31 December 2006

Digital Diaspora: Virtual Chamber Music Communities

Diaspora, Huntington Archive of Buddhist Art, Ohio State Univ

Late-modernity’s current crisis is accentuating spatiality and revealing more clearly than ever before, the spatial and locational strategies of capitalist accumulation and the necessity for labor and all segments of society ‘peripheralized’ by capitalist development and restructuring to create spatially conscious counterstrategies at all geographical scales, in all territorial locales.”
  — Ed Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 1989

CMT: TIME Magazine says the Person of the Year is ‘You,’ because ‘You’ write blogs, create videos using YouTube, use the Internet to change the political process, and muster vibrant virtual communities in long-tailed cultural niches. But do ‘you’ really matter? Do ‘I’ really matter? If we do, maybe that is the story of the year. If we don't matter, that’s definitely a story, too.

DSM: So which is it? Remember Schrődinger’s famous thought experiment? Schrődinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead, until an observer opens the box and observes which state the cat’s in. Schrődinger’s cat illustrates an often misunderstood concept in quantum physics.

CMT: I think Person-of-the-Year ‘You’ is very much a Schrődinger cat. ‘You’ may actually exert power and influence, and ‘You’ still may be as marginalized and geographically dispersed as ever. Like Schrődinger’s cat, you may paradoxically be, probabilistically, some of both at the same time. But if an observer tries to measure it, the act of measuring will perturb the thing measured. Google Analytics™ is great—and the stats it produces can be shared with members of an online community whose activity and socializing are measured by it—but the act of measuring is not ‘neutral’ or decoupled from what’s measured.

DSM: What reality can a virtual community have, then, except as measured by the actual impacts and measured changes that it causes? How do anthropologists assess the sustainability of other Schrődingerian felines—a language, a culture?

CMT: The conservation of languages, from Gaelic to Tlingit, does inevitably involve engaging geographically-disperse members of the culture. But “Mobilizing the Diaspora” implies that there exists a home, a sovereign state to which one could return if one wished. It’s hard to say that there is any such ‘home’ for chamber music in today’s mass monoculture.

DSM: ‘How can we tap the diaspora communities to their fullest potential for nation building of their home countries?’ should therefore be an important issue of discussion and debate in the classical music community. Before contemplating the possible mechanisms for mobilizing whatever ‘diaspora’ there is, we need to examine the tacit assumptions embedded in this question.
  • Gauging capital. What is the extent of the intellectual capital maintained by specific diaspora groups? What are the forms of capital manifestations?
  • Mobilizing platforms. How can intellectual communities in the diaspora--in their amorphous and unorganized form--be mobilized? What effective mechanisms need to be put in place to integrate them?
  • Organizations’ commitment. What is the extent of commercial entities’ and NGOs’ and governments’ interest and commitment to genuinely engage the chamber music diaspora—these groups often include fierce critics on social and political matters…
  • To what extent can the diaspora cooperate with the very governments that forced them into ‘exile’ under recent culture funding cut-backs?
  • Perception of home communities. To what extent are academic and professional chamber music communities [the ‘home countries’] interested in and prepared to engage with the intellectual diaspora who include non-professionals and serious lay-persons with genuine passion for the experience but little musical training? What are the psychological, intellectual, and emotional attitudes of potential collaborators at these home institutions?
  • Technical and logistical issues. What are the potential logistical and technical challenges that may be encountered in mobilizing and tapping the diaspora? What strategies need to be put in place to circumvent challenges that may undermine initiatives involving the diaspora?

CMT: This is interesting. The boundaries of the ‘nation’ are blurred by visual media and cyberspace where cultural products target audiences both within and beyond the borders of conventional sovereign nation-states. And the survival and thriving of classical music—this is truly a matter that individual nations have trouble addressing. The effects of mass-culture and globalization are so pervasive everywhere!

DSM: Well, it’s not just free-trade and capitalistic globalization. The politics of ‘Who am I?’ will always involve a mediation between the individual and the many groups that have a stake in his/her cultural identity. Family and relatives often seek preservation of cultural heritage and values. Community and religious leaders have this interest as well. The state seeks the assimilation of aspects of a national identity which inscribes the state’s version of patriotism, duty, citizenship, and so forth. The media, advertisers and other capitalists hope that individuals accept their versions of reality, lifestyles and patterns of consumption. Through these influences, cultural power encourages certain cultural and personal identities and discourages others. But all cultures include ways of knowing and being that are valuable to individuals and groups that are part of these different cultures, and also have much to offer peoples of other cultures. Chamber music is no different in that respect.

CMT: What is cultural space then, and how is it affected by the dominant capitalism?

DSM: Have a look at some of the sources listed below. Michael Foucault once observed that it’s vital to not see technologies themselves as facilitating marginalization, but rather to understand these processes within the scope of broader cultural practice—the practices of using technologies in certain ways that affect spatial organization and function. When the space in question is cultural space—where individuals and groups experience cultural products/symbols (such as chamber music)—personal and group experiences and mediations of cultural products are affected by the practices of production and dissemination of those products which are experienced within social space. And, whereas products produced by the transnational entertainment/information industry seek to promote the universal value of mass consumption and clichéd mainstream values, alternative or activist or indigenous cultural products and discourses can potentially have unique practices of production that serve diverse goals and diverse meanings. When these types of alternative communications are disseminated through contemporary communications media, they’re able to (1) resist the colonization of cultural space by homogenous mass-culture products pushed by transitional capitalism, and (2) support identities at the individual and group/community levels. This is part of the message that authors like Saskia Sassen and Howard Rheingold put forward.

CMT: The postmodern global political economy suggests that the politics of capitalism is increasingly dictating or at least facilitating the myths of social and political discourse, though . . .

DSM: And the use of media technologies in the dissemination of cultural products has been disassociated from the political, cultural and social implications of this process. National media for the most part facilitate colonization within the norms both of modernity and postmodernity. In most democracies, alternative domestic media do exist and are vital for challenging social, political and economic injustices. Generally, these are important alternatives to national and global hegemonic communication infrastructure, although in real life categorizing many institutions within either side is difficult. Let’s try a little collaborative/community exchange—let’s put a GoogleDoc spreadsheet in here. This is not exhaustive—it’s just a start, with apologies for the idiosyncratic choices shown below. But if readers add entries to this GoogleDoc spreadsheet, it could become a more comprehensive list over time. Anyhow, I just wanted to try embedding this kind of an object. Here goes:

Success! This is an example of putting an unmoderated object right in the middle of the body of a Blogger post. I’ve set the collaboration parms so that anybody with a Google account who wants to add a URL or edit or do whatever they want to to this spreadsheet can go here. I’m not sure what sort of record-locking or other protection Google has for this sort of thing, so we’ll have to monitor it and see if it gets corrupted. I have no idea, for example, what happens if multiple readers-writers try to edit this object simultaneously. Mutex deadlock, starvation, reader(t1)-writer(t4) over-writing what reader(t2)-writer(t3) just deposited, other foolishness? Let’s see whether Google has anticipated this kind of stuff! I’ve archived/backed-up the original, so if the GoogleDoc spreadsheet java applet breaks I'll be able to restore it . . . I’ll bet this widget gets clobbered within the next day or so. What d’ya bet? Google’s good, but I bet there’re still bugs in here . . .

CMT: Cool! I think, ultimately, the colonization of cultural space and media communications facilitates the continued dominance of current privileged hegemonies and continued marginalizations when media/cultural products within this context fail: (1) to articulate and recognize the realities and persuasiveness of social injustice and multiculturalism, (2) to offer opportunities for marginalized groups to voice their concerns and demands so that national, regional, and international populations and politicians must reckon with these demands, (3) to delineate the uneven distributions of power that perpetrate distributive injustice—including cultural injustices— and (4) to offer media space for marginalized groups to express their ideas and cultures. The majority of cultural products disseminated globally through communications networks by the powers of international capitalism fail on all four counts. And that’s where the blogs and vlogs and other online media gain their significance. That’s why it matters so much. The normal supports for diversity and community have failed and are disinclined to change. It’s also why Net Neutrality and resisting telecomm lobbying and initiatives that aim to privatize the web are so important.

DSM: The web culture’s most powerful positive mechanism for solidarity is peer recognition. The ability to use words and images and mp3 audio and video to create context by inscribing actions and environments is one key to social status in web culture, but it’s also a key to the sustainability of web-based communities. Those people who are most skilled at creating the illusions of shared context (and thus those who most strongly uphold the elements of the imagined community) are those who are most rewarded with words of recognition and expressions of affection by their peers. They are also the anchors for the continuation and stability of the online community.

CMT: No surprise there! Like a relative newcomer to a pub or other informal public space, you know you’ve arrived in the social hierarchy of a blog when the regulars begin to greet you when you arrive, instead of sending you bland greetings or ignoring you. Personal attention is a currency in the blogosphere: everyone is on stage who wants to be—everyone is the audience, and everyone is a critic. Some noise, but lots of signal!

TIME Person of the Year cover, 13-DEC-2006

30 December 2006

What’s the Story: Blogging Classical Music Criticism as Narrative

Monk at Work on Blog, ca. 2006

Much chamber music refuses to satisfy the function of creating a mood. Its frequent shifts make it bad mood music and very bad background music. And its cultivated autonomy resists the listener making of the music what she/he will. It lacks what, in Baroque music, is called a ‘unity of affect’. Julian Johnson maintains that it is this feature—the discursive aspect of classical music in general and chamber music in particular—that makes it attractive primarily to audiences who know that that is what such music does, that is how it works, and that is what they want. By contrast, people who are unprepared for the discourse, or who do not like an ‘active’ authorly/composerly stance, or who do not wish to engage music as conversation or exert the effort and attention to apprehend what is being said—are unlikely to enjoy or be deeply excited by this music.”
  — Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? p. 35

DSM: I love the Julian Johnson statement above and also this one: “In some ways, [chamber music] is comparable to a rather involved novel or a film. If you skip a few chapters or leave the theater for awhile, you will lose the plot or narrative thread.”

CMT: Almost all chamber music is structured along discursive lines. This has to do with its use of harmony and musical forms and phrasing—long-range developments that are analogous to literary narrative. The sonata is, in many ways, comparable to the novel. The plot and meaning are impossible to ‘get’ if details are missed. In chamber music, more than in symphonic music, the conciseness is tremendous. This puts an even greater demand on the listener—more concentration and understanding are needed, or else the listener feels like a child observing an elegant conversation among grown-ups—an attractive conversation that she/he can’t comprehend or participate in.

DSM: This is partly what limits audience growth. Chamber music developed with an aesthetic and social context that required focused attention.

CMT: But our attention needn’t be ‘rapt’. I’m not arguing for the correctness of a certain approach to chamber music, or of the necessity of one kind of listening over another. Rather, I’m suggesting that discursive music is unlikely to serve its natural functions if it’s approached non-discursively. Besides, it’s unlikely to be very meaningful if approached as if it had some unity of affect that it doesn’t have. It will disappoint the listener/reader if the listener/reader expects it to contain one simple, unambiguous, unchallenging thought. It’ll disappoint the listener/reader if she/he is wanting to experience the music passively or distractedly.

DSM: Well, program notes and critics’ reviews and bloggers’ posts ought to guide the listener, stimulate the reader. Even this blog! Each post is a memento of one of our conversations, each one we hope may have some value to readers—especially the bulletized lists of links/resources that we gather together at the bottom of each one. But the conceit of a ‘conversation’ is an unusual format for criticism or program notes, don’t you think?

CMT: Maybe so. But, to me, it’s natural—entirely consonant with the discursive/conversational nature of chamber music.

DSM: And it’s entirely consistent with the ad hoc, extemporaneous, serious-amateur, non-specialist, “thrown” character of our own dialogues. There’s no doubt we could instead construct most of our posts here as essays.

CMT: But that’d be bogus. We’re just talking—we’re not laboring over manuscripts here! Soi-disant…

DSM: The RILM Manual of Style is a wonderful resource. It counters the typical eurocentric perspective—with diversity and sensitivity to a variety of cultural views and linguistic approaches. It counters the ‘relevancy-obsessed,’ dumbed-down populism of the typical American perspective—with honest excitement decorated by just enough erudition to explain what the excitement is about. In other words, it’s the epitome of the elegant, civil tradition of good music journalism. Well worth having—even the impromptu music blogger should have a copy I think, not just the professional music critic or journalist!

Hare, beating the tabor
CMT: Nice to be reminded of what we should aspire to, even if our tendencies are to the ‘raw’ or still bleeding, rather than things that are ‘cooked’.

DSM: Controversial or exotic drum-beating, instead of well-settled exposition. And nobody would think me capable of being elegant!

CMT: A critic’s value is not determined by whether he/she’s right or wrong but whether he/she’s a good read. That’s one reason Martin Bernheimer is one of my favorite classical music writers. His review of Fabio Biondi conducting an obscure Scarlatti oratorio below was the sort of classical-music writing I like.

DSM: Despite Bernheimer’s high-brow taste for fine music-making, which irritates those who think that preserving the classical music audience must involve dumbing things down or focusing only on the familiar composers and works, his stylish prose has the common touch. He could easily write mandarin criticism. But he is a paragon of simplicity, clarity and vigor. Against all those who complain that serious music has lost its audience, I claim that serious music critics themselves are as much to blame as anyone else. Bored readers aren’t about to storm the concert halls or buy subscription season tickets.

CMT: And, instead of regressing to ever-less-challenging familiar works, audience growth might more likely be achieved by enabling the hearing and understanding of less-celebrated pieces, be they old or new ones. Make the experience of classical music into—more than anything!—an exciting process of discovery! You’re selling the experience, not a ‘product’! The effect you want is for the attendees to be so engaged in the narrative and in the experience that they spontaneously comment about it in ordinary conversations with their friends. “What did you do last night?” “I heard X performing Y! It was incredible!”

Alessandro Scarlatti’s ultra-obscure ‘Oratorio per la Santissima trinitàhas’ been something of an obsession - a magnificent obsession, if you will - for some time with Fabio Biondi. The enterprising Baroque specialist from Palermo, primarily a violinist but an able conductor too, exhumed this musical musing on the Most Holy Trinity two years ago in Spain. On Thursday night, 288 years after the Neapolitan premiere, he mustered a performance heralded as the first in the US. The stylish ensemble on duty was Europa Galante, founded by Biondi in 1990. The suitably intimate locale was Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and the no doubt grateful host was the Mostly Mozart festival. Biondi claims that ‘talking about Santissima trinità is rather like walking about an archaeological site without knowing what the objects sticking up through the earth actually are.’ The identity of the hack librettist is a mystery, and only one manuscript score has survived. The musical manoeuvres, in many ways advanced for 1715, seem more operatic than ecclesiastical. Although the structure relies on period formulas, much of the execution is imaginative. Five vocal soloists - personifying faith, theology, infidelity, time and divine love - discuss the nature of the Trinity in recitatives, arias and duets that vacillate between narrative simplicity and expressive virtuosity. The tiny accompanying ensemble, strings plus elaborate continuo, is essentially subservient, occasionally dominant. The climactic gesture takes the form of an astonishing quintet. Biondi led a superbly propulsive, exquisitely nuanced performance with little fuss, fiddle in hand. Enrico Onofri, the tenor entrusted with the arguments of infidelity, suffered a bit of interpretive affectation, but his colleagues turned out to be musical and dramatic paragons. Marta Almajano sang the soprano lines sweetly, with flexibility and point. Laura Polverelli and Sonia Prina exulted in the light and shade of contrasting mezzo-soprano assignments, while Roberto Abbondanza brought dark authority to the basso foundation. This was a night of revelations.”
   — Martin Bernheimer, Financial Times, 11-AUG-2003

DSM: Amazing what can be done in 300 words! Excellent example!
. . . You know, earlier this month, I tried something that I had never done before. Normally, I make notes during a performance, and refer to them as I anticipate our next meeting or phone call. But note-taking is a distraction—it gets in the way of listening. So for the Pomerium performance, I decided not to take notes and see if that affected my experience of the music and my sense of it—my recollections about it, and how they figured in our conversation afterwards. My little experiment led my mind to wander to the architecture and singers’ faces—the performance was excellent for the same reasons I probably would’ve recorded had I been taking notes—but I doubt that I would’ve attended to the elements of physical performance in the way that I did.

CMT: One reason I like Martin Bernheimer of the Financial Times is that he’s vehemently opposed to the pompous, paternalistic idea of the critic as a cultural ‘educator’: “The critic shouldn’t be a salesman. I’ve always had a problem with being [simultaneously a – ] drum-beater and consumer guide. When the critic has to play both roles, I think there’s a problem.” Bernheimer lets the chips fall in exactly the way you’re referring to when you describe your experiment during the Pomerium performance.

DSM: The ‘educator’ stance is not just a pretentious position; it’s a loser’s position. It implies defeating a nameless, faceless enemy. And the opponent is in fact the reader who’s not a fan. Why should that reader read such a thing!? What you’re better advised to do with your comments is to win a place at the reader’s damned table! This doesn’t mean you give up objectivity or become a PR agent for the business or dumb things down so the reader feels comfy. It means, instead, that you write with more urgency, more immediacy. The writing is—and always will be—crucial. You’ve got to matter to people!

CMT: Don’t you get tired of going to the same concert over and over again? Beethoven, Schubert, the Appassionata being played a little bit differently?

DSM: Well, yes. Oh, each year there’re the next crop of fresh young faces—there’re more layers of discovery and appreciation in a familiar opus than we’ll ever know. But, yes, I do wish we had the chance to hear more under-played older works and more new and experimental music. And if some new music and experiments turn out badly, then it’s a music critic’s or a blogger’s job to say so!

CMT: Several years ago Joseph Horowitz, author of Classical Music in America, concluded that the critic’s role is inherently one of advocacy. He charted criticism’s shift from focusing on composition to focusing on performance. Horowitz argued that the culture of performance—which came to the fore with the celebrity of Arturo Toscanini—sidelined critics, not to mention composers, and reduced reviews to little more than bland descriptions and quibbling. He called for a return to a time when the critic was “an organizer, a doer” on behalf of classical music.

DSM: Classical music has an actual audience and a potential audience. The way we talk to each other, it’s clear that we have both fanatical and unconverted readers in mind. The trick is in finding a language that intrigues both.

CMT: The probability that a concert will be exceptionally good doesn’t necessarily justify writing about it. The question is: What’s the story?

DSM: Criticism needs to get outside itself. Movie reviews aren’t just about acting and cinematography. Music reviews should be about more than just notes. And critics can take the lead in showing where music should go.

CMT: There’s nothing shameful in enthusiasm. If I’m thrilled, I tell you about it, even if somebody reading this might smirk. If I’m disappointed or incensed, I tell you about that, too!

Reading Gnome

28 December 2006

Cultural Ecology: The ‘We’ that We Create

Novelli, Cultural Ecology
“Why has policy had so much trouble generating a body of knowledge capable of playing a significant role in solving the pressing social and economic problems that confront modern urban-industrial societies? An important part of the answer can be traced to discredited, but still operative, empiricist epistemological assumptions.”
   — Frank Fischer

DSM: I very much admire and value non-government organizations (NGOs) like Chamber Music America ( CMA ), chartered to foster and promote greater understanding and public awareness. I belong to CMA not just for the material benefits that CMA offers its members:

[To see how to incorporate external html content into Blogger posts, view the source for this page and look at the iframe tags. Despite the deprecated status of iframe, the iframe mechanism at least seems to work in the body of Blogger posts in all browsers, while object and other html and javascript alternatives break.

  • Add 20px to width in table tr spec –if, for example, a table is 390 wide, make the iframe width 410. The absolute px spec seems to be necessary; percentage width spec breaks, even in fluid templates, at least in IE.
  • Measure height and explicitly set iframe height parm.
  • Search and delete Excel-SaveAs html span 'mso' tags.
  • Include hard nonbreaking-spacing tags where needed. ]

CMT: You’re right. NEA was once upon a time the “glue” that held together the entire infrastructure for public funding of the arts in the U.S. But under conservative congress and administrations it has been drastically reduced and constrained. So nonprofits like CMA—always important—are progressively more and more important these days.

DSM: What’s remarkable is how under-appreciated culture is as a national resource—the accumulated capital of each community's (and each nation's – ) ingenuity and creativity. It’s the store of human achievement and cultural memory as well as a source of future creativity and innovation. Our cultural capital has increasing value in a global, knowledge-based economy, and as a key social source as people around the world seek to conserve their identities (including passing it on to coming generations) and to understand others’ cultures. Arts nonprofit trade groups like CMA strive to foster a national conversation about cultural assets and identity.

CMT: Remarkable. Remarkable and frustrating. Policymaking at the federal level relevant to the arts, humanities, and cultural preservation often has been fragmented and fraught with changing political winds. The lack of stability jeopardizes the goal of cultural conservation.

DSM: Cultural policy in the U.S. remains basically a patchwork of arrangements that involve allocating resources and arbitrating value. As an advocate for artist-centered and diverse cultural practices, I’m worried about these arrangements, especially the politics of it. Whose voices are privileged or marginalized in policy discourse: the artists, the government arts administrator, the presenters, the business partners, the foundation program officer, the academics, or the civic leader? How do policies inscribe all members of society with the power of existing interest groups and elites?

CMT: NGOs like CMA strengthen the cultural sector—they serve as a vital ‘check-and-balance’ on government agencies and business sponsors and make the policy arrangements more equitable and fair.

DSM: Communitarian ethics and discursive ethics and analysis enable innovation, debate, power sharing, agenda setting and policy-making practices that acknowledge our pluralism. That’s part of what’s needed, and it’s part of what organizations like CMA do. Policy Studies is not the answer! Policy Studies is a field that exalts “policy” as an empirical science and presumes that facts can be separated from value. This purely empirical stance is mistaken—its epistemological assumptions are incorrect, to paraphrase Fischer. Also, Policy Studies fails to acknowledge the motives and needs of community-based organizations and constituencies. Yes, Policy Studies can be valuable when performing program evaluations of quantifiable, measurable components. It’s a good tool for ‘administering’ a program. But it’s inadequate when it comes to artists, creativity and capturing how imagination enlivens our ‘social imaginaries’ as Charles Taylor calls them.

CMT: Taylor and other post-empiricists don’t reject the validity and value of empirical measurements where they’re possible to do. They simply offer additional methods of working with subjective experience, with poiesis—‘bringing into being’—that is central to music and the arts and aesthetic experiences.

“I adopt the term imaginary because my focus is on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surrounding, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms but is carried in images, stories and legends.”
   — Charles Taylor

DSM: So Taylor and Fischer and others avoid privileging the ideal of objectivity. They positively engage with the subjective social meanings and motives framing policy-making and how the ‘social imaginary’ contributes to society. They tackle xenophobia and cultural policy arbitration; the increasing privatization of the non-profit cultural sector; the rise of social networking and its impact on cultural production; the cultural policy narratives of public goods and public interest and how they operate in relation to one another.

Cultural Content