Phil Keaggy plays “Salvation Army Band”

Right now I’m fascinated with the ability that looping gives a solo musician to extend his reach. I came across this video which shows how Phil Keaggy uses looping to turn his solo guitar into a guitar army.

Though saying this might get me shunned in certain circles, I must admit that until I saw this video I had never heard Phil Keaggy play, and barely knew who he was. For the sake of my looping investigation it is almost a shame that Keaggy is a genius, because I don’t think it requires his level of genius to make effective use of the technology.

Also, I have to say that this is the first CCM song—really, the first—that I have ever enjoyed. Not that I’ve heard all that much CCM. But this one strikes me as completely genuine.

Tradition and Innovation, Part 5

This series of posts has dragged on far longer than I thought it would, and I’m in danger of drifting from the point I originally wanted to build upon, a point I haven’t yet stated clearly. I think it will be helpful to pause here and pound a stake in the ground.

Here is my three-part observation about social and technological innovation (which comes from Neil Postman):

  • Innovations are not additive, but transformational. Any innovation does not simply bring something new to the table, it changes the game. Some old options are closed off, and other options are opened up.

  • As activities adjust to the changes, further changes occur, resulting in further adjustments, and so on.

  • Because of the cascade of changes, the innovation is not reversible; undoing the original innovation will not undo the changes it caused but will instead lead to further changes, resulting in a new situation that may or may not resemble the original one.

This observation is far too abstract to ring true on its own, so I thought it would be helpful to put some flesh on it by looking at how it plays out in real life. I’ve chosen to focus here on music and writing, but there are abundant examples out there.

One is playing out right now among the Amish in northern Indiana. The community shifted its reliance from farming to manufacturing, which increased their dependence on cash income and led to many adjustments to traditional ways. Now that the jobs are gone the community finds itself ensnared by the new circumstances and unable to recover the earlier situation simply by shifting back to farming.

Which is not to say that the community could not simply shift back to farming. It may be the best of the available options. But it needs to be judged against the situation as it stands today, not against the golden age. Back then before the initial shift, when the community was a stable farming community, there was infrastructure large and small, blatant and subtle, which made the farming life livable. When the shift to manufacturing happened, the infrastructure was no longer necessary and much of it rotted away.

Merely shifting back to farming will not cause it to reappear; in fact, circumstances may have changed in ways that make such infrastructure difficult if not impossible to reconstruct. Laws have changed. Attitudes have changed. Critical knowledge and tools have been lost. Reclaiming the infrastructure may be a job for multiple generations, and some of it (e.g. the right to sell food to neighbors) may simply be prohibited.

Similar irreversible shifts have occurred with music. The invention of recording has changed our understanding of music. Originally a musical performance was an intimate, one-time, ephemeral event; recording transformed it to a portable aesthetic object that can be enjoyed repeatedly, studied at will, and even manipulated further. And this new understanding of music has actually changed the shape of it, as musicians turned their attention to crafting performance styles that are better suited to the constraints and possibilities of recording.

Has writing undergone similar shifts? Certainly. The most dramatic, perhaps, was initiated by the invention of the printing press and may end up being eradicated by the internet, namely writing for money. From a review of a biography of Samuel Johnson, the first man to make his living solely from writing:

Human beings wrote long before there were newspapers or books or even paper, and they will continue to do so when these have been replaced by pixels and bytes. But something precious may be coming to an end in our lifetimes: the age of the professional writer.

For the last three centuries or so, it was possible to make a living, and a name, by writing what the public wanted to read. The novelist, the essayist, the critic, the journalist—all these literary types flourished in that historically brief window, which now appears to be closing. In the future, if fewer people are interested in reading and few of those are willing to pay for what they read, all these kinds of writers may go the way of the troubadour and the scribe. [Emphasis added]

The shift away from professional writing will not take us back to the place we inhabited before the advent of professional writing. The printing press made it possible for writing to be consumed in mass quantities, which led to the creation of a reading public. The disappearance of the professional writer is not really an innovation, but the unintended consequence of another innovation, namely the ability to publish and consume writings for close to free without the need for professional intermediaries such as editors, publishers, printers, distributors, and book stores, or costly physical media such as magazines, newspapers, or books.

Now that anyone can publish their writings, many are willing to do so for free, and now that so much writing has been made available for free it turns out to have satisfied the appetites of readers whose cravings once made them willing to pay writers to write. Those professional writers who moan that unpaid writers will not be able to serve the reading public adequately are mostly deluded about what the reading public actually wants from their reading.

I think the shift to professional writing masked a deeper shift that will remain with us, but only becomes clear as pay leaves the picture, namely the shift to writing for an audience—and in particular, using one’s popularity with an audience to measure one’s success as a writer. Prior to professional writing I don’t think writers wrote for an existing audience so much as created one for themselves, namely the previously unspecified group of readers who were interested in what had been written. For example, the New Testament writers were not writing to please an existing group of readers, but for all future readers who would be interested in an account of early Christian doctrine and history.

Professional writers, though, are defined by their ability to sell their writings, and so a loyal and growing audience for one’s writings became an important measure of success as a writer—which in turn created a new factor in writing to be recognized, namely the power of catering to an audience as a way of building popularity with them. And, truth be told, making money is far from the only reason a writer might want a robust and growing audience. People write for many different reasons, money being only one, but what most writers have in common is a desire that their words be read, that their message be heard by as many as possible. This is not always a noble goal, but it can be one.

Even as writing for pay becomes a thing of the past, the real innovation of the printing press—the possibility of a wide readership—will continue to be an important consideration. How should it influence what a writer writes? There are two different approaches one can take. One is to write what will edify people, and trust that the writing will find its natural audience. The other is to write what people want to read, and trust that the resulting audience will be edified by it.

Both approaches are legitimate. Choosing to write what people want to read does not prevent a writer from edifying his readers. And choosing not to cater to an audience does not prevent a writer from having an audience. Moreover, the approaches are not completely incompatible. Those who choose to let their writings find its own audience can still strive to write engagingly and to avoid unnecessarily offending the reader. And those who choose to build an audience can sacrifice some potential readers so that the rest can be better edified.

Both approaches have dangers. A writer can justify the choice not to cater
to an audience by deciding that it is somehow ignoble to cater to one, that the reader should just get over any problems they have with the writing, that offending readers is actually a good thing since it shows that the writer has not catered to them, that a lack of readers merely indicates the depth of thoughtlessness and laziness of the reading public. Add to that a few vehement fans who are happy to join the writer in disdaining the public at large, and the writer ends up in a very bad place—catering to a very small audience while thinking he is doing just the opposite.

The dangers of catering to an audience are pretty widely understood. I’ll limit myself to describing just one, which seems to be taking down many of the newly enabled cadre of internet writers, namely punditry. In my mind a pundit is someone whose opinions are valuable (or at least perceived as such) simply because they are that person’s opinions; it is quite similar to being a celebrity, which Daniel Boorstin famously defined as someone who is famous for being famous. I don’t know from personal experience, but I am sure it is a heady thing to have people solicit your opinions, and even hang on them, not because of their substance but because you are you.

I’ve known just a few people who seem to have from the beginning set their sights on being a pundit, but I’ve watched many an internet writer begin with a clear and focused approach, writing only on those topics where he have something substantial to contribute, and then gradually succumb to the temptation of punditry as his growing fan base leads him to believe that it is not the content of his opinions that attracts readers but rather the force of his personality and the charms of his clever turns of phrase—really, that anything becomes interesting for having passed through his pen. Soon enough he is issuing a steady stream of glib, superficial opinions on events, cultural trends, whatever might pique the interest of his readership, without regard to whether he is knowledgeable about a topic.

To watch this process unfold with a good writer is a sad thing. To stumble upon a writer after it has happened is merely to go away puzzled as to why folks ever thought this was good writing—something like encountering Charles Schulz’s Peanuts in the final few years. And the writer to whom it has happened is generally immune to having it pointed out to him; the continued existence of a fan base is defense enough against such charges.

My own inclination these days is to write down just those things I think others might find worthwhile reading, and then let them find their own audience. This is not because I think it is inherently wrong to actively develop an audience, but only because I don’t trust myself to detect the line between courting and pandering, which I do think is wrong.It is also an easy choice for me to make, because I don’t think that I would be very successful at actively developing an audience, whether by proper or improper means. And so I’ve decided to invest myself more in the writing than the readers, using it to clarify in my mind and then record just those things that I think are worth sharing with others.

But even though I don’t try to leverage it, the potential of a wide readership cannot be ignored. Sir Isaac Newton had no such concerns, since his writings were intended for a small, known audience of colleagues. Clarity was not a primary concern, since his readers were certain to have both the skills and desire to ferret out his meaning. But to publish a piece of writing on the internet is to make it easily available to millions of readers, who are only a search result or a blog mention or a friendly recommendation away from clicking on a link to it.

I think I have an obligation to those unknown readers, not to lure them into my readership but to eliminate nonessential elements in my writing that might put them off. And so I try to state things in a clear and unadorned manner, to eliminate smugness and scorn and any other mannerism that plays to the choir, to let facts and concrete observations do the arguing for me. It makes my writing much less entertaining, but at the same time it increases the likelihood that a random reader will benefit from it.

I’m glad now that I began this post by driving a stake in the ground, because even though there is much, much more I could say about writing, I’ve said enough to illustrate my three-part point, which I’ll restate here and then fill in the blanks with recording and printing.

  • Innovations are not additive, but transformational. Any innovation does not simply bring something new to the table, it changes the game. Some old options are closed off, and other options are opened up.

    Recording did not simply introduce one more way of hearing a musical performance, it changed the way we heard music. The limitations and possibilities of recording required a new approach to performing music, which in turn affected the expectations of listeners from a performance (e.g. the new idea of a song lasting three minutes or less).

    Printing did not simply introduce an alternative form of writing, it made mass readership a possibility. Suddenly there were enough potential readers that one could make money selling them things they wanted to read, which in turn changed the expectations of readers about what writing could be (e.g. a vehicle for light, disposable entertainment).

  • As activities adjust to the changes, further changes occur, resulting in further adjustments, and so on.

    The short history of recorded music is an extended sequence of changes followed by adjustments to those changes. For example, dancing has changed repeatedly in response to changes in styles of musical performance, and styles of performance have changed repeatedly in response to changes in dancing.

    Writing styles have also shifted over time in response to changing tastes of readers, and the taste of readers has shifted in response to changes in writing styles. For example, just about all popular nonfiction these days is written in a breezy, anecdote-centered style that readers prefer and have come to expect. Ironically, the style was invented by the New Journalists of the late 60s and early 70s as a way of rebelling against the objective, fact-centered style of journalism that was dominant at that time.

  • Because of the cascade of changes, the innovation is not reversible; undoing the original innovation will not undo the changes it caused but will instead lead to further changes, resulting in a new situation that may or may not resemble the original one.

    Recording caused a shift from music as accompaniment to social activity  to music as a fixed aesthetic object to be contemplated. As a result, some of the things that people used to do while listening to music (e.g. dancing, eating, and visiting as a community on the weekend) have largely faded away or become museum pieces. Simply bringing back live folk music will not necessarily restore the activities that once accompanied it.

    Similarly, writing in an old-fashioned style will not necessarily bring back old-fashioned readers. Wendell Berry strikes me as a writer who is completely unconcerned with developing an audience, and who chooses to write in a plain and direct style that would have been unremarkable in the early twentieth century, but is definitely an acquired taste for the twenty-first century reader. Berry’s natural audience is gone, and those who are driven to read him must struggle with the clash between his old-fashioned style and their modern expectations.

Well, enough groundwork! In the next installment I plan to move on to the matter which originally inspired me to write this series, namely the tension between tradition and innovation in our approach to worshiping God.

Casey Driessen plays “Billie Jean”

Although much of what I write about music ends up championing a low tech traditionalism, I’m very fond of just about any kind of music that is a vehicle for creativity and genius. Casey Driessen is a creative genius on the fiddle, and he moves easily between all-acoustic and highly processed contexts; I love to listen to him perform, even if I don’t particularly care for the kind of music he is playing. (Usually I like the music, too.)

Here’s a video Driessen put together shortly after Michael Jackson died, a solo performance of the song “Billie Jean” constructed from a very long electronic loop, about two minutes. First he lays down the bass line, then some backing fiddle, then the main melody, and then finally some improvisational backing. The result is a fantastic one-off performance, a treasure and a throwaway at the same time, very intimate despite the battery of gizmos that make it happen.

Musicians have been experimenting with delay techniques ever since tape recorders became available, and in the past few years the technology has become so inexpensive that anyone who wants to play around with it can probably afford it.

I think it opens up a lot of possibilities for live performance by solo multi-instrumentalists. I also think it opens up new ways to enjoy a live piece of music; in the video above, for example, I not only enjoyed the piece but also the order in which Driessen constructed it, and watching it be constructed as well.

Retraining the work force

Retraining the work force only makes sense when the job pool is expanding or at least shifting, i.e. old jobs in shrinking sectors are being replaced by at least as many new jobs in expanding sectors. But when the job pool is shrinking as it is today, those who lose a job today can’t have another one tomorrow without displacing someone else. And as Mish Shedlock points out:

It should not take a genius to conclude job training cannot possibly work. There are so many qualified, experienced, out of work individuals that few if anyone would hire a GM welder retrained in JAVA programming for a programming position. Moreover, no one would hire a banker as a welder. Nonetheless, president Obama and colleges are both touting such retraining as a way to get a job.

Bear in mind, I am all in favor of education, but the idea that 40-50 year old assembly line workers, home builders, mortgage brokers, etc etc can be retrained and compete against those with 20 years experience and still out of a job is absurd. […]

Under guise of political expediency, Obama simply cannot tell the truth to those out of a job. The sad truth is the situation is hopeless for many if not most of those who are over 40 and recently lost a high paying job.

The government already knows this. Consider this from an article on job retraining:

Nonetheless, a little-noticed study the Labor Department released several months ago found that the benefits of the biggest federal job training program were “small or nonexistent” for laid-off workers. It showed little difference in earnings and the chances of being rehired between laid-off people who had been retrained and those who had not.

In interviews, the authors of the study and other economists cited several reasons that retraining might not be effective. Many workers who have lost their jobs are older and had spent their lives working in one industry. In need of a job right away, many pick relatively short training programs, which often have marginal benefits. Job retraining is also ineffective without job creation, a point made by several economists who have long cautioned against placing too much stock in it. Finally, workers trying to pick a new field cannot predict the future of the labor market, especially in a time of economic upheaval.

So, why the emphasis on job retraining? Consider this comment on Mish’s weblog from tigerlily:

As an unemployed Michigan worker currently in the WIA [Workforce Investment Act]program, I wanted to share a few thoughts. My retraining is to update an out of date certification that I haven’t used in 20 years. After 7 months of unemployment, I will be back to the workforce soon and listed as a WIA success story.

I likely would have figured out a way to do my training on my own, but journeying though the government system was a learning opportunity in itself. I gained tremendous respect for all of the desperate workers who have seen their world fall apart, and also respect for the government employees that are trying to find work for them.

That said, I also think the WIA program is likely to gain the most employment for those who work at local community colleges or those that work in the for profit vocational education business. Most of the displaced workers were being directed towards the same jobs requiring the shortest amount of training at vocational schools that charged more than most private colleges. Sadly, the cost of many of these programs was beyond the covered WIA funding and many people were taking out additional student loans.

The biggest growth our community is in the explosion of these programs, not real jobs for displaced workers. I’ve met many workers who when finished with their training are competing against a huge pool of candidates for too few jobs again. Obama’s hope of retraining the workforce is noble, but in reality, unskilled workers in their 50s even with retraining are not going to be the first choice of employers.

The sense I got of the Michigan Works program is that it is a way to keep desperate people hopeful and busy and also give them a potential way to extend their unemployment benefits. Nobody wants to tell the truth that the gig is over for most of us 50 somethings and that we better retool our lifestyles and retirement plans, not just our jobs. Our tax dollars could be much better spent on programs to teach these same workers to start small businesses or to provide financial planning assistance to help them figure out how to stretch what dollars they have left. [Emphasis added]

Lots of common sense packed in there. I especially like the last bit; whether for profit or out of the goodness of our hearts, we ought to think about teaching people to deal with their unexpectedly reduced circumstances, rather than preparing them for a future economic climate that is mostly wishful thinking.

Nathaniel Kunkel on pitch correction

Reader Michael Greenspan recommended two articles on pitch correction by producer/engineer Nathaniel Kunkel, and they are very good. You can read Michael’s take on one of the articles here.

Kunkel’s first article is called “Now That We Can Do Anything, What are You Going to Do?”, a great title because it goes to the heart of the problem that pitch correction and its siblings present us with: technology has suddenly removed some significant limitations on what we are able to do on a recording, while at the same time removing the guidance that those limitations provided us with. Just as with poetry when the limits of meter and rhyme were dispensed with, suddenly the range of possibilities for the poet is dramatically increased—and at the same time it becomes much less certain what makes a poem a poem. Moreover, anyone can now write a poem—but how do you go about writing a good one?

Kunkel’s first great insight is that there is a big difference between those who employ a technology to remove a limitation, and those who never experienced the limitation in the first place because the technology has always been there:

Now there is a whole generation of producers and engineers who are using this technology without understanding the frustration that was the impetus for its creation. They don’t know how things used to be done, and they don’t care. They don’t approach making a record like we used to because they don’t have to; they don’t have the limitations that we did. They can do things in any order, in any key, at any tempo, and if they can dream it up, it will work.

The point is that any technology which is developed to fix a specific problem will find applications beyond fixing that specific problem. In this case, a technology whose original purpose was to fix pitch problems is in fact able to modify the original sound in any way, reducing the musician to just a source of raw material to be manipulated by engineers, rather than an active participant in fashioning a recording.

Not long ago, the inability to edit minutiae meant that real musicians needed to play the music. And with the limited editing capabilities available, they needed to really play together because you couldn’t tweak the arrangement after you recorded it. Our work flows were designed around just such limitations.

Now there are no limitations, and there are limitless work-flow options.

What is the end result? The recording engineer ends up being the creative force, and the form of the music ends up being constrained by the concerns of engineers rather than performers.

But more often than not, the grid, not the drummer, is the law, and the vocal will be tuned and phrased no matter what is sung. Everything is manipulated to be “correct.” That is our collective work-flow choice.

(By “the grid”, Kunkel means a multi-dimensional graph of the music, where one axis lays out the beat, another the pitches of notes, another the amplitude, and so on. With digital recording, engineers modify the music by shifting the placement of elements on this grid.)

Does it mean anything that performance has been eliminated from the workflow? Yes.

It’s cool and it’s perfect, but sometimes I feel like I am hearing a presentation of the song more than I am hearing the song itself. I just hear the production; I don’t feel the emotion.

Maybe it sounds crazy, but I really did believe that Buddy Holly loved Peggy Sue. That doesn’t happen much to me anymore.

Kunkel ends this first article by offering three possible reasons for the modern-day pervasiveness of such technologies.

So, because the current trend on pop and urban radio is for every production to be tuned and time-corrected, I have a question. Is the reason for that because

A. people dislike human-sounding performances?

B. it’s just a habit we got into?

C. many people don’t have the skills to produce an album with instruments unless the instruments are all corrected? (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)

If the answer is A, how long will it take for C to come true? And if the answer is B, how do we break the habit? How do we use the tools at our disposal to enhance our product without them becoming a crutch that limits us?

There are two great insights here. The first, offered neutrally, is that it may be that people care less about performance than we like them to, and are willing to give up that aspect in order to gain other things (razor-sharp harmonies, precision tempos) they value more highly. If that is what people like, folks who want to sell records may be wasting their time wishing people liked something else.

The second is that these technologies may be omnipresent simply because they are there to be used and engineers like using them. When you have a hammer and enjoy hammering, everything looks like a nail. And people “like” the result because it’s the sound they’ve come to expect from professionally recorded music—because that’s what all professionally recorded music sounds like. Only folks who have thought about such matters deeply are aware of what has gone missing, and it may be a duty of sorts for them to figure out if this is a problem and what if anything can be done to ameliorate it.

Kunkel’s second article on these technologies goes even deeper. He starts with this:

Auto-Tune and Melodyne: if you ask a well-respected singer, they are four-letter words. If you ask a not-so-good singer, and they answer you honestly, they will probably tell you that it is the only reason they have a chance of being on the radio at all. [Emphasis added here and below]

This is the raw fact that we need to deal with: as long as they don’t know these technologies are being used, listeners prefer it when they are used. So what does it mean that they don’t like it when they find out?

When most people are able to grasp what Auto-Tune does, they get disheartened, if not disgusted. Not one person I have asked thinks that this trend of “Tune everything” is cool. While record executives were thinking that all listeners wanted was a hot young artist singing a hit song, they forgot about one important issue: they were lying to their customers. Most people who buy that hot new twenty-something’s release actually think the person can really sing like that.

No offense, but no one sings like that. Remember how much everyone loved Milli Vanilli before it was exposed that they did not sing on their own album? How fast was their fall from grace? Is there a difference between Milli Vanilli and a singer who has every word rephrased and tuned? If a tuned vocal is credited solely to the singer, should the keyboard player who uses Vienna Symphonic Library string samples credit the Vienna Orchestra exclusively?

The last sentence points to what I think is part of the confusion: when so much crafting is going on in the studio, who exactly is the artist, and who is the instrument? Are we headed to a place where recording engineers are the true artists, mixing and matching singers and players the way that a guitarist might choose among guitars to get a particular sound on a particular song?

In some sense we’ve already been there; I can remember in the 80s when producers like Arthur Baker and the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis team were the real heroes of particular hit recordings. And it was occasionally said that Jimmy Page’s real instrument was not the guitar but t
he studio.

Kunkel then shares a bit of inside information that is disturbing.

While many artists can make a record without using Auto-Tune, almost every new release currently on popular radio is tuned, even if only a little bit. (Sometimes more than you could ever imagine.) One observation I have made is that some singers have been getting tuned for so long that they actually think they sound that way. I have worked with singers who issue a “Never tune me” order and then reject every comp until they are tuned and phrased clandestinely. The denial is spectacular.

And then this, quoting a friend of his who is also an engineer.

“I think artists like the sound of being tuned. They try to sing the way a tuned vocal sounds. It’s not possible, as we all know. One band I recently worked with didn’t want to hear their vocals until after they were tuned. Before I would play it back, the singer asked if I did ‘it’ yet. After I played the song, he would say, ‘I love the way I sound Melodyned!’ […]

“You asked about Milli Vanilli; at least someone actually sang their songs! [Well-known singer A] and [well-known singer B] do basically the same thing as Milli Vanilli, but they get away with it by also having a highly timed and tuned part of theirs, not possible for them to sing, mixed in low and blended to make it sound like them.

“People don’t know that they only hear tuned vocals. They still think that the bands they listen to can sing the songs the way they are on the album. I myself am guilty of being too accustomed to listening to tuned vocals. That’s why I rarely go see bands play live anymore. Most can’t even come close to doing it live. Well, at least not without prerecorded tracks.”

Kunkel ends with an assessment and a prediction.

So what’s it going to be? The perfect stuff we are used to, or the organic stuff human beings can actually make? Because we are going to have to make a choice now that we are being forced to acknowledge tuning as the facet of popular culture it has become. Until now, we have all been blissfully ignorant of the fact that those two choices are mutually exclusive.

Perhaps we will soon think of older projects with untuned vocals and imperfect tracks just like we think of albums made before we could punch in on a multitrack. Cool in a nostalgic kind of way, but not anything we would ever want to do again. Would that be the loss of an art form, or would that be progress? Or both? Because it seems the current reality is that those two choices are not mutually exclusive.

I’d like to offer a slightly different interpretation, namely that the “organic stuff human beings can actually make,” what I’ve been calling performance, is less important to commercial music than some of us with more refined tastes would like to think.

It’s like the situation with newspapers. Over the past hundred or so years we heard and accepted a certain story about the importance of a free press to a democratic nation, about how it is critical that we be an informed electorate, that they are an essential part of a vibrant city life, and so on. But it turns out that the real driving force behind newspapers was that, due to the invention of high speed web printing presses and a lack of competing sources of information, the daily newspaper was able to deliver a large and captive audience for advertisers. Once that monopoly was broken with the advent of the internet, people voted with their attention and the printed newspaper was quickly consigned to the dustbin of history. Some things were lost, sure, but it is only a historical accident that those things ended up in newspapers in the first place, and if they are valued they will find a home elsewhere.

Similarly with recordings. Aficionados of live performance were thrilled when recordings came along because they were able to capture at least a pale reflection of performance. But recorded music is different in nature than performed music, and it should be no surprise that people have come to value the new possibilities it opened up over its incidental ability to capture a performance. And the new technologies are not eliminating the possibility of performance, just the necessity of performance for the creation of music.

And those of us who cherish performance will now lose the power of numbers. It used to be that performance was widely and inexpensively available via recordings, not because the world cherished performance but because they cherished music, and until recently performance (live or recorded) was the only way for them to get it. Now there is another way to produce music, and if it turns out the world prefers it to performance, then performance will end up filling the small niche it can naturally earn.

A Share in the Patria

This short essay on government by Aaron Wolf surprised me, since it matter-of-factly promotes a view that I thought was marginal and controversial. I need to learn more about the folks that think this way.

He begins by relating a bit of biblical history that has been much on my mind lately.

When the children of Israel clamored for a king, so that they might rely on him to protect them from foreign invaders, the prophet warned them that “he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.”  God had been their sovereign, but they wanted what the other nations had.  So He gave them what they wanted.

And He wasn’t doing them a favor when he did that.

Wolf goes on to point out that when the country was young there were competing views of how to define a republic.

How, then, should we define the nature of a republic?  The word itself was batted around by all of the Founding Fathers, but its usage varied.  John Adams, who favored aristocracy and “balanced power,” wrote that the only “rational” definition of republic is “a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.”

John Taylor of Caroline assailed this sort of “republic,” which puts its faith in the “rule of law.”  Answering Adams in 1814 (An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States), he asked how this was any different from the government from which they had declared independence.  What guarantees that the law to which everyone is “equally subject” is just—or good? [Emphasis added]

This strikes me as a fatal flaw in the concept of “rule of law.” An unjust or wicked law equally applied will still result in injustice and wickedness. As Anatole France sarcastically observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” And I take no comfort in the fact that, say, jack-booted thugs will descend on anyone who tries to sell raw milk, whether industrial conglomerate or the farmer down the lane—it is still wrong to prohibit a farmer from taking money for something he could legally give to someone for free, no matter how many of his fellow citizens endorse the prohibition.

Apparently Adams had a comeback to Taylor’s objection, but two hundred years of history has shown it to be a delusion.

Adams’ imagined government would counter this injustice with a “balance of power,” by which each class, emerging “naturally” according to a divine distribution of talent, would find equal representation.  But do such classes really arise “by nature,” according to “God’s design”?  Taylor argues that Adams’ classes are artificial—special interests created by laws and sustained by government.  (Government’s creation of a standing army, for example, creates a “soldier class,” a military interest.  Central banking creates a banking interest.  Etc.)  And man’s lust for power being what it is, these artificial classes would (did) seek to advance their standing among the others, if not dominate them altogether, even taking the moral high ground for doing just so.  “One tyrant may thank God that he is not another tyrant.”

So what does Taylor propose as the proper alternative to the rule of law? Self-government, i.e. a truly sovereign people. Who is up to the task of governing themselves?

The people are the farmers.  At the time of the War of Independence, 95 percent of Americans were engaged in farming.  And as many as two thirds of the farming families owned their own land.  The prospect of owning a farm was what had made the colonies attractive in the first place.  The wealth they sought in America was not cash but crops. […]

According to the Jeffersonian tradition, of which Taylor was the greatest exemplar, the farmer is capable of self-government.  His is the only vocation that is “natural”—that is not a creation of government.  He depends on God to sustain him.  His hands know the soil and the hard work necessary to cultivate it.  His product sustains his family and his community.  His people and his soil are his interest.  Thus, he takes up his arms to defend hearth and home in the local militia, and the mantle of statesman when called upon—all the while eager, as Taylor was, to get back to his land, to the plow.  “And the interdependence of such solid citizens,” wrote M.E. Bradford, “all of them capable of honor in each other’s eyes, all with a share in the patria, is the closest we can come to the providentially provided Garden or ‘golden age’ under the present, unpropitious dispensation.”

This is the true republican ideal—a nation of farmers.  It abounds not it laws but in corn.  Its people are defined not by party affiliation or political law but by the mores majorum, the “customs of the fathers.”  It is the agrarian republic Cato wrote of when he spoke of his ancestors who, “when they would praise a worthy man,” would say “good husbandman,” “good farmer.”

Now, here’s what continues to bug me. As God pointed out, when Israel clamored for a king they were in essence rejecting Him—not a good thing. But how does the Bible describe the stretch of Israel’s history which preceded their rejection of Him?

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, NASB)

That phrase, “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” is usually taken as a bad thing, a description of unbridled license. But why? Would the farmer, so aware of God because of his utter dependence on Him and His creation, be likely to stray from His ways? Or would his eyes be a reliable guide, having learned to see things as God’s eyes see them?

Wouldn’t it be accurate to describe a self-governed man as one who does what is right in his own eyes?


One of my favorite novelty songs is Powerhouse by Raymond Scott. Most people have no idea that it was burned into their brains as children, courtesy of Carl Stalling, who put together the musical scores for Warner Brothers cartoons such as Baby Bottleneck (starting at the 3:00 minute mark, running for about 1 minute, showing up again at 5:45).

Here’s a video (not embeddable, for some reason; click the link) of Raymond Scott and his group playing the song on Your Hit Parade, complete with a very annoying light show.

There are many other versions of the song on YouTube. This one is done at a Raymond Scott tribute performance, and is pretty good (I like the tap dancer at the end).

This one from the Manhattan School of Music has great instrumentation. Bassoon? Bass clarinet?

But surely the most imaginative of all is this one by the Philharmonicas, a harmonica sextet.