Friday, February 02, 2007

You own it, you name it.

"I'm not particularly this or that." -- Edward Gorey

With the luxurious distance of an accidental expat, I have followed with interest a number of recent controversies in the US regarding names. Some of them have concerned taboo names, especially names for ethnic, religious, or other groups. May they be used or not? And if they are used, by whom and under which circumstances? When a forbidden word does get used as a slip of the tongue, do we judge the speaker against his ot her record, or do we assume that the slip of tongue was carrying the speaker's honest and uncensored opinion? Others controversies have concerned deliberate misnaming, for example, the practice by many Republicans, from the Resident on down, of referring to their opposition as the "Democrat Party" instead of Democratic. And still more controversy belongs to the practice of deliberately wearing down a name: "liberal", "civil rights", "privacy", "intelligence", "accountability".

It seems to me that one principle underlying all of these controversies is that speech communities tend to recognize a right to name people, things, or ideas. That right is usually associated with ownership and authority, and recognition of ownership or authority by a community only comes with a general acceptance of a name. For example, the convention in the west has been that parents name their children, and our dual names carry both a sign of the legal relationship -- the family name -- and a mark of individual power associated with that relationship, is found in the individual name chosen by the parent. There are, however, many groups or systems in which the right to name children is otherwise assigned, for example to a cult or group leader, and in many slave systems, owners issue names to children in the place of the parents.

When Republicans, with considerable discipline, systematically rename their opponent party, they are trying to assert a form of ownership: yes, Mr. Bush has "reached out" to the new majority in Congress, but he is reaching out on his own terms, and those terms include naming the opponent.

When a name is attached to some form of oppression, liberation from that oppression comes with a positive reassignment of the right to name, a process that can be long, delicate, clumsy and full of contradictions. Thus we have the sensitive situation in which the "x"-word is generally, but not universaly, forbidden. Members of the group formerly labelled "x" may use it, and often with abandon, as an instrument for satire, invective, and subversion.

The practice of wearing down, radically devaluing, or even inverting the meaning of names in the course of political discourse is a dangerous one. I had always thought that examples of the sort, in Orwell's 1984 or in Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, couldn't literally happen here, but the US is now a country run by two liberal parties (left- and right-liberal, but classically liberal in their roots both of them), but neither of them dare identify itself as liberal. It's a country where wars are no longer declared but force is authorized, and where an escalation is supposed to be meaningfully distinct from a augmentation.


Does this have anything to do with music? Well, yes, if only in a political theatre of greatly reduced power and material consequence. There are, in fact, many instances in which names associated with a music and the process in which those names are given and accepted or rejected deserves some critical attention. Tonality. Minimalism. New music. Contemporary music. Experimental music. Modern. Post-modern. Classical music. Entertainment. None of these terms can be defined in any way which would be acceptable to everyone. (A situation which doesn't particularly both me BTW). Often, it is unclear whether a term is neutral, pejorative, or positive. Sometimes -- as in the cases of minimalism or experimental music -- a pejorative use can be turned around via an alternative assertion of ownership or authority, and that turn around can be empowering.

The history of electronic music is especially loaded with the politics of naming: when the technology was rare and closely guarded, individuals and institutions carefully managed their ownership over resources and -- as a consequence -- styles. Music concrete or electronic music or synthesized electronic music each had early institutional identities, and those institutions closely managed what could be done and by whom. But even as the technology has become more equibally available and distributed, there is still considerable institutional leverage over what may be done. "Electronic music" in the studio at UCLA as taught by Roger Bourland, if I understand it correctly, is essentially a course in the production of soundtracks. At Mills, or at Wesleyan, it can be making sound installations or building your own circuitry. And there are other institutions in which "electronic music" is simply the realisation of a written score.

In the case of minimalism, before composer and critic Tom Johnson adopted the term from art criticism, and initiated a process of acceptance which has generally stuck, other terms were bandied about: static music and process music are two which still seem to have considerable descriptive power. Minimalism was, at first, as much rejected by the composers involved as rejected. But it had an enfranchising power, so much so that other composers could be included (just from the west coast: Erickson, Leedy, Moran, Budd, Lentz, Oliveros, Dresher, Adams), music from outside the states might be included (Kondo, Otte, Walter Zimmermann, Jeney, perhaps Buckinx), and new roots or prehistory were discovered (not only Young's Trio for strings, but also Satie, early Cage, Wolff, Feldman, maybe even Yves Klein). And with that enfranchisement, the name became currency (which must be recognizeable, portable, divisible, durable), and composers are always gracious recipients of currency.


Recently, it was big news in the academic music theory community (well, okay, big news for a small pond) when the theory faculty of the Yale Music Department decided to change the naming or labeling practice in their harmony teaching. From now on, functions and bass notes are in, and the roman numbers are out. From what I have heard, the core theory sequence also intends to focus on a much more targeted repertoire for analysis and composition on historical models. San Jose State University has made an even more radical change in its theory teaching curriculum: "Music Theory" has been replaced with "Music Systems", with the idea that a wider variety of approaches would be taught to accomodate a much larger variety of repertoire, that is no longer concentrating on functional harmony and the classical European "common practice". This more radical change has not received a lot of attention from the academic music theory community, although I suspect that it speaks to some larger trends, while the Yale re-labeling is essentially a refinement of a teaching tradition with a long pedigree. Not being a music educator, I don't have a nickel's interest in either naming convention, but I anticipate some interesting mixes of argument and institutional prestige as one practice or the other is accepted or rejected by other institutions.

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