Abusing Music

Last week, the Washington Post reported that a “high profile coalition of artists demanded that the government release the names of all the songs that were blasted since 2002 at prisoners for hours, even days, on end, to try to coerce cooperation or as a method of punishment.” Together with that report, the Post published a list of names of artists whose music might have been used for said purpose, a list encompassing a wide stylistic array that not only includes heavy metal and rap but also the theme song of Barney the dinosaur and the Meow Mix jingle.

Since for me music is primarily a cause for good in this world, something that can potentially erode barriers between us and ultimately bring us closer to together, I find this entire episode in our recent history extremely disturbing and also somehow surreal. At the same time I also feel a freaky sense of relief that the music I most closely treasure—music that falls under the rubrics of “contemporary classical,” “avant-garde jazz,” and “experimental music”—is totally absent from this list. For years I’ve had to suffer snide comments from new music detractors claiming that listening to things like the endless repetitions of hard core minimalism, gnarly angular atonality, or out-of-tune skronking saxophones is a form of torture. And yet this music was assiduously avoided when someone got the bright idea that music could actually be used for such a purpose.

Admittedly, the real reason such new music was not used this way was that it was likely not on the radar of the programmers coming up with the playlist. As much as I want the music I love to reach as broad an audience as possible, for once I’m actually content that it remains marginal. Once we have a guarantee that such an application of any music will never again be considered by anyone, perhaps then we could again start worrying about maximizing our audience.

60 thoughts on “Abusing Music

  1. pgblu

    Frank, I hope you’re joking. What music they used to torture people is so much less important than whether they tortured people at all. Would the inclusion of “our music” for this nefarious purpose be nothing more to you but an additional PR nightmare for your cause? Yet another hurdle in the pursuit of getting new music into every household!

    What if all publicity is good publicity, they used a little Steve Reich or Milton Babbitt to soften people up, and the resulting media attention caused a spike in Reich and Babbitt’s mp3 downloads? Would you be relieved?

    This post is intentionally provocative — I know we’re pretty much on the same page, you and I, but the way you discuss this issue is so remarkably glib, particularly the last 2 sentences, that I do have to pipe up.

    As I say, it sounds like you’re joking, and if you are, it’s a kind of very dark humour I am not accustomed to seeing from you.

    FJO Responds: I struggled quite a bit over the last two sentences, and I still firmly stand by them.

    As much as I want the music I love to reach as broad an audience as possible, for once I’m actually content that it remains marginal. Once we have a guarantee that such an application of any music will never again be considered by anyone, perhaps then we could again start worrying about maximizing our audience.

    I’m not sure I comprehend your interpretation of “dark humour” in professing that I’d rather have music I care about remain obscure than to be used for nefarious ends and to think that spreading the word about it is secondary to stamping out a misuse, in fact abuse, of music. Indeed I believe that pretty much all music is a cause for good in this world, but to twist its purpose and use it for ill is to create the only music that I truly believe to be anti-music.

    This was a very difficult subject to write about and perhaps that is why it has been so quiet on this page despite your assertion, which I agree with, that this post is “provocative.” I did not mean to treat this lightly in any way, but it would be valuable, I believe, to get a discussion going on this topic. As always, thanks for your comments which will hopefully begin that very process.

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  2. pgblu

    Wow. That’s the first time I’ve seen responses from the editor formatted differently from any other comment.

    I meant that my post was intentionally provocative. What you write could in fact be interpreted very differently from how it was (apparently) intended. It sounds instead as if your indignation about US torture policies is somehow mitigated by the fact that they didn’t do it by using the music you advocate for.

    Not only now, but especially now, in this climate, let ‘new music’ or any other fringe stuff be and remain as marginal as it is. Its reputation and its validity remains unaffected by how big a chunk of the population has listened to it (pace Ryan Tanaka), and it seems the only way such things will be disproportionately promoted (at least in practice) is if and when they serve some propagandistic purpose — even a noble one like “look how open-minded, cosmopolitan, and edgy our culture is.”

    FJO responds:

    Wow. That’s the first time I’ve seen responses from the editor formatted differently from any other comment.

    I’m just trying out a new formatting idea in the hopes that it will keep the conversation going longer. Sometimes when I’ve jumped in with an extensive response to a post it seems to have ended the thread and that’s disappointing. I’ve seen many blog authors respond the way I’ve done for this thread rather than adding a new comment so I figured I’d give it a go and see what happens. I’m not committed to either format in the abstract; just to whatever appears less intrusive and more conducive to greater debate. But I suppose the jury is still out on this one.

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  3. pgblu

    Now I’ll go off on another tangent. Are we really doing music a service by elevating it above other things in life? Let me put that a totally different way.

    Suppose I’m a dog trainer, dog breeder, dog owner, or animal rights activist, and became indignant that they used dogs (the loves of my life) to intimidate prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Wouldn’t I then be laughed off the stage for being so precious about my ‘angle’ on life? How is the love of music any different, qualitatively speaking, from the love of animals?

    FJO Responds:

    How is the love of music any different, qualitatively speaking, from the love of animals?

    Of course, on a personal level, it is no different. To laugh such a person off the stage misses the key of our individual reality which is that we all look at the world through a subjective prism formed by what we are passionate about and those prisms shape our values and the sharing of those values is what makes societies possible. The reason music seems so important in that respect, at least in my point of view, is that is a phenomenon that exists in all human cultures, as well as among other species according to recent studies in a new field called zoomusicology. And if a dog lover becomes indignant over an alleged wrongful act involving dogs, just as a music lover becomes indignant over an alleged wrongful act involving music, then that prism is a valuable trigger to get that person to a point where he or she will take a stand.

    I and most people I know were upset about the allegations that were made about torture long before music was ever alluded to, but given that this is a music advocacy forum this would not have been the appropriate arena for such a discussion. But given that an abuse of music has been alleged, I think that it has become a discussion that has ramifications specific to music. The fact that none of the music principally discussed on these pages was used for such purpose, I also thought was somehow relevant in terms of what “our” music means to us and what it means or doesn’t mean to the society at large, and I thought and still think that it would be worthwhile to discuss that on these pages.

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  4. pgblu

    One of the disadvantages of your new format is that I don’t know when you responded, but that’s neither here nor there.

    Let me reiterate for the sake of clarity my main point. You say that music is by its nature a force of good, no matter what the music. On the one hand, you have a point, in that dëath metal is no more morally repugnant than a hymn of praise to St. Ursüla. In the sum of it, though, I think this is overly romantic: ultimately a counterproductive or even harmful (because delusional) attitude. Music doesn’t do anything, it’s morally inert until it is used for something — good or evil alike.

    To assert that music is a de facto force for good leads to absurd scenarios where, for example, the mere presence of a soundtrack, e.g., at the dentist, makes the fact that your teeth are rotting and need fillings seem a bit more palatable, when in fact the music itself doesn’t actually improve your dental health. The music is harmful (yes, Virginia, it’s bad for your teeth!) because it makes the fact of your dire dental situation seem less urgent.

    I just read what I think is a brilliant essay by Bennett Hogg which provides a rather concise, forceful Foucauldian investigation of the power relations between music and its listener. The piece is entitled “Who’s Listening?” and appears in the Routledge anthology Music, Power and Politics.

    Go check it out. It’s the main reason why I’m getting all verbose right now. Particularly refreshing because it’s an antidote to the kind of bludgeon-wielding mystification which you’re practicing by talking about music as a “force.”

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  5. philmusic

    “Music doesn’t do anything, it’s morally inert until it is used for something — good or evil alike…”

    Walt Whitman said as much for his poems and the same can be said for any language. I believe that H.G. Wells pointed out that to control minds you had to control language.

    My point is that music is a language and a form of communication. Isn’t there a purpose to learning how to communicate? Doesn’t learning a language have a particular benefit?

    Rather it’s the fact that one can use any language to lie, cheat, and steal, and worse, that doesn’t mean anything. Other than criminal culpability.

    I find it particularly irresponsible when the private world of scholars and college professors say things about the most esoteric phenomena, and in their own private language, which then puts music education at risk.

    That’s my job your mess’in with.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com Happy at Last.

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  6. pgblu

    Phil Fried, I don’t understand what you’re saying. Perhaps I never have.

    Music is not a language; it has language-like characteristics, such as beginning/middle/end structures, and it feels good to refer to it as a language.. But for me, a language is a tool for saying things. If you can give me a single example of something specific and unequivocal that is said by a piece of music, then I’d like to hear about it.

    On second thought, I don’t want to hear about it. That’s an old and boring debate.

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  7. Chris Becker

    “If you can give me a single example of something specific and unequivocal that is said by a piece of music, then I’d like to hear about it.”

    Listen to African or Afro-Cuban drumming.

    Phil – Again, nice to hear you here in NYC last week :)

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  8. Colin Holter

    Listen to African or Afro-Cuban drumming.

    Could you elaborate, please? This is super-vague.

    Music can be used to bring people together or to galvanize a sentiment, certainly, but there’s no legitimate definition of “language” that music qualifies for. If “African or Afro-Cuban drumming” somehow represents a challenge to this thesis, I’d like to know about it.

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  9. philmusic

    Um, I’m not an ethnomusicologist but there are several cultures, not just primitive, that use instrumental music for communication, and in a very specific way. The Hmong for example.

    One might also include morse code as a rhythmic pattern but thats besides the point. One thing language does is that it can attempt to persuade. Thats out of my line.

    What you are really asking for is a direct translation of sound, say a Mozart String Quartet, into words. It seems that you are giving priority to text based language here. Of course there are many who feel that text based language has no meaning either. The fact that babelfish can’t translate music to text proves nothing.

    Believe what you need to believe.

    Phil Fried, who feels good about many things

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  10. Chris Becker

    Dialogue between voice and drum may be as old as the human voice itself. Author Ned Sublette hypothesizes that drumming and language evolved simultaneously.

    In central and east Africa, drum patterns represent the stresses, syllable lengths and tone of particular African languages. A repertoire of “stock phrases” numbering in the thousands “imitate” the sound of speech (which assumes that spoken language somehow should have historical priority) to communicate messages in a variety of ceremonial, celebratory, and casual contexts.

    Which means I could say “Hi, Colin. Read Cuba and Its Music by Ned Sublette.” using a talking drum (assuming I had taken years to master that instrument).

    And you do know why in pre-Civil War Louisiana drumming was banned along with the importation of slaves, right?

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  11. pgblu

    Looks like we’re not talking about the same thing at all, then. Music that contains coded messages doesn’t convince me as a counterexample. After all, what to someone else might mean “We march at noon” might to me be nothing more than riff on a familiar rhythm. If I hear something in a foreign language, however, I know very well that something is being communicated which I don’t understand. That’s OK.

    Now can you help me unpack how what I said earlier “threatens music education” ? Or were you not referring to me, Phil?

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  12. Chris Becker

    On my lunch break I emailed one expert on drums and linguistics: Ned Sublette (I interviewed him on my blog back in September) – and I’m going to paraphrase some of what he communicated to me (not with a drum…)

    Ned confirms that people communicate linguistically with drums across Africa today. He brought up the term “surrogate speech” which sort of implies what both Phil and I referred to in our previous comments where one considers spoken words as somehow more communicative than their musical “surrogate.”

    Howver in Afro-Cuban popular music, the sound of “talking” exists but a linguistic function has disappeared. However in sacred Afro-Cuban music, the linguistics are still there to call to Gods, speak to initiates, carry on the ceremony, etc.

    http://beckermusic.blogspot.com/2009/08/interview-with-ned-sublette-author-of.html

    P.S. I could bring all of this back to the discussion regarding torture, but I have to get back to work…

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  13. colin holter

    In central and east Africa, drum patterns represent the stresses, syllable lengths and tone of particular African languages.

    Yeah, but that’s no different from claiming that the presence of legible text in Don Giovanni disproves the notion that music’s not a language: The fact that music can incorporate language doesn’t mean that music is a language. You could write Morse code passages in a percussion piece (and many have), decryptable just like the talking drum – but I think you’d agree that such a piece is presenting more than just a concrete message in Morse code, and it’s all that other stuff that makes it music and not a language.

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  14. colin holter

    http://beckermusic.blogspot.com/2009/09/feed-loas.html

    That’s cool, but again: not language.

    As pgblu mentioned a few posts back, music sometimes has language-like characteristics – and if I spoke Creole or Xhosa or Shona or whatever language the drums sound like, they might convey to me some concrete information just like if the drummer had spoken it to me. But there’s more to the contents of that video than the approximated phonemes, stresses, and timings that the drums have been constructed and played to reproduce, and that’s what I mean by “incorporating” language. The drumming might have linguistically packaged information in it, but it’s packaged in a way that I can only open if I know the language – and knowing that language, in turn, has nothing to do with knowing that particular musical practice. The information I can derive from that performance has to do with rhythmic relationships, hierarchies within the ensemble, performance practice, and a whole host of musical characteristics; none of those indications can convey an utterance, in the linguistic sense, nor can they be inflected for aspect, case, or polarity. See what I mean? I’m not trying to be an asshole here, nor (of course) am I questioning the value of non-Western conceptions of music. I’m just saying that language is a very specific kind of human system, and so is music, and even though one can fit inside the other (and, I might add, vice versa), they’re not the same.

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  15. Chris Becker

    “If you can give me a single example of something specific and unequivocal that is said by a piece of music, then I’d like to hear about it.”

    That was pgblu’s original request. I just want to point out that both Phil and I quickly provided some examples. The argument that bubbled up then was (I think…) whether or not “language” is a form of communication separate from “music.”

    I personally don’t hear “language” and “music” as two exclusive forms of communication. I think in our own backward culture, plenty has been done to attempt to separate the two.

    Imagine “language” as a single something that developed over time with both (our Western terminology now…) “linguistic” as well as “musical” content. How then or why would you consider that language as a “hybrid” or something that “incorporates” music?

    But really, who hasn’t heard Mozart laughing in his music?

    This is probably the strangest thread that has ever appeared on newmusicbox.

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  16. philmusic

    The important issue here is what insight is gained by holding the opinion that music is not a language.

    Obviously “distancing” can give you a vantage point of dismissive power. Part and parcel of that dismissiveness is that all you seem to offer is what music can’t do. Perhaps this opinion is simply the price of admission to the team and to hold any other opinion would be deemed unprofessional or worse.

    That’s not insight.

    Phil Fried, perhaps not as happy as he would like.

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  17. Chris Becker

    “The information I can derive from that performance has to do with rhythmic relationships, hierarchies within the ensemble, performance practice, and a whole host of musical characteristics; none of those indications can convey an utterance, in the linguistic sense, nor can they be inflected for aspect, case, or polarity. See what I mean?”

    No, I don’t. Why can’t these “indications” convey an “utterance, in the linguisitc sense”? Because you say so? Isn’t this music doing exactly what you say it isn’t doing?

    If you don’t speak the language of the musicians playing the drums (or whatever), that doesn’t mean something isn’t being communicated.

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  18. Colin Holter

    Part and parcel of that dismissiveness is that all you seem to offer is what music can’t do.

    On the contrary – music can perform a lot of expressive and communicative functions that language can’t, by virtue of its literal non-literalness. The fact that music isn’t properly semantic makes it all the more wonderful, as far as I’m concerned; just because it can’t give you directions to the store doesn’t mean it can’t suggest new ways to think about why you’re going to the store in the first place.

    It’s wise to ask who benefits from the dissociation of music and language, and I’m glad you brought that question up. However, I don’t think anyone loses out if we make it clear that music is not a language – except maybe for those who are selling bromides about the universality of music and its catalytic potential for social unity.

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  19. rtanaka

    Language does not necessarily have to be verbal or textual, since at its root all it really needs to be is a symbolic representation of something that points to an agreed-upon definition. A siren is a good example of sound having specific meaning — if you’ve been living in a modern society for any length of time there’s really no way to disassociate the feeling that “something’s wrong” when you hear it, and you can generally distinguish what kind of wrong it might be depending on the type of siren used. It’s possible to be very specific with music, but since light travels faster than sound we just happen to find it more convenient to write.

    If you look at an orchestra you’ll see that it is an obvious imitation of a parliamentary system. Very generally, the strings represent the noble-classes, middle-and-lower classes to the winds, and finally the percussionists the poor — in other types of musics these instrumental associations may not hold true, but if you are listening to Western classical music this understanding is necessary in order to “get” what social commentaries composers are making when they utilize certain orchestrations. Even as weird as Harry Partch’s music might sound, it’s still representational because his use of microtonal gestures evokes his experiences living between the cracks of society.

    There is nothing innate about any of this because you have to learn it through social context, and it does take a degree of exposure and education before you can appreciate music on that kind of level. The old high-modernist mantra is “sound for its own sake” because they tried to “liberate” these types of specific meanings from musical gestures. There were similar movements in painting, sculpture, and literature as well, and you could say that they were in many ways very successful in achieving this goal. But, as Phil says above, what is gained by this separation? When you remove social meaning there is a breakdown in communication between the artist and audience, and it allows for pieces to be written even if the composer doesn’t have anything to say. It may have been an important experiment during the mid-20th century, but I think that people are getting tired of this type of aesthetic and are looking for something more earnest. It’s not possible to connect to people on an emotional level if there’s no message behind the work.

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  20. pgblu

    Phil, you may not believe me when I tell you this, but you’re actually still being cryptic, at least to my ears. You use very direct-sounding language, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.

    Who is ‘distancing’ him/herself from what?

    When I say music is not a language, then I don’t claim that music does not communicate anything. What distinguishes it from language is what it communicates and how and to whom. For me, those distinctions are enough to disqualify it as a ‘language.’

    Perhaps it’s just a semantic debate, then, but since you are being quite confrontational about how academics (like me?) are somehow ruining music for the rest of us, I do feel I need to pin you down. Let me know if I’m just misinterpreting.

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  21. Colin Holter

    If you don’t speak the language of the musicians playing the drums (or whatever), that doesn’t mean something isn’t being communicated.

    That’s true, but what’s being communicated is encoded in a language that is not music. As I said before, when Falstaff sings “L’onore! Ladri!” and you understand the words, what you’re understanding is not the language of music but the language of Italian. Same deal with the drum.

    One thing we can agree on is that this is one of the most bizarre conversations NMBx has hosted yet.

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  22. Chris Becker

    “”As I said before, when Falstaff sings “L’onore! Ladri!” and you understand the words, what you’re understanding is not the language of music but the language of Italian. Same deal with the drum.”

    What if I don’t speak Italian?

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  23. Colin Holter

    What if I don’t speak Italian?

    Then you’re in the same boat I’m in when I listen to your talking drum video – bombarded with language that is coeval but not coterminous with music.

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  24. rtanaka

    This conversation isn’t so bizzare, really — this issue is in many ways what divides the art world into two camps between the representationalists and abstractionists. Composers like myself and Chris see music as a language because we hear sounds as having implications beyond just “what it sounds like”. Using socially-derived ideas we can then create context, which is immediately understandable to those who are familiar with the system. Abstractionists on the other hand tend to reject the idea of representation all together, claiming that meaning is subjective, determined purely by the interpretations of the individual.

    As for myself, I did go through a phase where all I wanted to do was “explore sounds” but eventually I ran into a dead-end because I realized that my music wasn’t really connecting with people in any meaningful way. The problem with abstract art is that if you press the issue hard enough you find that the artist usually has nothing or very little to say, or even if they do, they’re not willing to share it without making the audience wade through the arbitrarities of their private language. At least Cage was honest about the fact that his music didn’t mean anything which is somewhat refreshing, but that type of approach tends to present itself as being self-centered and insecure, at least to my ears.

    I use mainly tonal and modal gestures now. Not because I’m so in love with the system itself but because it is a useful language to use in order to comment on how Western society works. Probably for the first time since I started doing music, I feel like I’m getting a response from the listeners.

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  25. philmusic

    “…I don’t think anyone loses out if we make it clear that music is not a language – ”

    You haven’t made it clear. All you’ve made clear is your refusal to see that this point could be disputed.

    Nice advantage that.

    Phil Fried, who needs to practice more

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  26. Colin Holter

    All you’ve made clear is your refusal to see that this point could be disputed.

    Well, clearly it can be disputed, because here we are.

    We’re musicians. We know a lot about music. We know if something is music or not. Linguists know if something is language or not. I’m not a linguist, but I’ve spent many hours in graduate-level linguistics classes, and I know a linguist when I see one. To the best of my knowledge, no linguists are commenting on this thread at the moment. When one of them appears and tells me that music is a language, I’ll be prepared to concede that they might be right.

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  27. pgblu

    If a ‘language’ has no other meaning than (1) the imitation of linguistic patterns, (2) a siren telling us someone somewhere is hurt, and (3) a mimetic representation of laughter, then it’s not a language I’m interested in learning or using. You’ll have to come up with better examples than that.

    Ryan, I can’t go along with your “two camps” theory. I don’t know any composers who are representationalists as you seem to define it, i.e., composers who use the string section to represent the aristocracy, etc. Isn’t that, like, mind-numbingly banal? Does it not even matter what the string players actually play?

    Similarly, what you call abstractionism is nowhere near as prevalent as you seem to suggest. Hardly anyone today believes that sound can be heard just ‘as itself’ without signification — even Cage was merely suggesting this as a mindset to strive toward and not something to be flicked on like a switch.

    Some composers simply don’t accept that there’s a 1:1 correspondence between sound and sense. This is not the same as a wholesale rejection of the relationship between sound and sense, simply an assertion that things aren’t so simple. This friction has been going on for centuries in music, and is not such a new thing. It will also continue as long as people write music.

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  28. colin holter

    I’m sorry; the tone of my last post may have been a bit short. It’s been a long day. All I’m saying is that we seem to be in a pretty serious deadlock here, and maybe it’s time to defer to the experts if our expertise has failed us at reaching an accord. I’ve tried to be persuasive – as have Phil and Chris – but if nobody’s getting convinced, it may not be worthwhile to keep arguing.

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  29. Chris Becker

    Colin, the sound of the drum isn’t referencing a spoken syllable or word. The sound IS the syllable or word. Mouth or drum can be used to say the same thing.

    Perhaps all of this is hard to grasp because in our culture, music is seen as being separate from language. I think its that simple really.

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  30. rtanaka

    No, I think we should keep this conversation going, maybe even a new thread is warranted because I guarantee that it will come up over and over if you happen to be in the art world. I have friends who would probably fall under the “abstractionist” label but I can respect their work since they are doing it with the awareness of the “other side”, so to speak. In the end it’s really just a matter of what your motivations and priorities are for doing art. You’ll be in big trouble if you don’t know.

    The abstraction-representation theory is of course a hyperbole because “real” artists will always fall somewhere in between. But it is clear, even in this discussion here, that there is a dividing line and certain types of people will prefer one method over another. The trick is to pay attention to their output rather than what they’re actually saying, because that’s usually closer to the truth.

    I don’t think representational gestures are banal at all, because it’s the interactions between the instruments that allows for composers to create interest and contexts. You know those moments in Beethoven symphonies where a single theme get passed around from instrument to instrument? That symbolizes a type of “coming-together”, alluding to the unification of Germany, made very explicit in his 9th. When you hear music in this way its significance is enhanced because it becomes symbolic of more than what’s just there — the idea that the rich and poor alike can transcend their situation and fall equally under the banner of the German nation. That’s what gives music its power and why it can be so moving.

    There is already a ton of literature out there on the topic of music and language, including one written by Mr. Modernism himself, Theodore Adorno. His ideas are more nuanced than what can be talked about here, but essentially his argument is that music “strives” to be a language — often it can’t be specific enough for, say, buying groceries, but it does enable the musician to express the “essence” of something — like say, certain feelings — happiness, anger, love, etc. Nonetheless it points to something specific (not something undefined and subjective as the abstractionists would like you believe), and as pointed out in the siren example above, it has the possibility of being very specific if its want to. (I’m not German but I can appreciate the idea of unification in a generic sense, for example.) Adorno didn’t care much for the music-language separation that the high-modernists were going after (esp. people like Cage and Boulez) which is why he remained a champion of Shoenberg til’ the very end.

    So the possibility of the music-language connection is there, and is available for use to those who might want to. (All the arguments against it that I’ve seen so far have been passive, so it’s not good enough for me to revert to the way I used to write.) People seem to avoid this route because when your ideas are clearly understood it means being vulnerable in front of an audience, which opens yourself up to scrutiny and criticism. This was the case when I was younger so I can sympathize, but I got tired of getting luke-warm responses so it was necessary for me to grow a spine and just say what I felt like saying. You do burn some bridges during the process but I feel a lot better about my work nowadays so it’s definitely worth it.

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  31. pgblu

    Composers whom you consider to be doing abstract work (1) have nothing to say and (2) have no spine. Great. I’m going to ignore all that tendentious bullcrap.

    Your example from Beethoven’s 9th doesn’t take us out of the realm of the banal, I’m afraid. And to connect it to the union of German speaking states, though, is to commit a serious anachronism. So I’m going to ignore that, too.

    I do find the Adorno article interesting too, and I’m glad to see it has appeared in English. Ironically, though, I would have liked to cite it to shore up my own argument. In the very first paragraph he says that “music is not identical with language,” and that the similarity shouldn’t be taken too literally. The identity of musical concepts “lies in their own nature, and not in a signified [German nation or otherwise] outside them.”

    You do Adorno a disservice by turning the sentence “Music aspires to be a language without intentionality” into “Music aspires to be a language.” Do you see how you’re basically twisting Adorno’s position into its own opposite? – but you’re right that the text can’t be fully glossed in the context of one of these posts… especially the stuff following the above quotes is quite complicated and requires more background. Still, thanks for letting me know about this translation. I shall have to take a closer look at it.

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  32. rtanaka

    Well, again, your argument is passive — it dismisses certain connections that historians consider to be very clear but it gives no reason why the abstract method is preferable to the representational. But yes, the majority of abstract works I would say have very little to say, largely because the overspecialization has allowed composers to write music without regard to the social context that they happen to be writing in. (This is especially true in music, which is the most segmented in the art world at this point.) I’m not the only one who thinks this way either — certain people are already aware that this is a problem and the emergence of interdisciplinary programs across the country should be a clear indication that the art world is moving in a different direction than before.

    Abstraction is a necessary process for communication to occur, but in order for it to be meaningful it has to refer to something. Adorno’s argument gives credence to both methods, but he does explicitly state in that article that the functions of music and language, though different, is not something that can be separated from one another. Music is vague, but points to the “essence” of something. The idea that it’s possible to separate the two is a relatively recent phenomenon — it was taken as furthest as possible with Cage 60 years ago but we should probably be asking ourselves if there’s really any point in adhering to this dogma any further. What gets accomplished through this separation, really?

    I have a friend in photography right now who I would say falls closer to the “abstractionist” camp. Photography is a highly representational medium because we use it in order to shape our understanding of reality and we see it all the time used in news and in TV. He worked for the commercial industry for a while but he got sick of the fact that people used photos to capture “moments” which were more fabrications than anything. Mainly that people usually “pose” for pictures to paint a rosy picture, hiding that problems that exist behind the context. So his approach is to go the other route, in order to get away from that. Representation can be used to deceive, which is a major argument against its use, but I do believe that if the artist is committed to honest expression this does not have to be a problem. But this is a very difficult thing for most people, because we are society so obsessed with how things appear to be rather than how things actually are.

    Again, it depends on what your priorities are in what you’re trying to accomplish with your work. My friend is very honest about the fact that his art is only going to appeal to those close to his medium, because his works are in direct dialogue with the concerns of the photographic world at this point in time. His use of abstraction, though, is balanced in that the subject matter deals with the recent demise of neoliberal capitalism — the photographs eventually destroy themselves through exposure to light as a way to highlight the illusiveness of the idea of art being a form of commodity. There is a place for this type of approach and I don’t have a problem with it.

    On the other hand, I do have ambitions of opening up the classical music world to a wider audience, which necessitates a different approach. This has required me to be clearer, simplify my language, and pay attention to musical vernaculars. Yes, musical vernaculars are still there in society, and I think it’s pretty silly to deny its existence. If you pay attention to what people are enjoying, there are recurring patterns and systems which have wide acceptance among certain demographics. As with any language, there are certain rules and expectations that you have to pick up, but once you get it down it can be incredibly useful. I think a lot of people make the mistake that learning these things limits one’s ability to express, which is really not the case at all.

    The only difference between me and my friend is that because we’re trying to appeal to different types people we’re using two different types of languages to achieve communication. Nonetheless, what we’re trying to do isn’t ambiguous, because we make our intentions very clear, which is probably the reason why we get along despite our differences.

    What I often don’t hear in New Music is intentionality — I hear ideas and sounds, but the composer often doesn’t seem to know what to do with those sounds because they exist for its own sake, rather than for a purpose. Thinking of sounds as a form of language forces the musician to think of what is actually being conveyed, which I think is very important. Jazz musicians are generally more apt at this because they’re explicitly trained in regards to this approach.

    Reply
  33. rtanaka

    Oh man, I’m so glad that this site has decided to do an article on the ISIM. Finally some attention is being paid attention to the improv community within the classical world. I see some names that I recognize for once.

    If you’d like to continue this type of discussion further, I’d suggest talking to these improvising classical musicians because the “music is a language” idea is an accepted norm there. (This is currently a growing field, so it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll run into one eventually somewhere.) The only people who even considers the music-language separation is Western musicians, in particular classical musicians, in particular those sympathetic to the high-modernist cause during the 20th century. It’s a very small minority, and it’s shrinking pretty rapidly because my impression is that even the visual arts has long since abandoned this type of hard-line stance. Unless there’s some immanent, pressing reason why the two needs to be separate, there’s probably not much reason to stick with it — that’s just my opinion, anyway.

    Reply
  34. philmusic

    The answer to the question of whether “music is a language” is evidently not to be trusted to musicians but only to linguists. Linguists that may have no interest in music whatsoever. Or they may be failed composers and performers with an axe to grind.

    More importantly the privileged nature of text based language, the linguists very profession, is at stake in such a discussion. Academic self interest, not the search for truth, is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

    So this is a zero sum game, a death match competition. That is my point–a zero sum game has winners and losers. This trickles down into music education that is now being discarded in favor of text based language testing.

    I have to disagree that I am attempting to persuade here. Rather I see myself as an immovable object.

    Phil Fried, who talks big

    Reply
  35. ydandaman

    Music is not a language any more than speech is a language. Language is an abstract set of symbols that could be communicated through any number of means: speech, writing, morse code, sign language, instrumental music (as in the talking drum example), etc. Just because music can be used as a means to transmit a particular language does not mean that music is a language itself.

    I understand that other cultures (as in Chris’s examples) have a very different conception of what music and language are, and my above statements bear a Western bias and I appreciate Chris’s point. It certainly could be useful artistically to attempt to change Western musical attitudes towards a more unified view of music and language. Nevertheless, I don’t think that’s really what’s at stake here. I think what people (in the U.S. and Europe) are really saying when they say music is a “language” is a simple political statement about preferring a more conservative musical language. This comforting familiarity is what I believe people mean when they talk of music’s “communicative powers.” It just means that they recognize and enjoy the music because it sounds like what they are used to, not that it is literally communicating something. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding that opinion, by the way. I just wish people would say what they really mean rather than attempting to prop up their opinions by claiming them as a universal, unalienable feature of all music.

    Reply
  36. pgblu

    Well, again, your argument is passive — it dismisses certain connections that historians consider to be very clear but it gives no reason why the abstract method is preferable to the representational.

    We’ve once again reached a point in our exchanges, Ryan, where it becomes clear to me that you’re not debating me but some composite of people you disagree with. I reject the “two camps” theory utterly, and I wouldn’t take any artist seriously who declares themselves to be part of either camp. Thus the burden of proving the “abstract method… preferable to the representational” does not lie with me. And since you place yourself unequivocally in one of these camps, and even equate that camp with a certain moral and creative superiority, it’s incumbent on me to remind you of the problems with purely ‘representational’ art.

    If in the English language I say “This is a zither” and you don’t understand what I mean, then I have failed to communicate. I have never heard a piece of music which works like that. Instead, I think every listener’s reaction to every piece of music is a valid reaction, because it’s the sum (union? intersection?) of the given piece and the given listener’s experience.

    If that doesn’t convince you, think of the converse: suppose someone hears Xenakis’ Kraanerg and comes away saying “That was lovely, I am a big fan of rapid pitch repetitions on woodwind instruments!” … then the listening experience was certainly a fortuitous one. If that same someone comes away saying “That was horrible; I’d rather listen to traffic noise!” then that’s an equally valid response, and no amount of explanation (e.g., “the woodwind section represents the working class”) will turn the listening experience into a positive one.

    But if after hearing the above sentence “This is a zither,” my listener replies “I love the sound of voiced dental fricatives… say that again!” — then I really cannot be sure that my language has done what I intended.

    Reply
  37. rtanaka

    If in the English language I say “This is a zither” and you don’t understand what I mean, then I have failed to communicate. I have never heard a piece of music which works like that. Instead, I think every listener’s reaction to every piece of music is a valid reaction, because it’s the sum (union? intersection?) of the given piece and the given listener’s experience.

    Well your sentiments here fits right into the description I’ve said above, mainly that the abstractionists strive to preserve the idea that interpretation is a purely subjective phenomen, determined by the will of the individual. The “music is a language” argument rests on the fact that there are sonic gestures that have socially accepted meanings which allows for common interpretations amongst people, which is why the two things have trouble reconciling with each other. Most people would say that there is a spectrum in regards to this issue (including most linguists who might do speech analysis, especially in languages that contain music-like inflections…Chinese, for example) and I understand that this isn’t a black-or-white kind of thing. But rejecting the possibility of common musical interpretation (despite the fact that there are mountains of evidence in its favor) is to deny that this grey area exists, which is an extremist position that I see both unreasonable and outdated.

    The bigger issue here is that this way of understanding sounds have been missing from music pedagogy in the classical world for quite some time now because it has mostly moved over into the field of musicology. You can’t really deny the speech-like qualities of jazz and how their treatment of notes within modes resemble syllables, which can then be used as building blocks to create meaning and phrasings. And if you observe the way its audience reacts, with nods of heads and cheers of agreement (yeah!) you know there is a type of understanding that transcends the subjectivity of individual interpretation. I think Colin tried to say that nothing is lost by the music-language separation, but of course something very important gets lost when you approach music in that way — mainly that of the possibility of mutual understanding between artist and audience.

    Reply
  38. pgblu

    Thank you for being so explicit, Ryan. I’m still not an abstractionist, though. I never said anything about purely subjective phenomena, determined by the will of the individual. It is most certainly determined by the listener and the listened-to, the piece and the audience working together.

    In this sense, the difference between your understanding of musical communication and mine is merely a matter of degree. For you, meaning emerges from the work, and an “uneducated” listener will misunderstand the work. For me, that use of the term ‘misunderstand’ is highly misleading. Here, understanding emerges from the intersection of the person’s prior experience and the piece in question. If the work has a strong overlap with that person’s experience, then the intersection will be larger, and, at least tendentially, there will be a greater understanding.

    People who know nothing about sonata form will still derive meaning from the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, just not the whole rulebound system of classical form. Similarly, someone who listens to Kraanerg without knowing Xenakis’ theories will have an impression of the music that is perfectly valid.

    Phil, music education cannot possibly be synonymous with learning “how to listen to music” — if it’s really that, then it’s nothing more than indoctrination, and for all I care, music ed can vanish off the face of the earth.

    Reply
  39. philmusic

    Phil, music education cannot possibly be synonymous with learning “how to listen to music” — if it’s really that, then it’s nothing more than indoctrination, and for all I care, music ed can vanish off the face of the earth.

    You seem to be confusing how and why. Is this another linguistic technique for quashing dissent? The rest just seems tit for tat.

    Um, I thought we were all music educators here.

    I’m afraid your comments are all too typical of the disconnect between the appointed thinkers of our profession and the doers.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com

    Reply
  40. pgblu

    All right. If music education is nothing more than lessons in “why to listen to music” then I have no time for it either. Students know why they listen to music, and educators give them the tools to explore further. They do not act as indoctrinators or as cheerleaders or as PR-people.

    The thinkers and the doers…

    I’m through talking to you, Phil. Snide personal attacks have no place in this forum.

    Reply
  41. philmusic

    Students know why they listen to music, and educators give them the tools to explore further. They do not act as indoctrinators or as cheerleaders or as PR-people..

    Pgblu, I must disagree here, I personally know many teachers who sell soap, sad to say. I’m not sure that everyone knows why they listen either. Many kids don’t know about payola, and don’t know that commercial radio time can be bought and is. Hardly any realize that if they chose to listen to “death metal music” the kids who listen to “alternative” won’t speak to them. They certainly don’t know why, at the local arts high school, young classical musicians must hide themselves because everyone else will think them nerds. Anyway I don’t know any teachers who teach just “passive” listening. I’m an instrumental teacher myself and class room music teachers are vocal specialists or are supposed to be.

    So we must agree to disagree. My vision of music just seems more nuanced than yours, reflecting my experience, that doesn’t make it better.

    Anyway, my apologies to you. You seem to have interpreted my general comments for personal ones. Yet I would rather feel you anger a thousand fold than pretend its not there.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  42. rtanaka

    For you, meaning emerges from the work, and an “uneducated” listener will misunderstand the work. For me, that use of the term ‘misunderstand’ is highly misleading.

    Well, if you interpret Shostakovich’s string quartets as being “joyous” I think it’s reasonable to say that the work has been misinterpreted in some way because the subject matter of his works deals with the political oppression that he had to live under Stalin’s rule. His ideas in those works are so clear and unambiguous (although at times, sarcastic) that I don’t really see how anybody could construe it any other way without it sounding absurd. Denying this connection does a disservice to the composer and the ideas and experiences that his music represents.

    While I’ve never doubted its good intensions, there are several problems with giving every interpretation equal validity — it’s one of those things that sounds great in theory but turns out awful when you apply it in the real world. I think this needs explaining because there’s a tendency for people who defend the idea above to accuse its detractors of being conservative or authoritarian, when in fact the opposite is true.

    One is that if you relieve the artist of the responsibility of understanding vernaculars, it allows for false and “cheapened” appropriations of ideas which can become very offensive. New-agey movements loosely based on Asian and shamanistic philosophies are one example of this, and the inappropriate use of Native-American iconographics I’m sure you’re well aware of already. In both these cases the people doing the appropriation have not bothered to do any serious study on the traditions they claim to be honoring, but since all interpretations are equal, they feel justified in perpetuating shallow stereotypes.

    Another problem lies in how the composer deals with feedback from performers and audience members after the concert. If every interpretation is valid, then obviously the performers should be able to play the music however they feel like and the audience should be able to react to the piece however they want. (I know of several people whom this is their main approach to writing.) This works fine at least until someone says something negative about the piece, in which case the composer will throw a fit and accuse the commentators of not being “open-minded” enough. The use of “open-minded” here is synonymous with “just agree with my point of view”, which is a clever but back-handed way of guilting the other person into buying an argument. Some composers also have the nerve to get angry at the performers or audience members when they don’t get the kind of reaction they want, even though they have made no effort at making their intensions clear. Either way, if I say that such-and-such piece is boring and uninspired, composers are quick to defend themselves from this criticism, even though theoretically my point of view is supposed to be as equally valid as a positive one. Something here is not honest.

    The other problem is how it affects one’s listening skills, because when someone listens to something “in their own way”, all that really means is that they’re not really listening to what the other person is trying to say to them. More often than not the argument is guised under the notion that the composer is doing the audience a “favor” by “allowing” them to interpret their output in whatever way they want, but when it comes down to it’s just a veil to shield the artist from criticism. (e.g. A work, no matter how poorly constructed or ill-thought out it might be, cannot be “bad” because somewhere out there, there must an interpretation that makes it the next masterpiece.) I mean, people never say, “thank you, I was really getting tired of all this music that means something specific to me. What I really wanted to do was to spend some time listening to something more “open” so that I could think about it in my own mind.” People never say that, because they do that all the time in their own time anyway, and look for something different when they go to the concert hall. When you shift the burden of context-building onto the audience it exposes an inherent laziness and lack of willingness to take responsibility on part of the composer…you’re outsourcing the work while still taking the credit.

    I hope you understand that I’m not talking about anybody in particular — these are hyperboles but based on real experiences that I’ve observed during my time in the art world. I do see direct connections between the abstractionist ideology and the problems found in the music-making process though, and I feel obligated to warn some people against taking that line too seriously because it can often be career-ending. (Unless they are already protected by tenure or professional/family connections, which in case it doesn’t really matter either way.) I think all too often people mistake learning interpretation as a form of authoritarianism, which isn’t the case at all. It’s a tool for understanding, a tool for conveyance — nothing is lost by knowing how it works.

    Reply
  43. pgblu

    If every interpretation is valid, then obviously the performers should be able to play the music however they feel like and the audience should be able to react to the piece however they want.

    Again, you’re putting words in my mouth. The performers have a responsibility to the score, and I never said otherwise. Beyond the score and a knowledge of the relevant performance practice, though, I think it’s incumbent upon the performers to push the boundaries as much as they can without falsifying. I think that’s a totally separate issue, but you bring it in here purposely to make my position look absurd. Thankfully, all that is pretty transparent.

    Your Shostakovich example is the same. Of course no one is going to hear one of his quartets as ‘joyous’ — but if I had to choose, then yes I would prefer to allow such a possibility than to imagine, as you seem to suggest, that there is one right way to hear it, namely that of the composer.

    If an audience member takes a piece in the opposite way than it was intended, that’s really their own problem, isn’t it? And if that reaction feels genuine and real to them, then what are you supposed to do about it?

    Put this in your next program note, Ryan: “Dear audience member, you may not react to this work in any way you want. You must react to it correctly (see below).”

    Reply
  44. rtanaka

    Well I do believe that once you put your work out there, how people use or interpret it is largely out of control of the composer. (What better example than Shostakovich for that, eh?) I think we can agree at least on this point. Again, I’m not talking about anybody in particular, but I’m using hyperbolic examples to show that certain ways of thinking can lead to certain types of disasters, and to me how one leads to another seems very clear.

    Audiences will do whatever they want and that’s not going to ever change. The problems I see right now are largely in the production side of things, which is something we can actually do something about. The idea of ambiguity and subjectivity are often used to excuse the composer’s lack of clarity in instruction and conveyance, and this has had more negative than positive consequences in my opinion. We live in a polite society so people will rarely confront artists in this way, but if the instructions are unclear it will annoy performers, if conveyance is unclear, then the audience will be unmoved. Composer’s careers don’t end because scandals, but through passive-aggressive distancing after negative experiences during the rehearsal and concert process. It’s in everyone’s interest to prevent these things from happening because it hurts the reputation of the medium as a whole as well.

    If one were to be honest, performers will not have any strong feelings about a new piece written by an unknown composer so it’s unrealistic to expect that they will go way out of their way to figure out what you want, especially when time-constraints are involved. I don’t think it’s a sin to tell them what you had in mind when you envisioned the piece, because it gives at least something to work with in order to give their performance some direction. The professional performer’s mindset is that they are willing to suspend their own ego for the sake of the piece if they feel that it will benefit them in some way. (If they want to voice their individuality, they will get rid of the composer all together, either through improvisation or composing their own works themselves.) There is actually no incentive for performers to work all that hard unless you give them clear objectives or explain its significance in some way. Because most the credit for the performance will probably be given to the composer, these expectations are not unreasonable.

    Language is necessary because it is what connects the composer, performer, and audience together. There are different types of languages geared towards different types of audiences, but I don’t think it does any good to dismiss the idea all together because it’s something universal to the musics around the world. If someone interprets the work differently so be it, but the composer does need to put in the effort to be clear, otherwise nothing will happen. Cage I believe wrote a piece that tried to save his marriage at the time, failed, and came to the conclusion that music conveys nothing. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy and thus we have a lot of music now that has no meaning. At least he was honest about this fact, though, compared to a lot of others who write things that has no content yet claim that there is something in there if you “look hard enough”. (They can rarely be specific about anything, which makes their argument fairly unconvincing.) Someone like Shostakovich, on the other hand, saw his failiure to convey his thoughts to the audience as his own compositional shortcoming.

    Language is imperfect, but at least he’s trying, where as Cage had just given it up all together. The attitude is very different between the two.

    Reply
  45. pgblu

    Well, those first 3 paragraphs are fairly well off-topic, so I’ll just ignore them.

    Language is necessary because it is what connects the composer, performer, and audience together. There are different types of languages geared towards different types of audiences, but I don’t think it does any good to dismiss the idea all together because it’s something universal to the musics around the world.

    It sounds to me like you’re talking about style, not “language”. I agree that being ignorant of the hallmarks of style really gets composers into trouble. But an awareness of style is not the same as an obligation to adhere to style.

    If someone interprets the work differently so be it, but the composer does need to put in the effort to be clear, otherwise nothing will happen.

    Is anyone advocating being unclear? Not me.

    Cage I believe wrote a piece that tried to save his marriage at the time, failed, and came to the conclusion that music conveys nothing. That became a self-fulfilling prophecy and thus we have a lot of music now that has no meaning.

    Where do you get this information? Which piece was an effort to “save his marriage”? Do you mean “The Perilous Night”?

    At least he was honest about this fact, though, compared to a lot of others who write things that has no content yet claim that there is something in there if you “look hard enough”. (They can rarely be specific about anything, which makes their argument fairly unconvincing.)

    I can’t respond to this because I don’t know whom you’re talking about. Whom are you quoting when you put the words “look hard enough” in quotes?

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  46. rtanaka

    Cage’s piece, I believe, was called A Valentine Out of Season” (1944). This was around the time when the composer began to dwelve into his chance-oriented works and that piece (along with his failed marriage) probably served as a catalyst toward that change. He’s famous for his quote, “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it”, which you can say has been his musical aesthetic since he began employing those types of techniques.

    Around the same time the composer was doing this, there were similar interests in chance and randomization happening in the realms of mathematics and science. The result of these experiments found its practical use in encryption, which is useful for security purposes but from a communicative standpoint it obscures rather than clarifies through the artificial introduction of “noise” into whatever material it’s using. Cage’s music does the same thing to the materials he uses, except that he justified this by attempting to redefine harmony into including incidental noises as well. (This project never really made it very far since he was unable to integrate it with any other harmonic system.) But the end result is that these procedures builds up barriers rather than tears them down, even though the composer claimed the exact opposite. The gradual waining of public interest in the avant-garde during the 2nd half of the 20th Century generally proves this point for me.

    All I’m saying is that composers need to be more critical about what kinds of aesthetics and techniques they subscribe to, because it seems like a lot of the times the methods some artists use doesn’t seem to be serving the needs of their intensions. Most people don’t intend on being unclear, but it can happen anyway if you’re not using the right tools to get the job done. (This causes many to become bitter and resentful against audiences, or sometimes even performers, but this anger is generally misplaced.) If the composer claims they don’t have any intensions, I’d question what they’re doing in the field of art to begin with or assume that they’re being dishonest since a lack of preference is not possible among human beings.

    If being understood is important to you, it won’t do you much good to study Cage because he simply was not interested in such things and he is very clear about this fact if you read enough of his interviews and lectures. I’m nearly 100% in disagreement with the composer’s aesthetic ideas, but I have to at least acknowledge that there is some amount of integrity that comes with his honesty.

    Composers are in a position of power. That’s the bottom line. If people decide to take on that role, they will have to take responsibility for the piece, the concert process, the interests of the performers, and the result itself. This means having to be a leader in some form or another, and give the context some direction. If you don’t want to take part in that type of hierarchy, then take your name off the piece and just improvise amongst musicians as their equals. (Which is really what I enjoy the most, personally.) It’s sort of the half-assed “I’m going to take credit for this performance yet give no input on the process” approach that tends to gives composers a bad name because it just kills any sort of motivation for inspiration.

    Cage argued that his approach was necessary in order to “remove” the composer from the process, yet his name still remains on everything he’s ever written. Who wins in this situation? The composer, for sure. The performers and technicians? If they’re paid enough, sure. The audience, though, ends up getting nothing, even though their taxpayer money is probably being funneled into these types of concerts in one way or another. People aren’t always smart but they’re not going to willingly subject themselves to this type of exploitation over and over. Like I said earlier — good intensions, horrible result. But maybe it’s this contradiction that people find so fascinating.

    Reply
  47. pgblu

    Composers are in a position of power. That’s the bottom line.

    That’s hilarious.

    A composer has “power” over a group of performers when that group of performers chooses to play that composer’s music. In the majority of cases, that group of players enters into a working relationship with the composer of their own accord. In the other cases, the musicians are contractually obligated to that working relationship, and they entered into their contract of their own accord.

    Or do you mean to say that a composer is in a position of power over his or her audience? That’s even more hilarious.

    Reply
  48. colin holter

    A composer has “power” over a group of performers when that group of performers chooses to play that composer’s music.

    Barring a contractual agreement of the sort pgblu mentioned, I’d argue the composer doesn’t even have power over the performers in that case—because the composer’s coercive leverage over the players in the moment of performance is nonexistent. Just ask Puccini, whose prima donna once interrupted a performance of La Bohème to sing her favorite selection from Hérodiade.

    (I might have a few of those details wrong—any opera buffs out there who can set me straight?)

    Reply
  49. philmusic

    Um Ryan, if I take your comment seriously, perhaps not the best idea, I need to point out that you seem to be confusing a “person” or an “activity” with a position of power.

    For example Louis B. Mayer was thought to be a very powerful man. Yet that power was not his. It only resided in his job at MGM. When he left that job he was nobody. Period.

    There are many other cases like this at many other; institutions, colleges and universities, politics, and composers are included of course.

    Yet its not because one is a composer that they have power. Rather its because one is invested with a position of power by others.

    Phil Fried PhilFried.com

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  50. rtanaka

    Yes Phil, in cases where there are no monatary or political interests, then it is perfectly voluntary. The “it’s always voluntary” argument was used by a professor once when student complained about playing music in the New Complexity style at her school. “No one is holding a gun to her head”, as he said.

    Of course, the school was paying her scholarship under the notion that she would be performing pieces in this way, so it’s not truly “voluntary” — unless you don’t count forcing someone to drop out of school as using power to influence someone’s decision-making process. Her complaints, of course, were immediately dismissed as being “uninformed” and her “open-mindedness” came into question when she dared to be skeptical of what some of these composers were doing. In the end this made her very disillusioned with the New Music community and after she graduated I haven’t heard much about her artistic practices since. These stories are very common, although you never hear it talked about amongst composers because it’s not what they want to hear.

    Well, I guess it was still her decision to come to that school, so maybe it was her fault for being there to begin with. When you start thinking along those lines, though, it just becomes a matter of shifting the blame toward others and the whole process becomes pretty stupid. But yeah, you guys have a point — if people don’t like certain musics, they shouldn’t work with them. That’s pretty much what we got now, though, because the New Music community has gotten such a bad rep that most institutional ensembles tend to be wary of working with composers, if at all. (Which I’m sure many here has had the frustration of dealing with.)

    The hierarchical power structure of how classical music works is pretty obvious to any outside observer — it is a feudal system, built on top-down politics and it functions as such. It’s only musicians, particularly composers, who have somehow managed to convince themselves that this is not the case. As I said, if democratic ideals were so important to the composer, then the obvious solution is to eliminate the system all together, remove the idea of authorship and just improvise. This is the most obvious, reasonable solution, which is part of the reason why the activity is gaining momentum in classical music at this point.

    What it comes down to is that a lot of composers enjoy being in a position of being able to tell people what to do but don’t want the responsibilities that comes along with it, like say, being aware of the situation of the performer beyond what’s written in the score itself. So the result is that you get a lot of pieces written in a half-assed manner, using the “art is subjective” line as a veil to shield the composer from criticism and to discourage further discussion on specific issues.

    Then again, this is a perfect metaphor for the failed leadership style that has tanked the financial system during the last few years. Art reflects life, as they say. But I’m hoping that something better is going to come along after this recession — people are tired of the same ol’ thing that has been going on for decades and want something different for once.

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  51. rtanaka

    And no, the composer does not have any power over the audience…I think I said that already. That’s the beauty of art, really — after all said and done, enjoyment is strictly voluntary and people’s reactions do not lie. Words do, but not the art itself. Unfortunately we’re living in a time when marketing seems to matter more than the product itself. In a lot of ways Cage’s music anticipated this sort of sad state of affairs — his music manages to disappoint the audience every time, and that was kind of the point. Very dark, very cynical.

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  52. colin holter

    In a lot of ways Cage’s music anticipated this sort of sad state of affairs — his music manages to disappoint the audience every time, and that was kind of the point.

    What? I’m not disappointed when I hear a Cage piece. It’s not like he routinely promises something and doesn’t deliver.

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  53. eaj

    In a lot of ways Cage’s music anticipated this sort of sad state of affairs — his music manages to disappoint the audience every time, and that was kind of the point. Very dark, very cynical.

    I’ve seen you make a lot of statements on here that are pretty hard to defend, Ryan, but this has got to take the cake. “His music manages to disappoint the audience every time?!” Where on earth did you get that one from?

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  54. rtanaka

    The interest generated in Cage’s music (most of post-4’33″ stuff) is all on the surface-level — as the composer said himself, he is saying nothing so there is no content to be discovered within. This was a conscious choice that he made, because Western ears are (or have been, at least) trained to listen for harmonic and motivic development and he was actively subverting this notion. People come to concerts expecting something to happen, which is exactly what he didn’t give to them.

    In the end it’s about what styles propagate what kind of ideas and whos interests it’s serving. Cage made an entire career out of nothing, which you can’t deny was a pretty brilliant feat. But at the same time it’s a metaphor for what has happened in Wall Street — it’s the people who have produced nothing and served their own interests making the most money at this point. And you could say that in that regard his style was serving capitalistic individualism in this way (read Cornelius Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism if you want an extreme version of this opinion), which is why it was shipped overseas during the Cold War.

    But despite its good intensions, in practice it never served the needs of the public and if you analyze it enough it becomes clear of why that is the case. I know some composers who seem to be anguished at the lack of response for their music but given the choice of tools that they’re using it’s really kind of a “no wonder” situation. I don’t really care what styles people write in all that much, but I think it’s necessary to be specific so that people don’t have false expectations towards what they’re doing…I tend to find a lot of latent anger amongst composers and it shows in the kind of music that they write. Some of them might have the prestige that comes with winning awards or being invited to good institutions, but it’s obvious that a lot of them have never had the experience of making a genuine connection with a listener. Sincerity requires the artist to be specific in their choices. Unfortunately this is not what is currently being taught.

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  55. rtanaka

    Anyway, if you think any of what I said sounds outrageous, it might help to talk with musicologists or people versed in critical theory because I think you’ll find that the connections I’m making aren’t all that far-fetched. Composers have a vested interest in keeping the model above alive, because it allows them to reap the benefits of the classical music system without having to produce concrete ideas, and the ambiguity of interpretation also gives them enough room to shift the blame over onto the performers in case things don’t turn out the way they want it to be. Not exactly inspirational, but it works to its own end if you’re looking it from the composer’s point of view. (“Self-centered existentialism”, as some call it.)

    There really is no way to get an objective assessment of the field if you’re only talking to people within it, unfortunately, which is why outside opinions become so important in the long run. Scholars are making these sorts of connections anyway so it’s probably best to at least be aware of them, even if you don’t agree with the conclusions. I might sound like a ranting lunatic here, but all I’m really doing is relaying what people are already talking about on the other side of things.

    Happy Holidays! I’m out of here for a while.

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  56. colin holter

    But at the same time it’s a metaphor for what has happened in Wall Street

    No. No it is not. Cage never impoverished anyone, and in fact he enriched the lives of many—myself, and (I would imagine) a majority of NewMusicBox readers, included.

    Sincerity requires the artist to be specific in their choices.

    That is a 100% meaningless statement. Someday you’ll have to introduce me to all the soulless avant-garde careerists you’re always talking about, because you never mention any names, and I have never met a single composer, ever, of any aesthetic persuasion, who “ha[s] never had the experience of making a genuine connection with a listener” and stays in the business longer than a few years.

    read Cornelius Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism if you want an extreme version of this opinion

    Please stop telling people to read things. Cardew was absolutely right to claim that Stockhausen and Cage were “ripe for criticism” by the early 1970s; however, if I wanted to make a serious effort at critical musicology, I would probably avoid citing Chairman Mao, whose scholarship was, to put it mildly, not subject to peer review.

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  57. pgblu

    Ryan, you continually trade in the same old stereotypes and generalizations without citing any evidence whatsoever (and for this reason never succeeding in changing anyone’s mind) — and all that in a manner that’s mind-bogglingly repetitive. Why do you waste your time this way? Nobody actually benefits from these tirades, least of all you. It’s something you’re almost certain to regret about ten years from now.

    Don’t let me stop you, of course. It’s a free country.

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  58. eaj

    Anyway, if you think any of what I said sounds outrageous, it might help to talk with musicologists or people versed in critical theory because I think you’ll find that the connections I’m making aren’t all that far-fetched.

    Ryan, I would strongly encourage you to desist from patronizing those who express a disagreement with your arguments, and from making assumptions about what they are and are not familiar with.

    Reply

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