I Am Not Listening to You. Or: High Arts as Capitalist Running Dog Consumer Culture Service Industry

Are You Listening to Me?

The following excerpts a recent piece by Pierre Ruhe of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He throws his voice into the surging ocean of people wondering why composers just won’t write stuff they like! How dare they express themselves! Surely Beethoven’s early reviews were all stellar. Right?

"His great qualities are often alloyed by a morbid desire for novelty, by extravagance, and by a disdain of rule. The effect his writings have had on the art must, I fear, be considered as injurous... as much harshness, as much extravegance, as much obscurity, with little or none of the beauty or grandeur. Thus music is no longer intended to soothe, to delight.. it is absorbed into one principle-- to astonish"

--Quarterly Musical Magazine, London, 1827 (re: Beethoven) [thanks to reader AnthonyS]


Contemporary classical music is at a crossroads. The composer-audience relationship has been sour for decades, but both sides are starting to ask the same question.

What, sir, is that question? No? Fine…

Composers are at their best when they let music do the talking.

Shut up, composers! What the hell do you know about, um, your…music? We’re the audience, dammit!

Still, the urge to put their inspirations and aspirations into words is supposed to help the listeners.

Help the listeners…to…understand the music? Get a mortgage? Do their taxes? Or: Understand their music!?!

More likely, though, it weakens whatever artistic statements they are trying to make.

Yes. Verbal explanations of the fine arts usually serve to further obfuscate the meaning of the audience. Clearly. Duh.

This dilemma was on view again recently at Spivey Hall.

The dilemma…was on…view?

The fifth annual “Composers Now” concert in mid-March covered works by four prominent Atlantans: Mark Gresham, Jason Freeman, Chris Arrell and Nickitas Demos.

I don’t know any of these people, or their work, but I already prefer them to your review.

The telling moment came when Arrell, the show's organizer and a professor at Clayton State University, led a discussion with his colleagues. His simple question - about how the composer thinks of an audience when writing music - was met with awkward silence, then nervous chuckles.

Oh, those dismissive artsy types! They are so aloof. Clearly, no composer ever wrote what they felt they had to, contemporaries be damned. Surely, no. Definitely not Beethoven. Shostakovich. Wait. What?

Did this suggest these local creators share an I’m-too-cool-to-care attitude toward the recipients of their art?

Yes, yes it did. And it sucked. That is to say: I respectfully disagree.

When pressed, each composer had a properly respectful answer about the value of audiences.


Freeman, a professor at Georgia Tech, explained that he’s written online “wiki” style pieces, created anew with each Web visitor.


Someone else mentioned that he writes for the performers and lets them make the case to the listeners.


All seemed to agree that top priority, as Demos put it, remains, “I gotta be true to myself.”

This seems like a rational approach. Most of the viewers and critics thought Picasso was insane. Kandinsky? Forget about it. Now? Established masters. Schoenberg? Still a pariah. Music is too precious to leave to the composers!

I encountered something more distressing last month, as a panelist at a national composer’s conference, hosted by Georgia State University and moderated by Demos, a GSU professor.

I can’t wait.

When someone in the crowd asked, “Why don’t [living] composers get more attention from the media?” I rashly shot back, “Well, isn’t that the composers’ fault?”

You sure did, rashly!

It poked an open wound. Contemporary classical composers feel embattled, marginalized from the broader American culture. Their niche audience seems as small as ever.

As small…as ever? What? So, what’s the problem?

The simplest notion — if you want an audience to appreciate you, you’d better take steps towards pleasing that audience — is not, apparently, obvious.

Free-market capitalist music! Pandering to the intended audience! It’s called pop. Look it up.

It brings to mind an infamous axiom by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), the dissonant master who remains the bogeyman of the average concert-goer. “If it’s art, it is not for all,” he pronounced, “and if it’s for all it is not art.”

That seems about right. Sure, everyone loves Mozart and Beethoven! Except the rural farmers who have no exposure. (Not to their discredit or fault, just making a point.) By your argument, composers should write music for whosomever comes to the concert. “Dammit, Schubert! Your music should sound more like Hank Williams, dadgummit!” How is that rational? Challenge the audience. Make them work and/or think. If you don’t want to work and/or think, go see, I dunno, Linkin Park. (Apologies to any of our readers who are Linkin Park fans. If any. You know what? Nevermind.)

In recent decades, that’s been a mindset in the academic community, although that ice block is starting to thaw.

Nice metaphor. What?

But the lingering suspicion, voiced often by today’s composers, is that art that “panders” to an audience is cheap, anti-intellectual, tainted by commercialism or simply unfashionable.

By “panders”, I think you mean PANDERS.

Architects used to make this same argument. Our cities are choked with sterile buildings that don’t interact with life down on the street where people walk, or at least used to, before architects conspired to banish them from the designs.

In your construction, the architects banished the streets. Good work.


Oh, good.

Composers have a harder time of it than others. There’s no middleman in a painter’s art. A playwright’s words can be interpreted on stage or read as literature by everyone who’s literate. But music notation — the treble clefs and quarter notes and 12/8 meters on staff paper — is accessible only to trained musicians.

Want to understand? Try a community college course, they’re cheap! Really, expecting understanding sans any effort at all is lazy, lazy art appreciation.

When a composer fashions his sound for the performance specialists, he hopes they'll spend enough time to discover its recondite virtues. First-time listeners, which is to say everyone else at the concert, are likely to feel like an afterthought in the conversation.

See above snark. To quote Frank Zappa: “…go to the library and educate yourself, if you’ve got any guts.”

And any individual composer writes the music he or she feels inspired to write, of course.

I know, right? Why have you been writing all of this…

But when the larger trend, entrenched over many decades, positions composers to face each other more directly than their audiences, should we wonder why living composers don’t get more attention?


Yet unlike the performer-driven pop scene, composers remain at the core of classical music. They’re what biologists would call “primary producers” in an ecosystem: energy flows outward from them and into the larger classical community, for better and worse. Beethoven is always a bigger draw than the ensemble playing him; Schoenberg and his atonal brethren are said to be “box office poison.”



Empiricus said...

I applaud your restraint SA; only one "fuck." I, on the other hand, would be driving to Atlanta right now to burn it down, metaphorically speaking. Pierre is now on my shit list, forever. FOR. EVER.

Empiricus said...

I should also say that I don't have anything against Atlanta, except what I've heard and read about it.

Sator Arepo said...

The rest of the article suggests a corrective, or middle ground. This amounts to, basically:

'Give in to the Market already, you effete fucks! It's your fault if your music isn't popular!' (paraphrase)

Outstanding drivel.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to your Beethoven criticism intro:

"Beethoven's Seventh Symphony...is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we now have heard it peformed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts. Altogether, it seems to have intended as a kind of enigma--we had almost said a hoax." (The Harmonicon, London, July 1825)

and my personal favorite, just a snippet from a longer diatribe about the Ninth Symphony:

"The Finale...is to me for the most part dull and ugly...pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music! The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune..." and so on. (Philip Hale, Musical Record, Boston, June 1, 1899)

Thank you, Philip Hale. That was fucking awesome.

Anonymous said...

Barf. His opinion couldn't sound more uninformed. It's as though he knows absolutely nothing about art. That's the kind of shit my well-meaning relatives spew.

Nothing pisses me off more than non-artists telling the artists how to fix what they're doing. That's the job of the unsuccessful, bitter artists.

Answer me this Pierre Ruhe, what is it that the audiences really want? And remember, show your work and be specific.

Murderface said...

Yes, Mr. Ruhe, tell us what they want, what they really, really want.

RUHE: Yo, I'll tell you what they want, what they really really want.

COMPOSERS: So tell us what they want, what they really really want.

RUHE: I'll tell you what they want, what they really really want!

COMPOSERS: So tell us what they want, what they really really want!

RUHE: They wanna, they wanna, they wanna, they wanna, they wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha!!

Aaron said...

Well said, Murderface.

Schoenberg was absolutely right.

Empiricus said...

C'mon people! For as many views as this particular post is receiving, there are no additional comments! What's up with that?

Please participate in our experiment. That's what we exist for.

Anonymous said...

Totally amazing and compelling, and on so many levels! Whoever wrote this, thank you for your time and energy! I could not have said it better myself. Bravo!

All the composers reviewed in the article are dilitantes (go look that up!) anyway. Their music is easily forgotten and irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.

As for the critic thusly and rightly lampoonded, readers might be interested to know that he has no real musical background, but apparently he can type. So, perhaps he should be forgiven or forgotten.

Wide Boy