What, Me Boring?

Boring

Last week, Colin Holter made a comment on these pages about boredom that struck me, in which he suggested that boredom has as much to do with what we bring to an experience as with that experience itself. This is a great point from which to begin a consideration of boredom, which has less to do with some quality inherent in the music at hand than with a certain relationship (or perhaps lack of relationship) between the listener and the music. When we say that music is boring, we typically mean that our listening experience failed to deliver what people turn to music for, which is above all a sense of connection.

In this respect, music is often boring when we are listening for something that is not there. That is why hard-rock fans looking for a physical connection might shy away from music that fails to deliver the desired visceral punch; or why academics looking for an intellectual connection shy away from music that does not yield to analysis; or why listeners seeking an emotional connection have difficulty taking interest in music composed via elaborate formal schemes.

When we say something is boring, we mean that it has become too familiar, or at least seems that way—the level of helpful familiarity has been exceeded, so that renewed contact deadens the experience rather than enriches it. This seems related to an essentially passive view of experience, in which we receive stimulation from a force outside of ourselves rather than a kindling of spirit within. The very perception of ourselves as passive observers rather than full participants in an experience defines boredom, which leads to the desire for novelty and fancy, which are poor cousins of newness and imagination.

Boredom is a message: it indicates our failure to appreciate certain kinds of experience, perhaps more than any failure of those experiences themselves. That’s why boredom ought to be cause for regret rather than smugness or gloating, or at least a force that challenges us to engage more deeply. There’s no joy to be had and no pride in not enjoying something; one does not attain a superior place “above” something else by putting it down. And it’s a well-known fact that affective non-engagement is one of the hallmarks of schizophrenic thought patterns.

Have I written any boring music? That depends on who you ask, but more often than once I’ve overheard the dreaded accusation in a restroom during intermission—and I was sure glad that I wasn’t sufficiently famous to be spotted as the offender! In one case, I kept an eye on one of my would-be critics during the second half of the concert, during which his PDA flashed noticeably. This eased my nerves a bit—until I thought about how much music I have personally considered boring, and made a pact with myself to make “boring” the start of a more serious exploration.

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10 thoughts on “What, Me Boring?

  1. Matt Marks

    I’m a big believer in the adage “Only boring people get bored.”, but I still think there is boring music out there. I will label a piece boring if there seems to be little to no consideration of the audience experience on the part of the composer. I believe even composers such as Cage and Feldman, who placed extraordinary demands on their audiences, still had high consideration for what the experience of hearing their music would yield, to the point where some of their pieces became spectacles. In my opinion, when composers become overly-concerned with their “expression” and neglect the fact that – when it comes down to it – we’re essentially entertainers, they have a tendency to create boring music.

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Hi Matt – I’ve always thought there’s a guerilla, trojan-horse element to composing in that if it’s not entertaining or compelling enough for most people, the goods (whatever they may be) aren’t going to make it past the front gate!

    Reply
    1. Terence O'Grady

      I think Dan makes an excellent point with his “Trojan horse” idea. Speaking as a listener (my composing activities are pretty minimal), I am much more inclined to spend time listening to a difficult work if I find in it some overtly and immediately attractive elements (often, but not restricted to, an imaginative use of tone color or rhythm). At times I’ll listen to a difficult work even if it doesn’t have what I deem as immediately attractive elements (others may well deem otherwise of course) just because I know I should admire this work even if I don’t necessarily have any affection for it or just because I want to improve my powers of concentration (or because I just think it’s “good for me”). Nevertheless, I find that it’s a lot easier to leap enthusiastically into a piece that has what I hear as clearly beguiling features than one that doesn’t. That’s why I think that Dan’s remark is right on the money. It helps if you can lure in the listener with some clearly attractive features. Then the piece is able to make its more subtle arguments once the listener’s attention is firmly secured.

      Reply
      1. Matt Marks

        I mostly agree with the Trojan Horse idea, though there is a clear connotation of trickery on the part of the composer. It’s as if, like medicine, the composer knows what’s best for the audience, and has to slyly make the music ‘go down easy’ before a greater appreciation can occur. This idea seems predicated on the assumption of some separation between the popular appeal of a piece and its true, deeper meaning. I believe when you make the audience experience a central priority of “the goods” (equal in importance to personal expression) there tends to less of a divide between a piece’s surface appeal and its artistic value.

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        1. Terence O'Grady

          A very good point. If the most obviously attractive aspects of a piece are not in some way integral to its deeper meaning, then the whole thing does seem somehow dishonest. I was assuming that most composers would pursue this sort of integration more or less automatically, but that might be a dangerous assumption.

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  3. Callum J Hackett

    I’m always very wary of these arguments that the values we ascribe to any piece of music are not intrinsic to the music but instead a reflection of what we bring to the listening experience.

    Yes, I think this is *partly* true, but I think reality lies somewhere a little closer to the middle of the spectrum, where at the other end one would suggest that every good and bad quality comes solely from the music.

    Some music *is* boring. It’s quite easy to conceive of a piece of music that would be boring. We could all quite easily, in the space of a few minutes, write an extremely boring piece of music. It would then be wrong for us to offer it to the world and state that anyone who found it boring did so only because they “failed to appreciate the experience.”

    If we want to escape criticism and negativity in this manner, it is only fair that we also throw out praise and compliments. “No, no, my music has nothing good in it at all – you just succeeded in making a good experience out of my unquantifiable sounds.”

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  4. Scott

    Nice post, though I’d add a few other possibilities to the idea that “When we say something is boring, we mean that it has become too familiar, or at least seems that way—the level of helpful familiarity has been exceeded, so that renewed contact deadens the experience rather than enriches it.”

    I think there are other kinds of boring out there, too. For instance, the kind of boring where the music is so consistently UN-familiar that many listeners can’t find a way into the music.

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  5. danvisconti

    Hi Scott, I think that’s a great point re too much novelty being boring. It’s a minor semantic difference, but I’ve always felt like in this case the constant, unremitting novelty becomes its own bland constancy, because expectations are not being pushes in any way–just as in more “featureless” boring music. To me at least, the problem is the same: the texture becomes too familiar, too unrelenting, and I cease to care about the details of the experience because they do not strike me as alive–i.e., growing and changing. I have had the feeling you describe listening to some music with lots of nevertheless “exciting” traits on the surface level, including Zorn’s “Cat O’ Nine-Tails” and some similar works.

    And thanks for the comments, which I’ll respond to in a new post this week.

    Reply
  6. David Wolfson

    Also agreeing with Scott, and wishing to generalize: music unfolds in time for the listener, formal schemes notwithstanding, and is on one of the most fundamental levels a balance between familiarity and unfamiliarity, between recogition and surprise. Get the balance wrong and your piece is boring.

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  7. Daniel Wolf

    Morton Feldman is said to have been at one of those post- or pre-concert cocktail parties that birth anecdotes, where, thinking that Feldman was out of earshot, a young composer said to a friend: “Morton Feldman? But his music is so boring!” Feldman was, in fact, in earshot, and immediately sprang into the conversation, tapping the young composer on the chest with his forefinger, saying: “You, sir, should be so boring”.

    Reply

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