Monday, May 20, 2013

Hating Modern Music

I've just run across a cluster of articles about why people hate "contemporary classical music". I scare-quote the phrase because every time someone uses it people point out in the comments how it is a contradiction in terms. Well, the phrase "modern music" has problems too! I'm going to have to wax a bit philosophical and say we need to define some terms. Let's do it with history.

Bach didn't think of himself as writing "classical" music or "baroque" music either. He just thought of writing music for the church, or the cafe (some of his concertos were written to be performed in a cafe), or in a chamber music concert for the nobility or to test out an organ or whatever. Beethoven didn't think of himself as writing "classical" music either, just music.

The whole problem of categorizing or classifying music is really one of marketing, which means that it didn't come along until the 19th century when a huge middle class market for music opened up. As time went on symphonic, chamber and domestic music was joined by other categories: "folk" and "popular". Now we are beset by a host of genres from hip-hop to death metal to dance pop to alt country. So "classical" music, in whatever form, becomes just another genre and a niche genre at that! But in terms of history, "classical" music is central and the others, with the exception of genuine folk music, are spin-offs.

Now with that in mind, let's look at a couple of these articles. Here is one by Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise and classical music critic for The New Yorker. Here is the core of his argument:
The core problem is, I suspect, neither physiological nor sociological. Rather, modern composers have fallen victim to a long-smouldering indifference that is intimately linked to classical music's idolatrous relationship with the past. Even before 1900, people were attending concerts in the expectation that they would be massaged by the lovely sounds of bygone days. ("New works do not succeed in Leipzig," a critic said of the premiere of Brahms's First Piano Concerto in 1859.)
The music profession became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces.
What must fall away is the notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls. Such an attitude undercuts not only 20th-century composers but also the classics it purports to cherish. Imagine Beethoven's rage if he had been told that one day his music would be piped into railway stations to calm commuters and drive away delinquents. Listeners who become accustomed to Berg and Ligeti will find new dimensions in Mozart and Beethoven. So, too, will performers. For too long, we have placed the classical masters in a gilded cage. It is time to let them out.
If Ross is ruling out the possibility of classical music offering a consoling beauty, then I think he is ruling out a very large part of its aesthetic value. Ross also pointed out that contemporary visual artists have been promoted in an completely different way, one that seems to have been very successful as their works sell for astonishingly large sums of money. The blogger A. C. Douglas of Sounds & Fury responded to Alex Ross here. Here is the central part of that response:
That perceived lack may be due a listener's untrained and/or unrefined musical sensibilities, but more often than not — far more often than not — it's due a real lack in the music itself; a music too often obsessed with sound and process per se rather than with musical ideas and their development in which sound and process are simply and properly naught but means to an end and the business of the composer exclusively and not of his music's listeners.
On hearing a new, wildly dissonant piece for the first time, a listener may be shocked initially by that dissonance, but will readily come to not only accept it, but embrace it if it's perceived as an inseparable organic element of a coherent, audibly perceptible musical narrative. That's why so much of, say, Bartók's wildly dissonant music is today part of the classical music canon, and why almost all of, say, Karlheinz Stockhausen's or Pierre Boulez's music will never be...
The third article is a bit different. It is in the form of a dialogue between someone who wants to understand contemporary music and her friend who is knowledgeable. Who is Jaime Green? Well, she is a writer, certainly, but at least half of her articles seem to be about food. Let's call her a "lifestyle" journalist. She goes to a concert of music by Gabriel Kahane, known for a song-cycle using texts from Craigslist, and finds herself not enjoying a lot of the more contemporary sounds in the concert. So she enlists the help of a supposedly knowledgeable friend to help her 'get' contemporary music. Her friend is not identified so we have little idea of his actual expertise. I suggest you go read the whole dialogue.

One of the first things that strikes me is how odd their discussion is. Here is Jaime's first question:
Jaime: There were two big questions I was left with after the performance: dissonance vs. lack of melody, and appreciation vs. enjoyment—or vs. effect. The first is sort of a terminology thing, a where-does-this-fit-in-the-world-of-music. The second is more about purpose.
Well, she calls them questions... Honestly, I hardly know what she is talking about. I'm sure she knows what melody is, so, ok, lack of melody bothered her. But does she know what dissonance is? Because I don't see what opposing these two very different things "dissonance vs. lack of melody" is about. What is the question? The second "question" is even more peculiar. What could she possibly mean by "appreciation vs. enjoyment"? How is it "about purpose"? So, if it were me, about all I could say to this would be "what do you mean exactly?" Her friend just moves on and asks if there were sections she enjoyed more and less. Later on the friend makes sort of an odd comment. After he says that it is perfectly ok for Jaime not to enjoy some kinds of music he says:
I think for several reasons contemporary classical music hasn't allowed listeners, or maybe invited listeners, to have that same sort of context that allows them to approach pieces with some confidence in their personal viewpoint.
Again, there is something rather odd about the way this is put. Is this an "under 35" thing that I couldn't possibly understand? Because it sounds to me that the implication here is that contemporary classical music has to treat its listeners with kid gloves. Hold their hands. Give them a context that somehow flatters their "personal viewpoint". So you grew up listening to Eminem and now you wander into a concert of Stravinsky or Gabriel Kahane and you just don't get it? It must be our fault, we in the classical music world. We didn't give you a context or something.

Look, there are quite a few young composers that are writing very consumable music these days and more power to them. Sometimes it is called "minimal" or "beat-oriented". But there are other composers that are a bit more difficult to "get". What I am missing in this whole discussion is the important concept that some things are easy and others more difficult. In order to get into the more difficult things you have to do some work. It is not necessarily the job of the artist to give you the context. Sometimes you have to give yourself the context. Is it absolutely beyond the pale to say to a young and inexperienced listener that she should pick up a book on music? Learn something and see if that helps? But no, from this discussion that would seem to be unheard of. No, it is all about the delicate sensibilities of the listener. What turns her on or off. OK, but that is the terminal point of the discussion. There is no sense that these sensibilities have been formed by a lifetime of a certain kind of listening and if you want to do a different kind of listening you have to prepare yourself.

How I approached music was first by listening a little bit, then learning to play a little bit, then reading a bit of history, then learning a bit of theory, then listening to more challenging music and so on. If you put very little into music, you might get very little out.

One thing that seems to hang over classical music like a spectre is its origins in music for the European aristocracy. Let me qualify that a bit: some of the older music--Gregorian chant, Medieval dance music--and newer music like virtuoso music of the 19th century, was not intended for the aristocracy in particular. But the core classical repertoire from the Renaissance into the 19th century was written for and enjoyed largely by the aristocracy. Which means that in our time, when cultural analysis based on class, race and gender is all-powerful, the main arbiters of culture are actually opposed to much classical music, or are at least made uneasy by it.

But the truth is that the aristocracy, judging by the music written for them, were a very aware group with highly developed aesthetic sensibilities. Let's listen to a piece written to be performed for one or two or at most several aristocratic listeners. Here is Hopkinson Smith playing music by "Le Vieux Gaultier":

I'm not sure that Jaime would 'get' this music either...


Nathan Shirley said...

Good to learn about Sounds & Fury, I'll have to take a look. It is amazing to me that this concept is so rare.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sometimes I think that ALL concepts regarding music are getting rarer and rarer!