A review and response to Dennis R. Edwards, Might from the Margins: the Gospel's Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Harrisonburg Virginia: Herald Press, 2020).
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Monday, March 29, 2021
To many theologians, the root of sin lies in the notion of rank. This notion generates social structures that lead to stratification and stigma, as Isabel Wilkerson has shown—primarily in race, but applicable to most of our social institutions.
The arts are not immune to this, as noted by Rae Linda Brown in her biography of Florence Price. So it is hardly a surprise that Indianapolis gained notice for an ill-worded job advertisement that fueled suspicions of racial bias. Suspicions of such bias have lurked around the city for some time, especially since the museum began to levy admission fees for entrance.
Since history is there for us to learn from whether we like it or not, let’s look at some parts of this claim that proponents of the statement may not like. Yesterday marked an anniversary: on March 28, 1871, Richard Wagner lodged a complaint with his publisher over the publication of the Walkürenritt in a stand-alone version (you can see a short comment about this at my Facebook page). The idea of popular settings of just a few minutes extracted from a four-hour long opera that was the second of a series of four, and the same not being performed in the specially-built Bayreuth theater, was appalling to him.
It was not the first cultural fit thrown by culture snobs. In 1797, as deafness was creeping upon him, Beethoven scandalized the musical world of Vienna with his opus 11 trio, whose last movement is based on a popular song, “Before I go to work.” We don’t need to stop there: for one of many examples, think of the Renaissance composers who foreshadowed Sister Act by using the tunes of popular love songs as a setting for liturgical texts. Or King David, dancing in the streets, which also upset people (2 Samuel 6.14-22).
The old adage from Qoheleth, rendered in the Vulgate as nihil novum sub sole is, it would seem, a universal value (Ecclesiastes 1.9). So should we be surprised to see cultural snobbery rearing its head again? As Lawrence Levine details in his book Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy In America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), the forces that seek to create an artistic hierarchy and enforce rules about it have long been with us. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn reminds us that Shakespeare was well-known in early America and widely performed. And after The Bard, or between the acts, came the farces.
Post-civil war America was rapidly undergoing industrialization and social stratification. Income inequality soared as the wealthy channeled tax relief to themselves. However imperfect, the Founder’s ideals of egalitarianism found in the preamble to the Constitution seemed to fall by the side. In theological terms, the (sinful) human tendency to categorize and rank took hold. So it’s hardly surprising that some people decreed that the culture of immigrants and others of lower social standing was less pure than that of the winners of social Darwinism.
As this happened, “the arts” became sacralized: something to be protected from the masses, who were provided with their own entertainment. And protest happened! Since its 1880 opening, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had been closed on Sunday, the only day which the average worker had off. After years of debate, the museum opened for the first time on Sunday on May 31, 1891. It was a small victory, although, like many, not full: in 1897, the director of the museum defended ejecting a plumber who tried to enter wearing overalls. More recently, in 2002, when a radio station frequency swap in Dallas would have restricted coverage of the city’s classical music station, some members of the council warned about making presumptions of who the listeners were. And now, the cycle is playing out again here in Indy. The museum has promised changes. Quo vadis?
Disclaimer: I bought Highbrow, Lowbrow while in graduate school and later apparently shared it with someone, and it never came back. So I used my notes and a library copy (which I returned on time) here. I have never been a member of the Indianapolis Museum of Art but did attend a few faculty development programs there, and often visited when it was free.
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
This is a copy of an essay from 2002 for Naxos which won the grand prize on the topic. It can be found here, but I'm publishing it to my blog to make it more readily available.
In the US (at least) many churches are adopting a so-called "shopping mall" approach to their outreach. They use a variety of methods--support groups dealing with many topics, interest groups, traditional salvation appeals, child care, user-friendly services, to name a few--to get people in. Although sometimes criticized as marketing God like a box of soap, these means are successful for many congregations.
My take-off on this is that getting people to listen to classical music (and spend some money on it) requires a similar approach. It can't just focus on attending concerts. There are several areas that will appeal to people, depending on their background and interests. There are also various levels of knowledge/literacy. Therefore, I will address several areas, and I am sure there are several others. I will mix this with studies in American cultural history (my current graduate school work).
If classical music is to survive, it must become the cultural property of everyone, not just a few. There is a widespread stereotype (at least where I live) that a high level of affluence and liking "classical" music go hand in hand (and it's not seriously resisted by many of those involved, who variously enjoy status or the profits that come from selling expensive goods).
This attitude to classical music (along with other arts) is a comparatively recent development. In earlier America, concerts were widely attended by a cross-section of the populace. They were very different, though. They might intersperse marches, play shorter selections of long works, include a popular song, and so on. Now, I prefer to listen to a whole Mozart symphony, but if playing single movements gets people introduced to it and listening to the rest, I'm not going to complain.
But around the turn of the 20th century a group of self-styled guardians of culture made Beethoven and his kin into idols, whose holy works must be appreciated only in a suitable setting (and only by those properly prepared). We might add to this that the performances often became stolid, stodgy exercises, losing the vitality that some artists are beginning to reclaim (especially, it seems, on Naxos, if I may throw that in). And one of the lost pages of history, the Astor Place riot, showed that such things mattered to many people.
It may be that such things still matter to many people, but some have closed off their input. Do we know the real size or potential of the classical audience? The success of "Elvira Madigan", Amadeus, Pachelbel's Canon, Mozart in MASH, and so on point to a wider interest than is often supposed. I am often asked where to purchase the music from a particular movie. Ravinia packs them in for jazz as much as the Chicago Symphony. There's a very popular rack of Naxos recordings at the entrance to our local bookstore (too popular, I can never find what I'm looking for). Most recently, a proposal to move the tower and frequency of WRR, a classical station owned by the city of Dallas, brought wide-spread reaction that resulted in scrapping the proposal. Of particular interest, much of the opposition came from the south side of the city, which would have had reduced coverage. The south side is predominantly Black, and is not one of the areas that the Jaguar and Hummer dealers target when purchasing advertising time on WRR. The councilperson of one area affected stated that the city should not presume that classical music was not part of the life of his constituents. I suppose it's true that someone working at minimum wage and barely paying the rent isn't going to attend a concert, but that doesn't seem to stop them from listening to the radio.
So why doesn't this market seem to matter, or show itself?
An easy target is the cost of attending a classical concert. It's getting out of hand for even middle class people. There's no easy solution to this--orchestras are still filling the seats while losing money.
Developing a wider audience, both in numbers and depth of its members, is something I can say more about. It seems that our schools (at least from an American perspective) are doing little or nothing. When they teach music, it's what we call "preaching to the choir"--aimed at those who are already interested. Little is done to introduce students to a variety of music and thus create music lovers. There is little effort to introduce people to the joy of playing an instrument (and what effort does exist is directed to developing a few virtuosi or band players). The solution is multi-faceted. Parents must care enough to demand that schools teach music (and arts) and not just focus on reading (important as that is)--that schools be a place of learning and education, not just trade training. I could go on--administrators who know nothing but paperwork instead of real supervision and sharing, and so on.
I'm not sure how to get this going, either. Schools are broke and the people are submissive. Maybe we are entering a new Dark Age. That's pessimistic, but the more the MBA-mentality of "what's it worth" as the ultimate expression takes over, the more music will suffer. It has a value that isn't readily expressed in terms of The Almighty Dollar.
I think the music business needs a little openness to technology. I know several people who came to classical music through Walter/Wendy Carlos--but I see little acknowledgement of that work as a serious effort. And I don't want to see people playing instruments replaced by computers, but my MP3's--or even better, NoteWorthyComposer files (which let me see the score
while it plays)--are fun, a good way to get to know the music. Bach was always complaining about his forces, Beethoven about the instruments available--what would they do today?
To some extent, the brunt of this falls on the recording industry. It is the most visible, and recordings are the primary exposure for most people. But people are frustrated by recordings. Because popular music is merchandised, there is no service, and the selection of other genres at many stores is nearly non-existent. I am always amused while browsing the classical section of the local bookstore (which is halfway decent, although disorganized) when some kid comes to ask if he can help with anything. He thinks Beethoven is a dog in a movie. So what happens when people do hear something they like? Radio stations sometimes have their playlists at a web site, which is a great idea. That leads to what is perhaps the one concrete suggestion I can make: Naxos should put its index of movie music on the web and label it clearly so search engines will find it. Then make sure people can actually buy the recording. Then think about a similar way of putting non-movie music, something that gets beyond facing an alphabet of unfamiliar names, with those marvelous downloadable samples. Possibilities are "if you like this... try that;" music you already know, music from commercials, and expanding the movie list to TV shows.
Monday, March 15, 2021
A review of Rebecca L. Holland, Hope for the broken: Using writing to find God’s Grace. Rookland AR: TouchPoint Press, 2021.
On my bookshelf sits a copy of The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), a volume I first met in high school. I’ve probably owned a dozen copies, having worn some out, loaned some out, and kept up with new editions. All of these have been the same small book, proving the adage that good things come in small packages.
Rebecca Holland has written another such small book. It is part autobiography, part sharing of ideas, part devotion, part guidance, part instruction manual, part motivational, and an outstanding word of encouragement. As she tells and reflects on her own story, she gives a foundation that encourages the reader to recall and tell their own story.
Writing is a gift from God, a path to finding comfort and healing, a way to share love, kindness, champion the underdog, and turn the world upside down. Working with this theme, “Rev. Beckie” leads us in struggles with feelings of inadequacy and being out of place through a path of learning that these characteristics are what God works with and uses to give strength. The practice of writing develops memory, discipline, and teaches us to defy a world of racism, ableism, and sexism, and find healing.
In this digital age, we often touch keyboards and read screens. She puts some emphasis on using a real pen (or pencil) and paper as a way to engage our entire being as we copy and write slowly and thoughtfully. And doodling is good too! For those of us who can’t write well by hand and find a keyboard helpful, keep in mind that we can do that thoughtfully.
This book is a significant reminder of the power of writing and the need for each of us, especially those often marginalized, to proclaim love in a broken world. People with disabilities are often not heard telling their own stories, which means that others define us. “Nothing about us, without us” matters here too—no one else is able to tell this story. Plant a seed, even in a parking lot, and watch the flowers grow.
Disclaimer: I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review. I wasn’t asked to do anything other than respond honestly. This was nice, even if I didn’t get a library receipt telling me how much I’ve saved.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
A review of and reactions to Judith Heumann, Being Heumann: an unrepentant memoir of a disability rights activist (Boston: Beacon Press 2020).
Monday, January 11, 2021
A review and thoughts about James Essinger and Sandra Koutzenko, Frankie: How One Woman Prevented a Pharmaceutical Disaster (North Palm Beach FL: Wellspring, 2019)
Many people will remember reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in school. The book, which tells the story of an immigrant family who are taken advantage of at every turn, gained fame for something else: its descriptions of food processing, which led to the author's comment that he had "aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach."
Today, as we witness gender disparity, disability discrimination, and political manipulation of public agencies in the face of Covid-19, there's another such story lurking in the life of Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey (24 July 1914 - 7 August 2015). Better known as “Frankie,” Dr. Kelsey, M.D. (note that, ye purveyors of academic and gender nonsense), has faded from public recognition, but in her lifetime, she stood out as a government employee who faced down pressure from corporate chiefs as well as other government agencies. When she was, by random assignment, given the task of evaluating a new drug for approval in the United States in 1960, she found numerous problems with the studies, and the responses did not satisfy her. As she probed deeper, she found more problems, and thereby stopped a short-sighted approval of a drug now regarded as dangerous—thalidomide.
The story itself is of interest in understanding how regulations should work, and how other forces try to shortcut them. There is some scientific discussion, but it ought to be within the province of anyone who has passed biology in high school (although sometimes, seeing posts on social media, I think this might be worth more worry). The style is not academic—it is a journalistic report, replete with comments about corporate greed. Much of this seems to be in hindsight, and it sometimes forgets the workings of scientific method, but this does not detract from its insights.
Reading the book also brought to mind a number of cultural points. The first is the treatment of women in the professions. Her given name, Frances, is often confused by those who have lost track of their Latin declensions and gender markers; added to this was being known almost everywhere as “Frankie.” As a result, she received an invitation to the University of Chicago from a man who felt that women were not able to handle science. To avoid embarrassment, the university was forced to accept her. And her concern for drug effects on pregnant women was also roundly ignored by many men in the field.
There’s also a section on the origin of pharmaceuticals in modern life, which includes how Germany became an early leader it the field—from a combination of Nazi experiments and a way to rebuild the post-war economy. And if one follows the thread, there’s a good bit here about the influences of greed, communication delays in a pre-internet world, and bad translations.
In November 1961, the first reports of birth defects from thalidomide became public. One of the results parallels that of Sinclair: legislation that required the FDA to provide more comprehensive safety studies before approval of a drug, and other regulatory powers such as the ability to order the withdrawal of a drug if the need arises. Safety did come to the fore, and while the people were heard, in the long term, much of this has been lost.
Historically, the lessons of this book include the need in today’s atmosphere to understand the historical background of laws, including regulatory agencies. Another area addressed are recent measures that have been taken to compensate thalidomide victims. This is mostly in Europe and the U.K., as thalidomide was not approved here and its use is strictly regulated today. But neither across the pond nor here has the cost of living with any disability been given adequate consideration. Social and employment discrimination, marriage restrictions, disability insurance payments, the high cost of care and adaptive devices, all remind one of the exploitations which Sinclair addressed. While the remedies of his time and the 1960s rightly needed to be handled, there remain serious problems today.
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it by the due date, which I have done. On my checkout receipt, the Library informed me that I've saved about $400 by using their services through the year. So its no surprise that Amazon and others have proposed ending them.
Thursday, December 10, 2020
A review of Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: the life and music of Florence B. Price (Guthrie Ramsey Jr, ed.) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020. (NB: the author died in 2017; the editor updated some of the information for publication).
Music, the universal language! Yet how often is it clouded by assumptions, such as being divided into two worlds, one the product of grumpy old white Europeans, and the other dominated by young flash-in-the-pans who often trade pyrotechnics for talent? But like many others, this is a false dichotomy, and this book is an excellent example.
While listening to “Performance Today” one morning, I heard something unfamiliar but interesting--folksong settings by Florence Price. They reminded me of Beethoven’s similar settings, along with Bach’s appropriation of popular tunes in his works. Further commentary and a little research gave more information, and when I learned about this biography, it was a must-read.
Price, born in 1887, died in 1953. Her life spanned the rise of legal discrimination, some of the first tentative steps to end that system, and challenged a dual glass ceiling in music—women and color in the formal settings of orchestral music. And she reached into the realm of popular music with taste and style.
There are many parallels here to events found in Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: the origins of our discontents. For example, Brown refers to an early Jim Crow law, the Tillman Separate Coach Act of 1891 as “caste legislation” passed not out of sudden aversion, but in rejection of the social and political advances of middle-class blacks (29). It was an event that influenced Price's life.
For a young musician such as Price, discrimination was particularly acute, as most whites thought of themselves as cultured, while Blacks were presumed to lack culture and refinement—as well as the ability to gain it. But all the same, and partially motivated by such Jim Crow laws, Price moved from Arkansas to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in 1903. In her course of studies over three years, she did well. But she still faced racial discrimination, especially in obtaining housing.
At graduation, she returned to Little Rock. At that time, she faced continuing efforts to disenfranchise Blacks, as well as unequal pay. So she took a teaching position at Clark University, Atlanta. After a short time, she returned to Little Rock and married a lawyer, Thomas Price, who was active in legal challenges to discriminatory provisions. She also followed a typical path: she soon left full-time teaching to raise the couple’s children, but did continue private lessons, which gave the opportunity to compose exercises for her students.
In another Caste parallel, increasing racism through the 1920s, turning into outright terrorism from groups such as the KKK, prompted another departure. The family moved to Chicago in 1927. Chicago was seen as a promised land to many, especially musicians, being the center of jazz and the developing gospel movement. Here, Price continued to write songs, and also took up a pen name, “Vejay,” under which she wrote musicals and commercial jingles. But all was not well. Reflecting the experiences of many in the Depression, in 1931 she divorced her husband on grounds of abuse, and then remarried in six weeks.
But there was breakthrough: in 1932, she completed her first symphony and won the Wanamaker Foundation prize in that category, along with another for her piano sonata. Part of the prize was that the symphony was played at the 1933 World's Fair by the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock.
By 1934, she was separated. In 1935 she travelled to Little Rock to play a benefit concert at Dunbar High School. In another parallel illustrating the events of Caste, the school’s previous building had been condemned. The school board authorized a new building but provided no funding. The Rosenwald Fund agreed to pay for a building on the condition that it would be used for vocational training only—leading to menial jobs, trapping its graduates in the caste system. The new building opened in 1930, by which time the curriculum included the liberal arts. In comparison, the (Central) Little Rock High School, built in 1927, had much larger facilities but was restricted to whites only.
After this, Price faded on the scene, apparently due to health problems. In the middle of planning a trip to Europe that would include promoting her music she died in Chicago on June 3, 1953. Much of her music was never published, and generally thought to be lost. But a 2009 discovery at at house in downstate St. Anne turned up more compositions, and some have also been found in Arkansas.
Price appears to have been a woman of her times, but one who also sought to reach beyond social limitations. Brown notes that she lacked the assurance and aggression which are often associated with men, characteristics that are viewed as necessary in professions to get ahead (often expressed as a man is confident, a woman is bossy). As well, race compounded that. Although she did well in Chicago, where the Chicago Defender referred to her as the dean of composers, exposure to other areas did not happen in her lifetime.
While that wider exposure did not happen during her lifetime, to some extent, the ready availability of recordings has begun to change that. And, as I was writing this, came news that the Philadelphia Orchestra has scheduled all of her symphonies for performance over the next seasons. These will be a welcome change for anyone interested in expanding their musical horizons.
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library on the condition that I would return it within three weeks. I kept that promise. I also have an undergraduate minor in music, funded by a scholarship to Indiana University back in the days when the state recognized and encouraged learning to think.