The meritocratic mythos

On facing the music: A post-educational diversity statement

5 minute read
The world is not always what you were taught, and that's just fine. (Photo by Aaron Pond.)
The world is not always what you were taught, and that's just fine. (Photo by Aaron Pond.)

Oh yes, you want to know my story. Everyone is eager to hear a tale proclaimed atop the bran pile. My difficulties didn’t matter: such is the virility of my creative vision. That I cherish the act of writing four-part harmony, dictations, and Schenkerian analysis. From my years of traditional education, I understand the “masters” and can now create something legitimately new with my tokenized brain. Believe me! Me, the “marginalized,” visiting from outer space, affirming the universality of your “beautiful music.”

The eugenicist’s waltz

Un/Fortunately, I cannot be the musician of class and distinction. I cannot take dictation; I cannot learn another language; my brain does not process graphs “correctly;” there’s a hitch when I read music—just a quarter of a second slower than everyone else. It hasn’t stopped me from analyzing sheet music, creating new theories of consonance and dissonance, learning instruments, composing, and playing with others. But all this industry sees of us are our inabilities.

Within the academic system, the specter of legitimacy loomed over me (and all others like me), always waiting to expose me, to show all the ways I can’t. Because I cannot understand the masters in their original tongue, I am barred from most music PhD programs: the masters speak only French, German, or Italian. The masters use only pianos to teach music theory. If you don’t like it, or can’t do it, or can’t afford a piano or language classes, you can just busk.

The masters are a dying “breed;” only the noble and accredited can save them; only the “pure” music should be reproduced. Only those capable need apply. This music can’t be made by just anyone. That is an affront to meritocracy itself, to the American mythos.

I spent time torturing myself when I could have been freeing myself. Why? So that I can become the prized model minority? So that I can influence others but never speak in a voice that is my own?

Terms and conditions apply

This is the world of pedigree and privilege. This is Classical Music, whose funders—the Kochs, Epsteins, Sacklers, and leftover blood gleaned by vampire squids—are striving to get younger, to get more diverse, bring in new audiences, even as they would send us straight into austerity hell-holes: children unschooled, the sick left to die, our homes crumbling. They endow us lead-laden lobes, lungs filled with asbestos, petrochemical blood.

They want the very ground beneath us to cave, so we’re crushed by rubble, and they can identify who’s strong (lucky) enough to excavate ourselves. Our bodies growing immobile, the life dripping out our ears, writing grants to determine our eligibility for a shovel.

Further attention is granted only to those showing “promise.” This means using their graphs, notes, and chords; crossing out the yearning, tears, ornamentation, squeals; putting pen to paper and writing a string quartet for four automatons and making it snappy, but not something you could snap to.

Go out there and colonize! From the wilds bring scores of gold and spice.

In recent years, to keep from the appearance of cruelty, institutions have adopted a new standard, a system of debasement that balances the potential of individuals against the “burden” imposed by accommodating them.

The self-victimizing core of this system demands the division of labor, standard notation, focusing on elite European practices; and we ignore intuitive ways to savor sounds and community in favor of institutional success. We hurt ourselves.

The key to collective power

I am blessed in many ways. My mind creates a musical centrality, a locus of understanding, far different from most. How lines intersect to develop form, speaking turned wordless, pitched sound breaking free from fundamentals, their aggregates coalescing into a world without gravity.

Look through your own eyes. See what you find. (Photo by Aaron Pond.)
Look through your own eyes. See what you find. (Photo by Aaron Pond.)

To describe to you further what I hear and feel will always be inadequate. Nor do I care to describe it. The truth lies at the intersubjective, in acts of cocreation. This will always be at odds with the Great Man Theory of cultural production. This tenderness will be shamed, but only because it is the key to a collective power.

I improvise, I sing, I recall the togetherness of my childhood singing prayers in synagogue hearing the tenor of my cantor, wanting one day to sound like him. In my slow disentangling from the academic machine, I’ve found that voice once again. Confident, creating, for its own sake because it cannot be stopped.

This voice builds on my bodily tendencies, lyrically improvising in frenetic associative webs, drawing forth personal narratives, the unquantized sound-stream of a de-linearized temporality, the dilemma of our time, the history of resistance.

Our power

Funny how life improves, your voice strengthens, when you aren’t being constantly put down. The question changes from “how do I show my capability and submission?” to “how do I discover my power, our power?”

Industry will always present a conservative vision of reality. That’s why, as we are cast into illegitimacy (most of us from the second we are born), we must band together for our own’s sake.

This means creating a structure of collective governance, production, and wealth—our own schools, our own methods of composition, our actions feeding into a broader emancipation and reparation. It means fighting for a $15/hour minimum wage and a restored environment, ’cause as long as despots hold the wealth, they determine the rules of a sick game pitting us against each other. Instead, let’s create joyous striking music, music of self-love, music that breaks the boundaries of possible.

But is that action impossible, bourgeois, possibly even feeding into the system of oppression itself? It is not the academics, media, and foundations who get to decide our impact. It is our own bodies, our own actions, it’s the movement toward a more just society.

Now is the time to strike.

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