Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.

Awkwardness infects The New Yorker

Elif Batuman has a post up at a New Yorker blog about awkwardness, which engages with my work on the topic at length. She makes a slight tweak to my historical progression toward awkwardness, arguing that it was specifically the shock of realizing that the Iraq War was a total scam that shattered the patriotic sincerity that briefly reigned after 9/11 and ushered in the era of unmitigated awkwardness. It includes some interesting thoughts on the inherent awkwardness of the family and on Mad Men as a product of the awkward age as well.

A completely practical reform for the Senate

I have written before about the constitutional problems arising from attempts to either abolish the Senate or create proportional representation. I now believe that I have developed a flawless scheme to achieve proportional representation with only minimal constitutional amendments. My model is the effort on the state level to make an end-run around the Electoral College. The scheme stipulates that once a number of states with a majority of electoral votes agrees to this measure, all those states would award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The Electoral College would remain formally in place, but it would be functionally irrelevant, with no possibility of a mismatch between the Electoral College and the popular vote (which has happened a disturbing number of times in US history).

My Senate scheme would be more complex. First, it would require the agreement of all 50 states in order to work. Second, it would require eliminating the constitutional amendment stipulating that senators be directly elected, reverting to the previous model where state legislatures appointed them (which weirdly happens to be a Tea Party demand, so maybe we could slip this in). The twist is that state legislatures would bind themselves to appoint their senators on the basis of a new nationwide senatorial election scheme, with proportional districts drawn either within or across state lines. (Let’s just stipulate that we could find a nonpartisan body that could be trusted to draw these districts.) Two new senate districts would be formally assigned to each state, which would automatically provide for staggered elections as in the current system. Ideally, all senators would resign en masse so that the new proportional system would come online all at once, but if not, it would only take six years (three election cycles) to clean house.

This system wouldn’t technically run afoul of the constitutional provision that no state be deprived of equal representation, because each senator would still be “officially” appointed by one of the states — they would just be doing so on the basis of the election results from the new nationwide senate districts. In a deeper sense, the convolution and indirection of the system seem to me to be profoundly in the spirit of the US Constitution itself. If we implemented this plan, the Founders would surely be smiling down on us, pleased that we developed a Rube Goldberg machine to get us out of the corner they painted us into.

No, political correctness has not gone too far

Jon Cogburn did not exactly cover himself in glory in his latest post, where he decries the rhetoric of ableism. (And to be fair to other New APPS contributors, one of his co-bloggers quickly denounced the post, though perhaps taking it down would be a better option, just speaking blog administrator to blog administrator.)

It’s a familiar genre: the white man’s cri de coeur about the excesses of political correctness. Such rants always start from a place of entitlement, so that demands to think about the way you talk are always presumptively an imposition (rather than common courtesy). The white man has been a good sport up till now, the story goes, but now, now they’ve gone too far! Is he seriously expected not to speak the bold truth that being able to see is preferable to blindness? We see a similar dynamic in public debates over the transgender community’s preferences for how people should talk about them — the underlying affect in mainstream responses is one of irritation that we’re supposed to regard transgender experience as an intelligible phenomenon rather than a weird abberation.

As a white man, I must admit that I have felt that tug of resistence upon learning of a previously unknown “politically correct” speech pattern. There is something irritating, after all, about being told that a phrase that I meant completely innocently has been taken as an insult. Over the years, though, I’ve developed a unique strategy for dealing with such feelings: instead of writing a 1000-word blog post vindicating myself against the unjust charges, I simply apologize for causing offense and move on with my life. Indeed, I take the further step of trying to be more aware of similar phrases in that vein.

And I can testify that my ability to express myself elegantly and effectively has not been permanently damaged by the restrictions of not being a total dick to people and not making a point of rubbing their disadvantages in their faces. Language is a robust and supple tool, able to bear up even under the weight of basic human decency.

Anger and privilege

In a recent post that I can’t find for some reason, Corey Robin pointed out that the Salaita affair — in which the University of Illinois rescinded a job offer upon learning of heated pro-Palestinian tweets written by the professor in question — is a great example of a general trend: the subaltern may perhaps speak, but he or she must never be angry. The angry feminist and the angry black man alike are figures of belittling ridicule, as though the expression of normal human frustration was a total disqualification in public debate.

This is strange when we realize that a willingness to freely express anger and frustration is considered a key requirement for effective leadership, at least when that leader is a white man. Indeed, white men’s anger is frequently presented as a charming or entertaining character trait on television — think of the success of the rageaholic chef Gordon Ramsay, who brutally castigates people for the crime of running a mediocre restaurant. Even in real life, the general public is likely to try to calm an angry white man down or placate him in some way, or else pity him for embarrassing himself with his pathetic acting-out. By contrast, if a black man behaved in the same way, people would be calling the police, and if a white woman did, people would be rolling their eyes and muttering insults under their breath.

We see a similar dynamic geopolitically. In my Islam class, someone brought up the fiasco with the cartoons of Muhammad, which caused rioting in the streets, death threats, etc. The sentiment seemed to be: “How strange that those scary Muslims would get so mad about a stupid stunt that was calculated to make them mad! When will they ever learn to be good liberal-democratic subjects like us?” What we forget in that context, however, is that white dudes regularly send all manner of threats (murder, rape, assault, etc.) to people who commit such horrific crimes as criticizing a video game they like. When that happens, of course, everyone rushes in to make sure we understand that #NotAllMen behave that way — while the lesson we’re supposed to draw from the response to an immeasurably more serious insult to Islam, an insult that was indeed intended as such, is that we must bravely set aside political correctness and admit that Islam and liberal democracy will never be compatible.

Hence I propose that, roughly speaking, one’s privilege level correlates with the likelihood that expressing anger will make people take your concerns more seriously rather than less — or at the very least, that it will prompt a reaction to you as an individual rather than triggering an immediate generalization about your demographic profile. This is one of the most intimate and insidious things about privilege dynamics: even the right to express perfectly natural and justified human emotions can’t be taken for granted.

“The End of History”: Some questions

I was reading something today that referred to Fukayama’s thesis that the fall of the Soviet Union marked “the end of history.” As we all know, the theory is that the battle between communism and liberal democratic capitalism was the last major ideological dispute, and once that was settled, history is in principle over even if “things continue to happen.”

I’ve read about this a million times, but this time I asked myself: “What about China, though?” Do only white Communists (the Russians) count? Do we only care about an ideological dispute if it results in a political divide in the subcontinent of Europe? Do we just need a quorum of European countries to hold elections, and suddenly that’s the solution for all time, the only possible answer?

To me, this is the more powerful objection to the trope, beyond the obvious fact that things keep happening: this is some racist, Eurocentric bullshit.

My interview about Agamben on Against the Grain

While I was in San Francisco this summer, C.S. Soong of KPFA’s Against the Grain invited me to record an interview about Agamben’s work, which has now aired and is archived here for your enjoyment. If you’re a Facebook person, please consider visiting the show’s Facebook page and expressing your approval in the appropriate way.

A big thanks to C.S. for inviting me! I enjoyed recording it, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it.

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