing to adopt a specious Lawrence-Summers-like position and argue that only white males have the requisite capabilities to compose serious art music in the early 21st century. The current population of our composition program places us near the top of any list measuring demographic homogeneity. We've managed to outpace traditional Caucasian-male bastions in the School of Engineering and the Physics Department. I recognize that there are many ways to slice the term "diversity", but the plainly apparent fact is that entire human constituencies, along with the potentially distinct compositional voices they bring, are just not there. This is a clear symptom of something broken, with adverse effects both musical and social. Musically, it limits our creative vision by restricting the compositional models directly available to us. Socially, well, it's just weird.
More disturbing to me is the unquestioned acceptance of this status quo by students and colleagues, especially among students. At Columbia, many of our students do, in fact, work "outside the box" and engage in a multiplicity of presentation contexts. The "box" metaphor is particularly apt, however, in that the compositional work that is endowed with the most legitimacy is that which appears on academically-sanctioned concerts inside the concert-hall box; the proscenium stage, the passive-aggressive audience, the entire creaky apparatus of conservatively-approved music. To me, this seems most peculiar in a world where nearly all musical distribution and exchange happens outside a concert hall, yet we pretending to do Serious Art persist in reifying an outmoded nineteenth-century construct by surrounding ourselves in the trappings of concert-hall culture.
Like the other examples I have described, this too is a symptom of the academic favoring of one compositional practice over others. The tacit legitimization of one kind of musical activity inevitably leads to an unhealthy hierarchicalization that is at the root of my dissatisfaction with what we do with our music, and thus to our culture. I've had students show me rock/DJ/pop/remix or installation work they do, accompanied by the caveat "I just do this for fun" or "this has nothing to do with my serious work, but I thought you might enjoy it" as if even the potential contamination of one musical domain by another will do some unspecified intellectual damage. This almost schizophrenic compartmentalization of compositional output and the unspoken ranking of approved musical work posits an exclusionary model of thinking that is opposed to the broader, more ecumenical approach that I prefer. What makes one compositional tradition, one context, one piece, more legitimate -- better -- than another?
This is more than just a rhetorical question. There is a deep philosophical divide in how this judgment is made, or (more to the point) whether this kind of ranking is possible. I have been involved in many discussions in which a certain composition, student or composer was described as "objectively" better than another. To me, this statement makes almost no sense, unless there exists a fixed ideal, perhaps ultimately beyond human capability, that can be used as an "objective" metric for making these assessments.
I don't see how an objective perfection can exist, especially in a human activity as malleable as music. Not long ago I was debating the merits of a 'minimalist' installation piece with a composer-friend whom I respect and admire. I thought the music was enthralling, propelled by a subtle timbral shifting coupled with an elegant setting that absolutely captivated me. My friend's response, totally ignoring the contextual frame: "this music is so simple, I could write an algorithm to generate a thousand pieces just like it in a few hours." He hated it. We were experiencing the same music, but using very different 'objective' metrics to judge it.
Are there neo-Platonic forms, Kantian ideals that mark the ultimate limits of perfection? Like pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, I don't believe that there are. I think the best we can do is to accept that we are, in fact, all different from each other. In such a situation, a recognition of the rich diversity we can choose to bring to musical discourse isn't just an accommodation of convenience, it also serves to build models of a more inclusive and more tolerant culture.
The forms we choose to use, the attitudes we embrace, the way we do things, these all combine to structure our social and cultural ingenuity. Suppose we do assert an extra-human, objective scale for ranking a private, personal and highly individual experience like music. The dangerous model thus is set. We can then easily adopt an extra-human agency to legitimize other private, personal and highly individual philosophies and belief systems. We are justified in what we think and do because we can appeal to something grander and more powerful than ourselves. Can we then "objectively" determine the proper economic system? Can we "objectively" determine which religious faith is best? Unfortunately, millions of believers think we can, much to the world's detriment.
What we do can matter. How we do it can matter most of all. In the past, I thought that simply pointing to possible correlations between the way we as creative artists work and the shaping of our society would be enough to promote action. Time seems shorter these days, however, and I would like to offer some prescriptive, albeit probably banal and obvious, advice:
Can we intentionally work towards a common cause through our personal
perspectives? If we cultivate diversity in our aesthetic practice, will
it lead to an urgently-needed tolerance in the world? Is it possible
to build a culture of acceptance by building models through our methodology?
I don't have any answers to these questions. Our world is sick,
however, facing political and environmental disaster on an unprecedented
scale. Many of the problems plaguing us stem directly from deeply-held
convictions of social differentiation and exclusion, rooted in philosophies
that justify heinous acts in the service of a 'greater good'. We are
what we do. We have to start doing better. We have to start
somewhere. Why not music?