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.

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14 thoughts on “When the Saints Go Marching In

  1. DJA

    Pet Sounds isn’t even the best album of 1966

    Except, of course, it is. I like those Paul Simon and Bob Dylan records well enough, but nothing on them comes remotely close to “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” or “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” The only serious competition is Revolver, but Pet Sounds is more consistent.

    Also, I think you are badly mischaracterizing Page. Here is what he wrote:

    Another early decision removed all pop, jazz and rock from consideration. This hurt. Do I really believe that Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25, is necessarily a “better” work than Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” or John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”? No, I do not. But the choice to concentrate entirely on works derived from Western European classical traditions allowed me to narrow the field as well as write about some music and musicians who are less than widely known.

    Note the use of “necessarily” and the scare quotes around “better.”

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  2. Colin Holter

    Revolver is better than Pet Sounds. This is immutable cosmic law and not subject to negotiation. I will concede that the Dylan album might not be up to par.

    Also, why would Page claim that he does not “necessarily” believe that Op. 25 is worse than Pet Sounds in the abstract? The word “necessarily” is in this case an escape hatch that allows Page to evade responsibility for his comparison. Not on my watch, Page. His use of the quotation marks around “better” have the same function – by calling into question the validity of comparative evaluation, Page has carte blanche to make such comparative evaluations (like the Beach Boys and Schoenberg) without critical responsibility.

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  3. axlroth

    Why is this simple statement by Tim Page proving so difficult to understand? He is asking the reader not to assume that because he has excluded all popular music from his list he is in some way implying that popular music is worthless. The idea that he considers Schoenberg “worse” than the Beach Boys or Coltrane is a projection out of the reader’s mind, in direct contradiction of the printed text. This is the weirdest NewMusicBox controversy to date.

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  4. DJA

    What Alex said.

    Colin, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you’d merely misunderstood Page, but I’m afraid your reply makes it seem like you are deliberately distorting his clear intention.

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  5. Colin Holter

    Fair enough, fair enough. I just think that his comment about Op. 25 and Pet Sounds was unnecessary and probably counter to his goal of winning more new music fans. If Page really wanted his readers to check out Schoenberg – and he should – he wouldn’t have gone there. Same with 4’33″ – if Page were actually interested in enlarging new music audiences, he woud stop talking shit about new music.

    Besides, he’s the Post’s classical music guy. It’s not like J. Freedom du Lac made a list of contemporary classical recordings – it’s Page’s job to discuss art music. He’s old and square; I don’t care what he thinks about Pet Sounds.

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  6. sgordon

    I think you’re giving Page a bit of a bad rap, here. I think his intent was to get people interested in new music by establishing that it’s not all unapproachable intellectual and/or conceptual exercises. Not that I think 4’33″ is unapproachable – but to the average person, it very much represents everything “Emporer’s New Clothing” about modern art. To someone coming to it from that perspective, where they’ve heard of this infamous “silent piece” and possibly scoffed at it, seeing a performance of it is not going to aid in understanding – it’s only going to try one’s patience. You really have to be pre-disposed to that sort of thing to get something out of it. Most of us here are, that’s why we listen to and write the wacky stuff we do. But most of Page’s audience probably isn’t.

    Not that he needed to dis Cage, of course. He could have just made his list and left well enough alone, kept his thoughts to himself. But perhaps he thought knocking it around a bit allowed him to bond with his audience – a little “hey, I think some of this stuff is ridiculous too!” to allay the trepidations of Joe Lunchbox.

    -

    I pondered long and hard over the Great Debate of the day, but alas, I could not come up with an answer. Call me a pussy for saying it, but I cannot commit to the superiority of either Pet Sounds or Revolver. I could claim one in this instant, but will not, as tomorrow, a year from now, ten years from now, a minute from now, I may – will – feel differently. This is a far more difficult conundrum than that posed in, say, Freddy vs. Jason.

    I will agree, however, that as good as Blonde on Blonde is it doesn’t belong with the other two – any other year you might put it at or near the top, but not 1966. And PSRT – ? Are you joking?

    Honestly, I never thought that any of Simon & Garfunkel’s albums were particularly strong as full albums – some great singles in there, to be sure, and while I wouldn’t call the filler “fluff” – none of their albums really have that one-classic-after-another power.

    And, for the record, Pet Sounds is a hundred times better than Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano. Actually, each song is a hundred times better, and God Only Knows is a thousand times better, which makes Pet Sounds a total of 2200 times better. This was proven in a joint MIT / Cal Tech study. Denying it would be akin to denying… evolution, or the existence of gravity.

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  7. jbunch

    It seems like this sort of conversation always gets gummed up in incomensurate ways of thinking about music. To compare Radiohead to Robert Ashley seems at heart to be an absolutely unrewarding endeavor. I’ve always tried to judge music by its own aesthetic. What is great about Radiohead is not necessarily valued in “concept music”, and vv.

    I have to believe it’s possible to appreciate the things I like without having to rank them in terms of their relative importance. That’s truly an “academic” question in the most cliché sense of the term.

    The way I do agree with Colin on this post is this: the way you get someone to love something is to show them how much you love it. Wouldn’t it be more effective to try to connect the spirit of what Cage was doing in 4’33″ to our own experiences as aesthetic beings? To me, that is a better way than jamming artistic expressions into easy slots, filing down the roll proclaiming : “bad…good…better…worse…more important…provincial…”

    So despite my tone, I respect what Page is doing, but I wish it could be a little more in the spirit of what violinist Midori has been attempting.

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  8. Colin Holter

    I shouldn’t be too hard on Page. When I was living in the DC area, I felt that the new music scene there was a bit anemic (although, to be fair, I didn’t explore it as much as I should have); Page’s advocacy of new music, backhanded though it may be, is valuable.

    He had only good things to say about the thriving new music presence at UMBC, my alma mater right outside the Baltimore beltway.

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  9. Marc

    Um, no
    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.

    No, it’s not. Because when you exercise, you are always tired, but when you listen to 4’33″, you aren’t always bored. Marc Geelhoed

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  10. kmanlove

    Now, now, Tim Page and I would like “to note that “4′ 33″,” whatever its philosophic merits, is decidedly uninteresting to listen to…” Has Mr. Page ever heard 4’33″ in a hall?

    Four Sibelius symphonies? Really?

    “Finally, I am acutely aware of the fact that all the composers on this list were born white and male. Suffice it to say that the classical-music world of the 20th century was in many ways a cloistered and highly restrictive community, and that those limitations are necessarily reflected in this list. It is already apparent that musical life in the 21st century will be very different.”

    –I am pretty sure that women and various races composed music in the last century. Oh, but they weren’t as awesome as Silvestre Revueltas (wait… he’s not white?!).

    Reply

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