Resisting the Narrative

One of the things I love about Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music is its emphasis on how an evolving public narrative privileges some composers and marginalizes others. For instance, he writes about how when Ligeti came to Darmstadt, because he was Hungarian he had to rewrite (with Erno Lendvai’s help) Bartok’s reputation from that of a collector of folk music to that of a formalist using golden sections and axis systems. Communist Hungary needed to see Bartok as a champion of he proletariat (Lendvai’s decadent-formalist book got him fired from Budapest Conservatory), but at 1950s Darmstadt, a quoter of folk music would have been merely pitiable. Ligeti needed to refurbish Bartok’s narrative in order to polish up his own legacy, even to make it palatable. Over and over Taruskin shows how the narrative, created piece-by-piece by composers and musicologists and writers and savants, takes on a life of its own. Phenomena consonant with the narrative enter public consciousness; those that dissonate, no matter how valuable in their own right, fall by the wayside.

I’ve finally gotten around to buying and reading Howard Pollack’s book on John Alden Carpenter, which I’d fondled in bookstores for years. It’s a succinct, engaging, curiosity-satisfying piece of scholarship. Curiously heavy on the critical reception of Carpenter – so much so, in fact, that he spends considerable space on a 1986 review I wrote for Fanfare magazine of Carpenter’s piano music. Carpenter is a composer whose tragedy was to watch his reputation soar and then to plummet in later life, to the point of becoming almost a figure of fun to younger composers.

Yet Carpenter remains a famous name. When I was young, he was one of the first “modern” composers I heard of. And what pieces did I read about? Skyscrapers and Krazy Kat. Why? Because Carpenter lived in Chicago in the jazzy 1920s. He was part of the age of skyscrapers and newspaper comics and heavy machinery, and his music betokened the point at which exploding urbanization still seemed sexy. Skyscrapers and Krazy Kat fit his narrative. He also wrote a tone poem called Sea Drift that Pollack and others consider a better piece. But Sea Drift? Number one, Chicago is a long way from any sea. Two, that’s a Walt Whitman reference, and Whitman was an East-Coaster, and besides, Sea Drift is Vaughan Williams and Delius territory, part of the maudlin British transatlantic experience, not material for the jazzy and urbane Carpenter, wealthy heir to a manufacturing fortune. Sea Drift may be a better-written piece than Krazy Kat (not so I’m convinced of that, actually), but it had never entered my consciousness, even though I’ve had the Abany Symphony recording since it was on vinyl. It didn’t fit my narrative of Carpenter. The fact that he wrote a sentimental tone poem on Whitman is a cognitive dissonance with my image of him, magnum opus notwithstanding.

(For the record, and before I get to my main point, going deeper into Carpenters’s music has convinced me that he is rather woefully underrecognized. He never should have written that damn Perambulator piece, it trivialized his reputation. It’s true that even his symphonies have a kind of unfocussed, balletic quality that sounds like film music today, but the music is always graceful and “debonair” – to repeat the aptest term it habitually elicited. And fairly often, as particularly in his 1927 String Quartet, it achieves an enchanting vigor and rhythmic surprise. Look up that string quartet, it’s a forgotten classic.)

To be absorbed into the public dialogue requires a narrative. To not project a narrative is to have no career at all. Only a few dozen musicians, or if you’re lucky a few hundred, will ever take a close enough look to see what you’ve actually accomplished. The rest of the musical public will inevitably receive a caricature of you, because that’s all they have time or attention or insight for. That’s the veil of Maya, of illusion, the conventional wisdom that we can look down our nose at but whose influence we can never escape. The public can take in Carpenter = Krazy Kat because it makes sense, but Krazy Kat plus Sea Drift is too complex, too nuanced, for even the peripheral imagination of a scholar like myself, and only now have I gotten around to more than a peripheral look. I ignored Sea Drift as an almost painful reality, because it took some effort to factor into the image of a composer I didn’t yet have the incentive to focus on.

Common sense and self-interest would dictate that composers would play to their narrative, but most of us shrink from it in disdain. Take me. I’ve made a big deal about microtonality, and I find myself almost universally described as a microtonal composer, even though some 2/3 to 3/4 of my output so far is in the good old 12-tone scale. Custer and Sitting Bull is probably my best-known piece, or the piece with which I’m most associated. And for good reason – it combines microtonality with my Texas roots and my interest in American Indian music. It fuses well with my bull-in-a-china-shop personality, my 6’2″ stature, and my southern accent. Were I a short, Jewish New Yorker, this piece would never have gotten off the ground. Had I been attentive to my narrative, I would have followed it up with, say, a microtonal opera about Jesse James, or a song cycle on the letters of Calamity Jane (which Ben Johnston actually beat me to). I could have become the “microtonal wild-west-history composer.” Instead, I wrote a chamber quartet called Kierkegaard, Walking, with 12 pitches to the octave. I think it’s one of my best works. But what was I, a Texan transplanted to New York, doing having a fascination with Kierkegaard? How much of my life has taken place in Denmark? Four days. Kierkegaard, Walking may be my Sea Drift, a piece so incongruent with my image, my narrative, that no one wants to notice it. In fact, my personal image includes an affection for 19th-century writers, including Emerson, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Jones Very, and even Custer (as memoirist) and Sitting Bull (as orator). But that’s both a little complex for a narrative and not terribly distinctive in terms of distinguishing me from other composers.

We can all name a few composers who do seem to assiduously sculpt their narrative. I recently had a chance to examine the scores of Steve Reich’s Sextet and Double Sextet, and nearly slapped my forehead when I saw how similar, how identical in notation and gesture, they are to Six Pianos, Music for 18 Musicians, and all those much older other pieces. I had the presumably common thought that I could write my own Steve Reich piece at this point, and hardly needed Reich to do it for me. He’s been unbendingly faithful to his brand. He sells a ton of records because he’s predictable – or the kinder word would be reliable.

The vast majority of us, I think, resist this. We don’t want to be “pigeonholed” (an overused word, and what does it mean?). We want to show off our range, our versatility. I wrote once that Bill Duckworth was the Schumann-like modern master of multi-movement form, and his next piece was Blue Rhythm, in one extended movement. I noticed publicly that Joan Tower uses the motive of a minor third expanding to a major third in virtually every piece, and in her next work, the Third Quartet, that figure was conspicuously absent. Most of us are embarrassed at being caught repeating ourselves, even in our virtues. We want to prove we can master both collages and drone pieces, adagios and scherzos, tonality and atonality. Or else we simply get bored replicating earlier achievements, and having done one kind of thing well, now want to succeed at another. Or we fancy ourselves above the usual forces of history, fancy that the inherent power of our art will break through the veil of illusion and move listeners in no matter what genre, in pursuit of no matter what subject matter. This might have been more likely 200 years ago when the competition was less voluminous. Yet even so, there are Beethoven works, like his early choral music and those Irish folk songs he was so painfully proud of, that we can’t bear to look in the face. Even Beethoven has his Sea Drifts.

To so reflexively resist the call of the narrative seems, actually, counter-productive in a career sense, almost self-destructive. Poor Carpenter, had he not wanted to slide out of the scene, should doubtless have followed up Krazy Kat and Skyscrapers with a Machine Symphony, a ballet called Streetcar, a tone poem about Wall Street. Having cornered a certain market, he should have churned out more of what the public believed he could do best. Instead, he wanted to prove his soulful, Brahmsian earnestness with a respectable Piano Quintet and a Violin Concerto (which, amazingly, seems never to have been recorded, and Pollack makes it sound intriguing). As a result he slid into semi-oblivion. We composers, we are all John Alden Carpenters, and, however much prized by specialists, will enter public consciousness only, if at all, through the narrow tunnel of the available narratives, which are only partly susceptible to our own shaping. And so, with the loftiest intentions, we embrace obscurity rather than be so confined and only incompletely understood. It’s peculiar.

And with that thought, merry Christmas.

Comments

  1. says

    Fascinating and beautifully written piece. My one counter (which may not even qualify as such) is that these narratives are essentially part of what music is and why people bother with music in the first place. There is no such thing as just taking music at some sort of “face value,” although traditional analysis often seems to presume that there’s nothing more than what’s there in the sounds; yet, the way we interact with the sounds is just as important and it’s highly dependent on narrative, cultural context, etc.
    Deconstructing narratives is useful and interesting and provides insight into how culture works, but it’s hard to imagine why music would even exist without them.
    KG replies: I agree fully.

  2. says

    Good points, Kyle, and Merry Christmas to you. It reminded me of how John Adams got criticized at least once for writing music that wasn’t in the Shaker Loops mold. Seems it’s hard to move away from the “brand.”

  3. says

    Very eloquent and interesting, Kyle. However, I have to ask: isn’t resistance of the narrative itself a narrative? Think of Stravinsky, or Adams, or Eliot Carter (sure, he’s been faithful to his chosen narrative for almost three quarters of a century, but he made his early reputation as a populist in the Copland/Harris vein, no?). Maybe it’s the historian in you, Kyle, because it seems to me that the parsing of narratives are best left to musicologists and theorists than to composers. Composers should just compose. Let the narratives parse themselves out.
    And yes, that in itself is a narrative, isn’t it? Merry Christmas!

  4. Bob Gilmore says

    excellent post, Kyle.
    Recently I’ve been enthusiastically involved with the music of the French composer François-Bernard Mâche, who I think is one of the great under-appreciated composers of our era (he’s now 75), partly because he steps outside all of the many recognized “sexy” categories. But what a fantastic, rich, intriguing, musical mind.
    To hell with categories and “isms” – we’re all individuals, in the final analysis.

  5. says

    Interesting points well presented. Last year, I was told by a composer much more famous than I that my downfall as a composer was not adopting a narrative and sticking with it. She said I would be forever obscure and, likely, seen as shallow in all my work. (On the other hand, that might have must been convoluted code for ‘your music is crap’.)
    KG replies: I think your downfall is having spent your life doing advocacy for other composers. It’s been occurring to me more and more lately that most composers are mean, ungrateful, and ungenerous people.

  6. david first says

    Yeah, it’s probably true that there is a price to pay for a “complex” narrative. But I can’t imagine anything worse than not following one’s muse. To stick to something in order to be clear to people sounds like a kind of death to me – would’ve dried me up long ago. Did any of the people you truly admire do that?
    KG replies: Well, take a case like Charles Ives, who certainly never compromised himself for career purposes. Everything about his music fits with the image of the culturally conservative, literary-philosophical New Englander – *except*, actually, for that one Charlie Rutlege song in cowboy style. All of his interests cohere, even in a vast and varied output. And Copland created an image totally at odds with his own background, the music of the American midwest and west – and then, when he went 12-tone, audiences and musicians alike balked and couldn’t accept his reinvention. Why did Copland make the change?, is the question. Is that really where his muse led him, was he written out in his Americana style, or was he trying to stay hip and relevant with the young composers (as seemed to be Stravinsky’s motivation)? It seems impossible to say whether someone like Feldman (or Glass?) stuck to his narrowly defined style from inspiration or calculation. And the web of ideas holding *your* output together seems fairly simple to discern – maybe because I’ve been working on it for a long time. Maybe that means you (like Feldman and Glass and Ives) are just lucky, rather than that you planned it.

  7. david first says

    Yeah, it’s probably true that there is a price to pay for a “complex” narrative. But I can’t imagine anything worse than not following one’s muse. To stick to something in order to be clear to people sounds like a kind of death to me – would’ve dried me up long ago. Did any of the people you truly admire do that?
    KG replies: Well, take a case like Charles Ives, who certainly never compromised himself for career purposes. Everything about his music fits with the image of the culturally conservative, literary-philosophical New Englander – *except*, actually, for that one Charlie Rutlege song in cowboy style. All of his interests cohere, even in a vast and varied output. And Copland created an image totally at odds with his own background, the music of the American midwest and west – and then, when he went 12-tone, audiences and musicians alike balked and couldn’t accept his reinvention. Why did Copland make the change?, is the question. Is that really where his muse led him, was he written out in his Americana style, or was he trying to stay hip and relevant with the young composers (as seemed to be Stravinsky’s motivation)? It seems impossible to say whether someone like Feldman (or Glass?) stuck to his narrowly defined style from inspiration or calculation. And the web of ideas holding *your* output together seems fairly simple to discern – maybe because I’ve been working on it for a long time. Maybe that means you (like Feldman and Glass and Ives) are just lucky, rather than that you planned it.

  8. Dylan Mattingly says

    @Armando above,
    Is resisting a narrative a narrative in itself? Certainly, but the likelihood of a composer being able to do it with success is small, and thus I’d theorize that it is a narrative much more likely to be created by, and in that sense moldable by, the composer.
    A narrative of resisting narrative would sound something like in (publicspeak), “well, you never know what you’re gonna get!” and there are very very few people I can think of for which that would be an acceptable narrative to the public. I think John Adams might be a good example, although I suspect that there is a large contingent of people who go into a concert of City Noir and expect to hear Shaker Loops. I would say the novelist David Mitchell would be on my list, as I trust I will like anything he writes and that it will be vastly different from anything else he has written. But that is a huge amount of trust put in the artist which most people (and I don’t even mean the “uninformed Publick” here) don’t want to relinquish.
    Even with the composers you selected (and first it should be noted that in choosing the composers we can think of who have made a narrative out of their resistance, we’re exhibiting a strong sample bias, as these are the composers who history has left for us to remember), they both a) had to be popular enough to begin with for the public to care that they were doing something different, and b) were met with vast anger from various camps at every turn.
    I would definitely have Bob Dylan in this list, as he’s certainly a poster child of changing genres at will, but even with Dylan’s popularity in the early sixties (you could argue because of), when he “went electric” there was a huge backlash (although it has been suggested quite seriously that this was partly because the sound of his band was SO loud as to be the loudest thing any of the audience had ever heard) amongst the folkies of the time—there’s that great scene in “I’m Not There” of Cate Blanchett machine-gunning down the audience.
    There are very few composers who have managed to get away with such a narrative as “resisting their narrative.” My guess is that there are actually very few composers who do anything other than “just compose,” in any way we can, and that it’s us as listeners who find more often than not ways in which they might be worried about their own narrative.
    I heard Philip Glass was once asked why he never has changed from his patented style, why had he never reinvented himself? and his response was that he had already invented himself once, wasn’t that enough?
    I’d suggest that the continual fight against “pidgeonholing” or falling victim to one’s own narrative is not so much self-destructive, but rather just continuing to compose as one always has—growing and evolving because no two moments on earth are the same. But for composers that do stay the same, or do retain their own narrative, likely those composers too are simply writing music as they always have, but their process is so unique (or so simple, even stubborn perhaps) that it is less affected by the changes of their psyche.

  9. says

    There is more than one dimension of narrative at work here.
    Most of the examples above are about defining a personal style that makes one fit more easily into a commercial category. Basically it makes the “buy” decision easier for the consumer. If you can make it work and still find fulfillment as a composer, more power to you.
    Taruskin’s narratives are all about moving up and down the social ladder, and using various styles of music to define one’s rung on the ladder (whether as listener, performer, or composer).
    I think most of us are highly social creatures who are aware of both of these dimensions, and either work with them, or against them. Often composers of “serious” music will work against the first type of narrative in the belief that this places them on a higher rung on the second, Taruskin-type narrative.
    All inescapable, isn’t it?

  10. says

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post and comments…
    While a piece-out-of-place with one’s style can alienate an audience, it can also be rewarding and give depth to their narrative. (ex.: Larry Polansky’s Lonesome Road)
    Pieces-out-of-place can also be a necessary part of larger, slower transitions in one’s output. “Periods” are a huge part of a narrative and it’s odd to speak of the music of Beethoven, Stravinsky, Cage, Feldman and numerous others without them.
    And yet I seldom hear composers (with public narratives) talking about “periods” in their own work. Are “periods” only applied to our work by musicologists after we die (if we are remembered)?
    If so, do you think this gap in self-promotion is due to composers avoiding pretentiousness, even though “periods” might be easy for an audience to grasp and accept?
    Do you see changing styles as an undesirably huge statement of musical politics and/or aesthetics? Have composers-in-transition who you’ve known expressed a fear that the act of putting a change in such definite and final terms could be capable of alienating their entire community (audience, performers, etc)?
    KG replies: I don’t believe I’ve known anyone in that situation. Maybe I should try myself.

  11. says

    I was reminded here of the comment Henry Ford made to Buckminster Fuller, “You can make money, or you can make sense; the two are mutually exclusive.” Fortunately for the future of humanity, the majority do prefer to make sense oblivious or perhaps in spite of the temporal obscurity it brings. One of my own Principles of Computer Science says that every device is eventually divested of its documentation, and to that I might add a humanities ray of hope for all those typecast by media parrotings to say that every great artwork is similarly invariably divested of its mythology.

  12. says

    In reply to your reply to Dennis B-K, I don’t agree that most composers are “mean, ungrateful, and ungenerous.” Maybe I’ve been fortunate to meet the better ones. I know that I myself would help others more if it weren’t so hard to merely maintain the money-making and money-losing careers inside and outside music (guess which one is which). Besides Dennis, who has been very generous, there is the example of Paul Dresher here in the SF Bay Area who consistently goes out of his way to provide others with rehearsal space, equipment, and help with grants and commissions, and who has made sure that composers are paid for their work, all while maintaining a hefty compositional schedule himself. As much as I envy others, I do believe that composing is not a zero-sum game, that the more each of us achieves the more there is for all the rest.
    KG replies: Every generalization has exceptions. You name two. I’ve spent my life altruistically helping the careers of hundreds of composers. And the number of composers who hate me for having done so remains a perpetual astonishment. Even some of the composers I’ve championed year after year have shown no gratitude or appreciation whatever, and have even insulted me behind my back.

  13. says

    @Dylan: I have nothing to add to your response. I just want to say thank you for such a thorough reply. I do have to say (uh-oh!) that, maybe, this talk of narrative makes me a tad anxious. One of the best bits of advice one of my teachers gave me was to keep challenging myself; that if after ten years my music still sounded exactly the same, I was doing something wrong. So staying true to a “narrative,” so long as that means writing the same kind of music over and over again, has never been something that’s been a high priority.
    And maybe that’s why I don’t have a bigger career than I do. Who knows?

  14. mclaren says

    Well, this all goes back to the fact that some composers work in a stylistic monoculture while others prefer stylistic xenogenesis. Neither approach is right or wrong: the monoculture composers pick one style and focus like a laser beam and explore every possible ramification with tremendous depth. The composers who prefer stylistic xenogenesis keep pushing out in different directions and exploring new possibilities.
    The thing about Euro/American serious musical culture, though, is that it is overwhelmingly dominated by the Germanic outlook, which hugely values unity over variety. The French outlook, which prefers variety to unity, simply gets disregarded by the American serious music criticism community and by American musical yakademia.
    This “unity ueber alles” mindset in American serious music circles means that composers who radically change styles simply get nuked. They become de facto yokels who cannot be taken seriously. Unity becomes such an overweening value that it blots out the sun and nothing else is visible to the American music criticism community.
    So the process of narrative creation doesn’t just arise ex nihilio — it takes place within the context of a massive overhang of Germanic preconceptions about serious music. If you want to trace it, the whole Germanic unity obsession goes back to Nietzsche’s essay “The Birth of Tragedy” contrasting Dionysian (variety) with Apollonian (unity) impulses, and by Schopenhauer’s writings about musical aesthetics. Schopenhauer’s view of music as an embodiment of pure will and his repeated claims that only pure contemplation allows us to attain pure perception once again feed into this whole mania for unity and left-brain conscious structure. The narrative as you describe it, of course, becomes a form of self-promotion…which is to say, a conscious logical construct.
    What’s ironic here is the fact that the great modern masters of the philosophy of narrative, the French structuralists, look at narrative in a completely different way. And I think this is what Armando is getting at when he astutely remarks that working against the narrative is also a narrative. In fact, it’s a little surprising that Kyle didn’t take his essay in the direction of Baudrillard and Jameson and Foucault and point out that all narratives are basically a “precession of simulacra” because they change over time and often have little connection to objective reality. Moreover, as Baudrillard and Jameson both pointed out, meaning in Western culture arises from the collision of competing narratives. There’s always a clash going on. And over time one narrative will slowly become dominant and force another narrative into retreat, only to be vanquished in turn in an endless cycle.
    A great example of these competing narratives can be found in the late 19th century up to mid 20th century monomania for progress in music as the yardstick of value. This narrative privileged novelty above all. But sometime around 1970, when it became clear that music history as an ever-ascending ramp no longer accurately described what was going on, because lots of American composers started heretically producing less overtly complex music, that narrative of progress in music went into eclipse. During the 1970s, the narrative of music as an artifact partly determined by human neuropsychological limits started to gain ascendancy. So in effect you had a completely behaviorist narrative that rose to become dominant and then got clobbered by a nature-based narrative.
    The French (except for the Parisian Kook and his IRCAM quagmire) explicitly rejected the narrative of progress in music. As Jean-Jacques Nattiez wrote in the 1970s: “I have said it before and I say it again — there is no such thing as progress or regress in music, only change.” It’s fascinating to notice how completely the remarkably varied and subtle French music criticism community has been ignored and marginalized by the American music criticism community. They regard modern French music criticism (insofar as it refuses to worshipfully sit at the feet of the Parisian Kook and adore his sonic excretions) as objects of amusement, when not being ignored outright.
    But the modern French music critics like Nattiez are the ones who have most completely come to terms with the reality of contemporary music. That reality was first spelled out in Leonard B. Meyer’s seminal Music, the Arts and Ideas (1967). Meyer foresaw change in contemporary music accelerating to the point where contemporary music entered a “fluctuating steady state” in which all possible music styles coexisted. At that point, he said, there would no longer be such a thing as the musical mainstream.
    Meyer’s prediction has come true. And this makes competition twixt narratives more important than ever. Yet ironically the French are the only music critics who really “get” this and discuss it with any cogency. The American music criticism community still wears blinders — they don’t even acknowledge there are different types of composers (stylistic xeneogensis as opposed to stylistic monoculture). And, insofar as American music critics recognize competing narratives at all, they marginalize all the non-Germanic non-progress-based narratives.
    Armando’s point becomes fascinating when you realize how fast this vortex of competing narrative in a fluctuating steady state of modern music turns into a hall of mirrors. Fighting the dominant narrative becomes another narrative (think the Darmstadt crowd in the 1950s fighting against the tonal melodic-motif-based narrative of the late 19th century); but then fighting against the fight against the dominant narrative also becomes a narrative (think the minimalists rejecting the Darmstadt approach)…and then fighting against the fight against the fight against the dominant narrative becomes a narrative too (think postminimalism). So it gets culturally juicy real fast.
    The other irony about the Germanic music-cultural overhang is that it entirely ignores the other German philosophical tradition which privileged variety and relativism — namely, the anti-Enlightenment tradition of Johann Gottfried Herder. There’s an entire well-developed philosophical corpus of German thought which pretty much rejects the left-brain view of music as an act of creation of pure will by conscious thought and planning. Herder’s tradition emphasizes spontaneity and creativity and Herder carefully pointed out the dead ends to which pure logic and reason led. Nobody ever gets married for purely logical reasons (or if they do, the marriage won’t last long); and while music contains manifold structures which were constructed logically by means of pure reason, the essential impulses in the composer’s heart which led to choosing one type of structure over another are not logical, and often not even conscious. Moreover, the essential reasons why people listen to music remain antilogical. People listen to music because they are moved to by emotional impulses which remain essentially mysterious.
    “William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, `a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.'” [“Mrs. Logic,” Sam Anderson, The New York Magazine, 18 October 2009]
    The fetishistic mania of contemporary university music eduction for analysis of musical works presupposes that the composer consciously generated a piece of music; and this is another kind of narrative currently dominant. But what if the composer doesn’t actually understand the music s/he created? What if the music arises not from logical decisions, but, as W.B. Yeats wrote “represents spume on an ocean that moves under the tidal influence of a moon no man can see”? (Or words to that effect — I can’t recall the exact quote, but it’s close.) If creativity is essentially antirational and prelogical, then Armando’s collision of competing narratives becomes paramount, because there may not actually be any objective truth about what the “structure” of a given piece of music is, or about whether a composer belongs to this or that school, or about why one musical style became culturally dominant for a while and then sank into eclipse.
    The intriguing thing about fashion is that no one tries to rationally justify fashion trends; one year ties are thin, the next year, they’re broad. One year lapels are in, the next year, they’re out. Yet people persist in trying to justify and explain musical fads like serialism. No one tries to construct a narrative about fashions: we all seem to recognize that fashions just change for reasons no one can explain. But no one seems apply that viewpoint to music history — in Western narratives of music history, there always has to be some sort of logical explanation, even when it gets twisted and contorted beyond credibility to fit the shape of the facts.
    When logic and necessity vanish from a music history narrative, it collapses into pure marketing. This is what America music critics absolutely will not admit — that they’re just high-level marketers, a slicker uptown version of the PR flacks who hawk asswipe and armpit goo on TV.

  15. says

    Great post Kyle! And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!
    @david first & Kyle’s response: in addition to Ives, Bruckner also comes to mind as a person with a steady, predictable worldview, whose compositions are more similar than they are different. And yet, by being true to that muse, he wrote incredible music that deserves to be heard. (And wasn’t he considered by many contemporaries to be a “yokel” because of this sameness and simplicity? Maybe German unity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…)
    Perhaps another way to view this is through the naive/sentimental prism? Some times composers sound like they’re keeping tabs on other composers’ works, are writing in reaction to some kind of “narrative”–their own, the large society of music lovers and audiences, the smaller society of critics and performers, or in response to other big changes in their lives. The transition, say, between Sibelius 3rd and Sibelius 4th symphonies, or as you said, late Stravinsky and Copland, or even Leonard Bernstein’s meandering. Other times things do indeed seem to come out of nowhere, a work gets written that the composer just feels must get written, perhaps even the composer him/herself feels just swept up in the moment, going along for the ride. The piece is born with no thought for how it might “fit”…at least at first blush. Maybe works like Ionisation, Beethoven 9, Rhapsody in Blue, Grand Pianola Music, or even Carmina Burana.
    Here, there’s an intersection with celebrity in general. It’s not only music that falls victim to tastemakers, pidgeonholers, and the like.
    Think of Hollywood typecasting as “leading man” “hero” “villan” etc. It’s hard to imagine casting Sean Bean or Alan Rickman, as, say, leading men in a romantic comedy, because we have already built up our impressions of their work. Both have tried at it and failed, commercially and arguably artistically. Why? Both are great actors. Could it be that they really and truly cannot portray those kinds of characters, or is it that we’ve now been totally hardwired to view them in one way and one way only. Jim Carrey is another interesting example: The Majestic flopped, but Eternal Sunshine did well (and Phillip Morris appears to combine both slapstick and drama, so who knows?).
    Saint-Saens never wanted Carnival of the Animals published because he knew, through some kind of instinct, that his entire reputation and legacy would be forever changed by the work. Tchaikovsky hated and hated his association with The Nutcracker (despite its novel, pioneering use of new instruments) because it somehow got in the way of HIS own narrative of his own work.
    It’s all a mess.
    (Sorry I can’t come up with more persuasive musical examples. I’ve been watching too much TV lately. I blame Netflix.)

  16. Rodney Lister says

    Well, it’s strikes me that Taruskin, in trying to expose the construction of certain narratives (with an implication that constructing a narrative is some kind of transgression) is really just constructing an opposite and no more correct (or at least provably correct)narrative that he likes better. (I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that Daniel P. Moynihan may not have been right–maybe every man IS entitled to his own facts–there are certainly alot of people these days who are convinced that they are).
    Incidentally, speaking of narratives, I’m struck that nowadays people tend to lump Babbitt and Carter together as the alpha-modernists/academics. When I was a student Carter was considered (as I think he had positioned himself) as the un-twelvetone–the free, non-systematic composer. It’s striking to me that the first edition of the David Shiff book was the moment when Carter started to want people to know about his systems and procedures (which, aside from metrical modulation and the vaguest notion of some kind of interval/imatative stuff, he didn’t talk about in any detail).

  17. Gabor says

    Lendvai Ernő taught with his wife at a music school in Szombathely from 1948 on, so I don’t think he could have been fired from the Liszt Ferenc Academy in Budapest in the 1950’s. The socialist regime was apparently very satisfied with his writings as they were published in several languages by the state-owned press.

    KG replies: I’m just quoting Taruskin. I can look up his exact words later, but the book’s back at my office.