Daniel Asia’s Hands Are Muddy (or: If Composers Sold Drugs In West Baltimore)

As I see it, we composers have a bad habit of condescending on each others’ music. Typically, the scene of the crime is right after a concert – particularly a student recital or forum – where, after perfunctory ‘good piece’ tokens are exchanged, cliques coagulate and disperse to sling mud at everything they just heard. It is a reflexive and enculturated behavior that I participated in when I was younger, but quickly gave it up because I found it a lazy substitute for critical thinking, not mention downright petty. Thanks to Daniel Asia, this practice is more accessible than ever, because his last contribution to the Huffington Post is nothing more than a glossy, grandiloquent transposition of the supercilious prattle that has filled walks-home from new music concerts since…well, probably since there were concerts.


Right off the bat, the post is a take-down piece aimed at John Cage’s legacy, whom Mr. Asia opposes with Igor Stravinsky, tearing down one to raise up the other, more or less. Basically, Mr. Asia constructs a scenario where Cage and Stravinsky are representatives of two inherently conflicting and irreconcilable sets of artistic values, and provides evidence that one of these sets – that embodied in Cage’s music, namely the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano – is incontrovertibly inferior to the other. It is like he is arguing chunky peanut butter’s natural superiority to creamy peanut butter, and the public response has been accordingly bifurcated, with Cage supporters angered and Cage detractors affirmed.


Rather than take a side in this tug-o-war, I take issue with the symbolism of Mr. Asia’s piece, and I will use a pop culture reference to aid my rhetoric. In the famed HBO series The Wire (spoiler alert!), there are two characters, Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, who head a gang of drug dealers in West Baltimore. At the outset of the show, the gang culture in which Barksdale and Bell are players, is defined by territorial conflicts, violence, betrayal and other forms of competition.


Over time, Bell, a more naturally inclined businessman than Barksdale, attempts to organize Baltimore’s gangs into a kind of confederacy, passing over the feuds that divide the smaller groups to create a stronger, more profitable criminal organization. Barksdale, however, disapproves of Bell’s plans and thwarts him, simply because he cannot ignore his instinct to be a gangster and fight for ‘corners’. In this analogy, Mr. Asia is Avon Barksdale, only interested in carving his own reactive space in the conversation surrounding living 20th Century/Contemporary/Living Composers’ music.


Let’s face it, like the drug peddling gangbangers on The Wire, composers have a product – their music – and we want to share it with, if not literally sell it to, as many people as possible. Stringer Bell’s concern about his gang’s business applies to our trade – if feuding is counterproductive to building the largest audience possible, why not avoid it and support each other? After all, crushing other composers doesn’t make your own music sound better, and in the long run, as Stringer fruitlessly explains to Avon, the quality of the product, not the amount of bullets fired or territory seized, is what separates one purveyor from another.


Of course, Mr. Asia is arguing the poor quality of Cage’s music, as if the value of a musical object is fixed, easily measurable and necessarily universal. This is his most glaring misstep, because why should his response to the Sonatas and Interludes apply to anyone else? Moreover, Mr. Asia undercuts his conclusion by choosing Stravinsky as the antidote to Cage’s ‘unseriousness’, because Stravinsky’s poly-stylistic output, in itself, suggests there is no one true music. So, what is the point of placing one music above another, if an eminently masterful composer – that is, Stravinksy – refused to write music that sounded one particular way?


More demonstrative of my position is the fact that the most beautiful and compelling passage of Mr. Asia’s article – “Because, while art for most is not a matter of life or death, it does profoundly reflect our understanding and approach to ultimate values,” – has been lost in the discussion surrounding it. At least as it pertains to the network of responses I’ve encountered, most everyone wants to either agree or disagree with his opinion of Cage and his music.


Accept, then, Mr. Asia’s piece as a microcosm of my precise criticism – an idea capable of inspiring many and rallying awareness around the arts and music is suffocated by glib, overwrought palaver. Call me parochial, but I believe composers slamming other composers’ music, whether with bombast on the Huffington Post, or in hushed tones beside the Temple of Dendur after a CONTACT! concert, disserves both ourselves and our audience. Imagine a curious but otherwise unaware listener who stumbles upon the world of Living Composers. Will witnessing mudslinging and infighting, like Mr. Asia’s article and its associated discourse, make this individual more or less inclined to listen to Living Composers’ music or go elsewhere for their listening needs?

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