How to Read

February 6, 2010

By Kyle Gann

Being of an age, and begging the indulgence of my seniors among my readers, I'm going to step into professorial mode for a moment and give a little lecture on reading comprehension. I suppressed a few negative responses I received to the recent excerpt I posted from Bob Ashley's new book, both out of respect for Ashley and because they didn't really engage what he said. Perhaps the fact that it was his writing being reacted to and not my own gave me an opportunity for a little more objective view into the reflexes of blog reading.

Two major things struck me about Ashley's passage that I quoted. One was his scathing critique of the attenuated place of art in western society, as seen from an experience of other cultures. Certain Asian and African cultures are more pervaded by music, art, and dance than ours, more informed by frequent social rituals involving entire communities. This phenomenon has been expounded upon for decades now by ethnologists and historians of Third-World art from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy to Ellen Dissanayake and beyond. I myself have written about it repeatedly from my slim experience of Native American performances: at powwows at Hopi, Taos, and elsewhere, every single inhabitant down to the smallest toddler strong enough to lift a drumstick is engaged as a singer, dancer, even composer, only the Whites are mere spectators, yada yada yada. Ashley's point, that the entertainer/consumer paradigm of American society deprives us of this intense social art experience, is hardly unusual or controversial, though it is presented here with striking vividness and in terms that musicians can easily identify with. 

The astonishing thing about the passage I quoted was that Ashley offers this critique, not from the enthomusicologist's conventional standpoint of immersion in Indonesian or Ghanaian culture - but from  the standpoint of the ONCE festivals! The rhetorical trick of the passage is that it focuses on widespread contemporary practice and seems to mention the ONCE festivals only in passing: "The reproach to what had gradually come to be the feeling that music was everywhere, that you were part of it and you were actually in it in your daily life was enforced for some cultural reason I cannot understand." But in reality, the ONCE festivals are the focus. Ashley is telling us that the ONCE festivals in Ann Arbor in the '60s created the same sense of art pervading a community that one gets from living in Bali or Tehran or Lagos, that once you had your worldview conditioned by the ONCE festivals, coming back down into the relative superficiality of American so-called culture was a tremendous let-down. It's an extraordinary claim, and made with disarming rhetorical cleverness. You read someone describing the innocent platitudes with which we are all familiar in such contrarian terms, and you wonder, from what experience did he come that he can afford to take such a jaundiced view of our daily lives? And that leads back to the question: Gosh, what must the ONCE festivals have been like, that afterward one would ever after resent what to the rest of us is mere normality?

Now: did Ashley say recitals were awful, and he never goes to them? No. He says, "Recitals are a curse," and it's an admirably exact formulation. They are a curse because we artists are forced to try to project the potential effects of art through this unequal entertainer/consumer relation, with one hand tied behind our backs, so to speak. Doesn't everyone feel this? I certainly do. Since Ashley disparages entertainment, isn't he just another elitist saying that composers shouldn't be required to entertain? Quite the opposite: he is saying that music should entertain and do much more than entertain, that it should grip and transform us and its effect should last long after the actual experience has ended. Isn't he making fun of world music, which has so enriched American culture? I think he's saying that the reduction of gamelan to a recital performance creates a facile and dangerous false impression, and threatens to destroy something special in other cultures that our music lacks. Isn't he just bitter? Well, I've yet to meet a composer who doesn't have his or her bitter moments, but Ashley's one of the least bitter composers I've ever met, and I read no bitterness in this passage. I see it as an enormous public service to remind us all from time to time that art can have a much higher and more potent role in a society than it currently does in ours. No one, no one is really satisfied with the status of contemporary music in today's world. Shouldn't those who've seen first-hand how things could be better do us the honor of showing us a potential goal toward which we could pragmatically strive?

I can imagine someone reasonably disputing Ashley's argument. For instance: "I was at the ONCE festivals, and they weren't as transformative for the community as Bob thinks." Or maybe, "I've lived in Bali for 30 years, and among locals there's more of a spectator aspect to gamelan performances than Mr. Ashley imagines." Those might be true, might not be true, but at least they would engage the accumulated meaning of the entire passage. I'd even appreciate a broad, well thought-out defense of the Western concept of art that took the ethnological critique into sympathetic account. But the negative comments that came in were reactions to isolated sentences, and I hardly have time to defend every writer I quote (though I'm doing it for Bob now), or my own writings, from potential implications of particular sentences when those implications are nuanced and limited and even subverted by the meaning of the passage taken as a whole. 

This brings to light, perhaps, an important difference in modality between blog reading and book reading. I'm reading the book; if I run into a passage, a sentence, that seems shocking or questionable, I don't put the book down and phone Bob to dispute him; instead, I keep reading. As I do so, further paragraphs put former ones into perspective. The accumulation of new ideas begins changing my mind in ways that make the previous stumbling blocks seem more logical. On a blog, however, I'm beginning to suspect that the tempting proximity of that comment button works against the cohesion of entire passages, as readers scan for sentences that touch on some subject they have a pre-formed experience with or opinion about. The eagerness everyone exhibits to be an active part of an intellectual community is a touching aspect of what the internet has brought out in us all. But I could almost wish there were a function that could sense whether a comment was positive, neutral, or negative, and in the last case, flash a warning question: "Have you reread the entire blog entry to make sure you understand its full argument? Y/N." This is why blogs, and electronic print in general, will never replace books. The stolid unmalleability of a printed book forces you to live for a while with the ideas therein, and give them a chance to transform you. 

This semester for the first time in ten years I'm again sitting in a classroom on the students' side: I'm taking a course called "Kierkegaard: A Writer's Identity" taught by my brilliant friend Nancy Leonard. God bless me, I'm rereading Either/Or for the first time since the 1970s, and having a blast. So I finished "Diary of a Seducer" and, far more mature than I was last time I read it, I accumulate a million objections to Kierkegaard's fevered fantasy - and then I turn to the Or volume, "The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage," and, bing, bing, bing, bing, - Kierkegaard has anticipated my every objection and then some, and then I start to form reservations against that argument as well. Imagine Kierkagaard as a blogger, indulging in wild psychological flights only to contradict them later after his readers had already been fooled into commenting: impossible. And yet he wrote one of the most voluminous journals that's ever been published, and I've been thinking a lot about the extent to which a blog is a public journal. I kept a journal when I was in my 20s, which got replaced by my newspaper writing in my 30s, whose impulse has been transferred to this blog in the last several years. Kierkagaard's journals, of course, weren't published until long after his death. Had his writing of them been conditioned by a consciousness that each one would immediately gather a string of comments, we would doubtless have lost one of the world's great psychological treasures. 

We don't yet know where this blog thing is going, or what new kind of reading modality it's going to lead to. Despite my grumpy resentment of selected new gizmos, I'm really no Luddite at heart, and I have an instinctive faith in mankind's ability to adapt healthfully to new technologies. It would be ridiculous to have a 30-minute timer on the comment button to force each reader into half an hour's reflection before objecting - but it would certainly have a salutary effect in numerous cases. Perhaps I simply create problems by forcing book-style content into a blog format where it doesn't belong. But I think I'm too addicted to book-style content (and too little attracted to the links-of-the-week mode of most blogs) to do otherwise.


Eric Shanfield
Would you say, then, that this blog does what Ashley feels recitals fail to do? Or is that an inexact comparison between book/blog, recital/ritual. Still, do you think it’s reasonable to object to one and not the other?
Also, one thing that struck me about Ashley passage was that he defined a useful mode of encounter with music, but not necessarily the only useful one; the contemplative aspect of being outside the ritual has its advantages as well, and different kinds of music are needed to satisfy different modes of listening. For instance, native rituals are often very long and repetitive and lack the kind of organized, concentrated beauty we admire in Webern, Mozart or, more analogously, Peter Garland, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to participate in a Beethoven sonata – it’s a different kind of participation we’re talking about, I think.
KG replies: Parallel nicely noted. It doesn’t strike me, though, that even a participatory blog holds its audience and promotes collective experience the way a successful ritual would. Of course I wouldn’t want to give up the music we’ve got, but it’s amazing to think that in a place like Ann Arbor a group of people transcended our culture’s limitations for several years and achieved a whole other modality. I think I could sacrifice certain kinds of beauty in order to have the art I’m involved in more valued and connected-to by society as a whole, rather than spend my entire life in this marginal status.
I think maybe a book is more of a ritual than a blog is, in the sense that a ritual includes the audience. You decide when to pick it up and put it down. You go back and reread a part you didn’t get. You give it the time it needs to sink in. Unlike a concert which goes by once regardless of whether you were paying attention or not. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity in these distinctions that needs to be savored, I think, not dismissed. My opinion, anyway.

Whenever I reread Kierkegaard, I always feel like I’ve been sucker puncheed. I think that if he blogged, he would piss off so many of his readers that after awhile he’d be ignored.
KG replies: I think that’s about what actually happened to him while he was alive.

Robinson McClellan
On the subject of participatory, more-than-entertainment (but still also a form of entertainment) music, I’d like to advertise a project I’m starting in NYC with the help of the Society for Ethical Culture. It’s called El Salto, and it seeks to address much the same concerns expressed in the blog post above. Its main purpose is to present new music, but it also seeks to provide an alternative to, and a critique of, the typical “classical concert” or recital. For example it includes congregational singing (of a unique type), readings, and so on – elements borrowed from certain types of church services, which are by the way an example of a participatory musical forum in our culture.
Anyway, see see for more info.
thanks for the interesting ideas in this blog post,

“It doesn’t strike me, though, that even a participatory blog holds its audience and promotes collective experience the way a successful ritual would.”
How about something like Wikipedia?
Like Eric, I was thought it was interesting that in the case of music, participation seemed ideal, while for writing, you wanted more credence given to authority and a limit on participation.
I guess one thing I’m also interested in is how much the narrative of participatory ritual as holy grail is important to our sense of and experience of art. In particular, I wonder if the kind of abstract touting of “community ritual” without particular context makes all that much sense. For example, the Native American community rituals you mention have a significantly different cultural and spiritual content than, say, gospel church services. Lumping them together under “community ritual,” as this type of analysis tends to, seems like it misses the point. “Communal experience” is a description of form, not content. I think there’s a tendency in our culture to elide the two because in capitalism, the form is the content — experience itself is the thing to be consumed, whatever the specific nature of that experience. In that sense, the criticism (we don’t have enough community anymore!) seems at least as hollow as the lack of community which is supposedly being derided.
KG replies: To take your last point first, yes, even when I wrote about Native American rituals I admitted that, attractive as they seemed, they required a submersion of the individual in group values that would be intolerable in Western democratic society for many reasons. We can’t just appropriate that because so many contrary tendencies are built in to our culture. That’s what makes it all the more impressive that the ONCE festivals might have built up some kind of more individualistic parallel.
I’m rather sorry I let the blog/ONCE festival parallel go as far as it did, though. I don’t think that in a ONCE piece like Popular Opinion Descends on the Demonstrators or The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer for Crimes Against Humanity the audience was given the option to determine content or get their opinions in. The pieces were set up by the composer and/or organizers in such a way that took the presence and natural [sonic] activity of the audience into account, but I don’t believe they became co-composers of the work. Ashley didn’t relinquish his authority over those pieces any more than I relinquish authority over my own books. “Participation” doesn’t mean the same thing in the two cases, and so I really don’t find any analogy. In addition to which, my blog – as should go without saying – is not a work of art. I want my music to be universal, capable of reaching everyone, but I would rather my blog be limited to a few like-minded individuals interested in the same subjects.
And Wikipedia strikes me more as a cult than a ritual. Those people creep me out.

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