Sunday, September 27, 2020

Dieselpunk as historical critique

 Dieselpunk as historical critique

Operating Premise #1: An arts aesthetic is a situational response to a particular artistic/historical moment and context. Deco, Arts & Crafts, Rococo, Neoclassical, Romantic, avant-garde, Baroque aesthetics are all responses generated as a result of human experience within specific historical contexts, and their meaning both derives from, moves through, and reveals transformations of historical thinking and meaning.
My own subjective critique and aesthetic politics: an arts aesthetic that fails to implicate a political awareness of its originating historical context(s) risks becoming privileged, precious, ahistorical, appropriative, and/or culturally-adrift. As a result, I am not interested in an arts aesthetic which disavows the political.
Operating Premise #2: Art which reinforces dominant cultural or historical tropes is less interesting to me than art which questions them.
Terminology: to “-punk” an idiom, an expression, or a genre, is to critique, subvert, or read against its presumed grain. Hence punk-rock read against the grain of 1970s rock music; cyber-punk read against the grain of mainstream hard-SFF utopianism; and so forth.[1]
Therefore: Dieselpunk, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Solarpunk—all are essentially both aesthetics, and implicitly politics. That is: the prefix—“Diesel-,” “Steam-,” “Cyber-,” “Solar-”—references the historical time-frame of a specific aesthetic (respectively and approximately 1914-45, 1870-1914, 1950s-forward, 1960s-forward), but the suffix “-punk” references that aesthetic’s oppositional politics—its political intentions.
Thus, to “-punk” an aesthetic is to read the prefix “Diesel” or “Steam” or “Cyber” or “Solar” against the grain, against the norm—to employ the period aesthetics of c1914-45, 1870-1914, 1950s-forward to critique and/or subvert dominant culture in those periods. To “punk” is to occupy the subaltern; to push back; to hack the norms and counter-jam the aesthetic presumptions and even more importantly the cultural politics and entitlements from which those presumptions emerge. This is what the original punk-rock did, what the original cyber-punk did: they read the dominating aesthetic against the grain—oppositionally.
So what would a truly Dieselpunk politics look like?
For the sake of comparison, perhaps we could say that the appeal and the pitfalls of Steampunk run from the gamut from charming, exotic, inventive—to orientalist, appropriative, posturing, precious, racist, while we might say that:
The appeal and the pitfalls of Dieselpunk run from constructive, proletarian, patriotic, courageous—to historicist, brutalist, xenophobic, proto-fascist.
Again—and therefore—what would a dieselpunk politics look like? Or, to phrase this as a more explicitly interpretative question: what would be the oppositional politics of dieselpunk?
If “Diesel-” as an aesthetic (especially a visual one)—in its period of c1914-45—is industrialist, assembly-line, mechanistic, future-utopianist, proto-fascist, then “diesel-punk” could be read as oppositional, subversive, subaltern, proletariat, reading “against the grain”, opposing authoritarianism.
A very central strand of dieselpunk aesthetics in popular culture (games and films especially) is essentially “post-imperial”, mechanistic, romantic, focused upon the visual aesthetic of Mitteleuropaische militarism; see Iron Harvest, etc.[2]
In opposition, what would be less monolithic, less militaristic versions of period-accurate historical manifestations (c1914-45) of a dieselpunk” politics? Certainly not fascism, militarism, industrial consolidation, brutalism—these were the dominating (and repressive) tendencies of the era.
Rather, a -punk-style oppositional stance would seek to counterthese tendencies, “reading against the grain” to subvert fascism, militarism, industrial consolidation, brutalism. So “dieselpunk” would be anti-fascist, anti-militarist, anti-industrialist, anti-brutalist; celebrating participatory (ideally anarcho-syndicalist) democracy, radical peace-making, workers’ and communities’ collective ownership and pride in work, organic and sustainable.
For the period c1914-45, historical examples which fruitfully “punked” the era’s dominant-culture consolidations of militarism, fascism, authoritarianism (which dominate much dieselpunk art and design) might instead celebrate:
· The Bonus Army ( the WWI veterans who came to and camped on the Washington Mall, demanding a payout of subsidies they had been promised for their service. Their encampment was broken up by Federal troops commanded by Black Jack Pershing and which included George S Patton and Douglas MacArthur. lecture (
· Aspects, especially folkloric/cultural expressions, of the Popular Front: the international and especially cultural-production face of 1930s Soviet support for international communist & socialist movements; eventually subverted, suborned, and betrayed by Stalinist opportunism in the late 1930s and early ‘40s. More detailed article on the UK version (
· The New Deal ( and WPA(; CCC, FTP, and the rest of the “Alphabet Soup” of FDR’s First 100 Days and Second 100 Days in office, which transformed visions of the Federal government’s responsibilities for organization, infrastructure, and public engagement. Jump-started a revival of American modernist art forms, especially photography, theater, journalism. Betrayed in the early 1950s by HUAC and in the 1980s by Reaganism.
· The anti-nationalist and internationalist politics of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (
· The international archipelago of tramp steamer lines, populations, communities—and, even more pervasively, the international polyglot creole culture of port cities; see Denning Noise Uprising (
· Folksong collecting—but a folksong collecting which more aggressively self-critiqued its own urban, educated, monied, and white-supremacist presumptions. What the American Folklife Collection( at the LOC claimed to be, was in reality, versus what it could have been with more rigorous self-examination. See John and Alan Lomax (
· Lend Lease ( free nations mobilizing free populations to manufacture weapons to defend other free nations against fascism. Again, FDR’s leadership.
· Vernacular musics of all kinds being heard in niche-marketed as well as popular-access media: 78s and radio: Appalachian music, country blues, all manner of immigrant musics. New media providing new touchstones for minority and proletarian cultural identities.
Seminal period texts which speak to this more sophisticated “-punk” oppositional aesthetic: the 1940s sections in:

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

If you are interested in studying music at the grad or undergrad level, or if you have any questions at all about the program's past and future, please consider Texas Tech University ( and please don't hesitate to be in touch with me!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Irish Stand-Down

I’m not a Deist. With sincere and heartfelt respect to the many people of faith in my acquaintance, the image of an omniscient, omnipotent Old Guy in the Sky (or Whomever Wherever) does not resonate with me.

But what my spiritual tradition does teach me (a very imperfect student), among other wisdoms, is that the Universe does have intentions: that somehow, through this cosmic accident of physics and electricity, a million billion chance operations have combined to provide sentient beings at least the capacity to Wake the Hell Up.

So, if what this time through this Universe is intending to teach me on this iteration is to survive a bout of Irish Stand-down (—to stand up, maybe for decades and in many contexts, and take a punch, over and over and over again, and keep standing—until the day that it’s the right moment to throw a punch, in a good cause and with right intentions,

Then I guess I’ll take that Lesson, and live it out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Aging and art

It is hard to be an artist in this post-industrial late-stage-imperial society (maybe in almost every society—because every society has imposed some kind of stipulation, restriction, or hierarchical criterion on who gets to call themselves “an artist”). It is hard to age in this society, just as it is hard to be a POC, a woman, LGBTQ, poor, or indeed anyone other than a white male. Societal and classist “norms” impose unconstitutional restrictions and unacceptable burdens.

It’s thus hard to be an aging artist. Not only cognitive and physiological capacities erode, but so too do mental stamina and acquisition capacities; the obvious parallel here is to language-acquisition skills, which begin to erode precisely when cognitive skills begin to expand.

But to be an artist, you also need time.

If you’ve been a consciously-self-identified artist for some, most of, or nearly all your life, and have developed even a modicum of self-reflection, you think about the number of hours required to mastery, and the number of hours available—or remaining—in which to acquire that mastery.

How many hours, not constrained by day-to-day financial, professional, and personal obligations—many freely and gratefully assumed—are left, for the development of new artistry? New dexterity? New aesthetic zones and frames?

Answer: At my age--not many.                   

So if you’re thinking in these terms, you might think about “husbanding” your hours. Seeing their total number diminish—seeing the light, or the darkness, at the end of the tunnel increasing—you think about how you are going to use those remaining available hours.

Pat Metheny’s great drummer Paul Wertico had a wonderful reply, when asked what he’d do if he knew beyond doubt that the bombs had been dropped; he said “I know what I’d do—I’d practice.” This points to a perception of “practice” as more than simply a means to an end—to an acquisition of dexterity or interpretative command. It links musical “practice” and spiritual “Practice”—an insight, such as it is, that has shaped the interplay of my own musical and spiritual practices for the past 35 years at least.

And so to the diatonique: the diatonic 2.5-row accordion used in a wide variety of the world’s musics, but particularly in the cluster of European & related dance idioms called “Balfolk.” Over the decades, I’ve been smitten by many musics, and often a major factor that drove that obsessions was the unique, complex, and beautiful sound of an instrument: the Irish bouzouki, the Appalachian 5-string banjo, the Delta blues steel guitar, the Sudanese oud, the medieval European lute, and so on. The diatonique operates well outside the manual/physical choreographies of this cluster of stringed instruments—as a result, I find it probably the most counter-intuitive instrument I have actually tried to learn.

It is also probably the last instrument I will try to “master”—a desirable goal because “mastery,” defined for my purposes as “the ability of hear appropriate ideas in response to musical opportunities and execute them in musical real-time,” provides access to much more expansive and enjoyable expressive, participatory, and collaborative spaces.

But, though Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” is a chimera and yet another example of the pop-sociology that leads to NYT bestsellers, incel obsessions, and authorial egocentricity, there is no escaping the reality that developing this level of cognitive/aural/manual capacity takes thousands of hours—which loops us back to language-acquisition and the simplicity and resulting one-pointed attention possible in a healthy and supported childhood or adolescence.

It’s different at sixty.

How many hours are left? How will we use them?

Thursday, April 11, 2019

“[The] effort is to conserve a cultural environment within which it might be possible for questions to arise and personal commitment to root and collective order to flower.” Henry Glassie. 963 (below) 

A distinguished and admired musical colleague and friend--an Aussie of Irish ancestry who plays Irish traditional music on Hindustani sarod--has made a central career goal his reclamation of the word “mongrel” from its connotations of the “debased” and “impure”: vile adjectives, these, derived from late nineteenth century empiricism, and now permanently stained by their associations with racism, ethnocentrism, and genocide (cultural or physical).[1] To his credit, Matthew wears the label “mongrel” proudly, reclaiming its vitality, adaptability, and capacity for empowering cross-fertilization, recognizing that words themselves, like city streets or artistic idioms, can be the battle-space within which to wrest subaltern identity away from the dominant-culture forces which would seek to silence, erase, or steal it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and privilege are an inextricable and not-to-be-avoided part of the history of culture in the west, and appropriation and caricature, by the privileged of the outward appearance of the subaltern, have given us blackface, yellowface, and the dominant-culture masking which borrows the externalities—the feathers, costume, makeup, and/or cultural expressions—of the subaltern, as plumage for a kind of privileged cosplay.

This is never okay. If those, like myself, whose experience is grounded in white, male, CIS, or middle-class privilege (or all of these), engage in any way with subaltern cultural expression, even if, or especially if, we do it from love and respect, than we will and should have to grapple with the very history which has permitted us to perform such appropriation. If I have to hold my tongue under accusations of appropriation, carpet-bagging, white-boyism, or any of the other suite of exploitation which for over 500 years has taken from the subaltern and given to people like me, then I should consider that to be my most miniscule start at reparations that recognize the colonial history which, however reluctantly, we inherit.

That said:

Like my friend Matthew, I also seek to contest a word: the “tribal”: a word whose historical usage has too often connoted, on the one hand, the “primitive” and “picturesque,” and, on the other, the “instinctive” and “intuitive,” implicitly lacking intention, intellect, or agency. Those adjectives carry, and should be recognized to carry, equivalently problematic connotations. Too often, people from my kind of social/racial/economic/gender background have used words like “tribal” as conveniently-appropriative costuming—a way of “playing at” the more picturesque and evocative elements of subaltern identity, absent the disenfranchisement and suffering inherent within that identity and out of which the cultural expressions arise. It’s why, esteemed dance and music friends’ usages to the contrary, I should not and will not describe a music, or a dance expression, as “tribal”—because of the injustice inherent in just such locutions.

On the other hand:

Like my friend Matthew, I seek to reclaim the word: “tribal.” Following in an intellectual heritage of respect, engagement, and willingness to learn from subaltern cultures, which I found inherent for example in works like Gary Snyder’s “Why Tribe?”, Nanao Sakaki’s The Tribe, and Henry Glassie’s work with indigenous-artist teachers worldwide, I want, for myself and my students, the experience of opening to learning from the tribal.[2] I want us to approach these indigenous expressions, emerging from the thoughtful wisdom of people who live close to the earth, to the cycle of the seasons, and to one another’s shared needs, goals, and art forms, with the humility of a pupil: a receptivity and openness to what these peoples, their traditions, and their cultural expressions can teach us about how to live. There are modes of wisdom, sanity, and sustainable values inherent in such subaltern and marginalized societies—acceptance, tolerance, a sense of place and time, respect for living beings of all genus and species—which, I believe, we privileged classes in the global post-industrial West desperately need to recover, if it is not already too late. And, given the 500- (or 1500-) year history of the west’s colonialization, exploitation, appropriation, and dehumanization of subaltern, indigenous, and/or marginalized peoples and cultures, we ought to do it with some humility. We need what the tribes can teach us. We should pay our respects, acknowledge our sins, shut up, and learn.

But for me it also can’t stop there: as a scholar and a creative artist, and a teacher of these skills to young people, I have an ethical (and practical) obligation to situate such recovery, such openness to learning from the subaltern, within the wider patterns of history and discourse that lead to subalternity in the first place. I have to impart to my students and audience, not only a sense of humility and receptivity to subaltern wisdom, but also an active and activist response to the injustices that have made such marginalization happen. I therefore have a responsibility to contest recurrent patterns of exploitation and appropriation, most particularly—though by no means exclusively—when I and my students and people like us have directly benefited from them. To “interrogate one’s own privilege,” in the world of scholarship and creative artistry, it seems to me, means as well to contest injustice, even at the risk of discomfort, opposition, or penalty. We privileged types need to have some skin the game.

So, when I say, of my ensembles and Institute and circle of scholarly and creative comrades,

“It’s kind of a tribe: that’s kind of the point,”

I mean, less aphoristically,

“We aspire to the wisdom, integrity, rootedness, placedness, kindness, courage, compassion, willingness that the best of many wisdom traditions have found in common. We aspire to shut up and learn.”

That is my own, lifelong response to the question, “Why ‘Tribe’?”


[2]See Gary Snyder (1969) "Why Tribe?," in Earth House Hold (New York: New Directions); Snyder’s discussion of Sakaki’s intentional communities, in The Gary Snyder Reader (1999) (Counterpoint); Henry Glassie, "The Practice and Purpose of History," The Journal of American History 81/3 The Practice of American History: A Special issue (Dec 1994), 961-68.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Deciding on a doctorate in Musicology or Ethnomusicology

Deciding on a doctorate in Musicology or Ethnomusicology

Disclaimer: the following represents one senior professor’s perspectives and ideas, which are inevitably based in my own individual and subjective observation and experience. Your experience will be different from mine. But here are things that I say to candidates and my own supervisees, so perhaps they will be useful.

Studying music, and specifically music history and music culture, is one of the great intellectual pleasures I know. To understand what sounds other people in other times and places have believed to be beautiful, powerful, and personal is endlessly fascinating, enriching, and enlivening: it forges connections, enhances insight, and helps give meaning to human consciousness. The opportunity to participate in these practices—sharing what sounds and practices we find powerful and engaging—with  like-minded mentors and colleagues is likewise a fantastic experience of community. There are a lot of ways to do this, but one particularly intensive way is to study or teach musicology or ethnomusicology (or both!) in a university setting.

Most typically, these are disciplines which most college music students discover during their undergraduate days: this is why there comparatively few programs offering an undergraduate degree in musicology or ethnomusicology—because it would be a rare high school that would put these disciplines on your radar before high school graduation.

Instead, along about the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior—seldom before then, not infrequently afterward—you the undergraduate run across a professor whose job appears to be reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about the particular details of musical moments, and their meaning to the people participating, and that is attractive to you. You realize that you particularly like the idea of a life, and maybe a graduate degree, that emphasizes these same activities.

This is an appropriate and positive motivation: if learning, reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about musical behavior in specific contexts—across distances of time, geography, and experience—is attractive to you as a life-long activity, then you absolutely should consider the possibility of graduate work in ethnomusicology or musicology.

For such persons, these are endlessly rewarding, engaging, and energizing realms of activity. They don’t pay terribly well, the job market is very challenging, and professors are not particularly respected in certain segments of our public culture—but a life revolving around studying music, the mind, and the fascinating diversity of human contexts and behaviors is nevertheless a very rich one.

On the other hand, there is that pesky necessity to make a living. One way to do that is with an academic teaching job. Yet it’s a costly path (in hours and dollars) and its job market is contracting.

To “flip” the question: it’s important to remember that you can have an entire life revolving around music, the mind, and human behavior without ever taking a graduate music degree: you can play, sing, dance, teach, engage, share, study, practice, learn, write, and perform without ever earning a music degree at all. Neither scholarship, insight, nor virtuosity exists only within music university programs.

So perhaps the question should be, rather, “why would you seek a graduate degree—especially a doctorate—in musicology or ethnomusicology?” What unique doors does such a degree open to you?

The classic answer to this—the one that professors of ethno-/musicology typically provide undergrad students inquiring about graduate work—is “so that you can teach in a university setting.” And that is a good and truthful answer: at this point in the 21st century, in order to have decent odds of winning a university gig teaching ethno-/musicology, you are pretty much required to hold a “terminal degree” (apt name!) in the discipline[s].

This is not because “only PhD’s” have anything of value to offer—especially in the worlds of music, where we recognize the value of life experience, career, physical and technical virtuosity, and so forth, in addition to formal advanced degrees. Rather, the PhD is a standard expectation because the job-search/-hiring process is so competitive, because there are so many on-paper-qualified candidates for each tenure-track post, that search committees charged with finding the “best” candidate tend to employ certain rather crude rules of thumb to winnow down the stack of applications.

And one of the very first divisions is between the stack marked (A) “PhD in hand” versus (B) “ABD (“All But Dissertation” completed) or “PhD anticipated on X [future] date.” There may be fantastic, brilliant, qualified folks in the (B) stack, but the unique and valuable nature of their potential to contribute may never be known simply because the search committee, pressed for time, may consign their applications, virtually unread, to the (B) stack.

Of course there are fantastic advantages to a tenure-track university gig.  You can read, write, think, speak, and teach about music that you love and believe in. Sure, there are challenges: committee-work, paperwork, and long hours for example: not just the classroom time and the office hours, but all that grading, and the additional pressure to produce your own scholarship on nights, weekends, and holidays.

There’s the frustration of dealing with large and slow-moving bureaucracy—even the challenge of working with students some of whom aren’t quite mature or responsible yet. But, if (and this is important) you love to teach, then being a tenure-track professor of ethno-/musicology is a fantastically rewarding life.

But it’s a difficult gig to get. There are far more qualified candidates than there are posts—simply because there are many more people who love studying ethno-/musicology in graduate school than there are jobs for professors of ethno-/musicology.

It’s at this point that the distinction between graduate degrees—between a Master’s in Ethno-/Musicology, on one hand, and a PhD, on the other—becomes very, very important. A Master’s degree, in most programs, is a relatively modest investment of time, effort, and cost: two years, or possibly 5 long semesters, or (in very extreme cases) three years; required and elective coursework, a modest Master’s thesis of perhaps 100-120 pages; a research language; an exit exam.

These are goals and a scope which are sustainable and achievable within, say 24-30 months of your life. And, for that brand-new Master’s candidate who’s just “discovered” ethno-/musicology in the sophomore or junior year of undergrad, the Master’s program is an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the discipline’s topics, requirements, life-style, obligations, ways of thinking and writing, and thereby sussing-out if they’re right for you—if it’s a way you might like to spend your career.

Most important among all of these familiarizations is teaching: the experience of being in the class and leading the intellectual process for a roomful of undergraduates. It is very, very important that you seek that experience every way you can get it: by serving as a Student, Graduate, or Teaching Assistant; by paying attention and working hard in whatever Pedagogy seminars are available; by consciously and critically observing your own professors’ teaching methods and thinking about which might be valuable additions to your own repertoire; by seeking out opportunities to observe other professors, even outside your discipline, in their own teaching situations.

The job of a college professor is to teach. Yes, there are “research,” “creative activity,” and (ugh!) “service” duties you must meet—but teaching is the bread-and-butter. It’s why you have the job. It’s why you must seek every opportunity to grow toward mastery in the art form. And—very importantly—it’s why you must ask yourself whether a lifetime (it can seem) in the classroom feels as if it would be a good life: a life well spent. If you love to teach, if you love taking the thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking you do about music and sharing it with others, then a university ethno-/musicology post can be a wonderful life.

But it’s a hard gig to get, and the competition is fierce. If you don’t like those odds, and especially if you are less-than-certain that you would love to spend your life teaching, then you should definitely think twice before committing to a PhD program. A doctorate in ethno-/musicology is essential in order to be a tenure-track professor in a university setting. But that is not the only way to have a life engaging in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, learning, and teaching about music; it’s one way. And if you think you might not want to take on an additional three or more years of effort and financial debt, if you think you might not be drawn to the long hours and fairly heavy responsibilities of classroom teaching and bureaucratic busy work, you might not want the pressure of “publish or perish,” then a university tenure-track gig is not right for you. There is no dishonor in recognizing such things—to the contrary, it is wise and mature to assess what you want out of your life in music, and how badly you want it.

If you conclude that perhaps the life/life-style of a university music professor, or the cost and effort it takes to get there, then you really don’t “need” to earn a PhD in music academics. Of course you can do that anyway even so—being a student of music, especially at the high levels of discourse and engagement in Master’s and doctoral program, is a wonderful and rewarding way to spend your time. And a Master’s program is an excellent investment (24 months, 30 credit hours) in finding out if the life is right for you.

Yet a Master’s program is also an excellent foundation for a host of other career/degree paths. Many Master’s musicology students continue in PhD programs in the discipline. But others continue in PhD programs in parallel or related fields: Arts Administration, for example, or library science or museum specializations. Others proceed to certificate or professional-training programs.

Still other folks use the Master’s degree experience as a jump-start to a related career in the arts. There are Master’s musicology degree holders in public radio and television, journalism, arts advocacy, concert production, artist management, community arts entrepreneurship, and so on. Still other Master’s degree holders continue as educators, but in public schools or community colleges. All of these and related fields are available to you as a Master’s degree holder.

Effectively speaking: you should pursue a PhD in Ethno-/Musicology if you want a tenure-track university teaching gig. There are fewer and fewer gigs that fit this bill, but if it’s right for you, and you’re OK with the jobs-versus-candidates ratio, the job placement rate, and the cost (in time and dollars)-versus-benefits ratio, you should absolutely consider continuing to the doctorate. Those are the very best reasons.

In sum: the Master’s degree is (can be) when you find out if the job expectations & the life-style of the university ethno-/musicology professor might be right for you. If you find out they are, go for that PhD program. If you find out—or even just suspect—that they are not, then remember and feel empowered by the awareness that there are other, parallel career paths that are of great value and allow great personal satisfaction and validation.

Do what is right for you.

Good luck!

Monday, January 12, 2015