Friday, April 28, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s Just-so-Stories about Current Music-Making

At the beginning of this past February, University of California Press released the book Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. The first thing a visitor to the Web page for this book is likely to see will probably be the following sentence:
Music after the Fall is the first book to survey contemporary Western art music within the transformed political, cultural, and technological environment of the post–Cold War era.
This turns out to be a prescient symptom of what anyone who commits to reading this book is likely to identify sooner rather than later, a plethora of inaccuracies that most likely are the product of the deadly embrace of poor writing and poor editing. Using that Web page as a point of departure, the inquiring mind will quickly discover that Seth Brodsky’s book From 1989 or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious jumped that gun by about a week or two, which might be attributed to statistical insignificance, were it not for the fact that Brodsky’s book was also published by University of California Press! However, those interested in a wider margin will find it in Jonathan Kramer’s Postmodern Music Postmodern Listening, which was first released in hardcover by Bloomsbury Academic in August of 2016. Furthermore, most of the book had been written before Kramer died in 2004 and the task fell to Robert Carl to edit a readable text.

None of this should be surprising when one considers Rutherford-Johnson’s primary thesis, which is that the prodigious innovations of technology that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the emergence of a “music culture” heavily dominated by the marketplace. Note that Rutherford-Johnson never explicitly mentions that the “fall” of his title refers to the Berlin Wall. Indeed, he never really says very much about any fall. I ran a few spot checks with some young people who are just beginning to try to rev up a career in music. I showed them the cover of the book and asked if they could make the connection between the year 1989 and the word “fall” in the title. None of them could.

That thoroughly unscientific test discloses an issue about the dominant marketplace that Rutherford-Johnson never considers. Jürgen Habermas’ magisterial The Theory of Communicative Action includes a lengthy chapter in which the author pulls together a “diagnosis of the times” based on multiple sources of the writings of Max Weber. His analysis concludes that a capitalist society whose value system is based only on market value is fated to suffer two different kinds of loss: loss of meaning and loss of freedom.

This is an insight that reaches far beyond the study of social science as an academic discipline. One has only to read Robin D. G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original to appreciate how much freedom Monk lost after he signed with Columbia. As to loss of meaning, Rutherford-Johnson’s book can easily stand as a case study.

Referring again to the Amazon Web page, we read that “Rutherford-Johnson is a London-based music journalist and critic.” From this we can assume that he has written and probably continues to write about music in great abundance. However, the text of this book seems to indicate that his writing is, for the most part, based on artifacts. Those artifacts may very well include both audio and video recordings, as well as scores and other text documents by and about the composers covered in his book. However, there are few, if any signs, that he has ever written about the immediate experience of listening to a performance of any of the works covered in this book.

I do not make this accusation lightly. Thanks to performing groups like the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and a generous number of venues in this city which one may visit to go out on the “bleeding edge” of adventurous music making, I discovered that I had attended performances of more of the works discussed in this book than I had expected. In almost every one of those cases, I found it hard to believe that Rutherford-Johnson had enjoyed the benefit of a similar experience, leading me to believe that he was relying more on text sources (inevitably written for promotional purposes) than on the actual acts of listening. This left me questioning what he said about any of the composers examined in this book, hence my conclusion about loss of meaning.

Unfortunately, one does not have to dive deep into the repertoire of performances to find evidence of sloppy editing. My favorite blooper comes in the final chapter when Rutherford-Johnson confuses Florestan, the alter ego of Robert Schumann, with the heroic political prisoner in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio. One would have thought that anyone used to editing texts about classical music would have been able to spot this a mile away. Guess not.

Most likely this book as an unfortunate case of an author biting off more than he could chew. It would be interesting to see a collection of his published reviews. I would hope that he has the chops to provide coherent and readable accounts of his own first-person experiences. Trying to translate those experiences into some kind of hypothesis about a new world order, on the other hand, is definitely not in his wheelhouse.

No comments: