The Masses Speak, and Wisely

Good lord, what a superb crop of comments my last post elicited! I seem to have stumbled on a topic – the mandates of “historical progress” – that many composers think about a lot and rarely get to discuss. My readers have outdone themselves, most beyond my capacity to improve on with further comment, notably Galen Brown’s points about film music. But I’ll respond to a few.

Matthew Guerrieri (whose thoughtful blog is worth checking out) pinpoints a dilemma that often has me dancing around in circles:

It’s not so much the choice of vocabulary (out of the composers I went to school with, I can only think of one who wrote in a classic mid-century serialist style; the rest of us were too in love with John Williams to ever give up tonal centers) as the attitude among a lot of student composers that they simply don’t need to know anything about non-tonal music that I find ridiculous. If you already think you know everything you need to know, what are you doing in school? And I’m deeply skeptical of any composer who isn’t curious about the inner workings of every single piece he or she comes in contact with–and who doesn’t constantly re-listen, and reassess, the entire repertoire. (If I had settled on my 19-year-old opinions, I would like neither Brahms, Barraque, or soul music.)

It’s a big problem for me: at one point I rejected the premises of serialist and related music, but it was tremendously important in my development, and I still love a lot of it. So how do you teach a body of music that you’ve rejected as a creative artist, but still feel your students need to encounter and learn to understand, especially when the music exhibits a difficulty that raises automatic resistance in most of them, and seems so irrelevant to their prior interests?

This morning I went to Patelson’s Music in New York and bought the score to the fifth movement of Boulez’s Pli selon pli – for $100, which means I now own scores to four of the five movements, at considerable financial commitment – along with Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, Wuorinen’s Piano Sonata, and Ligeti’s Continuum (not one of my favorites, but only ten bucks and a great teaching piece). Though I criticize a lot of this music, you can’t say my attitude is unaffectionate, let alone unknowledgeable. It bugs me when I don’t know how a piece works, or don’t understand why it was written, and I study the music that perplexes me. I want my students to learn to do the same. I teach lots of serialist music, and present it as enthusiastically as I can, though I make it clear that, as with any body of music, there is a wide range of quality. I love Babbitt’s Philomel, sort of like his Canonical Form, and don’t care for Sextets. Nono’s Contrappunto Dialettico alla Mente is fantastic, but Il Canto Sospeso leaves me cold. Stockhausen’s Mantra is terrific, and I enjoy Kontrapunkte, but I wouldn’t bother playing the first four Klavierstücke. The first two movements of Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harspichord are lodged in my heart, but his Variations for Orchestra seems empty and clichéd.

Ultimately, I believe it’s high time to treat this music like any other historical repertoire. My students need to learn all the subtleties of sonata form, too, though Schumann and Brahms are difficult to interest them in. The difference between me and some of my colleagues is that I immerse them in the music – and then don’t bother them about whether they want to apply anything they’ve learned from it to their own music. As trained musicians they have to understand why it was important to write this music, but as artists, they are free to ignore not only it, but all “historical progress,” and anything else that doesn’t touch them deeply. Still, the question, “Well, if this music is so freakin’ wonderful, why doesn’t your music resemble it in any way?” – can be difficult to evade.

Guerrieri adds:

I always get my best ideas when I’m sitting through a piece I don’t like: I start to think of all the sounds I’d rather be hearing, and the imagination takes off. I know at least a couple colleagues who have had the same experience. Are we the only ones?

Absolutely not. I find nothing more inspiring than sitting in a concert and listening to bad music. As a critic-composer, I’ve started some of my best pieces while listening to music that bored or disgusted me. Often when it looked like I was taking copious notes, I was actually drawing staves in my little notebook and sketching out chords and melodies in a burst of anti-cliché inspiration. The opportunity to hear lousy music live is greatly underrated.

The always sincere John Shaw of Utopian Turtletop confesses:

I’m uncomfortable with the equation of aesthetic esotericism and political conservatism.

There’s nothing “elitist” about esoteric interests. But feeling bitter that “the masses” don’t share your esoteric interests does reflect — or lead one to — an elitist attitude.

I will have to ponder for a while, uncomfortably, why Aaron Copland may have felt that esoteric aesthetics were akin to political conservatism, and why he may have been justified at that time.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that so many of these guys are politically liberal, yet manifest such authoritarian views in their music, or at least in the rhetoric with which they surround it. If a composer is fascinated by esoteric musical goals, but humbly realizes that his perceptions lie outside the range of the average listener, that strikes me as a perfectly reasonable attitude. That seems true of many of the best “advanced” composers: Nancarrow, Scelsi, Sorabji, even Partch. But the serialists, and the New Complexity guys who inherited their hubris, often sound like the musical equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld: “We’re the experts, we know what’s best, so just shut up and take what we give you, and if you’re smart you’ll learn to appreciate the bold new world we’ve created for you.” And that bold new world, whether Rumsfeld’s or Wuorinen’s, is usually a hell based on theories that they’ve done a great job of rationalizing for themselves, but that are based on self-delusions that most people have too much common sense to accept. Given the assumption that their political views are sincere (though I’ve been told that Wuorinen and Babbitt express horribly right-wing opinions in private), I can’t imagine how they reconcile that for themselves, or even how they look themselves in the mirror each morning. It’s true, too, of not only the serialists (nearly extinct at this point, after all), but of my immediate colleagues who insist that their students use the proper modicum of “20th-century-sounding” dissonance, atonality, and pitch complexity whether it expresses what they want to say or not.

Finally, Ryan Howard asks:

I’m curious what you make of Charles Rosen’s comments (in Piano Notes) of what he terms “neotonal” music. Rosen seems to advance the argument that the gradual move toward equal temperament destroyed one of the fundamental elements of 18th century tonality–the directionality of modulation in either the sharp or flat direction–and that “neotonal” music, consequently, can provide only a “hollow simulacrum” of 18th or 19th century tonality, in which classical tonal structures are “either abandoned or given a simplistic form which does not recognize the emotional intensity of full triadic tonality.”

Unlike some of Rosen’s comments about 20th-century music, I think this is a really profound point, and one that many microtonalists have made in one way or another as well. Lou Harrison liked to say that 12-tone music was the only style that 12-tone equal temperament supports. I myself gravitated toward microtonality partly because I was so interested in minimalism, and I always get a gnawing feeling that a lot of Reich’s and other minimalist music (Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, for instance) would sound so much better in meantone or just intonation. Those of us not attracted to writing strictly atonal music confront an unconscious conflict, I believe, in the fact that the conventional tuning we use is at odds with the underlying meaning of the harmonies we use. My non-microtonal music (which is most of it) has been influenced to some extent by my work in just intonation, but not as pervasively as I’d like. When writing piano music, for instance, I often revert to a considerable amount of half-step clashes because simple harmonies just don’t sound that good on a modern piano. It’s a problem – one my teacher Ben Johnston feels is well-nigh insurmountable until we start moving away from the bland out-of-tuneness of modern 12-pitch tuning.

Thanks to all for a fascinating dialogue.


  1. Ryan Howard says

    Thanks for the comments, Kyle.

    I still don’t quite understand how Rosen would reconcile the generally-agreed-upon idea that certain major 20th century composers (e.g., Stravinsky) successfully wrote music based upon some kind of tonal structure within equal temperament, with his evident conviction that it’s impossible to write tonal music today (i.e., that “neotonal music is a poor substitute for the subtle and powerful work of the past”).

    I also wonder if Rosen realizes the full implications of what he says about temperament; wouldn’t his insights mean that today’s equal-tempered performances of 18th century music can provide only a “hollow simulacrum” of that music’s tonal relationships?
    KG replies: Those are good, even disturbing questions. Certainly if you listen to Beethoven played in late-18th-century well temperament – and you can, in Enid Katahn’s recordings the Gasparo label – the differences can be powerful, depending on the key. I compose on well-tempered pianos myself, with the result that I think of certain major triads (C#, F#) as virtually dissonant, and use them that way – though that effect disappears when they’re played in public on a regularly-tuned piano. We’d need a lot more experience to think all this through, I imagine, and I too wonder how thoroughly Rosen has thought about it.

  2. evan wilson says

    Great couple of days of posting. Personally speaking, I feel that it would be impossible to ignore the musical history of the 20th century, regardless of the style you write in. For me, the legacy of the avant-garde, 12 tone, minimalism, etc. is precisely that is that it has enabled me to write in whatever style I choose – and feel comfortable doing so.
    I would also like to add to Galen Brown’s comment on film music. I’m often amazed at how avant-garde techniques and effects have been appropriated by film composers. Harsh string scrapings and widely dissonant textures snuck in between snatches of melody to an unsuspecting audience (Time to eat your vegetables kiddies!). Hey even in “War of the Worlds,” a really bad movie, I swore I heard John Williams use some 12 tone rows. Of course, Ligeti is the most famous example of avant-garde music being appreciated by the masses, but film composers often draw upon a host of 20th century techniques and effects to some end. Unfortunately, the past 15 years or so has been plagued by insipid film music (led by Hans Zimmer and Co.) but listen to a Goldenthal score (Aliens 3 for example) and you’ll see what I mean.

  3. Peter says

    What is interesting about film music is the fact that most Hollywood sci-fi movies have late-romantic scores, rather than anything avant-garde. Thrillers and film noir are much more likely to have non-tonal scores than sci-fi flicks. Perhaps directors feel that sci-fi movies already have enough new stuff for an audience to absorb, and so restrain the music from being too new.