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Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Perceived Legitimacy and the Media, or "If They Tell You They Don't Like It You Must Be Doing Something Right"

In paragraph two of his recent "All Women, All the Time (Almost)" posting, Kyle Gann remarks on the second anniversary of his blog:

"I wrote a little fewer entries this year than last - I suspect that decline will continue. I'm not finding a blog to be the most effective means for getting my ideas out, because I can't accompany my arguments with sufficient evidence. . . it feels sometimes like all I do here is draw arguments from people who don't know the music I'm talking about and won't believe it exists."

I won't take a position on whether working on his Postminimalism book (which I, as a postminimalist, look forward to) or blogging is a better investment of his time, but I disagree strongly with Kyle's assesment of the value of his blogging. Let's take a step back and look at a couple of key factors in how the media works.

I have just finished David Brock's fascinating and troubling book The Republican Noise Machine. One of Brock's theses is that by finding various ways to insert far right wing views into the mainstream media, conservatives have given the air of mainstream legitimacy to ideas and perspectives that are in fact broadened the spectrum of apparently "legitimate" perspectives to include radical fringe ideas. The operating principle is that the audience assumes that viewpoints worthy of coverage in the MSM must be valid viewpoints held by a substantial segment of the population, even if the audience doesn't agree with those views. The rightward extension of the validated spectrum shifts the apparent center, making rightist views appear more moderate on average than leftist views. At the same time, ideas that are not covered in the MSM can have (and can easily be given) the appearance of non-validity, and holders of those viewpoints can easily appear to be (and easily be painted as) out of touch.

The actual politics covered by Brock aren't particularly relevant to this discussion, but serve to illustrate this important fundamental feature of media. Classical music is not covered much by the MSM, and new music is covered even less -- and that lack of coverage reinforces the impression by the public that classical music, and especially new classical music, is not relevant to today's society. Similarly, the lack of attention paid to Downtown music by the Classical Music equivalent of the Mainstream Media reinforces the idea that Downtown music is irrelevant, or dead, or not worthy of serious attention, or simply not doing anything particularly interesting. As a result, Kyle hears "arguments from people who don't know the music I'm talking about and won't believe it exists." Furthermore, the lack of downtown coverage and the relatively robust coverage of uptown music all the way out to the Milton Babbitt/Pierre Boulez fringe (I don't mean "fringe" as a criticism -- the music Kyle loves best is on the outer fringe of the Downtown scene) holds the apparent center of the spectrum somewhere uptown of where it actually lies.

With that in mind, recall Kyle's January posting "Exaggerated Rumors of Downtown's Cooptation." The combined factors of a certain amount of actual cross-pollination between Uptown and Downtown and a perceived center of the spectrum more uptown than it really is result in the illusion that people who are only sort of Downtown are very Downtown, and that Downtown influences in Uptown music are more deeply Downtown than they actually are. Recall as well Kyle's March entry "Downtown Music and its Misrepresentations: "Speaking as someone who personally knows a few hundred Downtown composers, I can tell you that there is a lot of resentment within the Downtown community against Bang on a Can, and that dozens of my composer friends would be horrified to think that the Bang on a Can festival was anyone┬?s image of Downtown music. There are largeswathess of Downtown music that Bang on a Can has ignored, and major Downtown figures to whom BoaC has barely paid attention." Now, I'm a big fan of the music of the three BoaC founders, and I completely respect their decision to program their concerts based on their own taste -- Bang on a Can is not the problem here. And Kyle agrees, defending them, noting his own enthusiastic reviews, and saying: ". . . I merely report them to note how unfortunate this assumed equivalence of BoaC = Downtown is." Bang on a Can is Uptown enough becausee, as I mentioned, the tastes of its founders reach far enough Uptown and the concerts are programmed to their tastes) to be taken seriously by the Uptown-slanted media, but Downtown enough to be playing a lot of actual Downtown music. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that a major factor in BoaC's success is that it was just Uptown enough to get the blessing of the Uptown Media. As should be clear by now, Bang on a Can is one of the biggest landmarks at the Downtown edge of the Mainstream Classical Media coverage, which makes them appear as if they reach much deeper downtown (and are more dogmatically and ideologically downtown) than they really are. Composers and organizations that are farther downtown than BoaC rarely appear, and when they do they seem way off in the wilderness ofweirdnesss and invalidity even when they aren't.

This "Mainstream Classical Media" that I've been referring to (word of mouth in academia should be included under that category) is the localized classical music analog to the traditional Mainstream Media (ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Times, The Washinton Post, etc.) and we can think of the MCM as "broadcast" (as opposed to "narrowcast"). Theperceivedd center of the new music spectrum needs to be shifted in a downtown direction until it lines up with the actual center, and as we learned from David Brock that means that the spectrum covered by the broadcast MCM needs to be extended toward Downtown (to be clear, I am not at all advocating that the uptown end of the spectrum be shrunk). The expansion of the spectrum requires the narrowcast media that is the farthest Downtown make itself so unignorable that the MCM has to cover it. Then the MCM needs to be infiltrated by representatives of the Downtown narrowcast media. There are ethical and unethical ways toachievee these ends, and I am only interested in the ethical ones -- and furthermore I think that the entire Classical Music spectrum could benefit from arealignmentt to a more accurately representative spectrum. And this is where we get back to Kyle:

Kyle Gann is arguably the most visible advocate of music from deep Downtown -- call him the Rush Limbaugh of Classical Music -- and he already has his foot in the door of the MCM. Furthermore, as even the MCM is losing its foothold in the MSM the internet is becoming one of the most important news media for Classical Music, and right now the internet Classical media has a fairly wide spectrum and ideologically integrated (the I Love Pierre Boulez Society and the I Can't Stand Pierre Boulez Society are both headquartered at Sequenza21. . .) Classical Music fans are pouring into this environment from the shrinking non-web MCM and getting exposed to music and ideas about music that they haven't encountered due to the Uptown slant of the MCM. In fact, that Kyle so often hears "arguments from people who don't know the music I'm talking about and won't believe it exists" is a sign not of failure but of success. Preaching to the choir is great, but getting heard by people who disagree and are invested enough in music to argue with you is even better. The more attention he gets from people who disagree with him, the higher his profile in the larger Classical Music world and the MCM, and the higher his profile as a proponent of Downtown music the more he and other proponents of Downtown music are viewed as coming from a legitimate point of view. And the legitimization of the fringes expands the spectrum and shifts theperceivedd center.

As internet Classical Music media expands, there will be both broadcast and narrowcast coverage, and the broadcast will be more generic and the narrowcasting will be more narrow, so the best time to adjust the spectrum is now, when the Web MCM is young andmalleablee. One other interesting element of the broadcasting/narrowcasting issue is that Kyle's blog is at ArtsJournal.com -- which is a broadcast site not only for classical music but for the "high" arts in general. Coverage in the general Arts media needs to be shifted too, and Kyle is positioned to aid that shift.

Three final points:
1. The lessons of how the media spectrum works can be applied by everybody, no matter how high or low profile. Be aware that the spectrum you see is not the spectrum as it is, and encourage broadcasting to become more accurate.
2. I don't think including partisan politics in Classical Music discussions is usually a very good idea, and I try to avoid it, but the kinds of media analysis I'm relying on have been developed in the world of partisan politics. I did my best to simply illustrate the principles without engaging in politicaljudgmentss, and Iapologizee for any spots where I was unsuccessful.
3. In an attempt to avoid looking like the World's Biggest Kyle Gann Suckup, I would like to observe additionally that Kyle's mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries.

 



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