The Occasional Cheeseburger

The student new music organization which I serve as the faculty advisor for had their final meeting this week. In addition to finishing up end-of-the-year duties, we discussed our concert series for next year and potential adjustments to how we publicize each event. Several of the students brought up the fact that it was difficult to convince their friends—even those studying music—to come to many of our concerts because of the overriding perception that they were all too “serious” and not very entertaining.

Now, I know for a fact that our music students don’t have a strong bias against new music, as in the past two weeks I’ve witnessed student performers—more than one hundred in total—play on a composition studio concert, a choreographer/composer collaboration concert, and four student composer recitals. That being said, the fact that even these students have a hard time being enticed to come to a concert with a guest artist or composer because of the “seriousness” they’ve experienced in the past did get me thinking…of cheeseburgers.

For years, I’ve used food as an analogue for music in my teaching and writing; one of my first columns, for instance, compared one type of composer to a chef or cook who “collects” ingredients from the pantry and then builds a meal around those ingredients. I also find that using descriptors typically associated with the sense of taste tends to work well when trying to describe subjective aural or sonic characteristics—much better, in fact, than the typical visual color cues that many tend to use (synesthetes excepted, of course).

In fact, one of the few cable channels I tend to follow regularly is the Food Network because of the similarities I see between the creators and the consumers on those programs and creators and audiences in music. One overarching trend that I’ve noticed through those programs involves classically trained chefs “going back to their roots” and exploring the possibilities of combining complex flavors and structural forms with seemingly mundane “comfort” foods. Time and time again, we are presented with the desire of creative culinary artists to make dishes that are both at a very high level of complexity but also will be enjoyed by a wide audience that may not understand their underlying subtleties. This is the concept—providing one’s audience with an experience that not only stimulates the intellect but connects with more visceral, foundational, and intuitive sides as well—that I think has a lot of relevance to our current musical world.

All of that brings me back to cheeseburgers and the equivalent lack thereof in our current repertoire.

I feel—and this is, of course, only my own personal viewpoint—that there is a dearth of musical “cheeseburgers” in contemporary concert music today. Before y’all smirk and roll your eyes, hear me out. I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be writing intellectually stimulating and complex works—that will always be part of the culture of creative artists. What I am saying is that the other side of the coin—music that is dripping with pure joy or whatever other base emotion you choose—is hard to find. Music that fits that description is often not encouraged by those who teach or by those who act as gatekeepers for funding opportunities, awards, etc., and is many times shunned or ridiculed by those whose tastes or proclivities are focused elsewhere.

Cheeseburgers are useful here because of the associations we as a society have with them. It’s hard for us to take something seriously that one can make on a backyard grill or order at a late-night diner, and perhaps it is time to encourage composers to write music that may have a similar lack of serious intentions. With full knowledge that being labeled one of Deemer’s “cheeseburgers” is not exactly the first thing composers would wish on their music, I present two examples of works that, at least for me, fall under this category:

“Better Git It In Your Soul” by Charles Mingus from the album Mingus Ah Um

“Black” by Marc Mellits/Will Obst and Sumner Truax, baritone saxophones

The Mingus album is interspersed with several works that I might consider more entertaining or “cheeseburger”-like (“Better Git It In Your Soul,” “Pussy Cat Dues,” and “Jelly Roll”) alongside more introspective, dark, and complex works. The Mellits piece, originally written for the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk, conveys that sense of pure joy I mentioned before whilst not being “simple” by any stretch of the imagination. I might even look at Caroline Shaw’s Partita as a piece that speaks to an audience’s “comfort food” tastes in several ways.

To bring us back to my students who worry about convincing their colleagues to attend our overly “serious” music concerts, we’re already thinking of ways to not only pick the right artists for the series but what kinds of programs we can suggest that may look to this approach I’ve been describing. If composers, artists, and presenters keep an open mind both in terms of the new literature that’s being written as well as the programming choices through which audiences will interpret that literature, we may yet have an influx of “cheeseburgers” as part of our balanced musical diet.

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21 thoughts on “The Occasional Cheeseburger

  1. P.Kellach Waddle

    PHENOMENAL points Rob !!! And I am ALL about this– esp. for all my solo touring concerts there always HAS to be a new or relatively new piece that I did write for “gasp” .. FUN? so people might think it’s FUN? something to BALANCE out all my oft-gothic Mahlerian darkness? And I am SO thrilled that someone with this nifty exposure this blog gets SAID this is perhaps a good idea!! There are still dark whispers that thinking such is artistic heresy and EVERYTHING should only be written for new music concerts for the scowling black turtleneck listeners. Thanks for such a wonderful set of thoughts Rob.. you have made the beginning of my day !! ( I am going to cut/paste this on the blog pag too:) )

    Reply
  2. Christian Carey

    Currently there is a dearth of well-balanced nourishment in a lot of music programming. Usually, it isn’t the music’s seriousness that is the problem: more often it is taking ourselves too seriously. And one can do that whether they are writing portentous fanfares or jocular song cycles.

    Reply
  3. Matt Marks

    I always like food analogies to new music. Often when hearing the music on a contemporary music concert one is required to learn, understand, and appreciate a new musical language for each piece. This is analogous to having a meal where each course is something with flavors that are quite foreign to your taste buds, yet you learn, understand, and appreciate these new flavors and flavor combinations, one course at a time. To chefs, connoisseurs, and foodies, I could see this being a fascinating meal to have on occasion. To everyone else it would be a novelty or simply off-putting. But I also imagine that most connoisseurs would consider a life consisting mostly of these types of meals to be exhausting.

    Reply
  4. Phil Fried

    Rob, any well curated concert should have a variety of music. At least to my mind. PK, As I remember, arrangements aside,most solo string bass music is pretty goofy.

    And Matt, Really? “Often..one is required to learn”?? Required?

    I do believe in style inclusion not exclusion.

    No sonic prejudice.

    Reply
      1. Phil Fried

        “..Often when hearing the music on a contemporary music concert one is required to learn, understand, and appreciate a new musical language for each piece…I also imagine that most connoisseurs would consider a life consisting mostly of these types of meals [compositions] to be exhausting.

        I would simply disagree with these statements but its hard to tell which style or styles are on the daily music diet.

        In any event, unless we are talking about coursework, no one to my knowledge is required to learn or understand anything.

        On the other hand what some folks find to be hard work others find exhilarating.

        Reply
        1. Matt Marks

          By “required” I simply mean ‘required in order to enjoy’, as in “To enjoy a Hollywood movie one is usually required to suspend disbelief”. I think, for example, to enjoy an serial piece, one is required to hear the 12 tones in a different way than in a tonal piece.

          I believe young composers are often taught that developing an original sound and a unique musical language is paramount to becoming an effective composer. Thus, in many concerts the listener is required to decipher these different languages, which can be exhausting.

          Hope that clears it up. You certainly don’t have to agree, I just wanted to clarify what I meant. :)

          Reply
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  6. Jeff Winslow

    I’m all for inclusion, of both styles and audiences, but I’m continually baffled by complaints about “seriousness”. The most intense pleasures in life are serious; why should music be any different?

    (Then there are questions of the actual pleasure content in the proposed programs and the degree to which music students are still trained to suppress perfectly healthy desires.)

    I like a (serious) cheeseburger as much as the next guy, but I don’t seek them out in my own listening (or eating). Offering them on a concert would therefore seem to risk condescension. Some of this article could even be read as condescending, though I don’t imagine the author meant it that way. But then the whole enterprise is risky, so what the hell.

    Ironically the underlying problem may be a shortage of seriousness: of serious craft being brought to bear on entertainment just as much as on deeper currents.

    Reply
  7. Kyle Gann

    Rob, I’ll admit I’m not too fond of the cheeseburger analogy. But I have noticed, for many, many years, that my composition students will bring me a piece and say, “I’m afraid this is a little too ‘cheesy'” – and what they invariably mean is that it’s too fun, clear, and entertaining. Their “cheesy” pieces are always the ones I get excited about and urge them to finish. Meanwhile, my composition colleagues (at my own and other schools) look askance at my music as “pandering to the audience” and therefore “not serious.” This is indeed a pervasive neurosis throughout the composition world in the US and Europe, as though all composers learn to be petrified that their music might have some relevance to non-musicians. I’ve been arguing for decades that, while admittedly some of my favorite Phill Niblock and Morton Feldman pieces might not really qualify as “entertaining,” there is a vast overlap between art and entertainment, and no clear line anywhere dividing one from the other. New music would be a far happier world if we could collectively get over this idiotic neurosis about making all our music “serious,” “sophisticated,” and “profound” – three of my least favorite words.

    Reply
    1. Phil Fried

      I agree Kyle.

      As someone who has brought down the house, and in reverse had the house fall on me, in both cases musical style was never the issue.

      One could also point out that its just as easy pander to the “serious” audience as any other.

      Reply
  8. Neil McGowan

    A concert with no audience is just a rehearsal.

    Draw your own conclusions.

    Or blame the audience for your own failure – why not?

    Reply
  9. Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

    There are cheeseburgers and then there are cheeseburgers. Not to mention the fact one can make gourmet burgers, juicy, dripping and loaded ones could bring new audiences into the classical “restaurant”. I use the familiar “folk” music of our time for this purpose. For bacon I use Latin modes: my tomato is classic rock. My cheddar cheese is blues, while my BBQ sauce is R&B. I even have a piece CALLED Pork ‘n Beans because it’s so useful to describe music as a PLATE of foods where you take a few bites of this then that… I have some collard greens using a hip hop bass line, followed by some whipped sweet potatoes for relief. Don’t forget the ribs, pizza and beer.

    Reply
    1. Jeff Winslow

      Oh man, I just ate and I’m hungry again!!

      This is what I mean by a serious burger (and it’s not necessarily all that easy to make, especially when there are a lot of elements to balance). My advice is, whatever you do…

      Do NOT try to put the audience on a reduced calorie diet. Nobody likes that.

      Reply
  10. Elaine Fine

    I find a lot of new music to be a lot like eating donuts. We seek out donuts for their sweetness and textures, but after we I eat a donut, I get thrown into a state of negative nutrition. Everything refined in them creates a vacuum for real nutrition. After I eat a donut (and I haven’t eaten one for a very long time), I find myself hungry. A cheeseburger might just be the ticket, but after the pleasure of eating one of those, I find myself experiencing all sorts of unpleasant stomach-related difficulties. I also tend to find that cheeseburgers taste pretty much the same as other cheeseburgers, and that I am perfectly happy living my life without them.

    Contrary to the Guy with the white hair and the goofy sunglasses on the cooking channel, there is no great skill involved in making a cheeseburger. It does take skill and experience to make other kinds of food, though. Like my food, I like a music made of fresh and interesting ingredients that evokes memories, stimulates my senses, and leaves me feeling nourished and satisfied. I’m all for using usual ingredients in unusual ways (like putting lettuce in soup, for example), and find instinct to be the best guide for seasoning and timing. Nobody has ever complained about the food I cook or about the music I write (at least not to my face).

    My paternal grandmother was (according to family legend) a fantastic cook. She never used recipes. I like to think that I inherited her cooking genes because I tend to cook by feel and instinct. I write music by feel and instinct too.

    Reply
  11. Edward Brennan

    I would propose a different analogy.

    In NYC there is a vegetarian restaurant called Dirt Candy. It is fun flippant and joyous. It is playful. It treats vegetables not as some dreary serious part of a diet. But great tasty food to eat. Their recipes have levels of complexity, the recipes are often novel. Just check out dirtcandynyc.com. One can easily see the gist of what they are doing.

    I would also point out their tagline-

    “Anyone can cook a hamburger, leave the vegetables to the professionals.”

    To reduce joy to a cheeseburger for me, reduces it to an unhealthy mundane.

    I would agree with your diagnosis of a dearth of music dripping with joy. But I don’t want a cheeseburger, I want Dirt Candy.

    The opposite of tasty is not nutritious. The opposite of joy, might be depression or sorrow. The opposite is not serious. The opposite of complex is simple. A complex dish does not necessarily make it more or less tasty- and a good chef knows that.

    More music with joy, surely. But we should expect better- from the professionals.

    Reply
  12. Mark N. Grant

    Filet mignon tastes as good as cheeseburgers, doesn’t it, Rob? But nobody would confuse it with cheeseburger. The problem is that too many younger musicians and audiences take the instantly apprehensible taste of cheeseburgers to be art. They seem no longer to care about or even able to perceive the musical equivalent of the deep savor of filet mignon, or of aged single malt whiskey or wine, or aged cheese or beef, or of a Stradivarius, or of the sound of a Carnegie Hall as opposed to the sound of a Poisson Rouge. Art is what’s left when you go beyond the taste buds to levels of expression of deep complexity.

    It is true that there are some concert pieces today that are either faux-serious or sound like “eat your spinach.” But the greater part of contemporary music is in flight from the deep expression and complex emotion of the repertoire of the past. Superficial processes of sound are accepted now as rightful inheritors of the canonical repertoire.

    Art can be entertaining– great art is– but it does not exist primarily to entertain. The audience is not supposed to be there to get its entertainment muscles massaged. Perhaps the young music students Rob refers to in his post have been bamboozled by the pervasive dumbing down of culture in our time in America, where even the nomenclature of art is cheapened and corrupted. The use of the word “artist” to describe Adele, Beyoncé, or Taylor Swift is a barbarism. When a culture decides that all entertainers are entitled to the appellation “artist,” civilization is in decline. Cheeseburgers are junk food, not haute cuisine. Entertainers are entertainers, not artists ipso facto.

    Reply
  13. Colin Holter

    Cheeseburgers are cheaper than filet mignon for a number of reasons; one of them is that extremely efficient business models for producing and selling cheeseburgers have been developed, models that rely on cheap labor and compensating for fluctuations in the price of ground beef with higher margins elsewhere (the markup on soft drinks, for instance). On the other hand, Daniel Boulud sells a cheeseburger for $150.

    No matter how much you spend on a cheeseburger, by the way, you’ll die if you eat enough of them. I have to say the food analogies don’t really carry much weight with me.

    What I want when I go to a concert – and this is Colin the consumer of music talking now, not Colin the composer – is to hear a piece that allows me to speculate in a new way. It might be a diatonic piece or a chromatic piece (or a microtonal piece or a piece with no pitched material!); it might be a piece with a rhythmic pulse or not. But it almost certainly won’t be a piece that the composer has decided is not even supposed to engage my thinking attention as a curious, hungry listener.

    Reply
  14. David Brighton

    I’d say most new composers going to music school are already culturally “obese” and spiritually “undernourished” from a constant diet of musical “cheeseburgers.” If some students become over serious, it may be because they truly yearn for meaningful, noble classical music. There’s plenty of time for “jazz-hands” in their music later on when they have to sell out.

    Reply
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  16. Olivia Kieffer

    If the music comes from the composer’s heart and mind, then seriousness or cheesiness really doesn’t matter. Hearing heartfelt, intentional (or unintentional!) compositions that are performed by people who enjoy the music is one of the greatest joys we have.

    Reply

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