19th April 2021

Book in Focus

Observations on Music, Culture, and Politics

By Daniel Asia

Observations on Music, Culture, and Politics is a bit of a surprise, or at least it is to me. It came about in a rather unintended fashion. I had been giving a talk around the country, “Breath in a Ram’s Horn: The Jewish Spirit in Classical Music.” One of my daughter’s best friends was dating a young editor at The Huffington Post (HP). He and I met for the fun of it, and he took a liking to the idea of my writing up that presentation as a feature for HP, with the subtitle “Why Classical Music is like Jewish Prayer.” I did so, and he published it around the time of the Jewish High Holy Days.

The HP editor mentioned to me sometime thereafter that, since I had been published, I could now post other materials, though I did not originally give it much thought. A few months or so later, I attended a colleague’s concert, which included a performance of Cage’s well-known work Sonatas and Interludes. Soon thereafter, I wrote “The Put On of the Century, or the Cage Centenary” and posted it. Little did I know that I was whacking a hornets’ nest, as those hornets came after me with a vengeance. This resulted in my continuing to take up my pen (okay, keyboard) to ward off those attacks and to make the case for why the compositional, and larger cultural, world was not in a good place and needed to re-orient itself.

The article referencing Cage, and others on the general state of music in culture and academia, made a few major points. The first is that, while many people admire Cage’s philosophy, very few actually like to listen to his music. This philosophy, I think, is basically a nihilistic one, which suggests that music is simply sounds and silence, and thus a series of events, whether determined by the composer or not. This was the basis of the “Happenings” of the 1950s and ‘60s, with the “event” of music and actions solely determined by timing. This strikes at the core of the fundamental nature of music, which is the ordering by the composer of musical events that make aural sense and portray some sort of journey over time. All high culture music is based on certain fundamental rules that guide perception. In the West, which created counterpoint and, as a result, harmony, this included the creation of a set of ‘guidelines’ for composition that has certain characteristics of a language that are, by the way, founded in many respects on the fundamental nature of sound, but that order those aspects in unique ways. They correspond to an ordered life, one whose basis is meaning and, dare I say, even morality. Cage’s music, however, represents at best, the mundane nature of quotidian life without any attempt to raise it to a level of meaning. Even if performed or listened to with concentration, one can’t create meaning out of unrelated molecules of sound. One needs true particles of music, leavened with thought, to create ideas of musical substance, human agency, thought and grit, to make music that others will want to hear. I would add that some of the followers in this mode of thought have created some really tepid musical results that I think pursue a completely idiotic line of musical creation. I point out this absurdity, as I think one should.

My succeeding articles were, therefore, mostly negative, taking various composers or musical trends to task. A number of years later a close colleague remarked to me “I like your articles, but they are generally negative, and it is pretty easy just bashing people. Why don’t you let people know what you like?” The result was my series of writings with the title “Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear.” You might ask why the “Mostly”? Occasionally, I allowed myself to still go a bit negative. As a composer, I cannot give any of my contemporaries, predecessors, or even myself a completely free pass. If the insights and viewpoints I have garnered over my long career are to mean anything, then I need to be completely honest, even when that means being critical. In the main, however, I present composers and their music that I think should be listened to, nay, demand to be heard. This is music that I very much think will stand the test of time. This means that I am being judgmental. In the academy, as well as in life, time is limited, so I offer suggestions on how to maximize the use of that limited commodity to its best ends. Why waste time listening to puerile, nonsensical junk, when you can listen to the good stuff?

This book might be considered a companion to two others, The Future of High Culture in America, and The Jewish Experience in Classical Music: Shostakovich and Asia. The former book is a collection of articles from a conference presented a few years ago of the same name. It looks at whether and how—with culture moving at hyper-speed—there will still be a space in our culture for the high arts, like classical music, painting, photography, and sculpture; in other words, creative production that requires time and familiarity, if not education, for its apprehension. The latter book is, well, about how to look at the Jewish experience through music, in this case, Shostakovich’s and mine. It raises those hoary questions of whether a non-Jew can write Jewish music, what is Jewish music, and the relationship of music to Beauty and the Ineffable.

I have a few goals. These include writing the best music I can, which will hopefully bring joy and transcendence into people’s lives; to help American culture and its foundational ideas survive; and to help the Jewish people and their mission to thrive. The materials in Observations on Music, Culture, and Politics reflect these priorities. Underlying these ambitions is a dedication to Beauty and the elevating affect it can have on the soul, and those other trivial categories that stand alongside it: Truth and Goodness.

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Praise for Observations on Music, Culture, and Politics

“Dan Asia's essays spring from a love of what used to be called "high culture," but also from an affection for the richness of the world around him. He possesses that Montaignian curiosity that illuminates every subject he touches. Music he holds dearest and knows best, and his book is the perfect place to begin if you are curious about the peaks (and some of the valleys) of serious classical music over the last half century, but Asia opens unexpected windows as well on higher education, popular culture, and politics. He is a tough-minded critic who does not trim his judgments to current fashions, but even those who end up on the wrong end of his fork will have to admire the grace of criticisms.”

Peter Wood
President of the National Association of Scholars

“This much-needed book leaves no possible doubt of Daniel Asia's double-barreled talent: not only is he a first-class composer, but he writes about music and culture with the same lucidity, directness, and elegance that you can hear in his compositions. American music is lucky to have him.”

Terry Teachout
Author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong and Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

“Dan Asia is a fearless voice at a dangerous moment for the arts, not least in our United States.”

Joseph Horowitz

““Music is dead. Music criticism is dead and buried.” Don't believe it. Dan Asia’s sprightly and wide-ranging essays on music and culture are both passionate and deeply informative, bespeaking a composer’s intimate knowledge and a scholar’s learning. This is an engaging and allegro volume, full of piquant observation and companionable human sympathy. Above all, perhaps, it is a welcome sign of life on cultural and academic landscape that is brittle with absurdity and disfigured by political posturing.”

Roger Kimball
Editor, The New Criterion

Daniel Asia is Director of the American Culture and Ideas Initiative and Professor of Music Composition at the University of Arizona. He is a composer, conductor, educator, writer, and critic. He is the editor of the book The Future of (High) Culture in America, and was featured in The Jewish Experience in Classical Music: Shostakovich and Asia. He has been an eclectic and unique composer from the start. His music has been commissioned and performed by many of the major American orchestras and some of the world’s most important performers. He has enjoyed grants from Meet the Composer, the Copland Fund, Koussevitsky, and Fromm Foundations, and received the United Kingdom Fulbright Arts Award, Guggenheim, MacDowell, Tanglewood, and DAAD Fellowships, and ASCAP and BMI prizes, among others. He was recently honored with a Music Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Observations on Music, Culture, and Politics, The Jewish Experience in Classical Music, and The Future of (High) Culture in America are available now at a special 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem.