Friday, November 16, 2007

No alibi

Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler points to a new blog that begins with an item about scholars whose favorite music is not necessarily the music that they study. As a card-carrying PhD in Ethnomusicology, I definitely know the problem, and I can recognize the advantages -- if not necessity -- that some dispassion brings to scholarship. Personally, however, I couldn't swallow that, as any music I'm going to engage with, I going to engage with passionately and life is too short to devote to any music other than that I like best. My engagement with music -- playing music by other, making my own, and even, yes, writing about it (Rollo sez: You call that writin'? Themz fightin' words!) is within those limits. I've played gamelan, for example, for 29 years, now, and simply can't bring myself to commit an act of scholarship about it (no loss actually, as there is such brilliant work being done by Sumarsam, Perlman, Brinner, Weiss, and many others). Or this: a lot of my friends and contemporaries come to the music they study or even the music they make with a caveat: Well, really, it's (fill-in-the-blank) that I like. And whether that blank be filled with some form of jazz or rock or hiphop or bluegrass or pseudo-polynesian lounge music, the position of their professional repertoire relative to their real-but-sort-of-secret passion is too often used as an alibi. And among composers, this is a particularly insidious alibi, in that the user can have it both ways: in Newmusicland, he or she can pass as a refugee from a more popular music who has finally seen the light, and among those less comfortable with new music, they reassure with their popular bona fides (just think of Milton Babbitt's affection for Tin Pan Alley).

I have a recurrent and unlikely, but nevertheless scary, nightmare: a state more authoritarian than the present one (probably right wing, but in the end it really doesn't matter) arrives in full force, and in the middle of the night, I'm awoken by the music police, probably deputized from the membership rolls of the leading musicological organizations, come to check on my musical preferences. And I have no alibi. The music I write about and the music I make is all music that I actually like...


Kalvos said...

Brilliant. Being the insular type, I didn't realize this professed disconnect existed. I love new music, and I love my own new music. And I listen to all the new nonpop that I can fit into my time. (And yes, I also have been a student and lover, but not writer or performer, of jazz for some 40 years.)


Stefan Kac said...

Musicologists have the word "important" to describe music that they personally don't care for but that their profession obligates them to teach. There's certainly a problem with each prof merely teaching their own preferences and biases, but there's also a problem with expecting them all to not rock the boat and just follow the herd, for how can anyone lecture with conviction on a historical event that they don't actually think is all that historically important? It's yet another way that music really doesn't fit all that comfortably into the structure of the university. (Not saying it couldn't be made to work; it could, but of course, that would require some imagination...)