Reviewing New Music Is Hard, Part 2

Part the Second! Wherein the Virtues of New Music Are Extolled

(Part One Here.)

The first part of the Kozinn article about the Either/Or ensemble is about the Lachenmann piece. Certainly, he was the best-known composer on the program, and unsurprisingly got the most column inches in the review.

This speaks also to the intended audience of Kozinn piece. Using a bunch of technical jargon when describing new music is not conducive to attracting the, let us say without disdain, lay public to concerts of new music. Using the flagship composer (who may be familiar to the reader, as he toured the States last year) for the bulk of the article is logical. An interested reader might then be curous about the other works on the program, or one like it.

It's good that Kozinn seems to have listened as intently to the other works, too, although he didn't like them all (which is of course fine). I'm still wondering about syntax and form vs. "sound worlds," and what is and is not "beside the point."

What say, then?

The charm of Mr. Carrick’s “Scène Miniature” (2009) was in the way the instruments — piano, violin, saxophone and musical saw — paired off in various combinations.

Here is a video, like the last one, of the same ensemble performing the piece.

The paired instruments began by playing abstract themes,

What would make a theme abstract? More importantly what would make one not abstract? Figurative? Tonal?

but in the final section, based on a sharply rhythmic Algerian dance melody, abstraction was overtaken by exoticism and sheer infectiousness.

Hm. If that was based on an Algerian melody, it was abstractly based. I'm not sure I like "exoticism" either, but it does seem pretty apt, especially with the naked "Arabic"-sounding naked scales in the piano part.

Still, pretty freaking good for two sentences on synopsis and review. Was the music about timbres and "sound world?" Yes, sure. However, it is even acknowledged in the review that syntax (abstract -> folk-based) and form are important aspects of the work as well. I would even say that the content and the form were interconnected.

Two movements from Andrew Byrne’s “Ringing World” (2009) made a direct, visceral appeal as well.

(Sorry, no video for this one. Oh, well.) One way to enjoy new music, especially the experimental kind that seems to be at work here, is viscerally.

Scored for metal percussion instruments, these short pieces used timbre as bait — the first was clangorous, the second mellower — but kept the listener engaged by piling up layers of counterpoint.

Again, it's interesting that the form and syntax seem to keep the reveiwer interested after acclamating to the sound world of the piece.

John Luther Adams’s “Red Arc/Blue Veil” (2002)...

(Video here.)

worked the opposite way: scored for piano, mallet instruments and recorded sound, it began with a gently inviting theme and devolved into a series of content-free textures...

Content-free? Wow. How can that be?

— first a brash glare, then a 1970s-ish electronic burble.

Sounds like content to me! What gives? It's loopy and minimalistic [sic], and atmospheric. Contemplative, meditative perhaps? But content-free?

Though not unpleasant, it went nowhere in 10 long minutes.

Well, it might not have gone nowhere, but it didn't go far. But that's part of the thing with ambient-type sound-world music [hyphen fans rejoice]. It's more subtle, I guess. But there is content, and form too. One gets the sense that Kozinn sort of liked it, but was a bit bored perhaps.

I'm really not sure what content-free music could be. Even a silent piece admits ambient noise. Perhaps my problem is contextual.

The closest thing I can think of offhand is the sound equivalent of something like this.

Hans Thomalla’s “Lied” (2008), for piano, vibraphone and saxophone, was an uninspiring succession of hazily sustained passages and fortissimo honks.

(No video, sorry.) Yikes. That is one, succinct, brutal reveiw. Given Kozinn's apparent openness to negotiate with the piece on its own terms, one wonders if the preceeding ambient, quiet piece was a poor palatte upon which to recieve "fortissimo honks." Or maybe he plain didn't care for it.

“The Negotiation of Context” (2009), by the Icelandic composer David Brynjar Franzson, proved similarly eventless,


but its sound world — lots of rummaging about inside the piano, with occasional wheezing from the harmonium — was engagingly tactile.

...mmm-hmm. Again it seems that an inviting or interesting "sound world" is more engaging as a piece if it has syntactic/formal and/or timbral elements as well. This is not earth-shaking, but it's a little glimpse, maybe, of what kind of approach one reviewer takes when encountering very new--even, or especially, totally unknown--music. Anyone with a little time and willingness to engage can have a similar experience with new-new music.

Which, finally, is why New Music writ large is (at its greatest potential) not just for graduate students and the "initiated." At its best (as with all art) one can encounter the gamut of contemporary thought about art, philosophy, history, and ideas (not to mention music) that contemporary composers are thinking about.

Reading a contemporary journal of music theory one is likely to encounter daunting and obfuscatory writing that is challenging even to adepts. Going to concerts doesn't have to be.

And no whining about "accessability" of new music. Can you afford the eight bucks and get there on time? That's fucking accessable.

Enough rant. Good article; any thoughts on content-free or eventless music?

Here is a picture that is fun to look at.

John Cage: Fontana Mix (score excerpt)

[Edit: 5/27: I fixed the link about the contextless music. It was supposed to be a political jab, not any kind of confusing shot at John Luther Adams. Also, AnthonyS pointed out that I made at least 4 spelling errors. For someone who sometimes picks nits, I should be more careful. (I was kind of on a roll.) But I left them in.]


AnthonyS said...

I'm not sure I would take Mr. Kozinn to task on the phrase "content-free". I suppose it is problematic in a technical, semantic sense, but aesthetically I can buy it. The idea that a piece can create a kind of artificial white noise or ambient noisy "silence" of sorts is something that I could buy. I suppose one could say that the texture-- "sound world", if you will-- creates an uninterrupted sonic canvass upon which musical events don't happen. In that sense, one could call it content-free, at least in some kind of aesthetic sense.

Also, "curious", "reviewer" "accessible" and "accessibility".

Sator Arepo said...

Oof. I was kind of on a roll, so I totally own those errors. Sucks, though.

Thanks, AS.

Empiricus said...

@ AnthonyS:

Maybe I need some clarification. Are you suggesting that an hypothetical listener/composer's "aesthetic sense" isn't itself a kind of content, against which the non-happening musical events rub and, thus, create the patina of semantic oppositions from which meaning and value may be derived? It seems that you're denying the dialectic to speak. Or am I way off base?

Empiricus said...

I should also add that, as I see it, the dialectic is always in operation (historical contexualization), so calling something content-free is impossible, regardless if it's couched as aesthetic or semantic. In that sense, I think Mr. Kozinn might want to rethink that unfortunate term.

Empiricus said...

...because it seems lazy.

Okay. I'm done.

Sator Arepo said...

I understand what AnthonyS is saying, and I think that the term "contentless" or (variations thereof) connotes the sort of static or atmospheric ambient music he's describing. I was sort of using it as a springboard to talk about the way we talk about music, and just what musical "content" (or, if you prefer, "music-content) might be.

It might be technical, but in the end I think I'm thinking about content in the sense Empiricus describes. Even if used in an evocative or descriptive way, it still exists as sort of a dialectical pejorative.

Sator Arepo said...

Also, I hope it's clear that I wasn't really taking Kozinn to task on this point so much as using his language choices to talk about how we talk about (and think about, and write about, and approach) new music. I thought it was a thoughtful review.

Tom Strini said...

You have two blobs of lime jello. One has grapes and bits of pineapple trapped within. The other is only green jello. By comparison, at least in approximating shorthand, the latter might be described as "content-free." We would still understand that the green jello exists.
I hope you guys appreciate that I am violating my personal no-food-analogy regimen in order to be helpful in this one isolated case.

AnthonyS said...

@ Emp:

True enough; again, I think it goes to something of definition. I am perhaps contending that something that is "something" or has "content" can be experienced as contentless on some level. Because our faculties process music (or anything) on a number of levels, this experience can't be total, but I can allow for some kind of immediate, experiential judgement on some level that allows me to perceive a kind of "contentlessness" (even though I am obviously experience "content" on a number of levels). Or something...

Empiricus said...

Green jello, or lime, I suspect it still has enough greenness with which to compare to other green jello. Importantly, there is the possibility that a particular green fails on some level, necessarily. But it's still its own green despite its similarity to other greens.

So in that sense, it's terribly difficult to compare. I think I echo Sator here when I say that this review is well-formed and insightful, except the one small ambiguity, which is the meat of our minute quibble.

Or maybe it's a serious distinction, or non-distinction, which we get to debate these days. Is that a good? Or is it a diversion?

Sator Arepo said...


Food metaphors (or analogies, whichever) are welcome around here, for whatever reason. Holdover from the old Fire Joe Morgan site I guess.

And your description again illustrates what I think Kozinn was trying to describe, which is, again, helpful, but also subject to the same argument Empiricus is offering.

Jello sucks, anyway. That's one thing I don't miss about the midwest. (I do miss rainy, wet Milwaukee smelling like old stale beer from my drum corps days, though. Is it still like that?)

More soon.