Thursday, February 28, 2008

Public musicians and intellectuals

In the political blogosphere, there is a bit of lamentation that the US is now lacking in the prominent public intellectuals, that there is a fall in public discourse from the days of Galbraith Buckley to the Coulters and Moores of our time. But isn't it rather the case that the Galbraiths and Buckleys were never that deep and we've always had entertainers who have seized upon political themes, and run reckless with them?

However, even a quick look at one very small sample of blogging today, those by contemporary composers, reveals an encouraging state of affairs, with public discourse that is both elevated and approachable, as well as deep or light as the muse requires. From today's offerings alone (and Thursday is the slow day for blogging!): Charles Shere, a lifelong reader of Gertrude Stein, finds a way into her Blood on the Dining Room Floor, a work with an unlikely surface genre; Nico Muhly has a path to Peter Grimes that is both charmingly autobiographical (the prodigious are always charmingly autobiographical) and dares to introduce a few musical-technical ideas to a lay audience while simultaneously, if only suggestively, staking out some of his own aesthetic and technical territory; and Steve Hickens opens a dialogue about the complex issues located in what might be thought of as a three-dimensional space with axes for medium, genre, and the continuum between art and entertainment. And this is all is on top of widespread discussion of the New York Philharmonic's junket to the dim lights of Pyongyang.

I don't expect that composers will ever play a central role in partisan public political discourse (in fact, composers have often been embarrassing when playing such roles), but we should insist both that our music is important and talking or writing about our music is relevant to public life in general. At the very least, knowing our music makes the listener a more interesting, more critical listener, which seems to me to be a reasonable public good. A few of the more established political bloggers* have picked up on this; if they paid more attention, perhaps they would not be so glum.
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* Curiously, I've noted more attention from libertarians (Tyler Cowan, Julian Sanchez) than leftists -- perhaps a legacy of the left's long embrace of popular culture, and the possible over-identification of that culture with only those musical commodities which receive mass marketing?

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Don't downgrade Galbraith. He's one of the great English writers of the twentieth century and he distills difficult subjects into comprehensible sentences. It's tricky stuff.

The recently dead Mr. Buckley did rather the opposite. He poured treacle over stale thought and was considered wise. I'm glad he's dead and I don't feel that way about many people.