House Slaves

I love reading David Mamet’s essays while I’m composing, because he so trenchantly exhorts the artist to be honest, to limit him- or herself to moves that advance the action of the piece, and to avoid the chicanery of poetic touches that do not carry the action forward. I suppose I love it all the more because what constitutes chicanery in music is not exactly what constitutes it in theater or film, thus I get to interpret his exhortations to fit my comfort level. And his observations of the artistic world are much in sync with mine. From Bambi Vs. Godzilla, in a discussion about getting graduate degrees in filmmaking:

Of what use is this graduate film diploma, then? As evidence of the bona fides of the applicant. For someone capable of putting up with X years of the nonsense of school would be odds-on willing to submit to the sit-down-and-shut-up rigors of the bureaucratic environment.

Perhaps, then, this graduate course functions, whether through design or happy accident, not to train but to certify house slaves.

A former student expressed frustration with the hoops that grad schools were putting her through for admission, but added, “Well, I guess this is how they winnow out the weak.” No no, I told her, the purpose of grad school is to winnow out the disobedient, those who have minds of their own and refuse to squelch them.

More from a few pages later:

Helpful hints to the filmmaker and the viewer: The compliments – “What visuals!” “What craft!” “What use of the camera!” and “What technique!” – all mean “the script stinks.”

We use a couple of those in music, too, to which I could add, “The orchestration was amazing!” – which, correctly translated, means, “I have no idea what that piece was trying to do.”

I also like this. Mamet warns against the idiocy of audience-testing a film with people who know their opinion may spur the producer to make changes, and also against the unreality of trusting any reaction from work shown to one’s friends or colleagues in an academic setting.

Is it necessary to gauge the audience? Sure thing. The way to do it is to sit in the back of the theater while the film is being screened and watch their reactions when their attention is off themselves; that’s the way to see if the film, and any section of it, works or fails.

This is also how I get the most solid feedback about my own music, and a technique I habitually used as a critic to judge how music was going over – tremendously more reliable than asking people’s opinions at intermission.


  1. moss says

    When playing in rock bands, the comments are similar; “You guys were really tight.” (Your songs were bad.) or “You guys had good energy on stage.” (Your suck was monumental.)
    “This is also how I get the most solid feedback about my own music, and a technique I habitually used as a critic to judge how music was going over-”
    -When everyone goes to refill their beers and smoke when you go on, chances are your band needs work. People don’t get up and leave $50 seats, but it’s very easy to stumble over to the other side of the bar.

  2. mclaren says

    History and personal experience together with the published scientific literature have shown us that human behavior results mainly from unconscious motivations, and people in groups will change their accurate judgements to reflect demonstrably and clearly obvious false conclusions if the rest of the group disagree with their estimation.

    Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles McKay, 1841

    When studying the fundamental characteristics of a crowd we stated that it is guided almost exclusively by unconscious motives. Its acts are far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain. In this respect a crowd is closely akin to quite primitive beings. The acts performed may be perfect so far as their execution is concerned, but as they are not directed by the brain, the individual conducts himself according as the exciting causes to which he is submitted may happen to decide.” – Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, 1896

    As a result, composers are usually the last people to accurately appreciate their own work, let alone that of others. Audiences typically “want the same old sh**, only different,” to quote Carter Scholz, which makes them excellent Lowest Common Denominator detectors. This proves valuable for setting network TV advertising rates. The value of an audience’s judgement in gauging the quality of music, however, remains a different matter.

    Before we defer to the judgement of audiences or critics, it’s worth examining their track record:

    Herman Melville’s Moby Dick had almost no sales. Meanwhile, Lew Wallace’s 1881 Ben Hur blew the top out of the charts as a nationwide best-seller, inspiring a line of coffee mugs, childrens’ toys and even a Ben Hur museum.

    The printed edition of Bach’s Art of Fugue proved so unpopular and sold so few copies that the copper engraving plates were broken up and sold for the value of the scrap metal to partially recoup the printing costs. Meanwhile, Antonio Salieri enjoyed immense popularity.

    Did the critics fare any better?

    “[J.S. Bach’s] compositions are deprived of beauty, of harmony, and of clarity of melody.” — Johann Adolph Scheibe, Der critische Musikus, 14 May 1737

    “[Beethoven’s Fifth symphony is] an orgy of vulgar noise.” — Louis Spohr, 21 December 1808

    “I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this seelf-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” — Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky, diary, 9 October 1886

    “[Jacques Offenbach] has written nothing that will live, nothing that has made the world better… His name as well as his music will soon be forgotten.” — Chicago Tribune, 7 October 1880

    “Wagner is a man devoid of all talent.”
    — Cesar Cui, letter to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 9 March 1863

    “Had [Chopin] submitted…[his] music to a teacher, the latter, it is to be hoped, would have torn it up and thrown it at his feet — and this is what we symbolically wish to do.” — Ludwig Rellstab, Ris im Gebiete der Tonkunst, 5 July 1833

    “Rembrandt [van Rijn] is not to be compared in the painting of character with our extraordinarily gifted English artist, Mr. Rippingille.” — John Hunt, 1823

    “[Pierre Auguste Renoir] has no talent at all, that boy… Tell him to please give up painting.” — Edouard Manet to Claude Monet, 1864

    “Degas is repulsive.”The New York Times, 10 April 1886

    “Why should Titian and the Venetians be named in a discourse on art? Such idiots are not artists.” — William Blake, annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, 1807

    “[Robert Southey’s] Madoc will be read — when Homer and Virgin are fogotten.” — Richard Porson, 1805

    “The next generation…will not readily allow…[Felicia Hemans] to be forgotten. For we do not hesitate to day that she is, beyond all comparison, the most touching and accomplished writer of occasional verses that our literature has yet to boast of.” — Francis Jeffrey, The Edinburgh Review, October 1829

    “Martin Tupper has won for himself the vacant throne waiting for him amidst the immortals, and…has been adopted by the suffrage of mankind and the final decree of publishers into the same rank with Wordsworth, and Tennyson and Browning.”The Spectator, 27 January 1866

    Ever hear of Felicia Hemans or Martin Tupper?

    Me neither.

    The grovelling insectile adulation of the mindless mob, a fad misnamed “the wisdom of crowds” or “Web 2.0,” has become the Pet Rock of the current day. Jaron Lanier has had something to say about that in his essay Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the new Online Collectivism.

    To paraphrase Shane, “a composer’s gotta do what a composer’s gotta do.” If this proves popular among audiences or critics it may have tangential benefits. So many superb past composers have been neglected by current critics and contemproary audiences (Jehan Suzay, Guillaume Machaut, Josquin dePres, Andrea Gabrieli, John Alden Carpenter, Paul Creston, David Diamond, Ferruccio Busoni, et al.) that it’s hard to take seriously the notion that audiences or critics represent some kind of credible yardstick for the value of contemporary music. In the long run, time — perhaps — may. But, as John Maynard Keynes remarked, in the long run we are all dead.

    The fantasy that audience reaction has anything at all to say about the quality of a piece of music remains a delusion all the more extraordinary inasmuch as we live in the immediate aftermath of three of the greatest bouts of American mass insanity in living memory: the “Satanic Panic” lynch mob frenzy directed against nonexistent nationwide “satanic child molestation cults” in the 1980s and 1990s; the delusional mass frenzy involving nonexistent WMDs in the hysterical run-up to the current war in Iraq; and the climactic bout of mass insanity resulting in the re-election of the drunk-driving C student who presently infests the Oval Office.
    Many millions of people fervently involved in these bouts of mass insanity vehemently deny any participation when confronted today, and these people emphatically disavow their previous passionately-held delusionsal beliefs. Will the equally passionate beliefs of today’s musical audiences or music critics hold up any better than classics like “[T]he area in the south and the west and the north that coalition forces control is substantial. It happens not to be the area where weapons of mass destruction were dispersed. We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” — Donald Rumsfeld, 30 March 2003