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Gloriously useless beauty on a rainy New York night

“Beauty makes me sad,” said Steven Mackey, threatening to take a Byronic turn. “If you can’t have sex with it or eat it, what good is it?


“Maybe that’s why people invented picnics. If they can’t eat it [beauty] they can at least eat in its presence.”

So said the Princeton-based composer by way of introducing his piece Groundswell to the audience at American Modern Ensemble’s American Stories concert on March 26 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music.

The subject, on that rainy Monday in New York City, was what makes composers compose. And for him, composing is an effort to hang onto beauty that he’s experienced. Specifically in Groundswell, he was trying to capture his experiences mountain-hiking and freestyle-skiing – which he did professionally when much younger, until a career-ending injury made him turn to composing. (He’s credited with being the first “Brooklyn composer” – in terms of cool rather than geography, since Princeton University is his longtime home.)

The piece itself turned not to be yet another instance of fine abstract instrumental music coming with extensive accounts of what stimulated the piece’s creation – information that, in my opinion, was not so necessary and could well limit the listening imagination that one could bring to the piece.

The day before (Sunday at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center), Michael Daugherty unveiled a tuba concerto titled Reflections on the Mississippi.  I was happy to know the general subject matter partly because the music was lyrical, majestic and so different from past Daugherty pieces I’ve heard that some sort of explanation was in order. But I didn’t need individual subtitles in the movements. Let’s not forget that Mahler removed such things from his Symphony No. 3, mainly because he simply wanted his music to be heard (rather than processed). There’s a reason why more generic titles had a century or two of vogue in the classical world.

My  frustration with this matter may date back as far as elementary school, when I rarely heard what the composer intended me to hear. Even Flight of the Bumblebee: My first encounter with the piece was an assignment to draw what the music suggested to me. Well, it wasn’t bees but a manic fox running in circles.

As a mountain hiker  myself, I didn’t hear any of Mackey’s musical imagery. It’s a terrific multi-movement piece, sort of a crypto-viola concerto without the typical competitive relationship between soloist and ensemble. Often, I heard a profusion of disparate ideas that momentarily made me glad to be a musical American, because few other nationalities of composer would dare to put so many different things into a single musical collage. One recurring idea in several movements was what sounded like a child attempting to play harmonica, blowing in and out, creating a charming musical non-sequitur that certainly worked better than, for instance, the ocarinas heard in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

One movement was woven out of a pair of two-note motifs, Shostakovich-style – one that goes up, the other going down – that was as fine a feat of compositional invention as I’ve heard from Mackey. And that doesn’t really need any back story. The act of holding on to beauty – in the creation of his own – is why we were all there. I’d even venture that what the original beauty looked like is irrelevant.

In contrast, you would’ve wanted to know, in this day and age, what those gun shots were doing near the end of David Ludwig’s excellent Flowers in the Desert. As it turns out, the piece was prompted by the Oklahoma murder of a man who tried to hold up a drug store and, after being neutralized with a single shot from the pharmacist, was finished off with several more shots that killed him. The piece also contained a melody from the great 15th-century composer Josquin des Pres that didn’t make me love it even more when the program notes explained what it was.

The composer in that program who really needs to go to Overexplainers Anonymous is Robert Paterson. His Loony Tunes had visual aids – the various cartoon characters on which individual movements were based. What I managed to notice about the music under these circumstances often sounded quite worthy, though the novelty and specificity of the cartoon visuals (Tweety Bird, et al.) greatly diminished the music that accompanied it.

What’s going on here? Composers want to be understood, and the more original ones, all too often, have left audiences baffled, and not because they have failed to compose well. But even deeper than that, this Explanationitis comes from an American sensibility that something must be useful in order to be valid. But beauty will never be useful in any concrete sense – even though many of us would simply die without it.

We’re in a different era now. Contemporary music concerts no longer have tiny friends-and-family audiences. This concert was packed with young people with standees in the back. More and more these days, you hear composers saying that their explanation of a piece should never be as long as the piece itself. But I think that’s giving them way too much leeway.





  1. Astute Listener says:

    Steve Mackey’s music is totally intriguing and gorgeously crafted, while also completely free in terms of style. It’s about time more of it is heard over here! Catch a performance of his violin concerto “Beautiful Passing” in Vienna on 10 June.

  2. GreeninNYC says:

    David – you nailed it.

    But it’s not just composers . The whole culture of classical music is buying into the over-explanation meme. Composers are just delivering what they believe is now expected of them.

    The fact that over-explanation allows one to encapsulate and define a piece without actually engaging the music is a feature, not a bug. Over-explanations are a bore in the concert hall, but they look great on a grant application.

    Take for example a call for scores that was recently posted for a commission by the Memphis Symphony and the American Composers Forum. The commission gives the composer a program in advance (
    “The work is inspired by the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and will explore the impact of his assassination on a community and move into the collective imagination of what the city could become for the next generation.

    “A set of superscriptions (included below) has been prepared by Mei-Ann’s Circle of Friends, a women’s philanthropy giving circle. They are designed to trace an arc of emotions starting with the shame at the act of assassination and moving through stages of reconciliation and solidarity. These superscriptions are meant as a creative guide for the composer and—if she/he prefers—can serve as headings used within the score to delineate different movements/sections of the piece.

    “The superscriptions are: Fear • Rage • Shame • Separation • Justice • Non-violence • Freedom”
    And there’s a link to a more detailed explanation which provides a paragraph of further explanation for each of the subscriptions.

    I don’t mean to pick on the Memphis Symphony or the American Composers forum. This project is no doubt the product of the best intentions. But that sounds like the description of an essay contest sponsored by the local Rotary Club, not a compelling musical experience. Does anyone even care how the music actually sounds?

    Over-explanation always strikes me as an excuse. It sends the message that the piece of music you are about to hear isn’t able to speak to you all by itself, and we don’t have enough faith in the imagination of you, the listener, to allow you to simply experience the music.

    Is that really the message we want to be sending to our audiences?

    • Great points, Green.

      And there’s this:

      “Over-explanation always strikes me as an excuse. It sends the message that the piece of music you are about to hear isn’t able to speak to you all by itself, and we don’t have enough faith in the imagination of you, the listener, to allow you to simply experience the music.”

      Honestly, I think it’s that the composer doesn’t have enough faith in the imagination of you, the listener, to get exactly the messages he wants you to get, by God – even, or especially, if those messages are about something other than the notes.

      Which would indicate (though he wouldn’t admit it and may not even consciously realize it) that the composer ultimately doesn’t have enough faith in his own music’s ability to get those messages across – or, at best, it means that those messages don’t really lend themselves to music.

  3. couldn,t agree more with you! If I am not wrong it was Stravinsky that sometinh on the lines of “I don’t know wehter the note C is comunist or nazi”.

  4. A great post that deserves wide circulation and influence, especially the idea that “extensive accounts of what stimulated [a] piece’s creation . . . could well limit the listening imagination that one could bring to the piece.” So true. I loved the reference to “the listening imagination” and, later, to “Overexplainers Anonymous” and “Explanationitis.” Perfect! All this could, of course, be applied to those ubiquitous labels, wall texts, and audio tours in art museums.

    Back in the late 1970s, I taught a course on listening and responding to music to senior high school students. Reading “Glorious Useless Beauty” brought those days back to mind as it expresses some of the ideas that guided my teaching. Anyone who might be interested can read about it at the page for the book I co-authored in 2000—‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.’

    “Teaching the Arts to Children” (section of Chapter 15: Public “Implications”). An excerpt follows. The rest can be read at

    Page 308: “Music is perhaps the most difficult art to teach because it presents no discernible subject matter or theme. . . . Because each listener creates his own context, largely subconsciously, it is also the most purely personal of art forms. . . . The Core Knowledge approach makes the all-too-common mistake of suggesting the ‘appropriate’ response before students have listened to the music.”

    Page 309: [At the page for the book (enter full title then click on cover image for book) search for “309.” The above discussion continues here for half a page, commenting on a fourth-grade lesson on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and fifth-grade lessons on Beethoven’s Third, Fifth, and Sixth symphonies.]

    Page 314: [Search for “314.” First three lines and following long paragraph. About the method I used in teaching “listening to music.” I still have the typed responses by several of my students to music by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saens, and Beethoven and may publish excerpts in Aristos in the near future.]

    [Readers may also be interested in Chapter 5, “Music and Cognition” (search for “77” then click on arrow on the arrow in the middle right margin to get to page 78), and Chapter 12, “Avant-Garde Music and Dance” (search for “avant-garde trends,” retaining quotation marks).]

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)—see link above at my name, under date—and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000) – Facebook []—includes posts on music.

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