Friday, October 26, 2007

States of Art

With all the recent reportage on "the state of classical music", with narratives ranging from gloom and doom sagas, or thrillers of corporate and state intrigue, to fantastic tales of unlikely (if mutated) survival, the desire to place musics into cultural/historical narratives sometimes strikes me as misplaced because, if music history tells us anything, music has the power and mutability both to express the most local of times and places as well as to be fit into eras and locales far from its origins.* Music emerged out of cathedrals and cloisters both pious and sleazy, out of feudal states both glorious and petty, from mercantilist or steam-punk early industrialist states, and from any of the evil empires of the last centuries, and not one of these identifications with a particular time, place, and system automatically qualifies a piece of music as good, bad, or indifferent. Music be pliable, my friends, and cooption brings bother delights and dangers. That's why I hold to my thesis that the best music -- the renewable music, if you will -- is that which continues to resist its state, and the next, and the next...

But resistance is, indeed, often futile, even for the strongest among us. I've been reading Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk's dazzling anthology Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, which takes on everything from urban renewal in Medellín and the disneyfication of Hong Kong to Ted Turner's bison ranges and a plan (or scam?) for a floating libertarian tax haven state-on-a-ship. Yes, a slice of the world that Dick Cheney wants to build, made safe for Halliburton and Blackwater, but also for Columbia Artists Management and Sony Classics. But I can't help but take some small encouragement in the fact that many of these plans (and scams) are falling apart left and right. It's now a consensus opinion that, having taken office on a platform of "government is inherently bad", the current administration sought to govern as poorly as possible, to prove the point while offering maximum largesse to their cronies. Likewise, the biggest firms and institutions in our little music world are demonstrating that conglomeration and synergy often really means bloat and lethargy and, most tragically, the musically bland, while smaller enterprises and individuals are readily demonstrating fleetness, flexibility and fearlessness towards musical diversity. But these enterprises and individuals always run the risk of recuperation: as we once cheered Nonesuch, we now cheer Naxos, and even young radicals sometimes get tenure and petrify. And when we soon cease our cheers for Naxos or the ex-rads, if the world is right, there'll be new forces to cheer waiting in queue.

I have wonderfully mixed reactions to much that is in this book. China Miéville's essay on the anarchocapitalist floating tax refuge, for example, wisely zeroes in on its inevitable turn towards a police state (yes, give a ship full of libertarians their guns, and pretty soon they'll all be playing cops), and he presents one of the most cogent defenses of a state I've encountered, but I'll still hang on to the idea that the time will come when we get along well enough and fairly enough and pretty much out of one another's way that a state is just not particularly important, providing services, not government. And when that time comes, I here and now predict, music (good, bad, indifferent) will just get along fine.

*The most interesting of these are the big books by Alex Ross and Richard Taruskin, titles known and available in all the familiar places. Boy, I'd like to see those two duck it out, blogging heads style, someday: they both do interesting dances around their favorite dead, white, European male intellectual sparring partners, Ross with Adorno and Taruskin taking on all comers (idealist, materialist, dialectical, positivist... if he had a sense of humor, he'd probably read like Veblen), and someone with more patience for these things than I have is going to write something smart about this.

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