Friday, July 15, 2011

English 101 and the Musical-Industrial Complex*

Why can't composers' prose be more imaginative, more lively? Why do articles, program notes, blog items, and websites tend to read like grant and job applications or Rotary club laudatios? Time was, when composers — Ives, Cage, Jerry Hunt, Robert Ashley come straight to mind; hell even Babbitt at his most thorny — could shine in words as well as sounds, experimenting in form, syntax, style and vocabulary, unafraid to push the conventional limits of making sense, making language more like music. Is our present moment so conservative, so institutionalized that composers who can throw caution to the wind with their music rush to cover of safe but dull sentences in well-formed paragraphs in well-formed essays, formed, well, to the model set forth by your 7th grade English teacher? We can do better and if we value our music we should do better by showing through our words that our sounds are indeed special, out-of-the-ordinary.


*The title for this item plays on the famous section of Richard Ohmann's English in America, in which, among other things, the uniform style, rhetoric and form of bureaucratic documents (like the The Pentagon Papers) are sourced to their origins in mass collegiate English composition instruction.


Ben.H said...

You've just reminded me that, many years ago, I was impressed by how much more articulate composers appeared to be in interviews or other talks, compared to writers. Maybe I'm just jaded now but it's hard to think of the last time I heard someone new(ish) who made me pay attention.

Anonymous said...

I think that the focus on English, on impeccable grammar, has an element of indirect, hidden discrimination against non-English speakers.

Leaving aside English-speaking countries, there are many versions of English ("Englishes", if you will) in our “global village” – Russian English, Ukranian English, Kyrgyz English, French English etc.

People, not familiar with the vast corpus of English language literature, let alone subtle grammar and composition rules, may nonetheless feel passionate about letting the world know about their local experience.

They are likely to do this through the medium of business English.
An ambitious Kyrgyz boy may, in some personal statement, say something like: “We have big space in Kyrgyzstan. I would like to bring investments in Kyrgyzstan by learning at your business school.”

It may sound naïve to sophisticated people, but it’s sincere and highly effective.

The French are known to intentionally emphasize their “French Engligh”.

For example, Pierre Boulez may say something like “I have no time to write the composition, because government give me the grant to play other composer.”

How ideas connect is not necessarily an obvious thing. Some people are driven by the “having nothing to say, and saying it” principle.

The main character in Jim Jarmusch’s “Limits of Control” says, at one point in the film: “Life is arbitrary.” (hopefully, that’s not totally accurate).

That’s one of the very few phrases the character says throughout the film. Most of the time, he is either listening or contemplating.

Foreign nationals may have valuable things to say. The most accurate definition of “major” and “minor”, in my opinion, comes from Russian artist Boris Grebenshikov who wrote in one of his books:

“[The mode of] [m]ajor is when you have everything you need, minor is when you are lacking something.”

Taking, somewhat arbitrarily, two figures - from different cultures and backgrounds - who have been producing high-quality contemporary writing, non-English, France’s Pierre Bourdieu and Russia’s Dmitry Bykov, both have been able to transcend what Bykov dubbed the ‘complete cut-off of taste’ and ‘binarity’ (as in ‘vicious, destructive split’) of our life and culture.

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