What’s That Hissing Sound?

Snakes on a Plane. Nope, I’m not trying to craft a metaphor to illustrate the panicky reception generally reserved for so-called new music. Those four simple words form the sensationalistic title of a film that bloggers far and wide have been poking fun at for over a year now. Portals like Snakes on a Blog hint at the depth of the phenomenon. We’re talking galleries of homemade t-shirts, YouTube video spoofs, quote trackers, joke eBay auctions, and an audience participation Wiki, all of which have sparked an enormous amount of fan-generated sight-unseen hype for the movie’s release. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The cyber buzz reverberated so strongly that the filmmakers felt compelled to include the most notorious pundit-created hypothetical line of dialog in the final cut of the film itself: “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.” And with that utterance, Samuel L. Jackson just secured his place in film history textbooks. Okay, maybe not. But one thing is for certain: Tonight’s premiere screenings will be riddled with those noblest connoisseurs of pop culture self-parody and all things ironic, a.k.a. hipsters.

The weird thing about all of this is that those filmgoers in search of satire are likely to be outnumbered by general audiences parked in their seats to munch on some popcorn while digging what they perceive as a straight up action flick. Snakes on a Plane is walking a tricky tightrope between summertime blockbuster and cult B-movie. If only this type of subversive activity could happen at, say, Carnegie Hall. But there you have mostly hardcore aficionados (usually un-hipsters) commingling with the not exactly in the know minority. We’ve got an inverse SoaP situation. Regardless, it really shouldn’t matter whether it’s a classical music concert or a film screening: audiences of any ilk should be allowed to get what they want out of the experience. If someone wants to use classical music to simply relax, I say go for it. Unfortunately, our industry seems hell-bent on promulgating the notion that there really is something that’s needed—advanced degrees are helpful—in order to fully appreciate music.

Granted, when I pay my ten bucks to snicker at those motherfucking snakes, I’ll probably take away something from the film totally different than the guy behind me. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In the quest to defibrillate our concert halls, we don’t need to dumb things down. All that’s needed are some kick ass ideas like Snakes on a Plane!

That name alone is so simple, direct, visceral. Call me crazy, but maybe there’s something to learn from all of this. There should be more hype surrounding new music premieres. Not the slick marketing that already pervades the biz, but something more viral, spread through high profile blogs, MySpace, and what have you. New music fans should be privy to advance materials and concepts involved in the piece, and then let them gossip, form incorrect presumptions, and generate rumors. There isn’t much for concertgoers to latch onto before a premiere; nothing sent out to seduce us. While hype is easy to resist, it also holds the potential to invoke an en masse sense of comfort, a “we’re all in this together”-ness. Hey, checkout that little enclave in the first balcony wearing those cryptic t-shirts. What are they doing here?

23 thoughts on “What’s That Hissing Sound?

  1. Colin Holter

    I know composers (whose opinions I generally value very highly) who cherish the “under-the-radar-hood” of new music – they feel that their work would be depreciated if it were at the mercy of mass culture’s capricious fads, let alone its commercial whimsy. They would be alarmed and quite disturbed if a passage from one of their pieces showed up in a television ad or a cell phone ringtone, for instance, or if the “hipsters” you mention were to name-check it in a Pitchfork review. Any temporary popularity their music might enjoy would be trivialized, they believe, by its evaluation on an axis of “hipness,” an evanescent and superficial quality; once digested by pop culture, it might never mean the same thing again.

    I kind of see where they’re coming from, but speaking personally, hipness is a Faustian bargain I’d be willing to make. Even the most educated – the hippest, so to speak – sector of the American populace is staggeringly ignorant of what we do. I am, of course, unwilling to compromise when it comes to my music per se, but its promotion is another story, and if viral web marketing is what it takes to expose more people to the life-changing potential of new music, so be it.

    Reply
  2. DJA

    That may seem like a rhetorical question, but it’s not.

    “they feel that their work would be depreciated if it were at the mercy of mass culture’s capricious fads”

    Especially since, from where I stand, the world of Serious Music is no less subject to capricious fads. Is it just that composers are temperamentally better able to understand how to exploit the capricious fads of their own isolated scene, but feel alienated and confused by the outside world?

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  3. Colin Holter

    Maybe the new music world is dominated by capricious fads if you live in New York or Berlin, but from where I stand (specifically the rust belt), it ain’t.

    I guess you could call complex nested tuplets, for instance, a fad in the sense that they made quite a splash in certain circles upon their introduction and have been appropriated (responsibly and irresponsibly) by a fair (but by no means overwhelming) number of composers since the late 1970s. This is not a fad in the same sense that having an exclamation point or the word “wolf” in your band’s name is a fad.

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  4. DJA

    Well, that’s kind of tangential to my main question, which is why so many composers seem to disdain and/or fear the culture at large. This is a very rare trait in, say, filmmakers or visual artists or novelists, but with academically-trained composers it often seems to be the default stance.

    After all, it’s not like popular culture is one vast undifferentiated craptastic mass — there is brilliant and important pop culture, breezily entertaining pop culture (like, say, the film in question, I’m guessing — haven’t seen it yet) and mind-numbingly awful pop culture. You know, same as any other field of endeavor. And frankly, I don’t see that the brilliant-to-craptastic ratio is any better inside the ivory tower than outside of it.

    But anyway, I would contend that certain academic orthodoxies — like, say, the widespread insistence on extremely specific notation — are every bit as capricious and artistically irrelevant as the indie rock fads you mention above. Probably even moreso, since it’s not like every band is required to have “Wolf” in their name.

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  5. ottodafaye

    “…my main question, which is why so many composers seem to disdain and/or fear the culture at large.”

    My question: Who are these composers? I don’t think I know any like that. Hell, everyone in my surf band is a trained/degreed composer, and they all know and love pop culture, as do I.

    Arthur Jarvinen

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  6. ydandaman

    pop culture
    I believe it is inaccurate to say that academic composers “hate pop culture”. It might be more accurate to say they consider it to be less important, meaningful, creative, etc. An attitude I have noticed is something like: pop culture is great…in its place, with the obvious implication that “its place” is something less significant than contemporary classical.

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  7. DJA

    I don’t know a single composer born in the USA after 1970 who hates pop culture.

    And yet…

    I know composers (whose opinions I generally value very highly) who cherish the “under-the-radar-hood” of new music – they feel that their work would be depreciated if it were at the mercy of mass culture’s capricious fads, let alone its commercial whimsy.

    All of the above born before 1970 and/or outside the US? I’m honestly just trying to get a sense of who you are talking about here.

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  8. coreydargel

    Anecdotal evidence should be encouraged as a legitimate tool for debate. Readers do, however, require a little more information about the source to ensure that the evidence is not being made up.

    On the whole, contracted NMBx contributors should be informing the readers, not the other way around. It’s not our job to educate the willfully ignorant. Ideally, we would be able to ignore unsubstantiated and unrealistic claims, but at the same time, we don’t want curious stoppers-by to get the impression that such ridiculous claims are true.

    Poor blogosphere, of which I often expect too much…

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  9. Colin Holter

    I have in my hand a list of composers who hate pop culture. . .

    Seriously, do you want me to name names? I’m speaking primarily about American university-employed composers of experimental music born before the year 1970 – and, as ydandaman points out, to characterize them as “haters” of pop culture is an unfair oversimplification.

    You are right to challenge my use of anecdotal evidence in the absence of statistical data. The problem, perhaps, is that this kind of anecdotal evidence is only effective if you can buy into its truthfulness; for example, all the composers whom I know are, without exception, university students or professors. If you’re working outside of academia, it’s quite possible that you’d never come across a pop-culture-shy composer of the sort I mentioned, in which case it might seem as though I’m constructing some sort of fiction. Take my word for it, though: They’re out there.

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  10. ottodafaye

    I am speaking now strictly from personal experience and observation. Most of the composers I know, from all generations (I am 50 years old) listen to a wider range of music than the average person, as far as I can tell. I know a few “high-fallutin” snobs, but mostly I know the typical serious composer to enjoy a wide range of music, especially vernacular music of their youth.

    What has always disappointed me is that, though composers typically (in my experience) display a serious and informed interest in other art forms, contemporary artists outside of music seem to be mostly interested in the hippest pop music trends, and rarely display much interest in or knowledge of what we would call “new music”.

    I’ve never quite figured out why that is, but when I mention it in conversation, people always go “Yeah…you know, you’re right”.

    Arthur Jarvinen

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  11. ichypatia

    “Unfortunately, our industry seems hell-bent on promulgating the notion that there really is something that’s needed—advanced degrees are helpful—in order to fully appreciate music.”

    There’s not a single sane person in business who would ever suggest that concert music is part of an industry. Being a part of industry means you’re in business. And businesses make money, see?

    “All that’s needed are some kick ass ideas like Snakes on a Plane! That name alone is so simple, direct, visceral.”

    Such insight. Instead of signing up for on-line courses in direct marketing, why don’t we focus on trying to write better music.

    “There isn’t much for concertgoers to latch onto before a premiere; nothing sent out to seduce us.”

    There I go again – all twisted and confused. I thought the point was to make great music.
    Silly me.

    Reply
  12. Colin Holter

    The point is to make great music – and for that music to be heard.

    Nowhere in his piece does Randy suggest that we start writing shitty music. He’s talking about how our music is presented, which as far as I’m concerned is completely independent of the issue of musical substance. It goes without saying that we take our work seriously and strive for the best music we can produce; what’s less sure is that people will listen to it once we’ve written it, and I think this is the problem Randy is addressing.

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  13. ichypatia

    Real world marketing requires that the marketer offer a product the end-user actually needs or desires. Once you’ve managed this, it’s not so hard to get audiences to show up.

    They will. Eventually.

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  14. coreydargel

    It’s easier to market the same-old same-old crap than it is to market something new, innovative, and/or fresh – something that exists as much (or more) on its own terms than on the foundation of that which came before it. Part of the problem lies with marketing staff, press agents, etc. Many of them are lazy and will not go the extra mile to try and sell something that hasn’t been shrink-wrapped, sealed, and proven safe and effective.

    There’s plenty of good, new music out there. That’s not the problem. The problem is that boring, mundane, and outdated music is what’s being promoted and marketed because, well, it doesn’t require extra work and creativity to sell.

    To take the “living in a vacuum” position that thinking and talking about marketing is done at the expense of writing good music is an irresponsible and, ultimately, self-defeating stance.

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  15. ichypatia

    “It’s easier to market the same-old same-old crap than it is to market something new, innovative, and/or fresh…”

    Not true. Ask your local marketing firm whether they’d rather sell belly button deodorant or the iPod. It’s very difficult for marketing to be effective without a solid product.

    “Part of the problem lies with marketing staff, press agents, etc. Many of them are lazy…”

    Then get to work and learn how to do it yourself.

    ” …talking about marketing is done at the expense of writing good music is an irresponsible and, ultimately, self-defeating stance.”

    Agreed. Let’s be sure neither of us does this.

    Reply
  16. coreydargel

    Oh, poor anonymous ichypatia. Stop making cold-hearted implications, or at least do a wee bit of barebones research before you draw conclusions.

    Marketing a product that has a specific utilitarian function is not the same as marketing a work of art.

    I am the wrong person to accuse of not knowing how to promote new music.

    Are you, perhaps, a press person yourself? Surely not, for that would just prove my point.

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  17. ichypatia

    My comments are based in many years of experience with marketing and marketers within the US, and were meant to encourage the pursuit of great music.

    Simply put, I believe we should concern ourselves less with marketing strategy and more with how we might create music that performers can “sink their teeth” into.

    Apologies to those I have offended.

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  18. CM Zimmermann

    Mr. Nordschow is suggesting that the new music community appropriate marketing and promotional techniques from the culture industry in order to create more ‘hype’ for itself. He writes that we do not need to ‘dumb things down’, but we do need ‘kick ass ideas like Snakes on a Plane.’

    This analysis and the ramifications of its suggestions for new music are rather shocking considering that the strength and importance of much of this music derives from its very resistance to commodification and to the position(s) it inhabits in relation to the larger cultural constellation.

    I would hope that more profound values than hype would be at work in the presentation and promotion of new music. Our analyses and understanding of the philosophical and cultural issues at the core of our contemporary musical environment(s) must move beyond the simplistic surface concerns of hype and promotion. It is imperative that we re-think the entire economic, political, aesthetic, philosophical foundations upon which music is created and experienced. ‘Snakes on a Plane’? I would hope that we can be more creative and aware of the problematic underbelly of such cultural phenomena.

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  19. Colin Holter

    I totally hear you, but let me ask you this: What does it matter if we “re-think the entire economic, political, aesthetic, philosophical foundations upon which music is created and experienced?” We’re in the right! What we need is for them–i.e., the potential audience–to adjust their attitudes.

    By the same token, would you hype a performance of the St. Matthew Passion? I’d say that we probably should, if it will get asses in the seats. It will cause no harm to Bach’s music.

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  20. CM Zimmermann

    Colin,

    If we do not rethink the entire economic, political, aesthetic, philosophical foundations upon which music is created and experienced then we are left with dealing with the symptoms and not the fundamental problems. In other words, low ticket sales, reduced subscription bases, a general lack of awarness of new music are symptoms of larger societal problems. Attending to the symptoms seems to be what arts organizations in general, lacking broader vision, are concerned with, and thus we see all kinds of gimmicks to try to get ‘asses in seats’.

    Your response to my initial post contains a dichotomy between ‘us’ (ostensibly producers of music) and ‘them’ (potential audience) which needs to be rethought and conceptualized. This sort of dichotomy really only serves to alienate and to preserve a division of labor so to speak within musical culture. ‘We’, the producers of music, are active and in the right. ‘Them’, those passive concert-goers and consummers, need to be educated and converted. The reception of music is an integral part of the larger experience of the art of music. The traditional roles and functions of composers, musicians, audiences, critics must be re-conceptualized in order to create a more communicative and collective approach to music and to artistic environments. Much work must be done to help connect what is often difficult music to our history, traditions, philosophical stances… We also must work towards searching out the soft points in our discourses and cultures and acknowledging that many of the problems that ‘classical music’ and new music (not to mention other artistic forms of contemporary music) face stem from problems fundamental to what has become hyper-capitalist consumer culture.

    CMZ

    Elastic Arts Room

    http://www.elasticartsroom.org

    Reply

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