Why Don’t You Come Over Here and Make Me

I recently attended a lecture on the music of several up-and-coming German composers whose work had been presented at Darmstadt this summer. After the speaker finished playing a recording of one of the pieces, an audience member raised her hand to ask a question about the composer’s treatment of harmony. When the speaker suggested that “pitch centers,” to use the audience member’s term, were not central to the composer’s thinking, the listener asserted, presumably by way of criticism, that “an unintended message is still a message.” This statement seems to raise an interesting question of coercion: No composer has the power to force a listener to approach his or her piece in a particular manner. On the other hand, how can a composer write for an audience with a potential infinitude of ways to listen? Certainly we can hold composers accountable for their unintended messages, but should we? Maybe it’s our mistake to intercept them and devote attention to their interpretation.

I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in discussing pop music with “serious” composers. On more than one occasion, they’ve chalked their ambivalence toward rock and roll up to the music’s harmonic limitations. Fair accusation—most pop music doesn’t rely on harmonic progress to make its argument, at least not in the same way that Western classical music has. But the first Dexys Midnight Runners LP isn’t going to spontaneously develop counterpoint. If you want to enjoy it, you’d better get over your hang-up about harmony and start listening closely to the quality of Kevin Rowland’s vocal delivery, for instance. Still searching for that satz? Tough cookies.

I would propose that the burden of understanding rests as heavily on the listener, the reader, as on the composer, the writer. If you don’t read Italian, then of course the untranslated Divina Commedia sucks. As I’ve said before, those of us who are professional musicians are likely to hear a lot of music in our lifetimes. The bottom line is that if we want to appreciate as much of it as possible, we’ll adapt our listening to correspond to each piece. The composer can’t make us do this—we have to make ourselves do it.

10 thoughts on “Why Don’t You Come Over Here and Make Me

  1. JKG

    Obligato…
    Nice point, Colin. My own perception of this balance between composer and listener goes something like this: there is no infinitude of interpretation, yet there might be something more akin to a bell curve of appreciation and understanding from an audience. Sometimes folks surprise you, particularly with an ambivalent and indifferent reaction to one’s music. This is even worse than them hating it, because when someone hates your music, there might be some chance later on that energy might be reversed. But indifference? When I could care less about a piece’s attempt to connect with me and my own life experience, or if I know enough about a composer’s indifference to any opinion I might have concerning his/her work, then I am left cold with a numbing “this has been a complete waste of my time…” sort of impression. And, since we have no control whatsoever over the backgrounds of any listener (except perhaps in a university setting where dogma of some sort reigns supreme), then we are left with simply taking our lumps if folks are too polite to tell us what they really think. The most damning thing a listener can say about my own work would be something like, “Interesting, but I’m still not sure what it means… *wry, staring grin*.” That tells me that, not only did I fail to communicate anything of value to that listener, but in turn they are refusing to communicate anything of value to me as useful feedback. Here’s another, equally callous reaction: “Oh, I just loved it!” After you ask why, they get this silly look in their eyes and repeat, “I don’t know, I just loved it!…” I would not bank on the perceptions of listeners as any sort of guide for one’s music; however, failing to reach the listener at large with hopes of something meaningful is to risk a disquieting dissappointment for the composer – some artists are all for such letting down, having masochistic tendencies and rejection as part of what makes them tick. I do not share those affections, and I’m sure you don’t either, right?

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  2. kmanlove

    I was present for the “pitch center” remark, and my problem was that if pitch centers are messages, that’s a pretty boring message. Even if it’s a piece about pitch centers, it’s pretty boring. Pitch centers can be a vessel to get a message across, but I seriously doubt that guy was writing a piece about pitch centers. I know that we’re a bit obsessed with harmony, but it’s not THAT interesting, especially compared to the messages that many of us try to bring across.

    Your point is a difficult one with lots of variables. Some people restrict those variables by finding their own specific audience that will get it, having a dumb message, having some long program note, etc. etc. etc. Certainly though, if your piece is about world peace and the necessary steps to get there, and your audience thinks it was about chickens copulating, you have a problem.

    It does help that the audience is open, educated, excited, receptive, etc., etc., etc., but there is something amazingly profound and amazing about an artist that can grab you, deliver a message, and leave. Audiences are also amazing and surprising beasts, unless there are a bunch of composers in it.

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  3. pgblu

    Comment
    Name a piece of music that is about just one thing. And I mean either just about one musical technique or just about one extramusical topic. Beethoven’s “Spring” violin sonata is about spring, sure, but would you listen to it because you really miss the springtime (with its copulating chickens) and long to be transported there? Stockhausen’s Zeitmasze is about simultaneous tempi, but is the piece worthless just because those tempos are practically impossible to identify?

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  4. ian

    I’ve made this point at other times on other boards, but I think you’re absoutely right that pop music suffers in the eyes of the classically-trained because of its lack of emphasis on harmony and counterpoint. Western classical music historically has had an intense bias towards those musical elements and away from things like rhythmic counterpoint and especially timbre (which includes, from pop music’s perspective, things like production and mastering). I was just thinking this morning that one of the reasons Steve Reich is so popular among people who like pop music is that all of his pieces pay so much attention to timbre. It’s not random that you hear so many marimbas and vibraphones and pianos in his music, or that he always uses strings in a certain way that’s very different from the percussion. For people who have grown up experiencing music primarily by way of recording instead of live, I think the question “how does it sound?” is primary–central. Timbre is the musical element that contributes most directly to that visceral, instant experience; harmony and counterpoint are more structurally oriented and less likely to be picked up in the same way. Which is all to say that I think most (non-classical) people respond to timbre much more than harmony/counterpoint–this is why guitarists spend so much time searching for the perfect equipment for the tone they want and the mixing process for studio recordings is so complicated and involved. I don’t mean to turn this into another pop vs. classical debate, but I’ll just say that from my own perspective as a composer, looking at the kinds of musical decisions that come out of the pop music world has always been tremendously informative and illuminating in terms of increasing the palette of choices available to me, even if I’m writing something as old-school as a piano trio or a string quintet.

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  5. pgblu

    rhythmic counterpoint
    So ‘rhythmic counterpoint’ and timbre are not musical elements?

    You can’t tell me that classical music does not have ‘rhythmic counterpoint’, unless by that you mean something akin to ‘groove’. True, classical music makes some use of rubato and other mechanically unreproduceable rhythmic nuances. I can’t say more since I don’t know what you mean… but counterpoint doesn’t exist without rhythm — that was lesson one for my counterpoint class this year.

    As for timbre: I tell you, when classical instrumentalists sit down to practice, they spend hours on their ‘sound’ and then, while learning new pieces, they keep coming back to their ‘sound’.

    Just because their sound doesn’t come out of the latest electronic gear doesn’t mean it isn’t central. They wouldn’t make it in their profession if they were just playing pitches, without regard for timbre, rhythm, and balance. It’s just that timbre and what Colin calls satz are equally important. Each depends on the other to reach the apex of its expressivity, and this interdependence is what distinguishes classical music from pop music. And I don’t even mean ALL pop music, just the silly stuff I think of when I hear the term.

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  6. ydandaman

    The difference between the classical and rock genres is not that rock has “more” timbre than classical or that classical players spend any less time honing their “tone”. The difference (in my opinion) is that the approach to composition in rock is in effect totally reversed: in classical music, composers’ “composition” consists of their original pitch choices (and to a lesser extent the rhythms), written for what is generally a few fixed timbres (i.e. 19th century orchestra). In rock music, composers’ “composition” consists of their unique and original timbre (either with the singer’s voice or instruments, usually guitar), for what is generally a few fixed pitch collections (i.e. blues scale). This difference is reflected not only in the way the music is composed, but in the way it is received by fans of the genre. I am of course referring to mainly 19th century classical music here, obviously in the 20th century things get a bit more complicated in the “classical” domain (although the pitch-dominant view is still very prevalent in many composers all the way to the present).

    As for the main question, I believe that what the composer think about the piece is (in most cases) more of a hindrance than a help to
    an audience. I know that it is impossible for me to hear music I have written the way that anyone else hears it, my relation to it is obviously infinitely more intimate and detailed. I believe it is a fascinating paradox of composition (and one of the reasons there are no tried and true formulas for success) to try to put your mind in the place of people listening to your piece, even though it is never really possible for you to hear it the way they do.

    -Dan VanHassel

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  7. Chris Becker

    As soon as I read things like (and I’m paraphrasing here) “rock isn’t concerned with harmony” or “classical composers only work with a small collection of timbres” I think of several examples in both worlds that completely contradict such statements. Show me a classical opera singer that isn’t obsessed with their vocal timbre and how it sounds in various rooms. And who can’t pick out the compositions of composers from rock bands like The Who or The Pixies or Green Day and not immediately recogize the music just from hearing the chords that introduce their songs?

    There’s also some misinformation here regarding blues that is hard for me to fathom…why is a “blues scale” described as “a few fixed pitch patterns”? Does the Western scale then possess “more notes” and therefore beget (is that word?) MORE HARMONY?

    Have you ever heard a Skip James recording (circa 1927?)

    It’s all music folks. The qualities that make compositions in each genres unique are there – but you’re missing them with this uninformed generalizing.

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  8. stevetaylor

    Daniel Levitin in his new book “This Is Your Brain on Music” relates the following experience from the 1990s: John R. Pierce, a noted psychoacoustician at Stanford’s CCRMA, aksed Levitin to play 6 rock songs for him, since Pierce had never understood or paid attention to rock.

    “Pierce listened and kept asking who these people were, what instruments he was hearing, and how they came to sound the way they did. Mostly, he said that he liked the timbres of the music. The songs themselves and the rhythms didn’t interest him that much, but he found the timbres to be remarkable – new, unfamiliar, and exciting …. Timbre was what defined rock for Pierce. And it was a revelation to both of us.”

    Of course singers and instrumentalists are always working on their sound; classical musicians are working on a classical sound, while rock musicians are working on a rock sound, and the same with early music, rap, extended techniques, etc. But thinking about the sound as a thing in itself is not something that theorists (or some composers) do very often.

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  9. ydandaman

    Being able to think of exceptions is not the point (I could certainly think of many myself), genre definitions rely on broad over-generalizations. Certainly most music of interest (to me anyway) comes into direct conflict with these genre norms, but that doesn’t mean that these genres don’t exist. Of course by twisting my words to say that classical music “only” does something, or rock music “never” does something, immediately makes my statements untrue. I would never mean to say anything limiting about any genre, it is just a general difference in focus between two groups of composers. One group places a greater emphasis on melodic and harmonic invention, the other on timbral invention. Of course all composers in both groups can and do make decisions based on a much broader range of parameters than this, but genre definitions are impossible without broad generalizations. If you wish to define the difference between the two genres differently, please say what you think they are, rather than just saying that I’m “missing them”.

    Perhaps my choice of the blues scale as an example was confusing. What I meant was simply that in rock music we often hear the same melodic/harmonic patterns over and over in what are generally considered very different songs. It is the timbres and not the melodies or harmonies that are representing the aspect of originality in these compositions. This is not to say that the blues scale is more inherently limited than any other scale (which I agree with you is an absurd statement). I just meant to point out that many (not all of course) of these repeated melodic patterns that we hear in rock are derived from it.

    Ok, i’m out. Feel free to distort my words, and flame me ad infinitum.
    -Dan VanHassel

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  10. Chris Becker

    “If you wish to define the difference between the two genres differently, please say what you think they are, rather than just saying that I’m “missing them”. “

    I think the differences are defined by the individual creators – be they people who call themselves “blues musicians” “new music musicians” or whatever. The individual’s spirit is what I respond to. I myself navigate and compose music with such individuals in mind. And what I (or we) compose could only have come from me (or us).

    I did not intend to pick on anyone in particular with my post. Again, I think this whole genre issue is silly. I am more interested in the commonalities I guess than the labels. And yet I latch onto some spirit with the performers/composers I am inspired by. But I don’t think this is a paradox.

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