When the Saints Go Marching In
In his Kreisleriana, ETA Hoffmann relates a story about Jean-Philippe Rameau on his deathbed. (Full disclosure: I’m a big Rameau fan, and not just because his face is the icon for my microtonal playback software.) Hoffmann describes a priest, last visitor to the dying Rameau, who entered the master’s chamber and began to conduct his last rites. As the priest started to pray, Rameau interrupted him. “Vous avez la voix fausse,” he cried, holding his ears. Hoffmann interprets this reaction as an indication that Rameau’s musicality had reached such a height that he found all earthly sounds dissonant; he was ready, at last, to hear the otherwise inaudible music of heaven.
More recently, in last week’s Friday Informer, the all-seeing Molly Sheridan brought to our attention a piece from the Washington Post in which critic Tim Page lists twenty-five recordings that contradict the “bad rap” of twentieth-century music. I applaud Page’s effort; nevertheless, for someone who claims to be an advocate of new music, Page spends a lot of words demeaning it. He unfavorably compares Schoenberg’s Opus 25 to Pet Sounds, which is just sort of ridiculous. Pet Sounds isn’t even the best album of 1966 (come on—Blonde on Blonde? Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme? Revolver!?). The critic also goes out of his way to suggest that listeners avoid performances of 4’33″ because it’s boring, which is like saying that we shouldn’t get outside and exercise because it’s tiring.
If we buy Hoffmann’s analysis, another way to describe Rameau’s condition would be to say that he inhabited a contracting musical universe. The standards by which he evaluated music, in other words, became less and less inclusive, admitting fewer and fewer sounds. Tim Page’s goal seems to be to broaden his readers’ horizons, but he can’t seem to pursue this goal without couching his recommendations as alternatives to weirder, boring-er pieces with which he’d rather you not waste your time. Why don’t we all just strive to appreciate as much music as possible before we die?
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I enjoy about 5 percent of the total music I’ll ever hear in my life. Won’t I be twice as happy if I enjoy 10 percent of that music? There’s a lot of music I dislike, but if I could somehow like it all, I’d probably get much more out of life—especially since, as a professional musician, I spend a lot of time listening to music. We have to confront the matter of evaluation in our work (“all art presupposes a work of selection,” to quote Stravinsky), but when we’re “off the clock,” so to speak, how does it benefit us to hate certain kinds of music?
It doesn’t. My advice: Like everything, or at least try. It’s good for your blood pressure. I want to inhabit an expanding musical universe: When I die, I want everything—barking dogs, Slipknot records, everything—to sound beautiful.