It is a fascinating read because it is like a "breath of air from another planet". I find a lot of this music rather tiresome and annoying to actually listen to, but it is quite interesting to read about it. Sorry, Ethan! The most interesting aspect of the post is the distinction between originality and freshness and Ethan makes some very good points. One is that originality is overrated. Quite right! I suspect that Ethan and I share a certain jaundiced view of 20th century modernism. He notes:
Producing original music in the information-theoretic sense of the word is trivially easy. Pull note names and durations out of a hat, or get a toddler to bang on a MIDI keyboard, or consult the I Ching. If you want to be really novel, you can generate audio files by randomly filling an array with ones and zeroes. The result is likely to be either tedious or annoying, or both. You’ve generated a lot of new information, but without a pattern or structure, it’s just noise. Now of course, some people like noise, and good for them. But even noise music is more structured than complete randomness. Most of us don’t want total originality in music; we want small variations and hybrids of known ideas, a delicate balance between novelty and familiarity. That balance will tilt one way or the other, depending on the listener.Not a big John Cage fan, I'll bet. Yes, mere originality, perhaps better expressed as mere novelty, is an aesthetic loser. But it was a core value of modernism as it was seen as a proxy for progress in music. "New Music" was a continuing theme in discussions of modernism and avant-garde music. Ethan goes on:
Rather than evaluating music in terms of its originality, we need a criterion that gets at more meaningful aspects of musical quality: emotional truth-telling, recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries, intellectual depth, danceability, and so on. We should be judging music by its freshness. We can use exactly the same standards for music that we’d use for produce. A carrot doesn’t have to be unlike all other carrots that came before it; it just has to be crunchy, tasty, and nutritious. Unlike vegetables, music can retain its freshness over long time spans, and can even get fresher over time.Again, I like the sentiment here. We do need a better criterion than mere originality and I can agree with a lot of the qualities he references. Emotional truth-telling? Isn't this well-represented in the symphonies of Allan Pettersson? Recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries? If I could guess what this means, I would suggest that the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass would be a pretty good example. Intellectual depth? Hmm, that's a tough one! Bach certainly, but perhaps a more recent example would be the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. Yes, there is modernist music that is aesthetically great.
But just as I was rocking along with Ethan he takes a wrong turn and the metaphor gets all crunchy. I don't think he really wanted to say that we can use exactly the same standards for music that we do for produce. I rarely squeeze a symphony to see if it is firm the way I would a tomato. But maybe that's just me...
What I really like about this essay is that he is searching for what we often search for at the Music Salon: aesthetic principles and standards. We do in fact have to judge and evaluate music, if only because we simply do not have time to listen to all of it.
Let's listen to a bit of that Schoenberg. Here is a wonderful performance by Hilary Hahn of the first part of the first movement: