Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why We Need Critical Theory

The following image represents twelve scenes of telephone pictionary. It reads left-to-right, top-to-bottom.
The game is simple. Start with a statement, then the next person draws it. The next person captions the previous picture, and the next person draws that statement. Each person only sees the most recent statement or picture, so it's like a game of telephone. Twelve people played this game, so there were twelve stories at the end. This is just one of them.

So, start with the phrase "The ukelele is difficult." The first illustrator drew a person strumming an instrument. Most of the pictures and captions are very similar to one another, so the story doesn't go very far. Until the bottom row. The bottom left caption reads "(sad) Blues guitarist," so the illustrator drew a person looking sad, playing a guitar. That bottom-left person's face is shaded in, signifying that he is a person of color. The final captioner wrote "Hobo slumdog loser," to which the final illustrator responded by drawing a hobo by a train. Moral of the story: when a (literally, in this case) white person holds an instrument, that person is some sort of contemplative musician. When a person of color does the same thing, that person is a hobo slumdog loser.

This is what happens when one plays telephone pictionary in a room of ethnomusicologists.

The end.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dinner with Lenny

It's rare that I see an AMS new book tweet that instantly gets me on my library's webpage searching the catalog, but I was incredibly excited to see Jonathan Cott's new book Dinner With Lenny: The Last Long Interview With Leonard Bernstein. I hadn't heard anything about the book pre-publication, so I was really just excited to read an account of something I could only do in my dreams. Literally. Whenever I've been asked one of those "who, dead or alive, would you have dinner with?" questions, my answer has long been Leonard Bernstein.

I'm in a self-directed RA appointment this quarter designed to give me time to do a lot of reading and preliminary research to explore topics toward my MA thesis. I spent the first few weeks of the quarter frustratingly trying to expand and develop a paper I wrote last quarter on Leopold Stokowski and the early history of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but it turned into me banging my head against the wall, repeatedly chanting "I don't enjoy this work." So, I cut my losses! I might come back to that work later (thank you, Evernote), but I'm moving on and doing a bunch of reading in a few areas, hoping something will stick. I'm at the beginning of moving in two directions, neither of which have any framework, details, or...direction. One direction is completely new for me, but looking at a few composers I've always known to be awesome, but have never known well. It's not substantial at this point; for the moment I'm just doing a lot of listening to get the sound in my ears.

The other direction, most excitedly, is a return to Bernstein. My undergrad thesis came out of an interest in Bernstein and the Young People's Concerts, and I enjoyed that work a whole lot more than the rest of the project. I've reflected elsewhere on the process of writing that thesis, but I'll quickly remind anyone reading this that the whole thing was a tremendous learning experience. For example, if I can help it, I'll never write about minimalism again. But since I finished the section on Bernstein, I wanted to go back to it. I still can't articulate just what it is about Bernstein that draws me in, but I'm hooked and I don't think it's a hook worth resisting too strongly at this point. I know all about the dangers of getting stuck with a single topic and never really digging into anything else, which is why I'm also exploring other directions. But for now, I'm going to continue seeing if this goes anywhere.

Leonard Bernstein died when I was about 5 months old, so all my encounters with him have been secondhand at best. Cott's new book, a transcribed marathon interview, is another secondhand meeting with Bernstein. It's a very quick read, and my (non-large print) copy uses something like 14-point font, which makes it all the more fun. I love Bernstein for his populism, and this book avoids academic pretention at all costs. Aside from myself, I'm not sure what type of person this book aims to reach. Still, I do enjoy it.

A few issues confound the interview. First, the more-or-less superficial, and something incredibly close to my heart.
Leonard Bernstein: So help yourself, Jonathan.
Jonathan Cott: Uh oh! I'm afraid to tell you that I'm not sure I can eat that.
LB: It's just a chicken pot pie.
JC:  I don't eat poultry or meat.
LB: Baby, it's just a little chicken!
p. 86 
I spent an unreasonable amount of time contemplating what I would do in this situation, given my vegetarian diet. I have no interest in eating any animals, so I wouldn't cave, just because it was served in the company of the one and only Leonard Bernstein. Instead, vegetarian dinner guest etiquette suggests humbly and apologetically informing one's host (or host's secretary, if that's the case) of one's particular dietary restrictions.

Just before Cott refuses Bernstein's chicken, Bernstein denies his ties to the Black Panthers, as Tom Wolfe famously accounted in 1970.
It's a legend and it dies hard. It wasn't a party, and I didn't give it. What happened is that my wife hosted a meeting in our New York City apartment for the American Civil Liberties Union in connection with its defense of thirteen Black Panthers....At our reception were one Black Panther to answer for them, a lawyer from the ACLU, and someone from the other side, as well as two pregnant Black Panther wives who hadn't been allowed to see their husbands. p.85, emphasis Cott's.
The interview for this book happened about 13 years after that "party," and it's hard to know what to think. I'm wary of Bernstein's memory, and believe he wasn't completely aware of the repercussions of his own political actions at the time.

Dinner With Lenny is quite unremarkable in content. We don't really learn anything new, scandalous or otherwise. But that doesn't matter! The point is being a fly on the wall while Lenny does his thing. I'm impressed that both parties were able to sit down for a twelve hour interview, and I don't envy the work Cott did transcribing that much dialogue. It was interesting to get a peak into Bernstein's thoughts so late in his life. Even if the book doesn't offer much on an academic plain, I'm very glad to have read it.