One of the surprising things about criticisms of new aesthetic experiences—whether these be new artistic movements or simply an artist/genre unfamiliar to the critic—is just how similar most rejections of the new really are. Nicolas Slominsky’s excellent Lexicon of Musical Invective collects a now-hilarious (and still instructive) assortment of savage print reviews, mostly digs on the premiere of works now widely held up as masterpieces. While any composer might be forgiven for taking a certain perverse pleasure in perusing such a volume, the real meat of the book is in Slominsky’s piercing analysis of the language and criticisms of the detractors. For example, Slominsky notes that accusations of a given composition sounding “like a sermon delivered in Chinese”, or comparisons of said work to a convoluted “calculus”, “algebra”, or other seemingly-inhuman mathematical monstrosity are ubiquitous in the criticism of new music. Readers may find it less humorous that many of these arguing points continue to be parroted, essentially unchanged, in much music criticism of the present day.
When I consider how the above might relate to ways that people in general react to unfamiliar sounds, I’m struck by the fact that here as well there appear to be certain widespread similarities despite varying levels of musical erudition. The new music—whether it is avant-classical, west coast hip hop, or Mozart—is felt to be grating, directionless, and inexpressive, almost as if it were a language foreign to the listener. Of course, if the listener is feeling particularly vehement or analytical the music may be further described as unmelodic, or alternately as either lacking rhythmic impulse entirely or else exhibiting too much rhythmic constancy; when venturing into these more technical areas many non-specialists may not actually be accurate in labeling the work of Bartok, say, as highly unmelodic, but in all cases what they mean is the same: This new experience feels foreign and other to me; I was expecting (and would prefer) something more along the lines of the music I already know.
This is a feeling that I assume most of us have experienced at some time or another, and this oft-articulated sigh of exasperation may shed some light on why our typical method of trying to “turn others on” to unfamiliar music—by making them a CD or mixtape and pressing it into their hands—is rarely a successful endeavor, unless the individual is particularly adventurous or already disposed to enjoy similar music. Just listening to more of the unfamiliar material is rarely enough; what’s required is to listen to the unfamiliar material in a different way.
To take one example, I cited the accusation “unmelodic!” earlier and I have heard this term applied both by a grandmother decrying some techy death metal band and also by and pop/rock-loving teen explaining to me why the Barber Adagio was boring. And I have witnessed someone who just swoons over Vivaldi claim that Jimi Hendrix was too “rhythmically repetitive” for her tastes. While a well-meaning initiate of these various kinds of music might argue that these criticisms are inaccurate, or that more exposure to the new material might eventually breed acceptance and interest, it strikes me that both approaches have a good chance of missing their mark unless one party can succeed in conveying to the other what they themselves find so compelling about the music at hand.
In practice this may mean pointing out differences as well as similarities. For instance, the different pace at which Top 40 hits and most symphonic compositions unfold is a key toward appreciating each; oftentimes melody, rhythmic interest, and compelling musical choices in general are difficult to perceive when we are looking for something that’s not there, or something that is there but not in the manner we’ve come to expect.
In a sense, when you help show someone else how to listen in a different way you’re giving them something a lot more valuable than another mix CD: the key to previously unimagined new experiences and possibilities, the chance to understand something that may not have been arrived at in the course of normal habit. Vivaldi to death metal may be a bridge too far for some, or merely a bridge too wide to traverse at once. However, I’m certain that were it not for similar efforts made by others and my behalf, I would not have become a composer.