In a recent piece for Slate , musicologist Jan Swafford took readers on a little tour of contemporary music that has yielded a fair share of controversy. Mind you, that Slate is publishing a piece on contemporary concert music (or, as Swafford puts it, “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it”) for a general readership is a very good thing. But I wonder if we couldn’t do better than Mr. Swafford’s myopic, narrow-minded and patronizing article.

For the record—and right off the bat—let me state that I agree with Mr. Swafford’s ultimate message that “(t)he archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum ‘Make it good or make it bad, but make it new.’ I suggest that it’s time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it. (Emphasis mine.) Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake (sic) make it good.”

Let’s, by all means, stop worrying about categories and just care about the quality of the work presented. Categories will sort themselves out. This is something for future musicologists to do, not present ones. But Mr. Swafford spends the bulk of his article before this point doing precisely the hair splitting he is decrying (or have I missed the point? Is he really decrying the fact that none of the music he samples—save perhaps his own – is any good?).

Fine, you might say; he’s splitting hairs. Isn’t that his prerogative as a musicologist? Sure, I would say; if only he’d bothered doing more than just cursory research for examples that prove his point.

For example: in his definition of “academic brutalism” he cites an excerpt from Jefferson Friedman’s Eight Songs, a “real colonoscopy of a piece” that consists of transcriptions of songs by “the noise band Crom-Tech” which Friedman made for the Yesaroun’ Duo in 2004. On the basis of this piece alone, Mr. Swafford catalogs Friedman as an “academic brutalist.” While Friedman doesn’t appear to be associated with a university at the present time (shouldn’t an “academic” anything be involved primarily in academia?), a quick glance at Mr. Friedman’s music page on his website quickly reveals that he is far from an academic anything and not merely a “brutalist.” Sure, the particular example of Eight Songs Mr. Swafford cites is pretty brutal, but, from what I can gleam in a quick excursion into Crom-Tech’s work via YouTube, it’s a pretty faithful evocation of the original source material. Given that “aesthetic brutalists” (by way of Xenakis) “want to hurt you” one might be surprised, when one samples, say, Friedman’s 78 or his haunting (and rightly revered) String Quartet no. 2. Mr. Friedman, if anything, would fit in what Kyle Gann would call a totalist style (a problematic label as well, to be sure, but one which I increasingly find useful for music that has roots traceable to minimalism but also welcoming higher degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance as well as influences from rock, pop as well as other “classical” genres), but mostly one is struck by its shear pleasantness. This is incredibly rewarding music to listen to that is far from hurtful and straying far from the pandering banality that can trap all but the most skilled composers of what Swafford calls the “new niceness” (seriously, what about the term Neo-Romanticism fails to apply here?).

I won’t even get into Swafford’s description of a “lecture by a young academic brutalist” whom he refused to name, but who has identified himself to his friends on Facebook (I’ll try to extend some respect to Mr. Swafford by continuing to keep our “young academic brutalist” anonymous in this forum, though I really hope he comes out with a more formal reply to the Slate article than a brief discussion on Facebook).

I’m writing for an audience of connoisseurs here, so it’s a little redundant of me to say that “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it” is a LOT of things far beyond the limited and limiting list of malformed categories Mr. Swafford has devised. And, to be fair to Mr. Swafford, I don’t think he’s suggesting that his list is exhaustive or representative of even a majority of the styles of concert music today. But it is disingenuous, patronizing and ridiculous to frame your explanation of the “new noises” in a tone that barely hides your contempt for this music. If this is advocacy, please, stop doing us any favors!

15 thoughts on “New Noises Hardly Explained”
  1. You describe Swafford as a “musicologist”, Swafford identifies himself as a “composer”. What’s up? Can anyone point me to some of Swafford’s music?

  2. Christian Carey says “I fail to see how Swafford’s article would encourage a single person to listen to contemporary music with open ears.” I offer myself as a counterexample. I am familiar with, and enjoy, some late-20th-century music, such as Ligeti and Lutoslawski. But I was unfamiliar with the new music Swafford mentioned. I clicked on his links and listened with great interest. I look forward to hearing more.

  3. As to Jan Swafford it seems odd to me that one would frame an argument about style on the least know composer mentioned, and to complain not about a composition but an arrangement. Otherwise I like it the article. I myself have no truck with those improvisors/composers/sound artists who do nothing but play loud.

    That is a fact but it is also only my opinion.

  4. Mischa,

    You are wrong about my intentions. I don’t read Slate for scholarly articles. But I do read them for well-informed pieces, not drive-by invective.

    And “writing respectfully” is something in a different universe from Swafford’s piece.

    By the way, I always read critics with an eye toward learning something. Alex Ross, Steve Smith, Olivia Giovetti, Kyle Gann, Frank J. Oteri, and many many others – are able to teach me countless things about music, all the while making their preferences clear. Even if they dislike a composer’s work, they never denigrate it with cheap shots.

  5. Hi Christian,

    I hear what you’re saying about humor and tone. I actually think we are arguing for the mutual goal of writing respectfully for an audience that may not have the specialized education to parse out the jokes from the serious. I’m defending Jan’s piece because I’m shooting for more humor, more casual writing, and less hand-holding (as an ideal), while I believe you’re looking for something that gives the audience credit by engaging their intellectual capacity to be open to something unfamiliar but scholarly. I hope I’m not reading you wrong, there, but criticism does certainly need a middle ground.

    Another quick word about tone in general with respect to reviews: Now more than ever a restaurant has to be on its best behavior during the first month after opening, after which point websites like statistically lose much of their sway. What amazes me is that some schmo with a thing for food and sharing his thoughts can effectively doom a restaurant. Meanwhile, over in music, I get the sense that we often judge criticism long before we finish the article. Not necessarily the situation in the case of Jan’s piece, but this is just a sign to me that when it comes to music, we aren’t reading criticism to learn something- just to reaffirm our prior beliefs with regard to both tone AND content. Just a thought.

  6. Craig and Mischa,

    If you write something insulting, but then say that you don’t “really mean it,” is that any less insulting? Do we need potty humor to discuss music with Slate’s readers? I’d prefer that they be given more credit.

    Does it make the research any less shoddy to lump someone into a category that doesn’t fit on a piece by piece basis?

    Glad you enjoyed your classes with Swafford. I hope Slate hires someone else in the future. An astute critic he’s not, and he’s certainly no great humorist.

  7. Hi all,

    I too should disclose my bias, as Mischa did. I was also a student of Jan’s at the Boston Conservatory, and did study privately with him.

    I’ll also agree with Jeff via Mischa in that the discussion seems to be more about the tone of the article, or the perceived humor rather than the substance. So I’ll offer some context. We are not Jan’s audience. His audience was Slate readers. Slate is a current events web magazine that is often very witty. Dahlia Lithwick, their member of the Supreme Court press corps, has been called “either the funniest Supreme Court reporter, or a comedian who’s only topic is the Supreme Court.” Up until recently, two of their editors were boiling down about 3 weeks worth of news in to “Barack Obama’s Facebook Feed.” Slate readers expect the articles they read to be funny, and as Mischa suggested, that certainly does help to grab people’s attention. Describing someone’s music as a “colonoscopy” is (in my mind, as well as Jan’s) quite grabbing and funny. Whether we want our music described as such is another discussion, but I am certain that Jan did not intend it to be an insult (in fact he says so in the article).

    I want to make one last point about Armando’s assertion that Jan’s research is shoddy. Note that Jan never said that Friedman is an aesthetic brutalist himself. He did say that the “Crom-Tech Songs” fall under that label. Jan acknowledges this in his own reply to the controversy here –


  8. Hi all-

    Armando, thanks so much for posting this response. Sorry to be a latecomer to this discussion, but I really gotta jump in, if anyone’s still reading…. (Full disclosure- I was a student of Jan’s at the Boston Conservatory during my recent masters; not privately, but we have a really rewarding mutual respect and academic relationship).

    I am inclined to agree with Jeff that what we are picking at is the tone, not the substance per se. As for the tone: snarky comments are kind of par for the course if we want to capture audiences. While snark might not be a great goal, I also hesitate to maintain our current attitude (also pointed at by Brian) that the only path to new listeners is through gentle hand-holding into our world. While Jan’s article is a little aggressive in tone, it is also very funny, and I think if anything it challenges the curious to see what he’s actually talking about. At that point I’d hope we can all give the uninitiated enough credit to make up their minds for themselves.

    As for aesthetics: During my year of composition seminar with Jan, one of his refrains was an observation of how musical urgency, so manifest in Beethoven, fosters a sense of power in sound. It is my interpretation of this (not his), that this sense of power can lead to sounds regarded as unpleasant. He talked often of his revelatory first hearing of Stockhausen’s “Hymnen” and “Zyklus”, as well as the entrancing sounds of Xenakis and Scelsi. However, he was the first to compliment me on my use of an Irish folksong as the generative material for my thesis composition, which ultimately worked out to be conventionally pretty. He appreciated it’s “GOOD”-ness.

    I suspect that we still have this unfortunate sense that the brutal is meant to be interpreted as wrong and bad. Throughout the history of art the use of self-induced (or -accepted) pain has been a major communicative force. I believe that what Jan terms “brutalism” is a natural outgrowth of our fascination with the deeply sorrowful, the unsettled, and the shockingly loud. It is a new side to an old aesthetic. My take on Jefferson Friedman’s Eight Songs is that this piece presents itself as unmistakeably confrontation. It IS INDEED trying to assault your ears, and if you’ve ever heard it live, as Jan and I have, it is rewarding in the extreme. So there’s pain, but pain certainly does not equate with bad.

    Niceness to me is a capitalizing on the notion that sounds popular in the familiar music of the broader artistic marketplace are palettable. I mean no disrespect here, but there is a difference between the polite and the conventionally beautiful.

    Lastly, it is hard to deny that when observing the intentions of a lot of composers (not all, but this is evident in many), we can identify some camps- those who work with process (possibly in reaction to older methods); those who don’t have an interest in offending an audience (as these composers may see it); and those who don’t have an interest in coddling the audience (as these composers may see it). All are just fine, but I believe the sound is part of our vocabulary, and ultimately these divergent streams tend not to ignore each other completely. Like Jan, I believe in goodness as a goal. I also believe that too much music these days is a response to a response to a response.

    Thanks for bearing with me. I’d love to know if you all have more thoughts!

  9. Brian,

    First off, as to New York: I’ve addressed this issue in the past and will let those words serve as a response here (even if, a year later, I do feel that my view on the issue has become more nuanced, though, admittedly, primarily because I’ve since made some admittedly humble inroads into the NYC new music scene myself).

    As to Beethoven and democratization: it may be good or bad, that’s not the point. It happened. Beethoven, in fact, was not responsible for it; the socio-economic changes in European society happening at the turn of the 19th century were responsible for this aesthetic change. Beethoven was just the first significant composer to successfully navigate those turbulent waters and, thus, became a convenient symbol for later generations of music lovers and music professionals, for good AND ill.

    As to audience: fine, we assume what an audience wants, but any artist will do that through the lens of her/his own experience as an audience member. I would hope that one creates the artwork one wants to consume and, in the process, knows, by knowing oneself, the kind of audience one’s work is likeliest to attract. But, before one attracts a passive audience, one needs to attract an ACTIVE one of musicians who will become our music’s advocates. One doesn’t do this merely by worrying about “troublesome F#s that just don’t ‘sound right.” Art does not take place in a vacuum. Even art that can be created in near total isolation (painting, poetry, fiction writing, electronic music, etc.) is, ideally, engaged in a larger cultural dialogue simply because its creators are, by virtue of being human, themselves engaged in a larger cultural dialogue. To seek out isolationism for the sake of total abstraction strikes me, at least, as akin to living under the proverbial rock and leads to such classic neo-fascist pronouncements as “the composer who has not truly experienced the historical necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS.”

    Jeff’s contention that “Good art is always made by quirky folks who just do whatever the hell they want to” goes along with this. Both these positions have bought into the Historicist myth that has had such a stranglehold on musical aesthetics since the mid-19th century and which prices innovation above all else (something, mind you, that Swafford, in his original article, was arguing AGAINST!). Like Swafford, I think this is an idea that needs to be “take(n) out back and shot.”

  10. Composerly friends,

    I’m often succinct with my comments and often this comes across as snarky or annoyed, neither or which are true (in this case), so I just wanted to apologize in advance if I seem to be either. 🙂 A few notes about me: I despise that we are all hung up on titles (I got into it with the esteemed Mr. Gann a few years ago upon his branding of some piece or such as one new “-ism” and promptly received flames for it), I am not a fan of how NYC dominates the music scene because it really comes across as pretentious, and I don’t like The Man, in general.

    Armando: “I don’t think that the tone that Swafford adopts in his piece will help attract ANYBODY to any music he cites (except perhaps his own, which really has no place in such an article.” Honestly, the way he described “academic brutalism” was intriguing to me, as it suggested a raw power that, quite frankly, I don’t feel at all in contemporary music, regardless of school of thought (ie. “post-Romantic”, “post-minimalism”, etc…) I’m ok with that. Really.

    Armando: “[…] his research is shoddy […]”: Agreed. And there is never an excuse for that. Ever.

    Armando: about how Beethoven and the early 19th century: “[…] highly democratized music […]”: I’m not convinced this was a good thing. If any of you are going to be in Aspen on 01 August, I invite you to come hear my presentation at the Aspen Composers’ Conference that delves into the Kandinsky dialectic of cultural vs. artistic relevance. The issue is too complex to get into on a message board, but I did just want to raise awareness as to the idea of a piece of “art” (whatever that means) being one or the other and why — through logical reasoning, mind you — they cannot be one AND the other. But anyway … the idea of “democratizing art (ie. ‘music’)” is a contentious one which must be explored. After all, if I said that Issac Mizrahti should be proclaimed as an individual who “democratized design” and made “good design” (whatever THAT means) available to all people, I’m fairly certain that a few of you (as well as most “serious” designers might take issue with that. I guess that what I’m saying (in a very constrained manner) is that just because we can all have access to it doesn’t mean that it’s “good” for the artform.

    Jeff: “All we have are people who kiss uptown or downtown ass […]”: Exactly. Moreover, we deal with the media who is too damned lazy to do their jobs and get out there and listen to music that’s NOT NYC or Jennifer Higdon (no offense intended or implied, this is simply the truth). I remember that I wrote a review for a concert whilst I was in grad school that stated one of the composers’ works was “akin to Chopin”. This was not meant as an insult or as a bad review, it was a statement of fact. After the summer break was over, I went in for my first comp session of the year and was told, “I read your article. You don’t write reviews like that.” My professor was genuinely displeased by it because it didn’t come across as wholly complementary. The reason why I bring it up here is because so many times composers and reviewers alike ASSUME they know how the public would take a review without checking themselves first and realizing that they are individuals who have been in the “real world of music” for a good deal longer than the mass public. Composers/reviewers do that all the time, ASSUMING. We’ve seen it twice above in this very thread, people ASSUMING that just because an article says this music “wants to hurt you” it’s a bad thing. Maybe — for other educated composers AS WELL AS the public — they WANT to be hurt. Maybe they want a piece to jump up and grab them by the throats and not let go. Maybe they want to hear a “new niceness” because of the fact that conservatories cram “old niceness” down the gullets of performers and audience members alike. Maybe the audience WANTS to hear a piece that is reminiscent of Chopin.

    The point being is this: you don’t KNOW what the audience wants to hear, you assume it. I would contend that if you stopped assuming what the audience wants and stopped “kissing uptown and downtown ass”
    and concentrated on your craft as a composer/reviewer and wrote what you wanted, regardless of whether or not a work is “cutting edge”, then maybe — just maybe — we, as a collective, would get back to honest music making. Don’t worry about how the public would take this article. Worry about that troublesome F# that just doesn’t “sound right” to you … and make it sound right. To you.

  11. It’s interesting seeing who absolutely hates this article and who pretty much just accepts it as flawed. The haters don’t seem to want to accept the fact (while not admitting to disagree) that his basic premise that we’re in a new space now, a space where the boundaries of what’s possible, what’s permissible, what’s going to work have essentially been drawn. AND the point is now to do something GOOD with it. It would seem the GOOD word is what they really hate. I’ve seen quite a few commentaries, on FB and G+, Twitter, and they all attack his obvious strange position, X being a spectralist, etc. without countering this basic premise.

    Over the past year, I’ve been seeing numerous acquaintances and friends on FB, including Ian Pace, et al, declaring that they’re sick of contemporary music, that nothing new is being done, that we’re just re-treading the 60’s and 70’s. So, it’s not just a few of us that feel this way any more it’s actually a lot I suspect.

    The people who play to the historicism venue, who re-write their teacher’s music with a little twist, who invent new notation systems while essentially just writing the same piece, who capitalize on the investments already made in minimalism and hyper-modernism are the going to be the losers in this new world.

    Good art is always made by quirky folks who just do whatever the hell they want to. The conservatives always claim that historically, Bach, Brahms. were historicists too. No, every great artist has been a quirky loner, taking risks possibly within a conservative sphere or a constrained sphere, but quirky enough to be dismissable in his/her own time.

    Bring the new reality on… but hell who’s going to write about it? We have no critics! All we have are folks who kiss downtown or uptown ass but never say whether it’s good or bad or not. That needs to fundamentally change for THE GOOD to rise to the top. We’re screwed… because of this. We need a new elite with balls who can say, this piece sucks. I haven’t read a review like that in years.

    In a world of critical cowardice, THE GOOD can never succeed.

  12. Brian,

    I fail to see how Swafford’s article would encourage a single person to listen to contemporary music with open ears. Moreover, it will probably turn away many people who haven’t heard contemporary music, dissuading them from ever trying. It was mean-spirited, ill-informed, and poorly researched.

    If this is “correct,” I’d prefer to be wrong all day long.

  13. Brian,

    Thank you for your comment (and for alerting me to it on Twitter). Swafford gets points for trying, I suppose, but the problems with his article, I think, end up undermining his attempts at advocacy. But I’m repeating myself by saying so.

    I don’t think that the tone that Swafford adopts in his piece will help attract ANYBODY to any music he cites (except perhaps his own, which really has no place in such an article. Composers, when writing about other composers, should keep the fact that they’re composers to themselves, otherwise, I think–and others like Swafford and Kyle Gann, whom I greatly respect and admire, mind you, might disagree–it clouds their argument with a veneer of perceived self-interest). There’s a condescension to his tone that is ultimately offensive and ends up playing into the hands of the typical “that’s not music” argument.

    That and his research is shoddy and lazy, as I demonstrate with TWO examples from Jefferson Friedman which highly contrast Swafford’s example of Jeff’s work as an “academic brutalist.”

    As far as boxed communities go: yes, music, for most of its history, was an elitist art form which only a very select and often quite literally ennobled few were ever allowed to enjoy. This changed towards the beginning of the 19th century with the rise of populist nationalist movements and the spread of democratic revolutions in the wake of the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. Hence, Mozart struggled mightily to attain a court position to secure his living while Beethoven learned to navigate the new environment to become music’s first successful freelancer and, in essence, highly democratizing the experience of music (AND unwittingly becoming the founding composer par excellence of the Historicist movement, the New German School and, more widely, the Hegelian Dialectic, which bequeathed us modernism, academic total serialism and, more widely, fascism and eugenics. Talk about a mixed bag!).

    Yes, music was and is often experienced within a closed community. Does that mean that composers and other musicians should be allowed to live in a cultural bubble, writing for an “elect few?” If you ask me , that is a recipe for starvation, both personal and artistic as well as socially irresponsible. I’m not saying that I expect everyone to like our little niche of a niche music nor am I saying that I, personally, write for a wide, commercial audience that expects merely to be entertained. The audience for what we do works hard to meet us halfway. We owe them at least as much, and patronizing platitudes in no way help to do so. That’s the sort of “advocacy” our music does not need.

  14. I agree with you on several fronts, but through my lens, your restatement of his quote which reads thusly: “I’m writing for an audience of connoisseurs here, so it’s a little redundant of me to say that “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it” actually speaks to a larger theme. In so many ways, we — composers and our ilk — are a boxed in community and we always have *been* a boxed in community dating back to the olden days of yore … By “olden days of yore” I am, of course, referring to Renaissance courtly music. You could, ostensibly, go back even further to Medieval church music. Or even further to the works of long forgotten Greek musicians, writing for the plays of Sophocles and Plato: the fact remains that this art that we term music is, was, and always has been an art for the elect few who actually care to educate themselves as to it’s quirks and proclivities. That being said, this idea of advocating for an artform is relatively new in the Grand Scheme of Things. Yes, the article was flawed on many levels, but at the same time you must remember that he was, indeed, “advocating” or “informing” or whatever else you wish to deem it, to the general public and, as such, will necessarily read differently than if we were in a room talking to our elect few. Credit is due to him in that at least he tried and if that article — as tasteless as some of you may find it — gets ONE PERSON to listen to something by any one of us, then both he and it have done their job.

    You are correct, Armando. And, that being said, so is Jan.

  15. Great response, Armando. I would also love to see a response piece written by our unnamed “brutalist” composer published by Slate! Although it is my hope that we are avoiding another “Querelle des Bouffons” – as seen on YouTube comments every single day – it is refreshing to see composers reply with something other than blind allegiance to an article on our craft. I love to see contemporary music talked about outside of our own small circle, but if this is the kind of article musicologists are going to produce perhaps they should stick to re-writing the same academic books over and over.

    (See, composers can be snarky about YOUR craft, too. Hiyo!)

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