Sunday, June 27, 2010

More on Complexity

So, I'm pretty sure Terry just doesn't like that stuff and is looking for justification beyond that dislike. It's a big shrug for me, because people like what they like. I just worry that articles like his keep people from actually listening to extremely complex music. There are some people who might like Carter, et. al. who might not give it a shot. One reason I listen is that I like having my brain twisted up a bit; another is that the sounds themselves are arresting and often beautiful. And hey, I like a challenge.

I'd encourage anyone thinking about this to take a look at Daniel Wolf's posting today, about his recent orgy of re-hearing a huge amount of serialist music, which makes me want to hole up in a cabin for a month with his iPod and a stack of scores.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

You make good points here but in the case of Carter and Boulez I really think it comes down to the fact that much of their music is simply vacuous.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Wow. That's the last word in the world I'd apply to their music, given that it implies shallowness. What do you find missing or absent?

I'd also be curious, Anon., about your musical likes otherwise. I assure you that if you're someone I know, I won't suddenly start hating or abusing you over your musical taste. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

'Vacuous' wasn't the right word here. I guess I meant 'highly contrived'.

On a separate note:

Although I rarely agree with Mr. Douglas, this entry of his perfectly sums up my feelings on this topic:

Oh and my musical likes ? I love almost all genres but I am first and foremost a dyed-in-the-wool Wagner nut.

By the way, I think Boulez, Carter, Babbitt, et al know perfectly well that they are no match for any of the great masters. I suppose they are to be esteemed for keeping classical music composition, which without the likes of them would become entirely derivative and antiquarian, alive rather than deprecated for not being up to the literally impossible task of rising to the level of their titanic forebears.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think few composers believe themselves to be a match for their great predecessors, even when they are - perhaps with rare exceptions like Beethoven and Wagner. I myself would put Boulez, Carter, and Babbitt among the greats!

Michael Walsh said...

When I was a kid, I loved the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. I got to watch them several times in reruns, and as I did I realized that there were jokes I didn't get the first time around. (It wasn't until college that I got the "ruby yacht of Omar Khayyam" one.) But the writing supported elements that appealed to both younger and older audiences, and had to have a strong structure for that to work.

Carter's music is like that. Perhaps most listeners won't grasp the entire work on a first hearing, but that doesn't mean that it is useless to compose it. The work needs that structure, and would likely fall apart if it were written down to only what can be perceived immediately. Not unlike losing the impact of a sculpture by insisting on a picture of it.

Hell, you might as well fire all the violists in the symphony because they rarely occupy the foreground. But a lot of music would sound thinner if they were gone.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, I forgot to say - thanks, Anonymous, for the clarification on "vacuous."

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

The above link is broken. Here is what Mr. Douglas wrote:

(Within my small circle, I'm somewhat notorious for my unaccepting attitude toward, and my reluctance to spend serious time investigating, what's been called New Music. The following is on the order of a brief apologia of sorts for my admittedly intellectually lazy and uninquisitive stance on the matter.)

"All art aspires to the condition of music," wrote critic and essayist Walter Pater, seeing, in an epiphanic moment, to the living core of the nature of all genuine art. That trenchant aphorism refers to music's unique ability among all the arts to address directly the human center of feeling sans any participation by, or recourse to, the human intellectual apparatus. In fact, at its best, music has the uncanny capacity to paralyze intellect; to force, for the time, an automatic suspension of rational thought.

It's precisely that unique ability and uncanny capacity that's so singularly lacking in so much of classical ("serious" or "art") music written by composers who first began writing after about 1940 or so. Of that so-called New Music of which I've direct experience, almost all of it not recognized immediately as blatantly and tiresomely derivative tripe requires at some level, and to greater or lesser degree, the active participation of the intellect in order to appreciate or, in some cases, even begin to comprehend. That, to my way of thinking, is the very definition of non-music — more, and much worse, a veritable perverse contradiction of just what it means to be music; in short, anti-music, much of it concerned with sound and process per se rather than with purely musical ideas and their development, and much of that traceable to the influence of the charlatan John Cage.*

Which is not to say such can't (or shouldn't) be enjoyed, even relished, at some other level. But at the level of music — that condition to which all art aspires — it fails utterly and abjectly. And that's principally why, not much time left me for music listening as the human span goes, I've little or no time for it. There's simply too much music — genuine music — I've either not yet experienced, or not experienced or understood to the deepest level of which I'm capable, to spend valuable time sussing out the ostensible music value of such presumptive music which, on initial hearing, I find to be no music at all. And so I leave the experiencing of, and involvement with, such to those who've more of a taste than I for quasi-music.

Is all this the musical equivalent of what it means to be a Luddite, or, worse, a woodenheaded philistine? Perhaps, and perhaps such an attitude and stance are responsible for my missing out on a good thing(s). But that sort of thinking the way to madness leads, and I'm quite far enough along that road already, thank you, to tempt matters further


Lisa Hirsch said...

I posted my thanks before I found and approved the previous everything is a tiny bit out of order.

Of that long quotation from ACD, all I can say is I disagree with almost every word.

Henry Holland said...

Oh and my musical likes ? I love almost all genres but I am first and foremost a dyed-in-the-wool Wagner nut

A pompous musical windbag, disguising his simple (and often derivative) material behind acres of bombast and brilliant orchestration in pieces with laughable librettos full of pseudo-profound nonsense that should last an hour but instead last for four.

Also, Nazi.

See how easy that is, Anon.?

ACDC's piece points out one of the oddities of the classical listening population that I've never bothered with: instead of searching out a lot of different music or even different composers within a style, they focus on a small number of works and play them over and over and over and over and......

Lisa Hirsch said...

No he was not a Nazi! But you knew I'd say that. Lol at the rest.

Doundou Tchil said...

Doesn't ACD know the quote "Sounds and fury, signifying nothing".

Lisa Hirsch said...

I believe he does, yes.

Joe Barron said...

I usually don't bother with arguments like Teachout's that say modern music cannot be enjoyed, because I immediately fall into an existential paradox: since I enjoy so much of this supposedly unenjoyable music, I would appear to be a walking contradiction, or at the very least, that I do not exist. He is also off base if he thinks, as he seems to, that enjoying modernist music is largely about the ability to process complexity.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I, too, am a walking contradiction.

Scott said...

Absolutely agree with Joe Barron (and am in the walking contradiction club). The underlying fallacy is that Teachout and others think that complexity is to be understood, unwound, analysed. In the case of some artists this may even be true, but in most cases the point is to create ambiguity, to blur lines and definitions, to make the world less clear.

It seems that many of those who oppose new music do so from a standpoint of attacking the legitimacy of its status as music. They have decided what music is and everything else is not music. It's not surprising that they revolt against what doesn't conform to this, the only real insult is they presume to try and judge it against the standards of what they like in "music", something that much new music sets out to dismantle, or at least sidestep.
To throw it back to Daniel Wolf:

"The radical music isn't so much a way of composing, or even a repertoire of music associated with a way of composing, but rather a way of listening. And listening not so much to music, as for the possibility of music."

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, Lutins! Great comments and I agree with you.

I myself lose patience with most definitions of music because they are so often an attempt to exclude some kind of music the definer doesn't like.

Joe Barron said...

in most cases the point is to create ambiguity, to blur lines and definitions, to make the world less clear.

Or maybe the sound just kicks ass. I like a lot of modernist music because it opens up regions of the mind that would otherwise remain closed. I find the same sense f adventurousness and discovery that I appreciate in the music of Beethoven, for example. In this sense, I like music to be like Beethoven, though not necessarily to sound like Beethoven. A contemporary composer who writes like Beethoven would strike me as timid, which is not a word you'd apply to the original.

Notice I now say I like Modernist music, not "modern" music. I've decided there's a whole lot of modern --- i.e., contemporary --- music that I don't like, because it seems to me like a regression.

Agree with Lisa bout definitions, but it might not even be about definitions. It's a common debate tactic to say music you don't like isn't music and art you don't like isn't art. Saves you the energy of actually having to deal with it, I suppose. Check Frank Zappa's definition in The Real Frank Zappa Book: Anything presented as music is music. After that, it's simply a question of taste.

Steve Soderberg said...

Two years ago Allan Kozinn of the NYT was covering the Carter celebrations at Tanglewood. In one of his articles he wrote the following:

"Earlier in the week — at the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra’s first concert, on Sunday evening — sheer chance provided an opportunity to see how Mr. Carter’s music struck someone who came to it entirely fresh. I was sitting next to my colleague Jeremy Eichler of The Boston Globe, and just before the concert began, a man who identified himself as Mike from Birmingham, Ala., slipped into the row.

"Mike from Birmingham told us he was a landscape contractor and was driving through Lenox on his way to somewhere else when he saw a Tanglewood sign and decided to buy a ticket for whatever was on. It was that random. The program was “Dialogues” for piano and orchestra and the Clarinet Concerto on the first half, and the new “Sound Fields” and Variations for Orchestra after the intermission. His experience with contemporary music? He had heard some Copland.

"At the intermission, Mike said he had never heard anything quite like Mr. Carter’s music and was knocked out by it. So he was staying for the second half? Oh, yeah. At the end of the concert, his opinion was unchanged: he said he had the time of his life."

If the link holds, the whole article is at:

So what does Terry Teachout say to Mike from Birmingham? Would he have the guts to tell him: Sorry, Mike. Either you're lying or I don't know what I'm talking about. Since everyone knows I know what I'm talking about, you must be lying. A "common man" who's only experience with contemporary music is Fanfare for the Common Man can't possibly sit attentively through two hours of Elliott Carter, let alone get "knocked out" by it.

Schoenberg warned that there was nothing to be gained by "counting the notes" -- in fact, if you're counting the notes you're missing the music.

It's no surprise to me that someone like Mike, who never would have thought to count them in the first place, actually can "get" a lot of it on first hearing. But professional critics and scholars-who-should-know-better, ignoring the gestalt of listening, assume that note-counting is the point & will probably never get it themselves -- and, by their standards, they are right: it's too complex to get.

Note-to-note ear training is absolutely necessary in developing the performer; it's absolute death in developing the ability to hear the music.

A lot more to say (which I will do in a forum of my own), but I'll shut up for now.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Steve, that is great, and thank you. Terry would take an out he left himself: Mike is not an AVERAGE audience member.

Anonymous said...


>> Wagner was a pompous musical windbag,

No, he was one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.

>> disguising his simple (and often derivative) material.

First, what is wrong with simple ? Not that there is much that is simple about Wagner's music. (And very little of it is derivative)

>> behind acres of bombast and brilliant orchestration in pieces with laughable librettos full of pseudo-profound nonsense that should last an hour but instead last for four.

If you had applied this to 'Parsifal' only I'd agree with you. 'Parsifal' is unusual in that it contains both his most sublime music and a good deal of dross.

>>Also, Nazi.

He often behaved despicably, but he wasn't a Nazi.

Anonymous said...


>> I myself would put Boulez, Carter, and Babbitt among the greats!

Seriously ?

So which of their compositions would you put on a par with, say, Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis', Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger' or Debussy's 'Pelleas et Melisande' ?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Seriously. I'm talking about bodies of work and I find work-against-work pissing matches useless.

However, I'll say two things.

1. I consider Meistersinger to be the worst of Wagner's mature works, a ponderous and overly long mess. I'd rather listen to anything by Boulez, Carter, or Babbitt that sit through it again.

2. Carter's quartets alone would get him into the pantheon.

Anonymous said...


>> I consider Meistersinger to be the worst of Wagner's mature works, a ponderous and overly long mess. I'd rather listen to anything by Boulez, Carter, or Babbitt that sit through it again.


Let me make sure I got this right:

You would rather listen to Babbitt, Carter and Boulez instead of, say, the resplendent 'Meistersinger' prelude, the gorgeous Act 3 quintet and the lovely 'Prize Song' ?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Can anyone reading this explain to me what's unclear about the following, which I wrote? (I've corrected a one-letter typo.)

"I consider Meistersinger to be the worst of Wagner's mature works, a ponderous and overly long mess. I'd rather listen to anything by Boulez, Carter, or Babbitt than sit through it again."

I'm happy to restate it, though.

I can tolerate hearing the overture or excerpts from Meistersinger every couple of years.

I haven't listened to a complete recording of it in at least five years.

I consider it the worst and least interesting of Wagner's mature (post-Dutchman) works. It is much too ponderous and long and weirdly earnest to be a good comedy, if that's what it's intended to be.

Given a choice between equal-priced tickets to a concert of music by any or all of Carter, Boulez, and Babbit and a performance of Meistersinger, I'll take the Carter/Boulez/Babbitt ticket. (I might make an exception for the theoretical cast of Lotte Lehmann or Sena Jurinac as Eva, Lauritz Melchior, Jussi Bjoerling, or Ben Heppner as Walther, Ezio Pinza or Alexander Kipnis as Pogner, and Friedrich Schorr as Sachs, conducted by Toscanini or Furtwangler, but we do know that's not happening since almost all of them are dead.)

Is that clear enough?

Lisa Hirsch said...

To bring this away from my personal taste and back to the general issue of complexity, many people in his own day found Wagner far too complex - and from what I read on opera mailing lists, many still do.

Henry Holland said...

Anon., you must have missed the "See how easy that is, Anon." part of my post. It's really easy to take potshots at ANY composer, I was mocking your reductive take on Carter and Boulez.

(And very little of it is derivative)

Yeah, except for the thing he's most famous for, the Tristan chord, which he "borrowed" from Liszt, or the bits of Weber, Bellini (!), Meyerbeer and Beethoven, among others, that are scattered throughout his operas. Yes, he was a great opera composer and easily the most influential composer around from Tristan onwards, but I refuse to be a Perfect Wagnerite and overlook the flaws and borrowings in his music.

Agree completely with Lisa on Die Meistersinger, I never ever want to hear that opera again. And, yes, Anon. it's easy to say "But what about [the prelude, quintet and Prize Lied]!" when that constitutes, what, less than half an hour of music. What about the other 4 interminable hours of that desperately unfunny "comedy"?

It's like Der Rosenkavalier. My friend Jon and I sat down once with a complete recording and came to the conclusion that there was about 80 minutes of really good music. Unfortunately, there's 2 hours more of the score. We found the whole third act until the Marschillan strides in to be unbearable, just a cut above operetta.

Salome and Elektra on the other hand, I wouldn't cut a note out of either of them. I think the one-act format kept Strauss' tendency to sprawl in check.

Mileage varies widely, obviously.

Lisa Hirsch said...

And what, pray tell, is wrong with operetta?

I like Rosenkavalier and I also understand why lots of people don't.

Excellent dissection of Meistersinger! How do you feel about FroSCH?

Henry Holland said...

And what, pray tell, is wrong with operetta?

Nothing at all, just using it as a perjorative, like "film soundtrack music" is used for Korngold's operas and concert pieces by people that don't like them.

My problems with Rosenkavalier are a) at 3:20 when done complete, the opera is waaaay too long for such a slight premise b) the most interesting character, the Marschillan, disappears for all of the 2nd act and most of the 3rd and c) Ochs ranks right up there with Gilda and Siegfried as opera characters I can't stand.

How do you feel about FroSCH?

Love it! I wish the LA Opera would revive the fabulous Hockney production again, Conlon could really go to town on that score.

One of the very first operas I went to was the Lenhoff production up at SFO in late 1989. Good cast: William Johns and Mary Jane Johnson as the royal couple, the good Gwyneth Jones and Alfred Muff as the Dyers, Anja Silja as the Nurse (fabulous) and Patricia Racette as the voice of the falcon; von Dohnanyi conducted. I had a great time, it really hooked me on opera. (thanks to the SFO Archive for jogging my memory).

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hahaha, okay on operetta!

I love FroSch; I saw that production (my ONLY live Frau!), and I remembered everything about the cast except Silja (whom I would have sworn I'd never seen live) and Dohnanyi (whom I would have sworn I'd seen only in the 2004 Covent Garden Arabella).