Today I got very thoughtful e-mail about my last post, from someone in the business who’d prefer not to be identified. I have the sender’s permission to reproduce it here:
Your blog got me thinking about how I’ve experienced new music (or NOT experienced it) over the years. I have always found that the people (not including music academia) who get the most out of “new” music are often painters, architects, poets, or simply people with a love of jazz (your mention of Ornette Coleman seemed very apt).
Sadly, even as a composer, I never quite got how to listen to a lot of serial/atonal/new (whatever label you want to give it) — and over time, my lack of comfort became an increasing embarrassment. However, I’m not sure that there is a way to ”teach someone” to listen to complex new music? I certainly don’t find all serial music unfathomable; but a lot of it, I do. Do I want Boulez on my computer or IPod (if I had one), probably not. Why, I can’t tell you. There are other (probably much earlier) serial composers whose music I adore. But you are right, those who are able to feel the ”out there” aspect of it, do much better with a lot of complex music then those of us with our heads up our “conservatory butts” (or those people who buy tickets to the NY Philharmonic).
The best analogy I can come up with describing my personal frustration with listening and appreciating certain music is rather like the difficulty a lot of people have with vocal training. The art or science of vocal technique –if you will allow me a bit of latitude here — can be rather murky. Some teachers give very specific, physiological instructions as to how to produce a certain sound; other teachers will position your mouth, tongue, and body and tell you to ”internalize the feeling”; others tell you to visualize something. Many use a combination of approaches. However, there is no signpost for correctness. It often takes a willingness to try different approaches and teachers in order to come up with a way of singing that works for you. I suspect one has to listen to certain music with that kind of openness as well as a willingness to NOT understand a note of it, but simply take it as face value: either it works for you or it doesn’t.
Oftentimes, I think some neophytes are able to listen to something as “a thing in itself” and not concern themselves with the fact they have no clue (nor do they care) how it is put together. In my case, I become enraged (at myself, mind you) that I do not understand the process. To me, it should be automatic: I should be able to listen to complex music and be able to enjoy it (at least on some level) because there is some audible process that I can identify (a repeated motive, rhythm, etc). When my ears fail me (which sadly seems to be far too often), I become annoyed. Even as just a listener, I want to be able to grasp something aural that stays with me.
Several years back, I attended a Julliard Quartet concert on which they performed one of Elliott Carter’s string quartets (I no longer remember which one). He was there and got up, before the performance, and had each member of the quartet play certain passages. He briefly explained to the audience what they would hear during the course of the work. It was a short explanation, but it really helped. I certainly heard a lot more and I think the rest of the audience did as well.
Perhaps, if someone found a way to help people “listen” to certain music, it would help larger audiences (including your conservative concertgoer) get the “out there” aspect of it. Unfortunately, many “academic composers” do want to exclude and intimidate people (or simply don’t care), at least I think so.