Is classical music too pretentious? Is that perception off base to begin with? Do you have any personal experiences with pretentious behavior inside the world of classical music?  Drew McManus asks the questions in an article in Partial Observor.

Elsewhere, but not unrelated, Randy Nordchow confesses to have abandoned “ironic-superficial-complexity with a conceptual bent and a little dark humor thrown in” in favor of the New Romantic.

Not to mention Tom Myron’s “lovely” Violin Concerto.

Que pasa?

120 Responses to “Is Classical Music Too Arty-Farty for Its Own Good?”
  1. Oh, re love, what about most of Vivier – not even limited to the “Love Songs”

  2. Samuel, I think you’re confusing erotic with love. I won’t go there again… ;)

  3. Oh, yeah, one thing I forgot about experimentation. If indeed true experimentation is not just about “saying things in a strange language” but is somehow beyond this whole notion of a language that’s out there and ready for you to say things in, then in a way experimental art might be very accessible, simply to anyone willing to consider stepping outside the whole communication paradigm (as in “I say X but encoded in form Y and you are supposed to decode X back out of Y”) for a little while. This is something that no amount of academic training can prepare you for, really. Elsewhere I’ve called this particular form of accessibility “hyperaccessibility”, to get to this sense of an art where the problem is that it is easier to understand than most people think rather than more difficult. Of course I don’t think hyperaccessible art will rake money in either… and a certain cultural experience might be necessary to even want to go beyond in that kind of way of course.

  4. david toub says:

    Jeff, I think I answered your question. For example, de Alvear’s en amor duro definitely reminds me about being in love, and indeed, that’s what the work is about. No music ever makes me “feel” that I’m in love—all I need to do for that is look at my wife 8-). Similarly, no work of music ever makes me hate. Music may take me to a different plane, and even make me happy (end of Mahler 2nd) or sad (end of Mahler 6th). But love??? That’s far more abstract than happy/sad. By the same token, no work of art ever made me feel like I’m in love, but perhaps I’m just a cold fish after all..

  5. A lot of Vivier’s “love” seems to be about the fear of being alone. Now indeed that might be more related to the whole eros/thanatos thing. I don’t know.

  6. andrea says:

    ” I want listening to this song to make me feel like I’m in love.”

    okay, then it’s your turn jeff. name some songs that really make you feel that way. i don’t think i was rationalizing at all.

  7. Steve Layton says:

    Alternative-space, “casual Fridays” stuff has its place in knocking some of the pretention out of the concert experience. But I’d like to make a clear distinction between pretention and ritual; knock all the pretention you want out of it, but leave me some ritual. After all, every performance (even act of creation, for that matter) is a kind of ritual; it’s set off from “normal” life and activity in some way, for all kinds of important reasons. Who wants to do Feldman on the downtown street-corner at around 4pm? A Japanese tea ceremony in the middle of an NFL tailgate party? View Raphael on against monitor-covered walls blasting quick-cut video montages?…

    Of course, all of those examples have just created their own new space and ritual, but at the expense of the original intention. So none of them are really about doing a service to the work as it was intended, and this is part of the problem I see with “casualizing” classical music, or art in general for that matter. It has some of the quality of the ol’ “Why don’t they like me? Maybe if I act ‘cool’, change my clothes, hang out at the club…”. I say accept yourself, art music; say to the world “I’m here, deal with it”, and accept the circle that responds.

  8. Andrea, every Italian opera has one or two, every Mozart comedy, Schumann songs, Wagner arias. You want something contemporary? “Let’s go to bed” by The Cure. ;)

  9. Didn’t mean to make light of my most serious critique of pretensions with The Cure comment. I just don’t know any atonal or minimalist pieces that can even come close to evoking these emotions.

  10. andrea says:

    “Who wants to do Feldman on the downtown street-corner at around 4pm? A Japanese tea ceremony in the middle of an NFL tailgate party?”

    sounds good to me! ASM & HNIA joined forces with the general public to ring bells, crash cymbals, and shake tambourines at midnight on the lower east side two weeks ago. ritual + unpretentious experience. it’s not about ‘why don’t they like me.’ it’s about i’m a joe-schmoe and you’re a joe-schmoe and we might actually have some interests in common, but you’ve been sold this lie about classical music being holier-than-thou so you won’t touch it with a ten-foot-pole, so then it’s my job to go after you. it’s about our music being music. it’s about beethoven not being more or less sacred than mos def. it’s about finding out why beethoven and mos def are both interesting and why they should have a place in your listening world.

  11. andrea says:

    i’m not asking for atonal or minimalist, jeff, anything will do. but why is it that if you say the cure sounds like falling in love, that’s a valid answer, but if i say steve reich’s drumming, i’m rationalizing? people hear in different ways. this is where your ‘our music doesn’t sound like falling in love ’cause it’s in the wrong language’ argument falls flat. go to a junior-high school in bed-stuy and tell them that ‘let’s go to bed’ sounds like falling in love and tell me what their response is…

  12. Steve Layton says:

    Sounds good to you, Andrea, and to me too. But what it wouldn’t be is Feldman or the Tea Ceremony; you’ve co-opted the orginals for your own, new ritual. All well and good for you and the crowd that shows, but bad for Feldman and the crowd that would have liked to show.
    Just like someone in the future could co-opt Anti-Social Music performances into a darkened, hushed concert hall; they’ve created their own valid ritual by transforming your intentions. (It has to work both ways, right?)
    Still no problem, except when we deny the original experience’s own right to be.
    And it’s not about Beethoven being more or less “sacred” than Mos Def. It’s about the experiences being different, including how we come to them; and being allowed to be different, experiencing the work in its context, as well as ours.

  13. Andrea, that’s a very traditional way of copping out of a ‘limited language use’ argument. It says that to ‘me.’ The fact that our classical music audience would think the piece was artsy-fartsy and completely devoid of generating ‘da love’ is what we’re talking about, though…

    You’re just weird. ;)

    Only reason I’m interested in this argument, BTW, is that James Drew, one of my teachers, told me that once, ‘There are no atonal love songs’ and I always wondered about it… I believe he’s right.

    Ultimately, we appear artsy-fartsy because the our music doesn’t conform to the expectations of the classical music audience. Yet we insist that it’s THEIR problem.

    That’s what I’m ultimately decrying, in this roundabout game. And remember, both film and literature, as I’ve pointed out have solved this loss of audience problem in original and marvelous ways, by returning to time-based narrative. Compromise on language has enormous benefits to comprehensibility. Is style really that important that we destroy our audience base for it?

  14. Evan Johnson says:

    Compromise on language has enormous benefits to comprehensibility. Is style really that important that we destroy our audience base for it?

    Yes, of course it is. We’ve all already made that decision or we wouldn’t self-identify as the sort of people who populate Sequenza21.

    Speaking of atonal love songs: you don’t have to look very far. All three of the Second Viennese School composers wrote them, as did Stravinsky (“The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” written for his wife as a gesture of affection, his last completed work). Will that do for starters?

  15. david toub says:

    Jeff, mi compadre, what you’re suggesting is that we pander to the audience in order to keep them coming to concerts. That’s very different from writing expressive music that has integrity, eg. the difference between Bartok or Reich (expressive with integrity) and Andrew Lloyd Weber (“nice” music that panders). The fact is that most audiences want integrity, even in their rock stars. Dumbed down music isn’t the answer.

    Of course, we’re not going to attract a following that would top the Billboard charts. That’s not the point, nor is that what all this is about. While I wouldn’t suggest writing down for the audience, I wouldn’t suggest writing “against” the audience, either. The latter is what I think many consider serialism to have done. I’d dispute that—it’s not the technique that pushed listeners away but rather what was done with the technique—but that’s for another thread.

    And yes, style is important. No one is intentionally destroying an audience base (other than perhaps a few I won’t name), but rather trying to write music that expresses what the composer wants. It won’t be for everyone, but that’s ok. Besides, you claim there is no base for our music anyway, so who cares if they’re there or not?

  16. Jeff– “Let’s go to bed” makes you feel like you’re in love? Either you’re wierd or you’re using a pretty strange definition. That song is about a disfunctional relationship that relies on sex to compensate for a fear of committment. Robert Smith hasn’t written a genuinely happy love song in his life — even “Love Song” and “Friday I’m in Love” are ultimately love-song-esque facades of wishful thinking, rationalization, and self-deception. Certainly plenty of Cure songs come as close to making me feel like I’m in love as any songs do, but it’s love for the greatness of the music, and something like “The Figurehead” or “Disintegration” produce that effect even more strongly than the faux love songs do.

    In order to support your claim I think you need to cite a song that’s about romantic love and is happy about it and makes you feel like you’re in love. I can think of songs with lyrics that are eloquently expressive about joyful love, but the music, even when great, could just as meaningfully be used to set the telephone book — music is incapable of specifically expressing love, it lacks the semantics. Conversely, a piece like Steve Reich’s “Proverb” would have been musically well suited to a romantic text if Reich had wanted to choose one, but he preferred Witgenstein.

    Are certain genres better suited for the underscoring of text on certain subjects? Sure. But gangsta rap is less well suited to love songs than even serialism, and gangsta rap is fairly popular.

    Yes, atonal musical language is a turn-off to lots of people, and if you write in that style you have a responsability to accept the fact that you’re not going to be big and famous. But I think you’re barking up the wrong tree with this business about music’s ability to express specific emotions.

  17. So, Webern’s songs do not contain love songs? Then I don’t know what a love song is!

    BTW Jeff I’m not really buying into the idea that what we do can be compared to genres like film or like the novel. For one I think the narrative novel and the narrative film has never been away, so it’s not a good comparison to the state of new music, if by that you mean a music that supposedly has gone to some deeply non-narrative stages during the past half century – these things simply are not comparable.

    For another, chamber music – say – has a very different type of expressive character to begin with than the star-cast romantic comedy or the epic fantasy trilogy.

    What your argument seems to be about mostly is that you’re stressing the specialized nature of what we do, and how different it is from the great succesful entertainment forms, and that we shouldn’t be surprised by the apparent marginality of our art, and I think that’s fair. But the way you approach it, you give the impression of lumping together a lot of musics as “music” and a lot of novels as “literature”, and you imply that it would somehow be helpful for me to study Steven Spielberg say, which, much as I like his work, I frankly don’t see the point of.

  18. I mean, what did Spielberg ever do for the indeterminate tempo canon? HMM?

  19. david toub says:

    I think the love song issue is a red herring. One person’s love song is another person’s (fill in the blank). Samuel finds Webern’s songs relevant to love songs. I nominate the Lyric Suite or Harmonium. Jeff nominates a work by The Cure and feels there’s nothing contemporary classical music has to offer in that regard. This is not something objective that we can defend or attack with facts. Let’s just agree that this is a matter of one’s perception and personal taste and leave it at that.

    Music is capable of expressing anything and everything (sometimes all at once). Whether or not it can make someone feel something as ineffable as “love” is up for grabs—it doesn’t work for me, and I have yet to understand how it does it for anyone. Love requires interaction—that’s different from “affection.” I feel great affection for Meredith Monk’s music, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to shtup anytime soon.

  20. Jordan Stokes says:

    Pretension in music isn’t limited to classical – there’s no end of pretentious hipster indy-rockers out there. Generally it takes the form (in “art” music and in pop music) of professing to like music that most people hate purely in order to differentiate yourself from the mob. Now, we all use the music we like to differentiate ourselves from the mob, but the question is whether we actually like it. Would we still like it if the mob liked it too?

    For my money, “The Book of the Hanging Gardens” has some excewllent love songs in it, assuming that unrequited love counts as love.

  21. Bill says:

    How about this quote from Katerina Englichova in her interview from “Classical music never was, is not and never will be for the masses.”
    Who even uses the word “masses” anymore?!?
    I sure love (contemporary) classical but people with that attitude will continue to hold classical music back.

  22. Rob Deemer says:

    Rather than trying to shoe-horn works that may only be love songs if you squint at them hard enough, I find it curious that no one has mentioned some contemporary composers who have been creating unabashedly romantic love song music – Peter Lieberson, Mark Adamo, Dan Welcher…even Jake Heggie. Maybe because they don’t fit into either the minimalist or the atonal boxes that have been bandied about so far?

  23. andrea says:

    and those folks further disprove jeff’s argument. you’ve listed some composers writing in a language supposedly people “understand,” yet they’re less known than reich or glass.

  24. Drew McManus says:

    For those of you that are interested, I put together an online survey about applause and pretentiousness that will break down responses by an individual’s connection to the field (musician, composer, manger, listener, etc.). I’ll publish the results next week:

  25. [...] Discussion on Sequenza21, following Drew McManus’s article [...]

  26. Jason says:

    Pardon the interruption. I am not a creator of music, rather a recreator. I have read through all of the comments regarding the McManus article and wish to weigh in on this most interesting topic.

    I base my entire philosophy on 2 simple premises: 1. If given the chance, most people would enjoy classical (Beethoven to Bartok to Berg to Boulez) music and 2. Take people from what they know to what they don’t know.

    If given the chance…

    Why don’t they get a chance? Because we, the composers and performers make them feel so stupid that they either come to one concert and never return or never show up in the first place.

    I put the bulk of this blame on mediocre ‘professionals’ and ‘too booksmart for their own good’ university students who need to constantly flex their intellectual muscle in order to prove their worth.

    Example: an ensemble just finishes a performance where things, from the perspective of the people performing or the composer listening, could have gone better. The crowd leaps to their feet since the performance, as far as they were concerned, was excellent. Several members of the audience seek out the composer/performer to offer congatulations only to be greeted with a list of errors that destroyed this epic creation. The audience member leaves the conversation feeling stupid since they could not hear these errors.

    Take them from what they know…

    Why do people find classical music boring? It is because they don’t have a clue what is going on. Why does that same tune keep coming back? Why has the piece been going on for 5 minutes and the soloist not played a note? The problem is, how do we get this information to people without ‘teaching’ it to them? I have always though it would be interesting to have a concert where the first half is an open rehearsal that involves an explanation of a symphony (sonata form, etc) and the second half is a complete performance of the symphony. People would know what to expect in advance and possibly entertain the thought of coming to a main series show.

    I agree with many of you who hesitate to use the outreach and cross-over card because 99% of the people are not going to follow you back when it is time to return home. We are what we are and that is why we love it.

    I have said too much.

    Let me have it.


  27. andrea says:

    “Why do people find classical music boring? It is because they don’t have a clue what is going on. Why does that same tune keep coming back?”

    okay, but take a song like ‘come on, eileen.’ why does it have no electric guitars? why does it have fiddles and accordion? why does it slow down halfway through the song using a new melody? why does it then speed up to a totally undanceable tempo? here’s a song that did not follow any of the pop or rock conventions of its time in both form and style and yet was a totally huge, huge hit on pop and rock radio and mtv. no one needed to be educated about it. it just got played. the people who liked it made sure it became available to a wide audience. now i know jeff is going to pipe in and say it wasn’t atonal or minimalist. duh. neither were aztec camera and they didn’t score as big a hit with their record of the same year that also didn’t follow the pop conventions.

    you ‘learn’ to like things through exposure. obviously, exposure isn’t a guarantee of anything – i still don’t like michael jackson’s ‘thriller’ (also from 1982) even though my upstairs neighbor is playing it, yet again, and does so at least once per week. you don’t have to know sonata form to enjoy a sonata (or drive one, for that matter).

  28. Jason says:

    Good points Andrea. Perhaps why that song was such a hit was the fact that it was different. But different from what? The audience had a preconceived notion of what a rock tune was (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc). People coming to a classical concert do not know what is standard therefore don’t know when something is different. After awhile, it all sounds the same unless they have some markers to track throughout the piece. I will agree with your statement that you don’t have to know sonata form to enjoy it. However, if this is the case, one sonata is the same as the next. Therefore, why should I go hear a different one? No thanks, I already heard a violin concerto once…

  29. andrea says:

    and furthermore, you’re not interrupting, you’re contributing. and your post is short compared to what galen and seth usually write (all the love, gents). =)

    i just find the whole ‘we need to educate them; they don’t understand our complicated music’ stance is just another way of condescending, which is another way of being pretentious, which is another major turn-off. did you really get into classical music by learning about sonata form first or did you find that you really dug sonatas and started trying to put your finger on what all those damn sonatas had in common anyway?

    cross-over has been really maimed by myriads of unimaginative cross-over projects. but as someone who listens to a wide variety of musics, i eat it up when someone successfully combines the disparate things they like into something new. there was a great cassette i found in the record store when i was about 14 or 15 of bill bruford (drummer for yes & king crimson, among others) and the nieuw slagwerkgroep van amsterdam (pardon my lousy dutch spelling) – it was everything i loved about prog rock and classical and world music all rolled up into something that didn’t quite sound like just prog rock, classical, or world music. one of the biggest perks of being in ASM is working with the folks who have backgrounds outside classical, especially the collaborations we did with the hip-hop group dälek and indie rock guy warn defever. it’s fantastic seeing how these people put their music together and how they combine what they do (“non-classical”) with what we do (“classical”). it’s also fantastic when fans of those groups come up to us and say they really enjoyed our half of the show – without us having to do anything other than play our guts out and make people feel at home. it’s possible to make genuine connections to new audiences without having to sacrifice quality or holding people’s hands (or ears).

  30. andrea says:

    but you don’t have to know anything about violin concerti to tell the difference between a bach violin concerto and a bartok violin concerto. they’re markedly different! just because you can’t name it, doesn’t mean you’re not hearing it.

  31. Seth Gordon says:

    Minimalist: Fish Beach by Nyman. It’s from a soundtrack (Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers) but I heard it before I ever saw the film so I had no associations to cloud my emotional response (other than fish – which I have no love-ish emotional connection to, aside from I love eating them…) – and I don’t even like Nyman half the time, so go figure.

    Now, obviously this had something to do with extra-musical connections on my part, since it certainly wasn’t Nyman’s intent, and there aren’t any lyrics to prod one in that direction. But… still… it proves minimalism capable of making one feel in love nonetheless. Though Drumming, I admit, I find kind of an odd choice. Might be good for a romp, I suppose, in some boom-boom-boom “primal” kind of way, though I think I’d find it a bit distracting. I do recall an incident where I had to shut off Sextet in a similar situation. Just wasn’t working.

    The Cure, in general, I can see – all Jeff said was “love” and there’s no reason that can’t include “unrequited love” as well. To feel in love is not dependant on getting love in return.

    For me, though, it’s all aboutSurfer Girl. Can’t fuck with perfection. Beats the pants off any Robert Smith mope-a-thon.

    Atonal: I completely agree with Jeff. Though I suppose it depends on your personal definition of “atonal” – for some that might include anything that varies from a major or minor scale. But what I classify as “atonal” (which is getting close to the extremes of the definition) I can’t possibly imagine eliciting the lovey-dovies. But it’s a mistake to only look at the tonality, I think – arrhythmia subtracts a lot from emotional impact. And worse still are unexpected dynamic changes (unless the emotion you’re trying to convey has something to do with Wile E. Coyote…)

    I agree with Jeff on one point: we’re niche-market types. And it’s no big deal. For most of us, most people aren’t ever going to “feel” our music, so just freakin’ accept it and move on. We chose to be musical wackadoodles – minimalist, atonal, whatever – knowing full well those were the consequences. I’m not losing any sleep over it.

    There’s some possible expansion of our audience(s), but I think it’s limited – I highly doubt it could ever go above a certain (very small) percent of the population. What we can do is alternate venues, like someone (Andrea?) suggested way up the page somewhere. Put your music into settings where people who might have the warped chromosome that makes people like it are likely to cluster. For most of us, that’s not Lincoln Center. Maybe it’s opening for a math-rock band, playing a free jazz club, an abstract expressionist art gallery – it’s just finding those kindred souls and letting them know you exist. And if they like you, they’ll buy download your music.

    One thing I am sure of, though, is that “educating” people isn’t going to help matters any. You could educate me all you want about pre-Colombian architecture and I’m still not gonna give a rat’s ass about it. You could educate my mom about horror films and she’s still not gonna like (or even want to watch) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You could educate a Catholic priest on the finer points of porn and he’s still not… um, okay, bad example. But you get my point.

    But don’t sweat it, kids… no one’s writing poetry that touches the soul in Klingon, either. (I don’t think… at least I hope not…)

    Oh, and…
    Let’s go Mets! Let’s go Mets!

  32. andrea says:

    “Perhaps why that song was such a hit was the fact that it was different. But different from what? The audience had a preconceived notion of what a rock tune was (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc). People coming to a classical concert do not know what is standard therefore don’t know when something is different.”

    yes, but you also didn’t have to know anything about irish folk music to appreciate “come on, eileen.” classical is also different from rock tunes, but, as pointed out about, there are plenty of composers who have written love songs in the intro-verse-chorus-bridge-etc format. a non-classical listener might not know when bach or bartok lived, but they can tell the difference between the two and between those two and what they normally listen to. as seth says, you have to get the music out to people who might have that warped chromosome. i’m not against education, but i think the attitude that you need to be educated, schooled in our music is a poisonous idea. why don’t you need to be educated to like the blues or hip-hop or zydeco?

  33. Jason says:

    It is funny how I blurted out this need to ‘educate’ because I am firmly against this way of enticing people to classical music. However, I don’t know anyone who does not feel a little empowered by learning more about a certain topic.

    Do they have to want to know more before we can offer it or can we offer it in a way that they take it in without feeling preached to?

    How do we build an audience that comes to concerts with an attitude of, “I can’t wait to hear conductor X and the speedy creek phil’s version of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra” as opposed to, “I have heard of Bartok and someone told me this piece was cool.”? The contrasting mindsets create very different atmospheres.

    Is there a line between talking down to people and dumbing it down that can be found so as to possibly create a larger audience? Sorry for sounding so commercial. I conduct an orchestra because I LOVE orchestral music. However, as you know, an orchestra is an expensive beast to operate.

  34. david toub says:

    Personally, I hear all the time from people who lament they don’t know anything about classical music. My response is that who cares what they know—the important thing is that they listen. You don’t need a roadmap to like classical music. I was never attracted to it because someone took the time to explain to me where Mozart or Bach were going with their ideas. In fact, I’ve never personally liked hearing a conductor “explain” the music before a concert. I don’t have a problem with the concept if it works for others, but for me, it makes the concert into an academic exercise, and reduces composition to processes the way some people (appropriately) reduce business routines down to processes. It works for business, but I think it makes the music more sterile.

    Gerald Schwartz conducted the first performance of Harmonium by Adams I ever heard, in Chicago’s Grant Park in the 80′s. Great concert, and I got to meet Adams afterwards in the audience. But I think the speech before the music, well-intentioned though it was, kinda diminished the music for me. Again, nice idea, but I don’t think it’s necessary, nor does it work for me. YMMV.

  35. I wonder why extremes should not be suitable for love. Among other things it is a violent emotion and a severe physical affectation.

    Or why arrhythmia would be unsuitable. Love can make for a radically transformed experience of time.

    In fact, Louis Andriessen’s big piece “De Tijd” (Time) is exactly about this: how love transforms time, makes it stop. This is not its explicit subject but he has made the origins of the piece’s expression in love clear in interviews.

  36. Steve Layton says:

    Jason wrote: Is there a line between talking down to people and dumbing it down that can be found so as to possibly create a larger audience? Sorry for sounding so commercial. I conduct an orchestra because I LOVE orchestral music. However, as you know, an orchestra is an expensive beast to operate.

    That’s why you program all those warhorses and pops concerts. Theoretically, if the response to those was good enough, it could subsidize some of the newer and/or more unfamiliar. Doesn’t seem to be happening, which means the pops and warhorses can’t get enough committed return audience & patrons to cover the bills. They never could though; the creation and operation of symphony orchestras was only made possible by gifts from the private rich and the government, and that culture has moved on to a fairly different place. In that sense, it doesn’t matter how many new and eager ears we draw to the concerts; if you can’t push the big-money’s status button, the symphonic tradition has to collapse to only a very few state-paid (and maybe a few amateur volunteer) “museums”.

    I don’t want to make it all more fun, more “dumb”, more “easy”… It just needs to be what it is. Simple committed respect for the pieces and performances is the best way to show people that there’s something important in this stuff — for us, and maybe for them too.

  37. Galen – I was joking about The Cure Song. And then I get accused of using too many smilies!

    Style – are we really certain that we can’t find a style that is comprehensible by the classical music audience and is meaningful to us oh so very deep and resolute masters of emotion? Is our music that great, our message so impeccably crafted to our little micro-audience (yo Seth) that we sacrifice audience for styles?

    I think we’re programmed. I think we’ve been brain-washed. I think we’ve been suckered into this shit. Trapped by followers into thinking that our shit is original and meaningful enough to make that sacrifice. I think it’s a joke played upon us by lesser talented people who couldn’t figure out how to get out of this corner we’ve been painted into. Elsie’s always talking about how, in painting, mediocre figurative artists always play up their ‘faults’ as ‘features’. Haven’t we done that with our oh so very artsy fartsy existential weirdness through incomprehensible musical madness?

    Ultimately, I think our music won’t matter at all. A new generation will come – that will create a language that IS comprehensible by classical music audiences and we’ll be left – on the sidelines, like experimental losers. Dead ends that didn’t have the imagination to paint themselves out of this stupid academic corner of self-imposed repetition and hostility towards meeting listener’s expectations. As I pointed out before… modern literature shows us – that a little bit of regression can pay off in meaningfulness to society. Why is it OK for Gaddis and Pynchon to stop being so experimental and tell tales that matter but not OK for us? Why is OK for independant film to go back to narrative and we have to keep singing NONSENSE. ;)

  38. david toub says:

    Jeff, is your music purposely comprehensible by mass audiences then, or are you also writing unoriginal, faulty “shit” like the rest of us? 8-) (note the smiley—don’t we all feel better now?) 8-)

    I don’t disagree that there is “shit” out there that is unoriginal, derivative and falls back on its being “experimental” to somehow justify its existence. But is that really new? I think it’s been going on for centuries. And are you confusing “popular” with “the state of not being shit?”

    For every great artist out there, there are hundreds of lesser ones. But if even a few people like the lesser ones, doesn’t that make it worthwhile? I don’t know about you, but I’m not claiming to be the next Steve Reich or Morton Feldman. I also have no interest in being them—I have enough trouble just being me. But even they don’t have the mass audiences (certainly not Feldman) that you suggest we try to garner. Yet no one here would, or should, deny their greatness and integrity as two of the finest composers of the past 50 years.

    And what is your paradigm for this music that is popular yet still possessing some integrity? Is it a compromise between the wishes of the composer to express him or herself and the desire for popularity? I have no interest in compromise, take no prisoners, and am fine with it. I suspect that’s true of most of us here. There’s nothing wrong with having an audience, and the larger the better. But that’s different from pandering to the audience or intentionally compromising.

    Some would have said Glass or Adams fits your model; certainly Glass, since he managed to attract more than just classical people (I first saw the Ensemble in a rock club in Chicago when no classical space would perform his stuff). And remember that every composer with integrity who did eventually attract a substantial audience did so with integrity, and went through many years playing for 2-3 people in an audience.

    So I’m not sure I understand what you’re looking for, and if you’re looking for it, why not do it yourself?

  39. Lanier Sammons says:

    “I put the bulk of this blame on mediocre ‘professionals’ and ‘too booksmart for their own good’ university students who need to constantly flex their intellectual muscle in order to prove their worth.”

    Jason, the example of the above that you give (the self-deprecating artist) is, in my experience, not unique to academics (whether students or professor) or to classical music. It happens throughout art, and in fact, it’s pretty damn common in popular music. How many interviews have you read where a rock star talks about how they can’t stand to listen to their old albums? But does that stop anybody else from listening to them? Absolutely not.

    Some people are insecure about their work and how it’s going to be received. I think that’s pretty understandable , especially when you’re a young student just getting your first performances. Yeah, I don’t think putting yourself/your performers down to the audience is a good way to deal with that, but I also won’t accuse those who fall prey to their insecurities of “need[ing] to constantly flex their intellectual muscle to prove their worth.”

    That said – welcome to the forum, and I agree that education can be a valuable way in. I didn’t like “Come Out” until somebody explained to me what Reich was doing and were the recording came from. I didn’t feel condescended to – just glad to pickup some new knowledge and have my musical world expanded a bit. I wasn’t listening to it the right way – now that I am, I love it.

    So, I certainly agree that the way in which music is talked about needs to be carefully considered, but I’m all for a little bit of talk when it’s appropriate. It can make all the difference.

  40. andrea says:

    jeff, i just don’t understand what you are talking about here: “Why is OK for independant film to go back to narrative and we have to keep singing NONSENSE.” i don’t see the move from experimental to accessible. i think your average reader is more familiar with kingsolver and foer than gaddis and pynchon, so do they even know about the move, the ‘regression?’ (and why choose a word with such negative connotations?) and apparently many unnamed filmmakers have made this supposedly backwards move. (so supposedly did rochberg and del tredici – names to us, but what about the rest of the world? they’d rather listen to the star wars soundtracks…) there are plenty more that haven’t. there are plenty of people making great, accessible films that people aren’t seeing because of lack of distribution (i saw two at BAM ‘funny ha ha’ and ‘mom’) – in the same way, there is a lot of good music being written today that people would like but aren’t hearing because it’s not getting out to their ears.

  41. jt52 says:

    Just logged on to Seq 21 for the first time in months. What the heck happened to the format? It’s downright unreadable.

    Is this some kind of joke, extending inaccessibility from contemporary music to a website about contemporary music?

  42. jt52 says:

    Just damaged my eye-sight reading through the thread. Jeff Harrington is, rightly, being criticized for some inconsistencies in his posts, but he’s still getting at something important.

    Noted the use of the word “pandering” by David Toub. Is “pandering” a shaded word that can be interpreted as meaning “cooperating”?

  43. It’s true, I was hoping these glitches would be worked out shortly after the new format was launched, but I’m beginning to lose patience as well…

  44. andrea says:

    “It’s downright unreadable.”

    really? i find it so much cleaner. seriously.

    according to my dictionary, the original meaning of pander is a synonym for pimp. maybe that means cooperating to you, jt52. (did you mean ‘shady’ instead of ‘shaded?’)

  45. The whole notion of the audience is obscurantist. If our music does not communicate, it’s not because we’ve failed to connect to “the audience”, because we’re not using the “right language” – it’s because we’re clueless about what our music should do ourselves.

    We shouldn’t even want to connect to such a vague thing as the audience. It’s much better to write stuff that people can understand. Starting with intelligent, not necessarily “educated”, curious listeners.

    Are you writing something important? Can you explain what it is all about, what you are facing, what your solutions are, to your non-music friends – without ever having to resort to hand-waving and saying “but that’s just complex technical stuff”? Can you make people understand this without having to play any vague cards such as “musicality”, “personal expression”, “musical language” etc?

    Can you be clear?

  46. david toub says:

    This gets to the entire reason why I don’t believe that people need technical knowledge to appreciate good music. Listen to something as deceptively simple as Traumerai—do you really need to understand second-species counterpoint or the cycle of fifths to appreciate it? This is no less true of Schoenberg, Feldman, Wolpe, Reich…anyone. If someone wants to learn more about someone’s music, there are plenty of user-friendly sources out there. But the bar shouldn’t be so high that one needs a bloody DMA to “appreciate” music.

  47. Seth Gordon says:

    Is our music that great, our message so impeccably crafted to our little micro-audience (yo Seth) that we sacrifice audience for styles?

    (Yo Jeff) I can only speak for myself, but I’ll say… Nope. Being “impeccably crafted” is one thing my “message” has never been accused of.

    Ultimately, I think our music won’t matter at all. A new generation will come – that will create a language that IS comprehensible by classical music audiences and we’ll be left – on the sidelines, like experimental losers … modern literature shows us – that a little bit of regression can pay off in meaningfulness to society. Why is it OK for Gaddis and Pynchon to stop being so experimental and tell tales that matter but not OK for us? Why is OK for independant film to go back to narrative and we have to keep singing NONSENSE.

    I agree it likely won’t matter… but very little music does in the long run. Who (besides Peter Shaffer) cares about Salieri nowadays? Very few matter in their time, and fewer still matter into future generations – we can’t all be Beethoven or Hendrix.

    I would also disagree that Mason and Dixon is any more accessible than – or in any way a regression from – Lot 49. Truth be told, even at his most over-the-top (say, Gravity’s Rainbow?), Pynchon never struck me so much as an “experimenter” as he did a… something more akin to an extended jazz improvisation, spinning off on tangents, into other songs, back to the main melody. I personally think he’s much more free-flow than detailed structure – somewhere between Olé Coltrane and a Grateful Dead concert.

    Gaddis, on the other hand – he needed to turn down the weird-for-the-sake-of-weird just a wee bit. Abish’s Alphabetical Africa comes to mind as another example. Like, it proves that you’re smart – or smart enough – to be able to write a book in which every word in chapter one bagins with the letter A, every word in chapter two with A or B, etc etc on through the alphabet. But is it a “smart” thing to have done it in the first place? There’s no utilitarian purpose to it, it’s pure show-off. No one likes a show-off.

    As to regression… I don’t much care for that term. Why “regressive” and not, say, just different? I think it’s wrong to suggest that it’s “backwards” or “dumbing down” to make something that more people happen to enjoy. There’s a case to be made it’s far more difficult, I would say.

    But you make the art you do. Whatever gets your motor running. If you want to write septaheptacuduplets in 41/16 with the dynamics structured by the golden mean in ratio to a transverse-inverted-perverted-pitch-class-set-match, be my guest. There are those who would suggest that abandoning such nonsense would be, in fact, progressive… but do as you will. And if it sounds like a bunch of squonky-bonky, don’t get all boo-hoo when no one outside your thesis advisor gives a crap about your magnum opus. Hey, maybe you’ll get tenure someday. That’ll be fulfilling.


    Unreadable Dept: It was for me as well, with the words all getting lost on the left-hand side of the screen. I found that after upgrading to IE7 the problem went away, but I’m left with the fact that IE7 totally SUCKS. I’m sure the techno-nerds on the board will insist that I should be using Firefox or Opera or some non-MS browser anyway, so point taken nerds, get off my back. But still… you’d think WordPress oughta work with anything IE5+ regardless.

  48. andrea says:

    it’s just a plot on wordpress’ part to rid the world of IE, that’s all. now you have an excuse…

  49. Love is love. Sound is sound. Talk is talk.

  50. Tom Myron says:

    “I think it’s wrong to suggest that it’s “backwards” or “dumbing down” to make something that more people happen to enjoy. There’s a case to be made it’s far more difficult, I would say.”

    Amen, brother.