What is David Brooks Talking About?

David Brooks should really just stick to talking about politics instead of music, as shown in today’s New York Times column.

In it, Brooks laments the loss of a common, canonical musical tradition in America, and scorns the fragmentation of culture and the multiplying of niches, arguing, for instance, that

“Technology drives some of the fragmentation. Computers allow musicians to produce a broader range of sounds. Top 40 radio no longer serves as the gateway for the listening public. Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices.”

While there is certainly some truth in this–after all, a lot of so-called “indie” and “obscure” music are products of the recording industry machine designed to find previously unexplored market niches and sell to them–Brooks exaggerates this phenomenon.

Behind this veil of cultural criticism is a conservative commentary about politics: for the fragmentation in music is taken to be a reflection of the fragmentation in national unity. It is essentially a veiled criticism of multi-culturalism. The political subtext is that politics, as it is currently practiced, is a politics of division and partisanship, while the ideal politics is an appeal to national unity.

And it just so happens that it is the left and the liberals who, with their post-modern relativism they got from their grad schools, that is engendering this divide. Of course Brooks doesn’t say this directly, but just take a look at what he says about people who listen to the so-called non-mainstream music:

“People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I’m not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.”

This is not a surprising comment, given Brooks’ conservative leanings, but I would argue that Brooks gets it wrong both about music and politics. Cultivating a taste for alternative and non-mainstream, non-canonical music is not, by definition, a rejection of the canon or cultural inheritance. That is a false dilemma. For it is possible, in cultivating a taste for the obscure and the marginalized, to synthesize and assimilate them into a richer, broader understanding of music.

Similarly, just because one takes opposing, radical, and previously unheard political ideas seriously does not mean that one is rejecting civic inheritance or the existent political culture. After all, isn’t the very notion of the marketplace of ideas a testament to one’s willingness to encounter resistance in a civil manner?

Brooks is mistaken in thinking that assertions of individualism, whether in the realm of culture or politics, is automatically a rejection of the community. In fact, I’d argue that neither can exist without the other.

It is really Brooks who is creating the division where there is none. And our political atmosphere is made all the more toxic by his shameless, veiled liberal-baiting tactics.

A Heidegerrian Account of Live Music

Slate is running a pretty good exchange between Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, and Ben Ratliff, the New York Time’s jazz critic. The exchange is pretty wide-ranging, touching upon various issues in the classical, jazz, and even the pop music world. Even though this exchange is in part motivated by commercial desires–both Alex Ross and Ben Ratliff have new books out right now on 20th-century classical music and John Coltrane respectively–it is still a pretty good discussion.

By the way, Alex Ross stopped by in Berkeley on his book tour, and having attended that particular event, I would have to say that he knows what he’s talking about and conveys that kind of encyclopedic knowledge in readable prose that is accessible to the lay public. I haven’t read Ben Ratliff’s book yet, but it is almost a guarantee that I will, since John Coltrane is god to me.

But back to the point: the first question being tackled in this exchange concerns the dynamism, or more accurately, the lack thereof, in terms of audience in both contemporary classical and jazz worlds. To qualify, it is not that there has been new music worth getting excited about in contemporary classical and jazz; it is simply that these new artists are only known to those who are already in the know. Ratliff suggests one reason for this kind of exclusion and obscurity is a shift in the way music is conceived:

“I’m just talking about music that’s meant to be understood as a self-contained, sellable thing, versus music that’s a long, ongoing process.”

This, in a nutshell, is Ratliff’s main contention if you will, and it struck me as a kind of Heideggerian claim, even though I’m not sure that Ratliff even had Heidegger in mind. Music, if conceived as a self-contained entity, might plausibly fall under the category of the present-at-hand. It is plausible because Dasein discloses the present-at-hand through pure beholding, in Heidegger’s terminology. In some ways I think “pure beholding” has become the prevalent way of encountering music nowadays, what with the advent of personal stereos, not to mention iPods.

If music, self-contained and commodified, is present-at-hand, what is music conceived as an ongoing process? First, can “ongoing” music be cashed out in terms of live music? In the case of jazz, I think so, because jazz is always improvisional to some degree, even though jazz itself is not hostile to rigorous composition per se (i.e., Duke Ellington). But the act of hearing jazz played live is definitely an ongoing experience, since a tune can always be improvised, changed, rehearsed, etc. as it is being played from night to night, gig to gig. The same might be said about rock shows in general. Classical, on the other hand, might be the exception.

Ratliff describes this experience quitely aptly when he says:

“Or maybe it’s the same stuff that a band has been playing for the last couple of years, fully rehearsed through gigs, but the music doesn’t necessarily have a planned route. It’s always strolling somewhere and hoping it will run into someone it likes. Sometimes it becomes really killer, and you might even be able to figure out why, but you can’t really know in advance.”

The key component in live music, therefore, is potentiality. If this is the case, then live music in some sense has the being of Dasein, since Dasein understands its own Being as bound up in its potentiality. However, this is not to say that live music has the same kind of Being as Dasein, but simply that the two share similar structures.

But even this claim needs to be cashed out phenomenologically. Dasein discloses its Being to itself through understanding, which entails being “thrown” into a “mood”. To say that Dasein is attuned to this mood is not the same as saying that Dasein accurately perceives with his senses; it is rather to say that Dasein has an intuitive grasp of his environment and its context. Thus, to grasp the mood of live music is not simply listening to the faithful reproduction of sound, for one can do this at home on a good stereo, but no one would mistake a stereo for being there.

Indeed, “being there” is not simply a colloquial expression–it describes the ontological structure of Dasein’s grasping something: in this case live music. Experienced live show-goers know that there are more to live music than simply the performing of songs: the experienced live show-goer will know to pay attention to visual cues from both performers and audience, detect subtle changes in dynamics, and know when the lows and highs occur, etc. This is not to say that the true grasp of “mood” must necessarily be non-thematic or unconscious; instead, what this is saying is that being truly attuned to the mood entails more than just thematic understanding of music.

If one is truly attuned to the live music, then one enjoys the music that much more, and collectively too with other members of the audience, since they are also attuned to the music. Anyone who has been to shows will know what I’m talking about. And once again Ratliff seems to get this basic phenomenon right when he says that:

“You’re looking for clues as well as listening for them, feeling your way through it just like the musicians are. When something truly clicks, you’re in ecstasy.”

In fact, Ratliff explicitly draws the contrast between knowing the music and understanding the music. Knowing, as a mode of disclosure, is grounded on the “pure beholding” that comes with the present-at-hand; understanding, on the other hand, discloses not through beholding but through the grasp of mood. Ratliff puts the contrast in the following way:

“Whereas with records, I can really know it, by listening over and over, but the terms somehow don’t feel right.”

Of course he doesn’t use Heidegger’s language, but I think he has a pretty intuitive grasp of Heideggeran concepts.

There are two reasons why I decided to write a blog about this in this kind of way. First, I am doing a “dry run”, so to speak, for my next Heidegger paper, and it is a somewhat useful exercise for me to think about an issue in explicitly Heideggerian terms. Second, I find this Heideggerian account of live music plausible and persuasive, since it matches how I have experienced all the live music that I have heard.

The ironic thing is that while I was writing this blog, I was listening to a bootleg copy of a Hank Mobley show that he played at the Birdland club, named after Charlie Parker, aka “The Bird.” The show has a great lineup with Hank Mobley, Billy Roots, Curtis Fuler, and Lee Morgan. And all as I was writing, I kept thinking that although whoever taped the show did a really good job in terms of capturing the sound, it is nowhere even close to seeing those guys play live.

And a Heideggerian account of live music might be a pretty good account of the gap between simply hearing recorded music (even of live shows) and actually Being There.