This is not a Poisonous Spider

No schmaltzy introduction; let’s just get to it—Scott Foglesong’s post in the San Francisco Classical Music Examiner Blog (?).

I was having a schmooz with a good friend/colleague (who happens to be a well-known composer) not too long ago, and our conversation turned to the recent passing on of a vastly influential American composer, whom I shall identify as Joe Schmoe. My colleague had an idea about the proper obsequies for our departed American giant.

A warm-hearted commemoration is always a good outlet for grief.

His proposal: we organize a comprehensive festival in which every single work by Joe Schmoe is performed after intensive, careful rehearsal by first-rate artists. Every last jot and tittle gets played to the nines. At festival's close, we lead the audience out into a wide field, with the entire collection of Joe Schmoe music — published and in manuscript — in tow.

And there we burn it.

Seems like I saw this before, in a movie. An ancient Greek king is reassured by his Persian conquerers that they'll erase his memory from this world after he's dead, and they'll start by killing his children.

Thus we've done our duty: we've played it all very well. But that's the end, finis, kaput, pfffffffft.

I can well imagine any number of readers grinning and thinking: "Ooh, great idea!" and assembling a mental list of composers whose output would be immeasurably improved by such treatment. Others might contemplate the purchase of a poisonous spider to mail off to me as a birthday present. (Even if I'm just reporting somebody else's idea.)

Like my title suggests, this post is not a poisonous spider, but...

A lot of folks are irreparably damaged by certain trends in 20th century music, in which sophisticated organizational techniques produced music that reminds one of the sounds wafting up from medieval torture chambers.

Scott, since you are a theorist, you should know better than anyone that organizational techniques are merely ways of limiting the materials. There is nothing inherently aesthetically bad about them in a vacuum. Thus, it would be more proper, then, to plainly say that “some 20th century music reminds one of the sounds wafting up from medieval torture chambers,” making sure to eliminate the bit about the techniques producing music, which is silly, because composers produce music and sometimes they employ organizational techniques. I mean, I could say that, “Beethoven’s fugues—fugue is an organizational technique—his fugues remind me of a Cro-Magnon's brain fart.” But, I couldn’t say that, “fugues, by their very nature, remind me of a Cro-Magnon's brain fart,” because it’s what was done with and within the fugal organization that determines its quality. See the difference?

Composers who visited audiences with such onslaughts deserve to be held properly accountable...

So should Beethoven and his fugues. Bad music is not a specific phenomenon of the 20th century.

...safe in their academic ivory towers they turned a deaf ear to the protests of performers and listeners alike...

Like Beethoven toward the end of his life. (It’s funny that his late string quartets are so wildly celebrated today, even though their initial reception was, well, very cold. How long did it take for them to be accepted into the repertoire, again? I forget.)

...and [they] cast a blind eye on their ever-dwindling audience numbers. Our Joe Schmoe guy was one such composer.

Well, Scott, you didn’t paint a beautiful picture of Joe Schmoe. Though, he reminds me a little of Beethoven.

But the baby tends to get thrown out with the bathwater. Once you decide that all composers writing after about 1945 don't have a doggone thing to offer, then you close your ears to the possibilities of hearing something truly worthwhile from a contemporary writer.

Now that’s beautiful. I couldn’t have said it any better. In fact, in our five months of dialog, this is exactly one of the major points we’ve been trying to get across: a critic’s preconceptions can negatively affect a review's fairness. And for this reason, reviews often sound malicious, stupid or whatever, which is why we like to poke fun at them.

Don’t get me wrong, though. We love our critics. We think that they serve valuable functions in the performing arts community, not the least of which as cultural associate professors. Sometimes, however, we think that the level of discourse could be higher. In many cases, we see a proclivity toward the irrational dismissal of most twentieth-century music, based on the preconception that, as you point out, nothing after 1945, or maybe even 1911, has “a doggone thing to offer.”

So, cheers, Scott.

But, I digress.

This past week the San Francisco Symphony performed Magnus Lindberg's Seht die Sonne, a beautiful and fascinating piece of music from a compelling modern Finnish composer. At least I was enthralled by it, anyway. But I heard two fellows nearby chatting during the break, agreeing that the Lindberg sounded like the orchestra tuning up for half an hour.

Well, no, it didn't, not at all. But I can understand the reaction.

Me too. Unfamiliarity, to a large degree, and inaccessibility, to a smaller degree, turns people off. I would liken that to the first time someone reads Shakespeare (for me that was in fifth grade)—it takes a while to become accustomed to that particular style of prose.

Morton Feldman eloquently put it like this (Give My Regards to Eighth Street, page 209 ):

Music seems to be understood best by its proximity to other music that is more familiar. We do not hear what we hear...only what we remember.

I’m not suggesting that repeated listening is the answer; to the contrary, some things are physically, i.e., cognitively, impossible to process. (I’ve only met two people who possess the ability to hear wrong notes in, say, Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Concerto. Very few can do that.) But, it seems, that one flocks to what one already knows and away from the unfamiliar. So, yes, I understand that reaction.

The modern world has produced an appalling amount of sonic hokum.

Yes, but...Scott?! Scott, Scott, Scott, Scott. Why? Oh, why?

We were doing so well. Let me reiterate: Bad or nonsensical music is not exclusive to the 20th century.

And, just so I get this right, based on what you wrote above, by “hokum” I assume you’re referring to music utilizing sophisticated organizational principles. Right? I sure hope not (cross my fingers).

This week the SF Symphony plays Mi-Parti by Witold Lutoslawski, a major European composer who died in 1994 and whose career spans the era from WWII onwards. To be sure it might be very easy to toss Lutoslawski into the same bin as a lot of hardcore academic avant-garde composers: he did employ some of those buzzword modernist techniques such as serialism (ordering pitches in predetermined patterns), aleatoric music (composer-controlled improvisation) and atonality (i.e., writing without a definite tonal center that provides the center of gravity for a work.)

(skeptically) Okay.

But Lutoslawski was not any kind of technical formalist...

(rubs eyes in saddened disbelief)

You said...he DID use some of these “formalist” techniques. Why the flip-flop? Unless...well, what was he, if not a technical formalist?

...he was a musician, a composer of exquisite sensibility who created soundscapes of breathtaking beauty and interest. [Italics mine]

So great...using sophisticated organizational techniques and being a musician is mutually exclusive? Awesome (see above).

His goals were always musical, never technical; he used whatever tools seemed appropriate for the task at hand.


Schoenberg’s goal was no less than musical, right?
Xenakis’ goal was no less than musical.
Ligeti’s goal was no less than musical.
Cage’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer A’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer B’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer C’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer D’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer E’s goal was no less than musical.
Composer n’s goal was no less than musical.

By excluding from your “something truly worthwhile” pantheon those composers who utilized “sophisticated organizational techniques,” you closed your ears, threw the baby out with the bathwater. You contradicted yourself. You attended your composer friend’s music-burning party.

Remember: a critic’s preconceptions, or misconceptions, can negatively affect a review’s fairness. And for this reason, reviews often sound malicious, stupid or whatever, which is why we like to poke fun at them. Thus, I give you this non-poisonous spider—non-poisonous, because this review's merely near-sighted.


Gustav said...

Once again, a critic has made the mistake of elevating the writing of music to some sort of divinely inspired act. Apparently only God can inspire the composition of real music. The rest of us have to use that fucking technique shit to get by, hopefully fooling people with our academic machismo in place of truly musical music, you know, the kind a real musician would write.

Composing music is facilitated by technique. Without it, we'd all be writing songs for fucking Amy Winehouse or the Olsen Twins. Writing music is fucking hard and would be impossible if composers had no clue what they were doing. Knowing the instruments and how to write effectively for them is technique. Knowing forms, even ones as beloved as predictable Mozart concertos, and utilizing them in music requires technique....barf. Fine, God writes music for us--technique is for heathens.

And one other thing, can we stop referring to 12-tone composition as sophisticated. I explained that so-called "hardcore academic" shit to my 5-year old cousin, she got it. We wrote 12-tone melodies together. For fuck's sake, 12-tone rows are at best simple (that's mind-numbingly simple) math. [Yes, atonality can very complicated, I'm talking about 12-tone rows. Fucking simple!]

Whatever, I do what I want.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm so curious about who Joe Schmoe might be.

While we're on the subject of that awful 20th century music, I caught Boulez's Second Piano Sonata on Cesky Rozhlas earlier today, and I was struck by the beauty of its sonorities. I wish they'd played it again.

(Oh, and, nothing nasty to say about my review of Seht die Sonne? :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing this one, the Lutoslawski interpretation at the end is pretty o_0; for a theorist it's a shocking misreading. Lutoslawski is very formalistic - think of all those charts of symmetrical 12-note chords that he always had to hand when composing.

Empiricus said...

Re: Lisa

You kidding? Your review was stellar. And I love your I's.

Re: Tim Rambler

I, too, was appalled. The thing about this particular review was that he (Foglesong) was trying to take the "good" position, by poking fun at those who close their ears, because of their negative preconceptions about techniques. Yet, he wasn't immune to those same prejudices. Strange. I mean, he acknowledges that Lutoslawski used organizational techniques, then says that it was only to serve the greater purpose, the music. I don't really know what to blame, a lack of logic or a short attention span. Maybe a bit of both.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was kidding. The way I review - writing about the work at hand, not the ideological history of the organizational techniques it uses - makes it pretty unlikely you'll blast me.

I'm hearing the SFS tonight, really looking forward to it. Love Lutoslawski!

Poisonous spider said...

That may not be a poisonous spider, but I bet this one is. Check out these neat pictures of a unknown brown spider: