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!
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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?"
Are certain kinds of modern art too complex for anybody to understand?
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?
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?
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."
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.
So, to get back to Mr. Teachout’s point: there is no guarantee that a compositional system will be intelligible. Fair enough.
Mr. Lerdahl's paper isn't widely known outside the field of music theory.
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.
"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.
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’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.
…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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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…
…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.