I want to quickly acknowledge the indebtedness of the previous post to Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless (1978). This is the most important read, for me, since the election. While the United States under the Trump administration is far from being a “post-totalitarian state” as defined by Havel, his conception of the state leads him to a general description of the dynamics of cultural oppression that is widely applicable. His broad but precise notion of “living within the truth” is crucially inspiring. This ties to my above discussion of cultural institutions. To draw things down to earth for a moment, I can provide a few examples of “living within the truth” that have been important to me in recent months. (1) Keeping a good clean house. (2) Being friendly with my neighbors. (3) Utilizing the public library. (4) Making peace with that previously dreaded entity, the University Music Department. (5) Having people over for dinner.
Our problems are many and complex, but I’m increasingly convinced that many of the solutions involve cooking and bikes. Until then, music might help too.
1. Living in Austin from 2007-9, from within the university music building, gazing forlornly out the windows, I began to ascribe a certain nobility to musical activities taking place outside the academic world.
2. I did this based on a personal notion of social “relevance,” perhaps—though I did not realize it at the time—indebted to a good old anti-academic and anti-intellectual bias that is, I now realize, ambient, pervasive.
3. I no longer want to hear any arguments performing acts of exclusion on the basis of “relevance.” Social vitality is not to be domesticated by any one person or group to use for their own purposes.
4. Anti-academic and anti-intellectual biases in this country are undermining cultural institutions, and have helped us elect an ignorant, hateful, narcissistic madman to run the executive branch, alongside the cohort of moral cretins currently controlling the legislative area. Little wonder that the inherently abstract, theoretical operations of the judiciary have become so crucial to maintaining normalcy.
5. A little faith in culture, expertise, and earnest study—on their own merits—could be useful at this hour. It appears time to reevaluate the attitudes described in #1 above.
6. It strikes me now as particularly indefensible that I fetishized non-academic musical communities without regard to their various relationships to the commercial system, and to the sale of alcohol, a substance which, among other things, makes people louder.
7. I wasn’t wrong in noticing that music is, seen from one important angle, a set of social strategies: for interaction, for mediation, for decision-making, for communion.
8. Cultural institutions of all types are important for social organizing and the giving of meaning to life. It is impossible to touch on the second point without recourse to cliche, but I think the phrase is precise. People derive meaning from learning, study and teaching; from the playing, facilitating, and attending of concerts; from the giving of healing and the administering of medicine. What draws these activities together is that their basic intentions lie outside the systems of profit and capital, and though organizations spring up around them like wild grasses, these organizations become businesses only through an uneasy set of compromises. But regardless of those compromises, people are people and community is community. If a musical individual finds mutual support and activity within academia, then that group is just as inherently noble as any other community of musicians, and its concerts just as valid, no matter how poorly attended, even if (gasp) publicly funded.
9. My recent thought is indebted in part to George Lewis’ book A Power Stronger Than Itself, which describes how hard he and his AACM associates in Chicago worked to get their music out of bars and clubs and into academic and governmental support networks—just as my generation would blithely move in the opposite direction, fighting the obvious issue of noise differentials to mount concerts in bars rather than advocating for more institutional support in the form of expanded academic presences or—imagine!—direct government grants to individual musical actors.
10. The latter seems to me of paramount importance. If we want to believe our work matters, it should be a simple matter of social policy that we provide its practitioners access to financial support, health care, and other services—public education, child care, and so on. That such basic, direct support is so difficult to imagine in the current system, which finds it so easy to create, for example, aircraft carriers, should be clearly instructive. (Musicians, as I’m always pointing out, are inexpensive pets. Look at the money being thrown around in the public sector, in defense, in technology, in finance, and then consider the way musicians will claw at each other for a $1000 grant.)
11. I decry the cutting of the NEA. But it was never enough. Not since it focused its limited attention on institutional grants rather than individual ones. Though in the present atmosphere of calamity I’m inclined to welcome whatever partial measures I come by, what we really need is a complete change of mind.
12. I think I want to argue that American musicians, though we’ll rarely turn down a paycheck if it’s thrust into our hands, we are, in our deep subterranean composition, as leery of public funding as any good Republican. We’ll take it if we get it, but we don’t want to ask for it, for ourselves or for others. There is the idea, often attributed to John Steinbeck, that we can’t do anything about American poverty because no American sees himself as poor but only as a temporarily embarrassed millionaire. Similarly an American musician is never obscure, merely not-yet-famous. To accept a handout in this mindset is to admit defeat. In this mindset, you’ll only need to ask for help if you’re the sort of non-outlier who shouldn’t be doing this work in the first place.
13. Rugged individualism often works well for those under thirty, but around the time of the fabled Saturn return, I notice it breaking down in people. I think we start to get tired. Those who’ve accrued early individual glories start to feel hollow. Those who haven’t, and still want to keep working, begin to take greater and necessary solace in their fellows and families and find validation in wider and more disparate channels.
14. In the first years of Grant Wallace Band it was so important to me that we function like a band and play shows in bars, even though it was swiftly obvious that most of those spaces didn’t have pianos and when we played there no one could hear us. Why?
15. There’s a both/and solution possible here. But if we want to argue music’s inherent worthiness of support, we might begin by treating “relevance” like a sort of vulgarity, individual discipline as necessary but not sufficient without help, and educational systems and public institutions with deep respect as a crucial part of the fabric of music-making in the culture.
16. I never spilled many tears over the financial woes of American symphony orchestras until I became embedded in the musical culture of a mid-sized city and realized that if our orchestra shut down, a lot of people would lose their jobs, and a lot of musicians would leave town.
17. I don’t want musicians to leave town.
18. I played piano for a singing contest last weekend. During the final announcement of rankings, I left the auditorium and went for a walk outside. Call me a conscientious objector. Placing musicians in order obscures our fundamental interdependence. I really don’t think many of these singers realized how much they need each other to function. I think that on some level they actually wanted the other people in their division to sing less well, so they would have a better chance of winning. But it doesn’t matter whether you win a contest. It never did. What matters is that you have friends. (The best practical advice I received as a high school music student: a teacher told us, at a state jazz band competition, “In a year, two years, five years, you will not remember who won and lost, but you will remember who the assholes were.”)
19. We need each other. Or none of this means anything.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues