Symphony/Composer Bravely Condemns Evil

It was while I was enjoying a quiet pint at work when I happened upon this lively article about the Symphony No. 7, by Shostakovich.

Music Review: BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Peter Collins, South Wales Echo, July 21, 2010

IT was while I was enjoying a quiet pint during the interval of this gripping Welsh Prom concert that I eavesdropped on a lively conversation about the Symphony No 7, by Shostakovich.

Beer is about the only way I know to prepare for that symphony, too.

The symphony, known as Leningrad, occupied the whole of the second half of the concert.

As symphonies tend to do from time to time.

So, what of their lively conversation.

The thrust of the tete-a-tete was whether the massive work was Shostakovich’s nationalistic symbol of Russian resistance and defiance to Nazi totalitarianism, or a more general depiction and condemnation of totalitarianism, with the brutality of Stalin as its driving force. As always with Shostakovich it is an interesting but ultimately futile debate.

God, how incredibly fascinating. Did his music actively hate Nazis, or just passively hate them?

figure argument: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

Also, futile? Really? Let's ask wikipedia, they know everything.

In its time, the symphony was extremely popular in both Russia and the West as a symbol of resistance and defiance to Nazi totalitarianism and militarism. As a condemnation of the German invasion...

Okay, so in its time, it was a "symbol of...resistance and defiance to Nazi totalitarianism".

Hmmm...that seems strangely familiar. Hey, wait a minute!

...[rereads article...then wikipedia entry...then article again...then takes a shot of whiskey]...

Wikipedia seems to suggest that the symphony both condemns AND resists Nazi totalitarianism!

How can that be? Don't keep us in suspense...which is it? Who won the argument?

Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see which view conductor Thierry Fischer would take as he picked up his baton to lead BBC NOW.

Good call...let the conductor decide. So, which is it: resistance or condemnation?

It seemed to me that Fischer, who was in command of the music and the orchestra from start to finish, was inclined to view the opus as more of a general condemnation of evil.

Really? The symphony condemns evil in general? Not just Nazi totalitarianism, but all evil?


Maybe the Eighth symphony is a statement that the children are our future.


Also, copying from wikipedia is lazy, and such.

figure copying: Thank you, Al Gore, for the internets.


The Ketchup Is too Spicy for My Tater Tots

You think the title is on the ridiculous side? Well, have I a review for you!

The Seattle Chamber Music Festival is beloved by its fans for its Romantic sweet spot, but even the most ardent champions of easy-on-the-ear melody would have had to reconsider the merits of dissonance last Sunday night.

Damn! That, indeed, sounds spicy. So spicy, in fact, I might reconsider renewing my subscription to Earplugs-R-Us, the Anti-modernist Relief Association’s bi-annual magazine that caters to concertgoers who are routinely subjected to unresolved fourths. The magazine also comes with complimentary earplugs, duh.

But, really, who am I kidding? Bring on the pain! Bring on the pain!!

The evening opened with Mozart's crisp and deceptively melodious Piano Trio in B-flat Major...

Bring on the p...


Uh, surely, the Mozart isn’t the spicy bit; it doesn’t even hit the “Romantic sweet spot.” It makes me wonder, then, what, if anything, could make one “reconsider the merits [really, merits?] of dissonance”?

Compared to the pleasant, cuppa-tea-with-milk-and-honey Mozart...

(Does your stomach churn when you see “cuppa,” too?)

Compared to the [...] Mozart, Prokofiev's Quartet No. 2 in F Major is a stiff shot of vodka.

Prokofiev? You’re shitting me.

F friggin’ major!?

And dissonant to the point that it makes one wonder if dissonance is overrated? Huh? What are you? Eight years old?!

To jog our memories, maybe we should give it a listen.

Example 1: Movement I

Oh! Now I get it. Because Russians drink vodka, see, unlike Mozart. And they’re all bears, bears who drink vodka. So, they’re un-bear-ably dissonant.



Wait. That doesn’t make any damned sense. What’s really going on, here?

Maybe the rest of the review will explain.

The starting Allegro is a stolid contraption of levers and pulleys, a steel factory producing energy in the form of audible vibrations.

Not to ruin your nice little story, but did you ever consider that the actual, in-front-of-you string quartet is, you know, making real, audible vibrations?

Maybe it’s just me, but confusing the real for the simulation (metaphoric description) is, well, a detrimental symptom of postmodernism that nobody needs; not here, anyway.

It seemed impossible that the night could get any better, but after intermission it did.

I’ll cut to the chase: it was Lalo. Lalo’s Piano Trio in A friggin’ minor. (The descriptive writing is a bit over the top, here, so it is omitted) Anyway...

End of dissonance inquiry.

I don’t get it. Either our author has a weak stomach or...I just don’t get it.

Maybe the title and hook left us some clues.

Review: Stiff shot of dissonance vibrates at Seattle chamber-music fest
Sumi Hahn
Special to the Seattle Times

No help here.

Dissonance in music is a taste acquired over time.

If only Bach wrote dissonant music...

Like a craving for coffee or scotch, the appetite for such harmonics is also culturally conditioned.

That’s part of it, sure, I guess.

One man's song may well be another man's noise.

There you have it: dissonance.

And now: Mozart, Prokofiev, and Lalo. Enjoy!


Lutoslawski's Too Wild for Words

Symphony Review: Sublime opener launches Mozaic
James Cushing, San Luis Obispo Tribune, July 19th, 2010

See, Dallas Morning News, this is how you do a review title for a festival.

Whether you think of it as Festival Mozaic or The San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, 2010 marks the 40th year of this annual bounty.

Way to go Fesitval Mozart Festival guys. 40 years is a lot!

If Thursday’s sublime opening concert was any indication, this summer might be the most adventurous music festival in recent memory.

Sublime adventure? Interesting. What's on the concert?

Two ambitious chamber works by Rachmaninoff and a wild ride by Polish modernist Witold Lutoslawski left the opening night’s near-capacity audience at the Cuesta College Cultural and Performing Arts Center with a lot to think about and feel grateful for.

Ooh. I love Lutoslawski. And it's wild! How very exciting.

figure festival patron: A motorcar Lutoslawski. Gad! What have I been missing.

We’ve come to expect intelligent programming from Music Director Scott Yoo,...


The piece, scored for piano, violin and cello,...


Cellist Trevor Handy, familiar to Festival Mozaic audiences,...

Uh-huh. [skimming some more...]

In the last movement,...

Last? Well, that means we're surely getting close now...I can feel it.

figure lutoslawski: Mr. Toad's wild ride.

The second half of the concert explored the two-piano repertoire with Rachmaninoff’s “Suite No. 2 in C major” and Lutoslawski’s wild Paganini variations.

Wild, yes. And...?

The 1901 suite is structured symphonically and maintains an optimistic mood in contrast to the dark sorrows of the trio. The second movement,...


...a waltz, sped along as brightly as it does under the hands of Argerich and Meyer in their celebrated recording.

Surely, the last paragraph will mention something about the wildness of Lutoslawski.

The concert was sponsored by Ron and Ann Alers. The festival continues through Sunday.

Fine. Whatever. I'm sure there's nothing interesting about that piece--like that it was originally composed in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Poland for performance in bars and cafés as a means of financial survival. Or that it's a variation on the last of the famous 24 Caprices by Paganini for unaccompanied violin -- the piece that probably originated the legend of Paganini's deal with the Devil -- which also served as the basis for musical treatments by composers such as Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Szymanowski, and even Andrew Lloyd-freakin'-Webber.

I agree. Wholly uninteresting.

embeddence paganini variations: Witold's Wild Ride.


In Which I Am Proven Wrong...by Science!

So I was saying that Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps is surely an excellent piece, but that given the 70 or so years since its inception, it isn't really astonishing anymore.

"Nuh uh," my interlocutor insisted. "It's still astonishing."

I mean, I guess. But not really astonishing. It's well known and widely performed and studied, so how astonishing can it really be? Perhaps this is a semantic or rhetorical squabble, but still...

"Nuh uh. I'll prove it."

Mimir Chamber proves 'Quartet for the End of Time' still has power to astonish
Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News, 7/14/2010

Aw, fiddlesticks.

But wait. What's a "Mimir Chamber"?

Figure 1: One imagines a secret meeting room where shadowy, powerful men negotiate the fate of the world. ("You can't fight in here! This is the war room!")

...Nearly 70 years on, the eight-movement, 45-minute work still astonishes. And so it did again Tuesday night at Texas Christian University's PepsiCo Recital Hall, thanks to the Mimir Chamber Music Festival.

Okay. Title-writing guy? Couple-a things.

"Mimir Festival" or even simply "Mimir" would have been perfectly clear shorthand for "Mimir Chamber Music Festival." Although one is thankful your preferred truncation was not some nouveau-cable station abbreviation like "MimFest," "Mimir Chamber" is bad and dumb and unclear to boot.

Second, and through fault of neither author nor inept title-writer:

...Texas Christian University's PepsiCo Recital Hall...

Fucking hell, people. Way to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.

Figure 2: A parable, of sorts, for those with eyes to see.


Symphony Programs Beethoven, Staff Critic Approves

A season preview in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, simply attributed to the Staff Reports.

Richmond Symphony: On the Knees

Seems like a difficult way to perform, but whatever...on their knees it is.

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has established itself as the most beloved work in the repertoire.

Ah, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, no other piece is so universally praised and loved.

I think super-duper composer Louis Spohr summed it up nicely in his autobiography:

"I confess freely that I could never get any enjoyment out of the Beethoven's last works. Yes, I must include the among them even the much-admired Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement of which seems to me so ugly, in such bad taste, and in the conception of Schiller' Ode so cheap that I cannot even now understand how such a genius as Beethoven could write it down. I find in it another corroboration...that Beethoven was deficient in esthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty."

Thanks in large part to its choral finale, known as the "Ode to Joy,"

"Ode to..." what now?

...it serves as the anthem for Europe...

What an oddly nonspecific way of saying that it is recognized as a European Anthem by both the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe.

...and is played during momentous occasions throughout the world.

Oh yes, the "Ode to Joy"! Quite the famous tune, indeed.

And, thanks to the music in the piece, it's the European Anthem and is used to underscore momentous occasions? Really, could it have been any other way?

But, "Ode to Joy" -- who doesn't love that tune. As Philip Hale so eloquently extolled its virtues for the
Musical Record in 1899:

"But oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music! The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, 'Freude, Freude!' Do you believe way down in the bottom of your heart that if this music had been written by Mr. John L. Tarbox, now living in Sandown, N.H., any conductor here or in Europe could be persuaded to put in rehearsal?"

embeddence Ode: "Ode to Joy", anthem of Europe and jingle to help sell tickets!

The symphony celebrates triumph and offers consolation during times of sorrow.

And has accompanied some of the most heart-warming cinematic moments:

So, to what do you attribute to this piece's success?

Although not overtly religious -- and Beethoven himself does not seem a man of the creed -- it strikes many souls.

O...kay. That all seems fairly reasonable.

And if the Ninth resembles a secular prayer, then Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" may be a mass scored not only for believers but for doubters and perhaps even for scoffers.

...Good point?

But now that you've randomly brought it up, I should say that I love the "Missa Solemnis". As was written in the London Morning Chronicle in 1845:

"The Missa Solemnis was generally regarded as an incomprehensible production, the depths of which (if they really were depths) it was impossible to fathom."

Greatest mass ever? I think so.

In both compositions, music is the medium and the message.

So...not a secular prayer, nor mass for the believers and friends?

But why did you bring up the Missa Solemnis?

The pieces came to mind when the Richmond Symphony released its schedule for 2010-2011.

I was just wondering this. Why did these two pieces come to mind when the schedule was released? I'm going to guess it was the stirring words of John Ruskin (yes, that John Ruskin) in a letter to John Brown (in 1881), who wrote:

"Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.

Steven Smith's first season as music director will open with the Ninth and close with the "Missa Solemnis."

Ah...makes sense. But really, you've already told us sooo much about this music, I feel like I've heard them already. Why bother performing them?

Words cannot fully explain music because music would not be necessary if words sufficed.

Yeah, you're totally right -- well, as long as you don't actually think about it.

But, circular logic aside...are you really sure? How about an analogy?

Descriptions of tunes usually prove as insightful as those wine reviews that detect about 73 distinct flavors in a jug of red. Just listen.

I must say, as a classical music lover, I have been known to take part of jug of red from time to time. Words just won't suffice. Say no more.

But you've gotten to the point so quickly, surely there's a word minimum for this article. Maybe you cram in some random quotes supporting your thesis about the awesomeness of Beethoven? And maybe an odd transition while we're at it?

The finale of the Ninth may convey universals,...

To be sure. But universal what? Universal remotes? Universal Studios? Oh, I know...universal truths? I hope so, because that's how I like my truths.

...but the preceding movement is sublime.

The third movement doesn't have universals, but is sublime?

And, by the way, excellent job on the odd transition here.

So, go on, what ya got on the Adagio movement?

In his charming and rewarding The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, Harvey Sachs writes of the Ninth's third movement: "[N]othing more beautiful than this movement has ever been written for the symphony orchestra."

Well, Sachs definitely proves his objectivity on the subject by not allowing himself to become victim to hyperbole.

And Sachs is totally right, of course. As the Boston Daily Atlas put it in 1853:

"The Adagio certainly possessed much beauty, but the other movements, particularly the last, appeared to be an incomprehensible union of strange harmonies. Beethoven was deaf when he wrote it."

So, what ironclad evidence does Sachs provide?

Sachs cites Arturo Toscanini's passionate comments that the movement "lifts me off the earth, removes me from the field of gravity, makes me weightless. One becomes all soul. One ought to conduct it on one's knees."

Fascinating. The laws of physics actually cease to exist while the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is being performed?

I was aware of the rumors surrounding the mystical powers of Beethoven's music, but never before had I seen it proven.

In Witness, Whittaker Chambers testifies to the transformational presence inherent in the adagio.

Wait? What?

Whittaker Chambers? The Soviet Spy who defected to the US prior to World War II?

The same Whittaker Chambers who testified against Alger Hiss in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee?

That Whittaker Chambers? What did he have to say about the third movement?

Whittaker Chambers testifies to the transformational presence inherent in the adagio.

So, if I may be permitted to read between the lines a bit, not only is the Adagio the most beautiful movement ever written, with powers to break down earth's gravity, but it contains the transformational powers to turn...capitalists into...communists?

And if the third movement is, as Sachs says, the most beautiful symphonic movement ever composed,...


...then the Sanctus from the "Missa Solemnis" stakes a claim for ultimate beauty, too.

Really, how do you figure? Are you suggesting that the Missa Solemnis' beauty is directly tied to our opinion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, third movement?

That'd be pretty strange, wouldn't it? Wouldn't really expect that, but what the hell do I know? I didn't even know that there really could be a piece that was the most beautiful symphonic movement ever.

During its coming season, the Richmond Symphony will give music-lovers a chance to decide for themselves.

That the 'Sanctus' can stake a claim of ultimate beauty?

And those unfamiliar with the concert scene will find the programming an accessible introduction to the purest of the arts.

Wait, what were you saying about the communists again?


Friday Quickie: Suffering from an excess of good taste?

An interesting dichotomy is often created between the technical prowess of a performance and the depth of the emotional narrative. It is commonplace that some performances are maligned as being cold and technical, while less-than-perfect performances are excused and even lauded because of a sense of greater emotional involvement.

Richard Storm, reviewing the Sarasota Music Festival for the Herald-Tribune, has one such review.

REVIEW: Sarasota Music Festival faculty artists touch the heart

Every music student has been there: Listening while a beloved teacher illustrates the way a particular composition should go, exploring the heart and soul of the piece, possibly slighting some of its technical requirements.

Hehe. Yep, those who can't -- teach. Right?

Which is more important: note-perfect execution or an exploration of the composer’s intentions?

That's a tough one. It really seems to allude a deeper philosophical question: what makes a piece of music what it is...the information in the score or the manner in which player performs it?

It's a complicated question, to be sure, which requires quite a bit of nuance in answering. However, before answering we should ask, more fundamentally, why should these two be diametrically opposed? It seems that a piece could be performed note-perfect and to the composer's intention. If not, then there would seem to a fundamental flaw, a Catch-22 of sorts, in the composition to begin with. Right?

But it's your rhetorical question, so...

No-brainer: The soul wins every time.

I'm guessing the "soul" is the composer's "intention", not the actual notes he wrote. From the point of view of the listener I can understand this feeling.

So, having attended the concert, enlighten us to the "soulful" rendering of the evening's performances.

So, while the faculty artists who performed at the Sarasota Music Festival Artist Showcase Thursday afternoon did not always achieve technical perfection, they fulfilled their roles as mentors and teachers of the fine young musicians who are training with them at the festival.

Huh? Because the faculty performed, and didn't achieve technical perfection, they were mentors and teachers?

The best example of this important distinction...

That performing all the right notes isn't important?

...was found in John Perry’s intensely engaging rendition of Robert Schumann’s moving and challenging Fantasy in C Major, an extended reaction to forced separation from his beloved Clara.

Which is why he dedicated the work to Franz Liszt? (note: link is to a pdf of the score)

And which (the infallible) wikipedia claims was composed in part as a monument to Beethoven, even quoting Beethoven in the work?

But whatever, I get it...all great composers get boiled down to one or two simple storylines: Mozart's all-consuming genius, Beethoven's deafness/savior of concerts with new music, Schumann's love of Clara/going crazy, and Brahms' love of the corn dog pizza.

figure corn dog pizza: And people say America doesn't invent anything anymore.

But we were talking about how great the interpretation of the piece was...

Perry’s performance was by no means technically perfect...

Yeah, I think you've mentioned that. If there's one thing performers love, it's having wrong notes pointed out to them.

...but it was touching in its intensity, powerful in its commitment to communication.

And this intensity and commitment to communication was enhanced by the lack of concern for right notes and technical perfection?

It's an interesting theory, but I'm going to need some convincing as to how the "heart and soul" of the piece was enhanced at the expense of the technical aspects of the piece.

Tell us more about how the performer plumbed the emotional depths of Schumann's desperation over his separation from his beloved Clara?

Yes, notes were missed,...

No, no, we get it. Ix-nay on the ong-wray otes-nay.

...there were messy and muddy moments,...

(This sure is a funny looking positive review.)

...but the final result was an appreciation of both the genius of Schumann and the influence of Perry on his students.

Please pardon me if I'm asking an obvious question, but how was this muddy, messy, technically imperfect performance an appreciation of the influence of Perry on his students?

I'm not sure we're getting anywhere, how about we check in on some of the other faculty performances.

The same evaluations...

Again, the technical and emotional battle for supremacy.

...applied to an over-cautious performance of Gioachino Rossini’s youthful “indiscretion” — his String Quartet No. 1, in an arrangement for winds, performed with great skill but very little witty spirit by Leone Buyse, flute; Franklin Cohen, clarinet; Frank Morelli, bassoon; and William Purvis, horn.

Okay, let's summarize...the Schumann had wrong notes, but was ultimately a good performance. And by contrast, the Rossini was played with "great skill" (which I can only assume means all the right notes), but wasn't spirited, and therefore not as satisfying a performance.

Hmmm...I'm beginning to see your point. This is indeed a conundrum.

Where was the mischievous wit for which Rossini was famous,...

It was probably lost in all the right notes being played...

...even at the age of 12,...

Wait, pardon the interruption -- Rossini was famous for his mischievous wit when he was 12? Famous with who -- his mom?

figure Rossini: Getting a lecture from his parents after his famous mischievousness caused him to trample Mr. Wilson's newly planted begonias.

...when he is alleged to have written this charming piece? Perhaps the performance suffered from an excess of good taste.

Just like the corn dog pizza.

That caution may also have affected the first piece on the program;...

The way they performed the Rossini may have affected the first piece? I'm assuming the "first piece on the program" was performed before the Rossini...right?

...Erno Dohnanyi’s “Aria,” performed by Buyse and Jonathan Spivey, piano, in which cautious good taste may have resulted in flute tone slightly under pitch.

Sounds like another excellent teaching moment for the kiddies. Intonation, just like accurate notes, aren't as important as the soul. Right?

Also, I have no idea what "cautious good taste" means. But it obviously is something to avoid. ...or not?

But back to our exploration of technical versus emotional. It seems what we have here, with the Dohnanyi, is a less than technically perfect performance, that was at the same time also suffering from "good taste" (e.g. not a satisfying emotional performance).

Does this suggest a flaw in our basic premise?

Hmmm...one more example maybe?

Yasha Heifetz’s clever arrangements of arias from George Gershwin’s glorious folk opera, “Porgy and Bess,” performed by Alexander Kerr, violin, and Jean Schneider, piano, was much more like the expectations of the students in the audience in its energy and swing.

Wait, I thought all these wrong notes, lack of wit, and bad intonations were what we expect when our beloved teachers perform for us? But I guess I should have assumed that when you said it had "energy and swing", that meant it was "
exploring the heart and soul of the piece, possibly slighting some of its technical requirements." However, I'm not quite sure how the example of this dichotomy was a positive learning experience for the kiddies -- I guess we're teaching them priorities?

But, perhaps your larger point stands, that technical blemishes aren't as detrimental to the success of a performance as are cautious, unspirited performances. I suppose that there is some truth to this notion when it comes to live performances. How these two facets of musical performance became inversely intertwined remains a mystery to me. But I suppose there's a logic to it, that people wished to be moved by music, not impressed by it.

And while I'm certain that the case has yet to be proven, I think there is sufficient evidence that emotional performances are the greater performances. And for that reason, I am ordering that technical perfection keep at least 500 yards from the "heart and soul" of a piece at all times.


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?





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.


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.


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…


[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…


…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.


Friday Quickie: Stravinsky best used to remove lingering flavors, avoid heartburn and promote good digestion

Opinions are important. They make a critic, or a critique, what they are -- an educated, reflective review and discerning examination of the relative value of a given piece of music or concert. They can also be fun, primarily in challenging standard orthodoxies and bringing new perspectives to common pieces and experiences.

Then again, some opinions are just...inexplicable.

Review | Chamber orchestra season has powerful conclusion

John Heuertz, Kansas City Star, June 13, 2010

The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra’s last concert of the season featured Mozart’s last work. The Mozart piece, his 1791 Requiem Mass, was preceded by Igor Stravinsky’s 1938 “Dumbarton Oaks” chamber concerto.

An interesting combination of pieces. While certainly accessible for a chamber ensemble, the Mozart Requiem (with a very sizable choral component) seems a very large scale work by comparison to the Stravinsky. But, whatever...I'm game.

Conductor Bruce Sorrell kept the 15 or 16 instrumental voices in the score in good balance.

That's good. Plus specifics are overrated.

He conducted with precision and gave the music an appropriately playful feel.

Appropriate is nice.

This cheery little item...

the Stravinsky?

...is often compared to Bach’s Brandenburg concerti.

Yes, I've heard that. In fact, I think Stravinsky even mentioned this himself:

“I played Bach very regularly during the composition of the concerto,and I was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the third of the Brandenburg set, however, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach would most certainly have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do."


Anywho, so one would do well to compare to this piece to the Bach Brandenburg concerti I would say. Go on...

A better comparison might be to music from the mid-18th century Mannheim school.

A better comparison, eh? Even better than the piece the composer even admitted he stole, er...borrowed themes from?


Mannheim composers wrote the same kind of elegant, polished,...

Elegant, polished...yes yes. These were indeed traits of the neo-classical style, which was the style at the time, that Stravinsky embraced while composing this piece. What else...?

...the same kind of elegant, polished, commercially successful music that Stravinsky did.

Yes, commercially succ...wait...what?

Stravinsky wrote commercially successful music? "Dumbarton Oaks" is a commercially successful piece?

I have no idea what this means. I guess compared to Henri Pousseur Stravinsky wrote commercial music...

figure pousseur: Was always secretly disappointed that his Dichterliebesreigentraum (1992-3) didn't even crack the Billboard Hot 100, but UB40's crappy remake of "Can't Help Falling in Love" was #1 for 7 weeks.

And, like Stravinsky’s music, Mannheim music is easy to forget before intermission.

Forgettable?! Stravinsky's music is forgettable? I apparently don't know what the word 'forgettable' means.

Are we talking about the same Stravinsky?

But that matrix of forgettable music has to be there for unforgettable music to be written — and Mozart’s Requiem is unforgettable.

Whew. I thought you were being a tad dismissive at first, but I think I get it now. We need Stravinsky's forgettable music so we can fully appreciate good music from a composer who never wrote forgettable music.

Good call. Really, we should have a term for music like this. Any thoughts?

Thus Sorrell aptly described the Stravinsky as a “palate cleanser” for the Mozart.

Perfect. Stravinsky's music is like an unsalted cracker, or even better, a fruit sorbet.

figure palate cleanser: Bottled Stravinsky. Available in 6, 12 and 24 packs.