A Tom Wolfe quote

From The Bonfire of the Vanities:

In this little room full of people he was suffering the pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity—as happens when they overhear for the first time a beautiful woman’s undiluted, full-strength opinion of their masculine selves.

(Finally finished it, by the way.)

Your quarterly omnibus update

Looks like I’ve broken my promise of updating here more regularly. The last five months have been some rough sledding. This blog, which is a purely for-the-kicks endeavour, is the first thing to go out the window when I have a busy week, which is every week. Since I have no idea when I’ll next be able to write here, consider this your quarterly omnibus Tom Ingram update. There’s a lot to get off my chest.

In addition to the Manitoban, I’ve been working on the revived Gradzette, the graduate students’ magazine at the University of Manitoba. This has been a challenge, since I’m responsible for essentially all aspects of the magazine’s operation—there’s a designer and a copy editor with whom I work closely, but I do everything from assigning and rewrites to statistics and distribution (i.e., I schlep hundreds of copies of the magazine around to newsstands every month).

This has given me an interesting perspective on the world of writing. For instance, standards are not particularly high—it’s just that a lot of people suck. I’m not in a position to demand much more than text that’s truthful, more or less grammatically correct, and makes some kind of sense. You’d be surprised how few writers can leap that bar.

In only my second issue as editor I had to deal with a case of plagiarism—in its lowest form, WikiPlagiarism. The writer is a postdoctoral fellow, i.e. someone who has at least three degrees and is taken somewhat seriously by the academic world. These are the people who mark your papers and the experts who inform public opinion and government policy.

The biggest problem with finding writers is that the U of M has essentially no writing programs—no creative writing, journalism, rhetoric & communications, or anything of that sort. You have to take an English class in the first year of an undergraduate degree because the majority of new students are functionally illiterate. So there’s no natural constituency of writers to draw from. This leaves me scrambling to find contributors more often than not, and I have to rely perhaps too heavily on the few people I know are competent and consistent.

Which is a roundabout way of saying: if you’re able to write and are connected to the U of M in any capacity, and especially if you are a current graduate student, please drop me a line at editor@gradzette.com.

Since the summer, my housing situation has been chugging along in genial mediocrity. Everything more or less works, which is the best we can hope for given the hassle it would be to get things fixed. In particular we haven’t had any trouble with heating, the roof, or windows, for which I’m grateful. I’ve definitely learned a lot from the experience, but I wouldn’t try to live like this again. Six people in a house is just too many. You have to compromise on things you’d rather not compromise on, you never really feel like you’re at home, and you have to be in a social mood all the time. And nothing will ever be truly clean. Not for me.

Christmas happened. Each year it becomes more difficult and less pleasant to manage the social calendar that comes with it. I have divorced parents and two clannish families, and my girlfriend has family in Stonewall (just out of town, but an insurmountable distance without a car). We both went to all our family events, and between dinners and overnight stays we were kept out of the house more often than not. I had to cancel New Year’s Eve plans with friends from out of town because I couldn’t imagine going to a bar without vomiting all over everybody (also I was broke as all hell, but that’s another story). Never again.

The new year also happened. 2015 will go down in my history books as the year in which shit got real. I started the year coming off a hand injury from a dog bite. The injury turned out to be no big deal, and today I can hardly even see the scars, but in those tense moments between the bite and seeing the nurse, all I knew was that I couldn’t move my thumb and some of my fingers. Until I was told everything would heal, and quickly at that, for all I knew my musical career was over. I felt relieved.

By the end of January I was auditioning at a grad school that had an excellent clarinet teacher and a very nice building but was otherwise the pits. A week after I decided to decline my acceptance, I found out that the excellent clarinet teacher was leaving for a better job at a better school.

The next month I auditioned at a more reputable school, but my heart wasn’t in it—predictably, I was not accepted. I cancelled my two other auditions for stupid reasons—one because they only accepted the audition fee in the form of a registered cheque, the other because the prospect of travelling to Ohio fills me with unutterable dread.

I braced myself for a year of fucking around during which I would practise hard, take lots of lessons, learn my orchestral excerpts like a good boy, and go off to respectable places like Ottawa and Montreal to audition. That theory lasted me until halfway through September. I broke ties with my new and more respectable teacher and decided, aside from one long-shot application that didn’t pan out, not to pursue grad school for next year.

I had originally wanted to write a long and self-indulgent explanation of why, but there are certain things I’d rather not reveal. I’m confident everything is going to work out for me, so I’m going to do whatever seems like a good idea now and then pretend ten years hence that it was my plan all along. Suffice it to say that I’m off what Judith Guest called “the main street,” and that the next time someone tells me to play with “more air and a higher tongue” I will jam my mouthpiece in their eye.

Musically I’ve been as busy as I can manage. I played in two chamber groups last term and did a smattering of exciting one-off things. I’ve also started making wind quintet arrangements. I have a few of them in a state of near-completion, and I intend to post them here once I’ve finalized the scores. I’ve also been doing score study, reading about theory, and practising piano in contemptibly dilletantish ways. The arrangements, at least, I think I have a real knack for, and I believe they’ll fill an important hole in the quintet repertoire.

Speaking of music, the WSO’s Mahler festival was hosted by music journalist Norman Lebrecht. I was so taken with him as a speaker that I started following his music news website Slipped Disc and checked out his book Who Killed Classical Music? from the library.

The book is everything I’ve ever wanted. Through exhaustive interviews and research, Lebrecht exposes the way that corporations, avaricious superstars, and Nazis caused the classical music world to become financially nonviable, forcing it to look for heavy government subsidy and corporate sponsorship for survival. Among other things, this means that symphony concerts increasingly consist of bored and overworked stars, supported by underpaid and overworked orchestra players, playing greatest hits for an audience of indifferent aristocrats.

This, and not anything in the music itself, is the source of classical music’s difficult-to-shake reputation as elitist. It’s also the reason that the future of successful music is at the independent, hyper-local level, what Alex Ross describes as “a kind of grassroots activism, with aesthetic rather than political transformation as the goal.”

Lebrecht has been described as “sloppy but entertaining” and has frequently come under criticism for factual inaccuracies. I’m not sure what in this book has come under fire, but much of it is self-evidently true and it’s all sufficiently well-documented that if you want to go back over his tracks you could. Besides, as one of the people who handles correction requests at the Manitoban, I’ve learned to distrust people who claim a journalist has misrepresented them almost as much as I distrust journalists.

Other stuff I’ve been reading: Headstone City by the late great Tom Piccirilli, which is a fun off-the-wall take on gangster novels, and The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. I went through a brief Tom Wolfe kick in November in which I gobbled up his magazine pieces, but it’s taken me a while to finish off this novel.

What I enjoy in Wolfe’s writing is his uncommon honesty about the white man’s perspective on race relations, and the upper-class white psyche more generally—see for example the bit in “Mau-mauing the Flak-Catchers” where he talks about the various kinds of fear white people have of various races, or the part at the beginning of “Radical Chic” on the necessity of a fashionable family having white servants. He portrays these ignoble traits frankly without pretending to be above it all and, in the novel at least, milks them for all the situational comedy they’re worth. I love it, but I also have a weak stomach for this sort of humour (I can only take Seinfeld or Fawlty Towers in small doses) so I’m still only about halfway through.

I’ve also been playing Just Cause 3 on my roommate’s PS4. It’s got some mechanical improvements over Just Cause 2 and is tremendously fun (the wingsuit especially adds a hilarious dimension to cross-country travel). What I miss is the bombastic story missions and cutscenes. Just Cause 2 is an uproarious satire of American foreign policy. Just Cause 3 is a soap opera with guns. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended.

That’s about it. Tomorrow I strap on my waterskis and embark on the river of shit. You may not hear from me again until April. Until then, thanks for reading!


Close readers may be aware that I’m moving to a new place. Today we finally met Idiot Landlord (one day late) for keys and walkthrough. Apparently the dishwasher is purely decorative and the much-ballyhooed gas stove doesn’t have functioning electricity, so the oven doesn’t work and the stove only works if you light it manually. There was a Bic lighter on the counter.

I’m not sure why landlords think that owning a house near a university absolves them of providing functioning appliances or, for example, doors. Nor why some people seem to treat renting their house like a hobby more than a professional engagement, refusing to do things like keep appointments or respond to messages. Idiot Landlord seems to enjoy the Winnipeg landlord’s favourite pastime, playing games of Find the Asshole with tenants. The exact malice to incompetence ratio is not clear as yet, but I wish I could just pay my rent on time and not be bothered.

Moving in was fairly easy. The house has no stairs except down into the basement, so the moving complications were minimal (I’m sharing the master bedroom with my girlfriend on the main floor). It turns out I don’t own very much stuff; the hardest thing was the books (five boxes, with two bags still to go, plus library books and a couple of stragglers on my nightstand). There’s nothing else that really merits boxing up, and all I have left to move is my bookshelf, nightstand, desktop computer, clarinets and music, and “misc.” The bed frame went together with minimal intergenerational cussing and the mattress delivery went off without a hitch.

Mainly it was easy because I’m not taking up residence just yet. My girlfriend is working out of town and it’s still a couple weeks before she’ll be able to live full-time in Winnipeg, and I feel somehow it would be churlish if I christened the bed with all my bodily emanations two weeks before she moved in. The spirit of chivalry is not dead.

The house was not in bad condition, all things considered, especially compared to some of the cesspits we visited back in May. It’s got a good location, a lot of space, and parts of it are pleasant or even charming. But the kitchen is grimy. We scrubbed cupboards and drawers for hours and still our cloths turned brown. The cupboard doors have ancient metal handles with a horrid greasy coating. I scrubbed the edge of our slide-out cutting board for hours, and it’s still sticky.

For some reason Idiot Landlord didn’t think we would want to cook meals, so instead of repairing his broken oven he “installed” a toaster oven that looks like someone has been murdered in it. And sifting through the abandoned possessions of the previous tenants, I found the probable murder weapon: a knife handle with no blade, presumably because it was in somebody. There was rusty cutlery, a yellowed tetanus-inducing cutting board, and a greasy old George Foreman grill.

Through elbow grease, wax paper, and compromised expectations we eventually got the kitchen into something resembling shape. I unloaded some kitchen basics while one of my roommates made Kraft Dinner. Then I unpacked some of my books and began to shelve: one bookcase for music books and scores, one half-bookcase (the upper shelves look a little rickety and dubious) for reference works, compendia, and anthologies, and my current bookshelf (once it’s moved) will house novels, single-author collections, nonfiction, criticism, etc.

In other news, I recently turned 22, the oldest I’ve ever been. 1993 is in the sweet spot where the Taylor Swift song is not yet hopelessly passe. My girlfriend got me a nice dinner, a French press, and (most exciting) two bags of books from the Millennium Library sale. The bags are in transit now, so I can’t give a full list, but it’s a huge variety from Margaret Atwood to the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook. Somewhere in there is a novel by the late lamented Tom Piccirilli.

Fringe Fest 2015

So, Fringe Fest was a good time. I spent a lot of time sitting outside the Manitoba Museum telling people how to get to the Planetarium. Aside from keeping myself busy during the historically depressing summer, my motivation for volunteering was to get some first-hand experience of how a large arts event works from the organizational side of things. It’s interesting to see how well-oiled the machine is, so that overall the entire festival functions smoothly even if the individual volunteers have no particular skills or training.

The third ulterior motive was the volunteer comps. I saw four shows: Life’s Lyrics was at the Purple Room on Princess St. and featured two of my soon-to-be roommates. The writers were all U of M jazzers. Some of the songs were good, but there were more than a few that fell flat and at least one eyebrow-raiser (“Everlasting lust/never-ending trust”?). The vocal harmonies were more flavourful than I’m used to hearing in musical theatre, but acoustic guitar and drums is not a combination that lends itself to interesting textures. The book was a morass of second-hand melodrama and subplots that went nowhere (what exactly was the point of the dead ex-roommate?) and ultimately didn’t hang together. I’d say the cast was superior to the material. But I’d like to see what these guys come up with next, if 686 Productions is going to stick together.

The Exclusion Zone was a one-man show by storyteller Martin Dockery. In his unique discursive but subtly structured style, Dockery weaves together his visit to the site of the Chernobyl disaster, his experiences on drugs at Burning Man, and his obsession with the author Geoff Dyer and his book Zona. Though Dockery’s performance style is heavily embodied and vocal, the show is literary in concept. He attempts to mimic the structure of Dyer’s book, which in turn mimics the structure of its subject, the Soviet film Stalker. He even gives us an epigraph and chapter divisions. The performance was fantastic, and throughout the festival Dockery was omnipresent, talking to younger performers, rubbing elbows with audience members, promoting his shows, and running from one venue to another when he had two performances scheduled back-to-back. A great show, and he seems like a stand-up guy.

At my first volunteer shift, the second night of the festival, I was selling tickets for a little show called Three Men in a Boat put on by Pea Green Theatre Group. Hardly anyone came except for actors on their comp cards. When I came back two days later, the show had become the runaway hit of the festival and was selling out every night. It was a very slick production with period costumes, intricate choreography, English accents, and even songs. With his Victorian take on the familiar modern comic themes of milquetoastery, camping trips, and male braggartism, Jerome K. Jerome is something like a 19th-century Dave Barry. The play occasionally has to stretch to get the novel onto the stage, but overall it was my favourite show of the Fringe.

Immediately after Three Men I saw Woody Allen’s Central Park West. This is a deliciously funny play that explores some of the same territory as Coward’s Private Lives but with even bleaker results. The characters are familiar Allen stock, the exception being Juliet, the naif who appears near the end of the play to kick it off in a totally new direction. She really makes the show; her presence is the only thing that keeps it from being a retread and turns it into a bizarre entertainment in its own right. The actress who played Phyllis was a little stilted by herself, but once all the characters were onstage the cast bounced off each other very well.

The real excitement of the festival, though, was the book stall that seems to pop up at every street festival in Manitoba. I had a spare ten bucks to pick up a James Joyce collection (Portrait, Dubliners, and Chamber Music) and round it off with a copy of The Naked Sun—I’ve read it, but it appeared to be the only book they had for $3.

I’m finding myself more and more annoyed with Facebook. These days I’m only checking it when I’m desperate for novelty. I think the Internet thinkpiece machine has become too efficient and now the same links keep floating to the top and people keep weighing in with their inane opinions, seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone else has the same opinions expressed in the same words. Twitter is where the action’s at these days: my Twitter feed is all people I’ve followed voluntarily out of interest, whereas Facebook is a lot of distant acquaintances and people I haven’t seen since high school. At this point it’s only good for remembering birthdays and keeping tabs on people the way I keep tabs on the spiders in my shed, so I can dump a bucket of water on them if they start getting ideas.

When bankers talk music

The Future Symphony Institute recently republished an astoundingly stupid article by David P. Goldman called “Admit it, you really hate modern art.” Goldman is a vulgar businessman who fancies himself a man of taste, and deliciously unaware of the irony of criticizing the vulgar businessmen who support Damien Hirst. He disparages Wikipedia and then cites Wikipedia for an anecdote that may or may not have happened. He talks a lot about music, though he doesn’t appear to listen to very much of it or understand it. He is, in short, an idiot.

One of Goldman’s bugbears is Kandinsky, who “helped invent” abstract art and “understood that non-figurative art was one facet of an aesthetic movement that also included atonal music.” He likens Kandinsky to Schoenberg, who he calls “the grandfather of abstract music.” Therein lies his basic problem, as Schoenberg is not the grandfather of abstract music. Music has been abstract ever since instrumental music became a serious art form. If Goldman knew his elementary aesthetics, he’d know that it was the example of music, which strictly speaking cannot be realistic or representational, that paved the way for more abstract forms in other arts. There have been debates on the validity of instrumental music as an art form throughout history, but these were all well settled by Beethoven’s time, if not earlier. Goldman is a few centuries slow on the uptake.

The most common misconception about classical music is that it is all about tunes. In fact, quite a lot of classical music is all but tuneless, including most Baroque music and the majority of the symphonic tradition. When a tune does surface, it usually fades into more abstract material in short order and becomes fodder for musical process. Classically speaking, tunes are either presented and then critiqued, or else put together as the result of an extended critique. They come at beginnings and points of culmination and are only rarely the main purpose of an entire composition. The important thing is the process, the fluctuating between abstract and concrete material, and the logic that leads one to the other. We use the term “process music” as a label for the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, but it could appropriately be applied to the entire Western classical canon.

Following this line of thinking, it’s not hard to see that playing with the balance of concreteness (tunefulness and singability) versus abstraction (process and logic) is an obvious direction for aesthetic exploration. There is no fundamental conceptual break between the musical thinking of the late nineteenth century and that of Schoenberg; in fact Schoenberg did write in the extended tonality of that period during that period. Eventually his style evolved in the direction music generally was evolving. Some balance between concreteness and abstraction remained, as Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern represent points on a continuum: Berg more concrete, Webern extremely abstract with only flashes of concreteness here and there, and Schoenberg somewhere in the middle depending on the period (the same man wrote all of these: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Goldman goes on to object to the lack of hierarchy in Schoenberg’s music and its visual equivalents:

The hierarchy of importance is the source of meaning. The tonic, or the starting point of the scale and chord of the home key, is the most important note in a musical composition, for all tonal music undertakes a journey towards the tonic.

This manages to be both inaccurate and simplistic. It is not true that all tonal music undertakes a journey toward the tonic. There is plenty of tonal music that does not begin and end in the same key: it journeys from one place to another place. There is also music that begins and ends in the same (enharmonic) key but moves diagonally by thirds and cannot be said to undertake a journey toward anything. Even if they’re the same keys on the keyboard, there is a world of difference between E Major and F-flat Major, tonally speaking.

And anyway, tonal hierarchy is just one of many overlapping structures in music including rhythm, form, text, programmatic associations, motivic structure, and the fluctuation between abstraction and concreteness. Some types of music emphasize some of these structures over others, even occasionally swinging to extremes. Playing around with the location and degree of emphasis is another obvious field of aesthetic exploration.

The supposed “fact”—and music cognition is not yet mature enough as a field that it can do without the scare quotes—that the brain naturally processes music in a certain way does not mean that music that is not easily processed in that way is somehow inferior. Aesthetic arguments are not susceptible to neurological solutions. Nor does the Hindemith-ish argument that tonality is rooted in the structure of acoustical science invalidate atonal music. Working against the grain of the materials can be a deliberate aesthetic choice—see, for example, Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

Next Goldman discusses the economic differences between new music and modern art. While the two arts do indeed differ in monetary terms, these differences occur because music cannot be sold the way a painting can be. A single work of Kandinsky’s might sell at a high price to an interested collector, but for a single work of Schoenberg’s to make an equivalent amount of money there would have to be hundreds of thousands of sales to hundreds of thousands of interested individuals. In any case, I’m not sure where Goldman got the idea that Schoenberg died in poverty and left his family penniless. He was a university professor with a comfortable living at the time of his death, and he left an estate worth millions. His family is not exactly living in Hollywood glamour, but they’re not boiling their shoes, either.

Goldman goes on to argue that “not a single one of the abstract composers can earn a living from his music.” That would be news to Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote hundreds of works on commission and taught at universities throughout the world, or Pierre Boulez, who can command a massive fee for a single performance. Goldman cites film composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Aaron Copland as examples of “non-abstract” composers who could “become quite wealthy.” This ignores several inconvenient facts. Film composers often use serialism and other modernist techniques in their music—in the context of a film, audiences are more open-minded about music for a number of complex reasons. Also, few film composers are only film composers; film is just one of the many ways for someone trained in modern methods of composition to make a living. So some film composers are the very “abstract” boogeymen that Goldman rails against.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a freakish embarrassment and anyone who thinks music in general should be more like his forever forfeits their right to call anyone else a philistine. And Copland actually wrote serial and atonal music in addition to his sunny Americana (though those works are still non-tonal). The fact of his financial success could just as easily be used to show that composers need to put out potboilers if they want to work on their serious music, though in reality there’s a lot of continuity between Copland’s many different styles and it would be more accurate to say that Copland cultivated many different audiences at different times.

From there Goldman makes some dubious economic arguments (does anyone seriously think that the decline of symphony orchestras is in any way tied to the new music that they never widely performed in the first place?) and another dig at “pretentious” collectors of abstract art, Goldman sets out on a pathetic and long-winded theologico-aesthetic argument that is basically a debased version of the same arguments Roger Scruton has been making for years.

But enough of this bullshit. Where I come from, you cannot make up facts and define words to suit your purposes. When you make a claim, you have to give examples, and those examples have to actually be examples of the thing you’re talking about. Goldman simply has not done his homework. At no point in his essay does he cite a single modern composer other than Schoenberg and his pupil Berg—he appears not to have heard of any others.

He has a bizarre idea of what constitutes “making a living” (perhaps acquired during his time at Bear Stearns) and seems to want to simultaneously hold to a highbrow theological aesthetics and a populist aesthetics wherein great art is whatever makes a lot of money and pleases lots of people. With ideas this confused, it’s a wonder Goldman can tie his own shoes, let alone write a mind-bogglingly stupid essay and have it republished by a quasi-academic institute.

When we hear people like Roger Scruton, Leon Krier, or Alexander Stoddart making similar arguments to Goldman’s, it’s a very different story. These men are actual practitioners of the arts they write and speak about, so even when they talk twaddle it’s still informative twaddle. Scruton, for example, is one of the most important musical philosophers of all time and also the composer of several musical works. When he (partially) disagrees with Schoenberg’s music ideas, he is forced to respect Schoenberg the composer. He has the ability to separate what is good from what he likes. Game knows game, as they say.

But Goldman has none of this background. He evidently has no expertise in music or any other art, and he has nothing interesting and very little true to say on the subject as an amateur. He is merely regurgitating partially digested versions of what other, smarter people have said. Like a cargo cultist, he rehearses rituals he does not understand in the hopes they will have the complement of the effect they’ve had on Roger Scruton: converting his financial capital into some degree of intellectual respectability.

What I’ve been up to

Moving the Manitoban‘s website from one server to another. We recently discovered that we were paying $10 a month for the second-shittiest shared plan our Z-list web host offers. Since it’s the job of no one in particular to keep track of this stuff, nobody knew that we were paying a kid’s allowance for a service barely better than Geocities. And since our web traffic increased by an order of magnitude from 2012-2015, we were starting to bring our host’s feeble server to its knees. So it’s off to a dedicated server from a legitimate provider.

I might write some thoughts about the move here later. There just isn’t a body of knowledge on how to manage websites for student publications, which have problems that other organizations don’t have to contend with.

Speaking of things nobody knows how to do, I will also be helping the Eckhardt-Gramatté Music Library move from its current location to Tache Hall, the new-to-us music building that was supposed to be operational partway through my degree. It’s opening for real in the fall, of course, and many of the amenities are not yet complete (some aren’t even contracted). Apparently there is a body of literature on moving libraries—which, like everything, is a more complicated job than you’d think—but not on moving music libraries. As far as my supervisor is aware, it’s never been done before.

A side effect of the move is that the library is shedding material it doesn’t need anymore and the free bin is doing brisk business. I picked up a pile of scores—full scores to Haydn symphonies and two-piano scores to Mozart concertos—and books on the Kodaly method, opera, and Virgil Thomson. My arms are still sore, but it’s worth it.

I restarted Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism after finishing The Slap. The latter was all right but uneven and at times cringe-inducing. Frye is great as ever but I wish he’d summarize more; he has an Aristotelian hierarchical structure to his ideas but he goes on and on and is unscrupulous with his section headings. It makes it hard to keep track of where you are in the hierarchy, particularly if you take a break in the middle.

This week is the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, and the streets are crawling with theatre people. I decided back in June to sign up as a volunteer to keep myself busy and off train tracks, so I’ve been taking tickets for shows at Alloway Hall in the Manitoba Museum. In fact, I should be there right now, except I’ve come down with something and am sick enough not to feel up to dealing with the public without getting paid. The Fringe machine is ruthlessly efficient, and I’m told someone will be out to replace me.

Most importantly, after 22 years of sponging off my parents, I’ll be moving out to a house on Dalhousie near the university and living on the princely salary of a student newspaper copy editor. The thought that if I don’t make any money I’ll die is an imposing one, but I’m sure it will encourage me to get serious about something or other.

CMEA and things

This weekend I’ve been at the Canadian Music Educators’ Association conference at the Winnipeg Convention Centre, participating in some sessions as an extra player for the Winnipeg Wind Ensemble. The conference’s special guest was Frank Ticheli, who is well-known for his wind band music. He led a conducting masterclass and a seminar on his own compositions.

To my surprise, Ticheli is an excellent conductor. Bad conductors seem to cluster around the wind band world, perhaps because so many of them are school teachers for whom subtlety of gesture is not an important consideration. But Ticheli has an astounding fluidity of gesture, he doesn’t belabour his points, and even when his conducting strays from beat patterns it never becomes so absract as to be useless (many fourth-rate conductors will do this, and they will inevitably refer to it as “being musical”). At the very least, you always get a clear one. The group’s balance and articulation improved considerably when he was demonstrating.

Many people in music have no particular interest in being educators. But Ticheli is actually a gifted teacher; he always seems to know what to say to diffuse anxiety and gently lead students to conclusions through Socratic dialogue. He also has the rare ability to discreetly shut down stupid questions or to reinterpret them as better ones.

I was pleased to learn the story behind his “Loch Lomond” arrangement, which conflates the Scottish tune with “Danny Boy” at the climactic final statement. Apparently this is not due to American ignorance of world geography, as I had uncharitably thought, but was a discovery Ticheli had made while noodling at the piano—the two tunes fit together exactly. The cultural implications of juxtaposing the quintessentially Scottish song with the quintessentially Irish one occurred to him only after he had written it down and considered its contrapuntal implications. He called the band director who had commissioned the piece, who informed him that most Scots thought “Danny Boy” was a Scottish tune anyway, so it stayed in.

The final session was with some beet-red jerkoff in a purple jacket who rambled on about his method of teaching for eighty minutes and had the workshop band play for the last ten. The presentation was an ungrammatical string of the platitudes that are so easily accepted in the music world: inspiration, air support, no two notes the same, always make the phrase go somewhere, respect what the composer created. Some of it, like “style is more important than volume,” was pure gibberish.

The difference between him and Ticheli was staggering. Ticheli is an artist with a keen sense of how he does what he does and how to teach it to others. The second presenter rattled off load of bullshit, and blowhards like this are the reason Canadian music education is a joke and Canada is largely a musical backwater.

Speaking of which, it took us a long time to get ahold of our parts for the workshops, which probably explains some of the second presenter’s rambling. We did three sessions and at all of them there was some trouble in distribution of parts—and it was more or less the same music for all three sessions! This is music that every band teacher has: all the organizers, many of the audience members, and most of the players. It’s literally a matter of someone bringing a small stack of papers with them, but it just didn’t get done. And we were asked to sort parts at the end and assist in teardown. All this for what is allegedly a professional conference. Very amateur hour.

In other news, I was surprised to find myself with a little extra cash, so I stopped off at Nerman’s Books for some things that have been on my list for a while.

Rendezvous With Rama and Shakespeare’s Planet are both covered in C. N. Manlove’s book Science Fiction: Ten Explorations. I’ve read a little Clarke with mixed feelings, and never read anything by Simak, but Manlove’s essays have me tentatively convinced. Interestingly, the hardcover of Shakespeare’s Planet was cheaper than the paperback. I feel like I ripped someone off.

Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is by Samuel R. Delany, an author I’ve been distantly interested in for a while, though so far I’ve only read his novella Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones. I have it on good authority that this is a good one, and if I’m lucky it might even have some weird coprophagic gay sex!

The Hugo Winners, vol. 3, is just another collection of short stories. I’m on a short fiction kick right now, bouncing back and forth between Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, The Treasury of American Short Stories, and my Norton anthology. This collection covers a period in the 1970s and looks to include a mix from George R. R. Martin to Harlan Ellison. It includes at least one story that’s a widely anthologized classic by Ursula K. Le Guin.

What Might Have Been and Houses Without Doors were the freebies. Nerman’s gives away a certain number of bargain books with purchases above a certain price, and I was forced to choose from a not very appealing set of options. Peter Straub is an author I’ve at least heard of, so that book popped out at me, and What Might Have Been appears to be a collection of alternate-history short fiction.

Not that I have any time to read right now. I’m halfway through two books as it is, and this weekend I’m copy-editing a long issue of the Manitoban and picking up my brother from the airport, in addition to everything else.

The errors of popular criticism, part 3: Genre literature

We’ve talked about the aesthetics underlying popular criticism of popular culture and the shadowy adversaries on whose existence this aesthetics hinges. Now the question is: what does an effective piece of genre fiction look like? What is a way to evaluate genre literature that does justice to its status both as popular fiction and as literature?

I should say, first of all, that I’m using the term “genre” loosely. This follows the ordinary usage in these debates: writers like Doyle and Poe are genre when it’s convenient and mainstream when it’s not. Sometimes mysteries and thrillers are genre, sometimes not. Sometimes the term specifically refers to SFF and perhaps horror, and sometimes it refers to anything outside the academy that’s not marketed as mainstream highbrow fiction. That’s part of the reason why these debates are futile: what actually is genre depends on what kind of mood you’re in. Continue reading

The errors of popular criticism, part 2: The nature of the pretentious

Movements work better if they have enemies, and these enemies are often esoteric inventions designed to suit the movements’ needs. Tropish criticism is an aesthetic movement, and I’ve already mentioned that its enemy is a shadowy confabulation that resists being tied down to specific examples. Specific examples often belie the stereotypes of tropish criticism. This means that, in the interest of self-preservation, tropish criticism must isolate itself from the intellectual world, appropriating only useful bits of it without fully understanding them.

Here is a table:

Literary fiction:

  • Boring and academic
  • Overly concerned with symbolism
  • Only succeeds due to government and academic welfare
  • Exists to show off how intelligent the author is
  • Associated with hard-left politics
Genre fiction:

  • Fun and commercial
  • Means nothing but itself
  • Commercially viable because people actually enjoy it
  • Exists solely to entertain
  • Apolitical

(I apologize for the fact that the table is hard to read; unfortunately my WordPress theme removes borders from tables and it’s too much trouble to put them back with inline CSS.)

This table is a brain-dump of my eighteen-year-old self. I was bookish but stupid, interested in the arts but almost completely ignorant of theory and criticism. I had only just started seriously engaging with music older than my parents. Aside from high school Shakespeare, the most literary thing I had read was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, which shocked me with its present tense and italicized inner monologues.

I had read about (but not read) Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” and like all good tropers I thought it was both ridiculous and central to all literary criticism. In fact, I had read about but not read rather a lot, including canonical philosophy, science textbooks, religious texts, and classical literature. This made me feel like an expert despite knowing practically nothing.

When I arrived at the University of Manitoba, I had a chip on my shoulder about the “pretentious.” This was a catch-all term for literary fiction, avant garde art, criticism that was more concerned with finding obscure symbolism in novels to prove the critic’s intelligence than with its proper business: rating things as better or worse.

Because of my inexperience, if you asked me to name specific examples of pretentious things or people I couldn’t have. I would probably mention Roland Barthes (who I had not read), the Social Text hoax (which concerned people I had not read and would not have understood), and perhaps John Cage and 4’33”. My beliefs lasted as long as they did because no one asked; people who are mainly interested in debunking postmodernists in a belligerent and ill-informed manner seldom get the opportunity to talk about their interests with friends.

I drew too many conclusions from second-hand information, and I was not experienced enough to know that my beliefs did not stand up to scrutiny. Of course I know now, which is why I’m making an example of myself in this quasi-confessional series. So to ease my own embarrassment, let’s pick apart these beliefs about the nature of the “pretentious” in detail.

Much of the belief structure contained in the term “pretentious” depends on the character of the pretentious academic or pretentious artist. This character does not exist. Yet I can easily picture an example: clad in black and perhaps a beret, sitting in a cafe, smoking a cigarette and expounding on Nietzsche, Foucault, and other foreigners. I believed in this stereotype because I read about it almost daily, but that was at sites like Less Wrong where pretentious academics and artists are bugaboos meant to scare you away from traditional centres of knowledge, where you might be led to question the Singularity or the bizarro brand of utilitarianism.

When I came to the U of M, I expected to see pretentious academics everywhere. I didn’t, because they don’t exist, but my expectations led to some encounters I now regret. My professors were never pretentious so much as single-minded. To the extent that they were ignorant of or indifferent to popular culture or genre fiction, it was because they had dedicated their lives to the study of eighteenth century opera or enharmonicism and had no time to think about anything else, not because they thought they were better than me.

I registered a few pretentious false-positives among students: one guy wore a different beret to school every day. He now plays bass in a space-rock band. Another wore black, smoked, and occasionally made reference to Nietzsche. He ended up being one of the few people I could talk to about anything serious without tearing my hair out. But my fellow university students were much like my fellow high school students in that the vast majority of them weren’t interested in anything at all. The few who did register as actual human beings were such a welcome relief from the monotony of bovine ignorance that any number of foibles could be forgiven. For the most part university students are not burdened by an excessive interest in intellectual matters.

If the word “pretentious” in its special sense has any real content, the pretentious academic or artist cannot be part of that content as he does not exist. Perhaps the pretentious could refer to the academy’s attitude of superiority toward popular culture?

A lot of people seem to have experienced a formative moment in school where they were forbidden from reading the genre fiction they liked or derided for doing so. I never had any experience like this, and yet I was convinced that the English literature establishment was strongly opposed to science fiction and fantasy. In my first year at university I was required to take a course to fill my written English requirement. The default course for direct entry students (music, engineering, nursing, agriculture) was Topics in English Literature, Topic TBA. The section I signed up for turned out to be “Horror in Literature.” We read Dracula, Frankenstein, several short stories, and a book by the thrice-accursed Kelley Armstrong.

But I was more interested in sticking it to the pretentious literary critics than I was in answering the questions on the essay tests, so after doing poorly on the first one I dropped the course (getting less than an A in anything would have jeopardized my scholarships). The course did everything I wanted university courses to do, but my beliefs were so entrenched that I couldn’t accept what was happening before my eyes.

The fact is that the canon is now thoroughly busted. The trendy academic position is that genre fiction and pop culture are unfairly marginalized and need to be studied in the name of equality. On my bookshelf I have decades-old critical works on Clarke, Tiptree, Tolkien, Asimov, Silverberg, and several others. You can take a creative writing MFA that focuses on genre fiction. In reading critical works of recent (or even not-so-recent) provenance, it’s striking how often they take a cosmopolitan view of literature. The author will usually concede that science fiction (for example) is of critical interest, even if not to him.

There are quarters of the academy where genre fiction and popular culture are still not accepted, but there are quarters of the academy where people believe just about every ridiculous thing. And anyway, the hard truth is that if you consider yourself primarily a reader of science fiction or fantasy or some other genre, exposure to the classics or anything outside your normal reading habits can only be good for you.

So much for pretentiousness being about the exclusion of genre fiction. What is usually seen as an effort to prevent students from reading vulgar crap is better described as an effort to get them to read something outside their ordinary frame of reference. Could pretentiousness then reside in the area of literary criticism, where bearded chain-smokers with comedy accents read subtext where it just doesn’t belong?

I hope it’s obvious that it’s silly to expect academic literary scholars to spend most of their time deciding which books are better than which other ones. What distressed my teenaged self was the frequent suggestion that nothing is better than anything else, a suggestion that seemed to me to come equally from pretentious academics and know-nothings on message boards.

Luckily, you’ll find that most people who can be taken seriously admit that some works are superior to others—they just regard it as a trivial truth not worth belabouring. And they are able to discuss and examine something they dislike without mentioning their dislike of it, which I now regard as one of the most important skills a writer—or anyone—can have. Even many of the people who say things like “it’s all subjective” don’t really mean it—what they actually mean is that even shit has redeeming features, you may find that you were wrong about something you used to hate, and wouldn’t it be nice if we were all a little kinder to each other.

As for obscure symbolism, one of the things I was surprised to learn upon actually reading some literary criticism is that most of it is not concerned with straightforwardly assigning an allegorical role to each character in the story and arguing that this secret allegory is what the novel is really about. The idea now seems bizarre, though it didn’t at the time; I blame the fact that high school English is usually taught by cretins who have never read a book uncoerced.

Another mental block I used to have vis a vis literary criticism was religion: as a die-hard atheist, the mere suggestion of religious overtones was enough to turn me off something, and it upset me when someone had the temerity to suggest that religious imagery was relevant to some book I liked. I suspect that many are in the opposite situation: any reading that involves elements contrary to or incompatible with their religious beliefs is unacceptable.

Those who reject literary criticism, whether for failing to rank works of literature in a pseudoscientific way or for inserting symbolism into works of literature that won’t accept it, are all too often simply ignorant of the field. Like my eighteen-year-old self, they discount it for the way it makes them feel, not as a result of any serious evaluation of the facts. So the complaint of pretension will not stick to literary criticism either.

There is still a widespread belief that goes something like this: genre fiction is popular and entertaining, while literary fiction is deliberately obscure so that pseudointellectuals can pretend to understand it in order to seem smart. This issue could probably be a whole essay in itself, so I will content myself with stating that (1) people do actually enjoy literary fiction, (2) there is a bigger audience for certain kinds of lit fic than you’d think, (3) certain segments of genre are more boring and marginal than their proponents would have you believe, and (4) fiction can still be valuable without being entertaining.

I hope that relating some of my personal experiences helps to dissolve the notion of the “pretentious.” When used in the nonstandard but common way I’ve been using it, it’s quite simply a contentless word. Since the new meaning has almost supplanted the original meaning, it’s probably best that we all stop using the word entirely. We’ve already established that many key tenets of tropish aesthetics evaporate when the “pretentious” enemy is taken away. Now that the enemy has indeed been taken away, we’re left with a void. What can we fill it with?

In part three I will give an example of a story I believe to be an effective, if not great, short story, and contrast it with a series of novels by a popular author widely considered to be unpretentious and on the side of tropishness.

Of interest

Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some quotes from the introduction to Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.

From p.3-4:

However, the fate of art that tries to do without criticism is instructive. The attempt to reach the public directly through “popular” art assumes that criticism is artificial and public taste natural. Behind this is a further assumption about natural taste which goes back through Tolstoy to Romantic theories of a spontaneously creative “folk.” These theories have had a fair trial; they have not stood up well to the facts of literary history and experience, and it is perhaps time to move beyond them. An extreme reaction against the primitive view, at one time associated with the “art for art’s sake” catchword, thinks of art in precisely the opposite terms, as a mystery, an initiation into an esoterically civilized community. Here criticism is restricted to ritual masonic gestures, to raised eyebrows and cryptic comments and other signs of an understanding too occult for syntax. The fallacy common to both attitudes is that of a rough correlation between the merit of art and the degree of public response to it, though the correlation assumed is direct in one case and inverse in the other.

From p.18:

The first step in developing a genuine poetics is to recognize and get rid of meaningless criticism, or talking about literature in a way that cannot help to build up a systematic structure of knowledge. This includes all the sonorous nonsense that we so often find in critical generalities, reflective comments, ideological perorations, and other consequences of taking a large view of an unorganized subject. It includes all lists of the “best” novels or poems or writers, whether their particular virtue is exclusiveness or inclusiveness. It includes all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value judgments, and all the literary chit-chat that makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange. […] This sort of thing cannot be part of any systematic study, for a systematic study can only progress: whatever dithers or vacillates or reacts is merely leisure-class gossip. The history of taste is no more a part of the structure of criticism than the Huxley-Wilberforce debate is part of the structure of biological science.