It’s All Relative

I was fortunate to attend a lecture recently by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and apparently some other books, too. In the post-lecture Q and A, Hofstadter mentioned a tendency among classical music initiates to label all Baroque works as “Bach” upon first being exposed to Bach’s music. As they learn more about Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, etc., Hofstadter noted that their concept of “Bach” became “smaller”: They acquired a more specific, increasingly conditioned understanding of “Bach” and became more able to discern Bach from Vivaldi and Handel.

Do neophyte new music listeners undergo a similar experience? Are they apt to file Boulez under Stockhausen if they’ve heard Stockhausen, or file Earle Brown under David Lang if they’ve heard Lang? I assume that, to a layperson, the immediately sensible surface difference between Bach and Mozart (or any other familiar “control test” composer) is much smaller than the difference between Mozart and Xenakis. The bigger question for us, however, is whether the difference between Bach and, say, Vivaldi is larger or smaller than the difference between, for instance, Xenakis and Ligeti—or between me and the guys in the office next door.

One way to say that we want to write distinctive, individual music is to say that we want our listeners’ perceptions of us to be as “small,” as specific, as possible. Although I hold the music of my fellow students at Illinois in high regard, my ultimate goal is obviously to write music that will not be confused with theirs. I’ve often wondered what qualitative differences nonspecialists might cite when asked what separates my piece from another student’s on the same program. In fact, next time my music is played, I think I’ll ask.

4 thoughts on “It’s All Relative

  1. ichypatia

    I’ve often wondered what qualitative differences nonspecialists might cite when asked what separates my piece from another student’s on the same program.

    Really? Why?

    Have you ever considered that any/all of your postings could be collected and read by someone considering your application for university employment?

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    I re-read the sentence you quoted several times, but I don’t understand what you find objectionable about it. If you post again, you might consider contributing statements (they end with periods and sometimes exclamation points) rather than questions that may or may not be rhetorical.

    Reply
  3. marknowakowski

    That’s right, Colin — be careful. Big Brother is watching.

    In your defense, as having formerly worked with a new music series, “public perception” is an important thing. You can’t get various grants and financial support, if you’re not bringing in something resembling an audience. If the public cannot understand what you are trying to get at (and, as you say, how modern composers and styles differ), then all we have to look forward to is a lonely walk back to our ivory towers…

    I’m not saying “sell out”… or even “sell out, just a little bit.” I’m stating that the audience has long been the casualty of our type of work, and that simply does not have to be true any longer.

    -Mark

    Reply
  4. kmanlove

    No one is posting now because they’re scared of losing their shot at a real university job. So, here I am, Colin. And, if anything you’ve said in past columns keeps you from getting you a job (I thought of this as more of a feather in your cap), then I’ll start writing music for brake drum exclusively (I probably just offended someone who actually does that).

    To your point, I always enjoy “lay” audiences more. They listen, and they usually make observation that music audiences would never even stumble upon. We’re boring; we always think of things musically (narrowly). I would bet that you could find non-musical audiences that could easily tell the differences between composers because they have a different set of tools and vocabulary to help them navigate. I don’t think we should always assume that our ears are better.

    Reply

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