Monday, April 21, 2008

He Beat Me to It

Tim Rutherford-Johnson has written a sharp takedown of Bernard Holland's ghastly George Perle review, which ran in the Times on Sunday, April 20. Yes, Mr. Holland, as a professional music critic, you should feel guilty about your intellectual laziness. I don't mind the fact that you dislike serial and atonal music. I mind a great deal that you don't have the honesty to recuse yourself from writing about music you're incapable of writing about in a fair manner. And whoever continues to assign you to review music for which you happily demonstrate your contempt should feel ashamed of himself.

And Marc Geelhoed beat me to dissecting Holland's review of the Stravinsky concert held in the Park Avenue Armory. I hope Alex Ross made it there so I can find out what it was really like. Perhaps chere La Cieca will do one of her famous pie charts of the Stravinsky concert.

Correction: Marc tells me that his posting was not tongue-in-cheek. He admires the sentence he called out. This means I'll have to dissect the review myself, but since it's 3 a.m. my time, for now I'll just say that the review says quite a bit more about the Armory's acoustics than the performances.


Anonymous said...

Too bad the Rutherford-Johnson response is no more intelligent than Holland's original. For example, Hollands's point about languages was not about whether a person can, should, would, could, might learn more than one language, but that 12-tone language is basically a private language that was invented by an individual, rather than one that grew in a more organic way in a society. Yes, I realize there are other arguements to be made about that, but the fact is, Rutherford-Johnson didn't make them, and instead just had a little hissy-fit that didn't address the issue. And so on...

johnsonsrambler said...

Hi Anonymous - since you chose to challenge me here, rather than in my own comments, I hope Lisa won't mind me responding.

I appreciate the distinction you make between a private language and one that you describe as having organically grown in society; and, yes, Holland states that Perle "speaks a language he and his contemporaries made up". But I don't think he really makes the case for "made up-ness" as being the problem that you would like to think he does: he baldly states: "I can speak only the languages I was born to".

But even if Holland did mean what you think he meant, my real charge against him is that he admits he can't be bothered to learn Perle's language - whether privately developed or not - and that seems to me to be a serious abrogation of the responsibilities of a critic.

(Incidentally, my reading is that Holland argues for an absolute physical basis in the tonal system - precisely the opposite of a language "that grew in a more organic way in a society".)

As for the 12-tone language being invented by an individual, I simply don't agree. A handful of basic techniques were invented by Schoenberg, but they have been supplemented and developed by a very large community of composers - and absorbed and parsed by an even larger number of performers and listeners. No, the numbers aren't huge, but they are significant, and the techniques have developed, through such society, over time, into a language - replete with grammar, vocabulary, rhetoric, clichés and poetry. The question of when private becomes public seems a matter of numbers, and I don't care to count how many speakers a language needs before it becomes legitimate.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Anon, Holland's review is about how he can't be bothered to try to understand serial and atonal music. Tim's comments are right on. You're misreading what he says.

Henry Holland said...

It's a bogus argument that Anon makes from the get-go: the tone row has been found in all sorts of music pre-dating Schoenberg; look at the first four bars of Liszt's Faust Symphony, there's a tone row clear as day. Or *gasp* Mozart as Wikipedia notes:

The tone row in the last movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40. Beginning at Bar 128 on page 54, the tone row might be the following: B, C, D, Eb, F#, Bb, C#, F, G#, A, E, G

Oh God, not Mozart! Hahaha, Mozart is responsible for the "horrors" of 20th century music and the loss of popularity of orchestral music!

Rows have been found in music dating back 500 years--all Schoenberg did was codify the method. So, it wasn't the invention of an "a private language that was invented by an individual", it was just running with something that was there all along.

As for Justin Davidson's piece, Tim's take-down is perfect.

Now listening to: Carter: Symphonia, the piece with the haughty subtitle

Nissim Schaul said...

I've always found it a little odd to try to find tone rows in tonal music. It's a little like looking for Jesus in the Old Testament. Containing a melody with 12 consecutive pitches a 12-tone piece does not make. Schoenberg didn't invent the tone row, he developed a particular way of using tone rows in a systematic way.

I think the strongest argument that Schoenberg didn't just up and up and invent something out of thin air is that an analysis of so much early atonal music from the Second Viennese School shows that it's just a hair's width away from being tonal (in a very abstract, dissonant way, of course), except for the deliberate subversions of what would almost give the impression of tonality. It's clear that Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern knew what they were wrestling with and were doing everything they could to avoid it, while still not tossing the whole past aside.

It's those early atonal experiments that brought Schoenberg to his 12-tone method, which he then discovered Webern had already sort of developed independently. Which to me sounds like a pretty organic process.

Henry Holland said...

Containing a melody with 12 consecutive pitches a 12-tone piece does not make. Schoenberg didn't invent the tone row, he developed a particular way of using tone rows in a systematic way.

You're absolutely right, of course, but most people don't know that, they think that Schoenberg did. I should have added "all Schoenberg did was codify the method of using them in a systematic way" to make that point clear. I just like using that row in the Mozart 40th because it freaks out the tonalists a bit. :-)

an analysis of so much early atonal music from the Second Viennese School shows that it's just a hair's width away from being tonal

If you look at a piano/vocal score of Lulu, it's got pages and pages of simple augmented and diminished triads stacked on top of each other. If you write them out, those stacks are often what I call "jazz chords" (because I know them this way from reading charts when I played bass guitar in bands) like Emaj7b9#11.

It's not until you get to things like early Boulez and Stockhausen and their pointillist use of the row that things get *really* out there.

calimac said...

I was going to say that there is a place for polemics like that, but it's in opinion columns, not reviews of concerts & recordings - but then I read the original article, and as far as I can tell, that's what it is, an opinion piece sparked by listening to recordings, not a review of those recordings themselves.

So the legitimate complaint against Holland is that he expressed himself very poorly (for one thing, if he'd written that the Webern was entirely new, instead of "is" entirely new, he wouldn't have confused Tim Rutherford-Johnson), not that he should have recused himself from writing it.

johnsonsrambler said...

I'm easily confused. :/

Nissim Schaul said...


First, thank you for adding evidence to my unsubstantiated clams about tonality chez Schoenberg/Berg/Webern.

And if it engages people and gets them to reexamine their preconceptions about what "12-tone," "tonal," and "atonal" mean, then by all means keep showing off that Mozartian tone row!

Joe Barron said...

Great discussion!

The likening of music to anything else, whether language (atonality is esperanto, tonality is English), food (serialism is broccoli, Wagner is turkey with gravy), science (tonality adheres to the laws of physics, atonality does not), or social development (toanl music grew up in society, atonality is a private matter, religion (modern art is heresy), is only analogy and breaks down on any detailed inspection. Music must be taken on its own terms, and relying too much on comparisons only obscures the discussion. We get bogged down in trying to turn the analogy to our advantages. ("But it IS possible to learn a new and private language!" Such counterarguments only validate the premises of the opponent.) It is a common tactic to brand anything as unnatual that threatens our privileged posistion in teh world. Everything from homosexuality to birth control tovegetarianism to meat eating to a belief in God and its opposite has been branded as unnatural at one time or another. And "natural" after all, means different things to different people. If even one person enjoys the music Holland dislikes, that is enough to prove the science and linguistic arguments are irrelevant. We need to get away from all this extraneous nonsense and talk about what is in front of us.

And yes, it was a silly article. I have wonder what Holland thinks he's doing. He's not enlightening anyone, since, by his own admission, he can't penetrate the msuci enough to write perceptively about it. His obsessiveness would seem to indicate a bad conscience, depite his insistence that he feels less guilty with age.