How can these two articles have been written by the same person?


Pianist Born to the Colors of Chopin

and this:

Rocketing to Inner Space, Defying Tonality

were both written by the venerable Mr. Holland of the New York Times.

How is that possible?

The first review has insightful, interesting observations about both the performer and the music.

The rippling, racing E flat Impromptu from Schubert’s Opus 90 was a nice advertisement for Ms. Fliter’s visceral alertness and clean scale-playing. The C minor Impromptu that came before it indicated further decisions to be made. I hope at some point Ms. Fliter will decide that this piece’s tragic mood is better expressed with more thoughtfully articulated dotted rhythms and that Schubert’s marvelous countermelodies need phrasing more elastic and less thumpingly foursquare.

Fantastic. Nuanced. Thoughtful.

However, the Perle article contains gems like these:

GEORGE PERLE, who turns 93 next month, is a rare survivor of a disappearing movement. The general public will barely notice its departure, given that not many people know it ever existed.

I…you…crap. Tons and tons of people know this music (serial, atonal, and/or 12-tone) existed (exists! Hello! Present tense, please.). It has been widely studied, commented upon, cherished, and in some cases, derided (by, for example, Mr. Holland). Even people who do not like, say, Schoenberg, know he existed.

Mr. Perle belongs to a second generation of explorers. I doubt there will be a third.

You hate it. I get it. There will be a third generation of serialists, even if a small one. Shit, I’ll do it myself if I have to, just to prove you wrong!

It is not a question of quality.

Yes. Yes! I…

His atonal compositions, 12 of which

Hilarious. 12. Tones. Compositions. What?

are collected in a two-CD retrospective on the Bridge label, are like well-cut jewelry: small enough to hold in the hand, diamond hard yet smooth to the touch, and shining with reflecting light.

Nice of you to paraphrase Stravinsky (in re: Webern).

I admire Mr. Perle’s music, although I can’t say I like it very much.

You…admire it without liking it. ‘Kay. How is that…

He speaks a language he and his contemporaries made up.

Tonality is as much a made-up language as atonality or serialism. Ask a dude from Bali (or China, Japan, India…need I go on?). Assuming tonality is the “natural” language of music is straight-up cultural imperialism. Go imperialism! How’s that working out for us?

I can speak only the languages I was born to.

Tonality. English? Ye Olde English?

Sometimes I feel guilty. Maybe I should work harder at his grammar and vocabulary.

Maybe. Or, rather: yes. Either that or someone else should review concerts of music you just plain don’t like.

With age I feel guilty less and less.

Sure, fine. You’re old. I forgive you that. Still, I’ll bet there was atonal music composed before you were born. Or educated. Or became a critic for the leading daily newspaper of the Free World.

How did all this atonality business start?

I bet you’re going to tell me!

A number of 20th-century composers said that it was the necessary next step, that old ways of listening had worn themselves out.

Listen to some Mahler. Tonality was making a mockery of itself. Pieces were ending in places they didn’t begin. The system had collapsed under its own weight. Some composers (say, Rachmaninoff, or Barber) chose to soldier on. Others (Schoenberg etc.) chose a new direction. I could go on forever, and list innovations in Western music. I imagine that the critics in the 1700s were horrified when modality gave way to tonality. What?

It sounds reasonable to say that Anton Webern’s Piano Variations take up where Brahms left off.

Voice-leading, baby! Just like Bach takes up where Josquin leaves off. What? No?!

I admire the Webern; I even like it for its strangely satisfying space-age spirituality. I don’t think it has anything remotely to do with Brahms.

Sigh. Fine.

The Webern, and music that constitutes Mr. Perle’s immediate heritage, is altogether new.

New = 100 years old. I’m not sure if you new this, gentle readers.


Sator Arepo: “Hey, do you have the new newspaper?”

Alarmingly Mustachioed Newspaper Guy: “Sure, here ya go! That’ll be ½ cent!”

SA: “This is from 1908!”


It is as if music history in the mid-1920s had stopped dead in its tracks and started again from scratch.

Or art, poetry, painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, film…the turn of the last (next-to-last?) centruy was wacky, with good reasons. Far too many to elucidate here. Next they’ll be playing electric guitars!

Composers of the Second Viennese School Arnold Schoenberg, Webern and, to a degree, Alban Berg — were like mutineers against the divine right of tonal music.

No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no. “Divine right”? Sorry, no. Jesus. Or rather: aJesus.

Serialism was their Pitcairn Island.

What? I had to look up your reference. Fabulous: you’re extending your “mutiny” analogy. Wow. Just…wow.

Freedom to reinvent was one result, inbreeding another.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if what you’re saying means anything. Is this the same author that wrote the thoughtful piece about the Argentinian pianist Ingrid Filter?

Until the 20th century musicians obeyed natural laws of physics. Pick up a rock, drop it, and it falls to the ground. Music was the same. Send a piece of music up in the air, doctor and twist it, make it major, minor or modal; in the end it wants to come down to where it started. You can call the process tonality or music’s law of gravity.

Oh, God, no. I can’t do this anymore. Why? 16th century ring a bell? Mahler symphonies? The…staggering…metaphor…is not true.

I’m exhausted. A few parting gems, and then you can read the balance of the article if you like.

If Mr. Perle is a jeweler, he is also an architect, and you can think of these pieces as buildings. We admire them for clear thinking and precision. Still, not many people want to live in them.

What? You...I...what am I supposed to do? Live in tiny atonal diamonds?

It is interesting that Mr. Perle’s take on 12-tone music flourished just as space travel was coming along. He and eminent colleagues like Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter were our musical astronauts. They defied gravity and left Mother Earth behind. Music soared into space. Out there in the ether a minor second would sound just as peaceful as a major third. Laws were necessary, for with everything now possible, nothing was possible.

Oh, come on. What? Seriously? Astronauts?

It may not be overly fanciful to compare the Black Death to AIDS, or the three-dimensional musical crossword puzzles of monkish scholars to the Babbitt Piano Concerto that so bewildered audiences and critics at Carnegie Hall a few years ago.

I have absolutely no response. Except: What. The. Fuck.

Postwar prosperity helps explain how a musical style attracted so much attention and yet was listened to by practically nobody. As academia and cultural foundations flourished, composers could write music to please themselves and one another and still make a living. Unappreciated genius and the consolations of posterity were conveniently popular conceits. American fascination with science and engineering and disgust for a tired European tradition made serial music and other rule-bound procedures a great new adventure. As with space travel, its practitioners were select and its methodology graspable by a chosen few.

As, Empiricus might say: YOU’RE NOT HELPING. Critics help shape the populace’s attitude and understanding of music. This is encouraging people not to even try to like or understand said music.



To: New York Times Music Criticism Editor

From: Sator Arepo

Re: “New” Music

Dear Sir or Madam:

Please send someone who does not hate atonal music to review atonal music.

Thanks in Advance,

Sator Arepo


Empiricus said...

Just for clarification, again, Mr. Holland-Shoes-Opus-Guy-Curmudgeon. Serialism IS "rule-bound," but so is functional harmony. I would argue that there is as much flexibility in 12-tone "compositional rules" as there is in tonality, maybe even more so. My point:

Stop using your anti-formalism-as-a-
reason/excuse-to-despise-Schoenberg goggles! I hear they make everything look like the surface of the moon; and we can't have that running amuck in the depths of Weill Recital Hall, can we?

Empiricus said...


It's interesting to see what others think about this dreck.

Iron Tongue of Midnight

The Rambler

Aaron said...

Seriously, if Mr. Holland just doesn't like serialism (or, apparently, much of anything composed in the last century or so), can't the Times hire someone else who can review that stuff a little more sympathetically?

I enjoy reading a biting negative review as much as the next guy (hence my regular presence here!), but Holland just cannot get past his personal distaste for this kind of music. And, I mean, that's fine, he doesn't have to like it. In fact, it's great that we all have different likes and dislikes. But just as it would be pointless for me to review Norwegian death metal, it's pointless for Holland to review this kind of thing.

Really, I blame the Times. Presumably, they're the ones giving out the assigments. It's got to kind of suck for ol' Bernard to have to listen to music he doesn't like as part of his job.

Anonymous said...

B-Holl, DJ Non-Sequitur in the muthafuckin house, spinning up classic anti-modernist tripe since the Hoover administration.

BTW, is he suggesting that we shouldn't study astrophysics and astronomy? Was this all some clever ruse by the ghost of Walter Mondale to shut down Nasa?

Sator Arepo said...

I'm sort of sad nobody commented on "Alarmingly Moustachioed Newspaper Guy".

Aaron said...

Oh, right. Like there's any other kind of Newspaper Guy!

Anonymous said...

I suppose there's also this kind:

A Real Newspaper Guy

at least according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

He has a mustachio too, but it's really not all that alarming...but he does like to smoke, drink and is "a hell of a guy, for a publisher."

Sator Arepo said...


Um, hilarious?

Anonymous said...

No, he's a REAL newspaper guy. Didn't you read the headline?

Okay, it's not funny...except in that high-on-life way.

I think that is so not funny just kept cracking me up. In fact it still is.

On the subject of mustaches...
Beard and Mustache Championship

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks for linking to me - and THANK YOU for the dissection of the review. I have been wondering whether a letter to the public editor is in order. As far as I can tell, other Times critics are sympathetic to the music they review and lots of them like serial and atonal music. Why wasn't one of them assigned to this?

Sator Arepo said...

Hi Lisa,

Like your blog, too.

I don't know what to do about this. His Mozart reviews are so eloquent (er...sometimes). Perhaps you're right, it's complicated.

BTW You're up early (or late?).

Empiricus said...

We want dialogue. That's why we are here. No other reason.

So please comment. Seriously.


A joke!

Q: Why did Babbitt cross the road?

A: To get to another side, regardless of how many people wouldn't appreciate it.

Chip Michael said...

Nice rant... While I'm not a fan of serialism, I even more not a fan of reviewers who haven't a taste for a style of music and still thinking they can honestly review it.

I was given a luke warm review recently by someone who obviously didn't spend anytime listening to the concert - based on all the other responses I've had from other members of the audience.

Anyway.. nice rant - I've referenced your work in my own blog.