Radical Egalitarianism and Musical Heirarchies

Posted to the Bay Area Creative Music List

January 24, 2001

I appreciated Matt's post because he honestly outlines (with some exaggeration) the basic ideal of the scene's egalitarianism. He says that it is good that people who can't even "play a C#" stand right along side the "professionals." Not all of the professionals agree, so questions arise. How is the tension resolved? How do you get an audience and venue if you can't play a C#, etc.? 

There is an interesting social dynamic evolving. The Bay Area's radical egalitarianism began as a Leftist ideal in the mid 1960s during a period of strong social change. Race riots were common, the Black Panthers were very active and Oakland was often quite literally in flames. The universities were shut down by anti-war protests. Authority was being questioned in every aspect of society. The ideology of musical egalitarianism reflected the revolutionary ethos of the time, but now, 35 years later, it exists in a very different context. On the one hand, it still has a liberal stance of tolerance and inclusivity, but on the other, it is being espoused by some people whose statements could easily fit into a Rush Limbaugh show. 

In a subtle way, the ideology of egalitarianism is being appropriated by the proponents of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is basically a "non-interventionist," Rightist politic of Reaganism and is embraced in its most extreme forms by groups such as the Reform Party and the Libertarians. These folks, from the Reaganites to the Libertarians, would agree that Mills should not advertise in women's journals (it unnecessarily singles women out,) and that putting that black kid's picture on the school brochure is reverse discrimination (it doesn't represent the schools demographics.) Affirmitive action limits the egalitarianism of personal freedom. In a world where men are men and women are women, intervention limits the egalitarianism of "natural" behavior. 

With this logic, the ethos of egalitarianism is being subtly shifted to a social Dawinist stance that anything goes out there in the global world of unregulated, white male, corporate power. Take a look at the Libertarian website and note how well it fits in with corporate world of Reagenomics. One of Bushes cabinet appointees is a former Libertarian. 

Naturally this political climate filters down to us. We lose sight that there is a difference between what is egalitarian and what is merely unregulated. Pauline Oliveros' "Sonic Mediations" are egalitarian because they completely redefine the hierarchical relationships between the composer, performer, and audience. In fact, it is only through such radical restructurings of the -entire- concept of musical production and reception that such egalitarianism can be approached and achieved. You can't put that kind of new wine into old skins.

Basically, the problem the (ill-defined) scene faces derives from its futile attempts to place radical egalitarianism in the traditional heirachical structures of the concert hall, gallery and jazz club. The conflicts are preprogrammed in this half-finished philosophy that wants it both ways. The scene is unable to establish a venue and public (or at least not with very much success,) and then it spends a -lot- of time bemoaning its predicament. Divisions begin to form as the professionals weary of the amateur's limitations. And they resent the loss of status and audience.

There are probably solutions to these problems, but in my view (arrogant though it may be) they need to be approached with a completely new creativity and flexibility. You need to rethink the basic concepts of peformance and reception in music, before "busting your balls to get the bookings done" as one person put it. You must accept that there is no audience in radical egalitarianism because that implies a hierarchical relationship between the performer and public. In radical egalitarianism there is no "professionalism" and no formalized compositions, but there are also no artist-prophets pontificating from the stage and no public "honoring" them. There is not even a concert hall -- a concept born out of European feudalism.

For an example of such work see Pauline's "Sonic Meditations." For analysis of its concepts see my article "Sounding the Abyss of Otherness" at <http://www.osborne-conant.org/oliveros.htm> It might also be helpful to read my article which shows the feudalistic origins of the heirarchical relationships of the symphony orchestra and the "artist-prophet." It shows how these hierarchies are generated by race and class and discusses how the same values affect modernism and post-modernism.

It was touching to read how love will solve all the problems of egalitarianism, but unfortunately it doesn't, not even in California. You have to use your head first.

William Osborne