Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Freshly Mad

As a follow-up to Sunday's post on sampling, greatly enhanced by Ethan Hein's weighing in, in the comments, let's have a look at a new post by Ethan at NewMusicBox. The title is Mad Fresh. Go read the whole thing.

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:


Anonymous said...

i'd request you to read this interview with an upcoming composer;he makes an interesting point comparing whitman and beethoven,about the ambition of their thought process.maybe this can trigger a post from you.


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, John. I am always looking for new ideas for posts!

Marc said...

Oh, my goodness. Origo et fons , originality, novelty, novelty as progress, progress as modernity, postmodernity as decay, Decasia (cannot think of his name, just now).... My head is spinning! having read EH's new post, and re-read yours, am going out for a walk :-). Will listen to the birds, and try, maybe, to recall an echo from Messaien's St Fran├žois d'Assise.

Bryan Townsend said...

Every now and then the comments section heats up and really gets fun! Ethan also left a very interesting comment on an old post of mine:


Unknown said...

"Originality is antithetical to novelty. The etymology of the word alerts us. It tells of 'inception' and of 'instauration,' of a return, in substance and in form, to beginnings. In exact relation to their originality, to their spiritual-formal force of innovation, aesthetic inventions are 'archaic.' They carry in them the pulse of the distant source."

-George Steiner

Hopefully the address below will take you to a section of the book 'The Master and His Emissary' by Iain McGilchrist where he deals with this topic. I would highly recommend the rest of the book as well.


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much Jared, for reminding me of this very important distinction. I discussed this at some length in this post:


One of my best, I think. I came up with the idea of returning to the roots (the origins) of things. I talked about racinating, being racinative, in opposition to the idea of deracinating, being separated from one's roots.

That is a wonderful quote from George Steiner. Alas, the link does not take me to the section of the book, but just to the general entry.

Maury said...

This is a very interesting discussion. But like you I have trouble assessing intellectual depth in music. I mean apart from the musicological aspect of the score and its complexity. While I can point to some very complex scores that are great music, I can also point to more that are garden variety complex that are also great music. So intellectual depth per se seems weakly correlated with aesthetic quality.

I was also stymied by the example you came up with in Schoenberg's Violin Concerto which I actually consider a bad piece of music along with his Piano Concerto. The badness I perceive has nothing to do with the score complexity but rather just the unidiomatic scoring for violin and the uninteresting accompaniment. I feel the same about the Piano Concerto.

What exactly do we mean by intellectual depth in music I suppose is my real question? There are only a few instrumental works by Bach Beethoven, Debussy and Josquin (these are vocal but have a standard Mass text) where I have some sensation of intellectual questing distinct from pure music making, but realized in musical terms. For all its compositional complexity I don't really find 20th C music to be intellectually deep in a musical sense (perhaps Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues).

OTOH the 20th C libretto and song texts generally show much more intellectual depth than previous times. So I think classical music lost its confidence in the 20th C (as opposed to the overconfidence of pop muysic) and generally was subservient to the written word. In the Middle Ages, composers took remarkable liberties with sacred texts which indicates the autonomy that music had then. Now if you try to set words in a non speechifying way you are criticized for distorting the words. So classical music uses all kinds of extra-musical justifications for itself now.