All posts filed under: Music

The Attack on Timothy Jackson Is an Assault on Liberal Education

Those interested in campus culture may have followed the debate concerning the Journal of Schenkerian Studies at the University of North Texas. Though limited to a very specialized discipline, that debate is no tempest in a teapot. Its implications go well beyond the borders of music theory and should be read as a symptom of the larger problem of higher education in the age of the fetishization of identities. The protagonists of the Schenkerian studies case are Philip Ewell, a professor of music theory at City University New York, and Timothy Jackson at UNT, also a professor of music theory. The debate is about whether we should teach an Austrian Jewish musical theorist of the early 20th century despite the fact that said theorist was also a German nationalist and, in certain writings, expressed his belief in the superiority of German culture. British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley once wrote: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” I do not intend to whitewash Schenker’s bigotry. A bigot he was—no less and no more than …

Songs from Orwell’s Glass Asylum

In 1947, the year David Bowie was born, a tubercular George Orwell shuffled over to the bedroom window of his cottage on the storm-lashed Scottish island of Jura and thought about London. He was always thinking about London. The ailing Orwell—moustache and cigarette drooped downward, clad most of his days in just the same old raggedy dressing gown as he propped himself up in bed with a typewriter—was in a race against time to polish off the manuscript of what would be his ninth and final book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian satire about totalitarianism and the cynical manipulation of language set in the British capital in the not-too-distant future. Orwell later said that the book was about his fear that “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” This he fleshes out by way of a doomed romance between Winston Smith, a wavering individualist who has begun to doubt the wisdom of the media that ceaselessly broadcasts the Party’s bizarre slogans, and a freckle-faced young sensualist named Julia. Both characters meet …

Wide As the Sky and Deep As the Ocean

When Don Van Vliet—the painter and musician better known as Captain Beefheart—died 10 years ago today, the obituary in the New York Times described him as “an artist of protean creativity” whose 1969 avant garde rock masterwork Trout Mask Replica paved the way for the post-punk experimentation of Devo, The Fall, Pere Ubu, and The Residents. “If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of pop music,” the British DJ John Peel had once famously remarked, “it’s Beefheart.” My own introduction to the world of Captain Beefheart came, like many lasting and influential encounters, by chance. I was 13 and out shopping for records, and having bought a couple, I found myself with a pound to spare. Rifling through the bargain rack past the Top of the Pops compilations, I came across an intriguing-looking album called Dropout Boogie. There was no information on the sleeve besides the name of the band and a fish-eye lens photo on the front and back of four serious men in suits who looked more …

Elder Millennial Metalheads: Our Shrinking World of Dark Thoughts and Bad Jobs

I was born in 1986, the year of release for the first movie I ever saw, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I was raised in a middle-class, mixed-race family, in the suburbs of Riverside County, California, surrounded by heavy metal, violent cartoons, and children’s programming like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?—all of which warned me that the world I was entering was a wild, nasty place. I also grew up watching Married with Children, sitting on the couch with my father, emulating Al Bundy’s signature pose. Another message I got: Middle-class American life is a nightmare. It’s a vicious trap for suckers too stupid to be successful or too scared to be vagabonds. George Carlin, N.W.A., Black Flag. Everywhere I looked, it seemed all of the cool people had the same message. The American Dream is a sham. You’re better than that. Kurt Cobain, Tupac, Biggie, and River Phoenix showed a generation of suburban boys our nihilistic path. We were too clever for the assembly lines, too principled for Wall Street, too vulgar …

Then They Came for Beethoven

This week, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” In the article, and an accompanying podcast, the two men ask “how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.” The article has been widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors (both white men, from what I can tell) offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many …

In Canada’s Version of Portland, Cancel Culture Comes for ‘Steve-O-Reno’s’

Last year, writer Nancy Rommelmann wrote a widely shared Quillette article entitled “The Internet Locusts Descend on Ristretto Roasters,” in which she described the mob-fueled social panic that had enveloped her husband’s Portland, Oregon café. The mobbing had been set off by a single former employee who’d resigned after seeking to implement a “Reparations Happy Hour,” an event that “would involve stationing white people at the front door to buy patrons of color a coffee.” The resulting ordeal lasted for months, damaged the company’s brand, and ultimately contributed to Rommelmann’s decision to move to a less politically radicalized locale: New York City. It may seem odd to think that New York would offer the author a respite from progressive sentiment, as opposed to an overdose. But as Rommelmann told Quillette podcast listeners during our conversation, it actually makes sense: In many New York neighbourhoods, there is an organic, longstanding atmosphere of multiculturalism that allows for candor and viewpoint pluralism. In Portland, on the other hand, progressive political culture is dominated by small cliques of largely …

Coming Together to Honor a Dead Rock Star—And Ward Off Our Own Demons

In May, 2018, Scott Hutchison, singer/songwriter/guitarist for the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit was found dead on the banks of Scotland’s Firth of Forth after having gone missing a day earlier. The final dispatches from his Twitter account indicated that this was not an accident or a case of misadventure. His suicide cut to the heart of the band’s fan community, a refuge for people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse and heartbreak. Scott’s songwriting delved deep into the dirty facts of living, but was also marked by a tender optimism housed within an envelope of pain. Scott’s disappearance and then death caused fans to ask: What does this mean? If he couldn’t save himself through his music, how can it help the rest of us? In the months leading up to the news, I was in a bad place. Nothing in life felt right, and every day was a fight against hopelessness—to the point that even when good things happened, I would remain afraid or numb. During a visit to Montreal, I walked from …

Publicly Shaming a Musician for Calling a Composition by Its Name

Over the long weekend of May 30 to June 2, my wife and I attended the eclectic OBEY music convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which I was covering for the British magazine The Wire. After the first two days passed without incident, the final day featured a set of distressing events that led to the cancelation of a concert by American composer Mary Jane Leach, in which she had been scheduled to present her compositions Pipe Dreams and Dowland’s Tears. While these events have been discussed on social media, they have never, to my knowledge, been systematically described in the press. I am hoping that this report will help provide some clarity, even for those who may not agree with my opinions. On the afternoon of June 2, Leach gave a talk on the work of composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Leach was friends with Eastman, who died three decades ago, at the age of 49. She also is co-editor of the book Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, published by the University of Rochester …

The Purity Spiral of Canada’s Music Industry

In 2015, the Canadian music world erupted in controversy when a Calgary post-punk band named Viet Cong came to slight prominence with the release of their debut album. The name was deemed culturally appropriative, insensitive and racist. And the band endured concert cancellations and protests throughout a North American tour for its self-titled debut album, with some activists claiming that the band’s name was enough to cause them full-blown emotional trauma. Finally, in late 2015, members of the band announced they would change the name, unveiling “Preoccupations” in 2016 (under whose banner the band has released two further albums). One might think the band would be lauded for this move: The members took the protests seriously, spoke to those involved—even if they may have bristled at the accusations of outright racism, and pushed back against the level of scorn they were receiving. Having chosen “Viet Cong” in an unserious moment during an early rehearsal session, the band eventually concluded that four guys from Alberta, none with any personal connection to Vietnam, might want to pick …

Diversity and the Concert Hall

Orchestras have had a rough time lately. Rising deficits, inadequate facilities, internal financial squabbles, and an overall lack of interest from the general public have provided more than their share of hurdles for these venerable institutions. Now, in addition to these looming obstacles, orchestras are being faced with a whole new challenge: the call to diversify their programs with more music written by women and minority composers. To get ahead of this cultural trend, several institutions have started initiatives to synthetically bolster the number of performed works by composers in these aforementioned groups. In February, the BBC Proms announced plans for fully half of all new commissions to be granted to women composers by 2022. Earlier in March, the website ICareIfYouListen responded to a tweet accusing them of unconscious bias by reaffirming their commitment to “equitable programming” with a primary interest in “promoting the work of historically underrepresented and marginalized artists.” The website also detailed its apparently already existing policy of “turning down 100% of concert reviews and album reviews that feature works by all white men, with the only exceptions being portrait …