Sunday, June 27, 2010


Terry Teachout has an article in the Wall Street Journal speculating that music by Carter and Boulez (he doesn't mention Babbitt but must have him in mind) is too complex for the human brain to perceive and understand within the time period in which it's performed, and therefore will never achieve general audience acceptance. He cites a 1988 paper by Fred Lehrdahl - which I have not read - as evidence.

Now, in one sense he's probably right, that those guys are never going to be on the classical hit parade. My local "classical" radio station will never play them (on the other hand, that station doesn't play Puccini, either, at least not with the voices, except for their monthly SF Opera broadcast).

But my big reaction to this is "So what?"

First off, I don't necessarily agree with the other big premise of the article, that this stuff is in some sense too complex. Terry trots out the example of Finnegans Wake and says, sure, he could spend the time getting to know it, but why bother? He could read Proust instead. The thing is, there's no reason to depend on one hearing of a Carter or Boulez work to get to know it. It'd take less time than reading Finnegans Wake, in fact, especially if you take the time to get your hands on a score. ( find Carter's music easier to understand if I am not giving myself a headache looking at the score, because I try to count it and things fall apart very fast.) Musicians spend lots of time getting to know less complex music, so that's nothing new.

And somehow, there are plenty of musicians around who are happily studying and playing Carter, Boulez, Babbitt, Fernyhough, and so on. I like to mention a couple of times a year a fact that Alex Ross dug up long ago: in the early 1970s, there were two new music groups in New York City. (I wonder if this included the computer-music group at Columbia. Maybe there were three!) There are now more than 50.

Here's one reason for my "so what." It's important to remember that classical music is not a single thing and the classical music audience is not a single thing. It's a group of niches, including:
  • New music (say, going back to 1900 for a lot of stuff)
  • Opera
  • Symphonic music
  • Chamber music
  • Solo recital
  • Early music
These niches and audiences don't necessarily overlap. I am a fairly rare person who loves all of the above; I get to fewer solo recitals than any of the other genres above, I would say. (And maybe solo recitals should fall under chamber music, anyway.) Opera fans are a niche unto themselves.

So it's just not important whether Carter and Boulez are audience favorites. They have an audience, regardless of the size. SF Performances sold about 400 tickets to the Carter 100th Birthday Weekend, which featured all of the string quartets and all of the piano music, all brilliantly played. It'd be interesting to find out whether more living people have heard a Dufay mass performed live or a Carter string quartet. I would not take bets.

The other reason for my "so what"? Terry's argument depends, in part, on an implicit assumption that people who go to concerts understand and are taking in a lot of what goes on in what they hear. That's the only reason the "too complex to understand" argument might hold any water. I am absolutely certainly that the majority of people who go to concerts do not hear most of what's going on. Most of them hear pretty tunes and the beautiful and varied textures of classical, especially symphonic, music. They're not necessarily catching the structural complexities, though I would guess most recognize the standard repeat patterns of classical symphonies. So...who cares if they listen? They're not going to hear that much more in Brahms than in Babbitt.


Doundou Tchil said...

Interesting. I just got back from second weekend at Aldeburgh which always has featured an eclectic mix of music - one of Britten's guiding principles. There was a sell out Bach B Minor Mass (JE Gardiner, no less). Huge numbers arrived on buses, all elderly. Before the Bach Mass, tghere was a concert and conversation with Boulez and Aimard. The Bach Mass crowd sat thru this, taking it all in without prejudice, without precondition. Maybe they related to Boulez who was same age group as they, but they were prepared to actually listen, to the man and to the music. Wild applause !

So it goes to show. "Difficult" is whatever you want it to mean. And so what? Beethoven is "easy" ? Medieval Polyphony is easy ? Since when did art have to be "easy"
But we live in a fast food culture where everything has to be predigested and pablumized. Thank goodness there are some with the integrity to do "difficult". And thank goodness for the Bach Mass Crowd, who cheered Boulez.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I really, really like and agree with "Difficult" is what you want it to mean and "so what".

Michael Walsh said...

The "difficult" meme has been around for many decades, as a quick perusal of Slonimsky would suggest. Even passages as manifestly straightforward and beautiful as the second subject in the first movement of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony drew critical annoyance as being "too difficult".

Difficult = "I don't get it, and since I'm smarter than you, you won't either."

Henry Holland said...

Great post Lisa.

Reading demands a greater investment of time than looking at a complicated painting, and the average reader is not prepared to invest that much time in a book, no matter what critics say about it

Ah, the weasel word "average", but basically it's that old critic standby: "I think XYX about ZYX, therefore my experience is well-nigh universal and to prove it, I'm going to drag science in to it!".

As for musical complexity, what he writes is rubbish, plain and simple.

When I was 14 (1974), I got in to the great 70's prog bands like ELP, Yes, King Crimson and Gentle Giant. They mentioned classical composers in interviews all the time and ELP even adapted some classical pieces. One of them was the 4th movement of Ginastera's first piano concerto, which they called Toccata.

I was finally able to track down a recording of the Ginastera, a very expensive and hard-to-get import in those pre-CD days. When I finished listening to the piece, my entire conception of music had shifted: I'd had my first knowing encounter with 12-tone music.

Since that time, I've devoted almost all my classical listening to stuff written after 1900 and especially 12-tone/serial/post-serialist stuff. I don't listen to Wuorinen because I want to be smug and superior and lord it over those pitiful fans of tonality, but because I *like some of the music*.

I've listened to so much Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and all their followers; Boulez, Stockhausen and their followers; Birtwistle, Reimmann and Cerha; and the newer wave like Pintscher, Kyburz and Staud that I can hear even a Ferneyhough piece once and "get it".

I don't find it "complex" or "difficult", I think of it as no different than being a native speaker of English but but totally fluent in French, it's just a different language to learn and once you do, it's easy to understand.

I get it that not everyone can or will devote the time to that stuff that I do, but I'm really bored to fucking tears with being told that Boulez' fabulous Rituel, for example, is too complex for mere mortal ears.

Morpheus said...

Great post, Lisa.

Let me also add that it is possible to put forth the hypothesis that a musical surface could be seen as a system to which an unstable dynamic will correspond, driven by a multiplicity of forces in interaction. The composition will then be seen as a process in permanent movement, a permanent search for meaning between the different levels of the considered musical space, with moments of stabilization, moments of destabilization and mainly the phenomena of emergence.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you - and that's a great comment!

Tim said...

Great post, Lisa.

A couple of things occur to me. First, Boulez, Carter, et al, are not addressing their music to the general public, or average listener. They are addressing their music to the elite listener. Which is OK by me. They don't want or intend to be popular.

Also, the question arises as to how much of the complexity these composers want you to hear. Boulez can be enjoyed on initial hearings very much for the surface textures he creates with his "complexities." At the Ojai Festival last month his Memoriale (a version of "explosante-fixe") was as lovely as anything by Debussy and Ravel.

Webern is on record somewhere as saying he didn't want the audience, or even performers, to be aware of the tone rows. He told a pianist to play his Variations as if it were a piece of Romantic music with singing lines. He wanted the expression to come out, not the math.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Tim. I agree with everything you say!

Unknown said...


I disagree.

Music is an art which has developed over the ages into a subtle and complex instrument to communicate emotional states and nuances.... In truly expressive and great music, the gestures of the textures relate to the order of the notes in a way which creates the strong impression of energy going from note to note; also in quiet episodes, the notes relate to each other to form a network of connections, creating a ‘virtual space’ within the musical work, which defines its own context. In such music, all notes relate to a central tone, present or hinted at, like the lines in a figurative painting refer to the vanishing point of the perspective system, similarly creating a ‘virtual space’. The perspective created on a flat surface of a painting is something we can see ‘into’ the surface; we see with imagination, recognizing the signals as given by the artist’s imagination. In the same way, we hear ‘into’ the material surface of pure sound the tonal perspective of the inner space of music.

In the work of people like Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Xenakis et al, in spite of occasional tone groupings where the notes suggest, for an isolated moment, a slight relation to each other, the composer has done everything to avoid the appearance of this inner, tonal space, through over-complexity, irregular rhythms and metrum, extremes of sound and colour, absence of narrative and closure, etc. etc. and especially the avoidance of audible relations between notes. What remains is the material surface of sound, and however ingenious this surface may be organized, a whole dimension is absent. But only in this dimension of inner space, the experience of ‘expression’ – in a musical sense – is possible. Any ‘expression’ mentioned in relation to Carter’s work, stops at the flat surface of sound. Mere gestures on the sonic level are different from the intrinsic quality of musical expression, and it is this what audiences, developed on music with an inner space, miss in this atonal music. The capacity to create an inner space which is part of the listening experience, i.e. which is directly audible, is the fundament of Western music, present from its earliest beginnings. It can be argued that music, which does not want to create this inner space, is another art form altogether: sonic art. This art form requires a fundamentally different listening attitude (one should not expect musical expression) and a different cultural context (one should relate sonic art to the imagery of 20C utopia).
Audiences’ incomprehension of music like Carter’s and Boulez’ can thus be interpreted as not being ‘conservative’ but as an objection to the intrusion by another art form into the context of a music performance. For anybody with some intelligence and musical experience this should be obvious.

Gestures with unrelated notes are comparable to the gestures of throwing confetti at weddings. They are imitations of musical gestures which are related to the inner connections of the intervals. Carter – who wanted to celebrate what he considered ‘modern life’ (Manhattan at rush hour?) – belonged to postwar utopian ideology, when sonic art was born.

Let it not be confused with musical culture.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Shrug. I'm not going to address your claims point by point, because you're not convincing me and you won't convince anyone else who likes Boulez, etc.