I Repeat Myself When Under Stress

Seriously, most likely none of you will ever read Repeating Ourselves, American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, from Robert Fink. I’m not implying that none of you are interested in the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – I’m sure many of you are, and you should be. I’m also certain that you are interested in critical thinking about cultural ideas, especially in terms of music, or else you would not be a reader of this blog. However, there is a particular separation between cultural ideas presented for curious, knowledgeable and interested laymen and those presented towards more self-consciously specialized audiences.

More on that later, but I think I should digress into a little disclosure, so my personal biases are clear up-front. The book is an academic, though not very technical, musicological work, the product of a general environment that I both would like to be a part of and am ambivalent about. Composers survive as composers by teaching at colleges and universities, and they can teach because they earn PhDs, and I would very much like to survive as a composer, especially after more than two years of unemployment from any kind of paying job. I also value the academic environment for the space it makes for thinking in time, for the mind, and especially for the opportunity for never-ending research, which is my crack. However, as a composer and a critical writer, I do not want to write for academic audiences, I want to make myself understood to anyone who is curious about and interested in my subjects, no matter their specific education in them. My models in this include works like Rites of Spring, by Modris Eksteins, which is a superb non-academic study of aesthetic and cultural ideas. It is written in a way that I value, learned, cogent and clear, eschewing the cultish code-words and phrases of contemporary academia.

And to further lay the cards on the table, I applied for PhD programs in the fall of 2007, with no success. The responsibility is entirely mine – my portfolio needs to be bigger and better. My sister J., who just completed her DMA, has had an intriguing suggestion, which is that I apply for a musicology degree, which would allow the same opportunities for learning and still let me do my own thing, literally, as a composer. I’m not sure what to do with that idea. Other than what is available to everyone who reads this blog, I don’t have any other writing that covers musicology in any way. Also, I am not sure that my modes of thinking and means of writing would be acceptable to any department, and Repeating Ourselves, in that sense, is an argument against the idea. If it is a representative work of contemporary musicology, then I do not belong in that field.

Finally, I’ve started the preliminary process of writing a book, which is planned as a work of Western cultural history as seen through the lens of Western music history, in the line of, and an argument with, Paul Henry Lang, Richard Taruskin and the book and its peers under review here. So this article itself is a part of that book, perhaps not literally but at the very least an argument for it. As I post later entries, I’ll try and make the specific point that they may have something to do with the book, because I would especially elicit and enjoy comments on whether or not what I am trying to say to you makes sense. It’s part of a worthwhile argument I want to have, and if I can’t have it at Princeton or Berkeley, I can do it here, where ink is free, and there’s no tuition . . . or stipend.

The general idea of Fink’s book is exciting and worthwhile – what are the elements of culture which helped produce a particular, and particularly important and successful, school of musical thought? I have an intuitive response when it comes to minimalism and certainly the idea of repetition is a vital part. Fink, however, explores cultural repetition in ways that are only obvious, shallow and weak, although I’m not sure he is completely responsible for those choices – again, more on that later.

Fink breaks out four cultural categories that he feels helped create and explain the existence and appeal of Minimalism (and I want to point out that though he name-checks a list of composers which includes LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich, he confines most of his actual musical analysis to Reich – 11 out of 18 total examples. His technical analysis of the music is, to his credit, quite good. Fink explains how the music works clearly and, I think, accurately, in that the explanations jibe with what the ear hears. He also specifically calls Minimalism “pulse-pattern” music, which I find an excellent description, as the actual quality of Reich and Glass is maximalist. They use repetitive patterns to build active, polyphonic structures, producing large scale works out of evolving variations of small scale ideas. It is the idea of making, shaping, growing a varied large-scale structure out of much smaller repetitive music that is key to the success of their works, and this truth of the music is actually a problem for Repeating Ourselves); disco, television advertising, the relatively popular appeal of baroque music during the boom of the LP era, and the Suzuki method of music instruction. At first thought and hearing, these ideas seem intuitively correct. The test is to put them to greater analysis, and it is there that they are found wanting.

The first section lays it all out there; a musical and sociological comparison of the long remix of Donna Summer singing “Love To Love You Baby” with Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, two long works that are landmarks of their respective genres. There is a musical comparison to be made, in that they are both examples of pulse-pattern music, made with the technique of accumulating brief, repetitive units. It’s interesting, but only goes so far. The idea of disco is to be completely, explicitly repetitive, to lay out a dependable/predictable tempo/rhythm for dancing. The idea of Music For 18 Musicians is to use a process of substituting notes for rests to build a large scale, aesthetically and emotionally transformative experience. Musically there is a great bifurcation between the two means and ends, and extra-musically there is a fundamental bifurcation between the profane and the exalted. Fink’s takes a different path, however, which is a comparison of the two pieces as different aspects of teleology in music . . . and there it is, the fundamental and spectacular flaw in this book. Rather than an examination of American Minimal music as music, it’s a study of the social theory of this music.

Perhaps it’s better to write that as Social Theory, as opposed to music in societies and the mutually complex relationships between cultures and their arts. The use of Social Theory, as an academic field of study, in the discussion of music was pioneered by Susan McClary, and Fink’s book is her intellectual progeny. Now, I am not expert on Social Theory, and I’m in no position to offer a broad critique of it. However, how it is used in this musicological study is fair game, and it’s use is misguided and wrong-headed in different ways. It’s not the music of Donna Summer and Steve Reich that matters so much, it’s the desire for teleology or jouissance and how well they satisfy those desires which matters. Um, excuse me? Perhaps these are imperatives of Social Theory, but they have very little do to with music. Or rather, they have to do with only a small and artificially defined quality of music.

Both “Love To Love You Baby” and Music For 18 Musicians can be considered in two general ways, how they are made, which is musicology, and how they are experienced, which is aesthetics. The former, being technical, is a more specific and also more limited study than the latter, which is incredibly fruitful. To set out a premise that the music can only be experienced in one of two ways is ridiculously tendentious and perhaps simply stupid. What if the teleology of each music is itself jouissance? Musicians can certainly produce music that is simply made to be a pleasure to hear. That is a good thing. Music can also be made that has a particular social or political purpose, but that music can still also be a pleasure to hear. Also, a good work of art generally reveals a purpose to the audience that the creator may neither have intended nor been aware of. I’m not arguing anything here but the obvious, and it takes a strenuous bit of effort to ignore the simple power, depth and efficacy of first choices in listening and to suppose only one of two binary, and false, choices. This effort shows itself in the lack of critical ethics that the book conveys, from this first section on. Fink argues (not very clearly) that both pieces of music have a teleology as well as jouissance, and vice versa, to which the answer is, well yes, and he also hints at both a snobbery and a reverse-snobbery, a weird attitude that teleological music is generally superior than music that only seeks jouissance, yet that he as an academic imbued with Social Theory assumes his own smug superiority over the teleological thrust, as it were, of composers who themselves never had the intellectual tools to see that they were captive of unenlightened and unethical social and economic systems. Social Theory Musicology sees Beethoven as a superior artist to Donna Summer, but mocks Beethoven because he could not recognize that he was forced by the structure of society into the teleological trap of the Fifth Symphony. That the Fifth follows a dramatic journey from darkness and tension to deeply satisfying joy is somehow irrelevant – the music itself, how it sounds, doesn’t seem to matter at all, while some supposed social structure (which we cannot hear), is really the thing that matters.

This is both brittle and shallow, too weak as an argument to handle the “facts” that Fink marshals. This section on repetitive advertising as the force for producing pulse-pattern music is rambling and bizarre. The argument is that the repeated showing of particular ads on television in the 50’s though the early 60’s created an environment in which the only possible outcome is Steve Reich. This has to do, somehow, with the “construction of desire.” That in itself is a concept I would dispute, but even if this were so, even if we are empty husks waiting to be directed by the somehow wholly human and independent thinkers of advertising, how could this lead to pulse-pattern music? The experience of Music For 18 Musicians is one in which the piece begins and is played through to the end. The experience of seeing the same ad repeatedly on television is actually one of seeing the same ad repeated non-sequentially, interrupted by different broadcasts, different days of the week. Pulse-pattern music is a sequential medium, broadcast advertising is an interrupted medium, no matter how frequent. Hearing music that uses repetition, whether Reich or Haydn, is not repeated hearing of a jingle. It’s all in the ears, but again the idea of Social Theory seems to be that the music doesn’t matter.

Except when it does. The third and last sections are about the cultural aspects of being able to put several LPs of second rate baroque string concertos on the repeating arm of the turntable, and about the pedagogy of repetition pioneerd by Shinichi Suzuki. As this section is title “Culture of Thanatos,” we seem to be in the world of teleology here – although it’s unclear. Fink tries to convince us that a culture of repeated listening produced by these two perhaps problematic innovations, like ads on TV, made pulse-pattern music possible. I think these arguments are slightly stronger than the first half of the book (“Culture of Eros”), but still weak. The issue here is demographics. The post-war professionals who bought stereo systems and stocked up on aural wallpaper were not the Boomers who became Reich’s early audience (I think it’s important to point out here that Reich and especially Glass developed a relatively large audience among Boomer listeners who came from a rock background). It’s easier to make the point that students who underwent the Suzuki method were essentially drilled into the idea of repetitive listening, but here I wonder why this matters at all. There was a brief Suzuki craze in America, but it was just that. Where is the Suzuki method now? How many Americans were automatized by Suzuki, and how long did that effect last? And again, this ignores the actual quality of the music. Reich’s music, with its emphasis on process, starts someplace and goes someplace else. It may not be the path that Classical structures take, but it is still a task. Suzuki’s demand that masses of students play the same exercise over and over again is simply rote, static ritual. Pulse-pattern music uses repetitive techniques to produce a larger result. Fink is confusing technical means for the actual product; a car is not an assembly line. We certainly do live in a repetitive culture and have ever since Ford’s manufacturing innovation. There are repetitive experiences we have every day; the same commute, passing telephone poles on the highway, punching in our PIN number, lifting weights. There is an aspect of humanity that finds pleasing focus in repetitive tasks, as well as boredom.

This is perhaps the strangest aspect of the Social Theory view of music; it ignores what is right in front of one’s nose for ideas that depend on fussy, complicated and artificial rules of thought. Just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it doesn’t reward study, and just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s also an ethical and moral problem with this way of thinking. The argument of the book is impossible to make without assuming a particular view of humanity, which is that people lack minds and souls, the ability to sense, think, make decisions and be active agents – they are simply automata, their every move pre-determined by social structures, things like the “construction of desire.” On this, I call deep, tendentious bullshit. Remove active agency from people, and you’ve removed responsibility and thereby ethical and moral considerations. There are no values, no judgments, which is wrong on many levels, from facts to morals. People think, feel and take action. Societies are built around de jure and de facto ideas of what is right and wrong. How is it that these value-free societies filled with automata were constructed anyway? Is our world like that of “They Live,” where everything is run by aliens? If so, the advertisers who control our very actions must be aliens, and I would say that since people like Robert Fink somehow find the free will and thought to create such complicated and certain explanations for how things are, they are clearly free of the shackles of the “construction of desire,” and must be space aliens themselves.

Except, of course, they are not. And they are wrong. Perhaps human existence is ruled by desire, but if so that is an idea of desire far more complex and wonderful than the simple desire to consume products and services. This view is incredibly materialistic, incredibly shallow and complete stuck in a Western and academic centric viewpoint, there is so much of the world, history and human experience that it misses. This is dogma that admits no doubts, no matter the bizarre twists and turns it must make for argument’s sake. In this it is very much like every other belief system and has none of the features of the scientific method that it claims as its own. There is so much more to the world, to life and to art than this. A book about music should give the impression it hears the music, and knows that listening is the single most important part of thinking about music. It would see the Beethoven “Pastoral” symphony as the inevitable result of the carriage industry and its advertisers ability to create a previously unknown and completely materialistic desire for people to picnic in the country, and through the forces of which Beethoven himself becomes simply another cog in the media-industrial machine, and the teleology of the work is directed towards the purchase of horse-drawn carriages. Perhaps, but it’s also an aural expression of personal sensations and joys, a representation of human experiences, a strict narrative conveyed through entirely abstract means (somehow!) and also completely gripping and beautiful. I think I’ll go listen . . .


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.