[Ed. note – Welcome our newest contributor out in the City of Angels, Paul Bailey. Paul is a composer, trombonist and teacher, leader of the Paul Bailey Ensemble, and a good friend to boot. Paul’s own work draws quite a bit on music and culture outside both the standard university and powdered-wig crowd, has a deep dislike of pretention, and has no problem calling them like he hears them.]

For the last week I have been at a loss for what to say about the music presented by the Argento Chamber Ensemble at their concert January 10th at the Zipper Hall “Monday Evening Concert Series.” It was obvious that the stage was filled with a plethora of world-class musicians who throughout the evening ably demonstrated that they all had achieved the very pinnacle of technique on their respective instruments. But with all that musical dexterity to go around I was mostly left cold by the music presented and was even more disappointed that for the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have  attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.

The concert opened with Brian Ferneyhough‘s La Chute d’lcare, which featured an Olympic medal–deserving performance by clarinetist Carol McGonnell, whose effort was minimized by the disjointed orchestration and impenetrable form. Although I didn’t find their performance lacking, after a while the virtuosity being displayed seemed to reflect a video game in which the ensemble plays each successive level of complexity to increase their score.

For me, Joanna Chou‘s solo piano performance of Gerard Pesson‘s La Luminiere n’a pas de bras pour nous porter was the standout performance and composition of the evening. Based on an asymmetrical toneless ostinato, which alternated with white note tone clusters, this was the evening’s best example of “less is more.” Pesson’s other two pieces — La Vita e come l’albero di Aantale (piano and violin) and Non sapremo mai di questo mi (piano, flute, and violin)—were well performed, mercifully short explorations of piano ostinatos which contrasted with the extended performance techniques for piano and flute.

Ending the first half of the concert was Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Let Me Die Before I Wake, which again featured Miss McGonnell’s clarinet expertise (mostly through whispered tones). Although the piece was described by the composer as having “mysterious links with darkness: every bit of light is distilled,” the performance became more of duet with the intermittent dulcet buzzing drones of a slowly dying fluorescent light which I eventually preferred this impromptu duet instead of the more organized solo clarinet performance emanating from the stage.

The second half of the concert featured the much-heralded Fausto Romitelli‘s Professor Bad Trip. Other than some vague reference in the score to Henri Michaux’s experiences under mescaline and four pedantic announcements introducing each section (“Lesson 1,” “Lesson 2,” “Lesson 3,” and “Lesson 4”), it was left open what morals we might ascribe from this evening’s performance. The effect of having an announcer speak at the beginning of each lesson seemed to me about as aesthetically pointless as having an usher come out to tell us when the concert was over. (Not that musically there were any clues as to when each section was complete.) Like much of the evening musicians started and stopped without much discernible development of the musical elements. In many ways Professor Bad Trip was like a listening to wind-up box of 12 instruments chattering independently which somehow happened to stop together every 10-15 minutes.

[Some video of a 2008 performance by the Fiarì Ensemble:]


On a more positive note I can say that the ensemble (and the sound engineers) expertly handled mixing the acoustic and electronic instruments. From personal experience, it’s very hard to decide how to blend these disparate sound sources. Their decision to play through a PA and to degrade the guitar sound through pedals so it would blend better (which it did) worked pretty well. My only problem was at times hearing the guitar out of the center PA above the stage instead of from where the guitarist was sitting, but not a big deal overall. I also felt that Jay Cambell‘s loquacious electric cello jamming was diminished by his awkward switch back to his Ars Antigua violincello. After rocking out, it works better if you acknowledge the audience when switching instruments.

With that point I should wrap up and get to my main frustration with the whole evening—and many other new music evenings I have witnessed. “Witnessed” is really the point, because with very little interaction among the musicians, and only a brief introduction to begin, our part was basically to sit silently for over 2.5 hours and listen to some of the best technical musicians that the academy and conservatory system produce. A little of this music goes a long way, and I know that if I brought many of my friends to a show like this they would have no frame of reference on which to hang their ears. Maybe the problem still is, as Milton Babbitt said, “Who Cares If You Listen”… but in 2011, I’m still hoping that we can move beyond such ivory tower dogma.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.

16 thoughts on “Bad trip indeed”
  1. “I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience.”

    Perhaps the reviewer is confusing “engaging the audience” with “validating their ignorance”. No art form has an obligation to serve ignorant consumers. Education is the obligation of the listener, not the composer or ensemble. Why on earth is the reviewer complaining about sitting in silence for 2.5 hours listening to music? That’s what a new music concert is, and it shouldn’t surprise you. I’m sorry a musician didn’t come find you at intermission and personally explain why it should be relevant to you. Should he or she bring you a cup of tea, too?

    This music is abstract (despite the overt musical referentiality of Professor Bad Trip to psychedelic rock, which the reviewer ignores). If you don’t like it, or don’t want to make any effort to delve into its reason for being, that’s fine (though not very good for music criticism). But to say that one should be able to approach it with no frame of reference, while demanding fulfillment and enjoyment, is ridiculous and lazy. Would you demand the same for any other “difficult” art form? We could rewrite all literature at a first grade reading level, that might make it a little more approachable. And I’m so tired of all those jagged lines in modern art…

    Same thing for labeling anything unpredictable as “ivory tower”: “Oh no, the movement didn’t end with a big cymbal crash so I know when to clap! It is therefore cold and inhuman and I refuse to engage it!” Pretty ironic for a reviewer with a “deep dislike of pretension” to only invalidate anything that doesn’t conform to his subjective tastes.

    If you want the immediate gratification of something predictable and understandable, then go watch a Michael Bay movie instead (assuming, of course, that one has the this previously mentioned “frame of reference” to interpret and enjoy it. Not everyone does.)

  2. I’m afraid that the Babbitt misquote leads one to the conclusion that Mr. Bailey’s reviews will now and always be completely predictable along stylistic lines.

    Phil Fried, no sonic prejudice

  3. Your big problem was going to a Ferneyhough concert. Everyone knows this guy is a do-nothing know-nothing no-talent. It’s completely uncontroversial; people just accept this dismal reality without remarking on it, like the selection of Dubya by the Supreme Court in 2000. Fortunately, no-talents like Ferneyhough don’t define the West coast serious music scene.

    You might want to take a listen to the computer music coming out of Stanford, or to the Gamelan Pacifica up in Seattle, or the various gamelan ensembles at Mills college, or the CNMAT work that combines people like Pauline Oliveros and David Wessel. The League of Automatic Music Composers people are still around (except for Jim Horton): Jim Bischoff, Tim Perkis, David Behrman, and they’re still doing remarkable work. The microtonal concerts put on annually by William Alves are great. Tom Nunn’s edgewalker ensemble using homebuilt xenharmonic instruments is still doing great work.

    None of this music sound complex, though some of it is: it’s just gorgeous. If you confine youself to no-talents like Ferneyhough, you’re gonna be disappointed. If instead you listen to the really good West coast music by people like Loren Rush and William Schottstaedt, you’re going to hear some amazingly great music, none of it especially complex.

  4. “the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.”

    MEC is famously hard-edge, they hire the best musicians possible to play the most difficult music of the past forty years and it’s fantastic. We are talking about a sixty year heritage of presenting the latest and greatest in esoteric music beginning with Schoenberg and Stravinsky (when they were deemed too difficult to listen to).

    But, if this is not your bag then head on over to the west-side and check out Jacaranda, their eclectic programming is fantastic and much less argumentative. I remember a fantastic concert of Rothko Chapel (feldman) followed by Ben Johnston’s fourth string quartet followed by the knee plays from einstein on the beach.

    Or, you could cross the street and see the ultra-experimentalists coming out of cal-arts playing in the Red Cat (hour long indian-style improvisation on a piece from the John Cage Songbooks?). You could go down to USC and see the Contemporary Music Ensemble there or the student composition recitals. You could hear my group (what’s next? ensemble), People Inside Electronics, the LA Percussion Quartet, the California Ear Unit, the Ojai festival or another John Adams love-fest at the LA Phil.

    Complexity doesn’t define new music in LA, diversity does. There are hundreds of new music concerts a year and each group/presenter has built their own individual niche. If you don’t like difficult music then just hop in your car, get stuck in the traffic and drive across town to see something else.

  5. “Frame of reference” needn’t only include historical forebears in composition (dotted along a relatively arbitrary line called “the classics”). There are different steps to Stockhausen, say, than Bach-Beethoven-Mahler-Schoenberg-Webern. Those can seem like pretty big leaps, particular when you’re starting from the beginning of that list. Start somewhere else, however – like Kraftwerk, or information theory, or Piet Mondrian – and those leaps seem far smaller. The differences between a new music audience and a classical music audience would seem to support that. When I talk about expanding or enriching that frame of reference, it’s this sort of “reading around” the subject that I’m referring to.

    (Incidentally, that’s an argument that contemporary music – contrary to the myth – is actually *more* embedded in the concerns of wider society than traditional concert music because its aesthetic reference extends beyond the narrow canon of historical music.)

  6. Steve,

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of the High Fidelity article. But I’d urge you to put it in historical context. Babbitt had endured a great deal of indifference, criticism, and hostility already by that time. His foray into musical theatre, with the attendant debacles that often occur in “show business,” had left him disenchanted with the commercialism then on the rise in popular music and media in the late 40s/early 50s.

    While the current trend on the part of many composers is outreach and wide engagement, Babbitt was hardly the only modernist at that time who felt that a specialist audience was the best environment in which to cultivate creative work. I’m not suggesting his approach is the one we should adopt today, but I hardly think it was as polarizing and vehement as his worst critics have indicated.

  7. The “frame of reference” comment points up one of the difficulties in the understanding and enjoyment of new music for general audiences. Since the average classical concert goer still considers Stravinsky a difficult listen, let alone Schoenberg or Varese, there is a considerable gap between the understanding of Wagner or Mahler and today’s new compositions. Composers draw on a long historical line of musical aesthetics. What can seem a simple step from Shostokovich to Schnittke to today’s composer, can be a canyon wide leap for audiences who are still challenged by Berg, or Ives.

  8. Aaron Cassidy writes:

    “[Dear Ed. – if your new reviewer, who ‘tells it like he sees it’, sees the form of La chute d’Icare as ‘impenetrable’, you might consider getting a new reviewer.]”

    Hold on, surely contributors should be allowed to express difficulties in coming to terms with works, or, more simply, to express why they don’t like them? It’s a dull conversation where only people who like and “understand” an art work are present.

    And anyway, I think Cassidy’s “imbalance between […] the structure, and the intricacy and instability of local level materials” and Bailey’s “disjointed organisation” are only different ways of expressing a shared difficulty with the work. I don’t like it much for the same (very broad) reasons – it’s not confused enough for me. I like Ferneyhough when you can completely switch off and not think about structure.

  9. “In a way which might be opposite to that which he seems to be aiming for, I find it appeals much more to my heart and body than to my head.”

    I suspect that you will find that is exactly what he is aiming for.

  10. Anyone who can get to the University of London on 23rd Feb wll have a chance to hear La Chute d’Icare as it’s being performed at the end of a Ferneyhough Symposium there. http://music.sas.ac.uk/imr-events/imr-conferences-colloquia-performance-events/brian-ferneyhough-a-symposium.html

    I always get this strange ambivalent feeling approaching Ferneyhough. My gut instinct finds the wilfully obscure hyperintellectualism with which he and his acolytes surround his music very off-putting. Audiences have to act in that cultivatededly accepting and “in-group” way when he interpellates them as “intellectuals”. If only Bourdieu was writing “Distinction” today.

    Yet, as long as I ignore the recondite Greek texts, the pointlessness of making someone play 5 against 7 as part of a 21 against 29 when an inaudible alteration would make the piece accessible to more players, and so on, I find the actual sound world is quite sensual and dazzling, like watching tropical fish shimmer around in a tank. In a way which might be opposite to that which he seems to be aiming for, I find it appeals much more to my heart and body than to my head.

  11. With all due respect, I thought the concert was brilliant throughout. Professor Bad Trip was the work of the noughts – absolutely astonishing in the depth and the richness of its conception and sound world. And I can’t understand lumping the Ferneyhough in with the Pesson or Romitelli (which, BTW, has only 3 lessons, even if they felt like 4 to the reviewer). The Pesson was charming and witty throughout – and the Romitelli hilarious in its own reflexive play with conventions. I realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste; I attended the concert with a non-musician who didn’t share my enthusiasm for Romitelli, but turned to me at the end and declared “that Ferneyhough rocked!”

    Just a second (and third) opinion.

  12. “[F]or the last ten years many of new music concerts that I have attended in Southern California (and more specifically at Zipper Hall) seem to equate complexity with aesthetic and artistic depth.”

    “[…]with very little interaction among the musicians, and only a brief introduction to begin, our part was basically to sit silently for over 2.5 hours and listen to some of the best technical musicians that the academy and conservatory system produce. ”

    I have the same observation very often– but more frequently at concerts of standard rep than at concerts of new music. This argument could be as easily applied to a Paganini capriccio or Liszt sonata as to “New Complexity” works, though these two camps are worlds apart.

    If this music is too caught up in the “ivory tower dogma,” then why not let it live there in peace and try to critique it in its own context? It seems a fool’s errand trying to expect anything else out of composers who have inhabited it for so long. I think it’s a little unfair to go to a concert like this and expect something you know you’re not going to get. Not saying I’m a die-hard Ferneyhough or Sciarrino fan, or that the music couldn’t be presented in a more accessible way (program notes, panel discussions, etc.)– but I think it’s unfair (or at least not constructive) to write/publish a negative review of these works performed by this ensemble because the reviewer has an ideological bone to pick with the composers. Or maybe that’s just the trouble with trying to figure out how to write about music that’s sometimes intentionally impenetrable…

  13. I probably count as a little bit select and die-hard, but I don’t think that means the music I like is any less valid!

    Paul, it’s a pity you didn’t enjoy this concert more than you say you did. Sure, the Ferneyhough is a particularly tough nut (although I’d argue for ‘difficult to penetrate’ rather than ‘impenetrable’), but the rest makes up a relatively accessible, varied and pretty exciting looking programme. I would have killed to have seen this in London. You’re right that it doesn’t make much sense without a suitable frame of reference, but I challenge anyone to find anything that makes sense without an appropriate frame of reference. It’s simply a question of the scale and/or intricacy of that reference.

    I don’t know nearly as much Romitelli as I would like to (and his sadly premature demise means that there’s not nearly as much of his music around as any of us would like), but I was really surprised by your description of Professor Bad Trip – the 5-minute video clip you post is nothing but development of its opening few notes – if anything, it could be accused of sticking too pedantically to its original materials (although the sound of the same sliding into the different is part of the point of FR’s music as I hear it). “it was left open what morals we might ascribe …” – isn’t openness a good thing? Freedom for the listener, rather than diktats from an omnipotent composer?

    Glad you like the Pesson, by the way – I think we’ll all be hearing more from him in future years. Those interested should check out Mes béautitudes on the Aeon label (easily available via online retailers and streaming sites).

  14. You’re right Christian; Babbitt was pleading the case for the composer to be allowed the same academic status, support and protected environment as say, a theoretical mathematician or physicist. But I think he did himself — and new music — no favors in the article, in two ways: 1) claiming that contemporary compositional “research” was wholly analogous to scientific research; 2) promoting the idea that there’s not only no reason to expect any “layman” to understand or appreciate this music, but that there’s no real need to even engage an audience at all, except of one’s peers.

    Both ideas are quite plainly presented in the original, which anyone can read in full here:


    One quick quote:

    “I say all this not to present a picture of a virtuous music in a sinful world, but to point up the problems of a special music in an alien and inapposite world. And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism. … But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival or the composer and his music? One answer is that after all such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university, which-significantly-has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the ‘complex,’ ‘difficult,’ and ‘problematical’ in music.”

  15. Paul,

    Welcome to the Sequenza 21 community. I hope we’ll be reading a lot more from you here.

    A correction: Milton Babbitt didn’t title his article “Who Cares if You Listen:” it was added by High Fidelity’s editor without his input or consent. His title was “The Composer as Specialist.” The article was meant to advocate for an equal place for composers in academe, with their creative work being held in esteem and supported as research, which at the time was anything but the norm. We seem to be headed that way again, with music theory taking priority over composition in most job postings for teaching positions in higher education.

    It’s bothered Babbitt ever since that he’s been taken to task over and over again about a sound byte that he neither wrote nor sanctioned. In fact, when I wrote a feature about him for Signal to Noise, my editor titled it “He Cares if You Listen:” a gesture which pleased Milton far more than High Fidelity’s mis-titling.

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