Thursday, May 28, 2015

Music the World Doesn't Need

Music criticism, even when it has little else going for it, can be quite amusing. As an example we have this recent piece from Slipped Disc: "These are 200 pieces the world doesn't need!"
The International Chamber Choir Competition has just ended at Marktoberdorf. Choirs from all over the world shared in the prizes, many with new works written specially for the occasion.
Imagine their dismay when the jury president, Georg Grün, declared: ‘These are 200 pieces that the world doesn’t need.’
But the best part of the item, as is so often the case at Slipped Disc, is the comments. Here is a sample:
The music world is filled with opinionated intolerance of that sort. Between insufferable trash and the great composers there is a very wide range of legitimate music, but one always finds a pathological snob who knows, for example, that the peasant melodies that Haydn put into his symphonies and string quartets, or even Bach’s immortal quodlibet, must be “rubbish”.
I sometimes call myself a snob, though usually qualified as a radical, hard-core classical snob, not an actually pathological one. But I notice that there are those out there whom you might call pathological non-snobs and I wonder if this commentator is one of those. I suspect, with just a smidgeon of evidence, that he is one of those who is extremely rigid about his own musical values. Great Composers are those whose music is always Great and no criticism will be brooked about that. Then there are the other, non-Great, composers who write Insufferable Trash (that's probably me!) and in between there is that Range of Legitimate Music. This smacks to me of the error I might call the Fallacy of the Received Values. I was on a bus once with a friend and we got into some musicological discussion that ended up questioning the absolute value of some great composer or the other. When we got off the bus I was astonished to be accosted by a woman sitting by the door who had overheard our discussion and cursed me as some sort of, well, I forget the precise expression! But it was very negative.

I often find myself falling between two stools, intellectually speaking. On the one hand I am most certainly an apostate of High Modernism. I reject the fundamental assumptions and aesthetic values that lie behind their practices and works. I do not believe that the music of Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage and their followers is the Music of the Future. I believe it is a mannered excursion down an alleyway that will be forgotten within fifty years. But at the same time, I also reject the rigid traditionalism exhibited (I suspect) by the above commentator (and probably by the lady on the bus). I do not believe that the Pantheon of Great Composers is set in stone, but rather that their fortunes rise and fall over time. There are great composers, of course, but who they are reveals itself differently to us over time. We saw the fortunes of the once-reviled Shostakovich rise enormously since his death in 1975, while the fortunes of the once highly-respected Hindemith have fallen. By "fortunes" I mean aesthetic judgment.

Even though we moderns pretend not to make aesthetic judgments--a claim made particularly aggressively by the more fashionable among us, like Alex Ross--we still do. Every time you go to your CD shelf or iPod and pick one piece instead of another you make an aesthetic judgment. The sum total of all these aesthetic judgments over a hundred years or so enables us to conclude that yes, J. S. Bach is a very great composer and Beethoven and Mozart are not far behind. Ironically, folks like Alex Ross make some of the most sweeping and egregious aesthetic judgments simply because they don't perceive them as such but operate as if they are simply basic principles.

I think that the act of making your own aesthetic judgments, not refusing to do so, is what makes you a good listener. You do not listen to Bach because someone said he was Great; you listen to Bach because it sounds good to you. If you hear a new piece of choral music and it sounds pretty bad to you, and you say so, then good for you. I do hope that you have some reasons that you can give, though.

So the only thing we can say about the new works written for the chamber choir competition that Herr Grün condemned, is that if he is right that was unfortunate and we are eager to hear what his reasons might have been. I mean, surely a couple of them, at least, might have been ok? I am tempted to submit one of my pieces for choir to the next competition, if I can figure out how...

"Marktoberdorf" by the way means "the upper village with the market". A "dorf" is a village and "ober" means upper.

Remarkably, through the magic of YouTube, I can actually find a performance of a choir, possibly of a newly-commissioned work, at this very same Marktoberdorf competition. This is the Louisville Cardinal Singers, mind you from several years ago, but still:

So exercise your powers of aesthetic judgment and weigh in on that piece, Cantus Gloriosus by Jozef Swider.


Rickard Dahl said...

Well, Grun's statement is ridiculous. I doubt that all of the pieces were of the high modernist variant or of the too comfortable traditional variant (I mean music that tries to imitate the style of lets say Mozart or Beethoven rather than going into a different but still aesthetically pleasing territory). It might be the case that he's just an extreme snob who rejects anything new. Who knows. You're right about not listening too much to what others say and making your own judgements instead. For instance I know you mentioned that Haydn's concertos are not so important but I've listened to most of them now and I enjoy them. They maybe aren't as groundbreaking as Mozart's concertos but they are still great works in my opinion.

Anyways, I've mentioned earlier that I think that more new works should be played in general by orchestras and other ensembles. Well, it makes sense if one or more new works is presented at the same time as works of familiar composers. So there could maybe be a big piece by Beethoven and during the same concert there could be one or more pieces by contemporary composers. Of course ideally the focus wouldn't be on the high modernist or postmodernist pieces that get so much attention nowadays despite being aesthetically unpleasing. Either way, the big works draw in the big audiences and at the same time they get exposed to new works and contemporary composers get a bigger audience for their works. I think that it's important to promote the great works but it's maybe equally important to promote a living classical culture where new works also get an important seat at the table.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, thanks for the comment. Re the Haydn concertos, I welcome comments from those who agree with me, but I welcome even more comments from those who disagree. You know, even though he didn't write a lot of concertos, it not seemingly being a big need in the Esterházy court, the ones he did write are quite good. The only problem is that when you put on a Mozart piano concerto or one of the Beethoven concertos, they tend to be head and shoulders above the Haydn ones. And this is emphatically not true of the Haydn symphonies!

I think orchestras do a pretty good job, on the whole, of presenting newer works alongside the canonic repertoire. I recently heard a chamber orchestra concert that had a suite by Gustav Holst followed by the Ponce Guitar Concerto, followed by a piece by Arvo Pärt and ending with a new guitar concerto. I thought it worked very well--and the Pärt was the strongest piece on the program.