Saturday, December 21, 2013

"absurdly overcomposed monstrosities"

I have been reading, with great interest, a collection of essays by Richard Taruskin called The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays that was published at the end of 2008. To anyone interested in the kinds of ideology that often have surrounded the composition, performance and enjoyment of music in the last one hundred years or so, this book is really invaluable. But be prepared to see just about everyone's ox being gored. Sacred cows are fair game in this book. And not the easy, low-hanging (to mix a metaphor) sacred cows that I often go after like Andrew Lloyd Weber or silly pop music. No, au contraire, Richard Taruskin takes on the biggest of big game: Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, the Early Music Movement, everyone that everyone else just says nice things about.

The quote I have selected for my title, "absurdly overcomposed monstrosities" comes from an essay titled "The Poietic Fallacy" that drills down into one of the most pervasive and unfortunate ideological positions, and one that has dominated classical music for well over 100 years. As Taruskin puts it:
the conviction that what matters most (or more strongly yet, that all that matters) in a work of art is the making of it, the maker's input.
Let me contrast that with the opposing view, that what matters most, or more strongly yet, all that matters, is the pleasure that the listener derives from the music. The compositional virtuosity, the influence on other composers, all this is really secondary to the enjoyment of the listener. This might seem obvious, but the fact is that virtually the whole of the modernist aesthetic is based on the opposite, the total denial of the rights or relevance of the listener's response. A typical strategem is to describe all music that listeners actually enjoy as being "superficial", "vulgar", even "reactionary". One of the primary theorists of the poietic fallacy was Theodor Adorno, who despised all jazz and popular music.

No, the important thing, for modernist ideologues is not whether the poor listener is given something to enjoy, but whether the music is "serious", whether it fulfills the correct compositional criteria. As Taruskin comments,
The twelve-tone method was invented precisely to produce the sort of maximized motivic consistency and saturated texture that analysts look for... And promoting it into a primary musical value is the ultimate poietic fallacy, the one that led modern music into the cul-de-sac where absurdly overcomposed monstrosities by Elliot Carter or Milton Babbitt have been reverently praised by critics and turned into obligatory models for emulation by teachers of composition.
Whew! I think you can see why Taruskin is much hated in some circles! But I'm afraid he is correct. There are a great number of absurdly overcomposed monstrosities out there, and not just by Carter and Babbitt.

When you read a reverent article praising music by Elliot Carter or other of the high modernists, you should ask yourself, does the writer really enjoy listening to this music? Or is he just saying this because it is expected of him? Might this be a case of what Timur Kuran has called "preference falsification" where people tend to say what they believe others want to hear? Wikipedia says about this:
In articulating preferences, individuals frequently tailor their choices to what appears socially acceptable. In other words, they convey preferences that differ from what they genuinely want. Kuran calls the resulting misrepresentation “preference falsification.” In his 1995 book, Private Truths, Public Lies, he argues that the phenomenon is ubiquitous and that it has huge social and political consequences. These consequences all hinge on interdependencies between individual decisions as to what preference to convey publicly. A person who hides his discontent about a fashion, policy, or political regime makes it harder for others to express discontent.
For some reason this reminds me of a comment made about a premiere of one of my compositions. Way back when I was a graduate student in performance at McGill University, I was doing a public concert in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Concert Diploma. One of the pieces on the program was one I had written specifically for the occasion called Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord for the indicated ensemble. In true modernist fashion, the notes were all derived from prime numbers, but since my musical instincts as a composer and guitarist were what I was really following, I had bent these into something that was both very idiomatic for the instruments and that sounded good. (One of my favorite comments on compositional method was said by a composer friend of mine: "I just put down the notes that sound good.") The audience seemed, on first hearing, to really enjoy the piece, which was just what I had hoped for. Now the interesting thing was the comment from the chairman of the composition department who was on the jury marking the performance. He said that "while it sounded good on the instruments it was compositionally thin." And there you have the modernist ideology in action. What is important is now how it sounds, but how compositionally "thick" it is.

I wish very much I had the recording of that piece to play for you, but alas, it is long since lost. I do have plans to make a new recording, however. But in the meantime, let me put up two pieces for your amusement. The first, Night Fantasies for piano by Elliot Carter:

And Six Pianos by Steve Reich:


Rickard said...

Sometimes I also wonder if people who praise bad sounding modernist music (Elliot Carter for instance) that do it because of what is expected. Anyways, you're right, composing music that is enjoyable at least to yourself should be the ideal for every composer. It feels like some big modernist composers must have lied to themselves claiming their music is good or just lied to the audience. My approach is something along the lines of what your composer friend said, something like trying to find the notes that sound good.

Nathan Shirley said...

I'll have to read that collection, sounds great. Even I disagree with Taruskin on a few subjects (like his take on some of the Soviet composers), but usually he's dead on from what I've seen so far. I wouldn't even say his words you've quoted are at all excessive.

I like the simple Emperor's New Clothes explanation- People are told only the most enlightened individuals can understand and appreciate academic music (as I like to call it). People obviously don't want to look stupid, so they claim to get it. Then they themselves perpetuate the myth. Elderly concert goers have pointed out the fact that the musicians playing this academic music aren't wearing any clothes, but no one listens because, as we all know, old people have always rejected anything new. Children could be pointing it out (as in our story), but no one is taking them to classical music concerts!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you both for your comments. I think once you really absorb the content of Taruskin's criticism, it takes a great weight off your shoulders. You no longer feel as if you have to live up to some academic standard of complexity or follow some sort of ideology or fashion, but you can just write something that can be listened to with enjoyment.

Nathan Shirley said...

In my own case I never felt the need to live up to some academic standard, instead I simply dropped out of school!

It is very refreshing however to know that one of the top academics in musicology has basically the same perspective.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, isn't it!