Monday, June 15, 2009

The Unbearable Languidness of Institutions

If we had been limited to mainstream media this weekend, with the exception of BBC's Persian service, we'd have almost completely missed news of the events in Iran.  Traditional media institutions — aside from the fact that they never perform well on weekends — simply don't have the agility and networks of witnesses to cover stories that are not lead by releases from official sources and move faster than hourly deadlines. Internet reporting, on the other hand, while often — and wisely — having to carry caveats about verifiability, have proven themselves to have both considerable agility and a astonishing breadth of networked resources, many of them appearing nearly spontaneously.   (I'm personally amazed that two of the best sources have been diaries at the (left) Daily Kos and (conservative) Andrew Sullivan's page; new pages of photodocumentation from inside Iran and translations of twitter messages have also been very informative.)  I have no doubt that, with the weekend closing, mainstream reporting on Iran will improve, but the internet provided essential information bridging the mainstream's absence and has set a high level of quality for further reporting, changing the initial mainstream spin on the election, which essentially accepted official statements. 


I didn't notice that Perspectives of New Music has — or had? — a blog.  Seems like no one else did either.  It's here but seems to have moved to a Google group here, which is just as quiet.   I'm not exactly a fan of PNM, but it has been moving in more interesting directions in the last decade or so (with features on composers including James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros; good stuff even if two decades too late), but this good news appears not to have reached a wide audience.  This is a shame, because for New Music to stay news, it has got to communicate its breadth, depth, and liveliness.   For breadth and depth, PNM could be an important component, a marker of our diversity and controversy and as a forum for the more intellectual aspects of our art form (yes, Virginia, musicians can be intellectuals), but to succeed, it has to appear lively, with a greater online present and a more rapid delivery of new information, idea, opinions, and, yes, music. I honestly hope that the inherently slow pace of PNM's paper-based journal culture does not keep it from finding a lively presence online.


It was both a revelation and a confirmation for me, when as a young composer, I discovered that Europe had recognized the music I loved most — that of the American experimental tradition — as our most vital and important.   Cage and Feldman and Reich were important names here, while the American compositional establishment — the best upper set, so to speak —, the ones who got commissions and teaching jobs and other plums, were largely (and, to my ears, correctly) obscure.   In my recent listening journeys through the archives of RadiOM, I've been delighted by the realization that, in the end, we valued the experimental tradition more as well, for it has been the experimental repertoire that has survived in the archives.*  In part, I suspect that this is because the outsiders running music programming at Pacifica stations, for example, recognized both the historical importance of the radical music and its material fragility, and understood that if one was to be responsible, as journalists and citizens, that documentation was essential, not a luxury.  (Being able to rehear KPFK broadcasts by Carl Stone or William Malloch lately has been a bit like going through a second musical adolescence.)  On the other hand, where are the archived broadcasts of mainstream new music performances or interviews and the like? The programming lists of a traditional, commercial, "classical" station, like LA's KFAC, actually included a modest number of mainstreamish new music performances, but there's been no foundation created to store those archives.   I suspect that there was a form of institutional hubris at work here, not unlike that found in the large financial institutions that have fallen so greatly of late, a sense of entitlement that comes with establishment status: "we don't have to worry about archives because we're too big to be forgotten..."


Don't get me wrong: we need institutions in our lives.  (Yes, Virginia, we need both the post office and the opera house).  There are just too many of us living on a small planet that somethings need to be organized on a large scale.  Efficience, reliability and redundancy all have their place. (I'm thinking now of Cage's Buckminster Fuller-inspired recognition of the essential role of "utilities" in our lives and the modest way in which it should interact with our lives.) The problem is created, however, when such institutions become bottlenecks, gatekeepers, or roadblocks, when the institution is no longer flexible enough to meet changes in supply, delivery, or demand, and particularly when the institutional will to survive is greater than its ability to recognize that it is no longer providing an adequate service.


[Added, an hour or so later.]  I'd thought I was done with my institution-bashing for the day, but here's something more:  perhaps the first decent English language newspaper obituary for Henry Pousseur, who died on March 6th, appeared in the Guardian on June 11th.  


* The survival of radical work in online archives is not a phenomena restricted to music:  check out the PennSound pages for poety, or UbuWeb for film, music, poetry, and much else.

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