I rarely talk about my workaday life before I settled into music and writing. Those days are far too strange and confusing to convey without writing a whole book about them. And I’ll never write that book because a lot of it I’d rather forget.
Thanks. It seems to me that one thing an honest broker does is be forthright about how he sees his role, so this essay is another manifestation of honest-broker-ism. Well done. And what a fascinating and mysterious backstory.
Your observations about pleasure and the Clement Greenberg trap seems to me to summarize the problem of modernism, which values novelty above all else. There's little that's inherently valuable about novelty. I guess it's pleasing to be surprised, but that's a pretty evanescent condition, especially compared to beauty, truth, or transcendence.
Did your honest broker ever come back and ask for a favour ? Would have been some amazing ellipsis if that favour was music related.
In appreciation of Ted's approach and this description of it I'll put a few lines from the Tao Te Ching that reflects it in a way that hopefully could be useful to you:
When the work's done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.
Hi Ted, I found the link to this on Hacker News. I liked that your epiphany came in China, because the Chinese developed an entire philosophy, and later a religion, very much like what you've described, called Daoism. The philosophy developed before 200 BC during the "warring states" period before the first unification of China, a time of chaotic, every man for himself progress.
"Honest Brokers play a hidden but vital role in communities without a history of legal protections and stable institutions."
That's probably the best description of the Daoist sage I've ever read.
Wow, what a story. Honestly, I suspected you to have this kind of sort of double personality or life on two different realities. Why? Because your passion and writing about Music seem to good for just an Academic or researcher who lived His all life behind a desk or typwriter. You have to experience a lot to give a lot in your writing. Feed yourself before feeding others. Wow, thank You for sharing as I might have similar story to share but didn’t have The courage to do it. Bravo and know you on my list to meet and talk.
Mr.Gioia, this post inspires me tremendously. You have articulated exactly the kind of person I want to be in my field (teaching singing). I just need to be patient!
I missed this when it was first posted and it is a truly revealing and insightful piece.
As witness to a small segment of your "workaday life" I ALWAYS considered you a natural "Honest Broker" and think the choice of that handle is ideal.
Nice to know that at least one Aussie gave you some good advice. (wink, wink)
I believe it was Jason Kottke who brought me to your substack a little while back, and I'm so glad he brought me here. I absolutely loved your article, especially because of the vulnerability of disclosing something very personal to what brought you to this point of your life and career.
I agree with two main ideas from Jake Imber's comments below. The first is that by telling your story, you further strengthen your point of honest-broken-ism by demonstrating it in your writing.
The second important point from Jake I also agree with is the problem with modernism that values novelty. It is in this point that combines both your honest-brokerism & criticism that I wanted to expand on.
We are so full of content in every single direction through different channels and different mediums (social media makes us the product), we rely so much on algorithmic output and ranking that just refines a version of what makes it simple to occupy a closed loop of just good enough to keep us tuned in. If we can spend enough of our limited time or consciousness reconsidering what it is that we enjoy, and also bring enough context to what lead to something truly great, we gain a deeper meaning and pleasure through that greater understanding.
Criticism is content about content, and when done well, it contextualizes what we love most about something truly great, and points to original sources that we can dig deeper to gain a more thorough understanding. But (I get this is getting a bit meta) criticism is especially vulnerable to the 'don't bite the hand that feeds me' bias, and really your broader point about what makes you successful is sort of embedded in the difficulty/challenge of obtaining commercial success and making good art.
I enjoyed reading about your outer and inner honest broker. To be honest it is too bad you can't talk about your earlier exploits! At 74 I recall playing the clarinet in grade school and growing up on straight ahead jazz, classical, rock 'n roll, soul music, The Beatles and Stones and other British bands, some jazz fusion, more classic jazz from the 50's and 60's, house music, pre-Castro classic big band Cuban. I was seeking authentic African music and found it via zouk and beguine from Guadeloupe & Martinique in the early 90's. You sound like you have open ears. Miles Davis was listening to Kassav' just before he died. I cannot recommend the music from Angola and Cape Verde highly enough. If you are interested I can recommend some artists or even send you some files to whet your whistle. You have my email.
Spot on, Ted. Enlightening, informative, and chocked full of genuine "enjoyment, pleasure, and delight."
Amazing story. Not sure if this is the best place to post this, but I am truly grateful to you for A Subversive History of Music. It satisfies a hunger I didn't know I had and leaves me wondering, why weren't we taught this, and what difference could it have made.
Cool piece! I write about books and culture and this crossed my transom exactly on a day when I was bummed out by all the people (like me) secretly wanting to publish their novel, obsesssed with "building audience," etc, and I was wondering, why exactly was I doing this? You reminded me why - to share the joy, the pleasure, the connection, the humanity that we find through the arts. It's urgent and essential right now. ALSO - for my day job I teach at a well-known journalism school, and this piece reminds me that the Honest Broker in arts criticism is actually the Journalist - always thinking of the reader, pursuing our craft ethically and honestly, even and especially when our topic is the arts. Usually I don't think of my Substack and my journalism as intersecting, but this discussion highlights the intersection. At a time when people have tuned out the headlines, our culture actually depends on this honest brokering - this good journalism - in the humanities right now. Thanks for the insights!
Might a purpose of criticism be to educate the reader? Understanding might even enhance enjoyment?
This rings a bell with me. I am in legal academia and it is over-populated with egotists and sharks. Some of the realisations that you came to earlier in your life I am now coming to in my early 50s (I am a slow learner). You seem to have found the secret to writing of integrity - which might be for example, being able to escape the machine through financial independence.
Your commentary on the devolution of music criticism could undoubtedly apply far more widely. Sobering to think of the conditions under which honest brokers become both rare and the only means forward, and where we stand today.
Loved your article "Is Old Music Killing New Music?" and I love this story about being a trusted advisor. That is what I try to do in my life. If I can't help you then I will try to find someone who can. My grandfather taught me to live like this and I always have. Thanks for your words.