Rejecting the Inner Dominant Male Composer

Over the last week or two I’ve been rereading Susan McClary’s landmark Feminine Endings. I first dove into this enormously influential collection of strategies for mounting a feminist critique of Western music several years ago, but I never quite felt that I’d given it the attention it deserved: Even though I was (and remain) very sympathetic to McClary’s theses, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and was mostly interested in quibbling with details and finding fault; critical thinking, they call it. But now that I’m coming around to it again—maybe it’s the intervening exposure to Robin Lakoff and other sociolinguists—I don’t feel like I need to pick at the seams, for some reason; I can just enjoy McClary’s arguments.

When I read Feminine Endings for the first time, it struck me that many of her arguments have less to do with music than with discourse. At the time, I felt this was a weakness, obscuring the gripping case McClary makes when she writes about scores and performances rather than about lingo and libretti. But now, when I read passages like

Yet when musicians describe a compelling performance, they commonly describe it as “balls-to-the-wall” or say that it had “thrust,” and they accompany these words with the gesture of the jabbing clenched fist and the facial grimace usually reserved for purposes of connoting male sexual aggression. (130)
two things happen: I caution myself never to use such terms as “balls-to-the-wall” or indulge in an orgasmic rictus while describing compelling performances, and I feel better about the way I write music. This has been the real takeaway with Feminine Endings the second time around: My music “worked” better in 2007 than it does today; it had more “thrust,” more teleological propulsion. However, the assumptions about how we experience musical time that informed my pieces a few years ago I now believe to be false. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I suspect that any piece vulnerable to the structural accusations leveled by McClary—that is to say, a piece conforming to a conventional tension-release model—is probably also ripe for critique for reasons unrelated to its legibility with respect to gender and sexuality. A big dramatic buildup and a huge cadence (in the loose sense) at the end are features that not only fit McClary’s criteria for masculinism but also assume that a moment of consummation and closure after a period of struggling and being made to wait is a listening experience that’s meaningful. It may be—but it’s also an experience that could have been, and indeed was, described by the music of the early 1800s, which is an equally good reason (as good as its homology to violence, that is) not to ape it.

I’m willing to accept that a piece that’s “shaped” like Beethoven’s Ninth is homologous to an act of sexual violence. That’s a startling finding and one whose implications should be taken seriously. But what McClary, a musicologist, doesn’t have to deal with in Feminine Endings is the possibility that her discovery is another form of evidence as well: evidence that such a piece is also homologous to a whole lot of experiences that don’t speak particularly strongly about 21st-century life. The payoff of the Ninth is inconceivably utopian and naïve in 2010, and anything that offers such a complete and breathlessly forthright return on its investment must be lying to you.

Way back during the G. H. W. Bush administration, I doubt very much that Susan McClary was worried about what white male heteronormative composers from the future would think of Feminine Endings. But I hope she appreciates that arriving at a fundamentally new way of apprehending music is a major advancement whose ramifications can’t help but radiate, even nearly twenty years later, to places that may be quite far from their source.

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29 thoughts on “Rejecting the Inner Dominant Male Composer

  1. Jeremy Howard Beck

    This may seem like a small point, but I think it’s germane to your overall message: the phrase “balls to the wall” has absolutely zip, zero, zilch, nada, NOTHING to do with male genitalia. Jesse Sheidlower writes in Slate Magazine:

    Somewhat disappointingly, it has nothing to do with hammers, nails, and a particularly gruesome way of treating an enemy. The expression comes from the world of military aviation. In many planes, control sticks are topped with a ball-shaped grip. One such control is the throttle—to get maximum power you push it all the way forward, to the front of the cockpit, or firewall (so-called because it prevents an engine fire from reaching the rest of the plane). Another control is the joystick—pushing it forward sends a plane into a dive. So, literally pushing the balls to the (fire)wall would put a plane into a maximum-speed dive, and figuratively going balls to the wall is doing something all-out, with maximum effort. The phrase is essentially the aeronautical equivalent of the automotive “pedal to the metal.”

    Can we all please stop treating this like it’s about testicles? I’m actually kind of shocked that McClary didn’t verify the origin of that saying, since it would have been relatively easy to do so even without Google.

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  2. micahelx

    Balls
    as an amateur composer, I never worry about how critics talk about music and many of them have tried to interject some Hemingway two fistedness into what they’re writing about — it’s odd — and not very productive –

    Reply
  3. philmusic

    I don’t think Colin that you change intentionality by merely changing ones choice of words. Being fired or being downsized or rightsized amounts to the same thing.

    Rather one should draw a distinction between what one says and one does.

    Phil Fried, Phil’s main page

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  4. Lisa X

    the phrase “balls to the wall” has absolutely zip, zero, zilch, nada, NOTHING to do with male genitalia.

    Putting a plane in a maximum speed dive has EVERYTHING to do with male genitalia.

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  5. Matthew Peterson

    OK, now I’ve been educated:

    Things that are “sexually violent” and belong to “dominant males”

    1. Upraised fists
    2. orgasms
    3. Thrust
    4. grimaces
    5. strong cadences
    6. Music of the early 1800s
    7. Beethoven
    8. Beethoven’s 9th
    9. Planes
    10. Planes in full-throttle dives

    Being a male, I’m so glad we have full possession of these things, especially orgasms!!! I thought women shared* that with us, but we’ll take it, because dominant males love to WIN! (*women also make great pilots, in some ways they are physically superior as fighter pilots).

    I’m not trying to be snide here. I just hate the “politics of style,” and McClary’s writings are just the latest in a long line of readings/misreadings into music, and maybe the most influential since Adorno. I enjoy her work, especially “Conventional Wisdom,” and my issue isn’t with her.

    I do dislike her arguments in “Feminine Endings,. Firstly, because it’s unfair to individual artists who can’t defend themselves because they’re dead, and secondly, because I don’t believe in empowering historical gender roles with this type of (mis)reading of music (regardless of whether or not millennia of the patriarchy actually shaped the aesthetics of western concert music on a deep structural level). The minute we say certain music is “dominant male,” that logic extends to “subordinate female” music as well, and I don’t want to go there.

    I am an artist, my prerogative is to imagine and create, and no one’s narrative but mine will consciously play into that, whether it’s Hitler’s or McClary’s. If a (for me and many others) satisfying use of tension and release, dramatic climax, etc is the result of my artistic imperative, call me a “dominant male composer,” call me whatever you want, because everything can be critiqued and everyone gets their very own pejorative, or six!

    Over 100 years ago, Charles Ives expressed his very crude (misogynistic) perjorative opinions about the state of American composers (then sadly all males), and I wish I could repeat them right now for climactic dramatic effect (!!!).

    But the moderator probably wouldn’t allow them, and I don’t want to offend anyone. He would certainly think they apply. While I don’t exactly share his sentiments, I do believe it’s counterproductive for us to (too heavily) buy into these narratives that other individuals have erected (oops, I finished with a “sexually violent” word).

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  6. Jeremy Howard Beck

    Maximum Speed Balls Dive
    Lisa X,

    And why is that? No female pilot has ever put her plane in a maximum speed dive, ever in the history of aviation?

    Look, I guess I’m just offended by the notion that every adventurous, extreme, or daring thing I do (as a man) can be chalked up to what’s between my legs. And women should be offended by that too–aren’t there adventurous, extreme, daring women out there who put the lie to that notion?

    And I’m sorry, but the idea that Beethoven’s 9th is analogous to an act of sexual violence is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard–the intentional fallacy flipped on its head and blown so out of proportion to be unrecognizable. I don’t think I’ve ever quoted Freud before in my life, but he was right; sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

    (Or, the systematic oppression of women throughout the history of classical music is horrific and deplorable enough by itself without somehow making the music itself a tool of that same oppression. I think if we all spent our time fighting what is actually the problem that it would have a much more positive impact for all the adventurous, extreme, and daring female musicians out there than if we were to hypothesize about Male Composer X’s musical decisions as an avatar for his secret desire to commit rape/hate women/oppress women/have sex with his own mother.)

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  7. pgblu

    How many here have actually opened the book Feminine Endings?

    It’s clearly written from a feminist perspective, but her view of the issue is a lot more nuanced than it’s being presented here (for which I don’t fault Colin; I don’t think he’s misrepresenting at all), and indeed it is more nuanced today than at the time of that book’s publication.

    McClary’ work belongs to what we like to call New Musicology. In a nutshell, this discipline works from the assumption that pieces of music convey messages that the author does not intend, but that those messages need to be heard – are indeed at least as important as what the author seeks to convey, as they offer clues about not just the composer’s own attitudes. Thus any declarations by composers that they will go on with whatever they do and she can “call their work whatever she likes” are somewhat off the mark… what the composer thinks of his/her own work is actually not the central question.

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  8. Jeremy Howard Beck

    If anything good has come of this…
    … it will be that my next piece will be titled Maximum Speed Balls Dive.

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  9. Troy Ramos

    “…what the composer thinks of his/her own work is actually not the central question.”

    For the most part I would agree with this. I think there are many composers who couldn’t tell you what they’re trying to do or say anyway. It’s obviously important to hear the composer’s perspective on their own works, but I agree that its significance is always debatable.

    And just for the record, something titled “Maximum Speed Balls Dive” could be a reference to an intimate moment between two men as well :)

    the new sound barrier

    Reply
  10. mdwcomposer

    To my mind, pgblu’s comment is the most relevant one to us composers:

    this discipline works from the assumption that pieces of music convey messages that the author does not intend, but that those messages need to be heard – are indeed at least as important as what the author seeks to convey . . . what the composer thinks of his/her own work is actually not the central question

    Of course any artist reflects cultural mores of their time, influences of family dynamics, gender roles in society, what they ate for breakfast, etc., etc. In other words: the patterning and synthesis of the artist’s brain as it processes all the sensory input it receives. I believe that’s just being homo sapiens (notwithstanding that there always seem to be a few homo erectus still among us).

    My perception is that it seems simplistic and slippery to track something as abstract as the patterning of sound in time back to specifics of that input, whether at the individual level (i.e. relating it to the biography of an artist) or the group level (relating it to general trends of what was going on during the artist’s life). But more important to me is that I don’t find that exercise very interesting. I’m perfectly comfortable accepting a certain kind of tension-release (Beethoven, for example) patterning as a valid listening experience. I’m interested in how well a composer works out that patterning (does it resonate with me?). I am less interested in relating it to a more concrete source or extra-musical pattern. I’m also convinced by a completely different kind of patterning exhibited in the chants of Hildegard, or the organum of Perotin, or Ligeti’s Lontano, and don’t need to label or classify the unintended (or at least, unconscious) messages that end up in the art-work itself.

    So, that to say that such messages . . . are indeed at least as important as what the author seeks to convey doesn’t resonate very much with me as a listener. [and thank you, pgblu, for articulating that so clearly]. More important, it doesn’t resonate with me very much as a composer. I’ve got an overloaded brain already just trying to figure out the specifics of what I “seek to convey” and getting that clear. I may re-examine various things in my life that have shaped me as a person (in fact, I hope I always do). Certainly that process affects my musical choices in some way. But making the kind of correlations that the new musicology writers seem to make isn’t a very valuable tool to me as a composer. There may be other reasons for certain musical choices, as Colin points out. Like realizing “hey, that’s been done a bunch of times, and my doing it again isn’t adding anything fresh / isn’t showing it in a different perspective”, whatever it is.

    However, there are certainly listeners for whom the constructs proposed by various musicology writers (new or otherwise) provide a meaningful / helpful paradigm for listening. As a composer, I don’t think about that too much, either. The laws of unintended consequences are a part of human existence. It’s how much importance any of us gives those consequences.

    It is a strange line of reasoning that presumes, simply because you did not intend to do something, that you did not in fact do it. It’s always been popular with little kids accused of breaking something, but it never caught on in the courts. How pleasant it would be if one could drive onto Los Angeles’ complicated freeway system and, by simply not intending to go to Santa Monica, not got there. But if one finds oneself at the end of the line staring at the ocean, perhaps it would be best to try figuring out where you are and how to get back to civilization again.

        – Joe Adamson Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo

       – Mark Winges

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  11. mclaren

    Have you noticed the blurbs breathlessly touting contemporary music CDs?

    Here’s one from a Band On A Can CD: “An aggressive group with the force and power of rock and roll…” quote by the NYTimes.

    Or take a look at the enthusastic quotes praising Aaron Jay Kernis’ Second Symphony: it’s got “power,” “aggressive,” it’s “savage” and “brutal.”

    Even the symphony’s movements get in on the aggression: Movement two is called “Air/Ground.” Why not just cut to the chase and call it “Kill/Rape”?

    Wherever you look, the contemporary serious music that gets lots of critical attentions involves brutality, aggression, attack, assault, violence, violence, violence, violence, violence, violence, violence.

    After a while, you have to start to wonder if there isn’t a wee bit of problem here. Maybe the reason so much really good serious music is getting ignored in America today is that’s it’s just…not…violent enough. Not aggressive enough. Not brutal enough.

    Gentle gorgeous music like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano gets ignored, while the brutal savage aggressive stuff like Elliott Carter’s sludge gets praised to the skies. You look at that happening over and over and over again, and after a certain point you have to say yourself, “There’s something badly out of whack here.”

    Take a look at a computer game like Bioshock or Halo 2 and what do you see? Aggression. Brutality. Violence. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill! Turn on Fox News and what do you see? Commentators screeching for America to bomb brown people, calling for aggression, violence, brutality. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill! Turn on the TV and what do you see? Show like COPS where muggers with badges chase down brown people and beat ‘em, tase ‘em, punch ‘em, kick ‘em, choke ‘em. More aggression, more brutality, more violence. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

    At a certain point you have to start to ask if there isn’t something deeply pathologically wrong with a society that acts like this.

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  12. marknowakowski

    A modern Beethoven, were he alive today, might say:

    “If my ninth symphony is an expression of male sexual violence, then all of McClary’s writings are the expression of unhinged, bitter feminism.”

    I’m sorry, Colin, but I’d have to agree with Matthew Peterson’s initial comment. Having suffered through McClary’s “scholarship” on several occasions, I fail to see why anybody would continue to read her work voluntarily. I always pray that news of her work does not reach the general public, especially those who are responsible for funding academia.

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  13. pgblu

    Thanks, Mark; frankly I didn’t think I was all that clear, but I’m glad it more or less came across.

    And lest we make the equation “Beethoven=tension/release model” might I remind the reader that this too is a historical add-on from later generations? In many cases we read this simple paradigm into Beethoven in a way that does the music itself a disservice.

    Phil, thanks for the gut check. The word ‘we’ was misplaced. ‘New Musicology’ is a term, like New Music or New Math. People use it.

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  14. marknowakowski

    Forgive me for commenting twice… Yet upon further consideration, I can’t help but notice what to me is the most artistically destructive aspect of such conversations, as well as of “scholars” like McClary: the reduction of every noble feeling and expression to a purely biological or sociological phenomena. For McClary to reduce Beethoven’s most epic musical moments to ‘sexual thrust’ is a tragic and misguided gesture which can rob some of the greatest art of its most noble and spiritually magnanimous meaning (even if such writing helps one to obtain tenure.)

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  15. colin holter

    the reduction of every noble feeling and expression to a purely biological or sociological phenomena

    The fact that a feeling or expression is the result of sociological or biological phenomena doesn’t make it ignoble. I suspect that talking about McClary is revealing some differences of opinion about culture and humanity that go well beyond music – and when ot comes to these differences of opinion, I don’t think I’m any likelier to change your mind than you are to change mine.

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  16. fsd

    It should be mentioned that McClary is, although influential, an unfitting representation for all musicology which has been deemed “New Musicology.” This concept of “New Musicology,” which has declined in controversy since the 80s was more strongly influenced by Adorno, whose writing do attempt to discover social critique in music.

    Adorno thinks of music as representing society, thus no matter what the composer (or author or painter for that matter) “thinks,” their music will act as a mirror to society. Adorno was not afraid of analyzing new music, in fact, the bulk of his career was spent on composers who were alive (Schoenberg, Stravinsky).

    In the same way that Schoenberg’s music shows the impossibility of modern religion, McClary finds sexual aggression in Beethoven (the successfulness of this is debatable). A composer shouldn’t be conscious of this composer/society relationship, because when that happens, the relationship ceases to “authentically” exist.

    My point is McClary is not the cause but an effect, and if you want to critique this kind of analysis, one should critique Adorno rather than an arguably less effective scholar in the field.

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  17. rtanaka

    I got to talk with Susan McClary briefly while doing interviews at UCLA this past year. What motivated me to talk to her was not because of her feminist writings but an interview she did on the topic of improvisation which I thought was fairly interesting. If you look at the list of topics she has up there, it’s obvious that she’s not just a one-trick pony and has quite a diverse range of knowledge. When you’re writing a book you usually need a “hook” in order to catch people’s attention — probably why she took the essentialist approach of reducing music down to that particular perspective. But this isn’t always representative of the author as a whole.

    There was no mention of testicles during the interview, but she was extremely keen to the reasons why I was approaching my art in a certain way and I left the meeting feeling that I had learned something new about myself. That’s sort of what musicology and criticial theory is there for, really — exposing people’s motivations for doing something. Composers generally tend to hate critical theory because it takes their work outside of the genius narrative and places it into the mundane world of humanistic desires. But I do think that it might be about time we abandoned the former as a whole, since we’re living in the 21st century and all.

    The tonal system itself explicitly deals with the idea of shifting power structures (tonic-dominant) so it is not that much of a stretch to compare musical gestures with ones of violence, and philosophers frequently do make this comparison even if the composer themselves may not be aware of it. It’s also no secret that most guys, especially when they’re young, pick up an instrument in order to get laid. In a lot of ways all the book does is put the two things together. Not everyone is like that and of course music can be much more than just sex, but some fit the stereotype just perfectly, while others wish to be but can’t, while others don’t wish to be but can’t help themselves — the idea of critical theory is that if you analyze something enough you’re able to dig up these types of subconscious desires and pin-point them specifically where they’re happening.

    Admittedly there are a lot of problems with the field. The study is highly influenced by Freud, which can often be psychologically intrusive and sometimes not-true. (He was able to convince some women that they were raped, even if they weren’t, for instance.) There’s also the fact that critical theory is often used in marketing ploys in order to manipulate people into buying stuff or vote for certain candidates based on the attachments people have with particular cultural signifiers.

    But this is some pretty powerful stuff which is why people are engrossed with it — if the New Music community wants to compete with this sort of thing composers (or whoever) are going to have to come up with something better than the genius narrative we have right now because I don’t think anybody is falling for it anymore. The classical music community sort of has this attitude that what we’re doing is super-important and therefore you should listen to it. Sure, I think it’s important too, but our ability to articulate it in a way that makes it relevant to people has been sorely lacking. Instead of being dismissive, might be best to catch up on this stuff so you don’t get caught with your pants down (haha!). I mean, people are reading into art in this manner anyway, whether artists like it or not…it’s too late to turn back.

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  18. colin holter

    A composer shouldn’t be conscious of this composer/society relationship, because when that happens, the relationship ceases to “authentically” exist.

    Cat’s out of the bag on that one, I’m afraid. Maybe instead of ceasing to compose “authentically,” he just ceases to acknowledge the nineteenth-century myth of creative autonomy.

    Certainly there’s plenty of space to criticize Feminine Endings: There are some moments of overreaching hyperbole and (unfortunately) not-100%-solid scholarship. I’m sure you weren’t trying to imply that I or anyone else participating in this conversation is devouring McClary’s work at the expense of Adorno’s, but Adorno died forty years ago; he couldn’t have known how right and how wrong his cultural forecasts would be. Fortunately, we don’t need to choose only one thinker to acquaint ourselves with. There’s room for both Teddy Wiesengrund and Susan McClary, not to mention Dahlhaus, Benjamin, Peter Bürger, Fredric Jameson, and so on.

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  19. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Thanks for the post, Colin. (Sorry I’m late in responding, in case people are still reading). And also thanks to RTanaka for noting that McClary has a wide body of research. And Mr. “Balls to the Wall”- grow up.

    I suspect that people are becoming defensive because they think they are being accused of sexism in their music. The extremely important distinction here is whether we define sexism by people’s conscious attitudes, or by the current state of the musical world. Is the world of contemporary music rigged against women because people are (un)consciously trying to keep them out of it, or is it just that women haven’t caught up to men after centuries of being second rate musical citizens? (I’d like to note how often the term “woman composer” crops up, even with the most famous- Higdon, Saariaho, Tower….).

    The problem is this: I doubt most people here are badly sexist. But it’s ignorant and arrogant to claim that a lifetime growing up through a cultural landscape hasn’t informed our sense of sexuality. I think people can agree that the onslaught of sexual cues from popular culture is pervasive and probably influential. Is it really so frightening to think that maybe this has seeped into our individual subconscience?

    There is also the sad paradigm of contemporary music in academia: white guy composer gets his orchestral reading piece done by a group made up primarily of Asian females. I’m not saying there is any intention in this construction, but it sets up a model which we become familiar with. I am a white guy, and this becomes a little creepy.

    How many times have I heard Feldman’s or Takemitsu’s music referred to as “unsatisfying.” “Where’s the climax?” And how wonderful is it when Mahler withholds that moment of attainment in a symphony, just enough so we know it’s coming? And when it comes, it’s pure ecstasy. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of fulfillment, but there needs to be an understanding that certain kinds of ecstasy can only be reached through a very specific build-up (foreplay; sonata-allegro form, etc) and hold a certain similar meaning in our minds. Is it a coincidence that the three most powerful causes of dopamine release in the brain are sex, music, and food (in roughly equal amounts)? Speaking of which, if you feel particularly incensed by McClary’s claims, check out Carol Adams’s “Sexual Politics of Meat.” She believes that by eating a burger you are perpetuating a culture of objectifying females….. and I couldn’t agree more.

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  20. pgblu

    This is not the first time but it’s worth documenting: I agree with Ryan Tanaka.

    Except for the part about tonal systems being about shifting power structures… it IS indeed about shifting, but shifting what? Making an analogy to social structures is too simplistic for my taste.

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  21. rtanaka

    Hooray, some agreement for once!

    The way I interpret the tonal system is that the Tonic represents an attachment to something close to the self — whether its your individuality, your home, or whatever social system you happen to be a part of. The Dominant is an external faction which can either be interpreted as aggressor or savior, depending on how you interpret it. Either way, 90% of classical music written pre-20th Century modulates from the tonic to the dominant in some way, then back. The I chord is exciting for most people because it represents a victory for the self, or your “team”.

    In Beethoven’s case, his music is represents the Napoleanic revolutions which were happening at the time of his life. Eroica is an explicit tribute to this, though he later tore it up when he found that the “revolutionary” was just another tyrant in disguise. Personally I find Beethoven’s early to mid-works kind of obnoxious but it does appeal to the more primal sides of us — I was thinking mostly war, but I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to relate it to sex as McClary has done. Politicians get into sex-scandals all the time, and they’re the ones running the show, so I think it would disingenuous to say that the two have nothing to do with each other. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Beethoven was endorsing these sorts of things (which is an accusation that gets people mad), but it could be just that he was just “telling it like it is”. This honesty gives the work some historical value also.

    Beethoven’s late works, especially the quartets, though, are really great since it displays a level of self-consciousness that you don’t see in his earlier stuff. I think even McClary agrees with this point of view also. It’s sort of like post-disillusionment music that stays relevant no matter what period you might be living in, which is why it sounds so fresh, even to this day.

    Can music be interpreted in other ways? Sure, but people like explainations and an interpretation that seems to make sense will always win over one that has none at all or one that is simply dismissive. Freud has proven that an effective argument doesn’t necessarily even have to be true in order for it to be persuasive, which makes it both extremely powerful and dangerous at the same time. I can think of many examples where it has done lots of good and lots of bad.

    Anyway, if people are hating what musicologists are writing then they probably should be prepared to come up with a few explainations themselves. It’s always surprising to me when I run into some musicians who think others should listen to whatever music based on whatever subjective feelings they have about it. (Which pretty much boils down to “you better like it cause I like it”.) Nowadays people are way too skeptical for that to work.

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  22. Troy Ramos

    From mclaren:
    “Gentle gorgeous music like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano gets ignored, while the brutal savage aggressive stuff like Elliott Carter’s sludge……”

    I like what you’re saying about softer pieces getting treated differently, but are you really saying that Elliott Carter writes sludge? Sludge? Really?? Seems a bit harsh, if that’s what you’re saying.

    From rtanaka:
    “……if the New Music community wants to compete with this sort of thing composers (or whoever) are going to have to come up with something better than the genius narrative we have right now because I don’t think anybody is falling for it anymore. The classical music community sort of has this attitude that what we’re doing is super-important and therefore you should listen to it. ”

    I couldn’t agree more with this. And I especially liked what you wrote about your interaction with McClary. I love it when people are genuinely interested in learning about why and how you’re going about whatever it is you trying to do (music, art or whatever). It seems like that’s such a great way for both parties involved to get something significant out of a discussion. I think too many in, let’s say, “established positions” (I’m sure there’s a better term for it, but the ‘academy’ seems too cliché), are only interested in feeding you whatever it is they think is important.

    The New Sound Barrier

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  23. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Troy and Ryan-

    I know this is starting to stray pretty far from the original topic, but I have to add my two cents. Thinking about the “genius narrative” reminds me of some experiences I’ve had recently. I’m still a student, and over the last two years I’ve found myself falling for the idea that a piece can be “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” in a meaningful way now. It can’t, and it certainly makes for an elusive goal.

    I don’t think the situation is as dire as this all makes it sound, but there is definitely a need for a re-evaluation of the context of our music. I think reinterpreting the composer’s place within the musical society will eventually have the trickle-down effect of changing the way concerts are produced and recordings distributed, but we have to be willing to let this happen.

    Thanks for the comments!

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  24. rtanaka

    Classical music isn’t going to die, although any honest assessment of the situation right now would point to the fact that it’s probably not doing so well. People are generally ambivalent about the medium because 1) they feel that the music doesn’t speak to them or 2) they have no idea what the artist is trying to say. The former I hear a lot from people who used to play classical music but eventually gave it up, while the latter I hear the most as feedback from non-musicians and non-artists (when they are actually being honest). Both are problems having to do with our ability to convey what we are doing as artists, which generally composers are not trained to do. Musicology can be an immense help in making this happen, so I think it is important to see them as allies rather than enemies

    I do think that classical music is important and is worth keeping alive, but “art for its own sake” is not a good enough reason anymore, especially during these hard economic times. I think it may be time we made a case for ourselves as to why we exist.

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