Totally Useless Predictions

Tomorrow night is the beginning of yet another Major League Baseball campaign, and I couldn’t be happier. First pitch between the Cubs and Cardinals is scheduled for 8:05—which means that by 8:10 or so, the Cubs will be in “wait ’til next year” mode—and then the full slate of games on Monday. As is customary at this time of year, it’s time to make predictions for the coming season. I do so knowing full well that most of what I have to say here is grade-A bull plop, based on little more than a gut feeling and a personal desire to see certain outcomes. I encourage you to stop reading right now.

The National League

On paper, there isn’t a single division in the NL that should be even remotely competitive. The Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers are so much better than their divisional competitors, that by all rights they should win their divisions running away. Cliché No. 1: That’s why you play the games. The Nationals should win about 143 games this year. Clayton Kershaw should cruise to his fourth Cy Young Award, and then proclaim himself Emperor of Pitching. But just because those things should happen doesn’t mean that they will happen.

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers run away with their divisions. I’m also going to predict that the Mets, Marlins, Pirates, and Padres end up contending for the two wild card spots. I’m looking forward to the Giants and their self-righteous assholery sinking into their odd-year mediocrity. It’ll be fun to see what Kris Bryant does when the Cubs finally promote him to the majors. (And if you’re really a dedicated baseball fan—or just a compulsive gambler—you can create an office pool to predict which day that actually is.)

But how about some individuals of interest? For Rookie of the Year, I’m going with the obvious frontrunner, Kris Bryant—although Noah Syndergaard of the Mets might give him a run for his money. And we shouldn’t forget about the high-profile Joc Pedersen in LA. But service time-shortened season or no, Bryant’s going to hit a ton when he gets promoted. Cy Young? Well, Jose Fernandez isn’t due back until June, which should keep him out of the running. Kershaw’s the obvious choice, although Matt Harvey’s been throwing awesome this spring (and he’s also great at talking himself up). Andrew McCutchen’s always a good bet for MVP, but he’ll have stiff competition from Giancarlo Stanton and maybe Bryce Harper. (I almost typed Troy Tulowitzki’s name here, but my computer started laughing so hard…)

Some other intriguing players to watch: I think Ryan Braun is due for a bounce-back year. (Why? See my remark above about this all being “bull plop.”) I’m guessing Madison Bumgarner, despite all the hype and all the concern about his 2014 workload, ends up being just middle-of-the-pack this year. Phillies games should be great fun, what with Ryan Howard utter uselessness, Cole Hamels’s trade value dissipating with every pitch he throws, and the $37.5 million they owe to a pitcher who’s unlikely ever to throw another major league pitch. Here’s a marketing idea for the Philly club: Jonathan Papelbon wieners, delivered to your seat by the overpriced closer himself. Boo and shout abuse for some free “special sauce.”

American League

As lopsided as the NL divisions are, so are the AL divisions wide open. In the East, it’s not totally ridiculous to think we’ll see all five teams hanging around (and that the eventual division winner will have won a sparkling 86 or so games). In the Central, the Tigers are still relatively strong, but Cleveland is on the upswing, as are the White Sox. (Personally, I don’t see the Royals as much more than a .500 team this year.) The Angels are probably the favorites to win the West, but the Mariners made a strong showing last year and, on the back of their terrific pitching staff, should do so again. And we can’t ever count out a Billy Beane team.

So here are my predictions: Red Sox, Indians, and Seattle win their divisions; Angels and Orioles take the wild cards, although with the White Sox and Rays barely missing out. I think the Tigers’ weaknesses are going to catch up to them: a rapidly declining Verlander (and no Sherzer), a bullpen that half the time would issue a free pass to my 90-year-old grandmother, an incompetent first baseman who’s going to make the team regret his massive contract extension before it even begins…

I’ve got Felix Hernandez down for the Cy Young, with David Price a close second in his walk year. For MVP, I’m picking Mike Trout again (in what will be his second—and should’ve been his fourth—award). I’ll be surprised if it’s even close. For ROY? I dunno. Pick one of the many youngsters who are going to debut for the Astros and maybe the Red Sox. Carlos Correia? Rusney Castillo (once he finally takes the right field job away from the Flyin’ Hawaiian)?

I’m also interested to follow (gratefully, from afar) the A-Rod saga, as well as the still-developing situation in California with Josh Hamilton. After an independent arbitrator ruled that Hamilton couldn’t be punished for his drug relapse this offseason—which means that he can go to rehab and that the Angels have to pay him his full salary—the Angels mucky-mucks dropped the charade of neutrality and flat out indicated that they were disappointed and that they had been hoping that Hamilton would have been suspended by the league. Which was taken rather amiss by at least one of Hamilton’s teammates. GM Jerry DiPoto had better hope that the team gets off to a fast start and this all disappears from view, because otherwise, the growing hostility between the team and the team’s management has the potential to turn real ugly real fast.

So that’s what I have to say. If you made it this far, I commend you. Take it for what it’s worth (nothing), and enjoy the season!

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Musicology Is a Political Act: A Response to Myself

Bear with me for a moment as I briefly recount two recent and ongoing attacks on public education.


In November 2012, Governor Scott Walker opened his attack on his state’s historically excellent public university system. In a much commented upon interview, Walker borrowed language from the misguided Common Core project in grade school education:

We’re going to tie our funding in our technical colleges and our University of Wisconsin System into performance and say, if you want money, we need you to perform. In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today — not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us.

Last month, Walker appeared to double down on his attack on public education, arguing in his budget proposal that the mission of the state universities should be “to meet the state’s work-force needs,” aiming to substantially cut the public university budget and eliminate many of its traditional claims about the inherent value in a challenging and diverse college education.

North Carolina

The attacks on the UNC system have been even more insidious than those being perpetrated by Walker in Wisconsin. Governor Pat McCrory echoed Walker’s rhetoric—and added a new layer—when he explicitly described his state’s public universities as a home for an “educational elite” that offers “no chances of getting people jobs.” McCrory singled out a couple of areas of study for particular attack—gender studies and Swahili—and asserted (without evidence, relying on the apparently intuitive nature of the claims) that such areas are not productive for graduates and have no place in public education: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” Dropping some of the veiled and circuitous tactics of Gov. Walker, McCrory made plain that he wants to ensure that the state’s public universities are not “indoctrinating” students. Education should be a process of acquiring particular useful skills, not a process of learning and thinking.

Gaye, Thicke, and Williams

I recently criticized Harvard professor Ingrid Monson for her participation in the copyright lawsuit brought by Marvin Gaye’s family against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. In my critique, I suggested that the legal terms of a musical copyright case are incompatible with the actual work done by musicologists, the latter of which relies on historical evidence, cultural contexts, and arguments about how music is a social object. The unfortunate aspect of the Gaye/Thicke/Williams trial, I believe, is that the law is singularly incapable of (and uninterested in) the richer cultural context of music production. The only relevant evidence is a pseudo-scientific question of whether the notes in one piece are similar enough to the notes in another—the kind of evidence that is offered by the rather nebulous field of “forensic musicology” but which generally reflects little of the work done by musicologists working today. Thus, by participating in a trial where the only relevant question was going to be about whether or not “Blurred Lines” copied “Got to Give It Up”—and only a yes-or-no answer would be accepted—Monson misrepresented (and thus devalued and cheapened) the work of musicologists in general.

What I realized only in talking to some friends about my argument is that I neglected to elaborate on a fundamental element of the argument: the interconnected questions of “who cares” and “so what.” I would like to address these questions now.

The Value of Education

In his recent analysis of the conservative attack on North Carolina’s public universities, Jedediah Purdy  perceptively suggests that such efforts are a blatant attempt to “reform” education in a way that discourages the teaching of subjects that are unfavorable to a right-wing agenda. Purdy notes that conservatives have realized that funding political candidates delivers mixed electoral results, at best. But investing in a remaking of higher education has the potential to dramatically transform the American electorate.

This is a point on which I whole-heartedly agree with McCrory, Art Pope, and their ilk: college education is a potentially transformative experience that will in many ways shape how young adults perceive and engage with the world around them. Thus, the people who are in charge of higher education policies—which is increasingly the same as those who fund higher education—are uniquely situated to control the kinds of values that are conveyed through the college experience.

And thus, why the current “reform” of public universities is so potentially disastrous: in packaging their educational policies in the cloak of false populism—the notion that colleges will better position graduates to get jobs based on the skills the college teaches—conservative education policy threatens to dismantle the notion of intellectual freedom that must lie at education’s core for it to have any merit at all.

McCrory suggested that someone who wants to take courses in gender studies (this was actually his specific example) could go to a private college, but that they should not be “subsidized” by taxpayers. In so saying, he revealed the true motive behind his move to transform North Carolina’s public universities: exacerbating class inequalities under the cover of making college education more “valuable” (in a literal economic sense of the term). Even if we accept that a college can anticipate and train students for real jobs that they can take upon graduation—and as Benjamin Rifkin points out, this is almost certainly not true—the distinction he sees between private and public colleges and universities indicates that the wants a society that is stratified between “elites” who can afford to attend intellectually rigorous private colleges and an underclass who gets a technical education. In other words, in McCrory’s world, the people whose education is “subsidized” by “taxpayers” are only permitted to get enough education to be functional cogs, while the rich and privileged can continue to play in their private sandboxes.

Particularly at risk are those “irrelevant” areas of the Humanities: gender studies, say, or Swahili, or (ahem) musicology. Those of us who teach in the Humanities are increasingly being asked to justify our existence within the academy, and often through quantitative means that are fundamentally at odds with the values of independent critical thought and analysis that lie at the heart of Humanities fields. (To me, this sounds like nothing so much as the solipsistic new ways of evaluating teachers in public grade schools: narrow, quantitative, and ultimately circular analyses of teacher success that in fact reflect nothing of what or how students actually are learning.)

The Value of Musicology

Musicology, like many academic disciplines, engages with mainstream public debates only sporadically, and consequently, the idea of “musicological expertise” is not a concept that has much (if any) broad public meaning. This situation was adequate (if not wholly acceptable) in a time when the academy was generally permitted to function on its own terms. But with the sorts of attacks mounted by Walker and McCrory (and their financial puppet masters )on public universities, we simply cannot afford to ignore the looming threat to our fields of inquiry and education. The future of public education is still being contested, but if the conservative “reformers” have their way, we are facing a bleak future: less tenure, less academic freedom, less job security; and more adjunct positions that are always contingent and can be eliminated on the whim of low-level administrators. In short, curtailing the broad availability of musical knowledge.

To a broad public, the loss of a field like musicology will probably seem insignificant. People are generally quite happy to concede that as a society, we do need music; but it’s not immediately obvious why we would also need the sort of metaknowledge of a field like musicology. If this is the case, it’s because we perhaps have not been clear enough with ourselves about what we do, and we certainly have not been consistently good at articulating what we do publicly. It’s time for that to change—if not because we really believe in the value of engaging with the public, at least because it’s increasingly apparent that musicology (along with other disciplines) is facing a sustained and serious attack on the issue of its relevance.

The good news is that we, as a discipline, are more than capable of fighting back against the attacks on our intellectual worth. Ethnomusicologists are often quite good at this. We have an “Applied Ethnomusicology” section in the Society for Ethnomusicology; the title of this post is a repurposing of an important article by one of my academic mentors, in which he reflected (far more convincingly and eloquently than me, of course!) on some of these same questions1)Philip V. Bohlman, “Musicology as a Political Act,” The Journal of Musicology 11(4), pp. 411–436 ; and ethnomusicologists are often engaged (directly and indirectly) in musical responses to events and issues of social justice.

Still, we collectively have blind spots about the value of our field. Our work as intellectuals and researchers is only as valuable as we make it. Some ways of demonstrating value are noted in the previous paragraph, but the one major place where our academic work has value is in our teaching. The questions we ask of our students encourage them to see themselves not as mere consumers of music, but rather as agents, active participants in a political and social sphere where critical engagement often seems the only antidote to the dehumanizing onslaught of late capitalism. What students do with their critical thought skills is up to them; we’re just asking questions. But those questions are valuable and important, and quite obviously, they have no place in the conservative reimagining and evaluation of public education.

Here, then, is why I take such issue with Ingrid Monson’s participation in the Gaye-Thicke-Williams trial. As I’ve noted before, I know nothing of Monson’s motivations for taking part. But it should have been immediately obvious that the sorts of expertise that is valued within the field of ethnomusicology would play no part in the pseudo-scientific playing field laid out by the current practice of copyright law, and, wittingly or not, Monson played right into the hands of the attacks on education. This trial represented the most public attention that musicology has received in recent memory, and the take-away was that we are concerned with similarities between small groups of pitches. In contrast, many commentators complained that you can’t copyright a “groove”—an issue on which ethnomusicology surely has much to say, given the opportunity.2)See, for example, Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994

In my previous commentary on this issue, I suggested that Monson has an obligation to the field of musicology, and that she betrayed her obligation through her participation in the trial. I stand by that assertion, particularly because it’s quite obvious that Monson and other senior scholars are not going to be the ones who pay for this public devaluing of musicology. Those of us without tenure or without a job; we who are still trying to establish ourselves in the field of musicology, and want there to be a field left for us to work within—we are the ones who will pay the price if we as a group don’t change the terms of the conversation that we’re having about our relevance and value.


Correction: In the first version of this post, I stupidly called the Marvin Gaye song in question “Got to Get It On.” The text has been changed to include the real name of the song, “Got to Give It Up.”

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References   [ + ]

1. Philip V. Bohlman, “Musicology as a Political Act,” The Journal of Musicology 11(4), pp. 411–436 
2. See, for example, Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994

Two Labor Issues

I’ve been constantly listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly for the last couple days. I have a lot to say about it, and I will. But this isn’t the kind of album that seems to encourage quick responses. So I’m going to let that develop for a while longer, and instead I’ll write about something I haven’t in a while: baseball.

While most of the American sports world is tuning into the NCAA this weekend, I’m thinking about the new baseball season that is almost upon us. My perspective is now a bit different from in years past: I live in an area without a major league team, and consequently, without much baseball talk to be found on talk radio or around town. (Yeah, I know, sports radio is one of the great bastions of hot-headed idiots who have supreme confidence in their ill-formed opinions. But hey, I’m writing a blog, so stones and glass houses and all that. And anyway, if I had a bit more motivation, I could easily be one of those hot-heads.)

And the area where I now live not only doesn’t have a baseball team, it also doesn’t have much in the way of winter. This is a considerable change for me, having lived my whole life until now in cold-weather regions. After suffering through along winter, the coming of the baseball season was not only a relief, it was an annual catharsis. I remember one frigid February afternoon several years ago, walking into the local dive bar in Chicago at lunch time just so that I could watch the first televised spring game of the year. It was snowing outside, and the bartender thought I was out of my mind. But it was a sign of spring coming. Like Punxsutawney Phil, but a baseball game.

There are a lot of things I’m going to be following this year: Will my beloved and accursed Mets manage to break their streak of losing seasons? Just how bad are the Phillies going to be? How about the Yankees? But some of the biggest issues to follow in the coming season are labor issues. Here are two that I find interesting:

  1. The return of Alex Rodriguez.

OK, so this may be a stretch as a “labor” issue. A-Rod has served his year-long suspension, and he’s back with the Yankees, set to serve as their 39-year-old DH and sometime third baseman. His contract guarantees him $60 million more over the next three seasons, and it delights me to no end just how vexing this is to Hal Steinbrenner and the rest of the miserable louts that run the team.

But Rodriguez’s presence on the Yankees demonstrates the power of a particular labor issue: the collectively bargained contract between the players’ union and the league. The CBA delineates clear penalties for particular drug offenses (although the clarity of these penalties is itself in doubt, as I’ll get to in a moment). A-Rod, having served his suspension, now must be paid by the Yankees. Try as they might, they were not able to void the remainder of his contract.

And rightly so. A friend once challenged me on this point: I noted that teams are not allowed to punish players for drug offenses; the power to punish PED use and other such infractions is given to the commissioner’s office alone. The reason is an explanation fundamental to the power of labor unions of all stripes: to keep an employer from arbitrarily imposing unreasonable punishments on their employees. As my friend argued, it certainly seems distasteful that a player of Rodriguez’s caliber can make so much money, thumb his nose at the rules, and the return and continue to be handsomely rewarded. But for those of us who don’t work in as lucrative a business, protection from arbitrary punishment and termination is fundamental to our ability to pay our rent, buy food, and so on. A-Rod may be a putz, but his case demonstrates the value of organized labor. I know I’d sure like to have the kinds of protections afforded by his membership in his union.

Interestingly, the PR strategy adopted by the Yankees seems to have backfired a bit. Rather than the villain of the Bronx, A-Rod actually seems to have a bit of populist support. No one thinks he’s going to come anywhere close to earning the money the Yanks are paying him this season, this entire conflict is the result of the team’s poor decision-making in signing Rodriguez to a massive contract, and then desperately trying to find a loophole to get out of the pit that they dug for themselves.

2. The sword of Damocles hanging over Josh Hamilton.

This has been very thoroughly covered, so here’s the short version: Josh Hamilton was a promising young baseball prospect until alcohol and crack addition led to his suspension from baseball from 2003 to 2005. After being readmitted to baseball, he worked his way up to the majors and became one of the best hitters in the game, eventually culminating in a 5-year $125 million contract with the Angels. This past off-season, Hamilton relapsed with both alcohol and cocaine. He did not fail a drug test, but rather, he reported himself to MLB.

And that’s where things stand. Since this story broke a few weeks ago, there’s been a lot of talk but no action. What action should there be? Well, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is considering whether and for how long Hamilton should be suspended. One issue being considered by the commissioner is how long Hamilton should be suspended for. The current CBA dictates escalating suspensions for repeated drug infractions, starting at a 15–25 game penalty and rising to a full season for a fourth violation. Hamilton, while a minor leaguer in the Rays organization, reportedly failed six drug tests, leading to his lengthy ban from baseball. So there’s a chance that Hamilton could be suspended for a year or more—for an offense that he reported himself, which would have otherwise likely slipped through the cracks of the drug testing program.

Okay, so where’s the labor issue? Well, the commissioner also has the power to send Hamilton to rehab, which sounds appropriate for an addict who wants to return to sobriety. The problem? There’s money involved. Lots and lots of money. That $25 million per year that the Angels are paying Hamilton. If Manfred suspends Hamilton, he doesn’t get paid for the duration of his suspension, and the Angels get to keep that money. If Hamilton goes to rehab, he gets most of his salary for the time that he misses. So the Angels can publicly say how much they want to support Josh Hamilton in his recovery, but the plain fact is that they have a significant financial interest in seeing Hamilton punished rather than treated for his addiction. (Of no insignificant interest is the fact that Hamilton hasn’t nearly played up to his substantial contract over the past two years.)

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. The MLBPA will surely challenge the commissioner if Manfred decides to suspend Hamilton—although, as we’ve seen with the recent PED suspensions, there’s been a limit to how far the union is willing to go to defend its own members. Of course there’s an easy solution to this sort of inherently corrupt situation: a team that has a player suspended should still have to pay the player’s salary, but pay it into a charity fund or something. An arrangement like that would eliminate the present conflict, where the Angels will benefit substantially from their own player being suspended. (The same was the case for the Yankees when A-Rod was suspended.) Take the team’s financial incentive out of the equation—they did commit all the money already, anyhow—and perhaps we can have a reasonable conversation about how to handle drug offenses in ways that are ethical and responsible.

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The Blurred Lines of Musicological Expertise

In the past 24 hours, there’s been a flurry of people declaring the recording industry dead, and a whole lot of articles (and, dare I say, blog posts) that purport to explain what really is the upshot of the “Blurred Lines” jury verdict. It’s all rather melodramatic, and I hesitate to add to it. But I think there are a few points worth making here.

Robin Thicke in performance. Used here under a Creative Commons license.
Robin Thicke in performance. Used here under a Creative Commons license.

For one thing, everyone needs to shut up about how this verdict will have a “chilling effect” (that’s always the phrase they use) on musical creativity. It’s not going to happen. The popular music industry will soldier on exactly as before, making sure that money remains in the hands of the gatekeepers who run the business. Why? Because the people who run record labels are quite skilled at finding ways to pass costs onto artists while keeping profits for themselves. This verdict poses no threat to business-as-usual for record labels and the avaricious people who run them.

But in following coverage of the trial, I’ve been taken aback by the role of “expertise” in the testimony. Reporting on this story has often framed the trial issues as “musicological” in nature, as Marvin Gaye’s heirs relied on the testimony of musical experts to elaborate the similarities between “Got to Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines.” The claim I found most troubling was Judith Finell’s description of the role of the musical expert: “The musicologist’s job is to understand the important and unimportant parts of a musical work. It’s my analytical description.”

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the hugely problematic nature of the exact “musicological” evidence given by Finell. Let’s even ignore that her credentials as a “musicologist” are, at best, extremely suspect. (OK, not totally ignore: she does not hold a Ph.D. in musicology, and her record of musicological publication is nonexistent.) That short description of the “musicologist’s job” is as distant from and irrelevant to the work of musicologists as possible. I know not a single musicologist who would describe her work as distinguishing what is and is not “important” in a musical work—primarily because there is absolutely no objective way to make such a determination. Elements of a musical work only have meaning to the extent that they are heard and understood by people with particular cultural positions and values. It is not only misleading to objectively assert that “Blurred Lines” copied the Gaye song because it allegedly shares three of the four notes in its hook. Doing so is downright irresponsible.

But I’m willing to give Finell a pass on this point, since she is not a professional musicologist, but rather, is a consultant working (in this instance) for the Gaye family. Much more troubling is the participation of the prominent Harvard ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson. Monson’s testimony included the claim that the Thick and Gaye songs both included a “ii-V-i” chord progression, which sounds very damning for Thick—until one realizes that this is literally the most common chord progression in Western tonal music. You would be much more hard-pressed to find a song that didn’t include this chord progression. Monson also told the jury, in a remark that was rightly struck from the record, “[The similarities] suggest that while ‘Blurred Lines’ was being written, ‘Got To Give It Up’ was playing in the background.” Such a claim quite obviously has no basis in any available evidence.

Unlike Finell, we cannot simply dismiss Monson’s testimony based on her qualifications as an “expert.” As one of the leading scholars of African American music, her credentials are impeccable. Which only makes her participation in this trial all the more baffling and irresponsible. Why in the world would such an accomplished scholar stake her reputation to a claim that there are some similarities between these two songs?

I don’t have a concrete answer, of course; only Monson could tell us this. But it seems to me that she has impaired, rather than bolstered, any reputation or value that musicology might have had in the popular imagination. (I’m certainly not so naive as to believe that most people have spent any substantial time before this trial thinking about what musicology is, or that they will do so ever again.) Collectively, Monson and Finell’s testimony was presented by the Gayes’ attorney as objective data that, based on their expertise in music, proved a decisive similarity between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” Musicology was positioned as a science—a clear misrepresentation of a discipline that straddles the boundary between the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Of course, this was a savvy move by the Gayes’ attorney, because music is not commonly seen as an area where one can have “expertise” as a scholar. (I’ve lost count of how often, when I tell people that I’m a music professor, I am asked what instrument I play. The expertise that we develop as musicologists simply doesn’t register in the mainstream.) People can identify pieces of music; the subtle and hidden cultural meanings and social values of that music is typically invisible. So instead of engaging in the sort of argument that most musicologists would have about these two songs—concerning, perhaps, the racial history of musical appropriation, the cultural meaning of copyright law, or the long musical practice of pastiche—what we actually get is a quite shallow representation of music as a scientific, rather than a cultural, entity.

Finell has no responsibility to the musicological scholarly community, because (so far as I can tell) she’s not a member of it. But Monson has perpetrated a musicological farce, and her participation in this trial has reinforced the marginalization of musicology (and, I would argue, the Humanities in general).

So if you ask me what this trial was really about, my answer is that it was about education. The upshot of this trial, in my view, is that nothing changes in the recording industry, although a lot of people will wring their hands about it, and that the important role of musicology and the Humanities has been eroded through the egregious misrepresentation of what it is that we do as scholars.

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Real Sound (or, Why Alex Ross Can Sod Off)

How do you know that what you hear is “real”? It’s a question central to Plato’s cave allegory, but it’s also one that Alex Ross seemed to take up in a recent New Yorker article.

"Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604" by Jan Saenredam - British Museum Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Platon Cave Sanraedam 1604” by Jan Saenredam – British Museum Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 

Alex Ross related two connected uses of a sound manipulation technology called Constellation, designed by sound engineer John Meyer. In one, he describes how Meyer’s speakers, microphones, and computer system can be used to create a lively restaurant soundscape; while in the other, Ross tells of how Meyer’s system works within the acoustic environment of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall. The principle involved in both of these examples is the same: the microphones record the sounds produced in a particular space, analyze those sounds, and transmit them back into the space in a way that is so real that it is invisible to the people who hear them. In the restaurant, Ross says, the effect is tremendous: there is a vibrant din of conversation and other noise, but also enough isolation at the table that parties can converse at normal speaking levels. In the concert hall, the effect is equally remarkable.

Unfortunately, Ross entirely misses the import of his observations. This is a frequent quarrel I have with Ross’s writing, which seems to want to sell itself as classical music writing “for the people” while also relying on the old-fashioned elitism of classical music to assure his status as expert. He remarks:

Although no amount of digital magic can match the golden thunder of a great hall vibrating in sympathy with Beethoven’s or Mahler’s orchestra, the Meyers may have come closer than anyone in audio history to an approximation of the real thing.

Of course, the distinction made here is absolute nonsense, evidence only of Ross’s distrust of his own eyes and ears. He supposes that there is some ideal type of acoustic environment out there in the world, if we’re willing to search for it. (It helps to have a New Yorker credential and project budget to support you in your search: Ross nominates Vienna’s Musikverein as the ideal that even Meyer wishes to emulate.)

And this is simply not the case. At the risk of sounding like an old-fashioned postmodernist (yes, I think that combination actually makes sense), it is not only futile, but actually nonsensical, to compare the technological enhancements of Meyer’s Constellation system to “real” sound production and acoustic resonance. Constellation doesn’t try to imitate real sound; it is real.

In case we missed the point, Ross concludes by again suggesting that Constellation is only as good as the unmediated examples of concert sound it wants to emulate: “The simulation may fall short of perfection, but it trains the ears to yearn for the ideal.” In what way does the system fall short? Ross seemed to enjoy speaking with his dinner companions, thanks in large part to Meyer’s sound system; the resonant value within Davies Hall was evident from Ross’s retelling of the event. Where is the perfection for which our ears supposedly yearn?

(Here’s a hint: it’s in all of those experiences Ross describes, and many, many others, too.)

There are several fundamental problems within Ross’s assumptions. First, and most prominent, is the idea that there actually is any sort of “perfection” to be found anywhere in classical music performance. More specifically, this version of perfection is problematic because it is represented (by Ross and many others) as some kind of value-neutral ideal, rather than the product of a very narrow and specific cultural history—the same history, incidentally, that has given us the archetype of the solitary genius artist.

But even if we deal with the idea of perfection in the acoustic case only, there is still a problem—the problem of individual perspective. Walter Legge, the great EMI producer from the mid-20th century, famously described his work as making records “which will sound in the public’s home exactly like what they would hear in the best seat in an acoustically perfect hall.”1)in Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge Legge’s vision of acoustic perfection, written in reference to his work in the 1950s, provides a lynchpin between the Romantic ideals of the 19th century and Ross’s more modern delusions. It is the most precise encapsulation of European-derived ideas of genius to the recording medium, because it supposes that there could ever be that ideal perspective in any real-world concert hall. (A slightly more charitable reading of Legge might suggest that he was actually recognizing a fundamental difference between recording and concert performance, although personally, I don’t think that this perspective is supported by the rest of Legge’s memoir.)

Here, then, is one of the great tricks of today’s classical music culture: the ubiquitous presence of mediation is suppressed, and we (as audiences) are repeatedly told that the only “real” experience of the music is a direct one (in a concert hall, in silent contemplation). But this, of course, is why all manner of “Music Appreciation” efforts have failed to generate new enthusiastic audiences for classical music. Prospective audiences are constantly told that classical music is not elitist, that it is open to everyone. But the subtext is always, “As long as you appreciate it on our terms.” Recordings of a legendary pianist? Wonderful—but no substitute for being in the hall and hearing the pianist play “in person.” Technology in the concert hall? Great—as long as it knows its place and stays out of sight.

It’s truly inconceivable to me how Ross can describe in such perceptive detail the effects of a technology like Meyer’s Constellation, and at the same time claim that this technology is little more than a crutch to prop up “real” music-making. We are not blinkered victims trapped within the deception of Plato’s cave; there is no ideal form of music out there to be sought and simulated; there is no “real” music beyond the music we hear. If Constellation helps us to appreciate music, then that’s great. We certainly don’t need some gatekeeper to inform us that we’re just getting an imitation (albeit a good one) of a “real thing” that we’ll never get to experience.

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References   [ + ]

1. in Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge