The Sum vs. The Pieces

Last week Randy Nordschow asked what would happen if we monitored the reactions of ordinary citizens to our zany newfanglements. I was about to comment that most Americans are probably familiar with the sounds of new music through film scores and popular music and that only the most radical contemporary works would be likely to upset their aesthetic applecarts when I overheard a relative refer to me as “someone who actually enjoys Stockhausen.” Maybe we haven’t come as far as I thought; then again, I know more than a few composers who don’t enjoy Stockhausen, so there you go.

Part of this problem has to do with a fundamental wrinkle in the way we often talk about new music. I wasn’t accused of being someone who likes Licht—still a very broad-brush accusation, although one I can admit to—but of someone who likes Stockhausen. Now that the master’s been called back to Sirius and his output is complete, I can say I run hot and cold on his catalog. I have a lot of affection for Kontakte but don’t really care for the saccharine Im Freundschaft (a piece that would raise few eyebrows among lay listeners).

But maybe what lies behind my relative’s allegation has less to do with individual pieces and more to do with Stockhausen as a figure. It’s certainly true that I approve of Stockhausen as a contributor to the creative Lebenswelt of the 20th century, and I recognize his influence on generations of musicians from all quarters. In that sense, I do enjoy Stockhausen—I enjoy that he existed, I enjoy that he produced some landmark stuff, and I enjoy that he was (let’s be honest) a little crazy. So perhaps the surnamic metonymy invoked by my relative says more about me than if he’d broken it down to Carré vs. Gesang der Jünglinge, although this possibility calls to mind the moment in Zoolander when Hansel, Owen Wilson’s character, confesses a deep admiration for Sting even though the he doesn’t listen to the latter’s music. The difference between me and Hansel, I suppose, is that my respect is quickly squandered as soon as the words “John,” “Dowland,” “cover,” and “album” are used together. But I’m behind the rainforest activism a hundred and ten percent.

13 thoughts on “The Sum vs. The Pieces

  1. philmusic

    Perhaps there is a point where even smart folks can lose their objective distance and become “fans.” Then, its just a short skip and jump from being a fan to being a fanatic especially where the business of music has devolved into nationalism and stylistic “teams”.

    If your famous enough people work for you. So I sometimes wonder if some musicians opinions are actually their own or merely professional (that is reflective of their team affiliation and their status within it).

    On the other hand some composers or performers lend themselves more easily to the “cult of personality” than others. It would seem that a bunker mentality offers the least defense against joining up.

    Phil Fried, Skid-roe U.

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  2. stevetaylor

    Sorry to be jumping in late here – just wanted to let you know I was privileged to see an inspiring performance of Im Freundschaft last spring in Urbana, for soprano saxophone. Almost as good as the mind-blowing Musik im Bauch I saw once performed by the Ear Unit.

    But yeah, it is pretty cool if your relatives are name-checking Stockhausen!

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  3. Mr. Bacon

    Aren’t people tired of congratulating ourselves on our “weird” listening habits, and comparing ourselves to “lay” listeners? Britney Spears’ latest album was full of haunting electronic effects that Karlheinz never dreamed of.

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  4. colin holter

    I was privileged to see an inspiring performance of Im Freundschaft last spring in Urbana

    Wow, sorry I missed that one. Is there some kind of theatrical performance practice for that piece (like Harlekin, maybe) that prompted a comparison to Musik im Bauch? I’ve only seen the score and heard an audio recording, so I don’t know whether there’s more to a performance of the piece than that.

    Aren’t people tired of congratulating ourselves on our “weird” listening habits, and comparing ourselves to “lay” listeners?

    I don’t think there’s anything self-congratulatory about it – although I think what separates us from the Britneyphiles out there is that we recognize the historical and cultural difference between her (producer’s) use of “haunting electronic effects” and KS’s to be more significant than the effects themselves.

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  5. Somebody

    Music Effects – Significance
    Please, Colin, tell us what makes one music effect more significant than another music effect? Aside, from you just saying it is more significant because it is, like it is. Please, Colin, – self congratulatory? Hmm… the new music box staff, self congratulatory effects… haunting…

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  6. colin holter

    tell us what makes one music effect more significant than another music effect

    I don’t think you understood my sentence correctly. My point was that the cultural-meaning difference is more significant than the sound of the effect, not that one effect is more significant than the other (although I suppose whichever was used first might be more significant qua a technological development).

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  7. Somebody

    My point was that the cultural-meaning difference is more significant than the sound of the effect, not that one effect is more significant than the other…

    Sheesh, cultural-meaning difference. Those-them-thar fancy words… cultural-meaning difference and music effects, Carl, are you a musician? Do you compose?

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  8. Mr. Bacon

    I wouldn’t phrase my confusion like “Somebody” did, but I’m also still unsure of what you imply by “cultural-meaning difference.” Are you saying that pop enthusiasts don’t perceive this cultural meaning difference? What is this difference, and between what? What cultures are we talking about? Please explain…

    What if we’re both (we listen to Karlheinz and Britney)? Must we still use these polarities of listener catagories?

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  9. colin holter

    What is this difference, and between what?

    As you point out, a comparison between Britney Spears and Karlheinz Stockhausen is asymmetrical for a number of reasons (one of which is that KS was a trained composer of instrumental music working with now-primitive analog sound equipment, albeit with some assistance, in a state-owned radio studio some years after the second World War, whereas Britney is a singer who contributes the source material for a heavily manipulated vocal track that belongs to a song, written by a squadron of hitmakers, whose recorded manifestation is produced by separate specialists); it just happens that the name we attach to the product called “Toxic” is Britney Spears and the name we attach to the product called Studie I is Karlheinz Stockhausen. Neither Britney nor her composers nor her producers are turning to a nascent technology as an escape pod from what they perceive to be an enervated musical culture laden with terrifying political associations. Likewise, Stockhausen didn’t dial up his additive synthesis on a softsynth bundled with Reason between lines of coke in Santa Monica to finance his most recent divorce. This is the kind of distinction I mean – it’s why Schoenberg’s Eb major in the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte is a different phenomenon from Beethoven’s in the Eroica, and both of these are different from Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” to choose three pieces of which I’m personally quite fond.

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  10. Chris Becker

    “Aren’t people tired of congratulating ourselves on our “weird” listening habits, and comparing ourselves to “lay” listeners?”

    What I found lacking in Randy’s initial post was any sense of personal meaning in the what and why of his listening and composing. We have a new columnist now that is actually talking about composition and spirituality, which I applaud. If we talk about and present our music without conveying a sense of why we are moved to write what we write and listen to what we listen to we will not make any connection to “lay” listeners.

    Or let me put it this way, much of NMBx’s editorial slant seems to be that if we mirror popular music’s marketing strategies, then we will bring people unfamiliar with 20th and 21st rep over to our concerts and recordings. But many of the artists I admire – in all realms of creativity – speak of their music in terms of life and death. I wouldn’t be composing still at 40 if it didn’t provide me with something I can’t find in any other action. It is like a religion to me. And many performers I personally know – in avant-garde jazz, rock and roll, and in the world of 21st century “composition” feel similarly.

    It’s like being in love. You don’t say “I’m in lust” or “we’re just good friends” etc. Love is something else altogether. And I love music and I love the music I listen to and the musicians I work with.

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  11. Mr. Bacon

    No, Colin, Karlheinz was busy taking hits of acid, not coke – and didn’t divorce much. In fact, he seemed to have multiple partners.

    Sounds like you’re saying that Karlheinz’s electronic effects are more artistically motivated than commercially motivated, like Britney’s might be. He wanted to do something different, reject the status quo–but I don’t think you needed to say that at the expense of pop, or its sound engineers, who make up a good portion of the electronic cutting edge. As for any commerically-driven musical decisions, I think we can blame capitalism.

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  12. colin holter

    No, Colin, Karlheinz was busy taking hits of acid, not coke – and didn’t divorce much. In fact, he seemed to have multiple partners.

    Acid in 1954? Seems unlikely, but I could be wrong. And it was those multiple partners who catalyzed a number of the pieces we’ve referenced thus far, including Harlekin and Im Freundschaft. In any case, let me clarify that I’m not holding KS up as a paragon of clean living.

    Sounds like you’re saying that Karlheinz’s electronic effects are more artistically motivated than commercially motivated, like Britney’s might be. He wanted to do something different, reject the status quo–but I don’t think you needed to say that at the expense of pop, or its sound engineers, who make up a good portion of the electronic cutting edge.

    This isn’t about the whys and wherefores, it’s about the hows. Some of my best friends are commercial sound engineers. They’re hip to techniques that many electroacoustic composers probably know nothing about. But Britney Spears–whose name is only involved in this conversation because you invoked it several posts ago–is neither a sound engineer nor a songwriter, and when we talk about what “she” does, we’re actually talking about what a small army of professionals do in her name, with her face on the package. I have forgotten what this thread was originally about.

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  13. macroboy

    Family matters
    No one in my family has even heard of Stockhausen so your comment rings with me in a different manner.

    Reply

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