AJ Logo

Critical Conversation
Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

A 10-Day AJ Topic Blog (July 28-August 7, 2004)


Thursday, July 29

    pop envy
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 6:11 am

    I agree with Alex that the developments in pop music are a rich source of ideas for classical (to use the poor term we're stuck with) composers, but I have trouble with the contention that popular musicians have a lock on all the really interesting, exciting, intellectually provocative developments. It's sort of circular to say that popular music is "scene setting"  - it's the soundtrack of today, which is what makes it popular. But if we go there, we'd have to say, I think, that the biggest ideas in music are represented by Britney Spears and Hilary Duff - which is to say, vacuum-packed vacuity.

    But let's get back to the unpopular realm:

    In Kyle's postminimalist catalogue, he mentioned Jonathan Kramer, a composer, music theorist and Columbia professor who died a couple of months ago. It's too bad we can't consult him for this blog, because Jonathan's analytical writings about postmodernism dealt with disunity as a new  organizing principle. 

    That's profoundly new. One thing Brahms and Wagner shared was a credo of musical unity, the sense that a piece of music grows organically, from a motivic, rhythmic or harmonic seed - the analogy to botany is apt since the 19th Century was so fascinated with the interrelatedness of the natural world.

    Stravinsky did his best to explode unity as an overriding principle. But other composers reasserted it - serialism obviously, also Steve Reich, who engineers his pieces with great rigor. Even John Adams' work has returned to a kind of developmental approach: "Naive and Sentimental Music" unfurls quite like a 19th Century symphony.

    But many, many other recent composers, including the few from Kyle's roster whose work I know a little, fill their pieces with unresolved conflict and juxtapositions they feel no need to justify. (I'd put Alfred Schnittke and Thomas Ades somewhere near the top of that list.)

    So maybe the disunity and fragmentation we've all been commenting on is the big idea.

    READER: If Wishes Were Ideas
    By John Harris
    posted @ 7:11 am

    Interesting stuff you're all writing. As someone who runs an ensemble that specialises in contemporary music and as one who works directly with composers every single day, I'd like to chuck my tuppence worth in, from a professional point of view. The trouble with this entire debate is... read more

    Another preamble
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 7:50 am

    The pace of this debate is fast and furious - I wanted to outline a few of my own ideas on the topic before jumping into the fray.

    I think the premise of this blog itself demonstrates part of the problem - with classical music, or indeed with art in general. It’s not only, as John said, that big ideas become clear in hindsight. It’s that the whole notion that there should be a “big idea” is of relatively recent vintage - and reflects a self-consciousness about the role of art that basically wasn’t present until the late 19th century at the earliest.

    There are a couple of ways to understand what's meant here by "big idea" - a compositional school or movement on the one hand, a topic that reflects current socio-political events and thought on the other. Today, it is probably impossible to come to the interest of the general public through style alone - John Cage and his generation may have been the last who were actually able to shock. (Kyle, I would love to be proved wrong on this if you have counter-examples.) Nonetheless, there are too many little self-styled schools and directions and movements in today's music world: dozens of cliques more concerned about their own style than about the field in general.

    (So it isn’t only the general public that seems not to care about big ideas in music. At the opening night of Lincoln Center’s Louis Andriessen festival this spring, my husband, Greg Sandow, observed that other composers hadn’t turned out. I protested at first, but ultimately had to agree that the few who were there were very much in Andriessen’s artistic camp. It’s worth asking how one expects the general public to care about what's going on in music when many in the field can’t be bothered to get out and hear the American premiere of a seminal piece by a major (and idea-full) living composer. In the 19th century, debates about music started in part among composers who were curious about the new music of their colleagues.)

    But the concept of “big ideas” is also present in the notion that art will matter more to a wider public if it explicitly addresses important topics that concern that public. This notion has even been borne out, in music, by Corigliano’s AIDS symphony or, even more, Gorecki’s Third (Greg holds that the Holocaust subtext of this piece didn’t play a role in its success; I believe it did). It leads to the unfortunate fallacy that art has to address such topics in order to be important, which is a tacit admission that art is not very important to most people in and of itself.

    Meanwhile, any way you define “big idea,” I think that the attempt explicitly to include it in a work of art tends to clog the creative process. In my experience, it’s the works of art that are trying hardest to be Significant that end up being the weakest, freighted with all kinds of extraneous baggage that interferes with their artistic unity (everyone can think of plenty of examples of musical compositions - even prize-winning ones - that bear this out). As a friend of mine once advised me, Don’t set out to write a great book; just set out to write the book you can write.

    So one of my starting points is that I think we would be better off if we could get away from the search for big ideas - from the concern, that is, with proving our own relevance (however much that relevance seems to be dwindling).

    Gender footnote
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 9:07 am

    Since Scott brought up the topic of diversity, I have to insert a correction: the New York Times has never HIRED a woman as a classical music critic. They have allowed a woman to review classical music for them on a freelance, non-contractual basis for the last 3.5 years.

    I expressed my own thoughts on the issue of female critics a couple of years ago in a piece I wrote for Andante.com. I think it adds a few other names to Scott's list.

    No apology to pop and film
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 9:26 am

    Perhaps because we agree here on the problematic nature of this blog’s posited question (and critics can’t stand to agree for too long!), the thrust of this debate has shifted from what is the next big idea for classical music to how it interacts with culture’s big ideas/movements. These are clearly two different concerns, and the latter is much more interesting, I think.

    I'd argue that many of the big art musical ideas of the past had less to do with cultural trends, certainly less that the representational and literal art forms of theater, art and literature did. It’s not surprising that Greg would find more relevance from film, a two-dimensional imitation of reality. Nor is it surprising that popular music, with its weight on lyrics, would give us, “the big, scene-setting ideas in music of the last thirty or forty years” as Alex Ross puts it.

    Up-to-the-minute cultural relevance is not exactly what art music has been about. The meaning of tones and pure sound -- the realm of most art music -- is slippery. It’s not clear that the average 19th-century concert-goer or nobleman “got” or that Beethoven wanted them to get that he used sonata form (if they even knew what that was) to show the Romantic ideal of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity in a piece like Symphony No. 5. That despite the fact that its transformation from C minor to major, and the pitfalls therein, is as obvious as a road map to us now. (And this was in the height of music’s ascendance and perception as an art form.) Likewise, it is safe to say that the folk song “L’homme arme” was more a reflection on culture to the medieval masses than the many masses that subsequently incorporated it.

    To second Justin, art music’s interest compared to pop is not to be negated just because it might occasionally lag behind in cultural relevance – especially since quite often art music is as germane, it is just not as disseminated.

    Actually, art music has often connected with the times for me, whether through a piece by Randy Woolf or John Adams or whomever, but am I to discount this because tens of thousands of other people haven’t shared that experience? To view classical music as lacking compared to pop and film because it doesn’t obviously interact with the (wholly problematic) zeitgeist or do so in great numbers is to somewhat misunderstand music’s perception/role/existence throughout the years.

    Listening to classical music is often such a personal experience, and the meaning so intimate even when hearing it en masse at a concert, that it doesn’t usually affect two people the same way. I love that, though! I don’t want everything I see and hear to be interpreted the same by everyone who sees it or hears it. I always am suspicious of mass opinion, and art music -- especially when live -- allows for a privacy of experience and individuality of response that much film and pop (both of which I love) often don’t.

    Pop Innovation
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 10:07 am

    On the question of composition's relationship to pop, which is emerging as a thread of our discussion, I want to clarify a couple of things. 1) In response to Justin D, I certainly don't think that pop music has a "lock" on anything. Musical history tells us that nothing is forever and everything is changeable. I believe it's perfectly possible that classical music will experience a massive resurgence in popularity in the next twenty or thirty years, and that composers will once again command cultural center stage. But it will only happen if those of us in the classical realm decide to change in fundamental ways our relationship with the culture at large -- as Greg Sandow has long urged us to do. 2) In response to Andrew Druckenbrod, I'm talking about purely musical ideas within "pop" (as problematic a term as "classical"), not the lyrics, the stage shows, the lifestyle apparatus, and so on. I'm thinking of the following: i) The extreme variation on A-B-A structure in songs by Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth, and some other bands of the seventies and eighties, in which the "A" section is tonal and the "B" section is atonal or pure noise; ii) The use of samples in hip-hop tracks like Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome," in which an overwhelming, borderline-chaotic density of pre-recorded material is arranged according to precise rhythmic designs; iii) The use of advanced electronic production to create a hypnotically clean, austere sound-world, in records by Aphex Twin, Mark Bell, and other artists on the Warp and Rephlex labels; ...and so on.

    If I were a composer, I'd want to see what I could learn from each of these discoveries. I'd be particularly interested in how relatively simple harmonic designs go hand in hand with dizzying textural complexity. Pop music is full of fresh ideas about tonality. In this area, classical composers are lagging behind. They are trained from an early age to view tonality as a closed, finished world, not as a language undergoing endless evolution. Minimalism, of course, is the great exception, which is why it's so hugely significant. Recent European trends such as Spectralism and the New Complexity have, to my ears, offered a few new processes but no new ideas in the deeper sense -- major changes in the personality of sound.

    a related reader comment
    another reader comment

    Female critics
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 10:28 am

    Thanks to Anne for clarifying her position at the Times. And for linking to an earlier Andante article she did on female critics, adding some names to my hastily compiled list.

    I certainly should have included Sarah Bryan Miller at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Leslie Valdez at the San Jose Mercury News. 

    But my list was mainly full-time staff critics at newspapers, although I think Mary Ellen Hutton in Cincinnati (whom I included) is free-lance. Aren't two of the people on Anne's list free-lance: Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal) and Shirley Fleming (New York Post)? And now I learn that Anne is free-lance, too--and without a contract. Detroit's Nancy Malitz left the field--to our loss--years ago. 

     Alas, my point--and Anne's--about minimal female representation in music criticism stands.

    Reader Intervention: A Musicologist Crashes The Party!
    By Robert Fink
    posted @ 11:26 am

    Big (non) Idea: "Classical Music" is Dead

    Yo! Since no full-time musicological critics were invited to the party, and it's such an amazing party, I couldn't resist crashing. This discussion is at such a high level - it proves the hypothesis that in the Darwinian world of classical music journalism, where fewer and fewer critics are allotted less and less space to cover the phenomenon, only the strong survive. Kudos!

    So, much of what I might observe, as a music historian and critic, has already been said: Big Ideas were less prevalent (and less salient) in the history of Western Art Music than one might assume; the hope that another Big Idea will arrive and "rescue" our stalled history of "great" music seems kind of like nostalgic, wishful thinking; and, crucially, popular music seems to have taken over the Big Idea carrier function that we once assumed only "classical" music could serve.

    Watching pop music seep into the conversation has been fascinating. Many participants in the discussion know it well, write about it, even pioneered critical approaches that allowed some of it to mingle with the contemporary "classical" stuff (shout-out to you, Mr. Rockwell!). But maybe, for once, the ivory tower gives me freedom of speech (and employment): I'm a professional musicologist - I just study "music," and I can write about whatever kind of music I want, whether or not my training was designed to interest me in it.

    I think the Big Idea here is the collapse of the biggest Big Idea of classical music: that there is such a thing as a single "classical music," analogous to the classical literature of the Greeks and Romans; that it defines the roots of "our" musical civilization the way Homer and Sophocles once did for Western Europe; that every educated member of the society should know at least that this "classical music" exists and that it is more important than ephemeral works in the vernacular; and that any serious contemporary composer has to fit into a canonic narrative selection of "great works" that can be traced back in the classical line to our Homer and Sophocles, .

    So, I would submit for discussion the Big (Non) Idea: you cannot understand our culture's musical creativity at this moment in time if you persist in splitting the world of music up into "classical" (i.e.: art, serious, etc.) and "popular" musics. "Classical Music" (as a critical Big Idea) is dead.

    This leads to some warpage in even the most determinedly ecumenical attitudes on display in this blog, as people struggle to reconcile the way they feel about current music with the ideological need to preserve some domain as "classical" and assert rhetorical control over it.

    To read the rest of this post go HERE

    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 12:01 pm

    Lots of newer composers' names have been bandied about here. But the last composers whose new works were eagerly awaited by relatively broad audiences and widely discussed were Copland, Britten and Shostakovich. And that was 30 years ago.

    Serialism is the favorite whipping boy for the growing disconnect between composers and audiences. But I'm not convinced it was ever the force majeure we now make it out to be. In academia, maybe, but let's keep academia in perspective. New Criticism was all the rage in literary academia, but how much difference did it make to people who actually bought and read books?

    I keep coming back to the issue of fragmentation. It really got underway in the aftermath of World War II. The U.S. was absorbing all these European composers and performers of multiple stripes. Amid postwar prosperity and feeling our oats as a dominant country, the music industry was expanding geometrically. Look at all the American opera companies, great and small, founded in the 1950s. Egged on by the American Federation of Musicians, orchestras vastly expanded their concert offerings. (In Brahms' Vienna, by contrast, the Vienna Philharmonic played--what?--four concerts a season.)

    This expansion continued at least through the 1990s. Music lovers were increasingly freed to explore their narrowest interests. People who would crawl on their knees to hear the Tallis Scholars wouldn't walk across the street to hear the Berlin Philharmonic, and vice versa. If there ever was such a thing as "the classical music audience"--and I doubt there was--it has been completely fragmented into niche markets.

    If there's a single "big idea," this is it--and it's not exactly an idea: fragmentation. For better or worse, I don't see Humpty Dumpty being put back together again.

    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 12:31 pm

    There's been a fair bit of huffing and puffing here about multiculturalism, as if this were something new.

    Look at all the composers who traveled widely--at least by standards of their time--in the 17th century. Bach was about as multiculti as you could be in the 18th century, drawing on musical ideas from Italy and France as well as the scattered cultures that hadn't yet coalesced into Germany. Mozart incorporated imitation "Turkish" music.

    Multiculturalism receded in the 19th century, with the rise of nationalist movements. But this sparked a new interest among "classical" composers in folk music (Brahms, Dvorak, Mahler, Bartok, Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, Copland). Britten, Colin McPhee and Lou Harrison pioneered the incorporation of Asian influences in Western concert music. And, say what you will about the "condescending" attitude of early 20th century composers toward ragtime and jazz, those influences did make themselves felt.

    Is there, though, any historic parallel to what we now call popular music?

    High/Low Redux
    By Justin Davidson
    posted @ 12:42 pm

    Somehow we've wandered into the territory covered by an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art some years ago: High/Low, which dealt extensively with these distinctions and grey areas. Those in-between areas are huge and fertile and I think that the bands Alex and others have named belong there. But Robert Fink's re-shuffling of categories so that deep music is on one side and fluff on the other - is going too far. 

    What separates classical from pop is not a hierarchy of taste, or even an incompatibility of musical values. But they do still belong in different categories, however porous, becuase they sustain different economies, operate on different timetables, involve different groups of people and institutions and have different markers of prestige. Look at the attention Matt Haimovitz has gotten for playing the cello in clubs like CBGBs - it's a small gesture, but a significant one.

    Classical and pop musicians also operate on completely different scales. Most of the composers we've named sell CDs by the dozens if they're really, really lucky. (In some cases, I have a feeling Kyle Gann may own the only extant copy.) Any pop band or indie rock group or rapper important enough even to get noticed has sales with a significant string of zeroes. That's a qualitative jump which suggests that the two worlds can overlap only so far.

    I'm not trying to suggest that we focus on obscure and unsaleable music for its own sake, or that obscurity is a criterion for true art. That would be pretentious and preposterous. I am saying, though, that Louis Andriessen, for example, is recognized by a system and deals with external pressures that are very different from those that apply in the case of Lou Reed, even if musically there is quite a bit of overlap between them. It's not "colonial," to use Fink's word, to note that difference.

    Alex's use of the word "goldmine" wasn't exploitative either, except in the sense that all composers exploit other composers, digging through their music for ideas. Composers listen selfishly and everybody steals. Some of the technologies that pop musicians use so prodigiously now were first developed at Columbia and other universities, after all.

    Composers are composers, but distinctions are still worthwhile
    By Andrew Druckenbrod
    posted @ 12:47 pm

    Robert -- musicologists: wordy, yes, (not too mention overly zealous in the use of quotation marks!!!) but certainly welcome to this discussion. Your comments on the term classical are particularly lucid. What a tired, misinformed term, indeed.

    Of course we should break down the walls between categories of classical and popular as high and low and look for other qualities, other “buckets,” as you say. I definitely hear all music as music first, only after do the prescribed categories ossify in my head or force their way into writing so that my views can be expressed. Likewise, I view the creators all as composers, just some writing what is referred to as pop while others write what we call classical. The idea that Elvis Costello is a considered somehow lesser and called a songwriter and Schubert held higher and referred to as a composer is strange when you consider the high level both have achieved in song. I am not equating the two, but saying that they are certainly part of the same conversation.

    Again, as I said before, why do we need to judge everything against a central trunk of someone’s concept of music? For instance, I love the epic ambient strains of the Icelandic pop group Sigur Ros, which I recently saw with a string quartet playing alongside of it. I have heard song form, lyric form, strophic form, ABA, and more turned so cleverly and beautifully on its head by pop and hip-hop songwriters/composers, not to mention their sly and poignant use of quotation and sampling. So the categorizations as they now stand stink. I wish the fragmentation that Scott quite rightly talks of carried over to the liquidation or re-casting of the labels we use. I can’t stand it when I run into some snob who tells me how bereft of quality pop is when it’s clear they don’t listen to it and visa versa.

    But still I think -- without a bogus need to defend classical music’s existence or to gain rhetorical control over it – there are differences between commercial music (limited to a smaller time frame and music) and music that has fewer constraints. There’s also worth in discerning and discussing the differences between music (classical, opera, pop or folk) with lyrics and that without them. (I am not trying to revive the whole instrumental vs. programmatic music debate, but just to say the latter is not an art form existing in a one-to-one connection with meaning and relevance in culture.) I think I would enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth in a fragmented world such as today, but it would also be fruitful to understand what he was playing off of.

    Beyond categories?
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 1:00 pm

    Robert Fink's post is very welcome, although he distorts my position re: composers and pop music, displaying, if I may say, the bad academic habit of reading ideologies into innocuous turns of phrase. I obviously don't think of pop music as merely a goldmine for composers. My website, www.therestisnoise.com (see "popular" division), demonstrates what some colleagues may actually see as an excessive respect for pop artists as "real" artists. I was simply saying that composers have a lot to learn from pop music, not hegemonically mandating a colonialist enslavement of the Oriental Other.

    Otherwise, I agree to a great extent with the Finkian intervention, its pop-supremacist attitudes excepted. I think we're going to see a partial collapse of the boundary between so-called classical music and neighboring spheres in the popular arena. We'll see an increasing interchange of roles: two harbingers are Steve Reich, who's become an icon of modern electronic music, and Jonny Greenwood, who's launching a career as an avant-gardish concert composer, or, more accurately, resuming the compositional career that the world fame of Radiohead interrupted. (Elvis Costello I don't see as a harbinger of anything in particular.) Then you have someone like Björk, whom I'm writing about now, and who lives in a lovely Icelandic world where all these distinctions are boring and marginal.

    All the same, classical music will remain its own beast, with its own language and discipline and lore. There won't be a total breakdown of categories. Simply, I'm hoping, an erosion of lazy old assumptions about the inborn intellectual superiority of one kind of music over another. Complex music can be very stupid; simple music can be very smart. There's pop music which is very complex and very unpopular. There's classical music which is very cheap and very cloying. Seriousness is something earned; it's not the automatic gift of a certain amount of education.

    the magpie
    By John Rockwell
    posted @ 1:10 pm

    Picking my way through the latest entries, as we magpies are wont to, some comments:

    Robert Fink is a smart fella (I know this in part because I heard him at this spring's Seattle EMP rock & roll symposium). I agree with most everything in his entry, except the dissing of Rossini. P.S.: Does his "crashing the party" mean that anyone can join in now, not ghettoized into "reader comments"? Or just the crashers that Doug likes?!

    I'm not sure fragmentation and disunity are a very stirring big idea, or rallying point, or stylistic signature. Sounds more like despair to me. Big ideas, as I said before, are not enunciated and then slavishly followed by composers. They represent spontaneous excitement generating around shared ideas (e.g., minimalism), sometimes (especially in France) self-consciously articulated in a manifesto (e.g., Boulez).

    I think the comparing of muscians' journeys to exotic climes in the 17th and 18th centuries with today's musical multi-culturalism is dead wrong. There is a big, not a little, difference between appropriating sounds and ideas into a tradition that you know without thinking is superior and genuine amalgams of cultures (e.g. Glass's variant on ragas in his early minimalism). Not to speak of non-Western composers, trained in Western classical practice or not, amalgamating away with OUR music. I mean, the Beijing conservatory that spawned all the Chinese composers now active in the U.S. is one source, but so are Bill Laswell's collaborations with world musicians from hither and yon.

    Not being much of a fan of Elvis Costello, I recall that I myself once equated Joni Mitchell in the 70's with Schubert, and not apologetically, then or now. Cf. her "Amelia," on the "Hejira" album.

    I'm amused by the lingering effort of some entrants to maintain a valuative distinction between lower pop and higher classical. (Not that distinctions can't profitably be made between ANY two things.) In particular, by invoking the dreary term commercialism, as in Adorno's "culture industry." Who says academic composers, struggling for tenure, desperate not to offend their teachers, jockeying for position among their peers, operate with "fewer constraints" than the popsters? 

    READER: No More Historical Progress
    By Richard Einhorn
    posted @ 1:44 pm
    Most of the writers here assume, with a greater or lesser sense of defensiveness, that distinctions between high and low art are pretty meaningless when you're dealing with great artists (eg, Hugo Wolf and Kate Bush). You'll get no argument about that from me, but... read more

    READER: Waiting For Godot
    By Colin Eatock
    posted @ 1:48 pm
    I don’t know what’s going to happen next – and judging by this blog, most music critics don’t know either. But here’s what I’d like to see happen... read more

    Back to fragmentation for a minute
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 2:27 pm

    I see I'm responding to posts that are already a few hours old. But I wanted to second Scott and Justin on the fragmentation issue, while noting that this is by no means confined to classical music. The visual arts, dance, and poetry, at the very least, have also been reflecting the lack of a unified cultural outlook in recent decades.

    That fragmentation, indeed, is a part of the creative process today. Think Picasso, think Stravinsky; it's now generally understood that one artist can wear a number of different stylistic masks, deal with a number of different big ideas, in the course of his lifetime.

    More recently, there are examples of artists who had to work through and get past the requisite "big ideas" of their time in order to find their own. I think of David Del Tredici, who moved through and then cast off academic atonality and now works in a lush neo-Romantic Expressionism. (An aside: serialism in the 60s and 70s seems to me to have been de facto less a Big Idea than a straitjacket in which to restrain young composers.) Not dissimilar is Robert Irwin, the visual artist, who started as an Abstract Expressionist and moved through Minimalism to emerge with a kind of personal baroque style. The journey of both of these artists involved casting off big ideas, rather than remaining bound by them.

    One notable difference is that Irwin is embraced as a grand old man in his field, in part because visual arts institutions are far more committed to new ideas than are classical music institutions. If opera houses were run like museums, they would be scrambling to present Dum Dee Tweedle, Einstein on the Beach, The Ghosts of Versailles, Three Tales, and other truly interesting (love ’em or hate ’em) new operas. Instead, we get the musical equivalent of salon painting: The Great Gatsby, Little Women, Dead Man Walking. (Again, love ’em or hate ’em; I’m not saying they’re bad, but they aren’t exactly contemporary art in the sense that the former pieces are.)

    A few responses to other postings
    By Anne Midgette
    posted @ 2:57 pm

    John: I disagree with your equation of fragmentation and despair. What about Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce, or the countless other artists who have moved productively from one style to another, or used many styles in a single work? For many, this so-called fragmentation (shall we call it polystilism, to give it a more positive spin?) is extremely fertile. Others, of course, may find there aren’t enough limits or guidelines.

    The whole debate about classical and pop music, high and low, seems to have become classical music’s sour-grapes way of justifying to itself that it is no longer popular. But these are not exactly new ideas (to respond to Scott’s question about historical parallels). Think of Stendahl describing Italian music in his Life of Rossini. It was definitely the pop music of its day, viewed as cheap trash (or “macaroni”) by the highbrows.

    To: AC Douglas
    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 3:01 pm
    Reader AC Douglas, publisher of the unapologetically pro-elitist Sounds and Fury blog, writes that the likes of Sonic Youth and Aphex Twin are "'classical' music produced by non-'classical' composers, self-identified, and performed in and through non-'classical' venues. You simply confuse the issue by referring to such music as 'pop' music." Indeed, the word "pop" is bizarre and ironic when applied to a proudly difficult band like Sonic Youth, not to mention a politically radical group like Public Enemy. But it's not classical music, either — nowhere close. It's incredibly interesting because it's neither here nor there. By the way, ACD, I believe you are going to enjoy my review of the Schlingensief Parsifal.

    READER: Not One Line In The Sand
    By Molly Sheridan
    posted @ 3:02 pm
    I have to admit that even though I spend my days writing about the hard to classify "new classical music," I was initially disturbed by the "Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music" premise. At first I thought it was unintentional... read more

    Pop music precedent
    By Scott Cantrell
    posted @ 3:09 pm

    Anne picked up on my question: Is their any historical precedent for what we now call pop music? In the sense of a huge international-conglomerate business, with product marketed on an enormous scale, airing on radio stations from Omaha to Vladivostok, I think not. I'm not saying that's bad or good--I don't even know what it means--but it does seem to me something wholly unprecedented.

    READER: Is Hip-Hop The Big Idea?
    By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
    posted @ 7:07 pm
    I'm glad that Alex Ross has brought up hip hop - and surprised that it wasn't mentioned before. If we are to look for a 'Big Idea' in current music - a project that I am ambivalent about - then surely the worldwide dominance of hip hop must be it?... read more

    Jotting III: When John Rockwell took a coalition of the willing to a downtown club, or, will critics ever shed the need to be tragically hip.
    By Charles Ward
    posted @ 9:27 pm
    Often when I hear the latest rapper to round the block, I remember an experience at the New Music American Festival in New York in 1979. The downtown scene had reached a boiling point. The Music Critics Association held a long seminar at the Kitchen for curious members and John was their guide. One evening some followed him downtown to a club. In the basement, alone in a small room, was a saxophonist sitting on a chair. She had a rhythm machine on the floor pounding out a beat and she was wailing away to it. Today the chanter is often less coherent and the rhythmic accompaniment even blunter, but ptherwise there's been little fundmental progress. Both were/are fundamentally barely literate musically.

    At the MCA seminar, the same issues were flogged as on this blog – from the embarrassment at the word classical, to pop music as the future of the world. Arty pop groups got gushes. Only the names have changed. Now it’s Bjork instead of Blondie.

    Of course popular music has affected classical music, as Scott noted. Who knows. Maybe Leonin and Perotin got the inspiration for their revolutionary treatment of chant from rowdy singing at a watering hole in the shadow of Paris’ 12th-century cathedral. Certainly some important ideas and performers came out of that downtown

    But fundamentally the aesthetics are totally different. I’m reminded of that every time I go to a concert of 16th-century secular instrumental music. Put one of those short pieces against a current pop song and, when all the sonic and stylistic differences are stripped out, the two aren’t that different. Put the same current pop song up against a late-19th century symphony and the differences are immense – because of the fundamentally different aesthetic about the nature of composition, the handling of materials and the purpose of the work. The reason music students are taught harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, etc. is not just to amuse or entertain them or exercise power over them but to train them in the fundamentals of the craft of classical music.

    As to Scott’s question about the globalization of pop music, it’s a function of the technological changes I referred to in my first post. A lot of pop music remains what used to be called an oral tradition. Once an efficient and effective way of capturing it and transmitting it was invented – digital recording, CDs, satellite transmission, etc (as well as piracy and the movement to more democratic governments world-wide) – it was easy for well-practiced marketing people to turn performers and their music into a global phenomenon.

    A question to explore could be what facets of pop music classical composers might use. Sampling’s been tried (a few centuries ago). Perhaps working off the kind of complexity that 24-track recording allows?

    By Alex Ross
    posted @ 10:42 pm
    "Will critics ever shed the need to be tragically hip?" asks Charles Ward. Not before other critics shed the need to be tragically snooty. I don't know what Kitchen saxophonist was judged to be "fundamentally barely literate musically" back in 1979, and perhaps she fit that description perfectly, but Björk makes for a very poor contemporary counterpart. She attended the Tónmenntaskóli music school in Reykjavik from the age of five to the age of fifteen, by the end of which time she was playing atonal Icelandic concertos on the flute and listening avidly to Messiaen, Stockhausen, and Cage. She stopped practicing classical music because she found it to be a narrow, repressive world. Punk and dance music gave her more to think about. We've lost countless young brilliant minds to the "other side" because of our pedantry and hauteur, fresh examples of which are all too easily found.

    I fear I've been wandering too far off topic, so I'll be mute about the pop stuff from now on. There is no such thing as "popular music" anyway, if you take it to mean whatever is not classical music. What sound comes to mind when the term is used? Britney Spears? Brad Mehldau? Missy Elliott? Youssou N'Dour? These people have less in common with each other than do, say, Wuorinen and Golijov. Fragmentation is even more widespread in pop than in classical.

    related reader comment

Read this blog by date: 7/27 7/28 7/29 7/30 7/31 8/1 8/2 8/3 8/4 8/5 8/6 8/7


CC home
CC archives

There was a time when great cities had multiple newspapers and culture was hashed out daily in the press, strongly-held opinions battling for the hearts and minds of readers. Today it's rare for a city to have more than one or two outlets where culture can be publicly discussed, let alone prodded and pulled and challenged... More

If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? In the past, musical ideas have been fought over, affirmed then challenged again, with each generation adding something new. Ultimately consensus was achieved around an idea, and that idea gained traction with a critical mass of composers.

Now we are in a period when no particular musical idea seems to represent our age, and it appears that for the moment – at least on the surface – that there is no obvious direction music is going. So the question is: what is the next chapter in the historical conversation of musical ideas, and where are the seeds of those ideas planted?

Or: Is it possible that, with traditional cultural structures fragmenting, and the ways people are getting and using culture fundamentally changing, that it is no longer possible for a unifying style to emerge? Is it still possible for a Big Idea to attain the kind of traction needed to energize and acquire a critical mass of composers and performers?

Write Us:

Search CC

(syndicate this AJblog)

AJ Partner


READER: The purpose of music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)

READER: Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)

READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)

Final Disinformation

- Kyle Gann (08/06/2004 8:41 am)

READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:21 am)

Over and out - an anti-rant rant
- Justin Davidson (08/06/2004 7:05 am)

READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:21 pm)

READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:41 pm)

All Posts


Greg Sandow
  The Wall Street Journal
 - To Justin: Hermetic

 - Performance ideas
 - Truly big classical

Another view

Wynne Delacoma
  Chicago Sun-Times
 - Composer bashing, female
    critics, form and content
 - Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?

Alex Ross
  The New Yorker
 - Clarification, Departure
 - The New New Thing
 - Provocation!
 - To AC Douglas
 - Pop Innovation
A Potential Goldmine
 - To Rockwell: Styles, Not

 - Listening for Passionate

Kyle Gann
  Village Voice
 - Listening examples provided
 - Queries for John Rockwell
 - Unfair on my part
 - Composer bashing
 - Inside a big idea
 - Names & Their Inadequacies
 - The Idea & Its Conditions
The Next Medium-Sized Idea
 - Alternate Universe

Justin Davidson
 - Thanks, Kyle
 - proposal
 - To Kyle
 - Who's saying give up?
 - Some Things Are New, Actually
 - High/Low Redux
 - pop envy
Where was THAT in Classical

 - Apology & Comment
 - How Big is a Big Idea?

John Rockwell
  The New York Times
 - Reply to Kyle and a Plea
 - Arghhh, or however you
    spell it
 - The Magpie
 - Brahms and Wagner
Question for Kyle
 - To Alex, Justin: the pedant
    at work

 - Initial Entry

Scott Cantrell
  Dallas Morning News
 - What's success?
 - Pop music precendent
 - Multiculturalism
 - Fragmentation
 - Female Critics
 - Movements & Media
A Blurry Patchwork

Charles Ward
  Houston Chronicle
 - Jotting IV: Grab Bag
 - Jotting III: When John
 - Jotting II: I'd Rather Not Get
    A Call From Stalin

Jotting I: We Do Have A Big

Anne Midgette
  The New York Times
 - What's the big idea?
 - A Few Responses To
    Other Postings
 - Back to Fragmentation
    for a Minute

 - Gender footnote
 - Another preamble

Andrew Druckenbrod
  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 - Composers are Composers
    but Distinctions are
 - No apology to pop and

 - Taking Issue With The

John von Rhein
  Chicago Tribune

Kyle MacMillan
  Denver Post

Joshua Kosman
  San Francisco Chronicle


The Purpose of Music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)

Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)

To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 10:00 am)

re: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)

To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is notentertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)

Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:20 am)

Summing Up
- Brian Newhouse (08/05/2004 9:26 pm)

Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:18 pm)

Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:40 pm)

What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
- Steve Layton (08/05/2004 7:34 pm)

All Reader Posts


- Discography of Minimalist and
    Totalist music

- Kyle Gann on Post-Minimalism
- Kyle Gann: Following the
    Classical Script


- DJ Spooky
- Tan Dun
- Zhou Long
- Bright Sheng



  Pixel Points
    Nancy Levinson on
  About Last Night
    Terry Teachout on the arts in
    New York City
  Artful Manager
    Andrew Taylor on the 
    business of Arts & Culture
  blog riley  
    rock culture approximately
  Straight Up |
    Jan Herman - Arts, Media &
    Culture News with 'tude
  Seeing Things
    Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
  Serious Popcorn
    Martha Bayles on Film...

    Drew McManus on orchestra


    Greg Sandow on the future of
    Classical Music
    Doug Ramsey on Jazz
    and other matters...
    Kyle Gann on music after the
Visual Arts
    John Perreault's 
    art diary
  Modern Art Notes
    Tyler Green's modern & 
    contemporary art blog

AJBlog Heaven
    A Book Review review
  Critical Conversation II
    Classical Music Critics
    on the future of music
  Tommy T
    Tommy Tompkins'
    extreme measures

  Midori in Asia
    Conversations from the road
    June 22-July 3, 2005

  A better case for the Arts?
    A public conversation
  Critical Conversation
    Classical Music Critics on the 
    Future of Music
  Sticks & Stones
    James S. Russell on
   In Media Res
    Bob Goldfarb on Media
    Sam Bergman on tour with 
   the Minnesota Orchestra

AJ BlogCentral

Home | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
Copyright ©
2002 ArtsJournal. All Rights Reserved