Surprised

I’ve been reading the comments on my post about El Sistema and new music, and truly I’m surprised. I criticized El Sistema for (if my information is correct) not teaching composition and not including new music in the music its students play.

And people reacted as if I’d said they shouldn’t teach traditional classical music at all. Douglas Laustsen put it very simply in a comment he posted yesterday:

I think all that Greg is suggesting is that in addition to a core classical training, the kids are given the experience of music written in their own time.  I don’t think he’s suggesting they trash the entire repertoire, but include another ingredient or two.

Now, Doug works with me on my blog site, maintaining the “Solutions” page. So maybe he’s biased in my favor, but I think he’s telling a very simple truth here. All I asked for, in my post, was for El Sistema to teach classical music the way it’s taught in North America and Europe, with an emphasis on old repertoire and the old tradition but with new music included in the mix.

Did I need to spell that out? Wouldn’t anyone likely to read this blog know how classical music is generally taught? I’m truly baffled. When I said, at the start of my post, that I might spark some controversy, I thought people might protest — and maybe not unreasonably — that El Sistema does such enriching work that it shouldn’t be criticized for a lapse with new music.

Or maybe some people think that new music is really painful, and ought to be avoided. I’d disagree, but at least I’d understand why they disagreed with me.

Or else my critics might have gone after Emilio Mendoza, the Venezuelan composer whose despairing remarks about El Sistema I quoted. My critics might have asked whether he’s just an angry malcontent, whose opinions other Venezuelans, even composers, don’t share. (And in fact I don’t know anything about him, apart from what he put online.)

But instead what I got (and very vociferously) from some people, was this — that when you teach classical music, you have to teach the older styles. Because they’re what everything else is founded on.

And so, once more, I’m baffled. What I’ve just summarized has no relation to anything I said. Or at least none that I can see. Of course the tradition should be taught. Especially since the older styles are still with us. We hear them every time the older (pre-20th century) masterworks of the repertoire are performed. Of course students should learn what these styles are about. They should learn the music theory underlying them, they should learn standard harmony and counterpoint, they should learn music history, they should learn to play Beethoven and Brahms.

So what, exactly, are my critics urging? What makes them hug the classical tradition so closely to their hearts, even when I haven’t threatened it? Are they happy that El Sistema doesn’t teach new music? Do they want new music ripped out of the curriculum at music schools all over the world?

There isn’t any contradiction between teaching older styles and teaching new ones. Look at Schoenberg, who of course, in his time, was a radically avant-garde composer, and also a famous composition teacher. He founded his teaching on traditional harmony, form, and counterpoint, and insisted that his students learn those things vigorously. Though they also — simply by their association with Schoenberg — were plunged into everything new about music that was going on at their time. How could that have hurt them?

Well, someone might say, his students were adults. Kids — who of course are the greatest part of the students El Sistema teaches — need to learn differently. They need to learn the older music first.

But I don’t see why that should be so. I’m thinking now of Jon Deak, the former associate principal bass of the NY Philharmonic who goes around the world conducting workshops — inspiring workshops, deeply admired — where he teaches children to compose. Is he doing something bad? Should he be stopped?

Or, back in the ’70s, when I worked at an arts day camp and taught 10 year-olds to compose, was I misleading these kids, diverting them from the true musical path, contributing (so to speak) to the musical delinquency of minors?

That makes no sense to me. If anything, the kids i taught learned to understand old music better by composing pieces on their own. I worked out a way for them to compose cooperatively, with each kid taking charge of a particular part of each new piece. They all lquickly decided that the one who had to write the ending had the hardest job. Will anyone believe that this didn’t help them understand what composers of the past accomplished when they wrote exactly the right conclusion to their pieces?

And how about ASCAP, which each year at its awards ceremony honors young composers, ranging from elementary school kids to college students? Is ASCAP doing something reprehensible? The kids they honor — excerpts from whose music they pay — are tremendously accomplished. Many of them, even some of the young ones, have the compositional technique of professional composers.

And in general, from everything I’ve picked up, they’re musical omnivores drinking in music in every known style. So learning to compose doesn’t take them away from the cherished repertoire of the past. And even if it did, the quality of their compositions shows that composing hasn’t deprived them musically. They know their stuff.

If I look back to the past, I’m even more baffled. Should Prokofiev, in 1936, not have written Peter and the Wolf? Was it bad for kids back then to hear something new? Should they have been listening to The Toy Symphony instead? Or Eine Kleine Nachmuisk?

Or I could ask the same question about Britten, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Was that a bad piece for him to write? Should British kids in 1946 have been listening to Purcell?

Or think about Britten’s delectable opera Noye’s Fludde, written for the musical resources of an entire town. Beginning violinists have parts with all the music written only on open

strings. Teenage girls play the women Mrs. Noye gossips with. The littlest kids take the parts of the smallest animals. (When you see the opera done, the sight and sound of these little ones, coming onstage and squeaking “Kyrie eleison” in the highest voices they can muster, is unforgettably adorable.)

Does anyone think this damages the kids who take part in it, because they should have been putting on The Magic Flute?

Are boy sopranos distracted from their proper musical training when they star in Amahl and the Night Visitors?

Was Bartok doing something bad when he wrote Microcosmos, a multi-volume course of instruction on the piano, starting with pieces simple enough for kids to play at their very first lesson, but always using the dissonances we hear in his string quartets?

Is Jennifer Undercofler, who runs the Special Music School in New York — part of the NY city public school system — wrong to organize a new music ensemble, in which kids of high school age play all kinds of new classical music? I’ve heard them. They’re fabulous. And they love the music they’re playing. Should Jenny be reprimanded? Should the kids ignore new music until — well, when? Until someone decides that they’re old enough to resist whatever contagion might be festering inside a piece by David Lang?

I’ll stop here. But truly I’m baffled. Would one of my critics care to explain what he or she really meant?

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Comments

  1. says

    Well said Greg! El Sistema has done an incredible amount of good – and I hope it will carry on doing such things. However, new music has to feature, or getting the students ‘composing’ is essential as it is just another way of getting closer to really understanding how the music works.

    The little education I have done has really shown me that young children and teenagers love new music and lap it up. I was doing Vivier’s Lonely Child last month (pretty out there with micro tones and a soprano using extended vocal techniques) and we invited 60 15 – 18 year olds, they were so positive about it after the concert. Before the concert we held a workshop for them and they had a really good stab at Cage’s Living Room Music. I was really taken aback and impressed how these guys tackled what is in many ways a challenging piece with quite a few difficult concepts, so quickly!!

    A little bit of New Music each day – keeps the doctor away!

    F

  2. says

    Greg, scrolling through the comments, I see you’ve certainly stimulated a lively discussion! I think you’ve drawn out of the woodwork all kinds of people who are passionate about classical music… and, by definition, how that is being introduced to young people. They seem to include people from both camps; some are defending the inclusion of new music in a child’s introductory experience. Some of the others might be having a knee-jerk reaction to the title of your post (“El Sistema — troubling”) without having done more than skim through it. Alas, some people (in general) take things in via broad strokes and tend not to bother with details and subtleties. Don’t take it personally.

    I don’t think lovers of classical music who read your blog are necessarily acquainted with how classical music is taught today; they may be remembering their own experience. And they may be assuming that introducing children to new music along with the old is what’s endangering classical music now … when, in fact, it’s fostering a growing audience that’s just not old enough to buy tickets yet. You’re so right about the fact that kids who develop an understanding of how music works from the inside out (either by composing it themselves, or playing the music of living composers and interacting with them in rehearsals) become the best champions of classical music.

    Remember when folks used to argue that jazz was too sophisticated to be appreciated by young audiences or played by young performers? Now look how things have changed … and a few decades ago, we nearly lost jazz as an art form because of that attitude!

  3. John says

    http://elsistemausa.org/el-sistema/venezuela/

    “El Sistema introduces its students to both internationally known classical composers and Latin American composers and Venezuelan folk musicians.”

    Is this not really the case?

    I believe they play Latin American music from the past — Carlos Chavez, for instance. And Venezuelan folk musicians? Stressing that seems like a major dis to Venezuelan classical composers.

    As for international classical composers, do they really play new music written outside Venezuela? I hadn’t heard of it. Can someone enlighten us?

    But the statement quoted here doesn’t say anything at all about introducing the students to composing — composing they’d do themselves.

  4. Janis says

    I had to really stop and think of my own reaction, and the assumptions underlying it, but I’ll try to lay it out in as organized a way as I can.

    1) First off, I think I was reacting to the fact that this is a program that takes kids from drug and poverty-infested slums and may in some instances save their lives, and at least give them something to work very hard at an excel in. Hitting that for not supporting one particular type of niche music felt as if you were going up to someone who was administering free AIDS drugs to starving people and demanding to know why they weren’t wearing recyclable shoes. :-) El Sistema isn’t just introducing music to generic young people. It’s introducing a lifeline to kids who could very well be dead in a couple years if not for the program.

    2) I also think it was a case of definitions crossing — my use of the phrase “niche music” above is an example. I’m making an assumption there that is related to one I made about your post, which is why I left it in instead of going back up and editing it out. :-) “Why isn’t there more new music?” can mean anything to anyone, just like “Why so much old music?” That can mean anything from “Why so much music in a major scale that assumes equal temperament?” to “Why only dead white guys’ music?”

    I’ve seen conversations lately run aground multiple times on precisely these shoals. In fact, I was probably projecting more out of my own annoyance with a few of these — apologies for that. It gets predictable after a while to respond to the demands that one must only avoid 20th century music because one is a stuffy, conservative afraid of innovation; yet, when I reply, “I like plenty of 20th century music and new composers, how about Elton John?” it becomes obvious that’s not what the original questioner meant.

    “Modern” and “20th century” becomes synonyms for dropping stuff inside the piano and eschewing major and minor scales or anything built on a diatonic structure at all. “Modern composers” means John Cage and not Stevie Wonder.

    So when you — who does dearly love a lot of the out-there stuff — say, “Why aren’t they doing new music and teaching composition?” it can be taken as teaching slum-rescue six year olds about tone rows or else being labeled reactionary. :-(

    And even if you do feel that they should teach that stuff … I still do feel that the common practice stuff should come first. After all, the out-there stuff was created in many ways in reaction to it, so in order to grasp its place, one does need to encounter the old dead white guys first.

    Anyhow, I think that’s where I was coming from, and where I perceived you as coming from.

    Fair enough, and I’m grateful for the explication. We should all examine ourselves as closely as you did here!

    For the record, when I mean new music, I mean precisely that — new classical music in whatever idiom. Can be tonal, atonal, pop-oriented, founded on sheer noise. All these things coexist today, sometimes in the same pieces.

    And I don’t see why common practice music needs to come first. What, after all, is the common practice these days? Among composers, it’s a lot more than the chords and forms used before the 20th century. We’re approaching the 100th anniversary of the Rite of Spring, which means that for the past hundred years, the de facto common practice has included many things that the words “common practice” don’t usually cover.

  5. Eric L says

    “And even if you do feel that they should teach that stuff … I still do feel that the common practice stuff should come first. After all, the out-there stuff was created in many ways in reaction to it, so in order to grasp its place, one does need to encounter the old dead white guys first.”

    Why not take it even further? Shouldn’t all musicians have a solid grounding in Renaissance music? In Perotin? In Troubadour songs? One can make an argument that the central cannon (late Baroque through late Romantic) is all derived/developed from this earlier repertoire. Yet does the average conservatory musician–unless they are specialists in early music–have very deep knowledge about Gregorian chant? Can they name the modes? Does your virtuoso pianist need to be able to hum sequences from the Graduale Triplex in order to play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos?

    What about learning Russian folk music before playing anything by Stravinsky?

    The fact is, while it’s wonderful to know the historical precedents, and knowing such may in fact improve a musicians understanding of any piece, it is only one facet of the music. Discovering Stravinsky in the vacuum itself brings a different relationship, and perhaps even freshness, to the music.

    There’s really no reason why one has to go from Bach through Schoenberg to understand or even appreciate Xenakis.

    I find this chronological/historical approach to classical music deeply troubling…and a rather annoying barrier in how we present the repertoire.

    (Again…I love history…but this approach is so pointless…)

    I agree. Wasn’t it Steve Reich who said that music between Haydn and Richard Strauss didn’t interest him? Or something like that. So he’d love a curriculum that stressed Perotin and (for instance) medieval isorhythmic motets, which might have something in common with the music he wanted to write. Plus drumming from Ghana, an important influence on him.

    Which is an example meant to show that when you compose in our era, your antecedents might not come from the “common practice” taught in harmony and counterpoint classes.

  6. says

    Clearly your “systema” is different from “El Sistema.” There is no true way to teach anyone, child or adult, instrumentalist or vocalist,about music. There are good teachers and there are teachers who are not so good, and much of the good teaching, like teaching a group of kids to write music, is done because the person teaching gets a kick out of teaching the particularly activity at hand. Perhaps one in ten kids will retain something useful from the experience.

    I think that it is important to teach beginning string players to play in tune and make a nice sound. My “systema” charges that giving students pieces of music that they like, and and music that has the potential of sounding good on their newly-embraced instruments is the best of all possible worlds. My “systema” tries to connect students with their instruments, and attempts to give them a sense of pleasure, accomplishment, and community out here in my Midwestern neck of the musical woods. I teach them “old” music: tried and true teaching pieces.

    Bach used the “Minuet in G” as a teaching piece. He put it in his Notebook for Anna Magdelena (he didn’t write it himself) because it was a good teaching piece, and it ends up being a good teaching piece for many instruments in addition to keyboard. Being able to play something competently allows for a budding composer’s imagination to get fired up.

    Traditions, 20th century and otherwise, are important to learn after a kid learns to put bow to string, finger to key, mouth to reed or mouthpiece, and/or stick to whatever. An interested student will seek out interesting music, and many students love being part of a tradition, something that so many American kids feel that they lack in this ever-changing youth culture.

    Making music inspires people to make music. And these fortunate recipients of training under “El Sistema” will be writing music that we adults could never even imagine.

  7. Janis says

    “There’s really no reason why one has to go from Bach through Schoenberg to understand or even appreciate Xenakis.”

    There’s also no reason why this program that does such good work has to conform to what seem to me like very academic and specialty tastes held by people a half a planet away.

    It’s very disturbing to see something that is doing such good — musically and socially — called into question by people for not conforming to the tastes of a highly educated elite. This is an excellent program, and to your average poor-to-working-class kid in that environment, you just can’t say “But Mozart’s been done to death.” It hasn’t, to them. Like it or not, the preferences of the educated American musical elite are just not central to this program.

    It’s also worth noting that, while people have been somewhat dismissive of Dudamel, calling him the El Sistema “poster boy” and other things, he’s been doing a damn fine job with the LA Phil, engaging it with the local audience and being exactly the sort of charismatic, visionary music director that people who want classical music to survive claim to want.

    This is a part of the revolution. No, it’s not the whole thing. It’s a part. But it’s a part that your tastes are not central to. There are parts where your tastes are at center stage. One program does not have to be all things to all people, nor can it.

    I’m fascinated to see people — including maybe me — who like new music told that this is an elitist taste, an “academic and specialty taste,” and also told that we must think Mozart’s been done to death.

    Just remember what we’re asking for here. Not the dismissal of Mozart into some kind of trash heap, not a program founded on academic new music, or even founded on new music at all. Just a program that teaches the full continuity of classical music, from the distant past into the present. Which — how many times should I repeat this? — is exactly how music is taught in many, many, many, many non-elitist, non-avant-garde places. My God — people are singing arias from “Doctor Atomic” these days at the Met Opera national auditions. Not exactly a preserve of academic music. The question isn’t why I or anyone else who drops the name Xennakis into a sentence might be elitist. The question is why El Sistema, for all its other virtues, is dramatically more conservative, where new music is concerned, than any mainstream classical music institution I’ve ever heard of, including mainstream music schools. Especially when anyone who’s ever seen new music and composing taught to kids knows that the addition of this to El Sistema’s program would only enrich it — without dethroning Mozart — and absolutely delight the kids.

    And when we get rhetorical about people half a world away attempting to dictate what El Sistema should do, remember that composers in Venezuela are far more aroused by what’s going on (to judge from the website I linked to) than I’ll ever be.

    Vignette. About a dozen musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra playing at an elementary school, for parents and kids. One piece they played was Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music.” I was there. The kids and parents loved it. How anyone could think that Reich’s piece — featuring two people clapping in an addictive rhythm — is elitist, or that the Cleveland Orchestra musicians were elitist for playing it, absolutely baffles me. And why is it elitist to say that everyone involved with El Sistema would probably love the piece, too?

  8. Eric L says

    That’s a straw man and you know it Janis. What I’m advocating for is hardly academic. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of how a good number of academics usually advocate for, esp. in music history pedagogy. BTW…I hope you’re not implying Xenakis’ music is academic and can only reside in the walls of academia.

    Furthermore, I don’t think Greg has ever been dismissive towards Gustavo Dudamel (but I can’t speak for him…only from what I can recall from his posts). Nor have I. I very much appreciate what he’s been doing. He is clearly someone with very catholic tastes in music, and clearly likes lots of different types of music in spite of learning the more conservative repertoire performed/studied through El Sistema.

    With that said, I’ve also seem how more conservative teachers and teaching practices have stifled creativity, and instilled irrational hatred/indifference to all music post 1920. First hand. So saying that anything is better than nothing, is problematic. Sometimes the something becomes a dominant model and can and may cause unintended consequences.

    Sure, we can all go and make a different system, start a program more to our own liking…but I also don’t see what’s wrong with criticizing the flaws (as apparent to me, but perhaps unimportant to another person) of a (mostly very good and very worthwhile) program.

  9. says

    Greg Sandow commented: Wasn’t it Steve Reich who said that music between Haydn and Richard Strauss didn’t interest him? Or something like that.

    Did he really say that? If so (and it sounds perfectly plausible to me), that explains everything.

    ACD

    If you don’t like Steve’s music, and Steve’s musical taste turns out to be different from yours, well, that doesn’t seem very remarkable. One wonderful thing about life is that people have different ways of living in the world, and that these different ways of living are reflected in their taste, and in the art they create. And I really do mean that this is wonderful. All of us can learn a lot from people who don’t see things the way we do.

    So now let’s talk about the person from India, possibly apocryphal, who thought all western music had only a single emotion, nostalgia. What — assuming that he’s real — could we learn from him? I might think, well, wow, that’s an extreme case of noncomprehension. But then how well do I understand Indian music? Can I even begin to perceive the emotions people in India hear in it? No way. I can’t even sense the emotional temperature of the various ragas, which in western terms would be like saying that major and minor keys sound the same to me. And don’t even get me started on the rhythms of Indian music, which I don’t know how to comprehend, or even to count.

    So then, AC, to return to something you raised here earlier, wouldn’t it be perilous for me to decide that western art is better than nonwestern? Here we have what seems like a valid test case, western vs. Indian music. I can’t hear Indian music well enough to make any judgment. I can’t hear its profundities, if (as people from India think) it has them. And, equally, if some completely impartial and supremely well-informed judge should conclude that Indian music is trivial, compared to Bruckner — well, that’s something else I can’t hear. I can assume it, if I want to be careless. But no way can I hear it.

  10. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    Greg,

    This has been an excellent, probing discussion, and it’s forced me to put into words some pre-verbal attitudes I’ve had for a long, long time–and for that I’m very grateful.

    I have two points to make, which I think sum up everything I’ve had to say so far on this topic:

    1. Janis, when you made your comment about the AIDS hospice worker’s eco-un-conscious footwear, I had the following thought: teaching those kids to compose could help them in ways you can’t possibly imagine–unless you’ve done it, as I have. I’ve done arts outreach teaching in post-Katrina inner-city New Orleans for the last two years with a group of Juilliard students, and the hunger those kids have to *create their own art* is insatiable. They can take the difficult things they’ve seen, and experienced, and by their own power create something beautiful and transcendent from it. Or they can leave it all behind and escape it entirely through the power of their imagination. It is the single most empowering thing a child in those circumstances can do. I have been both a composer and a performer, and performing doesn’t do that. It does many other wonderful, valuable things, but it doesn’t do that. Only composing does.

    Knowing that, El Sistema’s (or any program’s) refusal to teach their students how to compose their own music is less akin to an AIDS hospice worker’s poor choice of footwear and more like the worker giving her patients some pretty good drugs, but not the best ones.

    2. There is a tendency in the classical community to view composition as a luxury, an extra, something to be added once your training is solid. Composers ourselves have contributed heavily to this view by erecting high barriers to entry into the field, and we must take some of the blame for it. Any discussion of training performers to compose is inevitably colored by this attitude–Composing for Non-Majors is an elective at Juilliard, not a requirement–and the discussion among commenters here has borne that out.

  11. says

    Greg Sandow responded: ACD: If you don’t like Steve [Reich}’s music, and Steve’s musical taste turns out to be different from yours, well, that doesn’t seem very remarkable.

    The reason for my admittedly snarky quip (my apologies; it was simply irresistible) was NOT that I don’t like Steve Reich’s music, but, rather, that Reich doesn’t write – even, perhaps, is incapable of writing – music. What he writes may, like the alluring tinkle of sleigh bells, be musical, but that does not music make. As I’ve a number of times written previously (on S&F), music, to be music, requires, from beginning to end, a sustained, coherent, and perceptible musical narrative (that is, perceptible in the hearing, not just on the page) absent which there is no music, merely sound. That’s the lesson the legacy of some 600 years of music – Western, Eastern, and all points in-between – has taught us. Reich, like any number of other contemporary composers, is besotted by and obsessed with process and sound per se, and consistently and repeatedly confuses means with ends, process and sound being merely the means to the end – music. And the most accessible and comprehensible works of that 600-year legacy of music, comprehensible even to non-Western ears, are the masterworks that constitute the Western classical music canon. And that’s why it’s they that must be the starting point for all so-called New Music. One cannot create new music – music, not merely an agglomeration of sounds – ex nihilo. As I wrote in my comment in the comments thread to your first post on this business, one must first understand where one’s been before one is competent to decide where one is going. First things first, after all.

    ACD

  12. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    Re: the above, TROLL. (troll (n): one who comments in an exclusively negative, dismissive manner, and who never has anything constructive or helpful to say.)

    Which is to say, if you hate Greg’s aesthetic so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?

  13. says

    So now let’s talk about the person from India, possibly apocryphal, who thought all western music had only a single emotion, nostalgia. What — assuming that he’s real — could we learn from him? I might think, well, wow, that’s an extreme case of noncomprehension. But then how well do I understand Indian music? Can I even begin to perceive the emotions people in India hear in it? No way. I can’t even sense the emotional temperature of the various ragas, which in western terms would be like saying that major and minor keys sound the same to me. And don’t even get me started on the rhythms of Indian music, which I don’t know how to comprehend, or even to count.

    So then, AC, to return to something you raised here earlier, wouldn’t it be perilous for me to decide that western art is better than nonwestern? Here we have what seems like a valid test case, western vs. Indian music. I can’t hear Indian music well enough to make any judgment. I can’t hear its profundities, if (as people from India think) it has them. And, equally, if some completely impartial and supremely well-informed judge should conclude that Indian music is trivial, compared to Bruckner — well, that’s something else I can’t hear. I can assume it, if I want to be careless. But no way can I hear it.

    Nicely put, Greg!

    Jeremy Howard Beck, on most of your points here and in the other thread, I pretty much agree. Which probably shouldn’t surprised anyone here that have read my responses to things.

  14. says

    So now let’s talk about the person from India, possibly apocryphal, who thought all western music had only a single emotion, nostalgia. What — assuming that he’s real — could we learn from him? I might think, well, wow, that’s an extreme case of noncomprehension. But then how well do I understand Indian music? Can I even begin to perceive the emotions people in India hear in it? No way. I can’t even sense the emotional temperature of the various ragas, which in western terms would be like saying that major and minor keys sound the same to me. And don’t even get me started on the rhythms of Indian music, which I don’t know how to comprehend, or even to count.

    So then, AC, to return to something you raised here earlier, wouldn’t it be perilous for me to decide that western art is better than nonwestern? Here we have what seems like a valid test case, western vs. Indian music. I can’t hear Indian music well enough to make any judgment. I can’t hear its profundities, if (as people from India think) it has them. And, equally, if some completely impartial and supremely well-informed judge should conclude that Indian music is trivial, compared to Bruckner — well, that’s something else I can’t hear. I can assume it, if I want to be careless. But no way can I hear it.

    Nicely put, Greg!

    Jeremy Howard Beck, on most of your points here and in the other thread, I pretty much agree. Which probably shouldn’t surprised anyone here that have read my responses to things.

    apologies for the bad formatting in the previous quote!

  15. says

    Jeremy Howard Beck wrote: Re: the above, TROLL [A.C. Douglas]. (troll (n): one who comments in an exclusively negative, dismissive manner, and who never has anything constructive or helpful to say.)

    Which is to say, if you hate Greg’s aesthetic so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?

    Because the corrupt, postmodern thinking of people like yourself compel me to the conclusion that my work is most urgently needed here.

    See how that works?

    ACD

    Yes, AC, you’re very much needed here. But not for our sake. For yours. You can learn to be a better thinker, and a better person. All you have to do is stop blustering, stop using words as bludgeons, and actually pay attention to what other people say. Your mission here is to understand why other people think the things they do — things different from what you think — and to learn from those who disagree with you.

    You seem, as a life strategy, to let yourself be blinded by anger. Then you get into a position, superficially comfortable, but in the long run damaging, where you don’t have to engage with other people. You can just attack them. This must be lonely for you. Surely it takes a lot of energy. You, as a thinker — and especially as a rhetorician — are like a nation that spends 98% of its budget on military force. Don’t you get tired of that?

    I think you’re depriving yourself of many things. And you’re also depriving the rest of us. We can’t learn from you, because all you do is bludgeon us. If you’d calm down, and truly exchange ideas with other people — without, for instance, screaming that anyone who disagrees with you has unworthy motives, as you do in your rants on western and nonwestern art — then the rest of us might learn something. It’s sad — you want to educate us, but you prevent that from happening.

    So here’s lesson number one. Suppose you’re right, and everyone who doesn’t think western art is superior is motivated by kneejerk PC thinking, and therefore is intellectually dishonest. Guess what! The reasons these people give for their views may still be correct, and you still need to engage with them. Intellectually dishonest people may still have good arguments. And you, poor AC, don’ t seem to have any arguments at all, because all you do — in this discussion, anyway — is attack the people on the other side. If you do have reasonable arguments to support your views, you’re certainly not offering them.

    I’d suggest, on this subject, and also about Steve Reich, that you emulate Hanslick’s attacks on Wagner. Hanslick could be sarcastic and even brutal, but when he discusses Wagner, it’s clear that he’s studied Wagner’s music — both by looking at scores and by listening — and that he understands it.

    He shows that he understands it by describing many things in it clearly, in terms that people who love Wagner can understand and accept. He stresses, for instance, that Wagner’s melodies and forms don’t fall into rounded periods, but instead break off from what they’re doing, and head in new directions. Or at least they do when compared to the melodies and forms of the composers Hanslick likes. (I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t have his text in front of me.)

    This is absolutely correct. I, as someone who loves Wagner, completely agree with Hanslick here. The only difference is that Hanslick hates what he describes, and I find it exhilarating. But I can respect him for not liking Wagner, because I understand his reasons, and understand how deeply they fit his concept of what music should be. I understand music better after reading Hanslick, and more clearly see what Wagner’s about.

    You should try this yourself, AC. Many people hear a clear progression from start to finish in Steve Reich’s music. Hear it, without any abstract analysis. You should acknowledge this, show that you can hear it yourself, and then tell us what you don’t like about what you hear.

    Similarly with nonwestern music, and other nonwestern art. Show us that you understand what’s going on in it — that, for instance, you can hear what happens in Indian music much more clearly than I can. Then you can tell us what you don’t like about what you hear, and we’ll all be grateful for your explanation, even if we don’t end up agreeing with you.

    You really do need to be here.

  16. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    Corrupt, postmodern thinking of people like me? Postmodernism was dead when I was a teenager, dude.

    Yawn.

  17. Eric Stassen says

    Oh good, I was hoping this would come back around to a digression on the relative merits of different musical styles and cultures. I was too late to join the party for the last post, and I’ve been itching to point out that the greatness of Mozart and/or the incompetence of Reich cannot be empirically demonstrated. By saying Mozart is great, you are merely asserting that a) you think Mozart is great, b) everyone you know thinks Mozart is great, or c) there is an overwhelming societal consensus that Mozart is great. Any of these statements may be statistically verifiable as true, though the wider the net is cast the more dubious the statistics become. (Societal consensus? Which society, pray tell?) None of these statements have anything to do with the music itself; the facts which can be gathered about a composition or a body of work can be used to justify one’s opinion of what matters and what does not, but they do not prove anything. Ultimately, Mozart is great because everyone believes he is. (Not that the opinions of others particularly matter.)

    This is not post-modernist thinking, this is LOGIC, which I’m pretty sure is comfortably pre-modern.

    I’m amused, but also sad, that poor AC thinks he can _prove_ that what Steve Reich writes isn’t music. That’s an old dodge. In the end, it’s just a rhetorical flourish, a fancy way of saying he doesn’t like Steve Reich.

    People used the same argument against Wagner. Schoenberg. Milton Babbitt. Elliott Carter. John Cage. Seems to be a way for people to come to terms with something unfamiliar to them, without having to open themselves to anything new. If anyone argues that Milton Babbitt’s works aren’t music, I’d be just as amused, and just as sad.

  18. Eric Stassen says

    (Now for the subject of the post itself….)

    I’ve been pondering at length the idea that “building an audience for the classics” and “building an audience for new music” are two separate endeavors. El Sistema is an interesting case study because they had the opportunity to tackle both at once, but chose only the former. The fact that they made this choice reinforces my suspicion that the two audiences do not significantly overlap at present, and if anything are moving in opposite directions. What I can’t figure out is whether or not this is actually a problem.

    People often claim that shrinking orchestra audiences are the result of the repertoire growing old and stale Why, then, do ticket sales spike for performances of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler? Likewise, I’m not sure that living composers need the orchestra any more than the orchestra needs them — contemporary music is thriving in “alt-classical” locales, and attracting a significantly younger audience than symphony concerts do. Why not just admit that these are two completely different types of concert experiences? Everything is a niche market now — you don’t see Carrie Underwood agonizing over how to attract Metallica fans, or vice versa. El Sistema may have missed a chance to rejoin the two streams, but as things currently stand, perhaps orchestras and modern composers might have an easier time finding their proper audiences if they stopped worrying about combining forces and embraced their niches.

  19. Ms. Cynthia says

    Dear Greg:

    I think your idea of teaching more composition skills early in their musical development and exposing kids to ‘new music’ idioms is very interesting. I didn’t have teachers who either had the expertise or took the time with me as a young musician. They did not really understand enough about how young ears process music to know what to do with me when I did share something I composed. I spent more time just practicing my instrument.

    I think maybe I saw some of the urban nucleos engaged in playing the compositions of their peers in a video. It didn’t sound impressive but the students where finding out what happens when you put music together and try to play it.

    I am under the impression that it takes some level of expertise, musical confidence and resources to teach such classes. The teacher has to be comfortable working students through a process that does not have any right answers and be willing to let them struggle with that.

    Please explain, how you would do teach composition in classes of 40-80 students. The size and density of some of the nucleos I am learning about is impressive given the number of fully trained teachers available at each location. Some of the more remote nucleos have a few teachers traveling to a number of distant sites. The Abreu Fellows visiting some of these locations have not been able to get on line as often as they would like in the last month to update their blogs.

    Perhaps what makes El Sistema remarkable is that due to the lack of fully trained professional music educators it depends on a fleet of young mentors, surprisingly young mentors in some cases to do much of the teaching and coaching. When you have such a young teaching staff they do tend to focus on things like mastery as apposed to analysis or innovation required of something like composing or using one’s imagination for new music.

    Some of this has to do with the way the human brain develops. As creative and skillful as they can be there are something that don’t occur to an adolescent, because of the way they process things.

    As El Sistema matures and fills out with more available talent perhaps there will one day be enough confident and visionary music educators to take up the cause of composing and ‘new music making’ with future young people.

    Off the top of my head…if I were teaching classes of 40 to 80 students, I might approach composition by having them improvise in small groups. And also in large groups. Might be fun, for instance, to sketch out the outlines of a piece. First section, slow. Second section, fast. Third section, wild — each instrument going its own way. Fourth section — as soft as possible. Fifth section — long silences, punctuated by single notes, each one from a different instrument. And so on.

    Then I’d divide the class into groups of five, six, seven musicians, whatever worked. Each group would take one of the sections we’d sketched out. And, going from one group to another, we’d improvise the piece!

    Soon enough, the students would be sketching out pieces of their own. And improvising large-scale pieces without any need for an outline made in advance.

    Jeffrey Argell’s wonderful book “Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians” is full of ideas we could use in these classes.

    Out of the classes could eventually come individual compositions. After the groups had been improvising for a while, we could have individual students improvising, and then we could send them home with an assignment: improvise a piece until you really feel you’ve gotten it right, then come in and play it. Eventually we could go on to writing these pieces down, and then go on to more elaborate compositions.

    In some ways, this would be more stimulating, and more creative, than simply going off to compose individually. The large classes might actually turn out to be an advantage in encouraging creativity.

    I’ve heard about the teaching situation in Venezuela, where many of the teachers aren’t very experienced. This is one of a constellation of reasons why not many students from El Sistema have gone on to study at major conservatories. Or so I’ve been told by an official of a leading American music school.