Monday, February 15, 2010

The Curse of the Middle-Brow

Yesterday, in (finally) writing my review of Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, I mustered some of my own chutzpah in suggesting that one could "factor out the issue of race" in reading at least one of the major essays by Imamu Amiri Baraka. The grounds for chutzpah would have been sufficient on the basis of Baraka's socio-political background; but it was enhanced by the fact that the essay I had in mind was "Jazz and the White Critic," originally published in Down Beat in 1963 when Baraka was still LeRoi Jones. The key point of this essay is that (in Baraka's words) "because the majority of jazz critics are white middle-brows, most jazz criticism tends to enforce white middle-brow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that in its most profound manifestations is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them."

Those words were still activating my hippocampus this morning as I read Allan Kozinn's New York Times piece on the DVD release of Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus programs by E1 Entertainment. However, before I rant too much over my disagreement with Kozinn, I should state that there is at least one sentence in his piece with which I am in solid agreement:

Even with hundreds of cable channels to choose from today, the likelihood of running into a show like this is slim.

Kozinn is absolutely correct, and I bemoan this lack of substantial viewing matter even when it involves content that provokes howls of disagreement. The fact is that the last time I can remember any serious substantive talk about music was on the now-off-the-air Ovation Channel: They aired videos of all four of the symphonies of Johannes Brahms conducted by Kurt Masur; and each performance was prefaced by some low-key remarks that Masur gave in an interview that significantly enhanced the listening experience. Note that adjectival "low-key." I doubt that Bernstein ever did anything low-key; and I suspect that my greatest beef with him is that his showboating has left a greater legacy than Masur's quieter style. I refer, as a case in point, to the discontent I have voiced on this platform with the Keeping Score series that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony had created for production by local PBS station KQED.

From my own position as a "white critic" (or, as I have preferred to say in my own choice of words, "examiner"), middle-brow has less to do with race than with a superficial (and therefore fundamentally lazy) approach to thinking. It assumes, in the spirit of those "bluffer's guides" that David Frost used to publish, that one can get by with a handful of surface-level observations, leaving the depths to those more "professional qualified" to plumb them. Kozinn argues that "there is much to be said" for how Bernstein "made the details of music and music making accessible, usually without dumbing down, to a broad audience." True, Bernstein had an elegant command of language; so we could not gloss over his talk as we can with most of what we hear on (even Public) television today. However, there were just too many settings, not only in the Omnibus scripts but also in the allegedly far more "academic" texts of his Unanswered Question Norton Lectures, in which he uses his abundant rhetoric to cover up the sad truth that he just never really "got it." I am reminded of the early days of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, when founding director Charles Wadsworth once introduced Christopher Hogwood to offer some pre-performance remarks. Exaggerating his drawl for the occasion, Wadsworth said something like, "I'm not always sure what he is talking about, but he sure sounds purty." Bernstein always sounded "purty" enough that most folks didn't care one way or the other whether he was actually saying anything; and, to be fair to Baraka, one of his topics was, indeed, jazz. (For all I know the seeds of Baraka's essay were planted after Bernstein's Omnibus program about jazz.)

There is one other point where I have no trouble agreeing with Kozinn. It has to do with a broadcast in which Bernstein revealed to his audience the "rough drafts" that preceded the final version of Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony. However, superficial the analysis may have been (could it have been otherwise?), Kozinn certainly got the right punch line:

But speaking as a composer — and there is a good deal of sub rosa, idealized autobiography in these programs (see the quotation about how thoroughly prepared conductors must be) — Bernstein is intent on demonstrating that the inevitable doesn’t just happen. It comes from intense work.

For better or worse, one should approach every listening experience with the presumption that one is listening to a product of "intense work," usually from both the composer and the performers. However, as listeners we should not be focusing on how intense the work has been. Instead, we should try to "find the beauty," as David Amram put it, under the presumption that the beauty is there as a product of that work. As I wrote about a month ago, Amram learned this lesson from Monk; and Monk did not have to draw upon either elegant rhetoric or "idealized autobiography" to make the point! Indeed, Amram's lesson from Monk is a perfect example of why Baraka's observations go beyond the question of race: Both black teacher and white student could find the path to getting beyond the superficiality of middle-brow thinking.

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