Thursday, July 10, 2008

Robert Schumann, New Music Blogger

Robert Schumann was both a composer and a pioneering music journalist. His journalism -- especially in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which he founded in 1834 (and is still published, if with somewhat less energy) -- would not likely fall today within the narrowly constrained portfolio of our contemporary newspaper critics, but was always written from the viewpoint of a composer who wished to strongly advocate for music in which he believed ("Hats off, Gentlemen, a Genius!"), for both new music, re-discovered music of significance, and ideas about music and its performance.

The political scientist Henry Farrell, of Crooked Timber (my favorite SocSci Blog -- if I ever do a blog exclusively devoted to orchestration, it's definitely going to be called Crooked Timbre) has recently been studying political blog readership, and his observations are not altogether irrelevant to the musical blogoplan. According to Farrell, political blog readers appear to be homophiles -- thus tending to read blogs with similar outlooks, conservatives reading conservative blogs and liberals reading liberal blogs, with the relatively few readers who regularly read a wide spectrum of opinion blogging coming mostly from the left. Political blog readers also tend to be more active participants in politics: they are more likely to inform themselves, speak out on issues, vote, work for campaigns, etc. but readers on the left are more likely to be active participants than those on the right. It seems that the left is both more energized and views its blogs as advocacy vehicles for a movement -- the whole netroots business -- while the right bloggers are in a bit of a malaise and have been less able to use the net for advocacy.

For musical blogs, I see the outlines of a similar split. It is not parallel to the political blogs in left-right political distinctions, but like the conservative political blogs, there are a number of music blogs which see blogging as an extension of the cranky-critic-printed-on-dead-trees- style music journalism, and these blogs have fallen into a malaise of their own, spending a lot of pixels on the death of classical music, death of classical music criticism, and need-for-better-music-management memes. (They also tend to spend a lot of pixels on opera. Goes with the territory, I guess.)* The other side, with which I admit to identifying, is the advocacy side. Although I have gotten cranky here myself about some topics -- in particular the superfluidity of publishers and corrupt competitions -- in advocating for new or less-well-known music and for new media for the transmition of that music, the current state of affairs of the historically large and important institutions -- concert halls, opera houses, universities, recording companies, management agencies, and newspapers -- is of far less concern. Circumstances change and institutions must change or fade or even vanish (in the peculiar way in which legal persons are allowed to expire). In advocating for particular forms of music within a more diverse musical ecosytem we have to explore and initiate the creation of new and more agile vehicles appropriate for making and distributing that music, and that includes making our blogs better, even if that means making them something quite different from newspaper criticism as well as trying to figure out how to support this work without insitutional backup (not to mention press passes, salary, healthcare, pension...).

Robert Schumann recognized the music which he valued and invented a form of music journalism that was appropriate to the task of advocating for that music. I have no doubt that were Schumann around today, he'd be blogging, but he isn't, we are, and we've got to do a better job. Hats back on, gentlepeople: we may not be geniuses but we'll work hard all the same.
* Okay, here's my real snark -- the cranky critic music blogs, precisely like conservative blogs, such as The Corner, tend not to allow comments, and if they do, they screen them. Shutting down comments, and by extension, hiding controversy, suggests both that the matters discussed are less provocative and lively and that the blog writer is thin-skinned. Well kids, you simply can't be thin-skinned and be an effective advocate, and this is especially when the music you advocate is innovative and provocative, rather than a comforting reinforcement of the status quo.


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