The End of Reason?

Glenn Branca, I’m calling you out.

Sure, you’re writing for the New York Times, which is a loftier literary post than I’ll ever hold, but what good is your position with one of the world’s most prestigious papers if you’re going to use it to spread sheer lunacy?

I’m talking about ‘The End of Music‘, an opinion piece that appeared in the Times last Tuesday.

A friend of mine has already voiced her opinions on the matter, calling Branca’s piece “melodramatic”, “attention-grabbing”, “judgmental” and “snobby.” And I honestly can’t say I disagree with any of that. It seems like Branca is going out of his way to make inflammatory—and patently untrue—statements. Let’s take his article apart piece by piece.

We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift. Orchestras are struggling to stay alive, rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art, the music industry itself has been subsumed by corporate culture and composers are at their wit’s end trying to find something that’s hip but still appeals to an audience mired in a 19th-century sensibility.

The second sentence of the article contains a rare truth—Orchestras are struggling to stay alive. A quick Google search of ‘orchestra budget deficit‘ shows that even the most prestigious, most historically successful orchestras have been operating at a loss recently. Branca’s reasoning is wrong, though. Orchestras aren’t struggling because audiences are mired in a 19th-century sensibility, they’re struggling because they haven’t adapted to the changing musical tastes of their audiences. But that’s a post for another day.

Immediately after his statement about orchestras, Branca loses the plot. He makes the outrageous claim that “…rock has been relegated to the underground, jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art…” This is ignorant at best, inflammatory at worst. To say that jazz has stopped evolving is to disrespect musicians like Josh Roseman, Dave Holland and the Marsalis family. To say that rock has gone underground is to ignore the fact that Metallica’s latest album opened atop the Billboard charts, or that a “niche” group like Dream Theater consistently finds their albums debuting high in the charts as well.

For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new? Or is it that composers and musicians have simply swallowed the pomo line that nothing else new can be done, which ironically is really just the “old, old story.”

This paragraph is nothing but sour grapes, rife with subjective opinion. Branca’s statement about the current quality of music seems to be rooted in personal taste and nothing more. Composers and musicians are doing new and exciting things; it’s not their fault that Branca has turned a blind eye to their accomplishments.

Look no further than the GVSU New Music Ensemble. They took “In C”, a well-known minimalist piece by composer Terry Riley and gave it a completely new and unique performance. Or, take The Streets’ 2004 release, A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Plenty of musicians have created a concept album, but this album takes it in an entirely different direction. I won’t spoil the surprise for you—you’ll have to listen on your own.

There’s a long list of composers doing new things with music as you read this blog. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir project comes to mind, as does Jacob Ter Veldhuis’ Grab It! for saxophone and boombox. That’s just off the top of my head, but given five minutes or so, I could name a lengthy list of composers and musicians who are stretching boundaries and changing perceptions, just like Boulez, Varese and Stockhausen did so many years ago.

Certainly music itself is not dead. We’ll continue to hear something approximating it blaring in shopping malls, fast food stops, clothing stores and wherever else it will mesmerize the consumer into excitedly pulling out their credit card or debit card or whatever might be coming.

Branca seems to be confusing ‘music’ with ‘muzak’ here. Music is an organic thing, constantly evolving. It involves a relationship between composer and performer, and performer and audience. My interpretation of this paragraph is that Branca expects those relationships to come to an abrupt end, that somehow we’ll be able to turn a blind eye to the world of music despite the fact that it’s been a terribly important part of world culture throughout history.

Pardon me if I’m a bit skeptical about that one.

Even though musical tastes and the way we experience music have changed, there are still legions of people out there still actively listening to and involved in music. Orchestras are constantly searching for new ways in which to interact with their patrons, pop music artists are finding ways to build closer relationships with their fans through social media which in turn creates a more meaningful musical experience, and musicians have found new ways to collaborate through vehicles like the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

If anything, the modern world has given us more ways to enhance our musical experience than ever before. It seems rather cynical on Branca’s part to paint this as a negative thing.