If It Ain’t Baroque…Devon Miller-Duggan on music, taste, and more

If It Ain’t Baroque…

Sorry, the pun was just sitting there on my desk drooling, and clearly wasn’t going to go away with just a pat on the damp head…

I do, in truth, like other kinds of music—folk, a lot of rock, much of jazz, Broadway and Standards, Motown, and a clutch of non-baroque classical composers ranging from Mozart to John Cage but skipping a lot of Romantics and not a few 20th c. greats (12-tone I just don’t grok). But Bach, well, Bach is what I couldn’t do without.

I don’t think of myself as a Baroque sort of person: I don’t like corsets (in practice, anyway) and my favorite architecture and design period is Arts&Crafts through Eames. I am, I will admit, prone to baroque sentences when I write. But I’m not fond of pastels and I don’t much wear lace. So really not a Baroque kind of girl. It was a beautifully, shatteringly lovely experience to listen to Bach in the Frauenkirche in Dresden earlier this year, and the reconstructed church is rapturously beautiful, but it’s not my architecture.

And I don’t LOVE absolutely all of Bach unreservedly. But if I were confined to a desert island with 3 cds (I know, I date myself), they’d be the Brandenbergs, the cello suites, and the Goldberg Variations (Gould), and I’d be happy.

A bunch of years ago I read in a book about how to tell if you’re ADD, that one of the interesting tendencies of folks with ADD is that they tend to prefer Baroque and Folk music because both involve less input (these people had clearly never listened to Vivaldi, but okay), less sheer mass of aural info. I don’t know. I was charmed by the thought, though. It felt right.

I’m aware, very (partially because I am a slave to my own insecurities—aren’t all the best people? They’re not? Oh, shit.) aware that being able to think of oneself as an intellectual or a high-culture mavin in the West (maybe in the East, too, I can’t claim much experience) involves Certain Standards, among which #1 seems to be that one Likes the Canon.

This One doesn’t like the canon. Not the musical canon: I loathe Chopin, for instance. Not the literary canon: I am very not-crazy about Milton. Not the visual arts canon: I mostly loathe Picasso and don’t have much use for Renoir or the Neo-Classicals. I could go on at tedious length.

Part of me cares. Part of me believes what I tell my students: There are good reasons this stuff is important, so you should give it a chance and pay good attention to it, but then you’re allowed to not like it. I think that’s the larger part of my belief.

But it’s remarkable how much the definition of “cultured” that I absorbed when I was younger has stuck. And it’s worth noting how much of academia exists because of and in order to perpetuate that definition. And I am, because I teach at a University, a certified academic. But I must be a lousy one.

That definition, btw, entered my world view when I was 12. There was a quiz in Reader’s Digest that was titled something like “How cultured are you?” I got the same score as the average Harvard senior, or something. I can still feel the thrill I felt then—a combination of blissful justification and affirmation of the weirdness my fellow students had been noting about me for years and a maybe a little bit obnoxious sense of my own entitled superiority. Also, I think it was a true relief to have some sort of context for my loving the Alfred Deller Consort, being able to cite Michelangelo’s birth and death dates, and having made my way through all 4 books of Kristin Lavransdatter. It made me feel a little less weird. It gave me hope that there was a tribe to which I might someday belong.

Maybe the ADD did me in in the end. It certainly made reading textbooks awfully hard, and I can’t memorize. Maybe I’m just not fit material. Maybe I’m not enough of a polymath. But, though I do occasionally give books I’ve loathed a re-try, and though I have learned to love some music I used to hate (some Blues, John Cage) and rejoice in art I used not to be able to “see” (Rothko & co.), some things are just never going to compute. Wagner, for instance. Not ever. Unless Bugs Bunny is involved.

So I think I flunked out of the tribe my 12-year old self wanted so desperately to join. Which, it turns out, is kind of a big relief. I think there’s only allowed to be one fat chick in any of those High Culture pods, and somebody else usually beats me to that slot, anyway.

So whether it’s the ADD or the DNA that makes my cells rejoice at the first notes of most music by Bach doesn’t much matter. Now what does matter is that Pandora keeps playing Vivaldi and Mozart on my German Baroque station, but that’s another matter.

3 thoughts on “If It Ain’t Baroque…Devon Miller-Duggan on music, taste, and more

  1. Miriam and Devon, this brings back memories of shared adventures on Pearl Street summer ’74.

    Love to you both.


  2. You touch on the whole high art/popular art dichotomy, a subject that fascinates me, but one where I’m still looking for my natural blogging voice. I can make a few relevant observations: 1) there will always be snobs; 2) I think institutions of higher education vary substantially in how much belief the invest in a Canon, or what they would include in their particular version thereof (I did go to college at the institution that for years was most closely identified with the “Great Books” concept, although they had strayed by the time I got there); 3) one of my heroes in the arena of cultural appreciation is Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach), who for many years had a musical exploration public radio program where he took as his motto a quote from Duke Ellington, “If it sounds good, it IS good.”

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