We got both kinds, country and western

In a few weeks, I’m going to be doing some guest blogging on NewMusicBox. I’m very excited, but also a bit nervous, because I’m an outspoken anti-fan of avant-garde modernism. I don’t want to antagonize NMB’s readership, so I’m trying to figure out how to write about this stuff without being a jerk. I’m using this post to do some thinking out loud.

NMB’s mission statement on their web site says that they are “dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions.” To get a clearer sense of their musical identity and mission, I went and listened to their 2014 staff picks. The list encompasses tracks that sound to me like showtunes, jazzy chamber music, bluegrass-ish folk, artsy funky indie rock, avant-garde jazz, modern classical played on Japanese instruments, ambient, modernist opera, classical voice over glitchy electronica, and “regular” modern classical. Only a few of these tracks fit my image of what new music is, which just shows how out of touch I am. But my confusion could be forgiven. Does anyone even have a clear definition of “new music”?

One might naively say that new music is all the music that’s new. A Google search of the term brings up many web sites devoted to new music, ranging from rock to pop to hip-hop to everything else. Every tribe has their specific idea of what “music” constitutes. The Blues Brothers puts it best.

So, what is “new music” according to its fans and practitioners?

Traditional classical music people have an annoying habit of using the word “music” to mean “music of the Western European aristocracy from the late seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries.” When I see a widely-used theory text that calls itself The Complete Musician, I immediately think of the Blues Brothers. (We got both kinds of music, classical and modern classical!) The NewMusicBox folks work hard to distance themselves from the haughtiness of the classical mainstream, and mostly succeed. Still, the term “new music” retains that same culturally imperialist flavor, implying that all of the other music that’s new isn’t really music.

So what would a better term be? No one likes the term “modern classical music,” because it’s a contradiction in terms, and because the new music umbrella has expanded to cover jazz and electronica and all kinds of other things. How about ditching the classical and going with “modern” music? I looked up the term on Wikipedia, and the disambiguation page gave me a list of equally problematic synonyms:

I especially like the circularity of that last bullet point. Within the articles linked in the list, I found some other widely used terms. Definitely the most obnoxious of those is “art music.”

Art music—also known as formal music,[1] serious music,[2] erudite music,[3] or legitimate music[4][5] (often shortened to legit music)[6] —is an umbrella term used to refer to musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations[7] and a written musical tradition.

I think we can all agree that “legitimate” and “serious” music are just as offensively narrow-minded as “art” music. Anyway, Wikipedia tries to give a definition:

The term primarily refers to classical traditions (including contemporary as well as historical classical music forms) which focus on formal styles, invite technical and detailed deconstruction[7] and criticism, and demand focused attention from the listener. In strict western practice, art music is considered primarily a written musical tradition,[8] preserved in some form of music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or in recordings (like popular and traditional music).[8][25]

NewMusicBox would disagree that score-centrism is the defining quality of what we’re talking about here, since they explicitly embrace improvised music. Maybe the unifying theme is “difficulty” of some kind? Maybe avant-garde is a better term? But then there’s a whole movement within new music to be accessible and euphonious. Steve Reich is the avatar of pop-friendly contemporary composers. Several of the pieces among the NMB staff picks are quite easy on the ears.

The term I use in my head is “academic music,” though I recognize that the music isn’t exclusively created and listened to in academic settings. I guess I use the term to mean “academically approved” music, the kind you can get degrees and college credit for studying and making. An even better term would be “subsidized music,” as opposed to the unsubsidized music described by Morey and McIntyre. That isn’t perfect either, since plenty of folk music gets subsidized too, but I feel like we’re getting warm.

Maybe we can just define new music in opposition to pop, as many of the practitioners do, implicitly or explicitly. This is problematic too. Catherine Schmidt-Jones tries to parse this binary out:

Popular music is, by definition, music that appeals to many people. You don’t have to know anything about music to like a pop tune – it’s “catchy”. Art music is a catch-all term for any music that is enjoyed by a smaller crowd. This can include the more challenging types of jazz and rock music, as well as Classical. Most people agree that the appreciation of art music requires some study, careful listening, or other extra effort. But it can be harder to agree on what exactly belongs in this category. This is at least partly because popular tastes do change. For example, most operas were written to be popular, middle-class entertainments, and artists such as Liszt and Paganini enjoyed rock-star-like fame and popularity in their day. Today, however, nineteenth century operas are no longer considered popular entertainment, and popular works that could technically be considered opera – except for the fact that they are written in popular musical styles – are instead grouped with musicals. As another example, ragtime was wildly popular during Scott Joplin’s lifetime. It later fell out of favor and was known only to some jazz connoisseurs. Then in the 1970’s it became popular again.

Schmidt-Jones is right to observe that many “pop” forms are quite difficult and unpopular, like the more extreme styles of metal. NMB covers experimental metal bands, so they presumably agree. Do metal bands count as “composers” even though they don’t write scores? Even the ones who come from formal training usually write everything by ear. Luke Muehlhauser is not ready to bring metal into the modern classical fold.

Ready for a definition? Here you go: modern classical music is music which traces its primary lineage to 20th century classical composers (e.g. Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Shostakovich, Cage, and Bartók) rather than to the musicians of pop, rock, jazz, or folk music.

This isn’t a tidy definition either, since you can point to plenty of pop musicians who draw inspiration from the classical world and vice versa. I guess the key term is “primary lineage.”  Muehlhauser undermines his own definition when he asks why is modern classical music is so unpopular.

One common hypothesis is that modern classical music is unpopular because it is often atonal, noisy, abstract, and experimental (e.g. Stockhausen, “Cosmic Pulses“).

But hold on, now. Lots of people listen to rock music that is far more “difficult” and avantgarde than, say, modern classical composer Philip Glass (“Metamorphosis 3“): consider Burial (“U Hurt Me“), The Boredoms (“Circle“), Boris (“Naki Kyoku“), Sigur Rós (“Svefn g Englar“), Acid Mothers Temple (“Blue Velvet Blue“), and Fiery Furnaces (“Blueberry Boat“).

The popularity issue is where we get into some of the most interesting and contentious territory. One of NMB’s stated aims is to expand the audience for new music. I’ve heard many new music people lamenting that their stuff isn’t more widely listened to or appreciated. Alex Ross wonders why we celebrate the avant-garde in visual art while we revile it in music. There’s a pervasive sense of unfairness, of being denied a position of cultural prominence they feel that their music deserves on a meritocratic basis. Muehlhauser takes Rolling Stone and Pitchfork to task for not covering Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass the way they cover the arguably weirder Burial and Sigur Rós. He also echoes the common lament that orchestras and chamber ensembles play endless repetitions of Mozart and Beethoven, rather than taking risks on living composers that might antagonize their elderly and culturally conservative supporters.

Implicit in these complaints about audience size is the idea that if people were just exposed and educated properly, they would come to realize the beauty and value in new music. NMB is not alone in attacking the publicity issue. The Guardian published a guide to new music designed to ease novices in, accompanied by an article by Tom Service that attempts to puncture some of the mythology. The first myth on his list is: “It all sounds like a squeaky gate.” That’s an easy one to dismiss; while it’s a fair reaction to Stockhausen or Pierre Boulez, it’s not true at all of, say, John Tavener or Eric Whitacre.

Tom Service blames the music-listening masses’ fear and preconceptions for keeping us from even allowing the music to win us over. Maybe that’s true. If I want to hear some jazz and I’m expecting Ella Fitzgerald, and you play me Ornette Coleman instead, I’m likely to run in the opposite direction. Yet somehow Ornette Coleman hasn’t come to dominate public perception of jazz the way Stockhausen dominates new music. Pleasurable though some of the music is, there does seem to be a pervading ethos in new music around difficulty, around rigor and challenge and resistance to easy cliches. If the music defines itself by its difficulty, that is naturally going to be a turn-off to most of us who encounter enough difficulty in our lives without needing to actively seek out more of it.

I consider myself to be an interesting case study here, because I’ve had plenty of education and exposure. I had to confront the high modernists in grad school extensively, and I even did a seminar with Morton Subotnick, who I like very much as a person but whose music grates on me. My wife sang for many years in Cantori New York, a high-level amateur chorus that mostly sings works by living composers. We named one of our cats after Erkki-Sven Tüür. I have quite a few friends who are composers, performers, and fans of new music. For me, familiarity has not led to much affection. Like all electronica producers, I love Steve Reich, and I can get behind the other friendly minimalists. But when we get into the difficult stuff, I don’t just lose interest. I feel visceral revulsion, anxiety, and anger. Tom Service speaks to the “visceral impact” of Xenakis and Berio. I feel the impact, all right. But I can’t imagine seeking that feeling out.

So what? So I don’t like jaggedly dissonant or arrhythmic music. No one cares whether or not I like death metal. But there’s a sense in which I’m “supposed” to learn to enjoy Xenakis, and that my failure to do so is a kind of laziness or narrow-mindedness. Tom Service won’t even grant me that high modernism is inaccessible. After all, the Beatles liked Stockhausen! He’s right there on the cover of Sgt Pepper! But this is weak sauce. The Beatles dispense their wildest ideas in small doses, surrounded by large helpings of accessible pop. Service also maintains that we have Stockhausen to thank for sampling. But I don’t like sampling when it sounds like Stockhausen, I like it when it sounds like De La Soul. I like my technological innovation in the service of cycles of kinetic pleasure.

Service has a good point when he observes that little kids like Varèse just fine, and that it’s our enculturation that turns us away from noisier and discordant sounds. That’s a good argument, one I’m receptive to, but it’s unsatisfying. Little kids like all kinds of things that adults find irritating — ever been in the presence of Tickle Me Elmo? Maybe the restraint of our childlike love of a godawful racket is a good thing.

In a different article, Service talks about the main setting in which we encounter the most modern music: film scores.

In 2001, and in The Shining, too, Ligeti’s music (along with Penderecki’s and Bartók’s) is the sound of the other, the alien, the supernatural: passages from the Requiem dramatise the images of 2001’s monolith – music of teeming, horrifying vastness and unearthly intensity – and Ligeti and the other modernists become the sounds of Jack Nicholson’s psychological dissemblage in The Shining.

I can tolerate these feelings in the context of movies, but in the concert hall, they are hard to take.

Again, so what? So I don’t like Ligeti outside of Kubrick movies. Who cares? I guess what bugs me is the idea of unearned prestige. New music doesn’t attract many ears or dollars, but it does enjoy the protection of governments and universities, and its footprint in music education is enormously greater than its presence in the broader culture. The music that I mostly like, difficult or otherwise, is unsubsidized. Jazz didn’t enjoy the shelter of universities when it was at its peak intensity; it had to fight to be heard in bars and dance halls and jukeboxes. The same thing is happening now with hip-hop and electronic dance music. I have to smuggle that music into my classrooms like contraband. Stockhausen makes me angry because of his cultural prestige, which seems to me to be wildly out of proportion.

But I want to keep an open mind! My music is pop-oriented, but it’s pretty artsy, and I’m a natural ally of new music. I keep Steve Reich in heavy rotation. If there’s more music like that out there, I want to know about it. If you’re a new music partisan, help me out. Point me to the cool stuff that I haven’t heard. I’m all ears.

8 thoughts on “We got both kinds, country and western

  1. Steve, I don’t mean to say that pop includes a candy coating, and that this makes it special. I think all styles, except this one other style we’re talking about, have to charm the listener at every level.

    Masochism sometimes? I wonder too. But ultimately I don’t think so. I think the purpose is pleasures that are only reachable after you commit. Start with effort and maybe it will be rewarded.

    • Historically, Lucas, you have mostly been right that pop is trying to seduce you while “art” music makes you work. But pop has become remarkably abrasive and difficult within my lifetime. I remember being alarmed by Run-DMC and Public Enemy as a kid, and they sound positively tame compared to “On Sight” or “Turn Down For What.” Dubstep in particular is incredibly harsh. To me, the binary is a racial one at heart, the music descending from Europe verses the music descending from Africa. Obviously, they overlap heavily. But the gnarliest EDM or hip-hop producer is still making cyclical dance music, while dance is a remote concern from most “art” music.

    • I agree that making an effort to be open, sometimes making yourself return repeatedly to unfamiliar flavors, can be rewarding. As a child, I would have never expected my older self to get such a kick out of eating raw fish and seaweed. Similarly, when I first listened to both Monk and Coltrane, I found them both harsh and confusing. Partly due to the urging of others whose opinions I respected, partly due to the seeds of pleasure each planted in me in spite of my initial distaste, I tried them again, and I’ve come to love them both, such that they both now reside in the innermost holy of holies of my personal temple of musical favorites.

      I’ve given similar attention to a number of modern to contemporary “serious” composers, but I haven’t received the same intensity of reward. Yes, I very much enjoy Stravinsky (even his somewhat 12-tone “Agon”), Bartok, and some Schoenberg (his “Five Pieces for Orchestra,” Op. 16, for example). But these guys are all “moldy figs,” as beboppers used to call their stylistic predecessors. Stockhausen? “Song of the Children” is strangely fetching now and then, and some of his scores are fun to look at for their formal novelties (circular staves, notes written on a clear plastic disk that you can spin), but I’ve given several more of his pieces a good shot, and I’ve given up. Xenakis, Messiaen, Penderecki, Varèse? Much respect; I find then impressive but ultimately forbidding. Ligeti has tickled my fancy, but he’s practically pop, fer crissake (featured in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” along with Johann “Sebastian” Strauss). Minimalists like Riley, Adams, Reich? They can be pleasant, but if we’re doing modes, I prefer “Kind of Blue” for concentrated flavor. Berio, Boulez, Feldman, Nono…yeah, I’ve tried a a taste of each, and found them unpromising.

      My ignorance remains vast, and I may be missing something great. I have a feeling I might like Arvo Pärt, for example, and there are countless others who deserve a shot. But I don’t have all that much time left (who does?) and finally I need to cut my losses based on past experience. I probably won’t listen to late Coltrane that many more times either, for similar reasons, in spite of my vast admiration. I’d rather spend that time digging deeper into what he was doing in 1961. I’ve been fascinated lately by his version of “Body and Soul,” and that’s where I’ve been investing some of my remaining moments. As far as recent stuff, there’s a world of pleasure for me in Daft Punk’s pop seductions, and I’m finding some knotty and challenging qualities in D’Angelo’s latest along with that fierce (if quirky) groove that makes it all worthwhile.

  2. High modernist music sells itself to me as the one that makes demands up front in exchange for a more powerful experience later. You commit to focusing and paying full attention before you know whether it will pay off, and this enables the musicians to do more flavorful things than they could pull off otherwise.

    Pop music always needs to seduce the listener from one layer to the next. This other kind of music just says fuck it, if you need that kind of seduction then this isn’t for you.

    I realize that there are many schools of modern classical which don’t fit that, like the pop roots of opera. But I don’t need those to fill the same slot. I’m only talking about the post WWII generation – Boulez, Xenakis, Arvo Part.

    • Lucas, I believe you’re saying that pop includes a seduction stage, a candy coating, so to speak, and that Xenakis (the example you gave that I’ve listened to the most) dispenses with that to get to the more “flavorful” parts. But for most the flavor may be too bitter or caustic to be ingested in any but the smallest dutiful morsels.

      Some of the most interesting of the “serious” guys offer their own, different seductions, in the form of theoretical justifications, which are sometimes more “tasty” than the music. Notably, Cage’s essays in “SIlence” are highly entertaining (if you like that kind of stuff, which I do), and for me far more palatable than the actual sounds (or the absence of sounds) they’re intended to justify. And here’s how seductive Cage can be: George Grella, in his Amazon review of “Silence,” describes Cage’s 4’33” as “the most profound and destabilizing in the history of music…” Really? I know it finally all boils down to personal opinion, but, in the face of the Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s 5th, Bird, Monk, Coltrane, even the candy-coated Beatles…I don’t think so.

      Schoenberg provided his own seduction in the shape of a highly sophisticated theory. Yeah, I know 12-tone is old hat, but duodecophony generates sonorities that continue to be popularly indigestible. However, his writings on music are fascinating, original, and fearfully well-informed.

      Sometimes I wonder whether there’s an element of masochism in some contemporary “serious” music, like eating really hot peppers. They’re certainly flavorful. Alternatively, could we compare 4’33” to sitting down to a sumptuous full table setting…with no food, other than what happens to land on your plate by chance?

  3. I think part of your conundrum, Ethan, is that “serious” and “art” music is often what “new music” partisans really believe is what they’re talking about, Ever read Henry Pleasants’ “The Agony of Modern Music” and “Serious Music and All That Jazz”? I think you may find him a kindred soul, as I did. Good luck with your adventure in diplomacy.

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