Some People Can’t Take a Compliment

Beethoven had to churn, to some extent, to make his message carry. He had to pull the ear, hard and in the same place and several times…
Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata

Ah, it’s like the old days again – just when I think the blogosphere has finally resignedly inured itself to Kyle Gann, furor can again erupt. I apparently mortified a number of people by mentioning, in a brief aside, what I thought was one of the most bare-faced facts in the musical universe, that Beethoven was not a subtle composer. (You can look up the comments.) Some think I insulted Beethoven, which is a terrible thing, because I wield so much influence that now Beethoven will cease to be listened to, and the responsibility will be on my head. 

I guess those people find subtle a compliment, and I don’t. When a student brings me an inchoate mass of 300 notes and I ask, “What’s the main musical idea here?” and he points to five pianissimo notes in the vibraphone, I tend to deadpan, “It’s a little subtle.” By this I do not mean him to understand, “Bravo! What you’ve done here is so profound that only the cognoscenti will realize the extent of your achievement!,” though in an unfortunately ironic sense the latter half of that may be true. I mean, “You haven’t yet begun to be serious about getting your musical idea across to the audience.” Subtle is for me an antonym of communicative, and communicativeness is, for me, a great virtue. We talk about the subtle wiles of a deceitful person. But apparently modernism has created a world in which subtlety is considered one of the unalloyed virtues, of which one can never have too much. Which would explain the mostly depressing state of contemporary music, all those composers glorying in their damn subtleties and everyone else wondering what the hell they’re doing. In any case, when I call Beethoven unsubtle, and claim that my music sometimes achieves unsubtlety too, I am both holding him up as a model and claiming to be on the same side.
To repeat a story, Feldman used to complain about his students who were proud of their subtlety. He’d describe some student who protested, “But you have to listen to the piece more than once!,” and growl, “Kid’s 20, and he thinks I’m going to listen to his fucking piece twice.”


  1. says

    I think there are a couple things going on here:

    1) Our connotations with “subtle” have been changed since the rise of arena rock, which is the most obvious means of musical communication out there. You can’t be subtle if you’re trying to convince 30,000 people of what you’re trying to say.

    2) Saying that some music isn’t subtle is like saying that there’s nothing new to hear in it on successive listens. Or really, it isn’t like saying it, is is saying it, and many listeners would argue that repeated listens of Beethoven do turn up new insights. And I think the part in the Andante movement of the “Pastoral” sonata when the brings in the 16th-note scales around measure 45, replacing the theme but making the theme audible in the harmony, sort of a miniature variation, qualifies as subtle. Everyone still loves you, Kyle.

  2. says

    I think Mr. Geelhoed is on the right track. The other issue is that for many subtle equals sophisticated and the opposite would then have to be something like “boorish.” And people freaked out, too, when Susan McClary basically said Beethoven is boorish with her 5th symphony-as-rape essay. (She doesn’t seem to have a blog as far as I know. Self-preservation…?)
    KG replies: Well, duh. Of course it was a provocative way to put it, but how are you going to dispel the myths and eradicate the cloying sentimentality about classical music from young minds without putting things provocatively? Someone mentioned Oscar Wilde: how would Wilde survive as a blogger, saying things like this?”
    “[Politicians] never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence,… he might just as well speak the truth at once.”
    “The basis of action is the lack of imagination. It is the last resource of those who know not how to dream.”
    “The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.
    Or Mark Twain:
    “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
    One rule that Fennimore Cooper broke: “In a novel, some of the characters should be living, and some should be dead, and the reader should be able to tell the difference.”
    You read someone like them in print, and there is no answering back; the reader is put off at first, but begins to think, and in thinking forms his or her own truth from the words supplied, and it may be a different, even more personally fertile truth than the writer intended. But you write something like that in a blog, and half your readers already have one finger on the *send* button, yelling, “What are you talking about you must live in an alternate universe just because something is obviously false doesn’t make it witty to say it blah de blah de blah blah blah.” In a blog one is forced to relinquish any semblance of literary style, because only flat, lifeless literalness will satisfy those who come only to impose their own views, not to learn. Politically, the internet is a wonderful democracy of ideas, but it compels one to a lowest common denominator in literature.

  3. A different Matthew says

    I would say the kerfuffle going on between PostClassic and Soho the Dog is pretty damn SUBTLE.

  4. says

    I used that Wilde quote to describe Cheney on my blog! (A few years ago.) “. . . the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!” — that’s him!
    And can’t help but think of the book of Genesis (3:1, King James translation): “Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”
    I do have to ask whether in your response to Andrea’s comment, you are complaining that the internet compels a lack of subtlety. Maybe my read here is wrong, but in case you find sense in it, I’ll pass this along too. When I find myself in a self-contradiction, I always lean on the Whitman defense: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”) (And there’s the parody, which I also love: “Do I contradict myself? I contradict myself very well!”)
    KG replies: Maybe. I’m not sure it’s subtlety. E-mail has certainly taught us that irony and humor don’t come across well in electronic print, which looks very official somehow. Internet etiquette is improving quickly as we learn, thankfully, but when we all started blogging a few years ago, most of the people involved were 22, which encouraged an illusion that *everyone* on the internet was 22, and so kids starting their Masters’ degrees were yelling “Bullshit!” at statements I was making based on decades of research and experience. I didn’t put up with it, and see no reason to now. Charles Rosen said a bunch of dumb, dismissive things about American piano music in his last book on the piano, and I used my blog to rip him a new asshole for it. Had Rosen *blogged* those opinions instead, would I have responded in a comment? Certainly not in the same way, I don’t think, for, evil academic or not, he’s still Charles Rosen, and has some awe-inspiring achievements under his belt. And I certainly spelled out my counter-argument at length, rather than just say, “He must be living in an alternate universe,” and retire as though I were clearly the superior intellect. Certainly authority from the print or performance world does not spill over into the internet. Certain people – I’m thinking of Salon’s Glenn Greenwald – have created a sense of their authority through blogging, but you have to do it all from scratch and copiously every week to cow the 22-year-olds into showing a little respect. I’m sure that’s why a lot of famous people won’t touch the internet with a ten-foot USB cable.
    You know Morton Feldman’s wonderful essays? Can you imagine those as blog entries? Dismissive comments would have fallen like rain from those who wouldn’t think long enough to figure out what he was saying. Feldman would have spent all his time explaining, and would have given up the attempt to say the amazing things he did.
    And I agree, the fear of self-contradiction is crippling. If I think something different today than what I said yesterday, it would be dishonest not to say it.