Left behind (3)

Finishing my impulsive three-part series on how/why contemporary classical music — as presented by mainstream classical music institutions — isn’t really part of current culture.

In the first two parts — here and here — I showed how, both now and in the past, new classical music, and especially modernist new music, didn’t connect with other cultural developments. How modernist literature touched on popular culture and everyday life, but new classical music didn’t. How modernist music in 1960s Paris — Boulez — looms large in classical music thinking, though at the time it was film that was the vital French art, addressing contemporary questions in ways Boulez never did.

And how atonal music dominated prestigious composition in the 1950s, and still retains — in the classical music world — its dominant prestige, along with a sense of somehow still being new, even though since its dominance we’ve had waves of new styles, starting with minimalism in the 1970s. (Which in fact even began in the ’60s, if you count In C and Steve Reich’s early pieces. Though the ’70s were when it burst out into prominent view.) While in visual art, the new styles that came after abstract expressionism took a much more prominent place in the mainstream.

And how museums now reflect the development of contemporary art, showing — even the biggest ones — a much more vital assortment of new styles and sensibilities than major classical music institutions do when they program contemporary music.

All of which means that contemporary music — as we meet it, once again, at mainstream classical institutions — doesn’t function as a branch of contemporary art. Instead, it comes off like an oddball, specialized branch of classical music, and as a result appeals largely (and this is especially true of modernist new music) to a tiny fragment of the classical music audience. As opposed to reaching a contemporary art audience — and, overlapping with that — even parts of the wider audience for art of all kinds.

The strongest sign of this: That contemporary music concerts at mainstream classical music institutions don’t as a rule draw artists from other fields. While new music events that feature current styles do draw those artists, and have drawn them ever since the dawn of minimalism.


I have to acknowledge, though, that new music presents some problems that new work in other arts might be free from. Music seems to touch our emotions very deeply, for one thing. That can make new kinds of music harder for some people to accept, if they’re profoundly tied, in their emotions, to the old styles. (Though wouldn’t that work the other way, too? That people feeling the pull of new kinds of culture will happily embrace music that reflects the new culture, even if they haven’t heard anything like it before. For instance: teens embracing rock & roll in the ’50s, painters embracing minimalism in the 1970s, the beats celebrating bebop, advanced artists gravitating to Wagner in the late 19th century, Proust — confined to his bed — setting up a special telephone hookup so he could listen to the premiere of Pelleas et Melisande.)

Music also takes time. If you go to a gallery and hate a painting, you can walk right by. If you’re at a concert and hate a new piece, you have to sit there till it’s over. (But that doesn’t seem to bother people when the style of music at the concert really speaks to them. When thousands of people come to a Bang on a Can marathon, all of them can’t possibly like every piece, but you don’t see mass walkouts.)

And music has to be performed. Performances may not do new pieces justice. Performances of atonal music, especially — and especially orchestral performances — may make the music sound harsher than it really is, because the musicians haven’t yet learned to play it beautifully.

Finally, music even in the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t fully reflect the culture around it, something we almost never think about, and which might be due to how much music costs. Only the conservative powers that be, for instance, could afford to present big choral pieces in the 18th century, so it’s hardly a surprise that nobody wrote oratorios with texts by freethinkers like Voltaire. And in the 19th century, there weren’t operas that unsparingly depicted poverty, as Dickens did in his novels, or showed us the minutiae of bourgeois life, as Flaubert did, or brought the new urban culture alive, like Balzac.

(Which, parenthetically, leads to the modern spectacle of Verdi scholars glorying in how well Verdi handles what in its time was essentially popular melodrama. If they were literary scholars, they’d have been dealing with ideas on a higher level. I say this, by the way, as someone who loves Verdi. Italian opera might even be my favorite music, and I’ve loved reading the impressive scholarly discussions of it that have been published in the past generation.

(I do laugh a little, though, I have to say, about scholars who celebrate Verdi’s popularity, writing with great excitement about how barrel organs played Verdi’s operas in Italian streets, when these same scholars for the most part have no contact with music of our own time that has that kind of popularity.)

Still, I’ve labeled these considerations as excuses. I’ve tried refuting some of them, but even to the extent that they may be true, they don’t alter the reality. Contemporary classical music — once again, as it’s presented in the mainstream classical world — doesn’t seem to have much contact with contemporary life or contemporary art, and people coming on it from the outside can’t help noticing that. And reacting to it. By not going to the concerts. Whatever the reasons for all this might be.


So how do we make new classical music come off like contemporary art in other fields, so it can draw a comparable audience. And I’m not — by the way — equating popularity with value here. I’m just stating a truth. We’re not drawing the kind of artistic and intellectual and just generally curious audience that contemporary art has shown that it can draw. And that means we’re not relating to our culture.

There can be small but vital audiences, that make a difference, just as large ones do. Take the Velvet Underground, who — according to an old (and obviously exaggerated) joke — had only 10 people buying their records, but then each of those people went on to start an important band of their own. I saw audiences like that at downtown new music concerts in New York in the 1980s — forty people, or thirty, or twenty, but all of them engaged and aroused by what they saw, and not all of them professionals in new music (which was who largely went to the uptown performances of modernist atonal work).

Besides — I mentioned earlier that I saw (and stood in) lines around the block for a Jackson Pollock show at MOMA. Can anyone — however much he or she might be suspicious of how shallow popularityi can be — honestly tell me they wouldn’t be thrilled to see that for Schoenberg, Xenakis, or Boulez?

So, then: What can we do? I’ve seen one deliberately explicit attempt to address this problem: A study (which I heard presented at an Association of British Orchestras conference I attended  a few years ago) about what the contemporary art audience looked for in events they go to, and how new music concerts might appeal to that audience. I don’t know where that study went, but it was lovely to see people — four top marketers, in fact — thinking along those lines.

But studies might not be necessary. As I keep saying, for more than 30 years now, starting in the early 1970s, I’ve seen large audiences turn out for new music. What draws them, clearly, is music in the latest style — minimalism in the ’70s and ’80s, alt-classic

al music now.

And, please, there’s something going on here besides trendiness. It’s the feeling of something new in the air, something changing, something vital, something important. Remember that these weren’t mass audiences. A thousand people, if that’s an accurate number, hearing Steve Reich’s Drumming when the piece was new isn’t exactly the same thing as millions of people buying a pop album. (Though the success of singer-songwriters, early in the ’70s, and of punk and disco later in the decade, was also due to people smelling something new in the air, and rushing to music that reflected it.)

That’s true even if a thousand people seemed, at the time, like a huge audience to people used to the much smaller crowds at concerts featuring Babbitt and Wuorinen. And even if people who liked the dominant atonal people felt suspicious of those larger crowds. I was there. I certainly wasn’t looking for easy stimulation, and the excitement I felt at a Reich event was miles away from — let’s say — my thrill at seeing Star Wars for the first time, more or less in the same era. Reich went far deeper, and thrilled me far more.

So to make new classical music part of current culture — and part of current art — you need to do the music that reflects what’s happening right now. That’s likely to be whatever the newest style is, or maybe what was the newest style a couple of years ago, because it can take the world a while to catch up with something new. This is evident in every other walk of life, and in every other art. Why shouldn’t it be true of music?

Connect with the current world, and you’ll draw a current audience. This isn’t a calculation, a plan, a maneuver, a marketing trick. It’s genuine. If you yourself breathe the air of new and different planets (to paraphrase the famous Stefan George line that Schoenberg set, when he ventured into atonal territory in his second string quartet), you’ll naturally be drawn to — and program music — that also breathes that air, and when you present those programs, you’ll attract other people who also breathe it.

But this absolutely doesn’t mean that only new, bright, untried, and — in the larger, long-term picture — maybe even shallow things get done. What you do, when you concentrate on new work that reflects current culture and attracts a current audience, is create a context. You have people coming to your concerts, expecting something vital, that will speak to them.

So this becomes your chance to program anything you want. Remember that the new audience — the alt-classical audience — is, to judge from the music that they’re drawn to, one of the most musically curious and open-minded groups of people that we’ve ever seen. To use a clumsy word, they’re polystylistic. They’re aware of music in many, many styles, often respond to it, and are well aware that if they themselves don’t respond, someone else does.

That helps makes them open-minded. Curious. Eager. Ready to hear anything. Even in the music they like — indie rock, let’s say — there are many styles, with many people having preferences of their own, but still acknowledging the music that they may not like so much.

So once you’ve got an alt-classical audience, play Webern for them. They’ll listen far more eagerly than the standard classical audience does. As long as you play Webern with passion and commitment — and play it really well, they’ll very likely respond. Certainly they’re more likely to respond than any other audience you’ll find, outside the tiny ingroup that likes that music now. (And no way is that a putdown of the music. Webern, as I’ve said many times before, is one of my favorite composers.)

Case in point: Back in 1988, I was visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, and in one class I taught — it was a graduate course in music and politics — I had the students listen to Milton Babbitt. Who loved him? The punk kids, the kids who loved punk rock.

We don’t need to ask for the moment why they liked him, whether they heard any of the structural delights that Babbitt revels in. (Any more than we’ll ask how many people hear those niceties in concerts that draw the small but faithful Babbitt audience. Or how many people in the mainstream classical audience follow all the folds of sonata form in a Haydn symphony.) The point is that they responded to Babbitt, really eagerly. And that’s something we haven’t seen, outside the little band of faithful, and something — surely — that we should be grateful for. (Even if it’s just one small straw in a wind whose ultimate direction we have no way of knowing.)

(This, of course, is a rehearsal, if you like, for things I’m going to say in my book.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. ries says

    You seem to infer that “contemporary classical” music is only music that is created in the most intellectual, and distanced, manner- that is, music that is “composed” by a solitary genius, then performed by craftsmen.

    This has become the model for “classic” classical music, although it was not always this way. We know that many great composers actually played their own music themselves in performance, historically, and some were even known to improvise when doing so.

    I would argue that the visual art world equivalent to this is “conceptual art”, where an artist only traffics in “ideas” which, like classical compositions, are then realized by craftsmen with no creative stake in the execution.

    These types of artists are often deemed “important” by critics and curators, but meet the exact same popular reaction that many of your musical examples do- which ranges, in the art world, from boredom to outright dislike.

    Meanwhile, your category of “new music”, even when discussing almost 40 year old music, (how “new” can that be?) includes many much more personal musicians, who may compose, or not, but often perform their music themselves- I would say someone like Charlemagne Palestine is much more similar to Jackson Pollock than some of the composers you mention.

    People relate to personality, to intimacy, in more direct and emotional ways, than they do to purely intellectual exercises.

    I think that somehow this is crucial to your thesis, although I am still trying to figure out in my own mind exactly how….

  2. Janis says

    ” … the excitement I felt at a Reich event was miles away from — let’s say — my thrill at seeing Star Wars for the first time, more or less in the same era. Reich went far deeper, and thrilled me far more.”

    There’s one incredibly important layer that Star Wars and popular music both excel at that I doubt the music did, though — which is a huge problem with classical music.

    Pop/rock and SW both connect the audience members with each other. They motivate people to form incredibly complex communities that revolve around the shared love of the source material literally from nothing at all. Classical just doesn’t do that. It used to — everyone talks about Liszt and his cigar butts and the way court women would wear pins and brooches with the portraits of their favorite singers to their box seats at the San Carlo night after night.

    But nowdays, people who see and hear that stuff go into the hall, listen and enjoy, then go home. There are few to no spontaneous social networks formed around it. It’s very much a “flat” network structure. If you trace the lines of interaction, you’d see one line each going out from the stage to each individual audience member. In your average rock concert, you’d get a line to each audience member from the band on stage, and dozens of lines connecting the audience members with one another.

    This is probably oversimplified; I had a nice chat with the people next to me this weekend when I saw “Tamerlano” at the LA Opera … but for the most part, it’s true. Classical music can connect with its audience, but it doesn’t do well at connecting the audience members with one another. It just doesn’t motivate people to talk to each other much or go home and create, blogs notwithstanding.

    Again, the problem is that it’s presented as a finished thing that you either get right or wrong and can’t add to or take away from. You listen to the music, and that’s it. It’s a passive experience, and once the piece is finished, it’s done. If you present it like a toychest — start performing the same piece a few ways, with different bands and different instruments, have something sung by a classical singer then a blues singer, etc. — the audience will go home and play with it, and they will have to chat and collaborate and connect with one another to do so.

    I just think this is a big lack in the whole question of what kind of audience you want to aim for and who they are, how they are marketed to, that sort of thing. We’re still taking about all the various types of audiences as if they are only a mass of commodified individuals disconnected from one another. Something that doesn’t encourage social networking and tinkering will not do well in an age where people expect love of a given band or type of music to be almost a badge of tribal membership.

    Perhaps the attitude that says that the audience has to sit down, shut up, and be still doesn’t help. I have no clue what a Bang on a Can marathon is, but there may have been some milling around and low chatting, where people didn’t feel compelled to sit there and act interested if they heard something they didn’t like. The old operas were like that — they took all night but people would mill around, talk, fight, eat, flirt, gamble, wander from box to box or around the pit until one of the big names was singing something interesting, and everyone would stop and listen and cheer like mad, then go back to whatever they were doing. They didn’t feel like they had to just sit there frozen and endure. Even at a rock concert, you often got a huge cheer for the big numbers, the lighters in the air for the ballads, and sometimes if the band did something that caught the ear less, you’d just sit back and chat with your friends until the song ended. It wasn’t like being in church where you have to sit there in scratchy clothing and not yawn for fear of Sister Mary Luftwaffe letting you have it. :-)

    It’s all so complicated. I just don’t know how to get out of this “music under glass” attitude that we have about classical music in this culture. We treat it like we treat going to church: sit there in uncomfortable clothing for an hour while you watch someone ELSE do something. Not only does that stifle creativity, but it naturally repels the more creative people who want to make stuff themselves.

    Things like the Canon Rock that one of your commenters mentioned really seem to be the only possible saving grace, pushing the message relentlessly that this is music, it’s meant to be played and played with, and each and everyone of us has the absolute right to do so.

    A few other minor comments: “Music seems to touch our emotions very deeply, for one thing. That can make new kinds of music harder for some people to accept, if they’re profoundly tied, in their emotions, to the old styles.” Not sure about the underlying attitude here; it seems to imply that the profound connection of music to our emotions is a problem that has to be overcome somehow instead of the whole reason for music’s existence.

    If the new stuff connects for people, they will also grow to love it just fine, like they do with new books and movies that speak to them powerfully and that come out at a good clip every day. I think a lot of the more avant garde stuff is just … well, not about connecting to an audience as much; you even described one composer who said that after he himself had had a powerful emotional experience, he just didn’t find the avant garde stuff fulfilling anymore. It’s very intellectual and abstract, so if it doesn’t connect with people as much, it’s not that their prior emotional connection is some sort of obstacle that has to be overcome. People aren’t naturally monogamously artistically, either, and I don’t think it’s accurate to say that they fail to love this stuff only because they fell in love with something else first. If this form of music sees emotional connection as a barrier to its acceptance, heaven help it.

    Also: “Performances of atonal music, especially — and especially orchestral performances — may make the music sound harsher than it really is, because the musicians haven’t yet learned to play it beautifully.” I’m not finding this argument convincing. If this actually is true, it would be the first time in human history that a new form of music was created that people had to learn how to make sound good for a few decades. This is just not a convincing argument to me. People had to fiddle with Les Paul’s invention for a few years, but after very little time, musicians took to it like a duck to water and the next generation of performers was off and running with it. If it’s literally decades later, and there still isn’t a population of people who can immediately connect with this stuff enough to play it with a seat-of-the-pants understanding, then the only conclusion to reach is that the music is just not connecting with people, even the musicians.

    Wow, BIG ramble there …

    Hi, Janis. Many things to think about here!

    About performances of atonal music. I really do think they present new problems, which still haven’t been completely solved. The only way they can be solved is through frequent performance, and there are many reasons why that doesn’t happen.

    Here’s an outline of what the problems can be. First, a historical comparison. Wagner’s mature music was very difficult for musicians at first, just as the Beethoven late quartets were. A clarinetist playing the Tristan prelude, for instance, wasn’t used to having a part that, without warning, would move from being the melody to being an inner voice. All the musicians had to get a new kind of feeling for their relationship to a piece of music, before they could play the piece. That’s why, when it was first rehearsed, it was all but impossible to play.

    Atonal music poses certain problems simply because it’s atonal. Intonation is one of them. If you see a G sharp in a tonal score, you know how to inflect it microtonally, if you’re an orchestral player. It’s very high, if it’s the leading tone in the key of A, less high if it’s the third of the tonic chord in E major. And quite a bit higher, in many contexts, than A flat.

    Now think of playing G sharp in an atonal piece. You’re a violinist. What precise shade of G sharp do you play? It’s easy for a pianist. Just press down the key. But a violinist has to decide where to put her finger on the fingerboard. All sorts of microinflections are possible.

    And now there’s no guide to them! So now think of an entire string section. They all have to play G sharp. How do they all decide together exactly what kind of G sharp it is? Listen carefully to many performances of atonal orchestral music, and you’ll hear the strings not completely agreeing on their intonation. Which makes for harshness.

    One telling moment in a well-known recording, the live performance of Lulu with Evellyn Lear, conducted by Karl Bohm. At one point the orchestra pays a C major triad. But they don’t recognize it at first! You can hear them play it all out of tune, then recognize what it is, and slide into correct intonation, so that now it sounds like a triad.

    I remember once rehearsing an ensemble of strings in an atonal piece of my own. All the chords sounded wrong at first. So I’d stop and get each in tune, telling the individual musicians to play sharper or flatter. Finally a few chords started to sound the way I wanted them to sound.

    From there the musicians could take over. Now they knew my harmonic language, knew what the harmony ought to sound like. So they made the adjustments themselves. But it took a while.

    This was a fairly easy problem to solve, because it was all strings. Homogeneous texture. A lot harder with a full orchestra! And harder still if you’re playing the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, when the relation between the instruments is insanely complex. You’re a clarinet player. So (making up the details here, but the score is really like this) for three and half bars you play the same music as the violas, but a sixth higher. Then you switch to playing the same music as the oboes, but an octave and a third lower. How do you learn to hear the people you have to blend with, how do you blend with them (in the midst of wild complexity from all the other instruments), how do you get the blend in tune? Most and maybe all performances of this piece are bound to be, on the highest level, only approximately right.

    I think classical music connects people in one way — they feel a bond as classical music fans, which can become wistfully apparent in conversations about the future of classical music. But this isn’t as strong a bond as the cultural thing that can happen — hey, we’re all living in the world in a completely new way! — with other kinds of music, just as you’ve said.

  3. Jeremy Beck says

    Janis, I’m a grad student in composition at Juilliard, and you’ve managed to say eloquently what I’ve been trying to say in class for the past year and a half. Bravo. I second every word of it.

  4. beedy says

    Brilliant post, Greg!

    Some chinstrokers that pop into my head:

    1) to what degree is the popular culture of 2010 much more diverse and much more fragmented into niche “taste groups” than the culture of, say, 1810? I’d guess a LOT. What do you think?

    2) TO what degree is musical niche fragmentation the result of today’s technology of musical dissemination (digital recording), as opposed to the technology of oral transmission dominant in, say, 1610? Current people have much more choice about which music they choose, as opposed to listening to whatever is available?

    3) To what degree has music become an instantly identifiable, intensely felt, badge of group identity in a fragmented society – as compared to what it was in, say, 1610? I’d say a lot more.

    4) To what degree is part of the explanation that social identity grouping over this time become more fragmented? Not sure, but probably a lot. National identity didn’t really exist in 1610- it really really did in 1910. Identification as “teenagers” as “us” emerges in the in postwar era; so “teen” music didn’t really exist in 1610 either. A song that was popular cut across groups in the 19th c to a degree it doesn’t in the 21st. Partly because it was spread by sheet music, but partly becuase people partly this music/identity thing – True? or not (not sure but I think so).

    5) To what degree is stiff concert music one of those niche taste groups of our time? – and therefore, paradoxically, part of the culture of 2010? I’d say, probably not much, but worth a chinstroke.

    6) When you want music to refer to the current culture, which part? Miley Cyrus or Radiohead or __ or ____? The people who like one or the other may have little overlap in taste, and may not even catch the reference? Which would a potential classical audience know about and relate to? Not sure this is true, just a chinkstroke.

    7) To what degree is the immediate appeal of new art dependent on its ability to connect to pre-existing, partially innate, wiring of the brain (e.g., its ability to recognize the natural overtone series, its tendency to be fascinated by love and by sex and by high-status men and gorgeous women?). Culturally flexible, to be sure, but far from infinitely so.

    Example: I dislike Hefner and Playboy intensely, but i think their emergence was vastly overdetermined. It had to happen, given the coincidence of brain-wiring and the new technology. And Hugh Hefner, even if you could double his talent and energy, would have made bupkes if he had created a magazine about old men. A small niche would have been interested, to be sure, but not a whole country of people.

    The mid-20th-century dissonant avant-garde, to extend this example, was just like a glossy magazine about old men. Being the circulation director and placing the ads would be tough, tough jobs, even if you were a genius.

    Not that SOMEBODY won’t like music that totally rejects brain wiring, or that totally rejecting such wiring isn’t sometimes a very very good thing, mind you. Just that this is part of the explanation for why the audience stays small.

    Ok… I’ll stop strokin’ the chin. I could go on for hours.

    Hi, Beedy. Good questions.

    Yes, we’re far more diverse, with far more cultural shadings, than we were in 1610, or in 1910. Or in 1950, for that matter. That’s partly a change in our culture, and of coures it’s partly due to easier dissemination, which makes cultural changes more easily felt (more easily distributed so to speak). But also many more lifestyles are possible now, for an almost endless number of reasons. Starting with this: That these lifestyles are acknowledged, and, more fundamentally, simply allowed. As wasn’t true in the past, especially the distant past. Not to minimize how complex past cultures were, though.

    All art we see now does connect to some part of current culture. Obviously, or else it wouldn’t exist. So when I talk about “connecting to current culture,” I’m using shorthand that I should be more explicit about. I mean connecting to a particular part of current culture. This will be easier to discuss in my book, because I can give many detailed examples of the kind of culture I mean. One useful look at this is in Richard Florida’s famous book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida believed he could identify a group of people who were crucial for any city’s economic growth, and who also would be prominently noticeable in the city’s culture. These would be young, intellectually curious, technologically inclined, more or less upscale people, who for instance would be a good part of the audience for the city’s local band scene.

    Conversely, these people wouldn’t want to live in a city that didn’t have a thriving local band scene. Florida makes it very clear who these people are, and what they’re tastes are. It’s clear that they aren’t a classical music crowd, and in fact Florida explicitly says that they won’t patronize the opera, symphony, or ballet (or at least not often), so that the old idea that cities need those things, to attract people who’ll be attractive to corporate employers, is no longer true. I assign this part of Florida’s book in my course on the future of classical music, precisely because it’s so clear and hard to disagree with.

  5. says

    The problem:

    “…new classical music, and especially modernist new music, didn’t connect with other cultural developments…Performances of atonal music, especially — and especially orchestral performances — may make the music sound harsher than it really is, because the musicians haven’t yet learned to play it beautifully.”

    The solution:

    “So once you’ve got an alt-classical audience, play Webern for them.”

    You’re greatly exaggerating the perceived genre differences as a classical insider. It’s all “new music” to those who actually take the time to check in on what’s going on in classical music. People outside classical music – and who are under, say, 35 – don’t really care about the modernist aesthetics that engage Baby Boomer composers. Those fusty academic wars are…fusty and academic, and I’d love for a Boomer to simply write something better than Boulez, instead of criticizing him. (He’ll be 85 in March. Hasn’t Boulez-bashing grown old *yet*?)

    Criticizing modernist music in the classical sphere is like an indie-rock fan decrying the ever-growing popularity of psych-folk: It means a lot if you’re on the inside, but if you’re not and you’re just curious, you’re going to go ahead and listen to Andrew Bird. At least, that’s how it seems as an insider in one, and an engaged dilettante in the other.

  6. Janis says

    Greg, I can definitely see what you mean — when Western composers go for music of other cultures, it can take a period of adjustment before you get a grip on what’s going on. That music does have a persistent audience, though — both of people from other cultures who like it, and people from THAT culture who grew up with it as their first “language.”

    The atonal music strikes me as a sort of artificial language in that vein, one that was deliberately made to be “unusual” or “different.” The unfamiliar forms of music from unfamiliar cultures (even medieval stuff counts in that vein to modern ears) still grew organically in the matrix of a large culture of some sort.

    The atonal stuff certainly came out of a sub-culture and a cultural response, but it does seem to be riding (and possibly crossing) the fine line between something that grew organically out of a large-scale society over time, and something that was plopped down after being artificially constructed. Sort of like the difference between Lojban and French.

    It’s hard for me to think of atonality as artificial, since it’s an idiom I can speak and understand fluently. Of course, people get fluent in Esperanto, too, but I don’t think this is comparable. Feels like atonal music is part of my natural musical world.

    Of course, I’ve studied it. I don’t mean in an academic sense — though I’ve done that, too — but by immersion. I absorbed atonal scores, listened to performances and recordings, and maybe most important, sang the scores. Not just vocal music, and in fact not largely vocal music, but (for instance) Schoenberg string quartets. Just yesterday I was listening to two Schoenberg piano pieces (Op. 11 and Op. 25) and, as I said to my wife, they didn’t sound atonal. Which meant that their atonal harmony didn’t strike me as an important fact about them. Obviously it’s observable — audible — but I was so much more concerned with sound, melody, rhythm, gesture, ambiance, beauty. As would happen in non-atonal music.

    I think it’s the unfamiliarity (for so many people) of atonal music that makes it seem strange, and the insistence on its importance, coming from sophisticates, that makes it seem artificial. If someone keeps insisting that something you don’t like or understand is necessary for you — without bringing your feelings into the discussion — it’s hardly your fault if you start to wonder what, exactly, the scam might be. (Another bad consequence of forcing audiences to hear music they don’t care for.)

    The history of atonal music also shows it growing naturally, and in fact in slow steps.

  7. Janis says

    Couple other quick replies (I know, my idea of “quick” isn’t most people’s idea of “quick”):

    “That’s why, when it was first rehearsed, it was all but impossible to play.”

    It got better though, and quickly enough that the musicians and the audiences caught on in a reasonable amount of time. What I’m thinking is that if, N decades on, the “click” still hasn’t happened, it’s probably not going to, not on a large scale at least. These forms of music will always be niche forms, period.

    Except in film scores. Plenty of atonal music shows up in films, and no one notices that it’s atonal. That’s because the film gives it a context.

    As for atonal Shakespeares, I’m not going to look for a precise equivalent, but any musical idiom (speaking very loosely here) that produced Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, Varese, and Berio (just for a start, and also we should include big patches of Ives) has nothing to apologize for.

    “Now think of playing G sharp in an atonal piece. You’re a violinist. What precise shade of G sharp do you play? […] All sorts of microinflections are possible.

    And now there’s no guide to them!”

    I can see that the first time a violinist confronts this music that they may need a general guide, a mentor into an unfamiliar world. But again, if that’s still needed 50-some years on, there’s a problem here. Eventually, the music should be functioning as its own guide, and if that process takes more than two generations to click into place (hell, if it takes more than two months to click into place, possibly two days), then I’d say that the click isn’t going to happen.

    Rock guitarists don’t still need older mentors to teach them the ways feedback can be used musically. The music itself was engaging enough for them to listen to it for pleasure and suss it out on their own, and then develop their own new neat tricks.

    There’s a market for atonal stuff, definitely — there are always people who love to fiddle with the guts, just as there are always people who love to study constructed languages like Esperanto and Lojban. People can also probably have a good time writing in these languages. But they are always going to be a niche, and they will never have a Shakespeare to call their own — because the transcendence of and connection to the art isn’t the point for people who study those languages. The fun of tinkering is the point. It’s the process of writing that they love, not the finished written product.

    And tinkering can be fun! I’m one of those language geeks who loves to study Esperanto, and that tinkering in and of itself is a wonderful experience for me. But it’s not the same as what I get out of reading Welsh poetry. They are both wonderful experiences, and for someone who’s much more strongly inclined to tinkering, the fun of conlangs can far outstrip the fun of Shakespeare.

    But most people are not interested in the guts like that. It’s like being a computer nerd and trying to teach your jock brother how to use his computer. If you just show him how to use the browser and send e-mail, he’ll probably be happy. Try to get him interested in the wiring and the code behind them, and you’ll lose him. and try as you might, you will never turn him into the coder geek he’d need to be to appreciate all that. Ever. He will persist in being his jock self no matter how hard you try to turn him into a coder.

  8. Janis says

    Another comparison: I love languages, and I think Welsh is one of the most gorgeous ones on Earth.

    Most people think it sounds much less beautiful than Italian. (A significant number of people think it sounds awful!) I think Italian sounds okay but is much less engaging in terms of its grammar. It’s just another flavor of warmed-over Latin to me, and I’ve done that a million times. Besides, Latin-based grammar is insane. How many irregular verbs does one language need, fer chrissakes! And I’m sick of the same three verb classes over and over! In fact, I’m sick of verb classes, period.

    That’s one of the big reasons why I love Welsh, in addition to the mutable consonants. All that plus the rolling sound of the language and the actual feel of it in my mouth is magnificent to me, almost religious. I remember when I visited Cardiff last year for the Eisteddfod, their big Welsh-only arts festival. I was able to wander around the field for a couple days speaking only Welsh, understand everyone else, and make myself understood. I went to bed those two nights flying. Talk about an emotional high. That’s a deathbed memory for me, one of the events in my life I’ll be thinking of with great happiness while I lie there listening to the heart monitor beep. I’d move there in a heartbeat for that, and want to do so. It’s so powerful to me that I’m willing to upend my life for it.

    But most people will always find Italian more beautiful, because they don’t give a crap about that extra stuff that moves me so deeply — so they are going on pure sound. And on pure sound, Italian is indeed very beautiful, very melodic and lyric. Most Latinate languages are. to me though, the only one I like listening to purely for sound is Portuguese — possibly because it’s the least familiar and sounds intriguing to me (like a drunk Spaniard trying to speak French with a Catalan accent). Once I hit those same goddamned verb classes and six freaking million irregular verbs though, I’d probably be off looking at Mandarin.

    I love all the extra tinkering-related layers to languages. That gives me more layers of beauty to appreciate. But most people just aren’t going to be language geeks, and I can’t force them to be. I didn’t force myself to be; I’m just wired this way. Even for people to whom I explain this and who are likely to nod and go, “I can see what you mean from your point of view … ” they are still going to sigh and smile when they hear Italian more. They just will.

    And many of them will also sigh and smile when they see a “beautiful” jump shot in a basketball game, whereas I just see another gangly 7-foot tall dude in his pajamas throwing a ball in the air. BFD. :-)

  9. says

    Whatever the label, it comes to a simple thing–

    if a core of people connect to the music, then

    that audience can sustain an artist, an arts group, a movement, or a genre.

    Lately the buzz in popular music has been the concept of 1,000 loyal fans. This idea is usually explored in economic terms: the idea that a relatively small cadre of devoted fans will spend enough on an artist’s music/marketing, etc. to permit that artist to succeed.

    Yet we can liberate that concept from its purely economic moorings (not that economic considerations are a bad thing), and adapt it more widely.

    If an audience is open to new music, and, for that matter, is open to an eclectic variety of interesting new musics, regardless of the label, then the locale of that audience can experience a cultural blooming.

    The old debates of the past–“cater to the audience or ‘rise above it’ “, “tonal v. atonal”, and even the idea of an avant-garde, now seem dated to the point of impeding the dialogue.

    The dialogue should instead be that modern classical music is stuck in a construct, its own “white cube”. The liberation is not in

    the construct, but in what people come to witness–and to co-create. Only then will this cube be imploded.


  10. BobG. says

    Greg says “And I’m not — by the way — equating popularity with value here.” To which I say, “Why not?” It’s the popular music of the past (whether Bach or Jerome Kern or the Beathles) that still matters. It’s the successful artists who still matter (and success equals popularity), the successful playwrights, the successful TV comedies. Why shouldn’t popularity be the measure of success? One reason that contemporary music has such a small audience is that it hasn’t found a way to be popular. (OK, that’s a tautology, but it makes a point.) Most of the successful/popular music of the past appealed to the emotions by varying tempo, lively rhythms, melodies, complex harmony, brilliant orchestration. With the greatest composers these things are sublime; but even minor composers knew how to use variety of musical materials to appeal to listeners. So much music today appeals only to the mind (and the mind that is reading the score). To the ear, though, it often is monotonous, rhythmically dull, and (of course) without melody. There is really nothing wrong with wanting to tap your toe and hum along (Beethoven: Creatures of Prometheus), but music that allowed you to do that might become–popular! That is anathema today.

    We should distinguish between two ideas floating around here. One is that being popular doesn’t mean your music is bad. The other is that being popular guarantees that your music is good. The first is true, the second not. As is proved by the history of both classical music and pop. Although here’s an interesting phenomenon. A lot of classical music of the past that once was popular can seem very faded today, but pop hits of the past still seem to have their vitality, even if they might also seem silly. I’d be curious to know why that is.

  11. Janis says

    There seems to be popularity, and persistent popularity. There’s things that are wildly popular for a while, but that fade pretty decisively once whatever context that generated them has passed. And there are things that are popular and that seem to have legs. The Beatles definitely have legs, but there’s also a lot of music that swirled around them in the 60s and intertwined with them on the pop charts that has just DIED. So popularity and staying power seem to be two orthogonal axes. I know a lot of teenagers who LOVE Beatles music, but most of them are less generous when you show them old Who concerts. The context for “light your guitar on fire to protest … something!” was too tightly tied to that one moment in time, and it didn’t age well when that moment was passed. They may think it’s “cool” for a bit, but it doesn’t seem to persist.

    Of course, the Beatles were also a product of their times, but their music just seems to have an appeal beyond that. Perhaps it’s as simple as it just being really good music.

    I think that we consider cultures too geographically defined sometimes. A “culture” isn’t just something that exists on a certain place on the map. It’s also something that exists at a certain point in time as well. In both cases, music (or religion or anything else) that is extremely tightly tied to its cultural context can be a challenging thing to export beyond that.

    Hinduism is the standard example of a religion that never exported easily beyond India because it’s so enormously tied to that one exact culture. It’s almost impossible to get a real, native grip on it if you aren’t Indian. It’s been exported a bit; some Westerns have latched onto tiny parts of it, but nothing like Christianity or Judaism, that ended up all over the world.

    A lot of music is the same way. If something is tightly tied to an assumption that its audience is in 1919 … well, how do you “export” that to 2009? Shakespeare has been “exported” to 400 years in the future because he talks about very timeless things that are always relevant, but a lot of politically tied classical and even rock music doesn’t make a lot of sense if you aren’t either in 1946 or 1967.

    The Beatles may have existed in 1967, but their music wasn’t so tightly lashed to that time. Their earlier stuff is just damned catchy, creative pop music, and their later stuff works well in any time of general upheaval. It exports to the future very nicely. It’s probably ungenerous of me to say it, but Bob Dylan is probably going to be of academic importance relative to the Beatles, because his music makes all sorts of assumptions in its audience that they are listening to it with 1967 ears. I’m not saying Dylan won’t be appreciated in the future, but I predict it will be with nowhere near the awareness that Lennon and McCartney will be in two hundred years.

  12. BobG. says

    Janis’s point is very interesting, but I think the distinction may lie in how easily the art can be transformed. (Kabuki cannot be transformed; like Hinduism, it remains opaque to us. ) The music of the Beatles was inherently and almost instantly transformable—it was almost a throwback to the time when a hit song would be recorded by 10 or 20 powerhouse singers. Not so the music of the Stones (anyone else singing Satisfaction sounds preposterous.) If you can’t separate the art from the artist, you have an immediate problem, especially given the immortality now of the preserved performance. Classical music had transformability from the beginning (although who knows how we would think of the Verdi operas if we had video of the premieres; maybe they would now be as frozen in time and as dated as Kabuki.) Arrangements of almost all music, simplified for the amateur at home or arranged for small ensembles, appeared very quickly. (The Beethoven symphonies are available in piano transcription.)

    I agree entirely that “One is that being popular doesn’t mean your music is bad. The other is that being popular guarantees that your music is good. The first is true, the second not.” I admit that the issue of popularity is more complex than I allowed in my previous post. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven actually wrote, in many cases, for very small, select, extremely knowledgeable audiences. The Beethoven piano sonatas were written for and played by specific students and dedicatees, who often paid for them. They were not performed in public by professionals until much later. And of course, though the late quartets were known, they were considered very weird. For that matter, Schubert’s irresistible 9th Symphony was considered unplayable at first (because, ironically, of all the repeated notes).

    I go back to my earlier point. Music must have an inherent complexity to give it interest—variety of material (changes in rhythm, harmony, tempo, melody). In hearing a Haydn piano sonata, you might think it would be easy to play. But attempting to play one instantly shows up your limitations as a pianist because the material of the music is so constantly (if subtly) changing; you just can’t hold it together without very hard work. It’s that complexity and variety that gives great music its clout (the Beatles have it; Jerome Kern has it. Do the Stones? Dylan? Sondheim?). If all the aspects (or even only some of them) become codified or rigid and repetitious, or so complex that the mind can’t grasp them, then the music fails to be of interest. Whatever sublimely and intellectually exciting things are happening in Classical music (very broadly defined) other much simpler more obvious things are also happening. Take for example, the Soprano/Alto duet (Wir eilen mit schwachen) from Bach’s Cantata, BWV 78: the voices interweave like angels singing but the rhythm is irresistible and the melody could be used (but please don’t!) for a pop tune. It’s the combination that makes it so interesting, that makes it so great.

    I’ll admit to liking Otis Redding’s version of “Satisfaction” (very famous), and also Pussy Galore’s attack on the entire “Exile on Main Street” album (very obscure, but it has, or once had, cult status).

    I think, too, that before the 19th century, pieces by people we now call classical composers were much more likely to be identified only with the artists who first created and played them. Lydia Goehr has devoted an entire book to that thought, “The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works” (very, very famous, among music people who think about philosophy of music and cultural theory). Lydia argues that the concept of a musical work, as we know it, couldn’t have existed before the 19th century, because compositions were mostly played just once, and only by the person who wrote them. And if they were performed again, they’d very likely be rewritten for the new occasion.

    Take these thoughts as footnotes to your comment. I know I didn’t address your main points, which speak for themselves.