I wonder whether I’m an unusual listener in that I very rarely invest myself completely in a piece of music when I hear it. My usual “listening behavior” is a combination of on-the-fly thumbnail analysis, periodic reaction-monitoring, and subcontracting part of my brain (how large a part depends on the quality of the piece) to think about my own music. In special cases, these mental tasks can be subsumed by surges of sentimentality, although this kind of response is rare and getting rarer. The other night, however, I heard a performance that captivated me completely. I wasn’t in a simple emotional stupor, either—this was serious, full-on, gamma-wave… I almost just typed “love,” but I what I really need is a word that’s equally powerful but more complex.
The piece was Beethoven’s string quartet, Op. 130; the interpreters were the Pacifica Quartet. I can’t remember the last time I reacted that way to a performance. I think it must have been a cocktail of things that did it to me: The music itself, late Beethoven, is some of the best ever written. The quartet’s rendition was immaculate, which didn’t hurt either. But there was something else, something that hit me but passed by the nearby elderly couple, who apportioned a little more applause for the Franck quintet that followed the Beethoven. I was expecting Op. 130 to be fantastic, which it was. I was not expecting to have a profound revelation about new music while listening to it.
The feeling of personal inadequacy upon hearing a piece like Op. 130 is staggering, it’s true. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to write such phenomenal music. However, what really tore me up was the dawning realization that it may no longer be possible to write music like that anymore, music that’s capable of eliciting a reaction like the one I experienced. Can new music have at once the same quality of “pushing at the edge of the conceivable” that Beethoven’s had in its day as well as its emotional resonance? What moved me so greatly, I think, was the suspicion that the beauty of that piece—not just its sensual (i.e. sounding) beauty but its experiential beauty, the sublimeness of hearing it from start to finish—is something we may never be able to recreate. If you wrote a piece like Op. 130 today, it wouldn’t mean shit, although that doesn’t stop hundreds of composers from trying. How do you make something so precious in today’s post-Verfremdungseffekt cultural climate? I’m not convinced that it’s possible.
There’s a lot of music from the past fifty years that I like. A lot. I’m talking about new music that’s changed my life, new music that’s forced me to reconsider what I thought were self-evident, ironclad truths, new music that’s inspired and amazed me, new music that’s convinced me that the pursuit of new music is absolutely the best thing I can do with my life. My experience with Op. 130 is one that I’ve never been able to achieve with a piece of new music. The irony is that I can’t imagine a more wonderful way than Op. 130 to make such a deeply saddening discovery.