Beauty is the New Wallflower

As the Stephen Sondheim lyric has it, “Art isn’t easy.” Nor, to paraphrase, is the achievement of beauty in music. But of all the revolutions of modernism, none was more complete than the ashcanning of beauty as the ultimate canon of art. Indeed, beauty of melody and of sound is still held in a kind of privileged contempt by some influential salons of the cutting edge.

Oh sure, there is trite and cheap beauty in art, and some postmodern neo-tonal music has come in for rightful criticism for this, for its “reaction formation” (in the Freudian sense) to the serialism that preceded it. But the fact that trite, cheaply “pretty” music exists cannot delude us into the fallacy that beauty is intrinsically simple. Beauty is complex, in art and in nature. The beauty of fractals or the harmonic series is complex; the beauty of Persian rugs or Dante’s Divine Comedy or the cathedral of Chartres is complex. And so is achieving beauty through orchestration. It is difficult to mix instrumental colors and registers, and to balance chords in the orchestra, so as to achieve a beauty that sounds artless. Even a master orchestrator like Mahler wrote of his uncertainties. Conversely, ugliness is easy to attain, requires less skill, and is not even something one can master. It is not any challenge to write for all instrumental parts at maximum volume and without regard to the “meat” of the instruments’ ranges.

At a recent concert at a prestigious Manhattan venue—an admirable place where many good things of aesthetic persuasions old and new regularly get done with enormous taste, smarts, and professionalism—I heard a newly commissioned concerto for an unusual instrument by a well-known and successful composer now on the faculty of a famous conservatory. The solo instrument could barely be heard because of the constant din of the orchestra. It was as if the composer had treated every instrument like a switch on a giant mixing console, moved the volume up to maximum on all switches, and kept it there. What was artful about this? The timbres didn’t blend, they just collided in a kind of auditory roller derby. The ear’s need to hear one instrument’s range balanced with another’s was cavalierly disregarded. It’s not that the tutti effects weren’t powerful densities; it’s that you had the feeling that these same densities could have been equally produced by combining any number of other sounds at the flip of a coin. All I could think of was Alexander Pope’s “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance/As those move easiest who have learned to dance…The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Not here.

Was this all inspired creative deconstruction? Or just plain ineptitude masquerading as chic? I know from previous experience that howling mobs will now come for my head, labeling me an anti-pop/anti-downtown bigot for suggesting such heresy. Fie. Any four-year-old can turn up the volume dial. But no four-year-old could think up the unique sheen added to the strings and winds by the harp runs at measure 63 of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, or the diaphanous string glissando harmonics seven bars before rehearsal number 1 in the Firebird.

What we’ve got here, folks, is the syllogism of solipsism often employed by baby boomers and Gen-Alphabetters: We enjoy it, and therefore it must be Great. It must be Art. Further, it must be Beautiful because it’s Ours. Right? No. To me, to claim that an orchestra used like a mixing board is heir to the tradition of well-wrought beauty in musical art would be like my claiming I’m fine aged Kobe beef because I dress up in an Oscar Mayer costume.

I know I’m stepping into turbulent waters here. Your definition of beauty may differ. But to me, modern and postmodern aesthetics have perversely turned beauty into the Wallflower of Art. It’s revenge of the nerds.

53 thoughts on “Beauty is the New Wallflower

  1. Elaine Fine

    I wonder how the soloist who was playing the piece felt about the over orchestration. And I wonder how helpless the conductor felt when trying to compensate for the acoustic misconceptions of the composer.

    I think that we should all have our standards of orchestration up there with Strauss, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and Mahler, even when writing music that is “new” in its organization and harmonic material. A person writing for a solo instrument and orchestra who is a competent enough composer to teach at a conservatory and have pieces played (and probably commissioned by the organization playing them) in high-class New York halls, should have the technique and kindness to give a little beauty and balance to the music, if only for the sake of the performers.

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  2. Steve Hicken

    I think you are conflating the “beautiful” with the “pretty”. I heard a performance of Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Sonata that was incredibly beautiful, but it sure wasn’t pretty.

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  3. MarkNGrant

    I think you are conflating the “beautiful” with the “pretty”. I heard a performance of Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Sonata that was incredibly beautiful, but it sure wasn’t pretty.

    Not at all. See my previous post on Diamanda Galas; I don’t have any issues thinking that something unpretty must a priori be artless. Rather I’m talking about a– how to put it?– “structural dyslexia” of the composer’s inner hearing of what he is writing. A simple major triad in multiple octaves is one of the most difficult things to orchestrate so it sounds well. But equally, there are many orchestral chords in the scores of the 2nd Viennese school and other atonalists that are coherent to the ear, if “ugly,” because they are carefully balanced, placed just so among the instruments by the composer. To even understand this (and a competent composer should “get it”), let alone be able to execute it, is to understand a certain intrinsic symmetry that underlies what works and what doesn’t, acoustically– and THAT is in large part what I am referring to here as “Beauty.” Structural coherence of sound is what differentiates Edgard Varese’s music from noise.

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  4. philmusic

    The fact that music deemed “flawed,” is performed in concert halls or Manhattan venues prestigious or not, is nothing new. There is a long tradition of “bad” music making and “bad” composition going back centuries. Some of these compositions have been rediscovered and vindicated over time, and some of these works well, not now or ever.

    As Schoenberg pointed out; some academic positions lead to all kinds of performance opportunities. Anyway, our profession allows works to be judged solely by there own sub group of composition, so naturally some of the other sub groups tend to object.

    Why is there no criticism from within then? The problem is that our profession requires loyalty-and I’ve talked about the sports “team” mentality here before. Since loyalty trumps personal feelings there is no real way to know if people actually like the music they profess to love. Or dislike it for that matter. Careers so depend on the good will of others. Phil Fried

    Phil’s Page

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  5. maestro58

    When I was writting in a pluralist style (which once I called Surreal, now I call Dalian, because Dali effected me more than any other Surrealist), I wrote cluster sections, 12 tone sections, free atonal sections, etc…amoung the more tonal sections, but one thing united them. I made sure they all had good melodies. Now a serial technique may deny romantic melody, but there are other things you can do to catch the ear. No matter the language of the moment, one has a duty to create linear interest for the listeners sake. Many composers forget that after becoming syncophants to accademic composers, and worse, the single technique that they become slaves to for the rest of there lives.

    Let’s hope some composers rediscover ways to make non-diatonic melody & harmony more lyrical for there audience.

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  6. Matthew

    Anytime anyone trots out the “four-year-old could do this” argument, my Spidey sense starts tingling in anticipation of suspicious generalizations. Modernism, or post-modernism, or any other stylistic categorization you want to hold up for opprobrium, didn’t ash-can beauty, it changed the idea of what could be considered beautiful. You might not agree, but to blithely imply that vast hordes of composers have been intent on creating ugly music since the Hoover administration seems a touch disrespectful. I’ve never met a composer who, whatever their vocabulary, wasn’t trying to produce something that they thought was, for want of a better word, beautiful.

    Do they always communicate their idea of beauty effectively? Well, no—but do you really think that bad orchestration is solely a modern phenomenon? We don’t hear the reams of over-orchestrated 19th-century music simply because nobody plays it anymore. 22nd-century ensembles will similarly ignore the bulk of what’s being written today. If you’re still convinced that this epoch is uniquely cursed in that regard, maybe you should consider how to improve and increase opportunities for composers to actually hone their craft at working with large ensembles, rather than chalking it up to some illusory anti-beauty trend.

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  7. jbunch

    I agree. I know composers whose respect for structure and the fine philosophical / aesthetic concerns of their works take up all of their brain space leaving nothing left for the sound. What a tragedy. It’s like the Dead Kennedy’s to me. Potentially a cool spirit / point (if I could believe them), but they sound like a pile of shit. Intellectually rigorous music that is sonically lazy is beyond the pale. Just write an article or a poem if everything you have to say to the audience can be explained using words.

    I do believe however, that we are responsible as living composers to come up with our own bags of orchestrational and material “tricks.” This might begin with an understanding and appreciation for the Dead Composers Society, but must (and probably inevitably will) move in our own channels. Debussy’s marvelously rich doublings should only serve to open up the sonic field wider to our imaginations. After all, it’s not Debussy’s fidelity to Mozartian scoring that causes us to be ravished by his individuality. On the other hand, it’s not just his individuality that causes us to be ravished either.

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  8. rtanaka

    Now a serial technique may deny romantic melody, but there are other things you can do to catch the ear. No matter the language of the moment, one has a duty to create linear interest for the listeners sake.

    The majority of the 2nd Viennese school’s output (especially the earlier stuff) is very romantic, though. Schoenberg’s tone-rows used in counterpoint usually yeilds a lot of chormaticisms that are reminiscent of Wagner’s music, just more extreme in its fluctuations. Same could be said about Webern to some extent, except his music tends to have more of a pointillistic quality and less expressionism. It’s not until the post-Webern avant-garde where you start seeing composers trying to escape from the usage of traditional forms.

    People don’t necessarily dislike dissonance, but they need something resembling of a coherent form so that there’s something to latch onto. I’m particular to the music of Bartok because he manages to combine the dissonance of modern musics with the lyricisms and harmonies of the folk traditions, while still maintaining usage of formal development. (Adorno mentions that Bartok, in a lot of ways, tried to reconcile Schoenberg and Stravinsky.) As he said, evolution, not revolution.

    More than linear interest maybe…at least for me, I tend to like music that has a some continuity. Even if its a free form improvisation or a through-composed piece, the reason why one idea moves to another should “make sense” on some level. This is something that’s very hard to explain, but when you hear it you kind of know its there.

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  9. Colin Holter

    What
    It’s not until the post-Webern avant-garde where you start seeing composers trying to escape from the usage of traditional forms.

    What about Satie? What about Partch? What about, uh, Webern, whose deviation from (not to say abandonment of) such “traditional forms” crowned him as the primary model of postwar integral serialism?

    Even if its a free form improvisation or a through-composed piece, the reason why one idea moves to another should “make sense” on some level. This is something that’s very hard to explain, but when you hear it you kind of know its there.

    Music should make sense. Great. This will get you into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Maybe when you hear it, you kind of know it’s there; you, however, don’t have the right to tell us how we apprehend music. What makes sense to me might make absolutely no sense to you and vice versa, a statement almost as obvious, in its way, as yours.

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  10. rtanaka

    What about Satie? What about Partch? What about, uh, Webern, whose deviation from (not to say abandonment of) such “traditional forms” crowned him as the primary model of postwar integral serialism?

    Maybe with the exception of Vexations which is kind of a weird one (though to me, that piece is just an AB form with a ton of repetitions…) most works from those composers you mention are still utilizing traditional forms on some level. They use unconventional material (different instruments, more abstract themes) but still, you can say that it still revolves around the western notions of departure and return. Try analyzing Webern on some detail — from a formal point of view, I think you’ll find that it’s actually a lot less expansive as it might seem on the surface. I saw a few Partch during the last few years, and for sure, he’s using thematic material which has its own arrivals and returns, unless you can give me some examples where it doesn’t…

    Music should make sense. Great.

    Sorry, maybe I should’ve been more specific. Almost anything can make sense in a composer’s own mind, but I think the challenge of doing music (or any kind of communication to begin with) involves trying to convey those thoughts to other people. To me, good music is one where it has the ability to guide the listener to the familiar to the unfamiliar — and this allows for the audience to come to an understanding of how ideas relate to each other, which is how our brains are neurologically wired to work anyway. To make something “coherent” (as opposed to just providing the audience with information) I think that continuity is something of a necessity. (A leads to B, but why? One can spend a lifetime filling in these little details.)

    The advantage of living in a civilized society is that we already have a pool of “accepted” forms at our disposal as a result of long standing traditions. Talking with other people in other fields, something interesting tends to come up — commonly used forms, say, the thesis form, hasn’t really changed all that much since the early ages of argumentative writing, including that of the sciences. The author introduces a topic, makes some points about it (and in the process, addresses counter-arguments and such) then comes to a resolution that supports the initial argument that’s being made.

    The content and issues addressed tends to change according to time, location, and culture (and the author’s personal experiences, of course), but the vast majority of things we read, watch, and hear in western society mostly fall into variations of older formal constructions. Say, Beethoven’s contribution to form was not so much a revolutionization of it, but the fact that he decided to place a greater emphasis on the development sections of the Sonata. And one can correlate these ideas to the emergence of Darwinian evolutionary theories, as well as Hegelian “synthesis” theories that was being developed roughly during the same time period.

    Like Hegel, themes used in Beethoven Sonatas contain a striking resemblance to his idea of synthesis — A theme interacts with B, and creates a “new” idea (either A’ or C, whatever you want to label it) that contains properties of both. This was supposed to symbolize the Napoleonic revolutions which was happening during his time period.

    I’m particular to this type of approach because it allows composers to generate new material without ignoring or abandoning the old, and one can get the sense that things are progressing from one state to the next without being “lost” in all of the new information being provided. Composers such as Bartok and Gubaidulina in particular does this very well and very clearly, but my impression is that in recent years a lot of composers writing music in postmodern styles have also employed similar methodologies.

    I could ramble on forever about this, but I think everyone probably has had enough. Like I said, it’s very difficult to explain and I’m not sure if people really think about this stuff…but I think it’s something you can hear in the outcome of the piece, even if you can’t necessarily explicitly verbalize it in musical terms.

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  11. philmusic

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    I heard music performed on kazoo

    It wasn’t particularly new

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    the conductor wore a tutu

    the soloist perhaps had the flu

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    My date wore a mini skirt too

    she knew what exactly to do

    we left
    a prestigious Manhattan venue

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue
    the composer decided to sue

    the performance wasn’t exactly true

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    we can find better things for to do

    but how could we know if we knew?

    at a prestigious Manhattan venue

    all rights reserved by me

    Dr. Philip Fried 2007

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  12. pgblu

    Hay-ghel is for Horses-ghel
    A historical precedent is not a historical imperative. If it is invoked for its own sake, it becomes a false authority, an object of idolatry, but more typically just a clumsy tool for conservatives to de-legitimate innovation.

    I’m sorry, but to listen to contemporary music and then say something like “Give me Hegel any day” is kind of stultifying, as well as a mis-representation of the old man, as if he wasn’t hard enough to understand.

    This A-B-A’ thing that you are talking about is for Hegel primarily a historical process (“dialectics”), not a formal scheme for a piece of music! In other words, it is distinctly un-Hegelian to hypostatize eternal qualities to ternary form or sonata form, i.e. failing to consider the possibility, nay, the necessity of their dissolution. In fact, dialectics provides a model for explaining how each generation of “relevant” music (whatever that means to the individual critic) takes the prior model of musical conflict to a higher plane of reflection, ad infinitum.

    But it is our job as contemporary aesthetic beings to somehow ‘improve’ on the Hegelian — or any other — aesthetic model. That requires another kind of reflection, and only that would be truly in his own spirit. Just look at him! If he were alive today, don’t you think he would have invoked Botox like everybody else?!

    Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

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  13. rtanaka

    This A-B-A’ thing that you are talking about is for Hegel primarily a historical process (“dialectics”)…

    Music has surprisingly little power in swaying the outcome of political or social changes (all the anti-Bush musics in the world did not stop him from getting re-elected), but as they say, artists are the builders of mirrors of society — what they can do, is, to the best of their extent, provide some model of representation of what they think is happening and try to get people to reflect upon themselves about it. In this sense, it serves a historical purpose, and perhaps the artist can “suggest” certain avenues that might be taken, out of the available ones given.

    Hegel is important because it provides a model of social evolution based on the idea of synthesis. (And one might notice that these approaches are common among composers who have experience with socialism — Marx was also heavily influenced by the idea of the dialectic, so also an interesting correlation there.) In this world I do believe that we’re at a period of synthesis, especially with a lot of a world cultures colliding and mixing through globalization. The idea is still completely relevant today, although maybe a bit more complex due to our increased awareness of diverse cultures. But I do believe that postmodern eclecticism is something that is rooted in this kind of approach.

    None of us here are at power to really stop or start massive social upheavals, but maybe we can be honest about it and sort of try to “figure out” what it all means to be living in society today. I think a lot of artists worry too much about trying to become a novelty or a revolutionary, but that sort of thing can’t be forced. Beethoven was a revolutionary only because there were actual revolutions happening during his time. For all the praise and fame that he had acquired for himself during his lifetime, in a sense, he too, was also powerless.

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  14. philmusic

    “Music has surprisingly little power in swaying the outcome of political or social changes (all the anti-Bush musics in the world did not stop him from getting re-elected)”

    Actually it could be argued that all the anti Bush music–GOT HIM ELECTED! Since his campaign was based on the polarization of America.

    Dr. Phil

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  15. rtanaka

    Could be, who knows. But that would just mean that artists have just played into the hands of politics, yet again. The avant-garde’s relationship to Cold War politics is especially interesting because they took themselves so seriously and thought themselves to be a-political — reading the way they talked and enspoused their rhetoric, I have my doubts about if they actually knew where and why their works were being funded. At least composers on the other side of the fence seemed more self-aware of the conditions surrounding their work.

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  16. philmusic

    “Music has surprisingly little power in swaying the outcome of political or social changes ….

    Could be, who knows.”

    I don’t mean to be pointed here –but are you standing by your statement –this statement– or not?

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  17. rtanaka

    I guess I’ll stand by my statement that musicians are mostly powerless in terms of political influence. It may have some rhetorical influence, but it’s not going to change someone’s mind in such a way where it’ll have any early-impacts.

    The best it can do is suggest certain things, but it can’t force people to do anything or think in certain ways — the individual has to do that for themself. (If you ever been in an argument with an exremist before, I think you’d know what I’m talking about.) Like I said, it’s reflective…political changes are immediate in some ways, applied through the use of force. Whatever effects art might have upon society happens after the fact.

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  18. pgblu

    maybe we can be honest about it and sort of try to “figure out” what it all means to be living in society today. I think a lot of artists worry too much about trying to become a novelty or a revolutionary, but that sort of thing can’t be forced.

    True. It can’t be forced. And I think a lot of artists worry too much about pleasing as many listeners as possible. Not only can that also not be forced, it’s a great way to NOT figure out what it really means to be living in society today. Then insofar as you’re holding up a mirror (your analogy), you’re the high-end clothing salesperson steering their client to the most flattering items.

    By the way, you’re doing yourself no favors by talking about Hegel without knowing his work. Dialectics is not synonymous with synthesis. Dialectics is a means, synthesis is an end — while dialectics may lead to synthesis, that is quite incidental; rather, the point of dialectics is the articulation of a conflict; the thinking-together of thesis and antithesis.. the point is not to reconcile these forces, but to maintain and uphold, even maximize, the tension between them, amplifying every nuance of their opposition. I’m afraid post-modernism gives up on dialectics, by conflating it with the idea of synthesis, or worse, with the idea of a harmless juxtaposition, thus actually deviating in the most profound way from Hegel’s tenets.

    I’ve preached the rest of this on these boards before, so I’ll just stop there.

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  19. rtanaka

    I agree that pleasing everyone shouldn’t really be the point. But music should communicate something to someone other than yourself. This requires a degree of knowledge of social conventions, even if its just one other person. Otherwise, the artwork might as well not exist, or exist only in the artist’s mind.

    One thing I find odd that’s maybe worth pointing out, is why the words “radical” and “uncompromising” has positive connotations in the art world. (I think this is also a recent phenomenon starting with avant-garde practices.) In virtually every other field such things are usually discouraged, usually associated with the ideas of mad-men or partisan politics. Moderation and the ability to compromise are conventional wisdoms, yet what gets enspoused by modernist philosophies tends to be the exact opposite. Is this healthy for the art?

    I won’t go into the Hegel thing — that’s for another board, or maybe another discussion.

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  20. pgblu

    I won’t go into the Hegel thing — that’s for another board, or maybe another discussion.

    Except it’s you that brought him up, so I felt kind of obliged to come to his defense…

    As for the rest of your post, it’s true that compromise is a principle with universal applicability, but I can think of plenty of situations other than art in which it is not a desirable feature. In political systems such as a grassroots democracy, compromise is most definitely not the goal — the goal is to elect a candidate by majority. The candidate of the minority gets nothing, not even a consolation prize. And that is democracy at its best. I don’t intend any cheap analogies btw political systems and aesthetic declarations, but rather to offer an important example of compromise NOT being a first principle.

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  21. rtanaka

    (I actually agree with your Hegel thing and I think there’s a miscommunication going on, so I didn’t want to derail the discussion even more, sorry.)

    I guess if its “grassroots” then I can agree that maybe being uncompromising isn’t always a bad thing. But I would hardly call avant-garde elitism as something that can be labeled as a “disadvantaged minority”, though. They might be a minority of some sort due to their relative obscurity, but given that they’ve received generous amounts of patronage and governmental support during their careers (not to mention the tons of access to education that they’ve gotten), it’s hardly disadvantaged.

    Some composers have also pointed out (Braxton, Lewis) that there are hints of racism embedded in the attitudes of some of the more prominent modernists (Cage, Stockhausen, Adorno, etc.) as well. Being uncompromising tends to bring out some of the more ugly aspects of human nature, unfortunately. Standing up for what you believe in is one thing, but dogmatism is always a pitfall.

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  22. pgblu

    Being uncompromising tends to bring out some of the more ugly aspects of human nature, unfortunately. Standing up for what you believe in is one thing, but dogmatism is always a pitfall.

    Forgive me, but that’s a bunch of hot baloney. Racism exists, it’s despicable, but it decidedly does not correlate with avant-gardism any more than it correlates with having a green thumb. It also doesn’t correlate with elitism. Can we put these stupid canards to rest?

    I am not discounting the statements of Lewis and Braxton, but they are talking about individuals, not making essentialist claims about aesthetic philosophies as a whole. They are themselves radicals in the best sense of the term, no?

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  23. pgblu

    …It doesn’t correlate with elitism…

    I mean avant-gardism doesn’t correlate w/ elitism, not that racism doesn’t correlate w/ elitism. Too many pronouns! Sorry.

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  24. rtanaka

    The obvious thing is that classical music has surprisingly little blacks, hispanics, and other “non-affluent” minority groups. The avant-garde has done little to nothing to address these concerns, so it doesn’t surprise me that it might harbor a few closet-racists. At worst, the militant attitudes of its followers becomes a representation of western cultural imperialism (which conincides nicely with its history), at best, it’s simply unconcerned with anything but itself.

    Cage and Adorno disliked jazz, so there are some racial implications to be drawn from there, and apparently Marcus Stockhausen, the famous composer’s son and jazz musician, had a “falling out” with his father due to some comments that he made recently about Muslims. I’ve been beginning to question whether the so called “avant-garde” was really all that progressive to begin with.

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  25. pgblu

    I’m not going to comment on this anymore, and I trust that other readers will judge the logic and truth of what you are saying.

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  26. yachtrocker

    Mr. Grant has echoed my thoughts exactly. I taught myself to play piano by ear, as well as to draw, as a kid — I had no schooling to get in the way of my education! (Later on in h.s. and college I did have more formal training in alto sax, voice, theory, comp, and one semester of keyboard.) Thank God there were no avant-gardists hanging around my living-room piano or Casio keyboard to tell me that I was naive and misdirected and behind the times for seeking to recreate, and then create, beautiful music.

    Although nowadays I am but a pop-song-writing hobbyist — which is all I have time for — I am a great admirer of the complexities (and beauty, when done right) of classical and jazz, as well as of pop music from the ’60s and even ’70s which was more informed by jazz (Bacharach and David, Laura Nyro, Jimmy Webb, etc.) than today’s pop music which has been totally drained of that sort of intelligence and beauty.

    I also hang out with visual artists and in the arts community I think there is a barely-suppressed sense of a coming revolt against the anti-beauty canon of modernism and its progeny.

    As they used to say, beauty is the sister of truth, and to seek after it and to create it is one of life’s highest works. Don’t give up.

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  27. Trevor

    “Thank God there were no avant-gardists hanging around my living-room piano or Casio keyboard to tell me that I was naive and misdirected and behind the times for seeking to recreate, and then create, beautiful music.”

    And thank god I never had people around telling me that my music was ugly and arrogant while I pounded tone clusters on my living room piano or waited for my Casio to run out of batteries so that it made really cool (and yes, beautiful) crackling noises.

    One generation feels repressed by the avante garde, the next by the traditionalists telling them that experimentalism is immature, racist, etc. Music is music.

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  28. rtanaka

    Sorry, I probably jumped the gun here — extraordinary claims require more evidence. If anybody is interested in reading about race relations and its connections to modernism, George Lewis is probably one of the best sources out there right now. There’s a recent article here that brushes on the topic a little bit, although you’re more likely to find more specific critiques in his Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives or Teaching Improvisation: An Ethnographic Memoir. His main criticism of the avant-garde is that it’s it not nearly as diverse or “open” as it claims to be.

    The rest, as you said, will be left up to the reader.

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  29. Colin Holter

    . . . as well as of pop music from the ’60s and even ’70s which was more informed by jazz (Bacharach and David, Laura Nyro, Jimmy Webb, etc.) than today’s pop music which has been totally drained of that sort of intelligence and beauty.

    . . . there is a barely-suppressed sense of a coming revolt against the anti-beauty canon of modernism and its progeny.

    These comments would have been timely–reductive and wrong, but timely–if you’d made them in 1982. I’m sorry to have to be the one to break it to you: Today’s best pop music is as good as pop music’s ever been, and the “coming revolt against the anti-beauty canon” happened years ago and resulted in a lot of stupid, watery, generally terrible concert music.

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  30. pgblu

    Lewis Article
    That’s a fantastic article from George Lewis, Ryan; thanks for posting it. It doesn’t really talk about Cage and Stockhausen much, except to say that their work was closely studied by free jazz practitioners. Adorno doesn’t get mentioned at all. Racism itself does appear, though, in the following sentence:

    Just as in 1969, resorting to simplistic explanations based on accusations of individual racism between members of the two vanguards obscures far more than it reveals.

    …which makes my point better than it makes yours. Generally, if Adorno didn’t like jazz, that has more to do with his own experience of jazz than it does with black people. Most jazz practitioners he was exposed to were somewhere between white and extremely white, such as Glenn Miller and his orchestra. But I’ll check out Lewis’ books… Braxton’s Tri-Axium writings are quite in-depth in their analysis of racism, but I only skimmed that text… I’ll have to look at them again to see where he makes accusations, if any, toward the white avant-garde in particular, as opposed to the white power structure as a whole.

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  31. rtanaka

    Oh, I should also clear up one mis-use of the word “avant-garde”. This was an over-generalization and I meant to specifically refer to the modernists who were deeply influenced by European aesthetics. Lewis also explicity, makes this distinction, so I think it’s an important one.

    Reply
  32. Colin Holter

    (I’m sorry to keep making brazen advances to this thread, but I’ve been reading Adorno’s jazz writings every day lately thanks to a class on jazz and modernism I’m taking, and I thought I’d just say one thing: Adorno’s early experiences with jazz (a term that was, at the time, applied indiscriminately to pop music of all stripes as a marketing tool) seem mainly to have been limited to the shallow at best and the mindless at worst. I was just listening to the Boswell Sisters’ rendition of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which includes the lyric “They can play a bugle call like you never heard before / So natural it’ll make you want to go to war.” Tell me THAT wouldn’t make Adorno nervous! But he also had access, especially later in his life, to much more interesting jazz, and if he’d wanted to reevaluate this music, he could’ve. It seems likely to me that at some point Adorno decided that jazz was a nail in the baseball bat of mass culture and simply refused to reconsider his position on the matter.)

    Reply
  33. rtanaka

    The online article I posted only skims it briefly, so it probably doesn’t have too much specifics. The other articles are in print but makes the points for me much better. I can somewhat paraphrase the main argument he had against Cage, which was that experimental music’s attempt to abandon the past and forge its way into the future came at the cost of people trying to “forget” about the past. While for some this might be desirable, but for people who have been victims of unjust causes, this may come as an insult. Maybe one can see how this might tie in with notions of race and class.

    I might have accidentally done so, but I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue here…(I guess I have a habit of doing that when I’m trying to make a point, unfortunately.) It’s not so much that experimentalism is a bad thing, but I think that it started to become something uglier than originally conceived when some composers tried to pass it off as something universal. More than anything, I find dogmatism the most off-putting…

    Reply
  34. pgblu

    Overblown claims of universality come from all sides, but I appreciate the clarification… it would be a great service to all of us (including Lewis) if you could point us to the article in question. I’d be very interested to read it.

    Oversimplifying in order to make a point is usually a permissible method of arguing, but I don’t see how calling Adorno or others, especially that guy Etc, racist is an oversimplification of the point that the avant garde made rather arrogant claims of universality. That seems to me a simple point enough, and one that’s been fun to argue about for over 30 years now.

    Reply
  35. rtanaka

    If I remember correctly, his essay can be found in Arcana, which was a pretty famous publication compiled and edited by John Zorn. It’s pretty eclectic, so it’s worth checking out even for the other essays in there.

    High modernism tends not to address racial issues too much (at least explicitly), which is part of Lewis’ argument that the “free jazz” community was, in a sense, more diverse, open, and progressive in that matter. The “free improvisation” movement, which was the third stream that developed outside of integral serialism and Cagian experimentalism at the time, received very little financial aid compared to the others who were heavily supported by government and patronized sources. He argues that some of these were clearly divided according to race, as there seemed to be a necessity for European-based musicians to distinguish themselves from the what the members of the AACM were doing at the time. The article above points out some of the rhetoric that were used against them when they were participating in these types of events.

    Adorno called jazz “the music of the slaves”, which, no matter how you spin it, is rather nasty. Stockhausen in particular, has a pretty bad reputation as being a dogmatist — he’s often accused of cultural imperialism in a lot of publications, and the anecdotal stories I’ve heard so far (from people like Marcus) have not been very good.

    Though, things are complex. Even among the integral serialists, Babbitt has a piece called All Set for jazz ensemble that I find particularly interesting. Then there’s Carter, who’s works are often based on mathematics, but the content of the work is usually about people…as if the instruments were talking to each other. These are the kinds of works I can get behind…but pieces like Stockhausens Ylem, where the piano serves as the representation of the center of the universe, tends to raise some eyebrows for me.

    Reply
  36. philmusic

    I’m not so sure that Mr. Lewis’s objections are so much to universality–but rather to the theft and appropriation of culture and musical style and the power that can be achieved over the originators by such theft. I’ve heard such works myself. I think we are talking about authenticity here. On the other hand it seems reasonable that people working independently and from different musical backgrounds can come up with very similar results. Whether these results are in conflict or in confluence is a political question.

    I think this get us back to our Kenny G. rants.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  37. CM Zimmermann

    Adorno wrote that, ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ To make claims about beauty in music (or lack thereof) without commenting on the less than beautiful cultural, political, social ‘substratum’ from which art was produced in the 20th century is questionable. I also question the status of beauty as an evaluative category at this point in our history.

    Reply
  38. pgblu

    Arcana- thanks, I’ll check it out.

    Racism is a very serious charge, and making it such an accusation in a public forum on “anecdotes” is a pretty dodgy thing to do. Besides, it fails to make the essentialist link between this alleged aspect of his personality and the music he makes. You are associating racism with Stockhausen, then you’re making the leap that Stockhausen’s music is also racist, and therefore music that is like Stockhausen’s, like that of Mr Etc, is also racist.

    Then you see that there are few blacks and hispanics in contemporary music, and without considering that there are few minorities in concert music period, you deduce that this has something to do with the prejudices of the composers, rather than a problem with the society that surrounds those composers — e.g., the education system, the promoters, agents, and so on. It’s like blaming the shortage of wild freshwater salmon on the people who manufacture industrial freezers.

    Finally, don’t confuse dislike or distaste with bigotry. I’ll wait to comment on the Adorno quote until I’ve seen the context, but when Cage said he had “little use for jazz,” remember that in practically the same breath he said he had little use for Beethoven.

    I’d be the last one to jump to Stockhausen’s defense, by the way. I know he is remarkably backward about many things. I would just not throw accusations around with such apparently cavalier glee.

    Reply
  39. rtanaka

    I guess I should be more careful…I’ll admit that I got a bit wrapped up and this thread did not go very well on my end. It’s rather difficult bringing up the subject because in the entirety of my musical education as a composer of new music, I have not seen it brought up even once in a classroom setting, even though reality would suggest that the issues surround us all the time. Maybe it’s a touchy subject that professors aren’t allowed to bring to class in fear of lawsuits, who knows…

    In the article above, Lewis calls this unwillingness to speak about it as an attempt to “e-race” (a pun that he uses) differences that exist within groups, whether it be racial, cultural, or national, etc. I think that modernism’s intension was somewhat rooted in the idea of equality (like the 12-tone method) but the process taken to such an extreme would seem like it would erase or ignore crucial differences that would otherwise contribute to a diverse culture. The intention of equal-ness might be noble, but not everything can be treated as if they were all the same.

    Well this is not something that’s going to be solved here — hopefully there will be more scholarship done on the subject as time goes on. The

    CSI site (which I just found recently) seems like it does some pretty serious studies on the subject matter. As Lewis also mentions, until recently a lot of the studies on the matter were mostly limited to popular and jazz music scholarship, but now there are interested parties who’re willing to look into the matter in relation to modern and new music styles. Whether you agree with the conclusions or not is one thing, but I think the process is important, if only to get a bit more honesty on the matter.

    Reply
  40. MarkNGrant

    Adorno wrote that, ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ To make claims about beauty in music (or lack thereof) without commenting on the less than beautiful cultural, political, social ‘substratum’ from which art was produced in the 20th century is questionable. I also question the status of beauty as an evaluative category at this point in our history.

    Adorno’s comment was a figure of speech connoting the indefinable enormity of the Holocaust– not a proscription on further artistic creation or beauty. If his “prophecy” had become reality, then humanity would have already sacked all the world’s museums and burned the art, and none of the blogposters on this page would ever have started composing. I haven’t seen that happen. If the “status of beauty as an evaluative category” has changed, then the wavelengths of the color spectrum have changed. Then the mathematical frequencies of the harmonic series have changed. Then the linear measurements that impart a sense of three-dimensional perspective to two-dimensional paintings have changed. These are categories immanent in the natural physical world. Beauty as an evaluative category persisted before, during, and after the Black Death of the 14th century, when one-half of Europe’s population died horribly. Giotto painted beauty before the Black Death, and Van Eyck painted beauty after the Black Death.

    Let me reframe my initial premise with a metaphor outside the box, from left field (literally). Ty Cobb was baseball’s greatest all-around player in the so-called “deadball” era of the 1910s, when hardly any player hit more than a few home runs. (OK, Cobb was a center fielder.) Cobb was the master of the hit-and-run, the bunt, of place-hitting into the gaps, of scoring runs and winning games by stealing bases rather than slugging. Along came Babe Ruth, who socked unprecedented numbers of home runs and thereby changed the way baseball was played. Within a few short years Ruth’s fame had eclipsed Cobb, who was still an active player but who stubbornly continued to play the game by hitting singles and stealing bases. One day in May 1925, Cobb, fed up with Ruth’s influence on the game– which he thought was weakening ballplayers’ skills in the fundamentals– announced to sportswriters in the pressbox that for the first time in his career he would swing for the fences. He then proceeded to hit 5 home runs and 25 total bases in 2 games (when he was 38 years old, without steroids), which even today stands as a 2-game record. Then he went back to playing the game the rest of his career Ty Cobb style, hitting singles and stealing bases (in 2007 he still holds the career record for steals of home base).

    The point? Ty Cobb had the chops to hit home runs, but chose not to. Arnold Schoenberg had the chops to out-Wagner Wagner (Gurrelieder), but chose not to (dodecaphony). One might even argue that Chopin had the chops to write for the orchestra, but chose not to. The composer I cited in my post self-evidently didn’t have the chops to make a choice “not to.” The piece was a veritable catalog of awkward sound combinations bereft of any sense of design, utterly clueless about how to arrange a delicate instrument in a concerto with orchestra. Its only raison d’etre was to say f— you to the archbishop, yet it was presented with the respectful solemnity accorded Das Lied von der Erde and greeted with a fulsome ovation. If that works for some as a musical experience, and as an aesthetically deepening one, how wonderful. De gustibus non disputandem est.

    I’d like to make it clear (and it surely isn’t in doubt to careful readers) that I am not in any sense opposed to experimentation with orchestral writing (I’ve done it myself), much less opposed to experimentalism in general. To take but one example, I have found recordings of the symphonies of Gloria Coates very interesting, even though she bases her orchestral technique entirely on sustaining glissandos and portamentos in every instrument simultaneously. But she unmistakably creates striking new sounds. Novel and beautiful. I have also found a few well-orchestrated works by some contemporary name composers totally vacuous.

    There is a world of difference between experimentalism and illiteracy. Most of history’s consequential musical experimentalists have had musically literate ears, i.e. discriminating and sensitive to pitch relations, timbre, harmony, etc. The paradigm of beauty before the advent of modernism allowed bad composers to hide their mediocrity in the drapery of pretty clichés. The paradigm of beauty-as-wallflower today permits earless composers to cloak their incompetence in “the cutting edge,” a catchall which can be set just wherever anyone arbitrarily chooses to set it. Since only philistines argue against the cutting edge, it provides a perfect cover for everything.
    At its worst, it becomes a sanctuary for bad art and a license to abandon the notion that there are any fundamental skills at all involved in composing music.

    Reply
  41. CM Zimmermann

    ‘Adorno’s comment was a figure of speech connoting the indefinable enormity of the Holocaust– not a proscription on further artistic creation or beauty. If his “prophecy” had become reality, then humanity would have already sacked all the world’s museums and burned the art, and none of the blogposters on this page would ever have started composing. I haven’t seen that happen. If the “status of beauty as an evaluative category” has changed, then the wavelengths of the color spectrum have changed. Then the mathematical frequencies of the harmonic series have changed. Then the linear measurements that impart a sense of three-dimensional perspective to two-dimensional paintings have changed. These are categories immanent in the natural physical world. Beauty as an evaluative category persisted before, during, and after the Black Death of the 14th century, when one-half of Europe’s population died horribly. Giotto painted beauty before the Black Death, and Van Eyck painted beauty after the Black Death.’

    Your comments here misinterpret Adorno’s dictum and miss the point of my comments. Yes, Adorno is pointing to the enormity of the Holocaust, however there is much more to the story than this. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the Holocaust represented the logical conclusion of the legacy of positivism and the failure of the Enlightenment project. It constituted a rupture, an insurmountable gulf that requires a radical re-thinking of all of our categories. Adorno is not saying that poets should stop writing poetry (or in this discussion that musicians should scrap notions of beauty), rather he is referring to the heightened and altered responsibilities and possibilities of redemption that cannot be taken up wielding traditional notions of poetry, beauty, etc., which were in play before this rupture.

    I wrote that I question the status of beauty as an evaluative category not that the status of beauty as such a category has changed, although notions of what is beautiful have indeed changed considerably, especially since the 18th century, and beauty has not always been at the center of aesthetic reflection. The fact that you say that beauty is the new wall flower contradicts your comments concerning the ‘historical’ continuity of beauty as an evaluative category. Also, you have conflated notions of subjective beauty with ‘objective’ physical properties found in nature.

    My larger point was that lamenting the fact that beauty has become a ‘wallflower’ without really even mentioning the larger context in which this shift has taken place sets up a situation in which facile, pejorative views of the avant-garde and of experimentalism as being ‘committed to the ugly’ can breathe.

    Reply
  42. Colin Holter

    In response to Grant: It sounds to me like you have a specific problem with a specific piece, and all our arguing about the generalization of said problem to “new music” as a whole is more or less moot. I’ve glanced over concert reviews from the past couple of weeks and I have an idea what the piece in question might be, but I’m not sure. Until you can come clean on just what it is that sticks in your craw, I’m not sure I’m prepared to acknowledge that your point has to do with anything beyond one bad concert experience.

    Reply
  43. MarkNGrant

    Your comments here misinterpret Adorno’s dictum and miss the point of my comments. Yes, Adorno is pointing to the enormity of the Holocaust, however there is much more to the story than this. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the Holocaust represented the logical conclusion of the legacy of positivism and the failure of the Enlightenment project. It constituted a rupture, an insurmountable gulf that requires a radical re-thinking of all of our categories. Adorno is not saying that poets should stop writing poetry (or in this discussion that musicians should scrap notions of beauty), rather he is referring to the heightened and altered responsibilities and possibilities of redemption that cannot be taken up wielding traditional notions of poetry, beauty, etc., which were in play before this rupture.

    I wrote that I question the status of beauty as an evaluative category not that the status of beauty as such a category has changed, although notions of what is beautiful have indeed changed considerably, especially since the 18th century, and beauty has not always been at the center of aesthetic reflection. The fact that you say that beauty is the new wall flower contradicts your comments concerning the ‘historical’ continuity of beauty as an evaluative category. Also, you have conflated notions of subjective beauty with ‘objective’ physical properties found in nature.

    While your reply raises some worthwhile philosophical issues, I didn’t misunderstand Adorno’s quote, I rebuffed it as a gratuitous shoehorn in the practical context of my argument. Concertgoers hearing the repeated C chord cadences at the end of Beethoven’s fifth don’t listen and say to themselves, hmmm, after the rupture of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the siege of Leningrad, I just can’t hear that C major triad in the same way any more. When a conductor rehearses a new piece and hears a missed entrance or french horn clam, does an invisible Adorno bench jockey sit on his shoulder admonishing him of the greater burden of redemption correct ensemble now bears historically? If I’m composing a new piece, do I sit at my desk debating whether to pen this note or that chord with consciousness of Adorno’s “dictum” hovering over me in the background?

    There is a difference between philosophical excogitation about music and the actual physical experience of hearing it immediately. You imply that Adorno is a kind of tutelary deity/traffic cop for all musicians: when the light says green, musical art may proceed, when the light says yellow, it must proceed with caution, etc. You speak of him as if he were the Grand Inquisitor of aesthetics. Who endowed him with this exalted power? He’s just another intellectual. In the final analysis, intellectuals, no matter how brilliant, are only intellectuals making their opinions. They have no purchase on the performance and hearing of music by actual people in the concert hall. (Suggested reading: Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals.) Historical “ruptures” or not, when people look at a beautiful blue sky, they still see a beautiful blue sky, not a redefined, historically weighted “beautiful” blue sky. When they hear a major triad, they still hear a major triad, not a post-Treblinka major triad. These are not conflations of subjective perception with objective natural phenomena.

    My larger point was that lamenting the fact that beauty has become a ‘wallflower’ without really even mentioning the larger context in which this shift has taken place sets up a situation in which facile, pejorative views of the avant-garde and of experimentalism as being ‘committed to the ugly’ can breathe.

    Thank you for proving the very point of the last paragraph of my previous post (” the cutting edge… provides a perfect cover for everything. At its worst, it becomes a sanctuary for bad art”) with your last paragraph. In other words, I had no right to be offended by the poseurish ineptitude of the piece I heard because by so doing I’m giving fair harbor to the troglodytes who would tar everyone with the same brush? Please. You need to come up with a better argument.

    In response to Grant: It sounds to me like you have a specific problem with a specific piece, and all our arguing about the generalization of said problem to “new music” as a whole is more or less moot. I’ve glanced over concert reviews from the past couple of weeks and I have an idea what the piece in question might be, but I’m not sure. Until you can come clean on just what it is that sticks in your craw, I’m not sure I’m prepared to acknowledge that your point has to do with anything beyond one bad concert experience.

    Well Colin, I won’t disclose what the piece was, save to say that it was performed at a concert in the spring of 2006 north of 63rd street. There were three works on the program, and one of them could have been described in the many of the same terms I described the first, but if I had so included it, it might have identified the concert and turned my whole post into a concert review. The whole idea was not to make it a review of a single piece but of generic issues of which the piece was one (but not the only) instance.

    So, although you’re obviously welcome to be “prepared to acknowledge” whatever your own ideas are, in this instance I’m prepared to acknowledge that you could hardly have misread more capitally what I wrote.

    Reply
  44. Colin Holter

    In response to Grant’s response to “In response to Grant:” I understand that you consider this particular unnamed piece emblematic of a widespread problem in contemporary music. However, I don’t live in New York, I don’t have access to a library of recent concert programs, and I am not interested in batting around (ha!) baseball metaphors, Adorno quotes, and broad generalizations unless we can look at a score together and be absolutely certain that we are discussing the same phenomena. Even if the piece you heard sucked, and indeed it may have, your effigy of a “baby boomer or Gen-Alphabetter” hack who can’t harmonize a chorale is an indictment–not only unconvincing but also grossly unfair–of several generations of American composers, and although I’ve met a few who meet your description, it’s a blanket statement that doesn’t hold water. I just won’t stand for it. I am excusing myself from further debate until you or somebody else presents some genuine data.

    Reply
  45. pgblu

    I’m sure Mark is capable of defending himself, but I will just say for the record that modernist aesthetics should not be used as a cover for mediocrity. I agree about that. I also think mediocrity is often covered up in many other ways than that.

    Most of the mediocre composers that I encounter have insufficiently elaborate notions of what music is and can do. This afflicts the self-described “tonal composers” as much as the “atonal” ones.

    The modernists will cover up their mediocrity, if present, with aesthetic jargon and obfuscation, perhaps; but the sentimentalists will cover theirs up with paeans to their mistress’ left eyebrow or general emotive fol-de-rol. Mediocrity, like quality, transcends style. Rare is the composer who acknowledges their own mediocrity, and that oughtn’t surprise anyone.

    To focus on Modernist mediocrity makes Mark look a little biased, but it sounds like he has to in order to just make a reasonable, if obvious, point. This does not alleviate Colin’s verifiability issue, however, but I don’t see how that’s going to happen.

    Reply
  46. philmusic


    In response to Grant’s response to “In response to Grant:”

    one must learn to tell the difference between a blog and a silly rant.

    In response to Grant’s response to “In response to Grant:”

    one must know what one can comment on and what one can’t.

    In response to Grant’s response to “In response to Grant:”

    if we do not know the work how can we sing or chant?

    In response to Grant’s response to “In response to Grant:”

    There is no “good” or “bad”– no reason to be sad

    In response to Grant’s response to “In response to Grant:”

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  47. CM Zimmermann

    ’While your reply raises some worthwhile philosophical issues, I didn’t misunderstand Adorno’s quote, I rebuffed it as a gratuitous shoehorn in the practical context of my argument. Concertgoers hearing the repeated C chord cadences at the end of Beethoven’s fifth don’t listen and say to themselves, hmmm, after the rupture of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the siege of Leningrad, I just can’t hear that C major triad in the same way any more. When a conductor rehearses a new piece and hears a missed entrance or french horn clam, does an invisible Adorno bench jockey sit on his shoulder admonishing him of the greater burden of redemption correct ensemble now bears historically? If I’m composing a new piece, do I sit at my desk debating whether to pen this note or that chord with consciousness of Adorno’s “dictum” hovering over me in the background?’

    Very interesting argumentative strategies that you employ and a fascinating ‘willingness’ to engage in an intellectual conversation about very important issues. Is this how you typically respond to interlocuters? I understood that we were talking about ‘beauty’ and its possibility as an evaluative category within contemporary music. Certainly our notions of beauty and the ‘reception’ of music have changed over time, but we are not talking about the beauty of works of art created during a period when beauty was indeed a central aesthetic category. The claim is not that we cannot recognize and admire beauty in previous works before the ‘rupture’, rather what is contentious is a contemporary composer creating ‘beauty’ at a time when the beautiful has withered, or at least when it has lost its grounding within pluralism. Unlike it was in the 18th century as a sensus communis, taste has become entirely subjective. You certainly have the right to emphasize beauty as an aesthetic category or to react negatively to a work of music that does not coincide with your notion of the beautiful. Yet, for someone else, the beautiful has become a nostalgic attempt to re-capture a romanticized notion of a ‘better’ time. My point is that you are writing about the beautiful as a universal category without doing the enormous conceptual work that it would take to re-conceptualize contemporary notions of beauty. You are also making value judgments about beauty and ugliness without attending to the deeper forces behind the aesthetic shifts of modernism.

    ’There is a difference between philosophical excogitation about music and the actual physical experience of hearing it immediately. You imply that Adorno is a kind of tutelary deity/traffic cop for all musicians: when the light says green, musical art may proceed, when the light says yellow, it must proceed with caution, etc. You speak of him as if he were the Grand Inquisitor of aesthetics. Who endowed him with this exalted power? He’s just another intellectual. In the final analysis, intellectuals, no matter how brilliant, are only intellectuals making their opinions. They have no purchase on the performance and hearing of music by actual people in the concert hall. (Suggested reading: Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals.) Historical “ruptures” or not, when people look at a beautiful blue sky, they still see a beautiful blue sky, not a redefined, historically weighted “beautiful” blue sky. When they hear a major triad, they still hear a major triad, not a post-Treblinka major triad. These are not conflations of subjective perception with objective natural phenomena.

    This is nonsense. You are irresponsibly putting words in my mouth. I am not saying that Adorno has exalted power. I was using something that he wrote as a departure point for broader claims in an attempt to refocus your comments of the ‘ashcanning’ of beauty. Again, your response is a thinly veiled avoidance of the larger issues and masks your inability to respond charitably to my comments. I would think that a published author has more intellectual integrity than this. As far as looking at a beautiful sky, a case could be made (although based on relatively radical claims) that natural beauty is no longer beautiful: as if the beautiful sky has arrived too late. I can imagine someone looking at your beautiful sky and saying, ‘well, hallmark has done it again’. Or looking at a landscape and responding ironically “the Disney corporation really is good.’ The point being that the image, simulacra, and Disneyification have even managed to usurp natural beauty.

    Look, Mark Grant: my main problem with your initial text is that you lay blame on modernist and postmodernist aesthetics for the ‘ashcanning’ of art. (I thought that intellectuals were only intellectuals). I am not necessarily in disagreement, but I insist that the forces behind such ‘ashcanning’ are much deeper and greater than merely aesthetics and that, as responsible artists, critics, audience, we must also take into account the cultural, political, societal shifts underlying shifts in taste (in the Kantian sense). We must also be highly sceptical of making aesthetic claims using ‘older’ categories. The new music community is (rightly) up in arms with the mainstream classical audience’s refusal to let go of 19th century ears and canonic conventions. We should practice what we preach. I felt that you were lamenting the loss of beauty without doing the philosophical work required to break out of a nostalgic mode of criticism. I look forward to future conversations.’While your reply raises some worthwhile philosophical issues, I didn’t misunderstand Adorno’s quote, I rebuffed it as a gratuitous shoehorn in the practical context of my argument. Concertgoers hearing the repeated C chord cadences at the end of Beethoven’s fifth don’t listen and say to themselves, hmmm, after the rupture of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the siege of Leningrad, I just can’t hear that C major triad in the same way any more. When a conductor rehearses a new piece and hears a missed entrance or french horn clam, does an invisible Adorno bench jockey sit on his shoulder admonishing him of the greater burden of redemption correct ensemble now bears historically? If I’m composing a new piece, do I sit at my desk debating whether to pen this note or that chord with consciousness of Adorno’s “dictum” hovering over me in the background?’

    Very interesting argumentative strategies that you employ and a fascinating ‘willingness’ to engage in an intellectual conversation about very important issues. Is this how you typically respond to interlocuters? I understood that we were talking about ‘beauty’ and its possibility as an evaluative category within contemporary music. Certainly our notions of beauty and the ‘reception’ of music have changed over time, but we are not talking about the beauty of works of art created during a period when beauty was indeed a central aesthetic category. The claim is not that we cannot recognize and admire beauty in previous works before the ‘rupture’, rather what is contentious is a contemporary composer creating ‘beauty’ at a time when the beautiful has withered, or at least when it has lost its grounding within pluralism. Unlike it was in the 18th century as a sensus communis, taste has become entirely subjective. You certainly have the right to emphasize beauty as an aesthetic category or to react negatively to a work of music that does not coincide with your notion of the beautiful. Yet, for someone else, the beautiful has become a nostalgic attempt to re-capture a romanticized notion of a ‘better’ time. My point is that you are writing about the beautiful as a universal category without doing the enormous conceptual work that it would take to re-conceptualize contemporary notions of beauty. You are also making value judgments about beauty and ugliness without attending to the deeper forces behind the aesthetic shifts of modernism.

    ’There is a difference between philosophical excogitation about music and the actual physical experience of hearing it immediately. You imply that Adorno is a kind of tutelary deity/traffic cop for all musicians: when the light says green, musical art may proceed, when the light says yellow, it must proceed with caution, etc. You speak of him as if he were the Grand Inquisitor of aesthetics. Who endowed him with this exalted power? He’s just another intellectual. In the final analysis, intellectuals, no matter how brilliant, are only intellectuals making their opinions. They have no purchase on the performance and hearing of music by actual people in the concert hall. (Suggested reading: Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals.) Historical “ruptures” or not, when people look at a beautiful blue sky, they still see a beautiful blue sky, not a redefined, historically weighted “beautiful” blue sky. When they hear a major triad, they still hear a major triad, not a post-Treblinka major triad. These are not conflations of subjective perception with objective natural phenomena.

    This is nonsense. You are irresponsibly putting words in my mouth. I am not saying that Adorno has exalted power. I was using something that he wrote as a departure point for broader claims in an attempt to refocus your comments of the ‘ashcanning’ of beauty. Again, your response is a thinly veiled avoidance of the larger issues and masks your inability to respond charitably to my comments. I would think that a published author has more intellectual integrity than this. As far as looking at a beautiful sky, a case could be made (although based on relatively radical claims) that natural beauty is no longer beautiful: as if the beautiful sky has arrived too late. I can imagine someone looking at your beautiful sky and saying, ‘well, hallmark has done it again’. Or looking at a landscape and responding ironically “the Disney corporation really is good.’ The point being that the image, simulacra, and Disneyification have even managed to usurp natural beauty.

    Look, Mark Grant: my main problem with your initial text is that you lay blame on modernist and postmodernist aesthetics for the ‘ashcanning’ of art. (I thought that intellectuals were only intellectuals). I am not necessarily in disagreement, but I insist that the forces behind such ‘ashcanning’ are much deeper and greater than merely aesthetics and that, as responsible artists, critics, audience, we must also take into account the cultural, political, societal shifts underlying shifts in taste (in the Kantian sense). We must also be highly sceptical of making aesthetic claims using ‘older’ categories. The new music community is (rightly) up in arms with the mainstream classical audience’s refusal to let go of 19th century ears and canonic conventions. We should practice what we preach. I felt that you were lamenting the loss of beauty without doing the philosophical work required to break out of a nostalgic mode of criticism. I look forward to future conversations.

    There are all kings of posers in the world using all kinds of stances to ‘justify’ their activities, but is it not our responsibility to separate the bullshit from the real stuff?

    Reply
  48. yachtrocker

    Colin Holter said:

    These comments would have been timely–reductive and wrong, but timely–if you’d made them in 1982. I’m sorry to have to be the one to break it to you: Today’s best pop music is as good as pop music’s ever been, and the “coming revolt against the anti-beauty canon” happened years ago and resulted in a lot of stupid, watery, generally terrible concert music.

    By pop music, I meant what’s on the pop charts. I’m sure that’s not what you’re referring to?

    Yes, it could be that this situation has de-intensified in the last 20 years in academic circles. However, in my experience, this idea still seems to linger amongst members of the intelligentsia — if it’s pleasing to the senses or entertaining, it is somehow “inferior” or “simplistic” or “derivative” or less artistic in some way. Look at post-60s rock as a significant channel of avant-gardist thinking: ugliness and chaos and primitivism as inherently superior and evidence of greater authenticity.

    The “avant-gardists” who took over rock n’ roll, by the way, also don’t seem to like most forms of black music – which is curious, considering that rock ‘n’ roll originated in the blues!

    Reply
  49. pgblu

    The “avant-gardists” who took over rock n’ roll, by the way, also don’t seem to like most forms of black music – which is curious, considering that rock ‘n’ roll originated in the blues!

    Would anyone else like to submit some blanket accusations of racism? This seems to be the thread for it. Except you don’t name any names… you just go straight to ‘etc.” – those avant-gardists… not only are they completely clueless about beauty, they’re like total bigots, man!

    By pop music, I meant what’s on the pop charts. I’m sure that’s not what you’re referring to?

    He said the “best” pop music, so perhaps the two of you agree about this particular aspect of pop culture.

    Reply
  50. Colin Holter

    I heard somewhere that Gordon Downie is racist against Ewoks. They all look the same to him, apparently.

    Enough of this nonsense. “Avant-gardists” have never “taken over” rock and roll, not by any rubric. Surely you’re not talking about punk? Barring BNP-affiliated anomalies like Skrewdriver, the early UK punk groups were inspired as much by Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Wailers as by Nick Lowe and Doctor Feelgood. (Across the pond, I can’t imagine a sense in which the ultraparticipatory Ramones could be construed to be avant-garde.) Even in today’s post-punk milieu, the top echelon of indie-rockers maintains a regard for soul and hip-hop that borders on awe. In what other sense could “avant-gardists” be said to have “taken over” rock and roll? Feel free to chime the fuck in, and I’ll be happy to dispel that new misapprehension as well. The phenomenon you’re observing seems to be not that popular music is worse today than it was when you were my age, but rather that bad pop music is more successful now than it used to be. That’s 100% reasonable; however, in order to misread the latter as the former, you’d have to know next to nothing about the length and breadth of today’s pop music, which seems pretty clearly to be the case.

    These predilections are, I shouldn’t even need to point out, hardly unique to vernacular music: Many of my composer friends and I have enormous affection for various “black musics.” In fact, one who posts on these boards occasionally has the whole “Trapped in the Closet” deal memorized. I wrote a goddamn column for NMBx on a Four Tops song, for Christ’s sake.

    As pgblu said, an accusation of racism is a very serious charge, and to make one on spurious ground is to invite a rebuttal as vigorous as the accused can muster.

    Reply

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