What’s Good for the Goose

Every composer has his champions, and I’m always happy to see people leap to a favorite composer’s defense. It gives me a warm feeling inside, actually, even if I don’t much care for the composer’s music myself, because I think, “Someday that could be my music someone like that is defending.” A friend whose tastes otherwise often parallel mine recently admitted that Feldman’s music drove him up a wall, which I find amusing, rather than threatening. I have lived all my life with musicians around me putting down my favorite music. One of my professors told me that Cage was a charlatan and minimalism was bunk. Another met Cage, and said afterward, “I wouldn’t have that man at my house.” My favorite professor got denied tenure for bringing minimalism to class. I’ve listened to famous composers dismiss most of the new music I love as not being music at all. Students at Columbia spat with contempt when I brought them a rare Meredith Monk score. I’ve been told Robert Ashley isn’t a composer. I’ve eaten dinner with composers who regaled each other with Philip Glass jokes, while I took it in polite silence. I have spent my life analyzing and championing music that is despised and marginalized by the classical music world. 

And so, listen: If I listen to Piston’s Seventh Symphony and don’t like it, you can bloody well put up with it. There’s no reason to pour vitriol on me. I’ve taken shit all my life for the kind of music I like, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to also take it for the music I don’t like. I’m especially not going to take it from establishment classical musicians, who tend to be the type who routinely damn and dismiss the music I love. I’m not in charge of Piston’s reputation. I am not in a position to do him any harm, nor would I if I could. I’ve been interested in Piston since I was in junior high school, and The Incredible Flutist was the only recording you could find. So I don’t like a piece you like. Feel that, multiply it by 20,000,000, and you’ll start to feel what my entire life among classical musicians has been like. And then you can back off and suck it up.


  1. says

    Since I questioned Kyle’s negative judgment about Piston’s Seventh Symphony, I fear that his outrage is directed at me. First, let me say that I too have spent decades witnessing the music I love being dismissed without any apparent effort to posit quasi-objective criteria that might enable another person to engage, consider, and reflect upon such judgments thoughtfully. So I empathize quite fully with the feelings that Kyle describes. Instead of prompting others to join in smirking at shared prejudices, I would rather see some attempt to articulate legitimate criteria in the service of a constructive interchange of ideas. I don’t think that my comments amounted to “pouring vitriol,” and I’m really sorry if that is the effect that was conveyed. At the very beginning of my response I said in all sincerity that I appreciate Kyle’s lack of dogma and his basic decency, so I would hate to think that my comments were taken to be abusive in any way.
    KG replies: Well, I was really set off by one of the other comments, and I wouldn’t get mad at you because I respect the work you’re doing, and I consider the people you’re doing it on historically important, however variably I receive their various works. Carson Cooman and I had a nice long talk about you today, in case your ears were burning (I’m in Boston). I did feel like I shouldn’t have to defend, after several decades, my criteria of critical assessment, as though I might be an ideologue who can only hear works through a single lens, so to speak. But since you ask, imagination and – the only word I can think of is playfulness, which can be present even in tragic music – are among the most important things I want to hear in a piece of music. In large pieces like the ones we’re discussing, I also value a clarity of form, a memorable interrelation of parts, that allows one to begin grasping a piece as a whole gesture after no more than two or three listenings (and also to memorably distinguish it from other works by the same composer). That’s what impresses me about the Harris 3rd and Schuman 8th – the sweep of those pieces leads so convincingly from one section to the next, each part playing its role. I can never – no, I will never say never, there are always exceptions – but I can rarely really take a piece to heart that I can’t memorize in some sense and learn to feel what’s coming up. I hope that’s not an ideology, but rather a listening proclivity formed very early in life. I am not deaf, I think, to other musical virtues as well, of which there are many.
    I deeply empathize about one’s favorite composers not receiving sufficient respect. At least no one (I think) ever suggests that the symphonies of those figures are not music at all, nor that those composers weren’t composers, nor that they were charlatans, which is the kind of thing I continue hearing about major Downtown figures up to the present day. If I criticize Piston or Persichetti, I try to keep my criticisms specific and non-dismissive, because I would never want to detract from the important roles those (and such) composers played in the development of a truly American music.

  2. Bob Gilmore says

    tell me, how do you manage to write such great blog entries, day after day, week after week, as well as compose, musicologise, and teach? and, you know, live?? What did they put in the tap water in Dallas???
    Being true to my native land I’m green with envy (and admiration). Damn you!

  3. Memes says

    Interesting. I can understand why people can be dismissive of an artist like John Zorn–even though i like some of his non-classical music personally–Cage, or even Glass, but there is far too much conservatism in serious music circles. If an artist/composer has yet to be sanctioned by an appropriate authoritative body, they tend to be dismissed, often unfairly, without reason.
    I’m not a composer myself, and it has been years since i studied music theory, but always i’m open to the idea of hearing new music.
    When i first heard Scelsci, for example, i was completely blown away, and i had never even heard of him until the day before i bought one of his cd’s in 1999, embarrassingly enough. I had no idea of his importance, or that his work had achieved posthumous acclaim. He came on strong recommendation from a young composer i was friend’s with at the time. Of course he isn’t ‘new’, but the point is that i enjoyed not being told how to appreciate his music. I was just told to listen to it. Same applies to Gorecki’s ‘Symphony No.3’, and Arvo Part’s ‘Alina’, which he also recommended around the same time. Unlike Gorecki I’d actually heard of Part, and knew that he was classified as a ‘holy minimalist’, but that’s about it. I had no idea he so loathed and revered in equal measure.
    I feel sorry for these snobs/elites that aren’t open to new experiences. Who lack that sense of adventure. Who aren’t willing to accept a piece of music on its own terms.

  4. says

    Perhaps the signal qualification of any great music to ‘be’ music is that some ‘wise voice’ pronounces that it is “not music”.
    In a different vein, there is also the casual assumption that one must always follow some “great divide’ between non-traditional composers and more traditional composers–when in fact, the ‘divide’ itself is based upon imaginary, by-gone criteria, and one can enjoy Elgar and Webern, Gorecki and Heggie, as well as Partch and Copland.
    When one does not fancy, say, the Piston in your example, it does not mean that one is “against all that” or “for all this”. It means “i didn’t like this piston” and even sometimes “i don’t like any piston”, but not really, “this is the epistemology of experiencing music for you to learn, beginning with piston”.
    Perhaps it is the fault of prior “movements” which took themselves seriously in the wrong ways as well as in the right ways. Yet though we are not quite “post-movement”, we live in a time in which each niche can be explored–and often treasured.
    The next step, though, is that those of us who like niches not favored by the mass classical audience must find ways to sponsor and promote alternative venues and quartets. That is the next wave.

  5. says

    Those minimalism dismissers clearly are woefully ignorant, need to get out a lot more, and need to get their brown heads out of their arses. Wankers.

  6. says

    Seriously, Kyle, I can’t believe people are actually saying Meredith Monk and Bob Ashley are not composers?? What the hell is going on in America’s classical music if ideas like that can actually be seen as not insane in universities? It’s beyond imagination here in Australia.
    KG replies: I tell everyone I run into now that I’m writing a book on Ashley. I get responses ranging from young people not heavily into academia saying, “Wow, that’s great, I can’t wait to read it!” to professors, especially at more prestigious universities, who look like they’re thinking, “Ashley? Mmm… why… why would you want to do that, exactly?”

  7. richard says

    Count me as being on you’re side! I’ve become so tired of the Great Composer Myth. Personally, I don’t believe in great composers, just great music. Just because I like some works by a composer, I need not like his/her whole output.
    Folks who worship at the altar of Great Composers should be forced to spend eternity listening to, say, Mozart juvenilia. I’m glad to see that you teach Reigger’s 3rd, I still have the LP that I bought in high school (though I don’t have a turntable to play it on). If there was any justice in the world, it would get programmed now and then, and new recording would be made. BTW, do you have any thoughts on Becker’s symphonies? I’ve only heard one (I can’t recall which no.)
    KG replies: Ohh, Becker, Becker, Becker. The Third is the only one recorded, and I almost included it. I have a score to the 6th, “The Symphony of Democracy.” I have a soft spot for him, but I think he would rank low priority in a survey class. The Third’s not a bad piece. I’d also include the Siegmeister Third if I could find a score.

  8. peter says

    Rob —
    There are still people in Britain who think there is no music downtown. Surprisingly, though, some of these people have heard of the Web, as in this recently-created website (I suggest readers of a nervous disposition may like to sit down before looking at this!)
    Nearly all the music I like, including that of that persistent improviser JS Bach, breaks their rules.
    KG replies: I looked at this site and couldn’t breathe for a few minutes.

  9. wr says

    It’s great that you are doing a book on Ashley; he is one of the most amazing and extraordinary composers around (although saying he is a “composer” hardly covers what he does). I suspect there are many people who would love his stuff, if they only knew it existed. It was especially nice to hear some coverage of him and his music on BBC Radio 3 a few months back – that was a pleasant surprise.
    But I’m with Walter Simmons – you are wrong about Persichetti’s 4th.
    KG replies: Always glad to learn I’m wrong on a negative impression.

    UPDATE: It’s five years later, and I suddenly realize – I said Piston’s Fourth, not Persichetti’s. I’ve never heard Persichetti’s Fourth.

  10. Memes says

    In all honesty though, i believe a small amount of elitism is justified to keep the music alive and thriving.
    To that end, i have no problem with somebody dismissing a lot of film composers as ‘hacks’, or at least if their music is judged outside the context of the imagery it serves–completely futile and pointless–but to argue that Arvo Part is not a ‘real composer–and believe me, i’ve heard it several times–is just stupid.
    KG replies: Definitions differ, but I like to think that quality can be rewarded, and ineptitude and crassness recognized as such, without ever having to be elitist, by being flexible with the contextual relativity of one’s standards.

  11. mclaren says

    It’s the big unsolved problem in contemporary music. Objective criteria, leading to a fixed immutable canon of “great” composers? Or subjective fuzzy-wuzzy touchy-feelie personal reactions, which leads to universal relativism?
    Both approaches have huge advantages and giant drawbacks. The advantage of objective criteria is that they clarify the discussion. They also immunize critics and musicologists against attack to some degree. Given criteria X, Y, Z, composers U, V, W must be great — the evidence objectively proves it. How can you dispute this? Sounds convincing. The biggest advantage of objective criteria of some kind is that they lead to a generally recognized canon, which proves essential for communicating knowledge about music from one generation to the next. How do you explain what conceptual music is, if you can’t give examples of conceptual composers because it’s “elitist”?
    One drawback of objective criteria is that they tend to push you in directions you hadn’t expected and don’t want to go. Given criteria X, Y, Z, you wind up being forced to hail various composers who don’t like as “great.” Those composers you hate fit the requirements — you’re trapped! This leads to the infamous phenomenon of music profs who teach serialism in the classroom but listen to jazz at home.
    Another problem with objective criteria: you wind up in the dead end of greedy reductionism. In order to be objective, the criteria have to leave out all the musically important aspects of the music.
    Third disadvantage of objective criteria is that they’re actually a scam. “Objective” yardsticks for “great” music always wind up being based on some axioms. Where do the axioms come from? Personal beliefs, which is to say, subjective feelings. So the critic hasn’t really gotten away from the basic problem of complete subjectivism — the supposedly “objective” criteria replace the first response of “It’s great because I personally love the music” with “It’s great because the music has [structure, clarity, discipline, historical necessity, mathematical rigor, novelty, complexity, depth, fill in the blank with your criterion] and [list criterion for great music] is necessary for great music because I personally think so.” In effect, all criteria for “great” music ultimately wind up getting pulled out of some music critic’s ass. There’s no way to remove subjectivity from music criticism. Even if you make your judgments by means of a computer program, the operation of the algorithm will depend on…your personal subjective beliefs which led you to put in this algorithm but not that one. There’s no way to avoid that. The effort to claim you’ve avoided subjectivity when discussing music in this way smacks of dishonesty, not to say intellectual thimbleriggery.
    One advantage of defining great music by what you personally like (or what some respected authority personally likes) is that it corresponds more closely to how people actually respond to music. Scientific studies (“Spatial and temporal auditory processing deficits following right hemisphere infarction: A psychophysical study,” T. D. Griffiths, A. Rees, C. Witton, P. M. Cross, R. A. Shakir and G. G. Green, Brain, Vol. 120, Issue 5, pp. 785-794, 1997; “Contribution of different cortical areas in the temporal lobes to music processing,” C. Liegeois-Chauvel, I. Peretz, M. Babai, V. Laguitton and P. Chauvel, Brain, Vol. 121, Issue 10, pp. 1853-1867, 1998; “Brain Organization for Music Processing,” I. Peretz and R. J. Zatorre, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 56, pp. 89-114, 2005; “Structure and function of auditory cortex: music and speech,” R. J. Zatorre, P. Belin, and V. B. Penhune, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp. 37-46, 2002) have shown that non-musicians primarily process music with the right brain hemisphere, which mainly does emotional holistic intuitive processing. Left brain hemisphere injuries damage the ability to comprehend and use speech and writing, while right brain injuries damage the ability to recognize characteristic features of music including pitch, melodies, etc. (Musicians tend to use both brain hemispheres because musicians tend to think about notation or performing the music, both of which are lexical left-brain activities.)
    Another advantage of evaluating music based purely on subjective attitudes is that it makes the discussion of music a lot richer. Musicians who can talk about vague subjective generalities like “musical drama” and “musical power of the chord progression” or “the passion of a composer” can discuss a lot more aspects of the music than critics who restrict themselves to a dry discussion of form, amplitude, frequency, Fourier magnitude spectrum, and other measurable quantities.
    Yet another benefit of subjective criteria for music is that they wind up talking about emotion, and if we need anything in contemporary music criticism, it’s re-introduction of the forbidden e-word. You can talk about anal sex or fisting in today’s society and no one blushes anymore, but introduce the word “emotion” into a discussion twixt professional musicians, and everyone gets scandalized. They react as though Great Aunt Polly just showed her bloomers in public.
    The drawbacks of purely subjective criteria for music criticism are huge. First, you wind up drowning in total relativism. This leads to people pointing at schlock and claiming it’s great music. You slump into the “failure of outrage,” where anything goes and gross incompetence gets hailed as mastery. The end result? Snoop Doggy Dog gets quoted by the London Times as the epitome of the “great 21st century musician.” It’s the invidious trend the Argentinians immortalized in their cynically nihilism bon mot “Todo es igual, nada es mejor” after the Dirty War in the 80s where tens of thousands of Argentine citiznes got kidnapped and tortured and murdered and dumped out of cargo planes into the ocean to be eaten by sharks. The population sank so deeply into despair that it became a common reaction to sigh, “Everything is the same, nothing is better” when you heard your cousin had just been disappeared by the security forces and tortured to death. Apply that to music, and people stop giving a damn. If every piece is as good as any other, and silence is as musically affecting as a concert, why bother to listen to a concert? Listen to your air conditioner, it’s just as lovely as a Bruckner symphony.
    That way lies complete disinterest in music and a profound alienation by the general public.
    The even bigger problem with total relativism is that it becomes hard to make meaningful distinctions between pieces of music, so both audiences and critics wind up wobbling around in a shapeless slippery haze. Any time a critic singles out some distinctive aspect of a piece of music s/he likes, it gets seized on as “elitist” or attacked for allegedly “trying to impose rigid quantitative criteria on music.” Eventually the critics stop pointing out distinctive features of what they consider great music, and history shows that what people refuse to discuss, they eventually stop noticing. So music diminishes because its listeners become aesthetically impoverished.
    The last and potentially biggest pitfall of universal relativism involves the disappearance of a recognized canon of great music. Civilization perpetuates itself by passing knowledge from one generation to the next. All it takes is one break, one generation that refuses to pass on the knowledge, and civilization starts to fall apart. Without some group of composers that critics and musicologists can point to as “the best,” you wind up sinking into a La Brea tarpit of complete relativism that ends with people claiming the Spice Girls are better than Bach, and it becomes impossible to teach Ockeghem or Beethoven or any of a recognizable canon of Western music because it becomes politically incorrect (“elitist” or “white supremist” or “economically and culturally oppressive”) to do so. In that case, how does knowledge about Western music get passed from one generation to the next?
    You can try teaching graduate courses on music by using only P Diddy and the Insane Clown Posse, but when it comes time to discuss isorhythms, where do you go to find ’em? When it comes time to discuss secondary dominants and neapolitan sixths, what’s the most obvious place to look for ’em? How about the canon canzicrans? Where do you find examples of that in pop music? Tempo canons? Polyrhythmic gear shifting?
    At a certain point, you wind up forced to discuss certain pieces of classical music because that’s where the only examples of certain musical practices can be found. Not “the best” examples, the only examples, in many cases.
    Everyone seems to be arguing in favor of total relativism in the comments. No one appears to have pointed out the very real dangers of this approach to music, which including shutting down all the music programs in our K-12 schools, defunding all our community symphony orchestras, and shuttering all the music departments in all our colleges, because if all sounds are music and musical values are relative, then why bother to listen to classical music or study it? Just stand on the street corner and listen to traffic. It’s as profound and as deep and Beethoven’s symphonies, and you can’t argue because we’ve both bought into total relativsm, so there. Theodore Dalrymple has discussed the problems with this trendy but dangerous worldview in his book Life At the Bottom. See the chapter “The Rush From Judgment.” Dalrymple is an extreme conservative and a sensible person must disagree with much of what he says, but Dalrymple makes some excellent points. Total relativism doesn’t seem any more survivable as a universal worldview of contemporary music than the objective quasi-scientific reductionism of the Darmstadt crowd in the 1950s.
    Contemporary music seems to have skated over this dilemma without resolving it. As a practical matter, you need a widely recognized canon of great music, and as a practical matter, you can’t live in a straitjacket of pseudoscientific objectivity. What the solution is, I don’t know. But there’s a train wreck a-comin’ sometime down the road in 21st century musicology and music criticism.

  12. says

    Actually, Kyle, between you and Walter Simmons and a dozen others you might have the makings of a book here. Not long ago there was a book called “You Must Hear This” –but it was about music like ‘Purple Rain’ and the like.

    If there was a book by 15 or so music critics of non-pop (I’m using Dennis Bathory-Kitsz’s term here), about works they feel are underrated and that the reader might not know, works/composers that, like David Drew’s promotions, they feel haven’t gotten the notice they deserve, I think it would be a grand thing. It would not be a major effort on the part of any of the writers, and they’d be happy to be pumping for a work they’re seriously enthusiastic about. (Ask Matt Guerrieri to write about the original version of Hindemeth’s “Marienleben,” for example. I heard him give a powerhouse performance of it in Brookline, accompanying Rebekah Alexander a few months ago.

    Some of this kind of thing gets done on occassion at Fanfare magazine, but if you gave the fifteen critics a dozen page each, with 10 pages tor’ds the main piece and 2 more pages to describe two more works (a sort of ‘second and third prize’ sort of thing) I think it’d make a good read.

    The assumption that this could only be a book for ‘beginning appreciators’ can be easily disposed of: I’ve been writing music for 25 years, but didn’t know of a few pieces of Feldman until you (and Robert Carl) wrote about them; and I had dismissed Nicholas Flagello after hating his “Lautrec” (I still don’t think much of it). But after reading Simmons’ writing about him in Fanfare, I gave Flagello a second chance, and am glad I did.
    KG replies: Interesting idea. The value of this for me would depend on who published it and how it was marketed. Alex Ross’s book was put out by a trade press, they shelled out for book tours, promoted it, and it’s all over the place and won awards. My books so far have been with academic presses that go nowhere as far as I can tell, and only survive when they’re the only books on the subject (e.g., Nancarrow) so that diehard fans search high and low for them. If a book project is really going to hit the mass market I’d be willing to do this kind of thing for it: otherwise, I think I’m better off pursuing my own esoteric little projects.
    Another thought is that this is kind of an ameliorative approach to what seems to me a larger structural problem. What it means to be a composer in America today is to get orchestras playing your music by the time you’re 30. If that doesn’t happen, you get shunted off into a little, malnourished subculture in which other composers know you’re a composer, and no one else does. The mainstream press is money driven: orchestras buy ads, so arts editors give orchestras top priority, orchestras siphon young composers from fancy grad schools, and young composers with performances by major orchestras get taken seriously in the press while everyone else is ignored. It’s not that there’s a standard repertoire that a few good pieces accidentally get left out of, so by championing those individual pieces we can put everything right. It’s that the entire system is standing on its head, and the talents that make a composer successful in that exclusive little world have nothing to do with writing music. A book such as you describe would be nice, but I’d rather see one explaining, from grad schools to orchestra managements to newspaper critics, why we have a Potemkin new-music scene that ignores beauty and rewards mediocrity.

  13. meme says

    “Everyone seems to be arguing in favor of total relativism in the comments. No one appears to have pointed out the very real dangers of this approach to music, which including shutting down all the music programs in our K-12 schools, defunding all our community symphony orchestras, and shuttering all the music departments in all our colleges, because if all sounds are music and musical values are relative, then why bother to listen to classical music or study it? Just stand on the street corner and listen to traffic. It’s as profound and as deep and Beethoven’s symphonies, and you can’t argue because we’ve both bought into total relativsm, so there.”
    I agree with you, and have argued this many times online and off. The dilemma is this: to apply objective standards to classical or any other art music is ‘elitist’, but if everything is relative, why bother? In other words, why bother making the effort to understand what made these composers great when i can just switch on the radio and listen to Black Eyed Peas for instant gratification(not that BYP gratifies me, but you get the point).
    Popular culture makes it easy for us to ‘ignore’ the complexity of art music, or the complexity of anything really; books, art, film, etc. The problem is effort, and popular culture offers a way out. It relieves the burden by making culture accessible.
    I enjoy all kinds of music really, but i’ve constantly had to defend my love of classical, and even jazz, to people i meet, and it’s becoming more difficult to do so without appearing elitist.
    Some even appear ‘offended’, or ‘threatened’, by the fact that Penderecki used to occupy a place in my collection right next to Portishead before i separated ‘art’ from ‘pop'(not always mutually exclusive).
    The future looks bleak from where i stand.