Democracy Dies in Materialism

Shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump, in what amounted to an ongoing editorial about his administration, The Washington Post situated the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” right below the paper’s masthead. It’s a bold pronouncement:  not entirely inaccurate, but one that falls far short of encompassing the broader threat to the democratic order in the United States.

It’s more accurate to say that democracy dies in materialism, by which I mean our utilitarian attitude today that knowledge is rooted only in marketable skills. It changes our perception of democracy from being a way to secure abstract rights and liberties into a means by which we can have fewer limits on what we obtain, measure each other by what we have and block those who disagree with us.

A materialistic view doesn’t equip us to think deeply about human rights, civil rights, the role of government or human flourishing.  It cripples our ability to think historically and critically, and so reinforces the tribalism that’s already transforming our politics into isolated echo chambers of certainty and hostility.

As a teacher I see this constantly. “I love history and I would major in it, but my parents won’t let me,” is one of the saddest things a student has ever said to me. What she meant was that she loved it and wanted to study it but her parents insisted she get a degree that would get her a job.

I’ve heard it more than once and it’s emblematic of our current approach to education:  Skills — not the development of rational thought — are what students are after. There’s nothing wrong with making a good living, but it’s not the same as being educated. Wisdom and perspective, not skills, are the antidote for what ails us.

Unlike accounting, marketing or computer programming, which are skills, human rights, a free press and democratic government are ideas.  Consequently, if those who believe in democracy don’t stay conversant with ideas and how they should influence us, an appreciation of the subtleties that allow democracy to work will dissolve. We’re already seeing it every time we turn on the news.

Abraham Lincoln watched it dissolve in the early years of his presidency, but he understood that the real foundation of the U.S. was an ideological enterprise, not a material nuts-and-bolts one. For him, the Declaration of Independence was a more important founding document than the Constitution, even though that’s what the inconclusive political fights leading up to the Civil War had all been about.

The Declaration of Independence by contrast was rooted in abstract ideas about rights, government authority, power and liberties, and it provided the measure of what we ought to do. As he stood at Gettysburg distilling for the crowd the reason they had to keep fighting, Lincoln drew on this. “Four score and seven years ago,” he began, taking his listeners back to 1776, not 1787.

Lincoln knew the only thing that could bind the nation together was its “mystic chords of memory,” as he later put it, not any material well-being or the Constitutional interpretation of the interstate commerce clause. But if I tried to justify my history courses by invoking mystic chords of memory, I’d be laughed out of most administrators’ offices. I can’t imagine the reaction of that one students’ parents if she were to inform them she wanted to spend her four years at the university studying mystic chords of memory.

It’s not that everyone back in Lincoln’s time went around talking about ideas seven days a week.  But for a nation with its roots in ideas, understanding both our history and our present requires the ability to engage substantively with them.  To see rightly where we are now and to understand the consequences of the choices we make requires us to measure our actions in light of the ideas on which our country is based.

That seems like a simple task. But our materialism makes it more difficult.

This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Friday, May 11, 2018


The importance of influences

The late novelist Shelby Foote often told the story of an exchange he once had with his friend and fellow author William Faulkner.  They were driving somewhere together in Mississippi one day and Foote suddenly turned to his companion and said “You know, I have every reason to believe that I’ll be a better writer than you.”  Faulkner raised an eyebrow and replied “Oh?  That may well be.  Why?”  Foote answered “Well, your influences are Flaubert and Conrad, and my influences are Proust and you, and my writers are better than your writers.”

I don’t know of many anecdotes that do a better job than that of making the point that in the art world, influences are important.  Indeed, they’re formative whether one is a novelist, poet, painter, actor, comedian, or musician. An individual’s art is at least half about influences.   It’s true that in many ways art is a world in and of itself, one that requires some getting to know before you can really understand what you’re looking at or listening to.  Understanding the presence of influences and how artists interact with them is one of the most fundamental and effective ways of doing this.

Clifford Brown was born in 1930 in Wilmington, Delaware.  When he was about fifteen, he started playing trumpet and before he was 20 was a regular in the Philadelphia jazz scene.  He started recording in 1952 and was soon playing with the biggest names in the business and leading combos of his own.

Three years later his career was cut short when he was killed in a car wreck, but by that point he himself had become one of the hottest players around and his tone and style a profound influence on younger players.  Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan, both 8 years his junior, were two of them.  In 1963 Morgan recorded one of the most popular jazz albums ever, called “The Sidewinder,” and Hubbard went on to be a central player in the jazz world for decades, receiving an NEA Jazz Master award in 2006.  You can hear Brown in how they play.

Art is a chain of influences, and to trace that chain backward in time and then follow it forward again is to gain fundamental perspective on any artist.  Knowing the influences can even bring artist and viewer closer together.

The advent of Modernism in the second half of the 19thcentury made influences into an even more vivid component of art, as it introduced the strong compulsion for artists to set themselves apart from what had come before.  Influences suddenly could be negative, for lack of a better term: something that artists reacted against and from which they separated themselves.  This change, however, did nothing to reduce the basic importance of influences for the viewer or listener.  Quite the contrary:  Someone who sought to understand a Modernist painter or a composer could gain as much insight from knowing what the artist in question did not want to be like.  Suddenly, all those odd harmonies and rhythmic discontinuities, or those garish unnatural colors and disjointed perspectives let the viewer know what the artist was thinking.

It’s well known, for instance, that in the 1930s American painter Jackson Pollock studied at the Art Students League in New York City under Thomas Hart Benton, a man 23 years his senior and a pioneer of what came to be called Regionalism.  Pollock’s early canvases too were landscapes with swirling shapes, clearly influenced by his mentor.  A viewer can make more sense of Pollock’s later move to abstraction by knowing what he’s distancing himself from.

Jackson Pollock, Cotton Pickers, c. 1935

The chain of influence in art can span years, decades, and even centuries.  You don’t have to study directly under an artist to be influenced by him or her.  When I started playing bass I honed in on two or three bass players I really wanted to play like, but I never came close to meeting any of them.  But it didn’t matter.  Knowing that they were my influences would help you make sense of the way I played and how I constructed bass lines.  They still influence me.

Art is, among other things, a chain of influences that explains where we are at any one time and how we got there.  It explains bebop just as much as it explains abstract expressionism.  And our knowing it helps art become a richer experience for all of us.



Songwriters today

The “Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge” is a contest organized by the National Endowment for the Arts that invites high school students interested in musical theater to submit their best original songs.  The NEA began the program a few years ago as part of its 50thanniversary celebrations “to strengthen and highlight the creative development of young people and prepare them for the future,” as Endowment head Jane Chu put it. Beginning with a pilot program in just three cities, it met with notable success and went national the following year.

This year there were nearly 200 entries from 36 states.  Last month, the NEA brought the six finalists—one of them from Tyler, Texas—to a songwriting workshop in New York City led by professionals from throughout the world of musical theater, and each of the finalists had their song published by the renowned Samuel French, Inc.  David Volpini, a junior from Chippewa Valley High School in Macomb County, Michigan was ultimately chosen as the winner.  He received a prize of $25,000 from the National Music Publishers Association.  The second place winner received $10,000, and the third place finisher got $5,000. That’s one way to affirm talent.

The National Music Publishers Association operates a charitable foundation called “Supporting Our Next Generation of Songwriters” with which it funds all sorts of programs for up and coming songwriters, ranging from this contest to songwriting scholarships.“We all know what a gift great songwriting is to the culture at large, but many do not know how hard it is to make a living writing in the age of streaming,” the association explains, speaking of the intense pressures that technological changes are bringing to the art.  “Every year, the struggling digital music economy forces talented songwriters to succumb to the financial pressure to find more lucrative jobs.”

Those pressures have been building for a while.  As early as 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America began filing lawsuits against computer users who illegally shared copyrighted music files (a technical-sounding term that simply means the songs you hear on the radio by professional artists) via online file sharing networks.  Many of those sites have shut down, but now newer technology, specifically the wildly popular practice of streaming music, has brought even more pressure on the financial viability of songwriting as an art. Writing last month in the Pacific Standard, journalist Jack Denton explained that it’s songwriters who are being hurt the most by streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. “While [recording] artists are capable of making money through touring and merchandising,” he explains, “songwriter income is limited to royalties received from music sales, radio plays, and streams.”

Denton told the story of a songwriter named Andre Lindal, whose song “As Long As You Love Me,” was a smash hit for pop singer Justin Bieber.  In one year, users of the streaming site Pandora listened to the song a whopping 38 million times.  On YouTube, the song’s video was viewed more than 34 million times.  From the plays on Pandora, Lindal received $278 for the year. From the YouTube views he received just $218.  (If my math is correct, each time his song was played on Pandora he received .00000732 cents.)  As streaming replaces the traditional sale of albums, the established avenues of remuneration for songwriters begin to shrink.  “You can’t be a songwriter without having a spare job,” he told Denton with discouragement. “It’s awesome to be working with great people.  But it stinks that you’re not going to be able to get paid for what you do.  You can only be a fan for so long.”

In 2014 Time magazine explained that even recording artists earned, on average, less than one cent per play, specifically somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084.  That year, pop superstar Taylor Swift famously pulled her catalog from the streaming service Spotify.  “Music is art,” she said, “and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Music, she summed up, should not be free.

Indeed, one troublesome aspect of the increasing ubiquity of the Internet has been how it encourages the notion that all sorts of artistic content ought to be free to consumers, including newspaper stories, professional art criticism, and even music itself.  But musicians and songwriters are the heart of the music business and it is they who create the art.  They are the ones who deserve to profit from it more than anyone else in the process.  Streaming is popular and isn’t going to go away, but it’s worth knowing that something so enjoyed by consumers has a distinct downside for many of the artists who are creating that enjoyment.

Merry Melodies

Earlier this week I was sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting my turn.  The silence of the exam room was broken only by the piped-in music.  Had it been the regular bland kind of music that one usually hears in such a setting I don’t think I would’ve paid any attention to it.  But this wasn’t that.  The first tune I noticed that told me something different was going on was Henry Mancini’s 1958 classic “Peter Gunn Theme.”  It struck me that despite how familiar that melody is, I’ve never heard it in the catalog of what I usually think of as waiting room music.  The next tune that caught my attention was “Birdland,” by the vocal jazz group Manhattan Transfer.  Then there was a Sinatra tune of all things, but I can’t remember which one it was.  The last song I heard before the doctor came through the door was a tune that isn’t as foreign to the standard-issue easy-listening pop of waiting rooms but one that, by this point, I was conditioned to hear differently.  It was Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind.”  What I focused in on was the quality of its melody: it’s one of the best melodies in all of popular music.

As a critical component of a piece of music, the melody of a song is what we most often carry around with us.  It’s what we whistle or hum; it’s the arc of a song, the notes that carry voices or instruments up and down a particular scale from which is distilled an artistic statement.  Ninety-nine times out of 100 it’s what’s most memorable or even famous about a piece of music. “You Are My Sunshine” for example has a wonderful, unforgettable melody.  There’s an old adage about The Beatles that says John Lennon wrote better lyrics and Paul McCartney wrote better melodies.  That’s a bit too simplistic perhaps, but it’s true that McCartney’s melodies, like Eleanor Rigby, which is his best, usually run circles around Lennon’s.

One of the best melodies in all orchestral music has to be the one from the first movement of Mozart’s Serenade in G Major.  Indeed, it’s one of the most memorable melodies ever penned even though most people don’t know its name. Even its more colloquial title, “Eine Kliene Nachmusik,” doesn’t particularly roll off the tongue in a way that promotes familiarity, but I know that if I started whistling it you would join in before I finished the first nine notes. Early in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film Amadeus, it’s the melody that Antonio Salieri plays on the piano for the priest who’s come to hear his confession, bitterly certain that the young cleric will be familiar with the work of his rival if not his own.

Russian composer Tchaikovsky had a wonderful sense of melody that manifests itself most clearly in his ballets.  (I’ve written before about this.) Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and of course The Nutcracker contain some of the catchiest melodies you’ll ever hear an orchestra play.

Strange as it may seem, despite its centrality to how we think of music, some pieces don’t have a melody, at least not a fixed one.  Much of American jazz from a period in the middle of the twentieth century was improvisational: that is, the melody is completely dependent for its existence on a soloist who’s making it up as he or she goes along.  One of the best selling jazz albums in history provides a prime example. The story goes that in 1959, Miles Davis went into the studio with his group armed only with a few sketches of songs about which he provided his players almost no detail, no melodies, just keys. The result was Kind Of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever made. It consists of great players making it up as they go along—the melodies don’t exist until they’re played. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and I don’t think I could really whistle any of the songs for you.

By contrast to Tchaikovsky’s ballets and to improvisational geniuses like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Charlie Parker, composer Igor Stravinsky’s modernist ballet Rite of Spring expresses its musical significance through rhythm more so than melody. Its jarring irregular pounding rhythms created a sensation when the work was first performed.  Even today with its place in the canon secure I can’t quite imagine anyone leaving a performance hall humming parts of it.

What do we take away from an extended contemplation of melody?  Mostly I think an appreciation that music can be both complex and intimate at the same time.  The interactions between the rhythmic structure and chord progressions often provide the complexity.  The melody on the other hand is the part with which we most easily interact and that most often provides the emotional connection that we enjoy with pieces of good music. But it can also be the means by which we’re drawn into a deeper understanding of how music itself in any genre comes alive from mere figures on a page.





Taking the arts seriously

Actions speak louder than words as the old adage has it, and perhaps in no field of endeavor is this well-worn expression quite so applicable as in the arts. People may speak as art supporters, they may praise institutions like the local orchestra, they may even write columns for newspapers, but the ones who count the most are those who actively incorporate art into whatever enterprise they undertake. Those who demonstrate through their actions that the arts can play a significant role in human flourishing are its best evangelists. My slender efforts to endorse the arts as a civic good pale in comparison to what people who are creative—and who are expansive and generous with their creativity—can achieve.

Few people embody this action more than does the music minister at my church. His name is David Bolin, and he is retiring next month after decades of service and a lifetime of testifying to the power of art within the human act of worship.

photo by Luke Stokes

The job of a music minister in a church is a tough one.  At minimum it involves leading the congregation in song every Sunday, picking the music for the choir, rehearsing it during the week, and conducting it during the service (all this while half the congregation questions your song choices).  Few music ministers whom I have known can make a choir sound better than David does.  And the thoughtfulness with which he picks songs for the choir to sing, and the performances that he coaxes out of it, testify both to the power of music, and to just how important the choices are of which songs to sing and what instrumental music to include.

When I first arrived at the church almost 18 years ago, a friend who was already a member described David to me as something more than a music minister. “He’s like an artist-in-residence,” he said.  It took me a while to realize what he meant by this, but eventually I saw the myriad ways in which David carefully plans all of the artistic expressions that take place over the course of a worship service.  It’s not unlike the level of attention the artistic director of an opera company has to devote to upcoming performance of, say, Bizet’s Carmen.

In addition to that, David Bolin is the first music minister I have known who is also an active and prolific composer. He writes music, lyrics, and music for other people’s lyrics, all of which have a distinctive power and effectiveness when performed.  I’ve been fortunate enough to accompany him sometimes, playing the bass as he sits at the piano and plays for the congregation one of his own pieces, teaches them how to sing it, and even tells them what he was thinking when he wrote it.  In so doing he draws everyone into the power of the music itself.

Photo by Luke Stokes

Perhaps most impressive of all is that he understands the capacity of other art forms to bring illumination into the act of worship.  He writes musicals:  one called A Winter Snow and another entitled A Christmas Journey are two of his creative productions in which orchestral music, vocal music, and dramatic action combine.  I’m happy that my children have each had the experience of being in one of his productions.  These and his other non-musical dramatic performances he stages are for the benefit not only of the congregation and visitors, but for those who are fortunate enough to take part in his productions and thereby share in his artistic vision.

I’ve written about his work before but I’ve never specifically given him the credit for the artistic vision about which I was writing.  There was the time I was surprised to see ballet in a church service, but once I saw it, it seemed like the perfect way to convey the idea of reverence. I’ve written about how moved I was by his conducting the orchestra in a performance of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” movement from the Enigma Variations during the offertory of a service.  Again, it never would have occurred to me that that particular piece would fit there; it’s certainly not a hymn, it’s not even church music really, but it was perfect.

He understands perhaps better than any music minister at any church I’ve been a part of that all artistic expression is a gift from God and that we shape our hearts toward God as we engage in creativity.  In this, he highlights the inherently spiritual character of the arts by showing how well they fit into worship. That is to say, he shows how art is a more fundamental human expression than even speech itself. In David Bolin, everyone who wants the arts play a greater role in their lives has a wonderful model to emulate. He will be missed.

photo by Luke Stokes