Friday, September 11, 2009

Don't Judge a Book by its Title

I found Joseph H. Kupfer's Prostitutes, Musicians, and Self-Respect: Virtues and Vices of Personal Life through a Google search concerning self-serving musicians (another rant that I will spare for another post), and imagined, from the excerpt that I read on Google Books, that it might contain some interesting ideas (in the sections of the book that were not available on line). I didn't buy the book. Michael was able to get it through inter-library loan for me, and had a look at it before I did, since the book made it from his office to our living room by way of his backpack.

On first glance he mentioned that it looked like a philosophy book, and he asked me where I found it. I told him. He looked in the index for "music" and told me that there was nothing there. I, in my infinite optimism, imagined that the coverage of the subject of music would be so large that an entry in an index would be superfluous, but I was totally wrong. The subject of music, in the context of self-respect and the idea of prostitution, gets only a tiny mention in the title chapter of the book (which is the ultimate chapter), and it only comes through a discussion of "Sex, a Feminist Perspective," an article from 1986 by Janet Radcliffe-Richards. Kupfer tells us that Radcliffe-Richards "compares the prostitute to the musician. She sees nothing worse about people selling their services to produce sexual pleasure in other than in selling musical services to produce aesthetic pleasure."

Reflections on this argument could move into interesting territory, but Kupfer argues against it in an unsatisfying way. I will quote:
When gifted people capable of creative work forgo the chance to undertake artistically worthwhile projects in order merely to please or make money, we speak of them as prostituting themselves. They have sold out. We need to say "merely" to please or make money because nothing is wrong with pleasing or making money provided the musicians are being true to themselves. This requires pursuing art commensurate with their talents and is likely to develop nonmusical dimensions of themselves as well as their musical abilities. The risk of genuine failure and the discipline required in meeting such a challenge often bring with them nonmusical growth. For example, it takes courage to put one's best efforts on the line. Then, too, humility may be required to seek help or accept one's true limitations. If we never take our best shot, then we can always deceive ourselves by rationalizing that we could have done superlative work had we only tried."
That is pretty much the whole musical discussion. No wonder the word "music" didn't earn a place in the index!

Gee. I could write a book about the myriad humiliations that musicians put themselves through in the course of trying to live a musical life. I have seen, lived through, and experienced many situations that would make a musician's life similar to that of a prostitute. The biggest difference for me between music and prostitution is that music is sacred, and the understanding of a small corner of it through study and practice, is the greatest reward there is. There is, as far as I know, very little personal reward in trading sex for money, aside from the money.

Orchestral musicians put themselves through a large range of humiliations, both social and hierarchical, in order to play professionally (a glance at Blair Tindall's Mozart in the Jungle will give a pretty good idea how much sex-related trade there is in the world of music--and she just touches the tip of the iceberg). Freelance musicians have to vie for position in the eyes of contractors, which sometimes can lead to circumstances that violate appropriate ethical behavior. Orchestral conductors have been known to humiliate musicians that they don't particularly like, for reasons that often have nothing to do with the music at hand, and the stretching of personal boundaries between musicians of influence and musicians new to the profession is, and always has been, quite common.

Perhaps self-promotion, which is considered a musical virtue these days, a little akin to prostitution. As a person who would rather do things than promote what I do, I feel that a piece of music, a performance, or even a lesson or a class should "speak" for itself. I also feel that each musical act accomplishes a purpose, and that purpose is not to reflect on the "greatness" of the person performing that act. For me, in the instance of a piece I am writing, the purpose is to have something that is useful and can bring some kind of emotional and social pleasure to the people playing it and hearing it. The purpose, in the case of a concert I play, is to fill alienating silent spaces with something that can unite all the people in them (including the often-no-longer-alive composer) by making it possible for the audience to enjoy music that is vibrant, fluid, free from technical "blemishes," and is emotionally and intellectually engaging. I believe that voluntarily playing a concert for free or writing a piece for the fun of it has nothing to do with prostitution. But playing a concert for free for a paying audience is extremely humiliating. And writing a piece that a publisher sells without reporting the sales to the composer (or sending royalty checks) is a good way to compromise a composer's self-respect.

I'll stop now. And I'll return this book to the library right away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The old Yiddish proverb holds true: When conversing with a fool, two fools are conversing.

A wise choice, "And I'll return this book to the library right away."

Any author who could spend one evening playing in a chamber concert and the next turning tricks in a brothel, and NOT understand the difference is a fool. Perhaps academic, perhaps literate, perhaps scholarly, but a fool nonetheless.