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Music is Worthless

August 14, 2013

Music is worthless. Perhaps that is as it should be.

It is as worthless as the swallow-tailed kites above Arbuckle Creek; as worthless as the free wolf in the mountains, howling. Who would pay for the flight of a blue heron or hawk, unhindered over the Everglades? These things are wild and uncaptured and therefore free and worthless.

The great composer and writer and trombonist George Lewis once said to a friend, the singer and performance artist Jill Burton, “No one pays you for the music. They pay you for what is said about the music.” This was a kind of confirmation to me about a line of thought that said “music is a kind of thing that is never compensated.” Indeed, it is the kind of thing that cannot be compensated, because by its very nature, it cannot be traded or exchanged. It is a phenomenon – or one aspect of a collection of phenomenae – completely temporal, “free”, and impossible to hold. What is bought and sold however, is access to the social container where music occurs, either directly in the case of the venue such as the opera house or concert house or whore house, tavern or theater, or indirectly as the container’s efficacy as a symbol of class, or tribe or religion or as a subject in an academic paper.

The distress and resentment I often see, and have experienced myself, over the plight of musicians; disrespected and insulted at every turn, comes perhaps from this confusion over the unbridgeable difference between intrinsic value and social value that becomes eventually, value in money. One need only to look at the myriad examples of commercial music encountered everywhere that we would say, quite rightly, have no intrinsic value as music and yet which garner mansions worth of fortune for its traders, while other music, astonishing in its beauty and luminosity, often literally, goes for nothing. Now it may be true that over time the practitioners and admirers of such sound may eventually come to some acclaim, but it will be because, as Mr. Lewis points out, because of what is said about it (its symbolic container), how it references a lifestyle, such as hip hop, or cool sophisticated jazz, or the progressive-hip lifestyle of a ‘cutting-edge’ cognoscenti of the downtown art scene; social value derived from the conference of an identity. These things are the packages, the containers, the fashion styles which only reference something completely different – the music itself which they invariably fail to capture. Perhaps, to use a cliché, it is like the finger pointing at the moon. We pay for the directions, the signage, but we cannot pay for the thing itself because it is beyond the realm of compensation.

Perhaps this confusion as I see it has been exacerbated by recording technology which claims to ‘capture’ sound in a device, giving rise to the increased commerce around the (sadly deficient) representation of the original event. In this case it is natural that composers and musicians are concerned with their share of the commerce from the sale of the replications, which only mimic the original event. (Wasn’t this Warhol’s point?)  The composer who never performs sells only the guide to the realization of the sound, and the cache that surrounds it. It is my contention that, in the United States at least, compensation to artists is given – when it is given at all – as an exchange for the labor of its manufacture, and with little regard for finese. It is my understanding that BMI has different compensation scales for so-called ‘classical’ composition – that is, music with roots in the European Imperial court, and another much lower scale for everything else. This blatantly racist structure makes it pretty clear. When your work is part of an industrial process and your collar is anything but White, expect to be paid, and cheated, as a laborer.

I once was trying to describe my position to a venerable Buddhist jazz musician who rarely works. “Look,” I said, “We are beggars or something like monks. We walk into town with nothing but our rags and our begging bowls and our wisdom.” “No!” he cried, demanding respect for his talent and the sacred history of his profession. It shall never be. The profane has no bridge to the sacred. They are separate worlds. One is the realm of Caesar the other is the realm of the saints. Each is worthless to the other.

“America, when will I be able to go into the supermarket and get what I need with my good looks?” asked Alan Ginsberg. The question is when will the intrinsic worth of beings freely born into creation transfer into food from the supermarket without effort or explanation? I am not holding my breath. Not with the devil running things the way they are.

John Cage said When you separate music from life, you get art.”

Thomas Merton saidThere is another kind of justice than the justice of number, which can neither forgive nor be forgiven. There is another kind of mercy than the mercy of Law which knows no absolution. There is a justice of newborn worlds which cannot be counted. There is a mercy of individual things that spring into being without reason. They are just without reason, and their mercy is without explanation. They have received rewards beyond description because they themselves refuse to be described. They are virtuous in the sight of God because their names do not identify them. Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw. Every tree that brings forth blossoms without the command of man is powerful in the sight of God. Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection. Every blade of grass is an angel singing in a shower of glory.

The gentle earth relaxes and spreads out to embrace the strong sun. The grasses and flowers speak their own secret names. With his great gentle hands, Atlas opens the clouds and birds spill back onto the land out of Paradise.”  ~ Thomas Merton, Atlas and the Fat Man, The Behavior of Titans

What is it that you expect from music, anyway ?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2013 7:59 am

    Is measurement doomed to inaccuracy? I’d argue yes in that perception is only and always subjective; all measurement must be perceived and thus interpreted before it can be incorporated into some context of understanding. Would that the Caesar’s folk could embrace this wee nugget. Until that happy dawn, the antipathy you describe must remain stubbornly with us.

    • August 15, 2013 8:40 am

      Measurement is a form of memory. In this context it is an attempt to ‘capture’ that which is free within the confines of the human realm. Again – in this context – it implies capture, confinement, subjugation and slavery, defining characteristics of human behavior.

      • August 16, 2013 9:15 am

        Indeed, indeed. Progress (as we tend to like to see it) is all about increasing control of a discreet and fundamentally separate external reality of definite objects that are unfeeling/merciless and thus threatening. Without control/measurement we would be consumed by the ravages of chaos/entropy. Growth is supposed to keep that rot at bay too, I guess.

  2. Debra permalink
    August 29, 2013 9:12 am

    Ha ! Thought I would find Toby here… 😉
    This subject is one that I have devoted my life to, Stephen.
    I am a musician. I spend hours downstairs working at my classical piano that my shrink husband’s patients listen to. Sometimes, if they’re not lucky, they get to hear the seemingly endless series of exercises that help me make progress.
    If they’re lucky, they get to hear a Beethoven sonata, or a Chopin nocturne…
    Often I say that I play for Jesus…
    On the grace question, I will, ahem, bring up the subject of whores.
    If a man pays a woman for a sexual act, what his money buys is a service.
    But.. his money cannot buy the whore’s sexual pleasure, because money does not, and can not, buy that in THIS context, at least.
    In a similar vein, when a man or woman is judged in a criminal court, the court can pronounce him guilty, and indeed, introduce evidence that convinces the jurors that he/she is guilty. But… the criminal justice procedure cannot…. purchase the criminal’s remorse, nor any indication that he/she considers himself/herself responsible for the act committed. That can only be FREELY GIVEN…
    In another vein, there is a street right next to mine where two cars cannot simultaneously pass. One car must stop to let the other go by. Of course, there is a road sign that indicates right of way. When I go through, and somebody stops to let me pass, I wave my hand to acknowledge and THANK the person who has made an effort for me.
    But… just to be provocative, Stephen, would grace be as graceful if some things, at least, were not determined ?
    That Allen Ginsberg quote is particularly cheap and tawdry. Why am I not surprised ?
    How many times have I received something from somebody… that was freely given, without my having to pay for it ?
    Sometimes, you can receive grace freely given, just by having enough faith to ask for it.
    But.. if you believe that you live in a faithless world where everything has a price tag, well, then… YOU have a price tag too, right ??
    How slippery life is…

    • August 29, 2013 10:03 am

      The line by Ginsberg, from “America” is a joke riding atop a fundamental question. It appears you regard Mr. Ginsberg as cheap and tawdry altogether. Very well, perhaps he was. There is no doubt about the world we live in.

      Everything in this world that is “freely given” is the result of a social evolution that makes the transaction beneficial in the long run, otherwise it wouldn’t exist as a custom.

      Strange introduction of the ideas of grace and prostitution.

      • Debra permalink
        September 10, 2013 12:13 pm

        I don’t believe that everything in this world that is “freely given” is the result of a social evolution that makes the… transaction ??? beneficial ??? in the long run.
        Because I believe that we live in a beautiful and terrible world that can’t be explained away. Don’t you ?
        Mea culpa. I don’t know Alan Ginsburg very well, and I shot my mouth off without knowing the context.
        If I were really wise, I would learn how to keep my mouth shut at the right time…
        I’m working on it.
        But then, maybe I’m just fated to be one of the fools ?

      • September 10, 2013 1:06 pm

        maybe I’m just fated to be one of the fools ?


  3. skierpage permalink
    November 2, 2013 6:45 pm

    What a lot of pontificating words about little.”What’s bought and sold however is access to the social container where music occurs” is utter poppycock!

    Studio recordings clearly have value, people paid good money for them for a century. A golden age fully dawned in 2009 when a musician can instantly sell a quality recording to a worldwide audience, and the $.99 – $1.29 pricing remains a great deal. But because the recording labels screwed up the transition to online music, because the majority of the public have a deep ethical fail when it comes to paying for artworks, and because of a bunch of other subsidiary reasons, we instead have a hell where “fans” upload entire albums to YouTube for Google to sell ads, and streaming services pay laughable royalties.

    From a purely economic perspective maybe it doesn’t matter; the impoverishment of latter-day artists coincides with everyone having a vast cultural surplus of phenomenal artworks at his or her fingertips. I will never work through the back catalogs of great artists on my paltry Google Play Music All Access subscription. But we will never, ever, get another Sgt. Pepper.

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