The Deserving Police

In the United Kingdom, there have been some serious questions about whether musical composition constitutes bona fide academic research.

It seems to me another call being made to the Deserving Police.  The job of the Deserving Police is to make sure that nobody on God’s green earth gets a goody from a government or other goody-dispensing authority (like, say, a public university department) that they did not rightly Deserve (because, of course, what people Deserve is always self-evident and easy to calibrate).

In the U.S., the Deserving Police go around snooping into the grocery lists of shoppers using food stamps and EBT cards, and sound the alarm if the shopper is purchasing something nice for themselves, like a candy bar, or ketchup.  (Since there have been calls in some states to ban the purchase of ketchup with food stamps, this is not an exaggeration.)

In the U.K., apparently, the Deserving Police are more sophisticated and lofty in their aspirations.  They investigate whether or not composers are receiving undeserved doctorates that are institutionally held to be on a par with the doctorates of the musicological colleagues.

I also can’t help but notice that this argument strikes as an invitation to a back-door re-litigation of the argument about whether or not pop music is a bona fide subject for academic study.  (The Deserving Police are very interested in this question too: do musicologists and music theorists concerned with pop music Deserve, capital-D intended, the same professional status as musicologists and music theorists concerned with self-evidently prestigious and worthy classical music?)  It seems interesting to me that the Deserving Police became interested in the research status of composition more intently when composers themselves became less interested in obligatory fugues and more interested in appropriating hip-hop samples as is often done by electroacoustic composers.

I’m going to sidestep the arguments pro and con on all fronts just to say, generally speaking, that life on the Deserving Police Force strikes me as a very petty, very unhappy waste of time.

-Robert Gross

The Other Side *Does* *Not* *Care* About Gun Violence

I think progressives and liberals need to understand something. You/we keep thinking that everyone in America is as universally appalled by gun violence as we are. I’ve got news. They’re not. A very large swath of this country simply sees days like today— and the statistic that we have had more mass shootings this year than we have had calendar days (that’s true)— as “the price of freedom.” They don’t care. If it doesn’t affect them or anyone they know, they. Don’t. Care. Get it through your heads, liberals/progressives. They’re not appalled at all.

They see guns as a very proud American tradition, and days like today are just a side effect. They’re happy to take the *bet* that gun violence will not effect them personally.

It’s not just the NRA. The entire NRA enterprise is not possible without legions and legions of people who think this way— that days like today are *acceptable* trade-offs for their vision of unfettered, completely unregulated access to guns, which they love. They love the guns. And they don’t care about the victims of gun violence. They really, truly, truly don’t.

Get it through your heads, liberals. The other side does not care. Period. They’ve made their bet and they want the guns. Period. End of.

Compose a Piece That Goes Against Everything You Believe In

Apparently one of Morton Feldman’s favorite assignments for his composition students was “write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” I’ve never quite done this, but I had a similar experience a few years ago when I was teaching a course on postmodernism. I felt obliged to include a short unit on John Zorn, whom I back then despised. I felt that he stood for everything I was against— his juxtapositions were superficial, and that everything he did was superficial whereas the “true artist” unifies things in the deep background in some subtle way, etc.

But I didn’t want to be a drag and a Debbie Downer, so I tried to find positive things to say about John Zorn. And the more I really listened to what he was doing, the more I came to really appreciate what he was doing.

And because of John Zorn, Ken Downey and I composed our first serious piece together as Blind Labyrinth, “Dyschordia.” And it’s been a fruitful partnership that has been going on for about three years now. All because I was willing to teach a composer whom I thought “went against everything I believed.”

Oddly enough, I’m not sure what I would do if I had that assignment today. I think I would write an orchestra piece full of octatonicism and tinkly percussion effects (especially crotales), because I feel like this particular kind of piece is so overdone by everybody, and for very crass reasons (partly to be “just accessible enough” for the lay audience and “just smart enough” to impress the academic colleagues). I don’t know if Feldman’s gambit would pay off in my case if I wrote this piece (the article says that invariably Feldman’s student would write his or her very best piece as a result of the assignment). I think it might certainly result in my most *marketable* piece, but best? I’m not so sure.

-Robert Gross