AJ Logo

Critical Conversation
Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music

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


Saturday, July 31

    To Justin: Hermetic music
    By Greg Sandow
    posted @ 4:47 pm

    This is for Justin, though the way this blog moves, I feel I'm answering something from three years ago, not three days.

    Thanks, Justin for your thought about hermetic music -- that

    the big idea about music in the 1950s was that music was supposed to be about music. As much as avant-garde film lost itself in the narcotic charms of this camera angle orthat excruciating silence, it still couldn't help being about the same things that have always concerned consumers of art: emotions, money, sex, power, self-regard. And no matter how much writers delighted themselves with the abstract ring, the rhythm - okay, the musicality - of language, they were still, at bottom telling stories and describing the world around them.

    But by then composers, even the best composers - especially thebest composers -had wandered so deep into the forests of technique, sound, structure and effect that the music they wrote was completely hermetic. I don't mean that it was incomprehensible, only that it was purely about itself.

    I think, Justin, that you've nailed something very important here. I might quibble that what you say is true of "composers," implying all or most or the most important of them, because the '50s were full of people writing in perfectly non-hermetic styles. Talk to Ned Rorem, or Carlisle Floyd, or Barber, or Menotti, or Leonard Bernstein about writing music "purely about itself."

    And then there was Cage, whose music was transcendently about something other than itself. But I do take your point -- a lot of the most notable, new, and above all prestigious music of that time appeared to be largely about itself.

    But why was that? And why did people back then -- and us now -- accept this development as something valid, important, good, or even reasonable? Especially when, as you note, it didn't happen in the other arts.

    Three quick observations:

    1. No composer ever cared more about hermetic -- though really a better word would be "formalist" -- compositional devices than Bach. And yet his music isn't hermetic. He wrote lots of it for everyday use (in church, especially). And, maybe even more important, a lot of it (like much Baroque music, if not most of it) takes off from popular dance rhythms of its time, which means that, in ways we can barely imagine now, the very sound of it connected with everyday life.

    2. The musical developments you talk about were part of a more global Big Idea, one that moved through many arts. In literature, the New Criticism was dominant, treating literary works as, in effect, simply words on paper, texts that could be studied on their own without reference to anything outside them. In visual art, there was Clement Greenberg's influential dictum that paintings were, essentially, nothing but paint on canvas. And yet neither painting nor literature got hermetic. The abstract expressionists, who were living examples of Greenberg's point (if not the inspiration for it), were adventurous, far more accessible than modernist music, and, eventually, quite popular.

    3. There was another Big Idea sweeping through the arts in the '50s, in many ways the opposite of anything hermetic or formalist, though in painting it could overlap with formalism. It was the idea of improvisation -- Jackson Pollock dripping and spattering paint without premeditation, very much as a physical act; Jack Kerouac writing On the Road in just three weeks, typing it on a roll of paper, so he wouldn't have to stop to change pages. Not to mention jazz, which was exploding with bebop, and can serve as a link between Kerouac and Pollock, since it served as a constant soundtrack for both of them. But where was this in music? It certainly never entered the mainstream, unless you want to count Gunther Schuller's "third stream" music, which was supposed somehow to unite classical and jazz, and never went anywhere. Maybe the most important musical figure who might exemplify this Idea was Cage, though he went about it in quite a different, less explosive, far less personally expressive way (which sort of robs it of its point, at least from the Beat or Pollock point of view). And Cage certainly never rocketed to fame with a rave review in The New York Times, as Kerouac did.

    So why did classical music become so much more formalist than other arts, and why did it resist this improvisatory wind? Of course, music, taken as a whole, didn't resist. There was jazz, and also rock & roll. (It's fascinating how many of the seminal '50s rock classics were improvised, or at least arose very suddenly, jumping to attention in the middle of recording sessions originally devoted to something else -- Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Elvis's "That's All Right," Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." Even the Penguins' "Earth Angel," not revolutionary, however wonderful it might be as a doowop song was in one way a surprise, because the version released on record was originally meant just as a demo. It took a smart record guy to realize that it was perfect as it stood.)

    This is the crucial question, one that, if we'd answer it, would help us understand why we got where we are today.

    A couple of caveats, by the way. Justin, when you say that movies and literature just somehow can't resist telling stories, I'm not sure what that tells me. Isn't this the very question we're asking -- why some kinds of music became so strongly formalist, when other arts didn't? I'm not sure it helps to say that the other arts, gosh darn it, just can't help relating to the outside world. Besides, you might underestimate just how hermetic filmmakers like Antonioni and Godard seemed in their time. L'avventura was memorably derided, when it was first released, by the Times's movie critic of the time, Bosley Crowther. He couldn't see much sense or coherence in it at all. (Then, when the film world proclaimed L'avventura a masterpiece -- I remember one list of great films that ranked it second, right after Citizen Kane -- Crowther lost his nerve and, as I seem to remember, never trusted his judgment of the avant-garde again. I hope I remember this right! It happened a long time ago, but I remember making fun of Crowther's turnaround with my best friend in high school.)

    And as for Philip Glass's music not being about anything -- well, I'm not sure how the real stuff of music is ever really about anything. But that doesn't stop it from making connections with the outside world, and Philip's music made those connections bigtime when it first appeared. Many people remarked, for instance, on what seemed then like the obvious connection between minimalism and rock. Thus it didn't seem surprising that Glass's music got popular; it seemed to echo in the zeitgeist, if that's not a badly mixed metaphor. Plus it resonated with minimal art, which was then ('70s, early '80s) a central trend.

    But in a much more basic way, something about Philip's music seemed to pick up something in the air. Many people sensed that. John Rockwell described how that felt, and did it really memorably, in his book All American Music. I myself couldn't reread that chapter, or remember living through the things it describes, and say that Philip's music is only about itself. It sure didn't seem so then.

    READER: Why is it "Classical?"
    By Sophia Loke
    posted @ 6:00 pm
    A question that has always been somewhere at the back of my mind just popped in: Why is it that we refer to classical music today as 'CLASSICAL' music in the first place?... read more

    READER: Two Important Threads
    By Jonathan Gresl
    posted @ 6:01 pm

    I see two important threads of importance which haven't really been elucidated. One isthe actual composer and his/her composing, and new ideas therein. The other is the presentation of new (and old) music to the public, and the currentmusic marketplace, i.e. recording contracts, new music ensembles etc... read more

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
2002 ArtsJournal. All Rights Reserved