Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Words Without Music

The very prolific Philip Glass (apart from all his opera, theater and film music, he has also written ten symphonies and a lot of chamber music) has just published a memoir titled "Words Without Music." This isn't a review as I haven't read it--I have a stack of books I must finish about 2 1/2 feet high. But I did just read a review of it in Slate that was interesting:
The most important thing to understand for a listener new to “modern” art music—the thing I’m always trying to impress upon those patient souls who let me drag them to such concerts—is the need to shift their paradigm of judgment from beautiful/ugly to interesting/boring. To approach much of art music after, say, WWI with beauty as one’s primary criteria for liking something is to misunderstand the motivations of many of the most prominent composers working over the past century. For many 20th- and 21st-century composers, the working out of compositional processes—dodecaphonic series, mathematical formulae, grand minimalist arcs, etc.—is an end in itself, and composition is a quest for ingenuity and freshness of construction, rather than attractiveness to the ear. This is why listening to the music of our era requires a certain amount of work. To appraise it fairly, you’ve got to try to understand what formal element or problem the composer was trying to address—only then can you reasonably decide whether or not she succeeded, whether or not the work is compelling.
That's the introduction and it proposes an interesting aesthetic theory. Yes, if you want to appreciate contemporary music, you need to approach it with some variant of the above method. You have to accept the methodology, reasoning and ideology of the composer as a given. In other words, you mustn't question it. Isn't that interesting?

Now the average listener's "paradigm of judgement" is probably rather narrower than it should be. Most people's aesthetic judgements are probably based on not much more than what they are familiar with. I have heard many assert that our basic music tastes are a reflection of what we heard when we were seventeen. On that criterion, the pinnacle of music for me, personally, would be Eric Burden and the Animals:

I used to love that song. However, thankfully, I soon discovered the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bach.

But given that most of us need to widen our aesthetic paradigms and learn to appreciate more challenging music, does that necessarily imply that we need to accept without question whatever "motivations" are behind contemporary music? Surely these motivations span a spectrum and therefore can also be judged? If a composer sets out to completely remove himself from the creative process and thereby comes up with a piece through entirely random processes (if that is even possible) then we should just understand that motivation and cheerily applaud? Are all "formal elements" or "problems" of composition equally worthy of our appreciation? If that is the case, then my job as a composer suddenly got really, really easy, didn't it? I can just pick a formal element or problem and "address" it in any way whatsoever and your job as listener is to appreciate that that is what I did and, again, applaud cheerily.

That paragraph from Slate, that seemed so reasonable a moment ago, doesn't make quite as much sense now, does it? In point of fact, the practice of philosophical aesthetics has been in such bad odor for the last century very largely because most contemporary artists have been saying it is irrelevant, pointless and obsolescent. They say this for very practical reasons: they don't want to be judged, not just by traditional standards, but by any standards. They just want you to applaud cheerily.

J. Bryan Lowder, the author of the piece in Slate, says that you need to shift your paradigm from "beautiful/ugly" to "interesting/boring" which would certainly lead to the acceptance of more contemporary music. But it still proposes aesthetic standards. What if you listen to several contemporary pieces and find their relentless dissonance not only ugly, but also boring? Because all dissonance, all the time is, frankly, not very interesting. Ironically, this is in the lead-up to a review of a book by Philip Glass, who is renowned for writing music that consists largely of relentless repetition!

But perhaps what you find interesting is not so much the music as the process, the justification, the ideology? For me that is usually the case with John Cage. His books have claimed more of my attention than his music.

If we are called to apprise contemporary music fairly, as Lowder asks us to (and as is our responsibility) then yes, we do have to come to know and understand the motivations and working out of compositional processes and problems. But that is just step one. After that, then we still have to make aesthetic judgments because, though you would hardly know it from a lot of writing on contemporary music, there is just as much bad, boring, ugly, uninteresting contemporary music as there is music from any other era. And possibly just a bit more.

Don't you think?


Marc Puckett said...

Yes, indeed. Which aspect of that is the KHS illustrating?

Bryan Townsend said...

The ambiguity was intentional...