Hint: They’re Rhetorical

For those of you who don’t subscribe to Times Select, I have to reprint a few of Glenn Branca’s 25 thought-provoking questions that form the endpiece to the Times‘s “The Score” blog of four composers. They’re not all equally thought-provoking, though, so rather than give away the whole deal for free I’ll only quote the best ones:

1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?…

3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?

4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?

5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?

6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?…

12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?

13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?…

15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”

16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?

17. Can harmony be non-linear?…

19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?

20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?…

22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive? And does it matter?

23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?

24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?

25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?

Give up? I’ll print the answers in my next entry.

Comments

  1. says

    Most of this is good, but I challenge the premise of “4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?”
    Lots of other industries are very conservative. The popular record industry is notoriously risk-averse, which is why the big new things always happen on the margins and only get absorbed into the mainstream record industry once the labels know they can make money. There’s plenty of exciting new stuff going on in classical, and just like in the popular music industry it’s happening on the fringes and hasn’t been absorbed into the mainstream yet. Same for film — the summer hollywood blockbuster is a very conservative formula. I could lay out similar cases for lots of other arts, but you get the idea.
    Having said that, it’s certainly true the the mainstream classical industry is more museumized than most other fields — the works of the past are treated as unsurmountably great and new music is treated as a pretender to the throne, whereas in most other arts the new material, even if it’s derivative, gets the focus. And maybe that’s all Branca meant — if so I withdraw my objection.

  2. says

    I’ll be curious to see your answer to #24. I’ve certainly seen advances in music theory. Heck, Dmitri’s geometric theories were published in Science, making the metaphor real.

  3. Al says

    I’ll take a stab at number 1. Composers ARE judged against the best works of the past, like it or not. There’s no “should” about it! I will heartily agree that it’s not fair that modern composers have to compete against The Magic Flute instead of the Sammartini symphony in C- but didn’t all composers in the past have this same difficulty?

  4. Patrick says

    If you take #4 into account at a University level it’s extremely true. I have more Art Major friends than Music majors and it always makes me jealous how involved their Professors are in art that’s happening NOW. Go to a student art show and there’s no sense that anyone is trying to copy Monet (though lately a lot of people are starting to do very Renaissance-style portraits). Then move over to a student recital and the most recent composer is Debussy, and it’s thought of as being really modern by most of the students and profs in attendance.

  5. Amy Bauer says

    There are various levels of provocation in the above quoted questions (thanks for posting them!). But I don’t understand no. 24; from my vantage point compositional technique and music theory (to a lesser extent) have certainly kept pace with advances in science and technology.
    I await the answers with bated breath.
    KG replies: Well, don’t hold your breath *too* long.

  6. says

    Here are some answers:
    3: because greatness isn’t really that great if you can just go and repeat it, whether you’re the original composer or not!
    5: you always have to imagine you’re having to listen to those performers. if this question actually ever comes up as an either/or, you’re doing something wrong.
    12: time speaks with the voice of its greatest stuff happening
    13: because otherwise all those bored composers would be out on the streets beating people up or something
    15: neither of the two rejected the past, they just presented other ways forward. If you read even half a page of a book by Cage, you’re coming across some name from the past – from Mozart through Thoreau to Satie, Schoenberg and Duchamp. The whole myth of ‘rejection’ of the past is mere sloppy thinking, uncritical use of critical clichés.
    17: can time?
    20: same world, nothing is isolated really
    22: but you can’t offer the aura of actual live concert experiences online. online music experience is confined to reproduction.
    23: it depends on whether you want to address faces and credit cards or ears & minds

  7. says

    1. Should? What does “should” have to do with art?
    3. Inspiration is an unpredictable gift.
    4. Visual art is market driven. Markets value novelty. The music of composers is not market driven.
    5. Down with dichotomies!
    6. Yes.
    12. One answer: When else? Another answer: “The” voice?
    13. Yes.
    15. Nobody cares more about the past than he or she who rejects it.
    16. The novel is antiquated too. Not that there’s anything wrong with antiquated.
    17. Why not?
    19. Yes.
    20. Talk away!
    22. See Ives, Charles.
    23. Should? Should?
    24. If the commenters who suggest that the premise is false are mistaken (I’m not qualified to say), then see #4.
    25. Post-Ism-ism. Are any corners of culture unaffected by the spirit of post-ism-ism?

  8. andrew says

    Al: composers of the past certainly did *not* face the same difficulty of being compared to the best of the past, or at least they didn’t until at least mid-period romanticism, when composers and critics began to compare themselves to their classical predecessors. Mozart certainly wasn’t looking over his shoulder and mourning his inferiority to Bach. He was too busy hustling.

  9. says

    1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?…
    “Dang that girl is u-u-u-gly, she doesn’t look like Sharon Stone at all!”
    3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?
    Only in advertising is everything “great” and “the best yet!”.
    4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?
    Maybe it’s simply a more honest picture of our times.
    5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?
    That’s a tricky one- if the musicians don’t like it or understand it and give a false performance, everyone is screwed…
    6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?…
    Isn’t it a matter of quality, not quantity? Would you rather have 1,000
    fans who love and listen and fork out the cash for your CDs or 1,000,000 who forget your work in 2 years and downloaded it off of Napster in the first place?
    12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?
    Uhhhh…. whenever and however you speak you are contributing to defining the voice of your own time, unless you’re transmitting from the Tardis. Even if you subserviently accept “what’s on TV” as the voice of our times, what do you do when it’s speaking a language that simply doesn’t have the nouns and verbs and so on that you need?
    13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?…
    If there are already so many people, what’s the point of having sex and making babies?
    15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”
    Composers worth listening to do what they MUST do, whatever that is, not what they “choose” to do, so who cares?
    16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?
    Beats me.
    17. Can harmony be non-linear?…
    Don’t know what he means by this.
    19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?
    Cerainly, and far more than artists. I’m sick of armchair quarterbacks… some 19 year old guy in great shape telling me that he’s for the war: why don’t you volunteer, my hippy anti-war ass did years ago out of sheer sense of responsibility.
    20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?…
    Every cloud has a silver lining!
    22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive? And does it matter?
    Selling dope, robbing convenience stores, hustling… nothing new.
    23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?
    The “wide audiences” are meekly financing death and destruction as well as increased opium production: you figure it out.
    24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?
    I don’t know about “science” but it does disturb me that the technical level of the visual arts is stratospheric compared
    to that of the sonic arts. The “why” for this is easy- we live in a visual age and music simply isn’t very important to most people.
    25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we’ve seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old “new music,” a little “60’s sound colorism”, then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance … even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some “conceptual” re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where’s the music?
    It’s out there but it’s creators are too mellowed by the new tide of Afghani to bother presenting it to anybody.
    Anyway, if you want something done right, do it yourself.

  10. Rodney Lister says

    Some of these questions are just silly.
    #13 reminds me of the congressman sometime in the 1820s or something like that who wanted to close the patent office because everything had already been invented.
    #12–How can a composer do anything other than speak with the voice of his own time? Schoenberg, Babbitt, Cage, Stockhausen are no less speaking with the voice of their time than Beethoven or Mozart or Monteverdi or than David Del Tredici or Steve Reich or John Rutter or anybody else one can think of.
    #5 A composer’s pretty luck to have either, but anybody who’s not an idiot would do his/her best to write for both at the same time. Anyway, what would be the sign that a composer had gone after one rather than the other?
    #15 is like #12–First of all anybody who thinks that Milton Babbitt has rejected the past just flat out doesn’t know anything about him or his music. And anyway, assuming that the statement that he was is in any way true, was he rejecting the past–recent or further back–than Reich, Glass, and Riley in their early days. In fact wasn’t their appeal supposed to be their turning away from the past–the recent past at least?
    #4 What EASTABLISHMENT isn’t conservative?
    #23 Would any one of us be interested in the work of any artist who wasn’t reflecting in hse/his work his/her nature, vision, dreams (or was trying to deliberately suppress them toreach a wide audience? And can any artist help but do that anyway, however much he/she might try?
    #24 Music theory is basically about explaining the past anyway. How many composers really worry about music theory when their writing music?

  11. Rodney Lister says

    #3 reminds me of a quote from Randall Jarrell–something to the effect that a poet was a person who, having spent his life standing in the middle of a field during thunderstorms, managed to get hit by lightening once or twice (if he was lucky).

  12. says

    Lawrence: why, in fact, should we not answer rhetorical questions? are we not free as listeners to do so? have we not already done so in our heads as we listen? is what the orator is saying by the very fact of saying of such luminosity, that speech should not be embelished with answers? what could be more worth answering than a question that comports a view?

  13. wr says

    1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?

    Actually, I usually just judge them against Jean Francaix, and sadly, the huge majority are found to be terribly inferior.

    3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?

    Because if they were all great, how could you tell which ones were?

    4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?

    Because human aural perception functions in an entirely different way that visual perception, and this difference is reflected in the social structures surrounding the arts associated with the different senses. Most importantly, a work of visual art can be possessed and owned and taken home and hung of the wall of the owner’s McMansion as a taste trophy – there’s nothing remotely like that dynamic operating in the world of music. A good underlying question might be: is the relative adventurousness of the other arts a good thing? The question somehow implies that it is, but on what basis? Who decided that “new ideas” are always a good thing?

    12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?

    How can they not, since, not matter what they write, they determine the voice of their own time? If today I wrote a nocturne in purest John Field style, that still would qualify as being of “our time”, since I am here, now. Charles Wourinen would object, no doubt, but that’s his problem, poor dear, not mine.

    13. If there’s already so much good music to listen to what’s the point of more composers writing more music?

    This is a better question than it appears to be on the surface, but it routinely gets flipped off by composers (I wonder why). It’s like, okay, we’ve got amazing recordings of a wide range of artists with mind-boggling insight and skill doing the big and small works of the past, and just getting to know all that material is really a life-time of listening, and here some current composer comes along with their terribly up-to-date sensibility and their oh-so-hard-won-but-still-not -very-interesting personal style, and, somehow it just doesn’t grab audiences. It’s not difficult for a music lover these days to have a rich and ever-deepening involvement with classical music and never hear a note of music written in the last fifty years.

    15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?”

    Yes. (A deliberately stupid answer for a remarkably stupid question – how many people reading this who know about the Babbitt “Who Cares If You Listen” thing are unaware that he didn’t come up with the phrase? In my experience, you never hear about it these days except in instances where someone is going to great pains to explain he never said it, or in instances like this, where it becomes something like an obnoxious test to see how knowledgeable you are.)

    20. Sometimes I’m tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?

    Yeah, well, you know…

    22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer’s work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive? And does it matter?

    Day jobs. And no, it doesn’t matter very much. I’m sorry that’s the case and I wish it weren’t true, but such is life.

    23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?

    It all depends.

    24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?

    Why would they be? What’s the connection?

  14. says

    Greetings, Samuel. I didn’t say, and I don’t think I implied, that people aren’t free to do what they wish. I just said what I would do, and I meant to imply only that the questions were more interesting to me than the answers.

  15. Emily says

    #3: This one really pissed me off when I read it. A lot of good composers write crap sometimes. Some good composers write a LOT of crap, but it’s all a part of the learning process. If you don’t get over the fact that some of your music is going to be crap, then you’ll end up with some pretty hefty composers’ block, and that never makes anyone happy. And more often than not, you find one good idea amongst the crap, and that leads to something groundbreaking.
    So yeah. Not everything is going to be great, and that is as it should be, at least in my opinion.

  16. jmac says

    As for #4, the modern visual arts scene is dominated by data visualization. Music is way ahead in this respect, it inherently deals with the formatting and representation of data sets.
    Digital media has made #22 an issue for visual artists, as museums and collectors have challenged by works that only exist in the digital/mass reproducible realm. The answer, of course, is greater public funding for the arts. We’ve seen some artists react against these trends with maximal, cluster-fuck installations (Mike Kelley) or public art music installations (Jem Finer).
    Obviously Branca is shooting from the hip here with some basically rhetorical agitation.

  17. glenn branca says

    Well you guys did a lot better than the TimesSelect crowd, I’ll give you that if nothing else.
    KG replies: Well, I thought Alvin’s replies were very thoughtful.