Saving Lives

At the risk of giving credence to the apocryphal, I’d like to focus this week on a particular musical urban legend. It concerns the Smiths, a Mancunian group active in the 1980s. Everybody who’s hip to the Smiths and their contemporaries—even those who, like myself, were too young to have been interested in them at the height of their popularity—seems to know someone (or to know someone who knows someone) who was saved from suicide by the Smiths’ music.

I don’t know whether there’s any truth to this myth, but let’s assume for the moment that there is, and that at least one person made it through a prohibitively tough time in his or her life by listening to Smiths LPs. The band’s album titled The Queen Is Dead was released in 1986; Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla Ciaccona, a piece for which (to my knowledge) no such legend exists, dates from the same year. By no standard of intellectually responsible analysis is The Queen Is Dead a more significant work than the Intermedio. Nevertheless, if we accept the tale, the Smiths’ record has a power that Ferneyhough’s vastly more important piece does not: Dude was about to slit his wrists, but he listened to “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” and decided not to.

Obviously there are confounding variables. For one thing, it’s safe to assume that the Smiths’ audience includes a far greater share of turbulent adolescents than does Ferneyhough’s; for another, the Smiths’ music explicitly addresses the melodrama of alienated youth. Maybe any piece of music, if it strikes the ears that need it at the right time, can prompt a sudden re-evaluation of priorities, and the substance of The Queen Is Dead is therefore immaterial (except in a catalytic sense). It’s also entirely possible that the whole ordeal never happened, but the story is so deliciously appropriate to the Smiths’ catalogue that it has persisted to this day.

Even if it’s false, though, it’s an interesting yarn to keep in mind. There are many perfectly reasonable but by no means easily accomplished goals—beauty, profundity, complexity, provocation—we might have in mind when writing music, and we’re justifiably proud when they’re achieved. On the other hand, if this story about the Smiths is to be believed, there’s music out there that is, under optimal conditions, capable of saving lives. At the very least, it’s a nice thought.

23 thoughts on “Saving Lives

  1. Daniel Wolf

    It would be very easy to draw up a large list of people who have both listened to Ferneyhough’s music and not harmed themselves. How many of them were saved from a potential suicide because they experienced a Ferneyhough piece? It’s both impossible to know for certain and impossible to exclude the possibility.


    Let’s err on the side of recognizing that a music which has charms to which we are personally immune may well have beneficial or even redeeming effects on others. This isn’t avoidance of criticism, rather recognition that the perception and use of music reflects the biodiversity among listeners.

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  2. ydandaman

    By no standard of intellectually responsible analysis is The Queen Is Dead a more significant work than the Intermedio.

    I’m pretty sure you’ve proven youself in this article that this statement is a bizarre falsehood. If Ferneyhough is more significant to you than fine, but I can only take these elitist asides for so long before I feel the need to respond.

    You see, the Smiths possess something known as “cultural relevance” which means, in academic terms that they utilize a musical language which possesses meanings that most people in our culture are familiar with and able to understand and interpret in generally the same way (you know, like Mozart and Haydn had in the 18th century, at least among economic elites). I believe then that it is fair to say that the Smiths’ music is objectively more significant than Ferneyhough, although this says nothing to the quality of either. Quality is an inherently subjective feature which we can only assign according to our individual tastes. And to my taste, the Smiths are a cloying, over-rated hipster band that I have never been able to get into (I can’t believe you’ve got me defending them actually). However, to say that Ferneyhough is ‘more significant’ than the Smiths is an absurd statement that I can only attribute to some sort of academic brainwashing. The problem is not just that you are expressing an opinion as an objective fact but that you are accusing anyone who disagrees with it of being of some lower intellectual caliber. I wish in future articles you could phrase your opinions in ways that are less insultingly elitist. Thanks.
    -Dan VanHassel

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  3. Chris Becker

    Colin doesn not the Smiths lead singer and lyricist Morrisey. I think the music of the Smith’s gained an added resonance (like much rock and pop music before them) thanks to a frontperson who embodied and channeled the emotions of a collective of people. The lead singer as shaman is something you don’t really find in much “new music” and is a powerful archetype that has existed since the beginnings of rock and roll.

    I think the performer and their audience (and their relationship) in rock and pop music is very unique and may shed some light on how it can be easily believed that a Morrisey song (or a Elvis Presley or Ray Charles or Joni Mitchell etc song) could connect with an audience member in such a profound and even physical way.

    So many “rock” inspired “new music” ensembles tout volume and attitude (usually negative or just boorish) when they want to draw a connection with their own music to that of rock and roll. But to oversimplify rock music is to miss so much fascinating and enlightening history. Before I babble anymore, I’ll leave it at that.

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  4. Chris Becker

    Just to clarify, I’m using the term “new music” as a broad generalization for 21st concert/chamber music.

    I hate to do it, but I’m clumsily trying to make a point.

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  5. Colin Holter

    I stand by my assertion that the Ferneyhough Intermedio is a more important piece of music than The Queen is Dead. Although my childlike and myopic concept of musical value no doubt benefited greatly from your helpful breakdown of “cultural relevance,” I have no use for your argument that a large fan base makes a piece of music a greater contribution to the musical culture of which you and I are custodians. Lots of people have great affection for “Fur Elise,” but by no standard of intellectually responsible analysis is it a more significant work than op. 110.

    I will admit that it hinges on our definition of “significance:” Ferneyhough is more significant than the Smiths because cultivated music is, in a particular way, more significant than vernacular music.

    And if that’s not a sterling example of academically fortified elitism, I don’t know what is. Guilty as charged.

    I think Chris Becker’s point about frontmen is absolutely right on the money, by the way.

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  6. coreydargel

    It is embarrassing to read this author’s patronization of shall we say less-important music in the pages of NMBx.

    I’ve heard that there is a glorious view from atop the ivory tower, but I’ve also heard that it can get awfully lonely up there. Listening to the superficially complex music of Ferneyhough might not assuage the despair.

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  7. ydandaman

    I will admit that it hinges on our definition of “significance:” Ferneyhough is more significant than the Smiths because cultivated music is, in a particular way, more significant than vernacular music.

    Why? Why do you think music such as Ferneyhough is more significant? What is your definition of significance?

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  8. Colin Holter

    Am I still ill?
    The sheer quantity, the tonnage, of bullshit flying my way is so great that I feel I must deal with each turd separately.

    1. On the complexity of Brian Ferneyhough’s music: Your allegation that his pieces are “superficially complex” leads me to call into question both a) your understanding of his work and b) your understanding of complexity in music in a general sense. However, it is not my job to recapitulate to you the contents of countless articles and analyses that describe in great detail the very real structural complexity that characterizes Ferneyhough’s music. Do your homework.

    2. On the capacity of music to assuage despair: If you want your despair to be assuaged, pop music is your elixir. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing better for inducing (or remedying) emotional states than vernacular music. Apparently it can even prevent you from killing yourself. If, on the other hand, you want to be intellectually engaged and perhaps exposed to a perspective you might not have otherwise considered, new music is your best bet. (NB: This statement is not categorical. There’s plenty of sentimental, affirmatory “new music” out there – and, I freely admit, there are a few pieces of vernacular music that are genuinely challenging as well.)

    3. On importance: I might say, casually but with enthusiasm, that “the Smiths are fucking awesome.” It is less likely that I would say that “Brian Ferneyhough is fucking awesome” (in part because I was not accepted to Stanford). This difference in expression owes not to any conviction on my part that Ferneyhough is “worse” than the Smiths. Instead, it has to do with a qualitative difference in the way I might appreciate the Smiths’ catalogue as opposed to Ferneyhough’s. The Intermedio is significant for its commentary on the act of performance, on the viability of obsolete musical forms, and on its own (i.e. immanent)

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  9. Chris Becker

    “Individual opera singers are praised not so much for what makes their voices unique but for how closely they approach some universal pinnacle of (European) esthetic purity. To an unseasoned listener, opera singers all sound pretty much the same, as indistinguishable and incomprehensible as an assortment of twelve-tone masterpieces.”

    Corey – when you wrote this, I had the same reaction you are having to Colin’s Saving Lives post. I thought “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about – or at the very least he’s making a broad generalization to clumsily make a point (okay, wait – maybe I do the same thing..?)”

    I’m sorry the content of Colin’s post is getting lost here. I’ve actually found Colin to be pretty open to other people’s opinions in past columns and responses! Can we cut him a little slack? Or take him to task a little more nicely?

    CB

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  10. Colin Holter

    Heaven knows I’m miserable now
    Wow. Here’s what happened: I was in the middle of a huge diatribe, but I accidentally hit “post comment” and saw Chris Becker’s most recent message, and now I feel kind of bad about the whole thing.

    The discussion of serious and controversial topics on the internet is a tricky thing, a problem with no precedent (not even those oft-acrimonious open letters in Perspectives). On the one hand, we want to be professional, polite, and reasonably eloquent; on the other, it is after all the internet, and it’s very easy to indulge ill-considered impulses and call people who disagree with you obscene names. I stand behind my opinions, but I apologize for espousing them in such a confrontational manner.

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  11. Chris Becker

    Puh-leeze Colin. We’re passionate people here – I think it’s okay to loose your cool once in awhile – even in a public forum. Well, that’s me talking…not a potential employer, commissioning organization, conductor…etc.

    I’ll be lurking at a Morrisey blog/fansite for the rest of the week…

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  12. coreydargel

    I took a semester-long course at Oberlin dedicated to Ferneyhough’s music which culminated in a marathon concert where the man himself spoke and answered questions. I’m well-acquainted with his music as well as the performance stamina and disposition he expects from its players. No doubt Ferneyhough’s music is complex. It is my opinion that his music’s complexity is only surface-deep. A few other folks whom you might consider more qualified than me have come to similar conclusions. I happen to prefer the deceptively simple to the ornately obfuscated. You may be offended by my evaluation of Ferneyhough’s music, but you are wrong to suggest that I do not have the background to support it.

    If, on the other hand, you want to be intellectually engaged and perhaps exposed to a perspective you might not have otherwise considered, new music is your best bet.

    I don’t understand why you would want to make this proclamation. There is just as much bland new music as there is bland pop music. Perhaps bland new music is doubly dubious because people attempt to justify it with the pretense of intellectual importance and “education.” Your suggestion that new music is, by design, more capable of intellectually engaging listeners is offensive to me, as is the implication that people who listen more often to pop and vernacular music are not as intellectually cultivated. I just don’t understand why you would close so many doors.

    We are no longer living in an age where the major corporate record companies control the entirety of the top-selling pop music albums. In this new age of digital music distribution, the idea that one should be able to listen to music before buying it is now accepted as the norm. Because of this, more adventurous musicians are starting to appear in the top-sellers lists. The big record labels are complaining not because general CD sales are down (they’re actually up), but because their top artists are selling only 5 million CDs instead of 15 million, and the indie labels are taking over some of their market. They’re losing their monopoly because consumers are doing their homework – listening. This is all to say that it’s unwise to dismiss any kind of music as intellectually inferior. You’re only going to alienate those who happen to get their intellectual exercise from both pop music and new music.

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  13. EvanJohnson

    It is embarrassing to read this author’s patronization of shall we say less-important music in the pages of NMBx.

    To the contrary, Corey, it is refreshing to see someone consistently taking positions that are getting exponentially less popular by the day, both on websites like this and (anecdotally, anyway) in the world at large.

    I don’t agree with everything Colin has to say – in this case, the entire issue boils down to a disagreement about the meaning of the word “significant,” which isn’t a very interesting question – but there is nobody else I can see, certainly not here, asserting these viewpoints, and they are emphatically worth asserting.

    Smiths or no Smiths, I wouldn’t have chosen Intermedio alla Ciaccona as my test case, but that’s neither here nor there…

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  14. scottgendel@hotmail.com

    side note:
    Isn’t it strange that the band who are credited with preventing suicides is perhaps the band most notorious for being really really despressing, and who put out such morose singles as “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” and my favorite Smiths song, the one with the chorus that goes:

    “And if a double decker bus / crashes into us
    To die by your side / is such a heavenly way to go
    And if a ten-ton truck / kills the both of us
    To die by your side / oh, the pleasure, the privilege is mine”…

    Maybe we should play suicidal people Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” and hope for similar effects?

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  15. davidcoll

    recently read an article of sontag saying that in order for present-day (1999) experimental cinema to remain innovative and culturally relevant is if we keep cultivating a culture of “cine-philes”. This idea only sprouted after the french new wave embraced ideas not only of experimental film but also of popular films, ie hollywood- a reaction yes, but there was a context for it.
    I wonder if our debate is only important if we had a more intimate discussion about the merits and unique qualities of these types of music- forget about comparing and assigning value and just start saying whats striking about each. Maybe it could be a small step towards a similar music-philia….anything to get past people trying to justify ones own personal preferences, despite how fun provocations are..

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  16. ydandaman

    Colin, I have a thought experiment for you:

    Which is more significant: if a 2000 pound tree falls in a forest and nobody is within 100 miles of it, or if a 500 pound tree falls on a house and kills 30 people.

    Ditto everything Corey says about popular vs. classical.

    Music is a cultural construct, music outside of an appreciating culture has no meaning. Why is a “commentary on the act of performance, on the viability of obsolete musical forms” significant? Just because it hasn’t been done before? I haven’t heard any objective reason why Ferneyhough’s music is “significant”, and I still don’t understand how you are defining “significance”.

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  17. dannycdoubleb

    To measure the significance of a work of art, one must experience the emotional content of all lives simultaneously. As this enlightened state will not be acheived by most of us, I propose a few ways in which one might measure a work’s significance (this is by no means a complete list.)
    1. Was the work created with any care? Is every note, phrase, gesture, or lyric well thought?
    2. Can the work be listened to quietly and attentively, allowing the digestion of enough meaningful content to inspire serious reflection upon the work’s close?
    3. Is the work equally as succesful when listened to again and again?
    4. Can the work contribute in a positive way to humanity?
    In other words, I would consider a gangster rapper’s canned sampling/beat in a box/lyrics about 20″ rims and having sex with prostitutes to be a completely insignificant work.

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  18. ydandaman

    To measure the significance of a work of art, one must experience the emotional content of all lives simultaneously.

    I agree with this statement, however, I don’t believe that it takes any enlightened state to know which works of art have affected the most people in the most significant way. If people are affected in a positive way they will show their support by purchasing CDs, concert tickets, downloads etc. This is NOT to say that the Billboard Pop Charts are measuring the most significant music of our time. I think that in the short term effective marketing of ephemeral music can be quite influential on large groups of people, but this music is quickly forgotten. The most significant music is that which speaks to the largest number of people over the longest period of time, anything else is personal opinion.

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  19. Colin Holter

    Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
    David Coll is exactly right. I’ve been pretty hard-line in the context of this particular discussion, but there’s no doubt in my mind that (as I’ve argued elsewhere) this is issue is complex to a degree that requires us to look beyond simple, quantitative, x > y evaluations.

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  20. sgordon

    First things first, as it’s important we know where everyone stands on The Smiths. For me it’s one of those love/hate things: Johnny Marr rules, Morrisey drools. Kind of the typical “musician” opinion of them, I know. File next to “I only listen to U2 for The Edge”

    Anyway… Corey, Dan Van da Man, and the rest o’ y’all: take pity on Colin. Do remember, he’s a bit… I don’t know, what’s the right word… uncomfortable with himself. Or his likes / dislikes, at least. He seems to feel the need to apologize on a semi-regular basis for the fact that he likes pop music more than (so-called) “serious” music. Whatever. If he thinks everything good for you has to taste bad, let him eat his Ferney Flakes. Whatever keeps you regular, dude…

    There are those of us who understand that there is an art to songcraft, just as difficult (if not moreso) than writing some cockamamie mess in thirty different time signatures. I doubt Ferneyhough himself would claim to be able to write a good, catchy pop song. Or that he’s more significant than The Smiths. Assuming he’s heard of them.

    Of course, the fundamental issue being the definition of “significance” – as if we’d all agree on the sentiment as long as we all agreed on the usage. The only way it makes sense, IMO, is if it’s in terms of size – like “Mahler’s Symphonies require significant forces” or “Pavarotti consumed a significant portion of Fettucine Alfredo” or something…

    If he meant it in the most common sense, though, meaning “important” – as in variable X’s influence – i.e. “Fettucine Alfredo was a significant factor in the death of Pavarotti” – then I don’t think Karl Rove could even spin that mishegas to make sense. Maybe instinctively it felt like the right thing to say – because, well, of course “serious” music is more important than, like, not-serious music. Ech.

    I mean, it’s quite simple – more art has been created as a result of someone being inspired by any single song of Morrisey & Marr than by the entire output of the entire faculties of Juilliard, Stanford, Princeton, and any three other schools combined. I think the only chart by which one could convincingly argue that Ferneyhough is more significant would be using the Corey Dargel Musical Valuation Formula. And even then you might be stretching it.

    Honestly, based on Colin’s past writings, I’d venture to suggest that Ferneyhough isn’t even as significant as The Smiths to him. Not deep down. I think he’d like BF to be more significant, that he thinks perhaps BF should be more significant, but he’s not, and that irks him to no end, because he’s put a lot of time and money into studying BF, and it’s all so darn complex and unweildy that it must be “better” otherwise what’s the point of it? And it’s certainly not helping him get with the ladies any, and he’s just gotta lash out the only way he can think – by writing an… unconvincing article. Yeah!

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  21. Chris Becker

    Personal attacks are lame Seth. Your post says more about your ego than Colin’s.

    I wish the focus had shifted about 10 posts ago to the last paragraph of Colin’s essay. Or the post that referenced Sontag’s essay. But this is the nature of “blogs” and comments I guess – people ignore the positive and focus on the negative – trying in vain to change someone else’s opinion instead of simply accepting that not everyone is in agreement in this world when it comes to music.

    Kind of sounds like a Morrisey lyric…

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  22. sgordon

    If Colin really wanted us to focus on his last paragraph, his little piece wouldn’t have even contained it’s second paragraph. He could have just as easily written a nice little piece about how there’s this urban myth, and isn’t nice to think that music could save someone’s life? And isn’t there any classical music that can have that effect? (BTW: yes, there is. I know someone who had a very powerful experience thanks to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood. But then he wasn’t academic, so I dunno if y’all count him…) And what pieces have moved you deeply? Discuss.

    But he appears incapable of saying anything positive about popular music without taking a dig at it at the same time. I mean, really, if I wrote a four-paragraph piece on Ferneyhough I don’t think I’d find it necessary to use one of those paragraphs to talk about how, of course, Kurt Cobain was vastly more influential than Ferneyhough.

    But a personal attack? Really? Where? I mean, this is a fairly common theme in Colin’s articles here. And it’s becoming a fairly common theme that people call him out on it. Remember this oldie-but-goodie?

    I don’t get the feeling that Colin is putting forth a legitimate question so much as using the issue to reiterate his own personal musical preferences … Even if his concern about expanding the listening palette of his fellow students is genuine, the tone he uses when needlessly contrasting so-called popular music with the music he prefers … comes across to me as needlessly condescending.

    And fer chrissakes – while we’re on the subject – the fucking Intermedio? That’s not even a major Ferneyhough piece! One could argue it’s one of the most minor works in his canon. I mean, he’d still be wrong even he used, like, TAMS as his example or something – but to use the frickin’ Intermedio is just insulting. And believe me, I have insulted Morrisey on many occasions. I am – dare I say – an expert at insulting Morrisey. So I know when he’s being insulted.

    Just how obscure is the piece? If you Google “Intermedio Alla Ciaccona”, this page is the third one to come up. That’s… pretty obscure. Cripes. My ass is vastly more important than Ferneyhough’s Intermedio.

    —–

    Re: personal attacks. Don’t take ‘em personally. Odd, Colin didn’t really seem to be bothered. I mean, I didn’t get here until after he’d called everyone else’s comments “turds” – so I dunno, I might be the next piece of shit to hit the fan. No hard feelings if I am. I mean, hey, someone called me lame and egotistical earlier today and it didn’t really bother me none…

    But really… I don’t really see how anything above could be construed as a personal attack.

    Okay… I just realized I’d rather be watching The Chelsea Handler Show than doing this.

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