Who cares if you listen?

I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music, except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront it, listen to it, write about it and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind.

The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.

I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.

I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.

The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer's] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.

My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?

One of the classes I’m taking at NYU this summer is Advanced Computer Music Composition. The text is Electric Sound by Joel Chadabe (be warned that it’s fabulously expensive — hurray for the library.) The book is full of firsthand research and interviews. However, it perfectly captures everything I find exasperating about high modernist snobbery. This otherwise comprehensive history of electronic music barely ever mentions the electric guitar. It never uses the word “hip-hop.” Aside from a fleeting mention of Herbie Hancock, there are no black musicians in the book at all. I don’t think Chadabe is necessarily racist, and it’s fine if he doesn’t want to write about pop or jazz or rock or funk or techno or house or hip-hop. But to not even acknowledge the existence of such broad swaths of the musical landscape is perverse.

I’m receptive to Chadabe’s championing of the avant-garde. I don’t have to enjoy something to learn from it. Early in the book, Chadabe invokes Einstein’s theory of relativity as an example of the way the twentieth century undermined the notion of common sense. Few musicians were reading Einstein’s papers directly, but even a cursory acquaintance with relativity (or quantum mechanics or much other twentieth century science) deals a heavy blow to one’s intuitions about seemingly basic facts of the world. Chadabe relates the revolution in physics to the modernists’ liberation of music from all constraints: tonality, rhythm, and most especially the requirement that sounds be “musical.” He’s particularly enthusiastic about the use of found sounds in music, citing examples ranging from the innocuous (a recording of nightingales singing) to the openly audience-hostile (an onstage airplane engine.)

The modernists correctly predicted that music would come to embrace a broad variety of unearthly noises and timbres. I imagine that Stockhausen would have been delighted to learn that gunshots and cash register sounds would be the basis for the chorus of a well-known pop song. However, he’d be pretty disappointed by the pedestrian four-four beat, simple chord progression and chant-like structure. The electronic music that most people enjoy needs to be extremely minimalist in its melodic and harmonic content to free up enough attentional bandwidth to process all of the complex and strange timbres.

Practitioners of modern forms like musique concrète don’t seem overly concerned with the cognitive limitations of their listeners. François Bayle made the claim that musique concrète wasn’t supposed to be “a music of provocation.” Oh really? Not only was it full of new and startling sonic textures, but it generally made no reference whatsoever to existing musical structures or forms. For Bayle and his compatriots, the mere fact of the sounds was form enough:

Musique concrète sounds have meanings for us, as photographs and films have meanings. They show life as we experience it, as we live it in the everyday world.

There’s much to debate in this statement. Photos imbue meaning on their subjects through framing, excluding much more than they include. Films attain meaning not just by showing real things, but through narrative techniques, editing and scoring. Simply recording and playing back sounds does not, in my opinion, constitute music-making. Music is a way to communicate or evoke a feeling-state. Structural methods like repetition and variation package the sounds in a way that engage our attention and open us up emotionally. Without structure, the main emotion you evoke is confusion.

This is not to say that all high modernist music is unstructured. The serialists are fanatics for structure. But without access to all kinds of extramusical information, serialism is perfectly impenetrable, even to a well-trained listener like myself. If the listener can’t possibly figure out what the system is, why bother having a system at all? Why not just choose notes, durations and so on out of a hat? (That’s what John Cage ended up doing.)

Maybe the serialists get on my nerves so badly because of their outspoken hostility. Pierre Boulez is particularly annoying:

[A]ny musician who has not experienced — I do not say understand, but, in all exactness, experienced — the necessity for serialism is useless.

The emphasis is his; small wonder that serialism wasn’t a big hit with the musical community at large, much less the public. But the modernists’ obnoxiousness can’t be the only reason for my intense dislike. Miles Davis hated everybody too, and his music agrees with me fine. Conversely, I like Morton Subotnick very much personally, but I can’t deal with a lot of his music.

For class, we were assigned to listen to Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge.”

The piece uses fascinating timbres derived entirely from the voice of a single boy soprano combined with bubbling synthesized tones, giving it a nice sonic unity. However, the lack of repetition or any intelligible form makes this is a highly unpleasant listening experience for me. The individual segments are cool, and I could easily imagine getting them to sound terrific by repeating them in groups of four over a beat. As it stands, though, the dream logic ordering of the sounds and the unpredictable jagged dynamic shifts mostly make me feel anxious and alienated.

We were also assigned to listen to Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Electronique,” created for Xenakis’ and Le Corbusier’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.

Varèse composed the piece as part of an immersive multimedia experience inside the pavilion. The music played from 425 loudspeakers, following specific “sound routes” around the space, accompanied by dissociated projected imagery and colored lights. The effect must have been overwhelming. “Poème Electronique” makes the Stockhausen piece sound like a relaxing jazz ballad by comparison. Once again, there’s no apparent structure, just one random sound after another. There isn’t even the timbral unity of the Stockhausen piece; it comes across like a sound effects library on iTunes shuffle.

I’ll freely confess to not being able to make it to the end of “Poème Electronique” in any of my listens. It fills me with dread bordering on anger, and I feel more than enough of those emotions in the rest of my life to want to inflict them on myself voluntarily. The first commenter on the YouTube version I listened to echoes my sentiments exactly:

I don’t know if I’m just stupid, but this made me feel like I need to be in someone else’s mind to give any kind of opinion about it.

Do Varèse fans enjoy the feeling of disjointed madness? Is there some subtle beauty hidden here that eludes me? Or is my hostile reaction the desired one? Another YouTube commenter joked that after listening to the piece, he expected to have the phone ring and a voice tell him he’d be dead in seven days. It’s no wonder to me that high modernist abstraction is alive and well in horror movie soundtracks.

I’m not opposed to challenging the listener. I like weird music. For instance, I love “Cliffs” by Aphex Twin.

Why can I deal with this and not with Stockhausen? For one thing, “Cliffs” is very repetitive. For another, there’s a straightforward and familiar chord progression. The track is well within the limits of my processing power, so I can grapple with the weird microtonal synth voices without feeling totally disoriented.

Dissonance, strangeness and complexity don’t necessarily put me off, even in stiff doses. I like plenty of challenging jazz, and I have a near-religious reverence for John Coltrane’s far-out stuff. But that said, when it comes to actual enjoyment, I stick to the music he plays over one-note pedals.

I love “India” because no matter how freaky it gets, there’s always that droning G to anchor you harmonically. Also, while Elvin Jones’ drumming is restless and challenging, there’s a nice steady pulse implied at all times, further bracing you against the craziness.

I’m also not opposed to open hostility in music. I like the Wu-Tang Clan, and those guys are plenty hostile. But they balance out the aggression with funk, humor, direct social commentary, pop cultural references and lots of repetition.

My professor has suggested that the pieces he’s assigned have plenty of form and order to them, and that I just haven’t listened deeply enough to understand them. Maybe that’s true. I don’t always like everything immediately, and there are some of my favorite musicians who I positively hated at first, Coltrane and the Wu-Tang Clan included. On the other hand, there’s some difficult music that I’ve been able to grasp immediately, without any special training or inside knowledge. I discovered Cecil Taylor while flipping channels on TV (can you believe someone put Cecil Taylor on TV?) and it was love at first hearing. Cecil’s music can be tough going, but in the right frame of mind, his joyous energy is infectious.

My problem with modern classical certainly isn’t lack of exposure. When I was growing up, my parents were devoted listeners to Morning Pro Musica. Each show started early in the morning with common-practice era classical, and then towards midday, began moving through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. I heard quite a bit of modernist stuff before the folks got irritated enough to go turn off the radio.

I like weird harmonies, but mostly when applied to pop and folk forms. I like microtones, but mostly when used in the blues. I like complex rhythms, but mostly if there’s a steady pulse tying them together. I like found sounds and weird timbres, but mostly when everything else is familiar. I don’t like having all the musical balls in the air at once, and I’m not unusual in that way. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who “gets” Stockhausen the way we “get” familiar songs. I’m pretty sure no one enjoys Varèse the way we enjoy Michael Jackson.

But people do claim to “get” and “enjoy” modern classical. What’s the nature of the enjoyment? Do people enjoy feeling overwhelmed and disoriented? Or is it the pleasure of being jolted awake, like jumping into a cold lake? Or do modern classical fans not believe that music is to be enjoyed, just to be endured and educated by? If you can enlighten me in the comments, please do.

Update: a modern classical fan responds.

13 thoughts on “Who cares if you listen?

  1. For me it’s exactly this sense of free-for-all to modern classical/electronic and out jazz that excites me about it. But I certainly don’t enjoy it in the same way I enjoy music that conforms to traditional ideas of tonality, rhythm, and/or structure. They are challenging listens that I can only consume in short doses and with their being the foreground of my focus, rather than the background.

    Actually, I think a point you made earlier about how you do not consider just recording and playing back sounds to be music-making is relevant. I agree with you to an extent, but would modify it this way: I do believe any sequence of sounds (“musical” or not) constitutes a narrative, insofar as we hear the sounds in a certain linear order. I tend to listen to modern classical more in the series-of-sounds-with-some-obscure-narrative sense – which, potentially, is a corollary to linking Penderecki and his ilk to horror film music.

    I could certainly do without the snobbery, although I would interpret it as the academics getting defensive regarding the negative popular reception to the thrust of contemporary classical, and asserting its merits in an aggressively proud manner.

    • I played country professionally for a few years, so yeah, I like it. You just need to check out the good stuff: Hank Williams Sr, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys…
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  3. Abstract music and art is so 20th century. People respond well to Ionic tonality so why fight it? By popular demand, only nursery rhymes will be heard from here on out!

    • Why does it have to be this binary of atonality or nursery rhymes? There’s a whole universe of music that challenges and enriches tonal harmony without throwing the whole idea of accessibility out the window. Just in America and western Europe there’s hip-hop, techno, rock, jazz, funk, country, salsa, reggae, etc etc etc. Plus there’s all the music from every other world culture. All of these forms violate the rules of classical tonality to some degree while still being relatable and fun.

      • Sorry, my cynicism got the better of me. We live in a kind of bizarroworld in which baby-faced adolescents, who are in Kindergarten musically, make millions while graduates of Juilliard are having a hard time finding jobs. Notwithstanding that teenagers ARE entertainment’s largest consumers (helping to explain the inanity of best-selling movies and music), musical knowledge is a lifetime quest taken at ones own pace and cerebral potential. Rap was exciting at first (angry men yelling irrhythmically is MUSIC?) but it’s been prettified by feminine background rhapsodizations, or should I say rapsodizations. The joke about “We Built This City” hits the nail on the head, we hate it but we love it, the simpler the better, love doesn’t seem to come in Dm7+ b5. Methinks you make as good a writer as a musician. English Literature was what I majored in, but music has its mathmatical transports that I’ve only lately come to appreciate, after playing the mandatory big fat tonic resolution at the end of a million major-key melodies. In literature, when poetry of paltry sentimentality rhymes in perfect pentameter, it’s called doggerel. Musically, I choose to call what sells in the millions glorified nursery rhyme. The average consumer is an idiot.

        • I don’t believe that the music world owes anyone a living. If you want to get paid, you need to make music that people want to pay for. If you want to make art that’s unpopular, that’s swell, but then it’s reasonable to expect you to either find a patron or keep your day job.

          Resenting people because they enjoy the “wrong” music is just churlish. Who’s to say? Why should a twelve-year-old girl in America in 2014 prefer the court music of eighteenth-century Austria to music that speaks to her emotional and social reality? I’m no great Justin Bieber fan, but the kid is a terrific singer and a strong musician all the way around. If he’s giving America’s youth what they want, he deserves their money and their appreciation. It’s easy to hate teenage music, but it’s lazy and needlessly hateful. You and I were teenagers too; it’s easy to forget how hard it was, and how confusing. We shouldn’t begrudge the kids their emotional support system, it lacks basic compassion.

          If you think that hip-hop is nothing more than angry men yelling arhythmically, I suggest listening to more of it. There isn’t a more dynamically creative musical idiom in the world right now.

          Popularity and quality are orthogonal. You can be popular and good (the Beatles), popular and bad (Celine Dion), unpopular and good (Thelonious Monk), unpopular and bad (the dudes at open mic night.) Assuming that everything popular is bad makes as little sense as assuming that everything unpopular is good.

          If you want to walk around considering the majority of your fellow humans to be stupid, I imagine that makes for a lonely existence.

  4. I largely agree with you. But I don’t think you should discount the value of deliberate and gratuitous experimentation for its own sake.

    Maybe no one will ever think that Stockhausen is as good as some well crafted symphony or even Enter the 36 Chambers. But he went to places no-one had been or imagined before, and where people still haven’t spent much time to find out what’s good and what’s bad. I’d think of these works as like early photographs back from Mars. We may not be seeing the most interesting or beautiful views, but they’re the first views we’ve got of that landscape and for that reason we value them.

    People like Aphex Twin can come along later and decide how to populate some of that alien landscape with the more familiar furniture so that we can feel more at home there. But the hardcore experimentalist are giving us glimpses of something that can challenge and inspire us long before this wave of “normalizers”.

    • This is a good argument for Stockhausen having done his experiments in the first place. It’s also a good argument to have the results of his experiments available in university libraries. However, I continue to believe that his worth is enormously overinflated by academia and other cultural gatekeepers. Right now music schools fetishize the groundbreaking and neglect the main task of musicians, which is to make everybody’s miserable life more tolerable. Stockhausen proved that his method of doing so is not a very effective one, so perhaps we could all just move on.

      • I tend to agree with Milton Babbitt on this one. I’m not a big Stockhausen fan or anything, but there’s plenty of people out there making tonal, catchy music, so I don’t see anything wrong with academics exploring the fringes (which is what academics DO).

        The atonal sonic experimentation of the 20th century seems to be going out of style these days, and rightly so, but in retrospect, I’d say that the 20th century was the perfect time for that kind of development. Technology made a deep and lasting impression on music during that century, and the avant-guarde made invaluable contributions in exploring the possibilities, as well as the development of, electronic music and electronic instruments.

        After reading Analog Days (a very enjoyable read for anyone with any interest in electronic music, “serious” or not), it’s extremely obvious that the synthesizers of today would not have been what they are if it wasn’t for these forays into the limits of sound.

        The most potent part of Babbitt’s argument is that “serious” music is not something made for the enjoyment of the audience, it’s for the advancement of music. Whether or not it’s enjoyable in the same way as James Brown is besides the point. First and foremost, it’s an intellectual, and not an emotional, excercise. And that’s okay, it’s just a different facet of music.

      • Open your mind a little. Music doesn’t have to make you feel good. Have you ever looked at a stirring war photograph? Are people elitist fools for liking horror movies? Stop demanding artistic compromises so that you have a nice 4 4 beat to fuck to. Art comes in many forms, just admit that modernism goes over your head and move on.

        • This is the best-written hate comment I’ve received in a while.

          Good point about the war photograph. Still, the key word there is “stirring” — admiring people’s heroism is a form of pleasure. Same with horror movies — the point is not that they induce anxiety, but they induce it and then relieve it. I understand modernism just fine, and I call BS.

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