Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Musician’s Take on America’s Culture - By Anthony J. DeBlasi

Criticism of today’s pop culture has been received by some as evidence of being “negative.” But how, I must ask, can anyone be “positive” in the midst of a subculture that drops reality, truth, and beauty from minds and hearts and gives even love a cheap spin?
They who accept cheapness in whatever package will forever support the market for it, while those who don’t go along with the crowd will forever stray from the mainstream highway – not out of something “wrong with them” but because they see something wrong with the direction the crowd has taken.
Since I am a musician, allow me to use music as my platform for explanation. I begin by pointing out that the kind of music one prefers is strongly influenced by what one hears in childhood. As children grow they may become aware that there is “other music out there.” Among those receptive to what is “different” are individuals who enjoy exploring things – in this case, the wider musical landscape that actually exists. Curiosity may lead such explorers to other treasure to add to their chest of musical delights, an act that may alter their “taste” in music.
In the last century, Leonard Bernstein used to give televised children’s concerts that introduced kids to some of that “other music out there.” These concerts came shortly after Van Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 and became an instant American hero – a “musical Olympic medalist,” as it were. This all revealed a side of American culture that reached out beyond what is just popular.
I was part of the effort to deliver good music to young ears when I played string bass for a children’s Christmas concert at the Brooklyn Museum (1949). At one such concert, actor Walter Abel narrated the stories for Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” Concerts like these formed part of children’s life experience at an age when music engages their developing minds most fully. The idea behind them was that young minds should not be deprived of music worth listening to, regardless of origin or time-frame. In line with this understanding, Music Appreciation classes were part of public school education, an appropriate adjunct to school bands and orchestras.
Those less inclined to tune into what is different sadly allow themselves to get locked into what is just familiar. This cuts off possibilities of musical enjoyment that they may never have. While such a stand may help bond a group or a subculture it also limits participation in the wider emotional and cultural life of the community.
With music, fortunately, this self-imposed restriction is not a serious drawback compared to the effects of such “tunnel vision” on more serious life issues. Those who stray from the fold, who are “different” by nature or choice, often find themselves alone or in small company. The fear of being “different” keeps many in line. But is it not true that such actual “being negative” can dull the appreciation of quality and originality, without which music and its audience lose out in large measure?
“Taste” is frequently cited to justify one’s preferences. We’ve heard phrases like “I know what I like,” as though that’s all there is to it. This is an attitude that closes ears and minds. I have wondered how free, even some musical greats have been, of the hindrance of “taste.” Many a celebrated popular and classic musician or composer has at one time railed against the output of another musician or composer. As for me, I enjoy the music of composers from the medieval Guillaume de Machaut to the modern Duke Ellington . . . a span of over seven centuries of music. There is no matching Machaut to Bach, yet I enjoy the music of both. There is no affinity between Liszt and Stravinsky, yet the music of both thrills me absolutely. There is no comparing Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to Puccini's Manon Lescaut, yet I thoroughly enjoy both operas. I could go on, citing examples of music that originates from the hearts and minds of musically gifted souls, in whatever period, in whatever style. Regardless of what “taste” means in this context, I keep it from interfering with my explorations and discoveries of musical treasure.  
And may I remind that taste is subject to change. (“The things I used to like, I don’t like anymore” goes the song “It Might As Well Be Spring” in the Rodgers & Hammerstein State Fair). Taste changes for reasons that conventional wisdom fails to explain. The old saw that “there is no arguing about taste” (de gustibus non est disputandum) is regularly challenged by evidence that tastes, like minds,do change. Whatever one’s take on taste, it should be obvious that it is not thecause of preference and choice but the effect of influence and exposure.
To shake all this down to a bottom line, if some music sticks in the craw after honest listening with open mind and unclogged ears, then one makes a valuable discovery about oneself as much as about the music he or she has listened to.
Regarding the broader issue of culture, of which music forms an essential part, I believe that one’s likes and dislikes are influenced by a conscious or unconscious adoption of one of two opposing views of reality. There are those who believe that there is an objective reality in which conflicts arising from differences of opinion (including “taste”) can be minimized through discovery, which involves a sincere effort to explore, reflecting a true liberal attitude. And there are those who believe that there is no objective reality and that differences of opinion must be compatible with the ruling politics of the day. And this reflects a serious distortion of liberalism.
In short, there is a choice between openness to reality or giving in to prevailing pressure regarding how to think, how to behave and, even what we should like and dislike.
Like so many who are out of step with a mainstream dominated by fake “liberals” whose understanding of that word approaches zero, I cannot abide the sleaze infecting the mainstream and hardly anybody saying enough!

Anthony J. DeBlasi studied music at Brooklyn College and is a life-long defender of Western Culture.