Tag: appreciation

Getting to Know You

Remember that continuing-ed enrichment class I said I’d be teaching this winter? We’ve had two meetings so far, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s been an absolute joy. My class is engaged, open-minded, and ravenous for new music. We’re having a ball. People seem genuinely curious to hear my opinions about the production and consumption of contemporary music, which as far as I’m concerned is tantamount to administering endorphins intravenously.

Last week, one of my students recounted her experience at a recent performance of the Ligeti Violin Concerto by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; apparently the crowd didn’t receive that notorious turning point as warmly as they might’ve. In response, I shared my story of Matthias Pintscher at Temple Israel, which has taken on a sort of Aesopic significance for me: You can get away with all manner of weird sounds if you talk about love in a charming Mitteleuropäische accent and wear a properly tailored suit. To put it more generally, the sound of a piece of music as such is much less accountable for its first impression than the ideological space in which the audience is prepared to accommodate it. If you provide a listener with a way to think about a piece of new music (a task that dwells partially but by no means completely in “the music itself”) that’s consonant with his or her sociocosmology, you’re in.

At the tail end of class, another one of my students raised his hand to ask whether we (in the broad sense) can learn to like music we’re unfamiliar with. It was my distinct honor to tell him that all we do is learn to like music, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. As a matter of fact, that’s why we were all gathered in that particular room at that particular time. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, just above the pleasure of getting to reassure someone of that fact.

Guerilla Tactics

Last week’s post about boredom provoked more than a few responses, including a comment of my own that I’d like to expand upon this week:

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.

This comment of my own in turn provoked a response from composer/performer (performer/composer?) Matt Marks, who pointed out the connotation of trickery in my analogy and rightly decried the unfortunately common attitude that artists must wrap their wares in appealing wrappings in order to make the “medicine” go down—which gives me an excellent opportunity to discuss just who or what is being tricked in my Trojan horse analogy, and why.

In my analogy (hence, developing metaphor) concerning aesthetic appreciation, the “goods” are not some component of the aesthetic experience—not some meaning or intellectual payload—but rather the entire experience of appreciating a work of art, in all its completeness. The defenses that must be overcome—and the reason that the goods must be smuggled—are the well-girded ramparts of our rational minds, which seek to understand by dividing, disassembling, dissecting, and ultimately killing the fullness of the aesthetic experience. While it’s true that our capacity for rational understanding can yield immense insight in partnership with the intuitive mind, it must always begin from the fullness of experience for those insights to be grounded. For the same reason that a joke that must be explained to us is never funny, aesthetic appreciation likewise seems to require a predominantly intuitive connection and a similar suspension of rational analysis (even if such analysis is subsequently engaged).

What is the Trojan horse that draws us into the intuitive world of art, and makes for an understanding greater than rational apprehension alone can provide for? It’s the raw, sensual nature of the experience itself, which remains stubbornly indivisible, unique, and present.

So if we fail to fully engage the senses of our listeners, we can’t hope to do anything beyond that because art is not primarily to be explained, it is to be experienced. No one will be able to appreciate the subtle interplay of my music’s counterpoint (and the deeper resonances that this recognition makes manifest) if my counterpoint is muddy and poorly realized; and no one will be able to connect with any of the threads in your film—emotional, intellectual, or what have you—if the shots are drab, poorly lit, and unappealing.

That’s far from suggesting that artists “smuggle in” the meaning of their work inside a sugar-coated shell of appealing surface textures and mindless bubblegum; what I’m suggesting is that artists smuggle in the entire experience of their works—meaning included—by appealing to the senses and preconscious modes of understanding that are not rational. This is a rejection of the pernicious “take your medicine” attitude which Matt took care to point out, but so too is it a rejection of an equally harmful attitude: one which imagines that art and most unlikely of all, music, might be apprehended on any deep level without engaging the senses in a powerful way.

This is why I’m always at a loss when asked to explain my music in words. Although I am more than happy to use words to set up a listening experience, or to provoke other insights, I can’t explain it, precisely because the meaning of the music is not expressible in words, and is not separable from the experience of listening. In order to get my meaning across I can’t rely on rational argument any more than I could hope to elicit guffaws by carefully explaining a joke; I have to rely on the sensations that my music creates, which can sneak around the rational mind without being caught. By providing for compelling sensations and making sure that my structural designs clearly project themselves on the audible level, I have a better chance of causing someone to feel a genuine connection with the music, which is the beginning of a deeper relationship in which rational inquiry becomes engaged as well.