Mystery score

Mystery score

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What Constitutes Aesthetic Banality?

In the comment section of a previous posting (Aaron Copland is the Most Overrated Composer of the 20th Century), there's a lively discussion going on about some other contenders. One commenter has called Alan Hovhaness "a prolific craftsman of musical tofu" and adds Gorecki. Another terms them both "banal," a third disagrees with that assessment.

So, tell me, which composers do YOU consider aesthetically banal and/or intellectually empty, and why?

I'll propose a painter of astonishing banality, vapidity, etc., just to provide an aesthetic parallel: Thomas Kinkade, self-labeled "Painter of Light." Anyone going to argue with that?

29 comments:

tjd said...

Oof...this is hardly a topic calculated to spread peace, love and understanding in the community :-)

I wish you were asking this question about individual works, rather than inviting people to toss composers wholesale into the junk bin.

Just saying.

Kyle L said...

I almost feel bad for throwing a composer under the bus like this (following tjd sentiments). But truthfully, the first composer that popped into my head with the Thomas Kinkade analogy is Eric Whitacre.

Kyle L said...

Why Whitacre? From what I've sung and heard there seems to be little substance or feeling for the meaning of the words. Instead the focus seems to be on pretty chords and colors.

Cody Loyd said...

I came to say Eric Whitacre... but since he was already mentioned I'll go ahead and mention ANTON WEBERN

Cody Loyd said...

(i didn't mean that)

Osbert Parsley said...

Hovhaness is the most banal composer mentioned here so far, followed closely by Whitacre (who occasionally rises to the level of okay) and Copland (who occasionally rises to the level of good). But the gold standard for musical banality has to be the works of John Rutter.

Saint Russell said...

Has no one here experienced the music of Richard Nanes? Some wag once said that the trouble with history is that it's just one damned thing after another. I'd say the same of Nanes' music.

Michael Walsh said...

As the author of the "tofu" comment, I wanted to clarify my (admittedly unfair and based solely on my own taste) slam on Messrs. Hovhaness and Gorecki.

I do not, as another poster has suggested, consider either of these gentlemen banal or irrelevant. "Banal" implies unoriginal hackery, and I do think both composers have their own ideas. And any composer who even merits a place in this discussion is relevant. You can't be "overrated" if you're not worthy of being rated in the first place.

However, my problem with both these composers is that they are bland and uninteresting. Their work doesn't excite me, and the few points of interest I find in their works usually come from remembering an instance of another composer doing it better.

I am left in both cases wondering what the fuss is about for either of these composers, which I thought lent itself to a discussion on being overrated.

rootlesscosmo said...

I'm much more comfortable with "bland and uninteresting," which is a way of describing my reaction, not a claim about some intrinsic property of the music or the composer. So my candidate for "bland and uninteresting" is the music of Luigi Boccherini. I can't imagine finding it so distasteful that I'd want it to stop, but I can't imagine being moved by it either--it's just sort of there, unmistakably music (rather than, say, ceramics or lawn bowling) but, for me, nothing more.

tjd said...

I've said as many nasty things about composers I don't like as anybody, but as time goes by, I try to avoid it. It's part almost political, connected for me to the idea that there is no one right way to live, and that tolerance is a fundamental virtue. There's also just the fact that over time, my opinions have changed, and I have found myself appreciating music by composers that left me entirely cold when I was younger. (Mozart and Webern, to name two.) I try now, not always with success, on encountering music I dislike, to assume that the issue lies with me -- rather than that the people who *do* like this music just have awful taste.

I must admit that like Kyle L., when I read Thomas Kincaide's name, I *instantly* thought of Eric Whitacre. It's not the surface beauty of the music (surface beauty is a fine thing, much harder to achieve than people seem to tend to think). Kyle L. connected it to not responding to the words, but I'd put it differently; it's more that the music itself seems calculated for effect, and *only* that. I'm distracted because I hear his composer-wheels turning: time for a dramatic crescendo! Big color change here! He's really quite crafty, but for all that, the music sounds to me forced and unnatural. (Which is weird, and exactly the opposite of what craft is supposed to do for you.)

But!

I think it's very notable about Whitacre that so many of the young choral musicians, who are his most frequent performers, are so hugely enthusiastic about his music. That seems like a very good thing. And who am I to tell anybody, *especially* a budding young musician, that I think this music she loves is dreck? And this whole "forced and unnatural" explanation - what does that really mean, anyway? All art is artificial, right? Is this just a post-hoc explanation I use to justify the fact that I am, or want to be, too sophisticated to appreciate something that is direct, non-ironic, pretty?

A final thought - it seems much more interesting to me, as a musician, to try and figure out why so many other people *do* like Eric Whitacre (or Copland, or Shostakovich…) than to figure out why I don't.

Daniel Wolf said...

Banal music comforts those who are already comfortable.

Elaine Fine said...

I have experienced the music of Richard Nanes. I actually destroyed the CD by rolling a chair over it, again and again.

Joe Barron said...

>>Banal music comforts those who are already comfortable.

Nice! But that definition would include Mozart, Bach and Brahms, would it not?

I'm sorry I got this whole thing started. But in truth, I never called either Gorecki or Hovahness banal by name. (You can check my posts.) I merely wanted to point out that disliking their music, or any music, does not mean, as another writer suggested, that one "worships at the altar of complexity." Banality can be simple or complex. To take Carter (yay) as an example: I don't like his music because it is complex. I like because it kicks ass. Granted, the complexity is part of the kick-ass effect, but there are other composers who are equally complex whose music doesn't kick ass, and, conversely, composers who kick ass who are not complex to Carter's degree (though all great music, from Bach to Mahler, is complex to an extent, even when its being most direct). To me, the aesthetic standard is kick-assedness, not complexity, and anyone who thinks we Carter fans are into complexity for its own sake do not understand us very well. Hovahness does not kick ass, in my opinion, but other people might think he does. More power to them.

Paul H. Muller said...

I'm going to second Osbert Parsely: John Rutter.

While we are at it - most overexposed hymn: Amazing Grace.


BTW, where are all the Philip Glass nominations?

calimac said...

Michael Walsh: As I've now replied in the other thread, I was addressing Joe Barron, not you, when I said that neither Hovhaness nor Gorecki was banal. It was he, not you, who used the word "banality."

Now, Joe Barron: You didn't call them banal by name, but you were directly responding to my post about "worshiping at the shrine of complexity," which did name them, when you wrote of "banality," and you neither stated that you didn't mean them nor name others instead, so the implication is clear.

calimac said...

To address the main question: I can't think of any concert composers I know who approach the banality and vapidity levels of the likes of Thomas Kinkade. I know of some film composers who come close, though; and do the Peter Jackson groupies ever get mad when I say that Howard Shore's stock of musical ideas ran out long before the Lord of the Rings movies did.

I did once describe listening to Carter's utterly arid Fifth Quartet as "like half an hour of watching musical wallpaper dry," but I wouldn't say that either banal or bland would be adequate terms. It was intricately crafted, but utterly uncommunicative and lacking in emotion.

It is not necessary to eschew intricacy to achieve these goals, but many do. Any charges of blandness at such profound, and profoundly beautiful, works as Gorecki's Third and much (not all!) of Hovhaness do indicate a musical mind that gasps for air in the absence of complexity. And such charges could be laid just as appropriately at much of Mozart, who also frequently achieved profoundity through simplicity.

Michael Walsh said...

I doubt that someone who is moved by the works of Arvo Part, especially his Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, is someone who "gasps for air in the absence of complexity".

I should point out this person also owns the complete works of Anton Webern. It's a great CD!

Mozart's "simplicity" is rendered beautiful by a near-perfect sense of proportion. Simplicity without any sense of proportion leads to the aforementioned Philip Glass.

Elaine Fine said...

This review pretty much makes the case for Nanes as a possible musical counterpart to Thomas Kinkade.

Anonymous said...

Rene Gruss.

Elaine Fine said...

Oy Vey Anonymous. I think that this is even more Kinkade than Nanes!

calimac said...

Since Gorecki's Third uses strategies very similar to those of Pärt's Cantus, to similar effect, and since Gorecki isn't even being charged with failing at a worthy ambition but with "incredible and inexplicable popularity," the only remaining possibility for a listener who esteems the one and so slams the other is something I'm reluctant to raise on a civilized blog.

calimac said...

Leaving aside Glass, who, like many other composers both good and problematic, is not in search of "perfect proportions" of Mozartian kind, Gorecki's Third does achieve them.

Michael Walsh said...

"Since Gorecki's Third uses strategies very similar to those of Part's Cantus"

And it illustrates my comment about proportion. Part's Cantus is like grief frozen in amber, and says everything it needs to say in 6 minutes. Gorecki's Third doesn't say much more to me, and at 53 minutes I find the effect diluted and exhausting.

"the only remaining possibility for a listener who esteems the one and so slams the other"

De gustibus, sir. Let's leave it at that.

Joe Barron said...

I did once describe listening to Carter's utterly arid Fifth Quartet as "like half an hour of watching musical wallpaper dry."

You and I hear very different things. Of course, this just tells me about you and says nothing about the music. ;)

Dr.B said...

It doesn't seem relevant to cite people intending to be banal (Glass) or people no one has ever heard of (Whitaker). For seriously touted performers who never manage to arouse much emotion it would be hard to top Copland.

Immanuel Gilen said...

Philip Glass intends to be banal in his compositions? What kind of nonsense is that? (Or am I totally misreading your comment?)

Anonymous said...

What a remarkably amusing give and take about taste. It proves that putting three musicians in a locked room and giving it a good shake yields up four four contrary opinions. I find much banal, but have no interest in defending my taste against those who would attack it, because the day is too short, and I have music to make. Best wishes for yet more fisticuffs on your Iron Tongue of Midnight, to which I write in the lovely light of day. It solves nothing, but makes for an entertaining diversion. Now for a nice cup of coffee and five empty lines waiting for notes....

Anonymous said...

Dr.B - Whitacre (why do you misspell it?) is in fact very well known. Another composer you may not know who works in a similar style and is also very well known is Morten Lauridsen.

Elaine Fine - Richard Nanes' "music" is indeed amazing. However, given the extreme reactions to it from people with any taste for classical music, I think it must have some special qualities. I agree that it is awful, but am fascinated that there seems to be something almost actively horrid about it, beyond mere incompetence. You know? It has the power to make people crazy. That's interesting.

And the analogy to Kinkade doesn't really work, I don't think, since Kinkade is actually very popular in certain quarters and has made a ton of money off his stuff. Plus there is a certain technical ability in evidence, in spite of the content. I don't think Nanes is actually very popular anywhere, and his music is technically inept. He doesn't even achieve the level of actual kitsch, unlike Kinkade. I don't think there really is an "art" composer who is comparable to Kinkade - the visual arts don't necessarily have to have equivalents in music, after all.

calimac - regarding your statement that Carter's 5th is "utterly uncommunicative and lacking in emotion", could it be that you just aren't understanding the language that is being spoken? I am the last one to defend Carter, whom I think has been wildly overrated by the highly specialized audience that he pandered to. But saying his music is "uncommunicative" simply means it doesn't communicate to you, rather than being uncommunicative in itself. It does communicate to me, and to others, so I think you may need to rethink how you describe the issue. The "lacking in emotion" part is interesting; does music need to have emotion in order to be worthwhile? To me, it doesn't, no more than a beautiful sunset must be "emotional" in order to be beautiful.

carey bell said...

Minkus, hands down. Some of the worst music ever written, or danced to.