7/5/10

A Challenge to the Challenging, or: Just enough thinking for me to confirm what I already think

I’ll begin today with the ending.

Life's too short.

Ah, yes. Gather ye rosebuds, carpe diem, just do it. Or, for our purposes, don’t waste your fucking time on modernism!


"You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence," H.G. Wells complained to Joyce after reading "Finnegans Wake." That didn't faze him. "The demand that I make of my reader," Joyce said, "is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." To which the obvious retort is: Life's too short.

Besides the distinct possibility that Joyce was yanking Wells’ chain—Joyce’s quote was actually taken from an interview with Max Eastman in Harper’s Magazine by Richard Ellmann (1959), Wells’ (d.1946) from a personal letter to Joyce—besides that, there’s several interesting points of note, before we get going.

The first is the contrasting points of view, illustrating continuing dichotomies between high and low art, commercial and non-commercial, accessible and inaccessible, etc., etc. (Surely, this is simplified, but something I think the author of today’s article intends)

The second is our author’s obvious retort. He questions the worth of investing time in a complicated aesthetic (to be contrasted with complex, below).

-

Okay. Now, let’s poop on modernism from the beginning.

Too Complicated for Words: Are our brains big enough to untangle modern art?
Terry Teachout
Wall Street Journal

Literary types recently celebrated Bloomsday, a "holiday" not generally recognized by those who haven't read James Joyce's "Ulysses," a novel whose principal character is named Leopold Bloom and that takes place in Dublin on June 16, 1904.

How could I have forgotten, dear Detritusites?

Happy Bloomsday!

As always, the celebrations included a marathon bash at New York's Symphony Space during which excerpts from "Ulysses" were read. One participant was Stephen Colbert, who admitted to a reporter: "Performing 'Ulysses' on Bloomsday at Symphony Space is the only way I'll ever finish the damn book."

Very funny—but also very much to the point.

Is the point that one TV pundit-parodist can’t finish reading Joyce? That’s not a very good point.

The novels of Joyce and Gertrude Stein, the poetry of Ezra Pound and John Ashbery, the music of Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter, the paintings of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock: All have at one time or another been dismissed as complicated to the point of unintelligibility.

Uh oh. Now no one can figure out when to be happy or sad.

Modern art comes in many varieties, and countless works once thought to be unintelligible now strike most of us as clear.

Excellent point. End of article, right? I mean, time put it into perspective and, lo, it made sense. Enough said. Happens all the time.

End of article. Right?

I wish it were so.

But I have yet to notice a collective change of heart when it comes to such exercises in hermetic modernism as Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," which contains thousands of sentences like this: "It is the circumconversioning of antelithual paganelles by a huggerknut cramwell energuman, or the caecodedition of an absquelitteris puttagonnianne to the herreraism of a cabotinesque exploser?"

I have to be honest, Microsoft Word didn’t like that sentence very much, either. So what’s the deal?

Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand?

Ah!

Ah.

Oh.

Uh…

But wait…

The authors of the Wikipedia article, faulty though they may be, seem to understand Finnegans Wake pretty well. They even seem to embrace Joyce’s difficulties.

Fred Lerdahl [This year’s Pulitzer runner-up] thinks so, at least as far as his chosen art form is concerned.

Hmm. I like music.

Let’s give it a go. What does Fred say?

In 1988…

Twenty-two years ago. Or the difference in age between Gustav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky. Or the difference in age between me and someone born in 2000.

In 1988 Mr. Lerdahl, who teaches musical composition at Columbia University…

Ivy League? I thought we were going to be arguing against having to think too hard. Was I wrong?

In 1988 Mr. Lerdahl, who teaches musical composition at Columbia University, published a paper called "Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems," in which he argued that the hypercomplex music of atonal composers like Messrs. Boulez and Carter betrays "a huge gap between compositional system and cognized result."

A very good argument, too—one worth thinking hard about!

And Mr. Teachout is also kind enough to give us a link to the online article. I recommend it; it’s a good read.

"Much contemporary music," [Lerdahl] says, "pursues complicatedness as compensation for a lack of complexity."

Okay. Let’s take a step back and clarify what Mr. Lerdahl meant, because cherry-picking quotes that fit your thesis is usually considered a bad practice.

Throughout the cited article, Lerdahl builds upon his 1983 book, A generative theory of tonal music, co-authored with R. Jackendoff, in which they outline, à la Chomsky, a grammar of listening, which is broken down into rules, preferences, and constraints that must be present for musical structures to be intelligible (cognizable). Complexity and complicatedness are, thus, semantically differentiated for reasons we will see below.

An important thing to note is that, “[Lerdahl is] not interested in passing judgement on the composers and compositions that are mentioned, particularly not on the remarkable work by Boulez that [he uses] as a representative example. The thrust of [his] argument is psychological rather than aesthetic.”

So, to get back to Mr. Teachout’s point: there is no guarantee that a compositional system will be intelligible. Fair enough.

What else?

Mr. Lerdahl's paper isn't widely known outside the field of music theory.

You don’t say.

But it stirred up a huge stink when it was published, and it continues to make certain of his colleagues understandably angry. For if he's right, then a fair amount of classical music written in the past century is too complicated for ordinary listeners to grasp—meaning…

Ordinary listeners can't grasp the notion of a sound cloud?

…meaning it is never going to find an audience.

Yikes. "Never" is a little harsh, don't you think? Didn't you just say:

Modern art comes in many varieties, and countless works once thought to be unintelligible now strike most of us as clear.

You did just say that. What gives?

Can there be any doubt that "Finnegans Wake" is "complicated" in precisely the same way that Mr. Lerdahl has in mind when he says that a piece of hypercomplex music like Mr. Boulez's "Le marteau sans maître" suffers from a "lack of redundancy" that "overwhelms the listener's processing capacities"?

"Precisely"? Uh, highly doubtful. I mean, can’t you reread a sentence?

The word "time" is central to Mr. Lerdahl's argument…

Right! You can’t just ask the orchestra to replay that complicated bit of Atmospheres before moving on; but you can reread a sentence whenever you wish.

…for it explains why an equally complicated painting like Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" appeals to viewers who find the music of Mr. Boulez or the prose of Joyce hopelessly offputting.

No. You’re doing it wrong.

While a book may be laid out linearly, you can reread it at will—it’s not time dependent. With Pollack, or painting in general, you are afforded the luxury of focusing your attention on whatever you wish, at any time, whether one strain of dripped paint or the total cacophony. But Boulez? Not so much.

If time is the question, then the pairing of Pollack and Joyce has more in common than Boulez and Joyce.

Unlike "Finnegans Wake," which consists of 628 closely packed pages that take weeks to read, the splattery tangles and swirls of "Autumn Rhythm" […] can be experienced in a single glance.

You’re still doing it wrong.

Is that enough time to see everything Pollock put into "Autumn Rhythm"? No, but it's long enough for the painting to make a strong and meaningful impression on the viewer.

Wait. How is that analogous to a piece of music? It isn’t.

Does our author wish it to be analogous? Is this the call to arms for an aesthetic reappraisal?

Should all music strive to be a sound bite, ready for mass consumption? Is this a Wall Street Journal thing? Should I blame capitalism?

That is why hypercomplex modern visual art is accessible in a way that hypercomplex literature and music are not.

See, you’re still doing it wrong.

You can't get through a complicated novel faster by turning the pages more quickly.

You’re. Still. Doing. It. Wrong.

Reading demands a greater investment of time than looking at a complicated painting…

You just said it’s not! Remember?!

Is that enough time to see everything Pollock put into "Autumn Rhythm"? No [..].

Remember that? I did.

So, are you insinuating that maybe we don’t (shouldn’t?) want (need?) to see everything that Pollack put into it?

…and the average reader is not prepared to invest that much time in a book, no matter what critics say about it.

…because critics often have it dead wrong.

I feel the same way.

Good.

Oh. You didn’t mean what I meant. Sorry.

I suppose I could get to the bottom of "Finnegans Wake" if I worked at it—but would it be worth the trouble?

The scholars [sic] of the Wikipedia entry think it's totally worth the troub…

Wait a goddamned minute! You haven’t read Finnegans Wake but are perfectly happy to criticize it?!

Or would I be better served by spending the same amount of time rereading the seven volumes of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," a modern masterpiece that is not gratuitiously complicated but rewardingly complex?

First, is more better? I mean, I could read the entire Twilight Saga in the same amount of time it takes to read the first volume of Proust. And I hate vampires.

Second, my argument, by contrast, is this: that the complicatedness of artworks serves other exigencies, not just unintelligibility. Or, put another way, intelligibility is another criteria with which a composer may play.

And it’s here, too, where I somewhat disagree with Lerdahl. At the end of his article, he contemplates aesthetic value. He first claims that, “The best music utilizes the full potential of our cognitive resources,” which he is careful to qualify. It leads him to make the distinction between “complexity” and “complicatedness” we saw above.

Complexity refers not to musical surfaces but to the richness of the structures inferred from surfaces and to the richness of their (unconscious) derivation by the listener.

And…

A musical surface is complicated if it has numerous non-redundant events per unit time.

However, as I proposed above, I think that complicatedness can be just as valuable to an aesthetic position as intelligibility. In this sense, the artist may choose to play with or against intelligibility as a means of expression, rather than following a cognitively-prescribed formula. If we obey the later, we cease to seek anything beyond our baser intuitions. That is, if what is desirable is immediacy, then thinking becomes unnecessary, superfluous, and merely an afterthought.

And, because this is coming from the Wall Street Journal, I have to think: if music is indeed a commodity, then you don't want the consumer to think too hard about it--just get 'em to pay the entry fee and move 'em along. That is not a reason for aesthetic realignment.

Anyway, Lerdahl goes on to make his second aesthetic claim:

The best music arises from an alliance of a compositional grammar with the listening grammar.

Again, quite elegant. And given his definition of “complex,” this makes a lot of sense—it strikes an efficient balance between compositional grammar and listening grammar.

Still, is he asserting that he knows what the “best music” looks like? That would be arrogant, for sure.

Instead, what if what he meant by “best” is as I suggested above, efficient, then to whom is it efficient and complicatedness not worth the time? As we’ve seen earlier, Mr. Teachout doesn’t have the time; he finds immediacy valuable.

More importantly, if “efficient” is indeed what Lerdahl intends, he’s still fastidiously avoiding polemics, which is commendable. (Though I have my doubts to whether or not this is the case.) However, this is not Mr. Teachout's goal. He's not exploring cognitive and aesthetic issues; he's using a cherry-picked article to justify the disparaging of complicatedness simply because it’s difficult and time consuming. It's just another attack on thinking, which attempts to value art on its cognitive (market?) efficiency—a lazy reason to like what one already likes, and an excuse to be intellectually insufficient.

-

Mr. Teachout’s aesthetic prescription is then fervently echoed by a commenter who, to my delight, recalled some of his previous thoughts on the matter.

I can't quite work up sufficient enthusiasm (or courage) to read in full or closely the hugely detailed and technical 25-page PDF file of Fred Lerdahl's treatise cited and linked by Mr. Teachout…

Awesome.

[Seriously, dear Detritusites, if you read the article, you would have noticed that the “treatise” is not very detailed nor is it technical. In fact, six of the nine figures are simple flow charts. (And for the record, I love flow charts, because, if done right, they increase intelligibility and dispense with unnecessary complicatedness!)]


Figure 1. A simple flow chart

…but I did skim through enough of it to get the impression that Dr. Lerdahl is saying essentially what I said…

How sure are you about that?

…Dr. Lerdahl is saying essentially what I said in a 2008 post on my blog…

Except he said what you think he said twenty years earlier...or the difference in age between Antonio Salieri and Anton Reicha.

…on my blog, Sounds & Fury…

Mmmm.

…titled, "On Music And Gibberish". Herewith, an excerpt.

I actually remember this one very well. I wanted to comment but couldn’t.

"In the wake of yet another wave of outraged attacks by New Music's defenders, supporters, and champions against The New York Times's [sic] longtime classical music critic, Bernard Holland, one of this crowd's favorite MSM whipping boys, for his latest critique of atonal music, we started to think afresh concerning what it is about much of the atonal music of our experience that we found so, well, unmusical — worse, found to be non-music.

“We” is only one person, in case you were confused; it sounds less authoritarian that way.

That reminds me of…

What was that thing that Obi-Wan said to Anakin?

It's not atonality per se — i.e., the music's lack of a triadic tonal center(s); a 'home base,' so to speak — nor is it the almost unrelenting, unresolved harmonic dissonance that's the hallmark of the atonal.

I’m sure it’ll come to me. You know what he said, right?

It's something much more fundamental: the lack of a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end, which is to say the lack of the work's saying comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods which are — or ought to have been and be — but mere tools used in its making.

It’s at the tip of my tongue. It was in the third one, toward the end, I think. Uh…

"To put the matter ... bluntly ... a composition absent a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from beginning to end is gibberish and not music."

Oh, right! “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Get it?! Because life’s too short for anything but simple, cozy stories.
-

29 comments:

Sator Arepo said...

Right. Because good music is predicated on being able to declare, "Hey! I rememb'r that there purty part, they done played it before! Wooo-eee!"

Gustav said...

Amazing post, E! A lot to unpack in here. First, let me start with the end and say, what in the hell is a comprehensive musical narrative? And seriously, can anyone name a piece that doesn't have a musical narrative (besides Stockhausen Kontakte)? They all start, end, utilize a structured organization of pitches which take place through an organization of time. Those are all primary building blocks of narrative, are they not?

But to Mr. Teachout -- yes, there is definitely a place to discuss the effects of complexity and complicatedness on readers/listeners/etc. But to do so must take into account some reality. Bloomsday isn't a modern tradition because people hate/don't understand the works of Joyce, but are a celebration of people who both love and understand (or pretend to) him. Why does that bother you? Seriously, why must every argument in America include an anti-intellectual faction?

And let me ask, let's say that you're right Mr. Teachout...what next? Are you suggesting that people shouldn't read Joyce? Or that Joyce should be banned from writing? How intense should the reeducation process be for avante-gardists like Boulez? Should we only waterboard him until his music utilizes more easily recognizable repetitions, or should we use techniques more medieval in nature?

Seriously, people who argue against things that don't effect them in any way need to be shot in the face. Joyce doesn't care if you read his books, nor do I, but I don't see the reason that others shouldn't have that option.

To answer his question, "are our brains big enough to untangle modern art"? Yes, many of us have brains that big. But having read your article, you...not so much.

Sator Arepo said...

Gustav: "Seriously, why must every argument in America include an anti-intellectual faction?"

It's the fucking Wall Street Journal.

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. Douglas said...

Gustav wrote: First, let me start with the end and say, what in the hell is a comprehensive musical narrative? And seriously, can anyone name a piece that doesn't have a musical narrative (besides Stockhausen Kontakte)? They all start, end, utilize a structured organization of pitches which take place through an organization of time. Those are all primary building blocks of narrative, are they not?
-------------------------------

You need to learn to read more carefully, sir.

No one, least of all myself, said anything about "a comprehensive musical narrative." What I wrote was, "It's something much more fundamental: the lack of a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end, which is to say the lack of the work's saying COMPREHENSIBLY [emphasis added] something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods which are — or ought to have been and be — but mere tools used in its making."

That's not at all the same thing, is it.

Of course it's not.

And it makes no bloody difference that a work "utilize[s] a structured organization of pitches which take place through an organization of time," unless those structured organizations are COMPREHENSIBLE to a listener without any recourse whatsoever to what's written on the page, which latter is the business of the composer exclusively, and none of ours as listeners. Further, in order to qualify as music and not gibberish, those structures must form "a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end," that "sa[y] COMPREHENSIBLY something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods."

See how that works — or, rather, should work?

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...

Typo Alert!

My above, "sa[y]"

should have read: "say[s]"

ACD

Gustav said...

Pardon me, Mr. Douglas, for the misquote. I don't mean to misrepresent your argument.

However, on this issue of comprehensibility of music to a listener, how does one gauge such a thing? Who should stand in as the judge of what is appropriately comprehensible and what is too complex? It is quite the statement to call some music "gibberish and not music" simply because it may not be easy to understand. Music built upon patterns and repetition represent the vast majority of music composed in the world. Why not allow for some to compose in a manner that, perhaps, challenges that convention?

I think the gist of my original comment stands -- what do you care? I am not persuaded by your suggestion (and Mr. Teachout's) that music that contains organizational elements that extend beyond what is readily audible in a work makes it too complex for our brains, or makes it "not music".

I think part of the problem comes from this assertion that music, as you put it, can say "comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes...". This belief that music must have an extramusical narrative, to me, is quite juvenile and naive. Stravinsky (the forgettable) perhaps summarized it best in his autobiography when he wrote:

"For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc....Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention - in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being."

Music doesn't tell you stories, nor does it communicate to you the feelings of the composer or his feelings about his dead cat. Common cultural experiences and a shared musical heritage can provide ample amount of context so that most music can be understood. But just because you don't share, or appreciate, the practices of composers who no longer compose in manner consistent with your musical experiences doesn't make it "not music".

But again, you're perfectly free to not like music that organizes it's pitches in incomprehensible ways. I just ask that you allow the rest of us to listen to this music without the unwanted commentary.

A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...

Gustav:

First, I said NOTHING about or against complexity. As a matter of fact, I love complexity in music, as do most experienced listeners, and as do almost all of us with any degree of formal musical training. Complexity is almost always good in proportion. It's complicatedness masquerading as complexity that's bad — always bad irrespective of proportionality.

Second, I said NOTHING about "extramusical narrative." I spoke EXPLICITLY of "MUSICAL NARRATIVE," the very antithesis of extramusical narrative. Musical narrative is something only music is capable of accomplishing using its own special vocabulary, grammar and syntax which narrative is impossible to state in words. If it were possible to state in words, there would be little point writing the music to begin with.

However, in order for that musical narrative to be communicated to a listener, it MUST, by definition, be "perceptible and coherent [to the listener] ... from work's beginning to end," and "sa[y] comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods." Any ostensible musical work that does not meet that test is ipso facto gibberish, not music, as I've already declared.

And please stow that perennial, New-Music-Cheerleader, straw-man crap about "just because [one doesn't] share, or appreciate, the practices of composers who no longer compose in manner consistent with [one's] musical experiences doesn't make it 'not music'." I never suggested that it does. I neither share nor appreciate, for instance, the practices of, say, a Philip Glass or an Elliott Carter, to cite just two extreme opposites technically and philosophically, but it would never occur to me to even so much as suggest that the works of those two composers are not music.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gustav said...

I think that we are running into an issue of definition. Musical narrative, it seems, is not an easily agreed upon notion. In general, I think most agree that it is the derived meaning and interpretations taken from a given piece. Theorists spend a lot of time arguing about and attempting to show that a piece of music can convey a narrative that is intrinsically musical, but these processes always involve the introduction of historiograhy, musicology, theory and presuppose any number of common cultural understandings. I have yet, though, to come across anyone that argued that a piece doesn't have a musical narrative in this sense, or a piece in which the narrative is so obscured by complicated musical rhetoric. And really, I'm not so sure how much of what musical narrative is suggested in a given work is identifiable upon a single (or multiple) listening(s).

And pardon my straw man argument. I didn't realize that the subjective nature of music had been quantified to such a degree that one could prove that the music that the music of some composers isn't actually music. I'm glad, though, to see that you aren't dismissing music as disparate as Glass' and Carter's (which would be two interesting examples). I guess I should ask, which music then are you suggesting isn't music?

AnthonyS said...

I think we too often get this conversation tied up in pitch manipulation / organization. I have this problem with students fairly often-- there are a number of distinct musical domains (outside of pitch) with which one can create a sense of musical narrative / unfolding / dramatic logic. Areas like gestural unfolding, timbre, formal structure, and rhythm often go without comment if the pitch organization is of the self-referential (to process) type about which Mr. Douglas writes ("something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods").

If one were to accept the premise above-- that a pitch organization that provides no other rhetorical function other than to comment on its own process/method is in fact incomprehensible (not that I'm advocating that-- it seems that a formal process of pitch manipulation could and often does create a perceptible music logic that is meaningful and comprehensible, if only for the fact that it is self-referential and dynamic), I would find it hard to believe that musical narrative is not in fact located in one of these other domains. Surely pieces like Atmospheres or Penderecki's first quartet are comprehensible, even though the locus of comprehensibility exists in gesture and timbre, not pitch. I can't really think of an example of a work in which these other, often marginalized girders of musical structure don't in fact contribute strongly to the narrative.

Pitch, as it were, is often something of a red herring.

AnthonyS said...

"...or even Elgar level composer".

From Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett's Good Omens:

(a passage in which an Angel and a Demon are discussing the benefits and drawbacks of both possible outcomes of the war between Heaven and Hell)

"We'll win, of course," he said.
"You don't want that," said the demon.
"Why not, pray?"
"Listen," said Crowley desperately, "how many musicians do you think your side have got, eh? First grade, I mean."
Aziraphale looked taken aback.
"Well, I should think--" he began.
"Two," said Crowley. "Elgar and Liszt. That's all. We've got the rest. Beethoven, Brahms, all the Bachs, Mozart, the lot. Can you imagine an eternity with Elgar?"
Aziraphale shut his eyes. "All too easily," he groaned.

A.C. Douglas said...

Gustav: I'm clearly NOT defining "musical narrative" in the sense you above outlined. I meant nothing more technical than what I've already said; viz., a perceptible, coherent narrative created by the music itself "using its own special vocabulary, grammar and syntax which narrative is impossible to state in words."

As to your, "I guess I should ask, which music then are you suggesting isn't music?", the so-called "music" of those two celebrated charlatans, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, for two prominent examples, although both have on occasion shown they're capable of writing genuine if thoroughly slight and inconsequential music when they choose to do so. And, no, I refuse to become involved in a detailed technical explanation or discussion. I've better uses for my time. I merely refer you back to what I've already said on the subject of music and gibberish generally.

I don't expect to change your or anyone else's thinking by my argument, just as your argument most certainly won't change mine. I insist only that when one argues against what I've written, one argue against what I've written, NOT against what one imagines I've written as you've done.

ACD

AnthonyS said...

And, no, I refuse to become involved in a detailed technical explanation or discussion.

An example of such a piece would be useful, however, even without a detailed explanation. The argument rings rather hollow without explicit reference to the literature.

A.C. Douglas said...

Typo Alert (again)!

Wrong tense in a sentence of my last. The sentence that read in part:

...the so-called "music" of those two celebrated charlatans, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, for two prominent examples, although both have on occasion shown they're capable of writing genuine if thoroughly slight and inconsequential music when they choose to do so.

should have read:

"..the so-called 'music' of those two celebrated charlatans, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, for two prominent examples, although both have on occasion shown they were capable of writing genuine if thoroughly slight and inconsequential music when they chose to do so."

Also, I confess I really wasn't playing fair using those two extreme examples. Playing fair, I should have instead used as example the so-called "music" of Pierre Boulez, especially in his doctrinaire 12-tone period, and the so-called "music" of Milton Babbitt in any period.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...

AnthonyS: You actually expect me to remember the names of such trash? You're being disingenuous. Both the names and the noise were forgotten by me almost immediately after hearing them as there was absolutely no reason to remember either.

However, if it's specific example you insist on, put up all the names of those works for which they're today celebrated on a wall, blindfold yourself, and throw a dart at the wall.

You can't possibly miss hitting a specific example that would be apropos of my comments.

ACD

AnthonyS said...

I'm being disingenuous? I'd rather talk about the music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAcSyfwQ2RA

So here's a "fer instance". Babitt's Semi-simple Variations. My undergraduate theory students can tell you all about the various kinds of formal procedures used to construct the piece, the total serial aspect of rhythmic rows, dynamic rows, etc. But that isn't really what is important-- these structures simply help to generate the material. Let's talk about it as music.

I find it rather hard to believe that this is incomprehensible in the slightest. There are several recurrent gestures (the repeated short notes, the contour of the opening gesture that is telegraphed all over the piece, etc) that formulate a very real sense of musical unfolding. The use of register also has a logic and narrative to it-- the jumps in register often demarcate small formal and gestural units-- Registral shifts in Beethoven often work in precisely the same way.

Certainly there is clearly some melodic material to hang on to-- especially in the opening. It works as a compelling little melodic fragment that despite its serial derivation has an interest and profile of its own.

Then there's the rhythm, which to me is the most clever and engaging part of the piece. There's a playfulness to the way the syncopated rhythmic language permeates the piece, and I can't really accept that a very real and compelling musical narrative is not extant here. Similar rhythmic figures are set and re-set, reconfigured to create a sense of development and recursion that we would expect to create a thread-- that "comprehensibility" we've been talking about. In fact, this piece seems to actually kind of dance. Hence the very awesome cover by The Bad Plus.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-PJw2lqW7c&feature=related

With all due respect, I simply don't think that one can write off such a piece as "trash" out of hand; notice that my very brief discussion of the way in which I hear the musical narrative-- a very clear and comprehensible one-- is constructed in domains other than pitch. The success of the piece-- its ability to hang together as a musical whole-- is dependent on other domains fulfilling the rhetorical function that is usually privileged in tonal music to pitch and harmony.

This may not be your cup of tea, but to dismiss it as "not music" is unfair and unfounded in any substantive musical argument.

A.C. Douglas said...

With all due respect, Anthony, no one who was not intimately familiar with the processes and procedures used to manufacture those two Babbitt works you linked (and I use the term "manufacture" advisedly) could ever hear in them anything remotely resembling a musical narrative — "a perceptible and coherent musical narrative from work's beginning to end which say[s] comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on [the work's] own processes and methods." And that's because such a musical narrative is totally absent in those two works, just as it is in this manufactured product of Babbitt's making:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpbrXlnZMRg&feature

There's a reason pitch (and, later, counterpoint and harmony) has principally "fulfill[ed] the rhetorical function" in all music since music's beginnings. It's the principal way — the hard-wired principal way (and please note, I did NOT say the exclusive way) — humans make narrative sense of music qua music (as opposed to, say, the "message" or ritual function of, say, aboriginal tribal drumming), and no product of a theoretical construct that flies in the face of that hard-wiring can alter that hard-wiring or "re-educate" it one iota. Or do you imagine that the musically knowledgeable music-loving public has for the decades of such products' existence overwhelmingly and resoundingly rejected them out of pure spite and/or perversity, or because that public is really made up of musical luddites?

ACD

Sator Arepo said...

Mr. Douglas,

It seems to me that this "hard-wiring" is less absolute (or, perhaps, far more contingent) than that. Which is to say: more sociological and less strictly biological (but certainly that, too).

However, I will admit that, as constructed, your argument is unassailable; if one accepts your precepts:

"However, in order for that musical narrative to be communicated to a listener, it MUST, by definition, be "perceptible and coherent [to the listener] ... from work's beginning to end," and "sa[y] comprehensibly something beyond and exclusive of commentary on its own processes and methods."

...the final verdict regarding which is, in the end, subject to your learned scrutiny, then:

"Any ostensible musical work that does not meet that test is ipso facto gibberish, not music, as I've already declared."

...is undeniably true, although I may disagree with your tenets and/or final judgment regarding what is and is not music.

It seems to me that your objection lies precisely, if not explicitly, with the non-linearity of such musics; clearly this is an extrapolation from your argument and not explicit in it, so forgive me if I am incorrect.

I think, though, that (to pick a poison) a collage and/or montage can be as easily understood as a developing, linear narrative.

Further, it seems apparent that we encounter a great deal of information in this way in our everyday lives (especially, but not exclusively, our electronic, technically-enhanced reality), and that in fact many (but, importantly, not all) things can be expressed or communicated thusly, sometimes more efficiently, artfully, or elegantly than in a linear format.

If it is your opinion that "music" (as you would guard it) does not or cannot be organized in this way [or, if I have extrapolated falsely, then in whatever way pleases you], then so be it; I may as well send a telegraph voicing my views to the Prussian consulate in Siam.

That said, and lastly, your spirited dialogue is most welcome (as is all of it). Had I known that engaging your [learned, if conservative] opinions was the key to a robust comment thread, I may have done so long ago.

-SA

A.C. Douglas said...

Mr. Arepo:

Although I suppose the scientific jury is still out on the final answer to the question, just the history of the way music has developed from its very beginnings worldwide suggests quite strongly that pitch is the domain (to use Anthony's term) on which our capacity to make narrative sense of music qua music primarily depends; a characteristic hardwired in us in the same way that Chomsky's hypothesized "Universal Grammar" which makes possible our acquisition of language is. Societal, cultural, and other environmental pressures may influence the shaping of pitch series and patterns, but do not in any way alter the primacy of pitch as the domain on which our capacity to make narrative sense of music qua music depends.

I wouldn't quite bet my life on the validity of all that, but I'd be willing to wager hundreds of dollars against pennies that it's the true case.

As to your,

It seems to me that your objection lies precisely, if not explicitly, with the non-linearity of such musics [i.e., musics which I consider gibberish and not music]; clearly this is an extrapolation from your argument and not explicit in it, so forgive me if I am incorrect.

Yes, you're incorrect, and I most willingly forgive you considering the way you put the matter.

Non-linearity has nothing to do with it. A coherent musical narrative does NOT depend on that narrative being linear. It depends only on a narrative's perceptible (that is, perceptible to the listener) lyric and/or dramatic logical progression and/or development from a work's beginning to end — a progression and/or development that by no means needs to be linear as witness, for instance, the musical narrative of that great atonal work Erwartung (at bottom, actually polytonal, but that's another discussion/argument for a preview of which, if it interests you, see this 2004 S&F entry) — and it's precisely that which is absent in those works that purport to be music but in fact are gibberish due directly that absence.

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...

Just to forestall the objection to my above example of Erwartung to make my point concerning the linearity/non-linearity of musical narrative on the grounds that because Erwartung is a dramatic work to begin with it can't be used as a fair example, I quote an excerpt from my above linked 2004 S&F entry which argued a different point altogether, but which excerpt works here as well.

One might be tempted to argue that the only reason Erwartung may not sound like musical gibberish is because of the logic imposed on the whole by the text of the sung vocal line. To anyone reckless enough to attempt such an argument my response would be to suggest to him that he mentally replace the sung vocal line with a trumpet, and hear the work through in that fashion. He'll quickly come to realize that Erwartung remains musically coherent sans any text at all.

ACD

AnthonyS said...

I suppose, then, we shall just have a gentlemanly disagreement on this point. There exists in the repertory a great deal of pieces in which pitch is completely absent-- thinking specifically of music for non-pitched percussion ensembles. Rhythm and color take on the work of constructing the narrative. In the Babbit piece, rhythm is the domain in which we can hear motivic recurrence and make connections. These transformations/recursions/connections are both perceptible and independent of knowing anything about the formal structure or generative process.

But I suppose that is the point of contention; if you really can't get past the pitch material, so be it.

minusthelinus said...

Pardon the interruption. My knowledge is small, but perhaps this can help. Shall we ask Milton Babbitt himself?

Babbitt: "Mathematics--or, more correctly, arithmetic--is used, not as a means of characterizing or discovering general systematic, pre-compositional relationships, but as a stylistic device, resulting in the most literal sort of 'programme music,' whose course is determined by a numerical, rather than by a narrative or descriptive, 'programme.' ... The most crucial problems of twelve-tone music are resolved by being defined out of existence; harmonic structure in all dimensions is proclaimed to be irrelevant, unnecessary, and perhaps, undesirable in any event; so, a principle, or non-principle, of harmony by fortuity reigns."

Mr. Douglas, I believe Mr. Babbitt would heartily agree with your claim that his music lacks a musical narrative (though Babbitt's definition may be different, I suppose). Though, of course, he would still have referred to it as music.

Sator Arepo said...

I suppose I don't understand why you (Mr. Douglas) assert (accurately, in my opinion) that "Erwartung" is not gibberish, while [extrapolating from your earlier remarks] you would likely assert that i.e. "Le Marteau sans Maitre," in fact, is (with which I would disagree).

In the end, again, if it comes down to your (or, indeed, mine, or anyone's) assessment, well: fine.

It seems, though, that declaring this or that "not music" is more of a rhetorical move than anything; while I believe that you have the courage of your convictions, this strategem seems more like [to mix languages] schadenfreude-laden provacateur-ism designed to set all of the modernist-sympathizers' hair on fire.

As to the opinion of the public regarding the new, your arguments (as you surely know) do not sound so terribly different [e.g. "Noise instead of Music!"] than those leveled at Beethoven, Shostakovich, and a host of others in their own times.

As to the parsing of the terminology as suggested by Gustav and Mr. Minus, that is all well; it seems, though, that our particular contention is a Platonic and not an Aristotelian one.

A.C. Douglas said...

I would indeed assert that _Le Marteau sans Maitre_ is gibberish. And that's because it does not...well, you can certainly fill in the rest yourself at this point in this exchange. And _Erwartung_ is not gibberish, because it does...etc., etc.

But, no, my distinction between what's gibberish and what's music is not a "rhetorical move" on my part but my best analysis (at present, at least) of what any work that pretends to music requires at its most fundamental level in order to be considered music. And while my litmus test, so to speak, is NOT "schadenfreude-laden provacateur-ism designed to set all of the modernist-sympathizers' hair on fire," it certainly does seem to provoke that latter response, or provoke utter dismissal of myself and what I have to say on the part of those devoted to what I would call gibberish. However, I can't imagine what _Schadenfreude_ has to do with any of this. Perhaps you might explain that.

Finally, about that "Noise instead of Music!" epithet being hurled at the works of composers the likes of "Beethoven, Shostakovich, and a host of others in their own times," that insult was clearly meant not literally, but as an expression of extreme displeasure meant to wound the target for his audacity and impertinence. Needless to say (or, rather, it should be needless to say), that's not my intent at all if for no reason other than I do not consider those who write gibberish today to be audacious or impertinent in the least, but, quite the contrary, individuals desperate to find a way to use music's vocabulary, grammar, and syntax or parts thereof in ways that will not permit the works produced to be measured directly against the works of those towering musical giants who preceded them. It's not for nothing the so-called Modernists who began this hopeless, impotent enterprise in the early decades of the 20th century declared all previous musics forever null and void.

ACD

cereal_music said...

Great job, E! In general, ACD is correct on most points, so well done too. And good for the WSJ sparking this conversation. I must have missed that article in my subscription at home!

Back to composition.

CM

Sator Arepo said...

cereal,

Always good to see you here; I owe you a phone call.

Mr. Douglas,

Again, I do believe that you are sincere, and that, in the end, the "hair-on-fire" and perceived-schadenfreude accusations I've leveled are, indeed, a side effect of your argument rather than their design or intent.

That said, you do seem (on your blog, if not here) to take a certain occasional delight in raising the hackles of the Defenders of Modernism. And, thusly, that your stance could be perceived as a mere rhetorical swipe [of the Devil's Advocate variety] rather than a principled stand. No to repeat myself, but in your case I do believe it is actually the latter.

In the final analysis, this sort of dialogue is most gratifying, if inconclusive. As long as I am allowed to suffer the delusion that am having a musical experience while I enjoy Cage/Boulez/Amirkanian/Oliveros/whomever, we can coexist in peace and conversation.

best,
SA

Sator Arepo said...

[Please excuse typos; ironically, copy editing other (unrelated) documents while composing fresh comments in one's mind is not conducive to mistake-free work in either arena.]