Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Critical Environment And The Musical Culture

Seminar on Indian Music & Dance
Seminar theme: The absence of critical attention and analysis
Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla
September 4-6, 2017

The Critical Environment And The Musical Culture

The invitation to participate in this seminar is an opportunity for conceptualizing what I have been doing for almost half of my working life, and interpreting the environment in which I have worked. My familiarity with the critical environment is limited to Hindustani music. Hence all my observations may be considered to pertain only to this tradition. 

Over the last two decades, I have worked in all the media that service the discernment needs of connoisseurs and scholars of Hindustani music –  traditional periodicals media and books, commercial media, and also modern online media. Another half of my professional life has been spent as a media analyst and journalist. Now, I can tie up all the loose ends for my own benefit, while also sharing the experience. 

Defining musical criticism
Musical criticism is a branch of philosophical aesthetics concerned with making judgments about composition, or performance, or both. There is really no organized body of knowledge called “musical criticism”.   The entire history of musical criticism represents a struggle to emerge as a 
suitable tool for coming to terms with the art of music. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

When any activity has to struggle to validate itself, it is obviously functioning in an environment, which is ambivalent towards its usefulness. The uniqueness of music, as an art, is responsible for this ambivalence. This uniqueness is well understood, and not necessary to enumerate here. The ambivalence of the music world towards music criticism will probably remain, and so will music criticism as an activity, because society needs an independent assessment of any art. 

The function of art criticism
“Art needs something outside of itself as a place of reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world… If you want to engage, if you want discourse, you need criticism… Criticism involves 
making finer and finer distinctions amongst like things. If criticism is devalued, artists and curators have no other choice in the current crisis of relative values but to heed the market’s siren song.” 
(David Levi Strauss, Eminent Art Critic)

The critic assesses art by artistic yardsticks, and protects it from being buffeted by the forces of the market. To this extent, he also influences the market rating of individual artists and individual works of art. It is perfectly understandable, therefore, that a majority of artists should view criticism as a regulatory force. Without doubt, artists have always tolerated, rather than loved, art critics. David Levi Strauss, once again, describes this phenomenon succinctly:

“I used to think that the plight of criticism was to always be the lover, and never the beloved. Criticism needs the art object; but the object doesn’t need criticism. Now, I agree with Baudelaire: “It is from the womb of art that criticism was born. Artists who disparage criticism are attacking 
their own progeny, and future.” 

Music criticism has remained relevant because it has taken a realistic view of the larger reality of art criticism along with the unique features of classical music (more appropriately described as “Art Music”) as an artistic endeavor. This view is best expressed by Harold Schoenberg, who served the New York Times from 1960 to 1980, and was the first music critic to ever to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism

“I write for myself – not necessarily for readers, not for musicians. I’d be dead if I tried to please a particular audience. “Criticism is only informed opinion. I write a piece that is personal reaction based on a lot of years of study, background, scholarship, and whatever intuition I have. It is 
not a critic’s job to be right or wrong. It’s his job to express an opinion in readable English.”

The critic and the music world
Music criticism originated in the 17th and 18th centuries, along with the arrival of newspapers and periodicals. Interestingly, a journal devoted exclusively to classical music appeared as early as 1722. 

With a history of almost three centuries behind him, the critical commentator on music is now accepted as an integral part of the music eco-system. He can be seen as a part of the quality control mechanism that is intended to support the maintenance and enhancement of the artistic standards of the music in circulation. In the performance of his function, he can legitimately hold the other major participants in the eco-system  accountable -- the musicians, their intermediaries (e.g. impresarios/ recording companies/ TV channels etc.), and their audiences/patrons. However, he is, in turn, accountable to them for performing his role with competence and fairness. He cannot also escape the critical evaluation of his own work by his peers in the profession. 

In the contemporary environment, critical endeavors manifest themselves in a wide range of media activity ranging from simple concert reviews to serious musicological discourse, crossing into several allied disciplines such as: cultural anthropology, neuro-acoustics, organology, linguistics, cognitive science etc. 

Generators of critical output
Content of critical value (or critical intent) can be generated by any/all of the following categories of persons:

(a) Newspaper reporters/ editorial staff
(b) Columnists – press/other media
(c) Scholars of music/ allied disciplines
(d) Performing musicians – active/ retired
(e) Connoisseurs
(f) Film makers
(g) Lay audiences

Categories of critical endeavour
For the purposes of this paper, I am treating the music eco-system as analogous to a “market” consisting of service providers (musicians), trade channels (impresarios, and distribution channels for recorded music), and consumers (audiences). 

I am inclined to view critical endeavour as being broadly of four kinds.

a) Personality oriented: In this category, I include all possibilities of coverage of individual musicians – from the strictly personal/ biographical to astute stylistic analysis. 
b) Event oriented: In this category, I include all categories of events such individual performances, individual recordings, specific events such as music festivals, or even seminars and conferences related to music.
c) Trend oriented: In this category, I include the analysis of all linear/cyclical trends, ranging from short term, to long term.  
d) Ideas oriented: In this category, I include endeavors which seek to validate, refine, or redefine existing ideas, or explore new ideas pertaining to any part of the music eco-system. 

This classification of critical content can be understood better in a grid:

In relation to the grid presented here, it is tempting to think of "Critical” content as being predominantly “Trend oriented” or “Ideas oriented”. But, this would be only moderately valid.

Personalities and events can equally effectively be submitted to critical evaluation as epicenters/ protagonists/ initiators/ representatives of trends and ideas. Any of these orientations can be the primary focus of critical assessment, with the others being secondary. 

 Even with respect to categories of media, a simplistic pairing of content categories and 
media cannot be made. The traditional model of academic journals being quarterlies or even annuals, of special interest (connoisseurs) magazines being monthlies, and event oriented coverage being typical of dailies and weeklies no longer holds good. This is particularly so with the growth of online social media, which have made the periodicity of publication irrelevant.

Material of considerable critical and analytical value is now available in the online media through non-text content -- recorded seminars, lectures, and interviews. The engaging potential of non-text content could, in the years to come, make the online media progressively more valuable to the serious scholar/ critic, as the economics of publishing drive the print media out of niche-market coverage. 

Any category of critical content, focused on any of the segments of the classical music eco-system, can now be encountered in any of the media.  It is obvious, of course, that some media may be preferred for carrying certain categories of eco-system focus and critical orientation. In a limited manner, I will consider this issue later in this paper. 

The volume and quality of critical content
The above eco-system/ orientation grid was drawn to examine whether the Indian environment justified a degree of satisfaction with respect to critical endeavour in any of the segments identified. 

It is possible, but not necessary, to survey each medium separately to establish the self-evident and well accepted position  – that the critical landscape of Hindustani music is barren. In this paper, therefore, I propose to present an overview of the musical culture which might begin to explain the barrenness of the critical landscape. My listing is not, by any means, exhaustive. It merely highlights the factors with which I have been confronted.

The critic as a service provider
My professional training is that of an economist. Hence, I will look at the Art music universe as a “market” or an “eco-system”. Just as the musician is a service provider, the critic may also be viewed as a service provider to other members of the eco-system. He exists and functions only as effectively as other members of the eco-system require and enable him to do. In short, the volume and quality of critical content generated will depend on the demand for it. Whether the demand for a critic’s services is supported by remuneration, or not, is not germane to this argument. The demand needs to exist in order to create a supply – whether paid or honorary. 

My view is that in the last 50 years, the demand for critical content within India has shrunk. The demand has shrunk because the demand for classical music itself has shrunk– in absolute terms and also as a percentage of the population. This connection is obvious because the demand for discernment is a subset of the demand for its enjoyment. 

While this is true, a circular argument would be equally valid -- that the providers of critical content failed the music community. The crucial distinction between classical music and other categories of music is that its enjoyment grows hand-in-hand with the knowledge of its aesthetic assumptions, and the process of music making. To this extent, the providers of critical and analytical commentary on the music eco-system can be held accountable for the shrinkage of the market for music, along with (and in response to) the shrinkage and deterioration in the quality of critical output. 

Whether viewed from the demand end or the supply end, the picture is uninspiring, and suggests a serious infirmity in our musical culture. 

Social and economic change
Hindustani music, as we know it today, is a legacy of the feudal-agrarian society, patronized largely by the aristocracy. After independence, recording technologies and public broadcasting shifted this music to the urban-industrial-commercial centers of India. Nehruvian India placed a high premium on technological and scientific activity.  Post-Nehru liberalization unleashed a powerful commercialism into India’s culture. As a result, the humanities and arts have been progressively pushed into a small corner of the nation’s agenda. 

A neo-Marxian view of this transition would also be in order.  The technologies of income generation determine culture. The growing importance of manufacturing and commerce as the predominant sources of livelihood in urban India created a large bourgeois class. The emergence of this class substantially influenced society’s relationship with music and, hence, also its expectations from classical music. The emerging India created a strong bias in favor of the enjoyment of music in preference to, and even to the exclusion of, discernment. The distinction between the demand for discernment, and the demand for enjoyment of music is fundamental to my argument as outlined in this paper. 

In a democratic society, it was also natural that public policy would be broadly populist, though not necessarily anti-culture. This is reflected in the steady fading away of public broadcasting as a purveyor of classical music, and the gross neglect of publicly funded academic institutions.  

The failure of public broadcasting
The share of Hindustani classical music in the total broadcasting time on the Northern, Western and Eastern stations of AIR has shrunk steadily over the last 50 years.  State support of the film industry (never too obvious to the general public) and the emergence of the gramophone record brought a massive amount of capital to support the growth of popular music. Classical music’s primary protection against the onslaught of popular (film) music was its substantial and free accessibility on the medium wave (local) channels of All India Radio.

No willful neglect can be alleged, as the forces of democracy were at play. We are witnessing merely the ignorance among our rulers of how classical music remains alive – how an involvement in Art music is cultivated and sustained. 

A familiarity with classical music is acquired through a largely involuntary and mysterious process involving involuntary exposure, imitation and intuition. Musically sensitive people learn classical music merely by living in an environment of ample availability. This process is akin to learning a language. A familiarity, once acquired, can grow into connoisseurship, scholarship, or musicianship. 

The hard-core classical music audiences of today are predominantly above 60. They were cultivated largely by the ample availability of classical music on All India Radio in their childhood and youth. Based on my observation and exploratory research, I venture to suggest that Hindustani music failed to involve perhaps two complete generations of urban Indians. Admittedly, several other forces are at play in this regard.  But, public broadcasting cannot escape a substantial part of the responsibility. 

All India Radio virtually abandoned the nursery which nurtured the classical music community, and allowed Hindustani Art music – and indeed several other categories of Indian music -- to be swamped by the tidal wave of popular music.With specific reference to critical content, a far less pardonable neglect is visible in the academic system, which is explicitly paid for generating the demand as well as supply of critical material focused on Hindustani classical music. 

Failure of the academic system
The academic system consists primarily of universities which grant degrees in classical music. The need for a comprehensive review of this system has been discussed at several seminars on music education. An important reality of this system – among several others – is that it does not recognize scholarship as an independent pursuit (independently of performance), except perhaps at the doctoral level. 

Our universities employ a large number of scholars, from whom they can demand high quality of critical output to qualify for employment or promotion. These scholars guide a large number of doctoral aspirants, on whom demanding standards of scholarship can be imposed for the grant of a degree. There is scant evidence to suggest that either of these mandates is being fulfilled. 

Outside the universities, the Indian academic system consists of distance learning and examining bodies like the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and the Prayag Sangeet Sabha. Their certifications are considered on par with those of Indian universities. The demand for their qualifications, though numerically large, appears focused on Bachelor-parity certifications. These non-government institutions neither aim to groom scholars, nor appear to produce them in significant numbers. 

It stands, however, to the credit of the academic system that its syllabus-based examination process has created a decent supply of text-books which provide a panoramic view of the Hindustani music tradition. These text-books are published in several languages and make basic knowledge available to a large number of examination candidates. It is, of course, debatable, whether these text-books would qualify as “critical” literature in the strictest sense of the term.

This large and qualified human resource associated with the universities as faculty and degree aspirants has a poor record of creating either the volume or the quality of scholarly output commensurate with the resources that society has invested in them. 

When a serious researcher on Hindustani music – whether Indian or foreign – starts looking for significant Indian material, he ends up relying largely on scholars who neither had qualifications in musicology, nor teaching jobs in academia to support their pursuit of musicology. Their specific names are not important; the pattern is well known and sufficiently eloquent. 

The size and nature of the classical music community
According to recording industry sources, Hindustani classical music accounted for about 1% of the total recorded music market about 20 years ago. It is obvious that only a small proportion of buyers of recordings would welcome access to critical content aiding their discernment of aesthetic values.  This is an indication of the considerations that drive the traditional print media, which relies on numbers for economic viability. 

The viability issue is aggravated by the fact this microscopic audience for critical content is now scattered all over the world, and represents a diverse linguistic profile. Even within India, a special-interest magazine for Hindustani music connoisseurs cannot be economically viable in Hindi or English.  To appeal to a majority of its potential readers, it would need to be published in at least four languages – English, Hindi, Bengali and Marathi. The economics of such an enterprise can be absurd.

Similar constraints militate against the viability of book publishing for the classical music connoisseur or scholar. Book publishing, however, remains reasonably active in the field of musicology, and is able to circumvent the limitations of scale through appropriate cost management and pricing strategies. 

Commercial pressures on the periodicals media
Historically, the major periodical publishing houses have played an important role in servicing the classical music eco-system. These publishing houses had a diversified portfolio of dailies, weeklies, and monthlies in several languages. Over the last two decades, they have been subjected to several pressures which make the coverage of classical music unattractive and uneconomical. As a result, they are drifting towards insignificance.

Firstly, the periodicals publishing business is far more dependent on advertising revenue than subscription revenue. Classical music coverage itself does not either encourage subscriber loyalty or attract advertising revenue. Classical music competes for space against advertising, and non-culture editorial content with broad-spectrum public appeal. Its appearance in the newspaper columns is either an act of compassion or subversion or, worse, a random occurrence.   

Secondly, the dependence on advertising revenue makes publishers/ editors vulnerable to pressures which can compromise the integrity and of their coverage of the arts. Publishers and editors can easily take the view that they do not need such pressures just to service a microscopic reader segment, which also does not attract additional advertising revenue. 

Till recently, a few diversified periodicals publishing houses, – such as Times of India, The Hindu, The Hindustan Times, The Ananda Bazar Patrika, The Deccan Herald etc. -- whose owners have some commitment to culture, had retained a significant presence in the discerning coverage of classical music. Some had full-time Arts Editors of considerable scholarly credentials. However, diversified publishing houses are fewer and fewer, as weeklies and fortnightlies started winding up with television robbing them of their advertising support. These once-diversified publishers are 
increasingly dependent on their dailies for their profitability. 

In their very nature, dailies are limited in terms of what kind of coverage they can meaningfully offer of the performing arts. Their ability to secure reader involvement is now seriously threatened by the online social media with their immediacy of coverage. 

The online/ social media
The online/ social media potentially offer solutions to most of the limitations of the traditional print media we have considered above. Their most important strength is that they have turned the traditional logic of the media upside down. In the traditional media, the message went looking for its audience. In the online space, it is the audience that is looking for the message. 

Irrespective of the eco-system focus and depth of coverage that a Hindustani music critic/ scholar offers, there will be somebody somewhere in the world looking for it.  True to its potential, the internet is now flooded with scores of platforms for access to information and knowledge on Hindustani music. Almost all provide free access, and are produced and edited through voluntary efforts. In this sense, the internet permits any music enthusiast to engage with the music world in any manner he wishes, and find a responsive audience. 

The biggest casualty of this abundance is the professional critic, who was once paid by print media publishers to service the classical music community with competence and impartiality. The implications of this phenomenon are obvious. Online content is uploaded by people with the most to gain from its publication. In the online media, a perennial question mark hangs over the impartiality of the critic’s function, the reliability of the information purveyed, and the soundness of the assessment proffered.  

The consequences
Serious Indian musicologists are obliged to rely on the critical output of scholars groomed in the Western academic tradition. The Western tradition is to be respected for its academic rigor. But there is a worrisome implication to a total reliance on it for the study of Hindustani music.

To paraphrase the eminent musicologist, Prof. Ashok Ranade, music supports three categories of literature – (1) writing “about” music, (2) writing “related to” music, and (3) writing “on” music. This third category demands "getting into" the music, before it can be critically tackled. It is, therefore, this third category, “writing ON music” for which the Indian connoisseur/ critic/ scholar is uniquely qualified, and the Western scholar singularly handicapped. 

Hindustani music is totally unlike Western music because it has no existence as music, except in performance. Hindustani music is unique in being meditative, expressive, and communicative at the same time. The concepts and methods of Western scholarship are not designed to handle the complex simultaneity of composition and performance. Western scholarship is also ill-equipped to interpret the dimension of “cultural meaning”, that lies beyond musical meaning. 

It is also significant that in the US/European tradition, musicology is treated as an independent branch of knowledge and academic pursuit. As a profession unto itself, it can set academic goals entirely unrelated to the dynamics of the performing tradition. By an excessive reliance on Western scholarship, critical examination of issues in Hindustani music risks a disconnect between itself and the performing tradition. 

Critical endeavors in Hindustani music need to account for the uniquely Indian relationship between the musician and his art, between the musician and his audiences, and between the aesthetic assumptions of the art and the larger traditions of Indian thought. 

Academic traditions are not culture-neutral, nor are their research methodologies. Their yardsticks of excellence differ; consequently, their methods of evaluation also differ.  To state this differently, a microscope is not the most useful observation device, when you need a telescope – or vice versa. 

Critical output emerging in an environment dominated by Western scholarship may win academic laurels, and acquire an international following amongst Hindustani music enthusiasts. But, if Indian scholarship cannot establish a meaningful dialog with the performing tradition, both the traditions will be heading for sterility. 

© Deepak S. Raja
Shimla: September, 4, 2017