November 7, 2006
Episode 14: Hardcore Argument
In recent episodes:
I've been talking about the origins of the classical music world as we know it today. In episodes seven, eight, and nine, I described the music world of the 18th century, when composers we now call classical were active -- Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart -- were active, but the concept of classical music didn't exist. Music wasn't considered a deeply serious art, and musical performances were mostly entertainment. Almost all the pieces played were new. People talked while the music played, and reacted loudly, clapping and cheering when they heard something they liked. The musicians often improvised, to an extent we can barely imagine today.
But then, beginning at the start of the 19th century, things changed. The concept of classical music emerged, as I discussed in episodes 10, 11, and 12. The romantics thought music was the highest of the arts, because it somehow expressed the deepest truths. That, of course, made it possible to urge that music be listened to in reverent silence, and to make a distinction between artistic music and music that served only as entertainment. Classical music -- Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, plus a few earlier composers like Handel and Bach whom connoisseurs were aware of, and also living composers like Schumann and Mendelssohn, who consciously based their music on classical models -- was opposed to popular music, which was Liszt and Rossini, or more generally opera, and anything played by the spectacular and newly fashionable virtuosi.
Eventually classical and popular music (as they were defined back then) started to blend, so that even Italian opera -- the height of popular music in the 19th century -- began to be considered classical. By the end of the 19th century, most of the pieces played were old, and musicians rarely improvised, which brings us very nearly to where we are in classical music today. For much more on all of this, read the episodes, or else the longer summary that introduced episode 13.
In that episode, I moved on to something else that helped create the classical music world we now know -- the rise of modernism, which (as I'm about to say in the current episode) boxed new classical music into an isolated corner it might only recently have started to move out of. This happened in the 20th century. But before discussing that, I wanted to show how in the 1890s, new music still could be healthy and vital, even if most of the music in the concert hall was old. That's what episode 13 was about.
And now we move on to hard-core modernism. That'll take up this and two more episodes (I think). After that, I'll look at what I think is the third large force that shaped the classical music world we know today -- the rise of today's popular culture, which makes classical music very distant from the everyday life most people now lead.
So: musical modernism.
I'm going to make a hardcore argument of my own here, and suggest that modernism -- which might briefly be defined as the musical equivalent of abstract art -- became (as abstract art never did in the visual arts world) in some ways an oppressive force. It started wonderfully (as I'll show in the next episode), but its function, inside the classical music world, in the end grew almost pathological.
What do I mean by that? Well, one way to explain, especially to people who aren't classical music listeners, would be to ask a simple question: How would you feel if you went to the movies, bought your ticket, and found yourself forced to sit through a film you just hated? That actually happened -- not once, but over and over again, and for many years -- at classical concerts. You'd go to hear Beethoven, something you loved, and find yourself also forced to hear some modernist piece you couldn't stand, music that sounded incoherent and ugly, a piece which (to quote a long-time subscriber to one of America's largest orchestras, who took part in a post-concert discussion I led) you couldn't follow either musically or emotionally.
And this still goes on, even though it doesn't make sense for anybody. Artistically, it's a mismatch, music (which might, in itself, be perfectly worthy) being performed for the wrong audience. As marketing -- though I doubt anybody take the time to think of it that way -- this is a disaster, since instead of making friends for the music, it makes people hate it. Wouldn't it be better to try to find an audience that liked it?
And, in simple human terms, all this is horribly discourteous. How can anyone do this to fellow human beings -- and especially, if you run a classical performing group, to people you depend on for your livelihood? Nor does all this do modernist composers any good. It makes them feel isolated; it makes them bitter; it makes them defiant; it makes them think that nobody's on their side, except a few eager musicians who genuinely like to play their work (and let's not minimize how passionate these musicians are), and also some classical music administrators, who go on programming all this stuff whether their audience likes it or not. In part, maybe large part, because their music is played for the wrong people, modernist composers never developed the loyal, specialized audience that advanced jazz musicians had, not to mention modernist film directors like Godard or Antonioni, or abstract expressionist painters (whose work is now entirely mainstream).
Of course there are reasons for this, which I'll discuss. One of the simplest might be that classical music needs to be performed, while a modernist painting only needs to be hung in a gallery somewhere. There, in the gallery, those who like it will linger and come back, while those who don't can walk right by, or never go to the gallery at all. After a while, the painting might find its audience. But if you're a classical composer, and you've written a piece for orchestra, where else are you going to have it played except in a classical concert hall? So in a way you're stuck, because along with that concert hall comes the audience whose support pays for both the space and the performances that go on in it.
But what's really shocking is that modernist music, in the end, found hardly any audience at all, even among advanced, avant-garde intellectuals, or artists in other fields. These people ought to be the natural constituency for edgy new work in any art, and in fact (as I'll show in the next episode see) had cheered on modernist music when it first began. But by the end of its reign -- the end of the period when it had more prestige, among classical music leaders, than new classical music of any other kind --modernist music had accomplished something almost unthinkable. Because people came to expect that all new pieces would be modernist, new classical music itself -- the entire enterprise of writing new classical music -- developed a bad odor inside the classical music world. Audiences almost always cringed when a new piece showed up on a concert program. And since modernist music also, as I've said, divorced itself from artistic life outside the classical music world, it ended up isolating new classical music from nearly everyone. This -- as should hardly need saying -- was a disaster for classical music as an art form. (The years around 1980, might have been the the height of this disaster. After that, new winds started blowing, and new kinds of music, starting with minimalism, started to break the modernist grip.)
And all of this was -- or so it seems in retrospect -- not surprising (if not inevitable) continuation of the history I've been looking at in past episodes. Once classical music became a specialized enterprise, removed from everyday life -- once composers were revered as untouchable geniuses, responsible to nobody, with the performance of their music treated almost as a sacred rite, and once performances were largely of the music of the past -- living composers became more and more marginal. Obviously that hadn't fully happened in the 1890s, as I showed in the last episode. But when composers starting writing music that was completely new, but still had to function inside the classical tradition, they didn't speak to anybody.
For an instructive and in some ways very sad example, look at Stravinsky, a composer who lived through most of the 20th century and early on was safely enshrined in the classical pantheon, but only because of a few fairly early works. These were the pieces, some of the wildly modernist, that made him famous, pieces like The Rite of Spring, which might have been shocking in their time (the Rite famously provoked near-riots at its premiere), but really did attract people with adventurous taste, and in later years became part of the standard classical repertoire.
But then came the 1920s, and Stravinsky -- now a classical
music celebrity -- had to make a living. The best way to do that, once the
sensation around his early work had died down, was to travel through Europe and
Was I right? I went to the New York Philharmonic archives, and (thanks to the kindness of the archivists) got a printout of every Stravinsky performance the orchestra ever did. And sure enough, from the 1920s through the 1940s (the years when Stravinsky was most active as a conductor), the orchestra almost never played Stravinsky's new works, except when he himself conducted them. I have no reason to believe that things were different at most other orchestras (except, perhaps, in those led by a very few conductors like Ernest Ansermet, who were Stravinsky partisans).
And after World War II, things got worse. Stravinsky -- now hailed worldwide not simply as the greatest living classical composer, but as a living member of the classical pantheon -- became a celebrity even outside the classical music world. Walsh has a lovely and revealing anecdote: Frank Sinatra sees Stravinsky at a restaurant, and asks him for his autograph! But now Stravinsky was writing distant (if utterly individual) and highly modernist music, atonal, dissonant, disjunct, nothing like his previous work, even his previous highly modernist work. And this music-- because Stravinsky no longer toured as a conductor -- was hardly heard by anyone, though every work was reverently recorded. The world's greatest composer, the only living member of the classical pantheon, now had a career that for the most part consisted only of celebrity and prestige.
But now, and especially because I expect some controversy, I want to carefully define what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that modernist music is pathological, and certainly not that modernist composers, from Schoenberg to Pierre Boulez, and Stravinsky in his last years, and Charles Wuorinen, and many others, have been. Nor am I saying that I myself don't like modernist music. As I've been drafting this episode, I've been listening to pieces by Schoenberg and Webern, two composers who were founding fathers of modernism, and whose modernist music (again, think of a musical equivalent of abstract art) has never caught on inside the concert hall. I chose pieces that I've known for years, and studied -- Schoenberg's Fourth String Quartet (which I used to sing parts of, as I analyzed the written music); Webern's Symphony, Op. 21; and his Piano Variations (which I immersed myself in at the piano).
And one thing that comes across to me, across the gap of generations, is a kind of wistfulness, as if Schoenberg and Webern lived right on the surface of their skin, eagerly hoping that somebody would listen to them. This, despite the cloistered musical procedures -- a bristling collection of them -- that both composers used. These begin with the 12-tone system, something almost impossible to explain to non-musicians, or even to musicians who've never gone inside it. Notes get arranged in what seems to be an arbitrary order, and then always have to be used in that order, as if -- right here on the computer screen in front of you -- I always brought copious deductions elucidated from generalizations habitually instigated...well, you get the point. I tried (until my inspiration ran out) to write a sentence in which the words began with successive letters of the alphabet.
But that's not really how the 12-tone system works. It's not that arbitrary, perverse, or meaningless. Instead, all the available notes -- visualize, if you'd like, a piano, with its arrangement of white and black keys repeated over and over again from the bottom of the keyboard to the top; or else just think of their letter names, C, E flat, F sharp, G, B flat, A flat, D, and all the rest --are made to form a pattern, which more or less revolves in auditory space. It never changes, though the angle that you're looking at it does. This gives music both variety, and a very deep consistency.
And then there are Webern's special games. He'll write, for instance, tiny musical phrases that reverse themselves, something very comfortable for them to do, if the same patterns of notes are always being heard. Or he'll spaciously unfold the same music in many instruments at once, as he does in the first movement of the Symphony. Or he'll lock certain pitches in particular locations, so that F sharp, for instance, whenever it's heard, is at the same position on the piano keyboard. (Or in effect at that position, since it might be being played on the piano.) That also happens at the start of the Symphony, and makes (at least to me) the music seem to unfold spatially, as well as through a span of time. Then when something new happens, the sound is quietly transforming, as if a new light, in some new color, had started shining in what otherwise might be unchanging space.
Which isn't to say that the music isn't also full of feeling, though to some extent the search for feeling in it is a red herring, a question raised only because the music to some extent reacts against the romanticism of the 19th century, and the frantic expressionism of the early 20th. Do we worry about feeling in the unfolding of the patterns of a Bach fugue? We don't, because the sound of the music is familiar, and also because we understand intuitively -- and can hear, as we listen -- that nobody writes music without some kind of human element. That's just as true of Webern, but we don't as quickly hear it, because the sound of the music can be so unfamiliar, and also (to be fair) because both the composers and, even more, later analysts talked about it so much in terms of inner musical procedures. It's easy to forget that Webern sometimes sketched his works with images of nature which each section of the music were supposed to evoke, and that he coached performers to play his work with strong, almost exaggerated feeling.
If you look closely at his scores, you sometimes see things that are almost metaphysical. In the Piano Variations, if my memory is accurate (I lost my copy of the music in a fire, didn't think that I'd be writing about it now, and don't have a copy with me), there's an accelerando (as a musician would put it) written over a series of rests. Or, in plain English, Webern wants the music to speed up during a silence! This is a sweet, ineffable, but also very deep impulse, one that comes from a consciousness that every moment in a piece of music glows with light, even silences.
And furthermore, modernist music was, in its time, deeply
necessary. Look at all the changes that were happening in the world at large,
back in the early years of the past century. The list that I'm about to make is
hardly original, but it bears remembering, especially if you happen to be a
more traditional classical music listener, and in the midst of lovely Beethoven
and Schubert find yourself confronted with an angular, perhaps metallic, and
apparently disruptive modernist work. Life itself was being disrupted when
these pieces started to be written. World War I killed millions. In its wake
came revolutions, and economic insanity. (Think of the
How could music not reflect all this? The pathology, then, might have been in the classical music world, which -- rejecting the modern age -- hung on (and still hangs on) to comforting sounds that evoke an earlier, more peaceful way of life. Though to the extent that modernist music wanted to flourish in the classical concert hall, it (in the ways that I've described) began to grow its own pathology.
Still, when it emerged, it could be innocent and eager. Think of Schoenberg, a name that now scares concertgoers, almost as if the poor man had been a Halloween spook, bringing a singer into his second string quartet, to sing these words (as the music turned strange and disembodied): "I breathe the air of other planets." The piece premiered in 1908.
Or think of him after he'd fled the Nazis and settled in
Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water, and not knowing how to swim or to get out in another manner, I tried with my legs and arms as best as I could.
I do not know what saved me; why I was not drowned or cooked alive. I have perhaps only one merit: I never gave up! But how could I give up in the middle of an ocean....
I had fallen into an ocean, into an ocean of overheated water and it burned not only my skin, it burned also internally.
How can anyone not feel sympathy for such a man, or not want to hear his work? (Though, to be honest, there's much that's prickly about him, not least in this speech, where he spends most of his time talking about the people who opposed him. But then he did face horrendous opposition, which must be partly why he was so prickly. But then I've already suggested reasons why all this was more or less inevitable. If Schoenberg wanted his music played inside the classical music world, how would he not have found people who hated it?)
And then there's the famous -- or rather infamous -- explosion from Pierre Boulez in 1952, who (as he worked with a musical language that derived from Schoenberg) threw this in everybody's face:
Since the Viennese discoveries [Schoenberg and his associates made up what came to be called the Second Viennese School], any musician who has not experienced -- I do not say understood, but truly experienced -- the necessity of the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time.
USELESS! I love that -- quite seriously, I really do. Shouldn't everyone (especially when they're in their 20s, as Boulez was when he said this) care that much about their work? But now we come to another side of the pathology of musical modernism: People find Boulez's statement threatening. Look at what Richard Taruskin, the most famous musicologist alive (just ask him), writes when he gets to Boulez in his brilliant but manic five-volume Oxford History of Western Music. Inevitably he quotes the USELESS Boulez spasm, and then, utterly to my astonishment, spews a rant of his own all over it:
Boulez is now a Stalinist and a Nazi? But when did he ever have that kind of power? Maybe Boulez and others really did wish -- when they were in their 20s, let's remember -- that they could dictate what kind of music should be written. (And it's touching, now that Boulez is 80, and a lot more mellow, to see echoes of this in him still. When I worked on a project with an orchestra where he often guest-conducts, I heard him interviewed for a video that this orchestra was going to use for marketing. He was conducting Bartok, and made it clear that he disapproved of some of Bartok's music, even though he was conducting it. He said he loves the early, noisy, brash, and modernist Bartok works, like the First Piano Concerto, and doesn't like the smoother later ones.)
And it's also true that modernist composers came to have a certain power, to some extent influencing (at least in the U.S.) -- and to an extent out of proportion to the number of times their music actually got performed -- which younger composers got grants, or teaching jobs at universities. To anyone who went to music school, as I did, in the 1970s, the reign of modernism had its oppressive side.
But what power did Boulez really have? At around the same time he called non-12 tone composers USELESS, he also shouted that "The most elegant way of solving the opera problem would be to blow up the opera houses." So were any opera houses then blown up? Of course not. Did Boulez spark any riots, destroy hotel rooms, or (like the Sex Pistols) trash the office of a record company? No, no, and no. Instead he went around the world conducting, subtly marginalizing himself as a composer, even lending his conducting authority to works by Schoenberg and Stravinsky that, in his 20s, he'd denounced because he thought they weren't radical enough.
Of course his arrogance broke through when -- and this, incredibly, was filmed! -- he browbeat poor Stravinsky, by that time frail and elderly, insisting (how could he have done this?) that Stravinsky eliminate what Boulez thought was one excessive bar from the last page of one of his masterworks (Les Noces). And I can't say I was impressed when, due to his prestige, Boulez was given, by the French government, no less, an institute from which he could help evolve music's future. (Which, happily for most of us, he couldn't influence, because music, developed as it always has, independent of anyone's control).
But still! Weren't Boulez's wild man rants essentially the
overflow of vast enthusiasm? Wasn't he just a kid? Didn't he think that his way
had to be the only way in part because that's what younger people often think? (Besides,
Boulez is French, and
And here, I think, the mountain issues forth a lovely, gracious little mouse. Boulez's music now sounds wistful (once again) and -- at least in our time, to anybody used to it-- not very provocative, certainly far less so than the films Jean-Luc Godard would make in France just a few years afterward.
This episode ballooned out of my control, so I'll save till next time some history I really love -- the history of modernist music (or, as it then was called, "modern music") in the 1920s, when it really made some noise.
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Posted by gsandow on November 7, 2006 11:30 PM
That was excellent, Greg.
A wonderful attempt to give Boulez's youthful opinions some context. There's a lot more for others to explore.
Thanks! The Boulez section of that episode was my favorite part.
Posted by: Alexandra Ottaway at November 8, 2006 10:55 AM
In your discussion I think that you mean, in general, by "modernism" really only a certain strain of modernism, as there was no ONE monolith "Modernism" as a style or even language, particularly as the 20th century wore on. There were many modernisms.
The modernism you mean -- the one that caused all those problems with audiences -- is essentially atonality, and especially dodecaphony. This is the "language" that most audiences have resisted. Other styles of Modernism -- Stravinsky, Bartok, Poulenc, Janacek, Copland, Messiaen and on down a very long list -- soon took hold after a few listenings. Not so the atonalists.
All the composers working outside the atonalist ideology wrote music that expanded our understanding of tonailty and a tonal center. Even Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" soon became accepted, as it was heard essentially to be a tonal work, comprehensible by the ear as such, but just in a very new and challenging way. (And by the way, even if Stravinsky's music was performed mostly by himself, nevertheless, he had a great following; I don't find it so odd or unfortunate if a composer is the one who travels the world performing his own music, so long as people come to listen in meaningful numbers -- this is what Reich and Glass did also, until their own music "took hold.")
Atonality, but more so dodecaphony and serialsm, -- I would argue -- relies more purely on the intellect and only incidentally, if much at all, on the sensorium. In other words, you can talk up a good game for the stuff, but mostly it just sounds awful. Mostly, as the music is a-tonal, i.e., works against tonality or a tonal center, that music also works against all tonal forms of melos and harmony, and equally against rhythm. Please do not tell me what is commonly argued: of course there is melody and harmony and rhythm in this music -- yes, but the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic shapes are all fashioned to go precisely against anything we can relate to normally. I consider this an essentially anti-humanist enterprise or intellectual movement. All cultures we have ever known have melodic and rhythmic shapes that a community can participate in. Atonality is asocial: it endeavors to exclude and resist participation, despite any protestations to the contrary. I don't think this is a judgment so much as a description of fact. Now, one can indeed like the music, and some do, and some atonal music can be quite attractive, but in those cases, I believe the composer has used other musical means to mitigate the extreme nature of the tone-language. Or: the music is part of a narrative, usually telling of extreme or deranged psychological states, in the theater, opera or movie-house, in which case many an audience finds nothing objectionable in the music, insofar as it is part of a greater whole.
When Taruskin mentions Zhdanov and the Nazis he does not imply that Boulez was a Nazi or a Stalinist: he suggests that the impulse behind the utterance is the same, namely a dangerous, aggressive hostility toward his opposition, which impulse had already shown itself -- and continues to show itself -- destructive. And let's not kid ourselves that because Boulez "was in his 20's" ("just a kid"?? -- tell that to Alexander, Mendelssohn, Keats, quite a few great mathematicians and military heroes and villains!) his youthfulness is any excuse: at that age any number of men (men, mostly) can wreak quite a lot of damage and wield quite a bit of brute power, and historically always have, in gangs or as leaders. The destruction Boulez wrought was not physical but, as you yourself suggest, spiritual and psychological, in making it seem that anyone daring to work in any other medium was beyond the pale, excommunicated, excrement. Your vignette about Boulez and the older Stravinsky, which I had not heard, confirms in my mind that the man is, whatever other merits he may possess, a brute. Boulez -- mid-20th-century Frenchman, as you remind us -- was prey, as so many avant-gardistes were, to a continued utopian mindset, which brought us the horrors of nazism, communism, Maoism, Stalinism, and continues to bring us its religious forms. I consider utopianism the very worst of all possible forms of intellectual failure, even if at its core it comes from a (yes, youthful) urge to create a better, ideal world. But this urge can be easily and quickly perverted by other urges (e.g., to power), has never succeeded, and flies in the face of history and everything we know about human nature. True Utopian, of course, Boulez and his ilk cannot tolerate diversion from their program -- to my mind a rather joyless one, intellectual asceticism to the nth.
Fortunately, as you say, there is no final arbiter in these matters, and I am happy to say that as much as B. may despise all music that does not conform to his beliefs, I and many others return the compliment, by despising his intolerance -- which reflects, after all, merely his own personal, humanly limited psychology, -- a quasi-religious-orthodox stance, really -- more than any objective, timeless judgment.
Posted by: Jorge Martin at November 10, 2006 12:22 PM
With regards to the "atonalist" music in the repetoire, I guess Berg's Violin Concerto and "Wozzeck" are the exceptions that prove the rule.(but then he wasn't really a "good" student with all those tonal "holdovers" we hear in his music ;) )
Posted by: Richard at November 13, 2006 1:48 PM
Your book continues to be a lot of fun for me.
I agree with the comment about many modernisms. When I switched WNYC onto its "20th century and American music" path in 1982 I had bought every LP available of a number of composers, and knew that, as someone quickly perceived, a switch from BB&Brahms to Barber Bernstein & Britten wouldn't curdle anyone's breakfast milk.
Looking forward to your 20s piece, I've just been listening repeatedly to Ernst Toch's Tanz Suite from '23, new from my friends at Spectrum Concerts Berlin, and there could be no more explicit engagement with the post-war moment in Germany/Austria and the dissonant shift in music. I look forward to your take on the decade.
Posted by: John Beck at November 13, 2006 9:09 PM
You'd go to hear Beethoven, something you loved, and find yourself also forced to hear some modernist piece you couldn't stand, music that sounded incoherent and ugly, a piece which (to quote a long-time subscriber to one of America's largest orchestras, who took part in a post-concert discussion I led) you couldn't follow either musically or emotionally.
This is an interesting point. Any conductor/performer worth their salt puts a lot of thought into their programs, what pieces can go together in an interesting and mutually illuminating way. And then the audiences treat it like a smorgasbord--well, I'm going to hear this piece, they're also playing that piece, I hope they put it on the second half so I can leave at intermission if I want. (Full disclosure: I've done it too, although usually I'm there for the crazy modern piece and I skip out before the warhorse.) Given the state of musical knowledge and education these days (it's not that audiences are dumber, it's that they haven't had the opportunity to pick up the basic knowledge of styles and repertoire that might have been taken for granted, say, 30 or 40 years ago), I wouldn't mind seeing the logic and intention behind programming made more explicit. It's maybe a minor point, but perhaps concert organizations could put more effort into marketing their concerts as full-length narratives rather than just grab bags. (I normally hate when performers spend part of the concert talking about the concert--mostly because it's often done rather badly--but this might be one area where it could be used to experiment without a lot of extra multimedia effort.)
The Boston Symphony's been doing something like this with a multi-year cycle pairing up Beethoven and Schoenberg; I'm not going to say it's made hordes of new Schoenberg fans (or Beethoven fans, for that matter), but it's probably gotten the music into more ears than just adding a piece to a concert here or there would have done. The program notes make connections, the audience is aware that the pairing up of pieces isn't just random--which perhaps leaves them more open to the idea that the piece they know provides a possible framework for listening to the piece they don't know. I'm not sure how successful the series has been on the whole (I get most of my BSO via radio) but Moses und Aron brought in a bigger crowd than I expected to see.
P.S. Jorge wrote: Please do not tell me what is commonly argued: of course there is melody and harmony and rhythm in this music -- yes, but the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic shapes are all fashioned to go precisely against anything we can relate to normally.
Well, I have no problem relating to those shapes, Jorge. What does that make me? Disturbed? Pathological? I seem to remember that calling people abnormal because they don't like the same things you do was an old favorite in the Stalinist playbook as well. Please don't tell me what is commonly argued: that the fact that you don't like atonal music means that nobody likes atonal music (or worse, that those of us who do like it like it for self-serving and/or nefarious reasons). The worst form of intellectual failure is being unable to imagine that there are valid intellects outside your own. You might want to double-check the relative fenestration of your own house before you start throwing rocks.
Posted by: Matthew at November 20, 2006 8:01 PM