View From the West: How Do We Judge New Music?

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

In a way, I will be preaching to the choir in this column. On the other hand, the point raised is one worth considering or, perhaps more accurately, reconsidering.

That which is new, unfamiliar, or outside of the realm what we are comfortable with, that which we do not understand, we often perceive of as threatening, ill-considered or simply bad. In turn we reject or perhaps merely ignore it. In music, if we don’t get it, we don’t like it. The irony is that composers—who are most often about the business of creating something new, unusual, or different and are continually complaining that their music is not accepted, is not given due respect by performers and listeners—are themselves hurling barbs and criticism against contemporaneous work that they do not care for, which is to say, music that does not conform to their fundamental aesthetic. Those at the vanguard of the arts, including music, have always suffered the diatribes and barbs of critics, yet they are often more than ready to tear into one of their colleagues or peers.

How many times have I heard composers lambasting the work of their contemporaries. In some instances, the criticism is of the fundamental musical aesthetic. In many instances, however, the rejection is due to a misunderstanding of the composer’s intent and method, and an unwillingness to judge the work on its own merits. Rather, the critic judges the work according to his/her own criteria, though such criteria may be completely inappropriate and irrelevant.

The history of such misunderstandings and misgivings is a long and proud one. Claudio Monteverdi engaged in a series of heated, bitter polemical essays with G. M. Artusi who accused the former of breaking rules regarding the “proper” use and resolution of dissonance. Had Monteverdi capitulated to Artusi’s demands for proper voice leading and treatment of dissonance, the basic musical language of the baroque period and the so-called “Doctrine of Affections” would have been put on hold.

With the advent of music journalism and criticism came assaults on composers whose work was progressive or in some way departed from the conventions of the day. Nicolas Slonimsky gathered hundreds of critical reviews, letters, and other such written assaults on composers in his famous Lexicon of Musical Invective. In it, one finds such gems as “Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer” and “Chopin increasingly effects the crudest modulations. Cunning must be the connoisseur, indeed, who, while listening to his music, can form the slightest idea when wrong notes are played . . . ” It seems from Beethoven on, critics, journalists, and historians felt compelled to put into writing the notion that modern music sounds like nothing so much as incomprehensible noise and that such music cum noise was leaving things in a sorry mess.

As was noted in an earlier column, Schoenberg told his student John Cage: “In order to write music you must have a feeling for harmony.” Cage told the elder composer that he had no feeling for harmony to which Schoenberg replied that a failure to learn harmony would result in impenetrable wall that would block his musical aspirations. Cage retorted, “In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.” As we all now know, Cage’s apathy towards harmony did nothing to prevent him from becoming one of the most important and influential composers of the last century.

For many years, minimalism has been the object of many critical muggings. Luciano Berio, one of Steve Reich‘s former teachers, said, “It [Minimalism] doesn’t give me anything. I see it as a very naive experience, the musical equivalent of Grandma Moses.” Leon Kirchner has referred to it as “lobotomized Bruckner,” and Charles Wuorinen perceives of it as “an aspect of society-wide mental illness.” Elliott Carter, a composer whom Glass hoped to emulate in his student days, has been outspoken in his rejection of the idiom:

Silence is the most minimal music. About one minute of Minimalism is a lot, because it is all the same. [The Minimalists] are not aware of the larger dimensions of life. One also hears constant repetition in the speeches of Hitler, and in advertising. It has its dangerous aspects.

These diatribes are simply a manifestation of the unwillingness, even inability of those making the statements to listen in a new or different way. Obviously Carter has not listened with any care or attention to detail when he asserts that minimalism “is all the same.” And to accuse minimalism of being fascist and dangerous is simply ludicrous.

I tell my students that they must listen with different ears, to enter into a different modality of comprehension when attending to new or unfamiliar music. Just as one cannot perceive and understand Boulez‘s music when listening with “Beethoven ears,” neither can one listen to and appreciate the music of Feldman or Reich by evaluating the music according to the criteria for understanding Stockhausen‘s music. To say that minimalism is simple and simple minded is ignorant, intellectually dishonest, and closed minded. I fear that too many teachers are passing along such perspectives on music to their students by making pitch relations not only the means, but the ends in their teaching of compositional methods.

Of course, listening to music in naïve way is often fulfilling, but in many instances a naïve approach to listening is not enough. As an example, many listening to Japanese gagaku with the same set of criteria or expectations in place when listening to Josquin or Bach, or Creed, for that matter, will be disappointed or confused.

Many do not accord Debussy and especially Satie the respect that they deserve because of a fundamental misunderstanding of their work. If we do a Schenkerian analysis of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun or Satie’s Relâche, what does it really tell us? If Debussy’s greater concern is with color, do the conventions of harmonic analysis reveal all we need to know? How could they? The conventions of voice leading and harmonic motion are almost tangential to Debussy’s musical lexicon. In a way, he is like Feldman in that he chooses one sound (perhaps a conglomeration of extended tertian harmonies, a collection of woodwinds, low dynamics, and amorphous rhythms) and simply moves on to the next without regard for proper harmonic motion. If Satie is challenging us to reconsider the very definition of music in his musique d’ameublement or a work such as “Vexations” with its admonition to play the work 840 times, what is the point of assigning Roman numerals to the chords?

One gets the sense that many music historians simply cannot fathom why Satie remains in the history books. His music is so simple (read: stupid), but somehow he has managed to weasel his way in the music history texts and no one has the fortitude and courage to toss him out. So they talk about his use of humor and the fact that his music is often modal. If Satie was merely a musical humorist and dabbled in modal music, he probably would be irrelevant and his inclusion in music history texts pointless. In fact, one can make a case that Satie was one of the most revolutionary and visionary composers of the last century, setting up a new musical paradigm, a new musical aesthetic that was more conceptual, less structural. Cage seemed to draw that conclusion. Likewise, Debussy was far more revolutionary than Schoenberg, but we seem to miss that altogether. Whereas we focus on Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, which is, after all, simply a kind of analog to the tonal system, a way of organizing atonal materials and chromatic saturation, Debussy completely upset the Western musical apple cart by rearranging the hierarchy of Western music, by placing color above pitch relations. He paved the way for Stravinsky‘s emancipation and elevation of rhythm and Varèse‘s egalitarian approach in which any musical component could rise to the top of the heap.

What would a harmonic analysis replete with Roman numerals reveal in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Riley‘s In C, Young‘s The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, or Harold Budd‘s Madrigals of the Rose Angel? It might demonstrate something of value, but it also misses the point, the intent of these works. The aesthetic simply does not reside in the harmonic structure or the conventions of pitch relations.

What is at the core of the problem of evaluating and critiquing new music? It is an unwillingness to accept new aesthetics and evaluate work according to the tenets of those aesthetics. If one were to evaluate the music of Mozart relying solely on the techniques of medieval music, one would have to conclude that the classical genius was in fact a misguided iconoclast.

I recall hearing a segment years ago on NPR‘s Morning Edition or All Things Considered with a couple of PhD candidates in musicology at Harvard. They had established a set of criteria upon which Western classical composers could be evaluated and judged. Using their criteria, they compiled a list of the one hundred greatest composers. Guess who came in at the number one position? J.S. Bach? Beethoven? Stravinsky? Mozart? No, none of these. The greatest composer of all time was, according to these budding musicologists, was Guillaume de Machaut. Actually, I thought it was a great choice, but I could also imagine the collective gasp of horror of music professionals, scholars, lovers, and dilettantes at hearing that their beloved Beethoven, Wagner, or Mozart was being out done by a composer they had perhaps never heard of, much less heard. Of course, the entire exercise was bogus, but it was great food for thought. What were their criteria for judging greatness? Did they judge the sophisticated manipulation of musical materials? What weight was given to matters of aesthetics, content apart from structure, form, and design?

Next time you hear a piece of music that doesn’t suit your tastes, perhaps you ought to consider what its creator was attempting to accomplish in the work and through its creation. You might reject the aesthetic of the work, but that does not mean that the work does not have merit and integrity, musical and otherwise.