Education, jazz, canons

[Update: read this essay first, then read the follow-up: "Education Jazz, Canons: a Theoretical and Practical Postscript"]

We throw the word “canon” around sometimes, pro or con, when talking about what music should be played.  Much more so than literature, music is a field in which the so-called canon often goes presupposed, unthought, and unargued-for.  Off the top of my head, I imagine that this may have something to do with a confluence of factors, among which at least are these: musicians generally not being particularly well trained as critical thinkers of their artform, marketing departments’ assumptions about what audiences will spend money on, and a certainly undeniable (and, don’t get me wrong, definitely awesome) physical/affective/emotional power that much music has that can be experienced by people with widely varying backgrounds.

Alex Ross shrewdly gets to the crux of question in writing about a NY Times article on jazz at Yale:

In the Times piece, Robert Blocker, the dean of the Yale School of Music, explains why jazz is not a priority for his institution. He is quoted as saying: “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” This is real bad. Jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music. Its links to classical composition are myriad: classical players who are not exposed to jazz will deliver poor accounts of much music of the past hundred years, from Gershwin to John Adams.

I agree 100% with Alex; classical players not experienced with jazz will be worse musicians in any number of ways, not least of which is the understanding of style he cites.  Piling on, I’ll add that in my experience, my DePaul instrumental students who have no familiarity with jazz consistently have worse ear-training skills than those who do.

But that’s not where the problems with Blocker’s attitude stops.  The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).  Neither is the case, and unironically using the phrase “Western canon” to defend institutional priorities distorts the issue.  What actually exists are pieces (often called “standard repertoire,” a less confrontational, but no less problematic term) that are played every season by major symphony orchestras… you know, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and such.  Certainly these works are influential, deeply so, (in my view) rightfully so: they complexly interact with/cause/influence a bunch of the music that comes after them; performance practices develop around them; our interpretation of them ends up being a part of our identity.  But it’s not an unchanging set of pieces.  For instance, the last concert that Mahler seems to have conducted (with the New York Phil in 1911) contained Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony; sure, that seems pretty canonic.  But it also contained a work you may have never heard by Busoni (the Berceuse élégiaque; does that count as canonic? I can’t tell), and three composers you probably haven’t heard of either -- Bossi, Martucci, and Sinigaglia (had to look up that last one to make sure he was real).  What exists is not best described as a canon, but rather as a complex, not-fully-knowable, ever-fluid-and-reinterpreted history of music; perhaps a “tradition” if you’d rather use a less general word than “history.”  Sure, there are a lot of pieces we like to come back to; but by granting them a separate status as a “canon” removes them from the world that made them, and this in turn leads down a dangerous ideological road.  [update: I forgot to mention in the original version of this post that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played this program under Riccardo Muti a few years ago, which is why it was on my mind.  High-five, CSO.]

Furthermore, by invoking the notion of a reified canon, I would argue that Blocker is actually undermining the very pieces he’s trying to defend; the Eroica symphony, after all, was meant to be revolutionary, not a bunch of audition excerpts practiced into the ground.  To pretend that these pieces are deserving of being played because there is something inherently, unquestionably cool about them is the problem.  The reason they are important is the opposite: it is because they have a reception history, a tradition of people thinking about, feeling, playing, interrogating, fighting, reacting against them; and we are among those people.

This brings me to my next point, which is to deal with the implication that “new music” is a separate thing (“Western canon and new music”).  It’s not.  I would argue that the only thing that makes new music categorically different from music by Beethoven’s music is the year.  New music, in addition to being new, is also a result of or reaction to or engagement with the music that has come before it.  For instance, my friend Anthony Cheung, a brilliant young professor at University of Chicago and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow, has a wonderful piece, Lyra (written for the New York Philharmonic), that involves an a contemplation of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.  Cheung is every bit as much a part of the tradition of reading, revising, rethinking, rewriting the issues that Beethoven dealt with as Brahms or Wagner were.

But Cheung deals with a lot of traditions; Lyra also makes reference to Chinese, Turkish, and West African musics.  Jazz is particularly important to his musical thinking.  Another work of his is Centripedalocity (which I’ve conducted with Ensemble Dal Niente), a movement of which is based on Thelonious Monk's Epistrophy.  As Artistic Director of the Talea Ensemble, he initiated a collaboration with jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman.  In short, both Beethoven and jazz are crucial parts of who he is as a composer; and this is the case because at some point he was educated in both traditions (his biography even cites “an early exposure to 20th century concert music and jazz/improvised music”).  Cheung’s art is unique, slippery, engaging, thoughtful, hilarious, hard to pin down.  This is because he is a musician of the 21st century in the best sense -- he deals with the world around him; this includes its recent and distant cultural past, and the works of art he creates reflect his inimitable distillation of them.  (Really, check his music out if you haven’t.)

What I’ve tried to suggest is that both the “canon” and “new music” aren’t quite the rigidly circumscribable things that Blocker seems to suggest they are.  I also wouldn’t say anything different about jazz; it is a shifting, flexible, profoundly sophisticated artform with a rich and strange and unlikely history that itself deals with a huge number of influences and cultural traditions, some of which intersect with the music Blocker probably wants his students to study.  Alex notes Gershwin and Adams, whose works certainly do engage stylistic tropes and questions associated with certain kinds of jazz.  But there are also broader aesthetic concerns where the boundaries between “new music” and “jazz” are so blurred as to be meaningless.  (One might cite the entire history of the AACM, for instance, here.)  Capitalism might want us to believe that the Western canon and new music and jazz are all clear-cut, easily distinguishable things because it wants to sell us recordings.  The reality is much harder to parse.

I wouldn’t want to make a claim that the Yale School of Music has an obligation to prioritize jazz (though my personal opinion is absolutely that it should).  I would say that it has an obligation to think more carefully and seriously about it and to examine its own ideology.  Ideology is really what’s at stake here; claims of a “real clear” mission about the “Western canon” are not so much aesthetic as socio-political.  I follow Terry Eagleton’s definition of ideology (in Literary Theory: An Introduction) to mean “the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in… I do not mean by ‘ideology’ simply the deeply entrenched, often unconscious beliefs which people hold; I mean more particularly those modes of feelings, valuing and perceiving which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power.”

What is taught, played, purveyed in prestigious, well-known culture institutions (like schools of music) matters.  It matters because people in our society trust and believe in those institutions; we look to them for guidance in our own judgments about culture and life.  I should know; I did my undergraduate work at Yale (though it was in the Department of Music, not the School).  There is a kind of reciprocity between society and arts institutions (especially in the US, where most can’t depend on government financial support) that takes the form of “prestige” or “social capital” or something; and it is supported by real capital, i.e., money.  We trust arts institutions to help us make decisions about what to value in culture, and we support them financially so that they might do so.  (Alex notes wryly that “a decade ago the Yale School of Music received an unprecedented hundred-million-d0llar gift, one that allowed the school to end tuition. You'd think that freedom from financial pressures would have encouraged the school to widen its intellectual horizons.”)  

This support means that we implicitly assume they have deeply examined, thought, felt, debated a broad range of issues, and that what they present to us and the way they present it is the result of such an engagement.  Defining your mission in a way that doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny, and that also thereby purposefully and consciously marginalizes a whole branch of 20th and 21st century art music, is, in short, a fundamental failure to do the central, defining thing we have no choice but to trust arts institutions to do.  It would be hard to overstate the potential harm such failures might cause.

To restate in a more constructive way: we live in an unknowably vast, interconnected world that trends only exponentially further in that direction.  The existence of, and our access to -- one might even say inundation with -- a huge number of musical traditions is, first of all, not going way; and second of all, something I'd much prefer to celebrate.  We get to be very different musical beings that those that have preceded us.  We should embrace that; and our arts institutions -- with their myriad resources, talent, and wisdom -- should be proactive in helping us figure out a different way forward in a world that is too complex for only the same old answers.