Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Music for the People

Once upon a time I found a collection of G.B. Shaw’s music criticism in a second-hand bookstore. It only cost a dollar, so I bought it. I didn’t know much about Shaw – only that he’d written a play I very much liked (Arms and the Man) and that he had a reputation for a fierce wit. Well-earned. Leafing through the book I found gems such as:

“There are some experiences in life which should not be demanded twice from any man, and one of them is listening to the Brahms Requiem."

Happy are those composers, performers, musical impressarios and organisers of choral festivals who did not happen to be living and working during his tenure as a music critic, for he was that most dangerous of creatures: an honest man. I took it home to read in more detail. After all, it was only a dollar. And at some point in the following days I found this:

“What we want is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if all Beethoven’s scores perish in the interim.”
I was training to be a musicologist at the time – in other words preparing for a life focused around ensuring that scores – Beethoven’s and others – don’t perish, literally or figuratively.

I typed out Shaw’s words, printed them off and propped them up on top of my monitor. The rest of that term, I used to glance up at them occasionally, while I wrote about fourteenth-century motets, or – yes— Beethoven’s approach to form. But whether or not I looked at that piece of paper, it looked at me. After that term I don’t remember what happened to it: perhaps it was lost or discarded when I moved. It no longer mattered by then: Shaw’s accusation, his question, was in my head every time I set finger to keyboard or pen to paper.

I fought him. Every day for more than six years, I fought. I accused, I denied, I contradicted, justified and rationalised, weaved, dodged, ducked and dived with the best of them. For though I was an economic emigrant, money was not my only motive. And I had something to lose: I had left a lot of people and all the places I knew, to pursue this particular future.

The opening salvos in that long war of attrition were sadly predictable.

“How dare you, George?” (he just hated being called George, so I called him George on every possible occasion – Georgie Porgie if I were feeling particularly vindictive), I said between clenched teeth, “How. Dare. You. Judge. By what possible right? You –a writer of clever social comedies for the leisured classes – yourself a music critic! You are a complete hypocrite. Shame on you.”

“What we want,” he replied with infuriating calm, “is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if all Beethoven’s scores perish in the interim.”

But this time, I heard what had been there in those words the first time too. Accusation? Yes. Perhaps. But self-accusation in equal measure. And whereas he was dead, I was still alive.

“But George.” I said after some pause. “This isn’t my fault. Really. It isn’t. I did not invent Empires. I did not make the munitions. I didn’t go soldiering. I did not build the barbed wire borders. The thumb screws, the hoods, the exposed wires, those prison cells with grated drains? – these were not of my construction. The maquiladoras? Not of my manufacture. I have not grabbed land in the Taranaki, or anywhere else for that matter. In the bigger scheme of things I am innocent: there are no flies on me. I am not to blame for sexism, for racism, for xenophobia, for homophobia, for imperialism, for any of that. Why then should I not live my life in peace and quiet, doing something which – after all – does not cause anyone any particular harm? There are many far worse things I could choose to do.

“What we want,” he replied, rootling through my well-stocked fridge, rummaging through my full cupboards and wardrobe, casting a sceptical eye over my over-burdened bookcase and peering out my dorm window out over the peaceful snowbound town, “is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if all Beethoven’s scores perish in the interim.”

I had little reply. The point was clear enough.

Truth be told, those opening salvos were brief. A week? Two weeks max. And from there, Georgie and I settled down in our respective trenches for a long slow war of attrition. The weapons of choice? Justification. Rationalisation. Prevarication.

“Hey George,” I shouted across No-Man’s Land, “I teach people – students, yeah? That’s useful isn’t it? And music can be political and we need to know how that works don’t we?”

But George was having none of it. He just sat there, hunkered down in his trench, darning his socks, looking smug. “What we want –” he began to call back –

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Shut up already.”

I told George to ‘Shut up’ most days for a good few years, but he just didn’t seem to do so. And in that time I came up with any number of variants on the general theme, but the answer stayed the same.

“Hey Georgie” I yelled much later, thinking that maybe this time I’d discovered a devastating new tactic that would keep him quiet once and for all, “Look at this – I’m doing all this union work. Lots of it – oodles of it. That makes it ok, right? I can keep on with the music thing if I’m doing stuff like this the rest of the time, can’t I?”

He didn’t even bother opening his mouth. He just raised an eyebrow from across No-Man’s-Land and even at that distance I could see he was going to give me one of those Looks.

It was a long slow war: in the end it was a relief to lose.

The more I tried to justify what I was doing, the more my deeds required justification.

The more I tried to give reasons, the more they seemed like rationalisations.

And the thing about both justifications and reasons is that sooner or later, they run out. About six years in, I found myself one day with nothing left. There was nothing more I could say to Shaw's words.

“Yes,” I was finally forced to concede, “That is what we want. And yes, if we have that, people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if . . .”

It was the first moment of peace I’d known for a long time, that moment when I realised I couldn’t be a musicologist after all.

(Though to an external observer it might have seemed that nothing changed, or rather, not immediately. I still finished (most of it was already written by then, after all – and figuring out what one cannot do is not the same as discovering what one can) but what usually serves as one’s introduction to a field became, to all intents and purposes, my farewell.)

It’s not that I sleep better now exactly, but what keeps me sleepless is not that particular angst, not that particular maze of justification. It’s not that I’m out of the woods, either – but it is true the trees do seem sometimes a little less entangling. So there’s something I want to say which is well overdue:

Hey Bernard. Thanks. A thousand thanks. And I’m sorry that I called you names.

11 Comments:

Blogger Nanette said...

I really love this post, by the way. As usual it is chock full of things to think about and to talk about, but for me, at least, it's going to have to wait til I clear up some brain room. Thank goodness for not operating on "internet time" ;)

That phrase has now stuck in my head since I read it, too.

6/24/2006 2:14 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

“What we want is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if all Beethoven’s scores perish in the interim.”

I've heard (and read) it said that the ending of Jim Crow in the US, and the relative success of the Civil Rights Movement killed jazz. Or maybe it was the blues... or maybe both. With the caveat, of course, that nothing was too big a price to pay, but still...

With scorn and robbery, no bread, no hope and equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration.. . from the drudgery and despair came music from the people, which is vastly different than music for the people. From such things also seem to come great works of art and literature and religious orations and many more things... while music for the people is often held out as some sort of place of arrival. A paid (from your pocket) ticket to the opera, or Broadway or the Bellagio, moving one from the place of "from" to "for" being a goal.

(I need to finish this thought but my browser/computer is acting up so will just post what I have and come back to it, so I don't lose it! ;)

6/28/2006 12:54 am  
Blogger dove said...

Hi Nanette,

I have been being such a bad correspondent (and not a brilliant blogger either) lately. I'm really sorry -- I've just been a bit flat.

What you heard about jazz (or the blues) being killed by the end of Jim Crow reminds me a bit of something I heard about Russian music after 1989 -- one of my lecturers said essentially, that now, because everything (politically) could be said, nothing would be. He thought that the fact that political expression in Russian music had had to be so coded, so veiled, gave it a kind of power it would not have had otherwise. Or words to that effect.


That distinction 'from/for' is really powerful. And the way you describe it makes me think of the shift between production and consumption (music from being music you make, moving to music for, being music you -- in one way or another -- buy).

On the one hand the time and place Shaw writes from is an era of music from (around where I live now, at around that time, there was the growth of the colliery bands (further east of here) and more locally, mill bands -- I think they would fit more into that 'music from') -- on the other, there was no shortage of 'music for.' And what was one once can become the other, I suspect.

6/30/2006 9:00 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

Hi dove,

Don't worry about it. I've been flu-ey and achey this week anyway and not especially doing much thinking or writing myself. But besides, your posts really are the perfect thinking out loud places because they open up so many different lines of thought... although I notice I never finished my last one, lol. You seem to have caught what I was trying to say anyway, though.

You shouldn't feel an obligation to answer every one, or at any specific time though... far as I'm concerned, conversations could conceivably span weeks. I do sort of have an end goal, but most of the fun is in the journey ;)

And what was one once can become the other, I suspect.

Yes, I think this happens quite often. It certainly did with jazz and the blues, rock and roll and so on. I know very little about music or its history beyond the basics of this or that, but I (in my admitted ignorance) am not sure about the the jazz and blues thing or the Russian music you speak of being ruined by the ending of some necessity or hardship. Hmmm...confusing sentence, let me see...

Take jazz or the blues or spirituals, whose history I am a tad more familiar with than the others - my understanding is all of the above came from hardship. People created the music and the musical forms as a way of expressing and dealing with pain and rejection and so on. That seems reasonable to me.

What I wonder about tho is, apart from those who shared the circumstances, what did this music call to or signify to the consumers of it, many of whom had never spent a day of want or rejection in their lives? A vicarious exploration of pain? Or just a nice beat? Sort of forbidden fruit?

And, once the civil rights movement happened and the ending of jim crow and so on, did the music change or did the attitudes of the consumers change? In other words, where before it was accepted and lauded that this music came from suffering, once the suffering was (supposedly) ended, was it in the hearing or in the playing that the music changed for some people? Cuz I'm pretty sure the people playing it didn't magically change.

Symphonies and so on have always seemed to me to be considered music for the people, and other forms... jazz, folk music of various nations and so on from the people... but don't they all usually start out with some "dum dum di dum" in someone's head? Which they have to get out by writing it down, if they know notes and all that, or playing/singing/hummming it if they don't?

So, I'm not sure what I'm saying here, or why lol, but I think it ties in to "bread for the people, rest for the people" and so on.

And "When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves, even if all Beethoven’s scores perish in the interim."

And also into the entire "suffering is good for the soul" type thing, which may be a mostly religious view but which is woven into the seams of various societies. I think a society with "hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair" would create wonderful music and art and other things, with little or no suffering needed.

And that actually might be one of the reasons it's so acceptable to some that the poor stay poor, and that humanitarian organizations will never be in any danger of going out of business, even as they are forced to take one step forward and ten steps back and so on.

Okay I am getting hopelessly convoluted here, trying to catch a number of threads at once or something. So I'll stop here ;)

7/01/2006 4:38 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

Oh, and you are too being a brilliant blogger!

7/01/2006 4:39 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

Okay, a little more on the above. Music for the people comes to you, music from the people, you go to it.

I've been reading the current dustup on race issues on MLW today, and thinking about various ones on BooTrib about Others and such and DKos and on other sites and in the process sort of caught the thought I was trying to get to in the previous comments.

Symphonies and so on... music for the people, in that the music comes to them, is created for them, and consumed by them. Or rather, to the majority (in actuality) or power structured majority, but whichever, to Society. Accepted Society, maybe.

Music from the people has some of the same exact consumers, but in this case the usual method is to go to the music... the smoky little jazz dive in the poor neighborhood; the quaint folk festival in an ethnic enclave; wherever one goes to show that you get the sub rosa messages in Russian music, and so on. And then, they go home, back to where the music comes to them.

While there is acknowledgement that the "from" music people need bread, rest, immunity, hope, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration and so on, I think that there is also a tendency to think instead that... "this is culture, and aren't we lucky to enjoy what the culture has produced and provided for us" without too many deeper glances.

This has allowed obstensibly liberal or tolerant people to have the best of both worlds, while only being required (or making the choice) to live in one. And, in physical boundaries, these worlds have a very well worn method of being at least tacitly defined, even if no longer (in some places) legally or outwardly so. People within comfort zones.

And then comes the internet... folks still attempting to operate within their safe, comforting boundaries (all the while insisting that of course they are not doing any such thing... and they might actually mean it), but because there are no physical boundaries or police or enforcers to make sure these boundaries are kept, people are being somewhat forced to adjust to the fact that there is no going home, or back behind their boundaries because they don't exist well online.

Mind you, it can be done, to some extent. I started to notice a few months ago, in an offhand way, that a number of the large liberal intentional and planned communities and events - Huffington Post, TPMcafe, yearlykos and so on, were very, very much lacking in diversity. Not one black speaker at yearlykos (last I knew of), if they had a panel on immigration I didn't hear of it; on Huffpost and TPMcafe mostly white writers... maybe a Latino, Black person or Asian thrown in from time to time, but not in general. Not so much a lack of women, though, at least at Huffpost.

I don't think that these people are racist or anything, in a general way... I think they are still operating in 'music for the people' mode. And they see little need, yet, for the music from the people... things sound okay without the jazz horns or the native american drums; an indian sitar might add a little bit, but we can make do with a violin; it might be nice to have a muezzin, but we have a chorus so that's cool. And when we want all that stuff, we'll go to them.

This all relates back, by the way, to the solidarity post... I'm trying to get straight in my head what may already be straight in many others, of how to build solidarity, a coalition of people who not only stand up for each other, but who are being allowed to stand up for themselves, to make their own music, within the close circle of support and solidarity.

7/01/2006 9:39 pm  
Blogger dove said...

There's so much you’ve said here (and as usual, all of it matters!) -- it's hard to know where to begin.

"What I wonder about tho is, apart from those who shared the circumstances, what did this music call to or signify to the consumers of it, many of whom had never spent a day of want or rejection in their lives? A vicarious exploration of pain? Or just a nice beat? Sort of forbidden fruit?"

All of these I suspect, and to some extent also, perhaps, an attempt to display a particular kind of knowledge or au faitness or ‘look what a discerning consumer I am’ness’ (I'm thinking of your description of people 'going to' the jazz dive or the quaint folk festival and then 'going back home' – which reminds me somehow of a discussion with poco and DTF in the ‘Let’s Talk about Alex’ and ‘Yon bonny road’ posts where DTF described that experience of being invited to social events as a demonstration that ‘Hey look! some of my best friends are ‘x’’ A border might be crossed, but it’s as a tourist (sometimes as a kind of voyeur I think), not an emigrant. But motives are mixed and changeable, at least sometimes. The tourist may become something else. And music is a means of communication – people may sometimes approach it as a consumer and discover they bit off more than they expected, or something different from what they thought, which may also change their motives (and even, perhaps, their options).

(One of the revelations of my childhood was when I finally picked up on what the words to Lola were about, despite having heard the song often before on the radio and liking it. That moment made my world bigger, more confusing and more wonderful all at once, whether I wanted it to or not, and afterwards, I could never hear that song as background music and -- well it's not that the world changed, but what I saw in the world changed after I grasped something of what that song was about. It’s kind of like books in a way, I think: what would be the point in reading if there were no possibility that what one read would change one’s life? )

It’s late here and I fear I'm losing coherency, so I’ll have to try and continue tomorrow.

7/05/2006 1:50 am  
Blogger Nanette said...

dove, I had NO idea what the song Lola was about until I went and read the lyrics yesterday. Dang, it's amazing to me that it was played on the radio so often without the religious right freaking out (I guess most people didn't listen to the words).

I've been reminded quite a bit about Alex lately too.

I have more to say (surprise!) but my brain has shut down, lol.

7/06/2006 5:46 am  
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