The composer friend I referred to recently who loves most new music but doesn’t like Feldman told me why: he doesn’t care for his harmony. Well, I had to grant him that. Your typical late Feldman piece starts out with a pitch set like B-C-C#-D, and while sometimes there’s a third thrown in so it’s C#-A-C-D, he doesn’t vary a lot in that respect. I don’t even think it’s a fault: Feldman needed to create a floating musical stasis, and harmony tends to mooooove somewhere, so to do what Feldman needed to do, he had to put harmony on the back burner and turn it down to simmer. His sonorities are in technicolor, but when you reduce them to pitches and ignore timbre and spacing, there’s not a lot there. In fact, I would charge that some of the young composers who picked up where Feldman left off, like John Luther Adams and Bernadette Speach and Peter Garland and me, did so thinking: “Hmmm, I could do the same thing and use funner harmony.” So if one of your ear’s big things is harmony and you hear everything in Feldman but that – well, case dismissed. You’re off the hook.
Truth, as has been said, is in the details.
There have been some comments to this blog lately lamenting relativism in aesthetic judgments, saying that if we give up the idea of objective musical standards, then we can’t argue that classical music should be supported over pop music, everything is relative, and our entire art is doomed, everyone will listen to rap and pop because there’s no factual standard on which to defend classical music. I believe there is no such thing as complete objectivity, but I also believe there is no such thing as complete subjectivity. There’s always something there that our perceptions did not create. (Had a fun e-mail argument about this with Glenn Branca, once. He proved to me there was no complete objectivity and I proved, I think, the impossibility of total subjectivity. It ended amicably.)
I’ve alluded here before to an unforgettable conversation I once had with John Luther Adams, trudging in high winds and freezing cold through the snowy woods around Fairbanks, and I’ve promised to tell you about it someday. Maybe this is the time. John and I put together a registry of musical virtues that was isomorphically analogous to a classification of audiences.
For instance: there are people for whom the best music must involve innovation. These people are likely to value Varese, Partch, Cage. There are others who value craftsmanship above all else. These people tend to like Hindemith, Sessions, perhaps Ligeti. Other people feel that music should be, above all else, emotionally true; perhaps they gravitate toward Barber, Vaughan Williams, maybe Messiaen. There are people who love music for its sonic lushness and sensuousness, who may relish Takemitsu and Feldman. There are people who value clarity, who value simplicity, who value intellectualism, who value memorability, who value physicality, who value theoretical rigor. Most people value several of these virtues, and we could create Venn diagrams of audiences who love different new musics because of the specific virtues they possess. The innovation + emotive sincerity intersectors love Ives. The intellectualism + sensuousness people love Takemitsu. That’s what John and I were coming up with.
I think these virtues could be categorized, and I think it would be a worthwhile and revealing musicological exploit. I think it could become the prolegomena to a sociology of new-music (and other) audiences.
Where subjectivity comes in is that there is no objective criterion by which we can proclaim that craftsmanship is a higher virtue than innovation or sensuousness. We just can’t. One type of personality will value the careful, revising craftsman over the visionary innovator who comes up with something radically new, and that’s what makes horseraces. There is no way to objectively rank the artistic virtues. They are too closely allied to the structure of personality. Where objectivity comes in is in determing what innovation or craftsmanship is. Say you love innovation but don’t believe Varèse was innovative? Good luck. I want to read the treatise proving your point, but if it doesn’t grab me in three sentences I’m trashing it. We can prove on paper that Varèse was an amazing innovator, whether that impresses you or not. I happen not to care much for Varèse because, for me, innovation is kind of wasted if the music doesn’t grab me emotionally, and his doesn’t; but I grant he was innovative. You think Crumb is a better composer than Sessions? You have my blessing. You think Crumb was a better craftsman than Sessions? You’re an idiot. If there was a virtue that Sessions nailed to the floor immovably and for all time, it was craftsmanship. Maybe lacking in spontaneity, lacking in originality, in imagination, in goal-directedness, in sensuouness, arguably, but craftsmanship? If craftsmanship means anything in music, Sessions had it in spades. We can argue whether Partch’s music shows good craft, and give examples; that’s a still partially subjective but more limited and rational dispute than whether he was a “good composer.”
The only question then is, how high is craftsmanship in the list of musical virtues? For me, personally – and no one else is bound by this – craftsmanship is one of the secondary virtues. I fancy that there is considerable craftsmanship in my music, but I do not want it calling attention to itself, and I try to keep it in the background. Though I do value craftsmanship, I’m not a fan of the sound of exposed craftsmanship, but a believer in Mozart’s “artless art.” I feel that what an artist has to say is more important than how well he says it, and for an impetuous sincerity or an uninhibited imagination I will easily forgive a shortage of craftsmanship. If you disagree I cannot refute you, nor can you argue me out of that position because there’s no objective basis to do so with. It’s just my personality. Or at least, having made more defensible determinations about which music possesses which virtues, perhaps we can have a different argument about which virtues should be accorded a higher place. After all, I have reasons for placing imagination and convincing emotion above innovation, and innovation above craftsmanship, and if I have reasons (as opposed to irrational personal preferences), I can be wrong.
There are people for whom depth is the major musical virtue – and by depth in this context I mean not profundity per se, but the ability of music to reveal more and more layers of meaning on repeated hearings. Depth is certainly a virtue. Many people use this virtue to prize classical music above popular music. I have often had the experience, though, of listening to a pop record and not really appreciating it the first time, but having it grow on me more and more. I’ve had that experience with pop music as often as I’ve had it with classical music. Many people who push this virtue use it to prop up the reputation of complex music. But in the early 1980s I turned off a recording of Carter’s Double Concerto on what must have been my 75th listening with the score precisely because of that: I wasn’t getting any more out of it than I had at the last ten listenings. I had milked it dry. It wasn’t yielding anything else.
You want a composer with depth? Robert Ashley. There is so much in his music that pieces I’ve listened to and even studied for 30 years are yielding up phrases and patterns I’ve never noticed before. He is utterly inexhaustible. And yet, I don’t think Ashley is the kind of composer the depth advocates have in mind. In general I think depth is kind of a red herring, a nice virtue but not truly at the top of anyone’s list. The last time I listened closely to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, I savored it, but I don’t really think I found anything I hadn’t heard ten years ago. Satie is one of my favorites and I find him extremely profound, but I don’t think I’ll hear things in Embryons Desséchées the next time I hear it that I haven’t noticed before. What’s important to me is that I can keep listening to a piece without growing tired of it.
This is where some pop music I like, but not all, falls apart for me. I’m a Waylon Jennings fan, which I don’t often admit – must be something in the Texas water. I find his songs inventive and emotionally satisfying, but I can’t listen to them often because the production values – canned audience shouts, instrumental bridges so identical that they sound cut and pasted in the audio software – seem plastic and articifical. Once every other year I can ignore that for the great word/tune relationship and the fuck-you attitude, but too soon a second listening and I feel sick.
But in the pop music I love best, like Brian Eno and the Residents, the virtues I enjoy are exactly those I love in the classical music I love best: imagination, inventiveness, emotional connection, memorability. Earlier in my life I searched hard for the DNA that separates pop music from classical, and you know what? I never found it. The more I looked at the pop music I loved, the more exactly its virtues resembled those of my favorite classical music. I never found a line I could draw. The only pop/classical distinction that ever made sense to me was the one Bob Ashley told me on a bar stool in Chicago in 1986: “Over five minutes it’s classical, under five minutes it’s pop.” Accordingly, I’ve always thought of Schubert’s songs as really, really good pop music. And of Brian Eno’s Evening Star album, with its long tone poems, as utterly classical. Imagination is near the top of my virtues list, and I hear more imagination in almost any Eno song than in all the Elgar I’ve ever heard put together.
So all these bloggers who reel on endlessly about the pop/classical problem, and how we have to protect classical music in a pop-oriented world: I simply will not partake. I believe in genres defined by specific, pin-pointable qualities, from reggae to heavy metal to totalism to postminimalism to impressionism to spectralism to to space-age bachelor pad music to bluegrass, but “classical” and “pop” are industry-created categories, economic categories, and they leave no traces for me in the music. Whether I’m listening to a song by Loudon Wainwright III or Brian Eno or Charles Ives or Sir William Walton, I want the relation of melody and accompaniment to words elegantly and creatively handled.
What I will defend is the right of people with different values to have the music of their favorite virtues preserved. Thus I suppose I end up having the same aim as the elitists, but I will not use elitist rhetoric to achieve it. I will not say that “depth,” or length, or complexity, or intellectualism – or simplicity, or communicativeness, or innovation, or memorability, or sincerity – is a higher virtue than some other. But I do feel strongly that minorities have their rights, and that those who want to hear craftsmanship, or sensuousness, or intellectualism, or depth have the right to have their music supported. Insofar as most pop music is songs, there are some virtues that no pop music has, virtues that can’t be demonstrated in three minutes. The “objective standards” that some of my commenters use against pop music has just as often been used against minimalism and a lot of the other music I love. There are no objective standards. But there is an infinity of objective facts, there is a quasi-infinity of musical virtues, and no majority or plurality has the right to proclaim that we all have to content ourselves with the music that embodies their particular favorite virtues. That is as true for those who would defend classical music from pop-music encroachment as it is for those who would defend minimalism against the classical snobs.