Red Pill, Blue Pill: Professor Asia’s Cardinal Sin


Last week, Daniel Asia, a composer with an impeccable pedigree (Yale, studies with Jacob Druckman and Gunther Schuller) who heads the composition department at the University of Arizona, posted on the Huffington Post Arts Blog and it appeared to go viral in certain segments of the music community. I read the post and found it to be an interesting opinion piece. What I find most interesting is the slew of responses to Asia’s 1200-word blog post that have proliferated so quickly. Their content and tone are, I think, informative and telling, as evidenced in a post by Anthony Donofrio that was referenced by Owen Davis (in which Davis assembles several anti-Asia posts) as having “elegantly torn [Asia] to shreds.”

Imagine that you haven’t read Asia’s blog post, then try to guess the subject of a short literary review that includes the following descriptive terms and phrases (roughly in order of appearance):

  • juvenile
  • condescending
  • annoyingly ignorant
  • takes the low road
  • contemptuous diatribe
  • narrow-minded undergraduate
  • spins out of control…[then]…crash[es] to the ground
  • vacuous predictions
  • ridiculous
  • frightening
  • laughable
  • bad attitude
  • sour grapes
  • dangerous
  • assemblage of filler statements
  • wrought with flaws
  • obviously flawed
  • lacks knowledge
  • grossly egotistical
  • unapologetically condemns
  • ignorant of…[music, film, literature, and philosophy]
  • continues his mess with…
  • profoundly mindless
  • ridiculous and offensive
  • absurd and ignorant

Who is this cretin, and what has he done, what literary crime has he committed to deserve this litany of invective (most of it within the first two paragraphs)? Is this a review of Mein Kampf? No. It’s a review of a blog essay in which Asia, in essence, says the following:

“I love the Western European classical music tradition and I think John Cage was a charlatan.”

Who would have guessed that this would awaken an angry den of thin-skinned New Music Lions? It’s one thing to disagree with Asia, it’s quite another to suggest that he’s an uneducated and ignorant churl, a danger to his students and his profession, and also probably a racist of some sort who still believes that the Western European musical tradition is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

What they’re really angry about is not Asia’s writing (which they lampooned, and which could have used some editing, as could the lampooners’*) or the silly parsing of whose centenary it is or isn’t. They’re angry that he dares to declare his aesthetic sensibilities and judgments in an unapologetic and absolute manner, and that he has the gall to attack an icon of post-modernism (Cage) while at the same time praising the stodgy old stalwarts of the hegemonic European tradition.

Apparently Professor Asia has not been properly schooled. It’s impolite to assert your own aesthetic in this manner in today’s music world. You must love everything, because your own tastes are no guide to truth or beauty or expression, they are just subjective responses to “organized sound.”

Of course, that’s complete nonsense. No one interacts with music or anything else in this manner. Our iPod playlists are filled with music upon which we have made an aesthetic judgment, and in that capacity those playlists tell us precisely what our aesthetic sensibilities are, but in our public lives, we must not discuss these preferences very much, and we certainly should not declare them as having any universal attributes or meaning. To do so is positively unenlightened, boorish, and narrow-minded. If post-modernism has taught us anything, it is that there are no universal truths and certainly nothing approaching a universally accepted aesthetic. To quote Donofrio “…Asia feels his opinions should be taken as truths.” Asia has committed the Cardinal Sin in the modern age-he actually believes his opinions are true!

But wait a minute. Perhaps there are some universal aesthetic truths after all, if one only knows the proper (approved) places in which to look. Luckily, Donofrio provides us with a few examples in his review:

“Music does not require a direction. Asia appears ignorant to Jonathan Kramer’s writings on “vertical time”, the late music of [Morton] Feldman, or, again, the sound mass compositions of [György] Ligeti. Actually, it appears that Asia hasn’t done much listening at all.”

What can we glean from this? Music does not require direction–this is an absolute truth. If you read Jonathan Kramer, you will become enlightened, like Donofrio clearly is, and you will realize the error of your ways. Similarly, if you listen to Ligeti and late Feldman (leave the early Feldman alone though), you will jettison your former sophomoric opinions regarding the teleological aspects of music. If not, then you clearly haven’t “done much listening at all” or maybe you’re just an ignoramus (with a degree from Yale and a position at one of the country’s finest music schools).

“Has Asia never watched Hitchcock’s “The Birds”? Or read David Foster Wallace? Or listened to Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna? Art is not required to bring resolution to the audience. Furthermore, since when can Daniel Asia (or any of us, for that matter) speak on music’s behalf?

Again we find another absolute truth, and that is that art is not required to bring resolution. Got it. And, as above, we are once again told that watching a movie or reading an essay on the banality of the cruise ship experience is something that would change our aesthetic values forever. It’s sad that our cloistered, Yale-educated Professor Asia has never seen “The Birds” (such an obscure, hard to find film after all), or heard one of Ligeti’s most famous works, for if he had, he would never have written this affront to modern sensibility in the first place.

The prescription for our wayward Professor is to watch some Hitchcock, read some po-po-mo literature, and get square with Ligeti and late Feldman. You’ll be fine after that, and you’ll see things correctly. Oh, and take the blue pill-it’s easier that way-then repeat after me:

John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker,
John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker,
John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker…


*Since these bloggers are quick to criticize grammar and syntax, I think Donofrio should be nominated for the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the year’s most mangled metaphor:

“He slides further down the maturity pole by climbing on to the curmudgeon soapbox to complain about today’s culture….”

About FraKathustra

6 Responses to “Red Pill, Blue Pill: Professor Asia’s Cardinal Sin”

  1. Asia says “Music appeals to the mind, emotions, and body.” I agree with that part.

    And I agree with the woman that expressed relief that she’s not studying composition at the University of Arizona.

    • I found that I learned a lot from the teachers who had the strongest opinions, especially if I disagreed with them. Even if you never do agree, you still learn about their aesthetic, and maybe learn to appreciate it, perhaps even enjoy elements of it once that understanding occurs. I just object to this mind-numbing orthodoxy that has become such a part of the New Music world.

      • I agree.

        However, in my opinion Asia is the one displaying the greater ‘mind numbing orthodoxy’!

        Is Cage still considered New Music?

        I imagine Cage would get a kick out of all of this.

  2. Dear Professor Asia (if you’re reading this),

    As you can imagine, your HuffPo article disparaging the work and philosophy of John Cage has disenchanted a significant number of 21st-century composers, musicians, and listeners.

    Contrary to what you say, John Cage’s music is intently–and intensely–structured and disciplined.  Your insistence that Cage’s music lacks structure reflects a willful reluctance on your part to study his work, to immerse yourself in his music and writings, the way that you might immerse yourself in Stravinsky’s music and writings, for example. (If you have experienced inadequately structured performances of Cage’s music, it is most likely because the performers involved do not truly understand Cage’s philosophies about performance and music-making. Too bad you can’t coach them on that.)

    What you describe as “directionless[ness]” is actually a quality of many seminal 20th- and 21st-century works that are moving, emotionally engaging, and trend-setting.  Directionless music is no longer put aside as some anomaly or considered a radical gesture. Think of American composers like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, [early] Steve Reich, [early] Philip Glass, Eve Beglarian, Frederic Rzewski (okay, admittedly an expat, but still…), Ingram Marshall, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and so many more. There are also countless younger composers with whom you may not be familiar, but something tells me I shouldn’t bother you with their names, since you seem to be fairly disinterested in the musical trends of our current century.

    And I’m curious: Why would you dismiss John Cage for thinking beyond his discipline of music?  Do you, as a professor, wish to churn out a bunch of mediocre composers who can’t be bothered to think beyond their own areas of expertise, to explore other forms of art-making, performance practice, belief systems, and philosophies? I hope music and composition students who attend the University of Arizona are exposed to other professors who don’t share your limited scope and willful ignorance of John Cage, who is arguably the most important American composer of the late 20th century. And I hope you eventually figure that out for yourself.

    Corey Dargel

    • Hi Corey: I’m posting this, but it seems like if you wanted to reach Prof Asia, you could just send it to his public email address which is listed online. For the record, I have no connection with him whatsoever–never met him or worked with him at all. ASF

  3. Thanks. I’m posting it everywhere I am able to, for hosts who will oblige, because I don’t believe it will have much, if any, impact if I send it to Asia’s personal email. (Though I will do that as well.)

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