Musicking While Old - 1. Old Age as Culture - Joseph Straus
Episode 220th January 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:31:46

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Shownotes

The second episode of the season is the first of a five-episode series by Joseph Straus (CUNY Graduate Center).

This episode was produced by Katrina Roush.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. "Night Thoughts" by Aaron Copland was performed by Han Chen. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

Transcripts

SMT:

[SMT-Pod theme music playing.]

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, a publication of the Society for Music Theory. This episode is the first of five by Joe Straus on old age in music. In this episode, Joe begins the conversation about what it means to be old, and how this ties into the musical experience.

SMT:

["Night Thoughts" by Aaron Copland playing.]

Joe:

Hello, this is Joe Straus, and I’m an old music theorist. Like many things in life, old age happens gradually, then suddenly. For what seemed a very long time, I thought of myself as a Young Turk, an insurgent pushing back against old orthodoxies. Now I find I’m suddenly an Old Fart, with thinning white hair and wrinkled skin, looking back on more than 40 years of teaching and writing about music—I have taught generations of students in music theory, and their students, and sometimes the students of their students: my intellectual grandchildren.

Joe:

So, as I said, I’m an old music theorist, and in the five episodes of this series, I will be talking about what it’s like to be old and what it’s like to make music while old: as an old composer, an old performer, or an old listener. The conventional wisdom about old age is that it’s all about decline and disease and death: you lose your strength and your abilities, you sicken, and you die. But the lived experience of being old, and of musicking while old, is actually quite different. Old age is not just a biomedical state, it’s a culture: a distinctive way of being in the world, and of perceiving the world, as well as a political and personal identity to be valued and affirmatively claimed.

Joe:

This series will have five episodes exploring different aspects of musicking while old. In this first episode, I will describe old age as a minoritized identity, similar to and intersectional with the identities created by race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. In the second episode, I’ll talk about old characters in opera—they are usually confined to a small number of stereotypical roles. In the third and fourth episodes, we’ll find that the same cultural scripts enacted by old characters in opera also constrain the reception of old composers and old performers. The fifth and final episode concerns old listeners, and we’ll explore how old age shapes the perception and understanding of music. Musicking while old is neither better nor worse, compared to normal, young musicking. It is different, however, and it offers special pleasures. The five episodes of this series will describe and embrace the old body and mind and the musicking that arises from them.

Joe:

Imagine you’re walking past someone on the street, or glancing at someone seated in a passing car: what do you instantly know about them, or think you know? You probably instantaneously classify them according to certain basic identity markers, like gender and race. Judgments about age are similarly swift, and age is a similarly basic category of human identity. In our conduct and our expectations, for ourselves and others, it matters deeply whether someone is a baby, or a child; a teenager or a young adult; middle-aged or old. Age is a fundamental way of categorizing the people around us, and ourselves.

Joe:

Old age has an obvious chronological, demographic, and biomedical aspect—it is something that can be measured. And when you do measure old age, you generally find decline in ability; diminished functioning; loss of strength, flexibility, and mobility; sensory loss (like hearing loss or vision loss); and cognitive decline. But old age is also a shifting and porous identity category, strongly inflected by time, place, and context (not to mention race, class, gender, and ability).

Joe:

People are not just flat out old, but relatively old or contextually old or culturally old, and these things are impossible to measure. So how do you know if someone is old, or if you are old? People are old when, within a particular cultural context, they think of themselves as old and are thought of as old by others. By that definition, I am old.

Joe:

In what follows, let’s see if we can shift our attention away from biomedicine and toward the lived experience of old age. Let’s see if we can learn to think of old age the way Disability Studies thinks of disability: as a different sort of embodiment; a difference not a deficit; a way of being in the world; a social, political, and personal identity to be valued and affirmatively claimed. For myself, I embrace my political, social, and cultural identity as an old person; I am proud to be old.

Joe:

To get to a cultural understanding of old age, we will have to fight our way through some common stories we tell ourselves and each other. These stories are told in art and literature and music; in film and popular media; in private conduct and conversation. We know the meaning of aging through the stories we tell and hear. The most pervasive stories about old age are negative, stigmatizing, condemnatory tales of decline, dependency, unproductivity, an effort to block progress, and a return to the incapacities of childhood. These stories are the cultural scripts that old people are constrained to act out, or are perceived to act out.

Joe:

The most commonly-told story about old age is a story of decline. The capabilities of young people are taken as a norm against which the quantifiable declines of old age are measured. Apparently, everything we used to do, we now do less well. The story of decline is partly about biomedical reality and partly about nostalgia: the myth that everything was great in the old days—you were once in perfect health and happiness, and now you have declined. But nostalgia is mostly a distortion: in fact, it was never that good, and now it’s not that bad.

Joe:

The story of decline in old age is a story people tell about themselves and others. In future episodes, we’ll talk about old composers and old performers, and we’ll see that very often their later careers are seen as marked by age-related defects compared to their earlier years. In literature and opera, old characters are often represented as Old Fools—no longer able to do the things they used to do, and the objects of derisive laughter when they try.

Joe:

A second common story about old age is a story of dependency: old people are understood to lose their autonomy and independence. This is a corollary to the story of decline—we decline into a state of dependency—we need others to care for us. The social myth of autonomy and independence (a cherished ideal in America) has punishing, stigmatizing consequences, as people with disabilities already know. In fact, there never was a period in our lives when we were independent and autonomous—all of us, always, are bound together in interdependent networks of care. Like the story of decline in old age, the story of dependency in old age rests on a flimsy foundation of nostalgia for a golden age that never was. In future episodes, when we talk about old composers and old performers, we’ll see that they are often criticized for an increased reliance on collaborators, as though interdependence and mutual care were inherently a bad thing.

Joe:

A third common story depicts old age as a period of diminishing or vanishing productivity. In our modern, capitalist economy, people are valued for the work they do and the money they earn doing it. Once people retire from the paid workforce, they are often presumed to be unproductive. Unproductive people are seen as a burden, requiring care by others: leeches, takers, on the dole. Of course, old people who are not in the paid workforce are nonetheless economically productive as consumers, as savers, as investors, and above all, as caregivers and performers of domestic chores. Our view of productivity should broaden to encompass the valuable work that old people generally do.

Joe:

When we talk in more detail about old composers and old performers, we will see them criticized for a slowing output in old age: they often write less music and play and record less. As though quantity of output and remuneration were self-evident standards of value. In literature and opera, unproductive older characters are often represented as Valetudinarians, saying a wistful good-bye to an earlier life of productive work, consigning themselves to dramatic irrelevance.

Joe:

A fourth story about old age presents it as a series of failed attempts to impede progress: old people cling to the old ways and prevent young people from exploring what is new and better. Old people are seen as living embodiments of a past age; they should move aside to make way for the young. In literature and opera, old characters are frequently presented as Old Avengers or Witches, whose narrative role is to impede the progress of the young protagonist or prevent the young lovers from getting together. More generally, in the world of classical music, the aging of the audience is considered an impediment to growth and progress: the old listeners are seen to insist on hearing old music.

Joe:

A fifth story envisions life as a journey through time that passes through a series of predetermined stages, with old age as the final stage of the journey. The overall narrative trajectory is one of rise and fall: an ascent from childhood to maturity followed by a descent into old age. The story of life as a journey often has a cyclical aspect, where the end is seen as a return to the beginning. In this common trope, old age is a second childhood, a return to a period of sexual innocence, weakness, dependency, and relative mental incapacity. As we will hear in later episodes, the music written by old composers, and the performances of old performers, are often praised or condemned for their apparent nostalgia for the simplicities of childhood.

Joe:

Unlike these five negative stories of old age as decline, dependency, unproductivity, an impediment to progress, and a second childhood, there is a common sixth story that, at least initially, seems positive. In this sixth story, old people are repositories of accumulated wisdom. They are venerated elders, celebrated for their knowledge and wise counsel, cared for by loving, respectful families and honored in their community. Their wisdom is seen as mental and spiritual compensation for their bodily decline. Their proximity to death gives them preternatural knowledge of the world beyond this one. This story is often told in literature and opera, where old people are depicted as Saintly Sages or Wise Wizards. But like the others, this story is also stigmatizing—to be superhuman is also to be denied common humanity. Perhaps some old people really are venerated as wise elders, but in practice this story serves primarily to console young people for their generally miserable treatment of old people.

Joe:

As we will hear in subsequent episodes, apparent praise for the wisdom of old composers and performers is often tempered by condescension by a sort-of patronizing pitying contempt. "God bless you old-timer, it's amazing you can do anything at all amid your general decrepitude. [Copland music] Like race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability, age is a systematic way of sorting bodies into two groups: one group is normal, unmarked, in possession of a desirable, valued body; the other group is abnormal, stigmatized, marked as possessing an undesirable, devalued body. They all operate as oppressive systems, dividing people into favored and disfavored groups: white and black, male and female, straight and queer, able-bodied and disabled, young and old. Within the oppressive age system, old age is a minoritized identity.

Joe:

Not only do these oppressive systems operate in similar ways, but they also are intersectional with each other, mutually influential, interlocking. Age modifies race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability, and is modified by them. Class, for example, is the crucial divider in the lived experience of old age. How long you live and how well you live depend on how much money you have. Historically, old age was a mark of class privilege, because poor people rarely grew old. Nowadays, some old people have accumulated wealth, but most are economically disadvantaged by old age, especially in a time of economic austerity, with programs like Social Security under continuous threat. Beyond considerations of economic class, race also shapes the experience of old age. Systemic racism shortens the life spans of Black people and limits their access to medical care.

Joe:

And it's not just about black and white, the complexities of race inflect and complicate the experience of old age in all kids of ways. The experience of old age is notably different for men and women, at least as old age is represented in literature. For men, old age is traditionally associated with loss of power. For women, old age is traditionally associated with a loss of fertility and sexual eligibility. More broadly, old age is understood to feminize men, rendering them weak, fragile, passive, and dependent. At the same time, old age unsexes women. That’s why the old men in literature and opera are often portrayed as Saintly Sages or Aged Avengers, who try to cling to power; these categories are closed to old women, who are usually portrayed as Witches or Benevolent Caregivers.

Joe:

Of all the basic identity categories, ability or disability is the one that resonates most closely with old age. This is true in an obvious sense: the longer you live the more likely you are to experience disability. But I am thinking about disability not in the usual medical sense but in the sense it has been theorized within the field of Disability Studies. Disability is not a medical pathology but a culturally stigmatized non-normative body or mind—a body or mind that deviates in appearance or function from the prevailing norm.

Joe:

Even old people without any specifically named disability are disabled in this sense—they have the wrong kinds of bodies. Old age, like disability, is commonly imagined as a state of deficit, and old bodyminds are marked as abnormal, inferior, incapable, undesirable, and of lesser value. But if we think about old age the way that Disability Studies thinks about disability, old age appears as itself a form of disability: a difference, not a deficit; a cultural identity to be embraced; a distinctive and valuable way of being in the world.

Joe:

The cultural position of old age as a form of disability is evident in the stigmas that are attached to both: as a burden on society, as enduring miserable lives of depravation and suffering, as disqualified from sex, as unhealthy, as dying and nearly dead. Old people (like PWD) are considered aesthetically displeasing, that is, ugly. They attract a particular sort of stare or gaze, one that entails fear, horror, and pity. And this aesthetic displeasure, this perception of ugliness, is often internalized: old people often think their own bodies are ugly.

Joe:

In all of these ways, old age is a disability: a stigmatized non-normative body or mind. In light of these similarities, you might expect that the relatively new field of Disability Studies and the extremely new field of Age Studies might have a close and cordial relationship. But in actuality, the relationship between the two fields has mostly been one of mutual ignorance grounded in prejudice. Disability Studies has mostly been uninterested in old bodies, on the ageist assumption that old bodies are of little value; Age Studies has not been interested in disabled bodies on the ableist assumption that disabled bodies are of little value. Just as Age Studies scholars have wanted to distinguish old age from disability (“we’re old, not unhealthy”), Disability Studies scholars have wanted to distinguish disability from old age (“we’re disabled, not dying”). Each group thus seeks to avoid the taint of association with the other.

Joe:

I think the moment has come for a greater mutual recognition of these two allied approaches. Both fields critique the medical pathologization of non-normative bodies and both pursue a cultural model of bodily difference, acknowledging that extraordinary bodies and minds, and the different ways of being in the world that they enable, can be sources of knowledge, satisfaction, thriving, creativity, and happiness. Their common goal is to destigmatize and affirmatively claim and celebrate a once denigrated, discredited identity.

Joe:

Ageism is the stigma attached to old age, the pervasive cultural sense that old bodies are inherently inferior, and of little value, compared to an idealized norm of youth and health. Ageism arises not from any inherent defect of old minds or bodies; rather ageism is a social and cultural process. Ageism both reflects and enforces the oppressive age system that values young bodies and devalues old ones. Like other oppressive systems, like racism and misogyny, the insidious power of ageism resides in its naturalization—it is so pervasive that it comes to seem self-evident, common sense, truths universally acknowledged, just the way things are.

Joe:

Like racism, ageism has a strong component of contempt directed downward toward bodies considered inherently inferior. Like ableism, ageism has a strong component of demeaning pity directed downward toward bodies considered weak and incapable. Like antisemitism, ageism has a strong component of hatred direct upward toward a group of people perceived to hold too much power, money, and influence. Old people are seen as either feeble, unproductive, weak, demented, and frail (and thus the objects of pity, scorn, revulsion) or as rich, greedy, parasites, politically powerful Boomers (and thus the objects of hatred and envy).

Joe:

One central feature of ageism is aesthetic: old bodies are perceived as ugly. The visible and audible evidence of aging—wrinkled skin, raspy voice—is taken not as a neutrally valued difference but as a sign of disease, decline, decay, and death. This is an obvious point where culture is determinative. There is no biomedical reason why old bodies should be perceived as ugly. Aesthetic judgments are purely cultural, and for old age, the aesthetic judgments are negative.

Joe:

Ageism has an economic aspect—there is money to be made, lots of money, in persuading old people that their bodies are defective. Indeed, there is a multi-billion dollar industry of “anti-aging” interventions, a vast anti-aging industry devoted to persuading us that aging means being old, being old means being sick, and being sick means needing care and cure. If you can convince people that their bodies are faulty, then you can sell them something to make their bodies good again, that is, young again.

Joe:

One insidious manifestation of ageism is the perpetual praise of youthfulness, as though being young is inherently virtuous. Old people are endlessly praised for whatever youthful qualities they might seem to possess. They are still active, still energetic, still exercising, still sexually active, still young at heart—isn’t that cute?! It’s patronizing, condescending, and deeply ageist. If I say that I am old, someone will immediately try to reassure me, “You’re not really old because you act so young,” or “I don’t think of you as old.” Their reassurances affirm the ageist belief that being old is inherently bad.

Joe:

I experience reassurances like that as microagressions, those persistent, casual, daily reminders not that I am old—I know that I’m old and I’m okay with that—but that the people around me think that being old is inherently bad. Like other oppressive systems, ageism is deeply internalized among old people. Old people learn to hate their own bodies and minds. They learn to think of themselves as ugly and worthless. They learn to devalue their own lives.

Joe:

When I look in the mirror, I see the visible signs of old age, especially skin wrinkles. The wrinkles are concrete and undeniably real: a biomedical fact. At the same time, the experience of having wrinkled skin, and the meaning of the experience, are entirely cultural. Skin wrinkles are not harmful, not a disease, not painful. So why do so many people turn to medical science for remediation or cure, as though for a medical pathology? Why is this naturally occurring variation in human appearance medicalized? What do my white hair and skin wrinkles signify, to me and to others?

Joe:

In some cases, white hair and skin wrinkles are taken as a sign of experience and wisdom. But much more commonly, they are taken as a sign of old age, specifically as a sign of old age as a decline toward death. As a symbol of decline, white hair and wrinkles are considered ugly. But aesthetic judgments of beauty are obviously cultural artifacts, and anything made in culture can be remade. Can we learn to think of wrinkles as a difference, not a deficit—just part of the naturally occurring variation in human appearance, without any fixed aesthetic value? Could we go even further and find in the white hair skin wrinkles of old age the sort of beauty that Disability Studies has taught us to find in extraordinary, disabled bodies: a new form of beauty, one that is broken, but is not less beautiful but more so as a result?

Joe:

When I move through my day, I feel the tangible signs of old age, especially the relative slowness of my movements. White hair and facial wrinkles are a matter of appearance; slowness is a matter of function. The concrete, measurable, biomedical fact is that old people do things more slowly than young people. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Or might we learn to think about slowness the way we have learned to think about disability: as difference, not deficit; as a desirable way of being in the world? Well, there is actually an international movement that embraces slowness in various domains, starting with slow cooking, and branching out into domains as diverse as architecture and sex. The basic idea is: slow down and enjoy yourself; what’s the rush? If you move more slowly, think more slowly, that’s actually an advantage, because it permits you to savor the moment, find deeper pleasure in experiences in the full richness of their detail.

Joe:

An ageist ambient culture has taught me to hate the appearance and function of the new, changing body that old age has brought me, to hate my wrinkles and my slowness. But I am learning instead to embrace this old body and to hate ageism instead.

Joe:

In the next episode in this series, we’ll talk about cultural representations of old age in literature and especially in opera. What are the dramatic roles for old characters? As we will see, the old characters in opera perform old age in accordance with a small number of cultural scripts. They are Old Fools, Saintly Sages, Aged Avengers, Witches, Valetudinarians, or Benevolent Caregivers. Furthermore, we will see that the same small number of cultural scripts for the performance of old age constrain not only fictional characters, but real people, including old composers, old performers, and old listeners. They, too, like their counterparts on stage, are forced to act their part.

Joe:

When I started thinking seriously about old age, not as a biomedically determined state of decline but as a contingent cultural product, something made and understood as culture and within culture, I benefitted from the generosity of a number of friends and colleagues in hearing my nascent thoughts and guiding me. My warm thanks to Kofi Agawu, Charotte Armstrong, Anthony Barone, Scott Burnham, Joy Calico, Rosemary Thomson, Blake Howe, Edward Klorman, Lisa Margulis, and Nathan Pell. Blake Howe was also the wonderful peer-reviewer for this podcast. Blake, Joy, Ed, and Nathan will also be making guest appearances on future episodes, and I thank them in advance for that. I am also grateful to the musicology students and faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center, my school, for their helpful response to my first public presentation of the core material of these podcast episodes.

SMT:

[SMT closing music] Visit our website for supplemental materials related to this episode at smt-pod.org. And join in the conversation by tweeting us your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT-Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu, with closing music by David Voss. This episode features performances by Han Chen. Thanks for listening!

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