Over sushi in a crowded midtown sushi bar with the brilliant pianist (and close friend) Charity Wicks, we’re discussing, among other important topics, her future neck tattoo. She is one of the more astonishingly facile and gifted musicians I’ve ever met, destined for a great career. While she spends a lot of her time playing in Broadway pit bands (her choice) for shows such as Spring Awakening or Billy Elliot (for whom the tattoo would not rate a second glance; this would be true also if she confined herself to new music) she worries, rightfully, that it might preclude her, as talented as she is, from the side of her career where she plays Mozart and Brahms. But I also think she should chuck it all and get that tattoo. Because why not?—follow her bliss, be what she wants, take control, etc. But she blanches, fearing it will limit her appeal in her chosen career. Can she play Mozart for the Mozart crowd and sport a visible tattoo? What is it about her potential illustrated neck that gave her reasonable pause? In her wise estimation, it would be inappropriate, a sticking point, and it could prevent her audience from hearing her properly. I agree but wish I knew why. My only thought is that it might be too “dangerous.”
But how to define danger when it comes to classical music (itself a sticky and even somewhat “dangerous” term to use because it spans nine centuries of repertoire with no signs of slowing, despite reports to the contrary)? Can this kind of music actually be dangerous? Can any kind of music actually be dangerous? This rhetorical question has an obvious answer: it cannot kill you, but something in it scares enough people that the famously oppressive regimes of, say, the Taliban, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China (during the Cultural Revolution), the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, or that tiny town in Footloose all felt that there had to be rules and that certain things (or in some instances the admission of music at all) should be duly restricted.
Toward A Calculus of Danger
In order to initiate any kind of discussion of danger, it has to be defined, however broadly.
1) Music is dangerous in that it makes you bleed, die (i.e. physical danger, violence). We will leave out the thankfully-never-realized “Danger Music” movement, a Fluxus offshoot heavily under the influence of Antonin Artaud’s notions behind his (also thankfully unrealized) “Theatre of Cruelty,” which can be summed up by printing Nam Jun Paik’s performative exhortation of his (also thankfully unrealized) piece Danger Music #5 wherein the performer is exhorted to “creep into the vagina of a whale.” The very realization would be a poor choice for both man and beast, and was likely intended as a comment upon, rather than a direction for, performance. It is safe to say that Mr. Paik—because his death in 2006 had nothing to do with a whale—never did a performance of this work. There are of course pieces that are dangerous not to the performers or the audience but to the instruments involved. Michael Nyman, in his seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond says “[George] Maciunas’ Solo for Violin (1962) proposes that an old classic be played on a violin and that where pauses are notated the violin is to be maltreated—by scratching the floor with it, dropping pebbles through the f-holes, pulling the pegs out, and so on. And in a performance of Richard Maxfield’s Concert Suite from Dromenon, La Monte Young quietly set fire to his violin while the other instruments were playing away quite happily.” This predates Mr. Hendrix. For the record, any music that causes actual physical harm to anyone concerned is not to be performed, not under any circumstances.
2) Music is dangerous in that it changes or challenges your assumptions. This of course presumes knowledge, because assumptions are based on prior understanding—and smack of a certain kind of duty. Even the tiniest smack of expectation (i.e. a symphony is played by an orchestra; people sing in an opera) implies assumption or presumption, and when something is different (a laptop plays the symphony; the opera is full of people screaming) it can be viewed as dangerous.
3) Music is dangerous in that it challenges what you believe about what music ought to do. This is somewhat the same as the former rule but it is more for insiders or deep and careful listeners—if you think that Handel’s Concerto Grosso is formally mandated by precedent to modulate to the dominant and instead it modulates to the subdominant, that might feel a little dangerous because it challenges the austerity of the form. Swap the slow movement for the scherzo in a symphony, or (as Ives does in the Concord Sonata) bring in a flute in a solo piano piece, and you defy the expectations of those who know what to expect. Now imagine the utter absence of what you might expect from even the most grizzled modernist, a subtractive music that prides itself less on what it contains but rather what it avoids, all your compass points removed: no chords, no cadences, no melodies, no recognizable instrumental timbres. If the music in which you are involved—you write it, you perform it, you review it or study it, you simply love it to the point of knowing it at an intimate level—comes to lack all that you have come to depend on, it can be a perceived threat to all you hold dear. And what is more dangerous to one’s own psyche to think than that the Great World is participating in something to which your invitation seems to have gone missing in the mail? 
4) Music is dangerous in that it scares, shocks, awakens, arouses, provokes. Some music can produce a sense of longing so strong—especially when crossed with the frisson of both not knowing where you are (either in the piece or on a broader metaphysical level) and the very possibility that the thing might spin out of control. What experimental composer Dick Higgins had to say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is that the final bars are “…as close as one could come, within the harmonic concepts of the day, to simple hysteria, and they work because they take the risk of degenerating.” The train seems as if it might run off the tracks, and when you stop and think about how that might actually feel, the word “danger” certainly comes to mind.
5) Music is dangerous in that you cannot overcome it. Think of The Red Shoes and dancing oneself to death (less the action than the conception; actually dancing yourself to death, were “red shoes” possible, would fall under category No. 1), or an earworm you cannot possibly ever shake, that haunts you at least to distraction and at worst to total madness. There is a certain danger in music so infectious that when you hear it, you simply cannot shake it. It can overwhelm, dangerously so. Or just think about the very words (set to an earworm of their own) “lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die.” (Italics mine)
6) Music is dangerous that sends you signals about how to be actually dangerous. The rock and roll or be-bop “attitude.” The music—or, frankly, the cult or whatever behind the image of the music—offers an unsavory way of living as an actual alternative. This is the most fugitive notion because one generation’s feckless youth is another generation’s camp to a certain extent—reading Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd or watching West Side Story, both of whose subjects are juvenile delinquents, is not instructive but can actually seem quaint and of yesteryear. And a work like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera reads not as a comment on society but rather as a fascinating period piece, like a slang dictionary. But this is what people feared about everything from the flappers to the hippies to the Rolling Stones to hip-hop (to countless other movements and phenomena): a rash, widely acculturated glorification of “low life” or less-than-savory living that posed a threat to values presumed wholesome and right.
7) Music is dangerous when it is used to tell dangerous stories or evince dangerous ideas. See below, The Ballad of Associative Danger.
Danger as a selling point has always been problematic, because as something gets under any kind of collective skin of the “zeitgeist” it gets gobbled quickly by marketing committees as a way to move product—because sex sells, and what’s sexier than something a little dangerous? But this kind of acculturated “danger” ages quickly and poorly, and at a certain point even the Rolling Stones (originally slated to play Alex and his droogie-droogies in the ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange, which, talk about dangerous) grace the cover of AARP magazine and Cigar Aficionado and write their memoirs, or age gracefully like Dylan and trade in the role of spry upstart for wizened sage. Either way, the danger wears off as society changes its concerns, and while there are always imitators seeking to put forth the same image, it is as often as not borrowed, overcooked, and usually sterile in the wake. Cutting edge (even the sound of that phrase hurts) comes with an expiration date after which kitsch and camp follow—not without merits, but they do serve to neuter the terror impact.
The history of concert music—particularly in the 20th century—is riddled with pieces which “flew in the face” of expectations, in essence making aesthetic hay with the received preconceptions of the 18th- and 19th-century forms…this is to say, in essence, that the template (or the comforting sense of a template) was in danger. It is difficult to imagine now, but a piece like Marc Blitzstein’s string quartet Serenade ruffled feathers because it was cast in three “Largo” movements—in the 1930s! And the obvious trope of the Sacre riots need not be rehearsed here even though riots were very much in the air, occurring also at the premieres of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. But the so-(uncomfortably)-called “primitivism” of other works like Milhaud’s La création du monde (which has “jazz” in it) or even Virgil Thomson’s F-major rebellion of a piece—Four Saints in Three Acts—illustrates how the simple dislocation of form, intention, or tonality (or atonality) can make sirens blare.
The Ballad of Rock and Roll
In the middle of teaching a university seminar, say, pitch a chair through a stained-glass window shouting “¡Viva la revolución!” and it might rouse the rabble and turn light on you. It would terrify everyone, some into action and some into reaction, but it would definitely have an effect. But the next person to do the exact same thing—even 20 years later—while it might startle, would certainly be shining in the borrowed light of the previous action, especially if many makes and models of chairs were constantly being hurled through all manner of windows during all levels of classes. My metaphor will fall apart quickly, but what better way to explain the four generations of rock and roll music that have turned their especial kind of danger into a multi-billion dollar commodity.
When Jean-Luc Godard simply filmed the Rolling Stones simply being the Rolling Stones, it was a quasi-revolutionary act. They were doing what they did: making music.
Flash forward several decades and rock and roll, like everything else, is subject to the same commercial ossification: there are academic conferences and dozens of books and dull it-all-had-to-be-this-way biopics. Charlatans have come claiming the mantle and diluted the essence. Committees have made decisions based on money rather than something more substantial and therefore have subjected the once-potent genre to the same ruin as everything else—as always, revolutions beget revolutions and lose something important in the process. Obviously, this did not start and end with the Rolling Stones. But while this sort of danger works in dog years, it ages quickly and unkindly because good old Mammon is there all along, and one person’s rebellion becomes another person’s oldies. Even the Velvet Underground (the very name screams dank-chic)—who were, as the house band of Andy Warhol’s Factory, aligned with the motliest lumpen crew of hustlers, pornographers, transvestites, intravenous drug users, and homosexuals ever to band together under the aegis of high art—parted ways and grew up. Danger is not the exclusive province of youth, but the don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty credo of the 1960s and 1970s made it clear that aging was not the best thing for one’s career if one’s career was predicated on being dangerous—a truism too many took too seriously and let the danger overcome them in the form of addictions, unchecked mental illness, and suicide. This might be the raw (and vanished) association my pianist friend is hoping to avoid having to explain, a shopworn nightmare vision to some to which she would be unfortunately linked by showing something that, to her expected audience, still comes off as symptomatic.
The Ballad of Colonial Danger / Ballad of the Outsider
There is the powerful sociological danger in concert music: a ruling class, colonialism. By those who view it from the vantage of how it is most often presented—an expensive museum for the upper crust—when it comes for your music, if you feel any kind of provenance it must seem like a kind of annexation. This same elite that not only looks down a long historico-political nose, but who would have native musics replaced but also subsumed by so-called “high art,” in essence not only deracinating it but also, on the path to homogeneity, uprooting and reclaiming—or at the very least including it in a patronizing and opportunistic way. One thinks of Henry Cowell, deeply knowledgeable on all manner of foreign folk musics but a composer who made a point of including the widest possible swathe of them in his own concert work, who referred to some of the musicians whose work he pressed into service as “simple souls.”
In essence this is the fear, an opposing take on the in-the-street revolution. Think of works like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s El Salón México, or William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, and one can all but hear the terror in them on both sides. The “elite” believing that something ominous and other has come to besmirch their beloved music, and that same ominous and other being terrified of a loss of identity, of being effectively co-opted for use. And of course the effete elite (and yes, I am by all means speaking with an overt breadth that takes the cliché of a de facto group and speaks on their behalf, a cheap and easy socio-political overstatement with plenty of exceptions) would have much to feel challenged by when the music of the “other” finds its way into the unblemished purity of their concert music—the fly in the soup.
Cliques and klatches keep us safe, they bathe us in the warm bath of consensus, and this is not meant in any way to be demeaning. Composing music is really hard, a loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner pursuit, and famously not exactly choc-full of security, so obviously even though “bunker mentality” is seldom meant as a complimentary description of someone’s forward thinking, the idea that there are people in the same situation with the same aims who think the same notion equally progressive is powerful and arguably necessary on a human level. This can, however, create the idea of an “insider” in which case, of course, there have to be “outsiders” to whom to compare them, and that in and of itself can be a dangerous notion to those inside. The path not taken has to be justified—though I hope for the sake of all of our mental health this is changing effectively.
But outsiders—or that-which-lurks-beyond the gates, be it flesh or idea—have always held the secret to danger because there’s titillation and a good dollop of naughty-naughty to be found on the dark side of the street. There is a kind of outside music, that of roughians, the barbarians at the gates, that has always made its way into concert music, from Dvořák’s hortatory “the future of American music rests in Negro Melodies” through Gershwin’s wholesale adaptation of jazz to the concert stage (or was it the other way ‘round?) straight through Bernstein’s epic kitchen-sink Mass, the decibel-intensive work of, say, Christopher Rouse or Louis Andriessen, the ululations of early Philip Glass and on up to the entire so-called “alt classical” movement. There has always been this “other,” this outlaying, allegedly unwelcome thing that composers, those “genius parasites” as Alex Ross calls them, have managed to incorporate into their concert music.
Accused “outsiders” are too numerous to count, so much so that it can make one question the very out- and inside notions: like most things, it was far truer when John Cage, Henry Cowell, George Antheil, Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee, Dane Rudhyar, and their ilk were engaged in their radical upendings and agons with the Great Western Classical Tradition. And like Freud, their once-radical anti-traditional approaches have become, in their way, a tradition unto themselves, as is the danger of danger. What was once radical can become, in hindsight, pristine, monumental (in that it is actually a “monument” which is a testament but more like a whitewashed statue), and the outside is always in danger of becoming, in fact, just another inside. Ask any composer, and they will probably tell you they are working “outside the system” in some way because of the exact query that began this entire article, the idea that the inside has become untenably dull and that any artist worth the name must in fact be fighting against it.
The Ballad of Associative Danger
Judging from the violent backlash against Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud, frank discussion of sexual matters were—and, sadly, remain—terrifying to people. Dr. Freud had the nerve to tell us about our nerves, and Dr. Kinsey suggested a slew of unthinkables, not least being that women liked sex, too. And as these two men were taking a heap of guff for their unpopular but at-the-end-of-the-day-absolutely-right conjectures, the globe bled out from two World Wars and America suffered the Depression, after which followed the retrogressive, state-supported witch hunts of Mr. McCarthy and his own thugs. At the root of this was not just the suppression of communism—that was the cover story—but really the suppression of transgressive ideas; an exercise in Soviet-style thought policing. In the midst of it, artists were demonized, terrified, lost lives and livelihoods.
In 1937, Marc Blitzstein wrote The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union piece of agit-prop theatre meant to stir the masses if not to full-scale leafleted revolt, at least to let them know, by means of theatrical allegory, that one finger equals a finger but that five fingers pulled tight equaled a union. The musical (for lack of a better word) was shut down by the revolution-fearing government. The storied premiere, however, is an incredible tale of courage of conviction, as the very unions it supported threatened to ruin the lives of the actors and musicians should they set foot upon the stage—so they did it in the house. Something scared someone—or so the legend has it.
I wish I could say it was the bite of Mr. Blitzstein’s harmonies or the fugitive third-relation of his tonalities that brought the feds to the Lucille Lortel that night to shut down the proceedings, but it was not. The music did not concern them one bit save for the message that it evinced. One could argue that singing is more powerful than speaking and therefore without the music the show would have been less effective and therefore less threatening, and while this is true ultimately it was the brash Figaro-like characterizations of the Aristocracy (ruthless, stupid, and murderous) and the Proletariat (hard-working, victimized, intelligent, and strong) that shackled the show. It was not the music qua music that caused the success du scandale, any more than the Sacre riot was about asymmetrical rhythm groups and neo-primitive polytonality. It was about the ideas.
When an opera is genuinely scary, like Britten’s The Turn of the Screw or Peter Grimes, that is music that, if the Danger Calculus is to be believed, shakes and stirs us, yes, it is the music activating the fear. But without the story—without the ghost or the murder (or for that matter the psycho killer under the bed in even the most rank-and-file horror movie)—the score would not terrify when it does terrify. Much like the chilling ironies to be found in collaborations between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, such as The Threepenny Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Mahagonny, wherein low-life characters sing charming duets to one another or ballads of serial murderers are cast in jaunty major keys for maximum Objective Correlative, again the music on its own would not be able to do the job; there has to be a text, an action-moving plot. The music, while capable of aiding and abetting danger, is not in-and-of-itself dangerous. To say nothing of the sheer cultural vertigo—the weltschmertz—found in Alban Berg’s deliciously disgusting Wozzeck and Lulu, or the dangerous notions of messing with the natural order in Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case—to say nothing of the (intentionally) terrifying work of early Robert Ashley (Wolfman) or Diamanda Galas (whose first record is The Litanies of Satan and whose lone book is The Shit of God). These pieces, too, are dangerous—they challenge our assumptions; they make us think, make us sick, turn us on in unexpected ways; scare us—but because their music is so well married to their subject matter and serves to make the unbearable more stomach-churning by being sung.
To wax anecdotal for a moment, a few months after September 11th I went to hear Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera, which with the benefit of hindsight was a dreadful idea. The score—again, one of my absolute favorites—did the opposite of what I needed, never landing, challenging me and my ears (or heart or soul) at every turn, and at that moment in my life it was exactly what I did not need. But worse—that moment near the end where, during an interlude (divorced from any moment of plot) the orchestra crescendos to a deafening volume on a single pitch. In a way, it is the most rooted moment of the show; in other ways, it was the most terrifying, and I experienced fear of actual danger more vividly than I ever had in the concert hall. I thought, yes, that planes were going to crash through the roof of the opera house into the orchestra pit, and as the note grew louder, I became more convinced that what I was thinking was actually taking place—it obviously never happened. And in subsequent viewings of the opera, that moment, while gripping, never again caused me the physical symptoms of fright. Which means that the impending sense of actual violence I felt was in part due to the score (not a small one), but was also personal.
The Ballad of Richard Wagner
If there is one indomitable and ever polarizing figure in concert music, it is Richard Wagner. More ink has been spilled teasing him out biographically than not just any composer but than any other artist period. In fact—and I offer a flimsy and unsupported statistic here so take it as only that—the Great German Composer stands as the third-most written-about human being behind Jesus and Napoleon. While his music is quite good (depending on whom you ask) and innovative (ditto) the question remains: why, so long after his death and so many innovations later, do we as a culture still have such complex reactions to him and his work. Leaving aside associations for which he cannot be blamed—the poisonous rap of being “Hitler’s favorite composer,” as unimportant as it is untrue (tastes ran more to Franz Lehar)—in this single human being’s work, life, and thinking we find the root of so many conflicting philosophical and musico-philosophical narratives, from Teutonic Nationalism to Zionism, from atonality and modernism to neo-classicism and impressionism, not to mention free-love libertinism, anti-Semitism, Nietzschean will, and a whole list of others—I’ve even heard it explained that Die Meistersinger is the precursor to the pro-union agitprop of Blitzstein and Weill. And even those who consciously rejected Wagner (say Satie and Les Six) still agogically admit him and his work as necessary enough to fight against. So yes, his is an elusive legacy, not least as it is currently being fought in Israel, with some determined to never have his work played there and some determined to surmount the associations—a difficult issue with strong points and high dudgeon on both sides. But being an innovator and a hater does not warrant or endure this specific depth of examination—the reason Wagner continues to rate is that Wagner might well be the last of the Dangerous Minds in “classical music” not because of his ideas (though they sure can lead to some dark places) but because of the dark, sensual power of his music.
Joseph Horowitz is his usual elegant self on this topic in his (awesome, there’s no other word) book Wagner Nights when he describes Victorian Era society women gathering, sartorially trussed and bound, to listen to one Anton Seidl—a now-forgotten conductor (because he worked before there were recordings) who was Wagner’s associate and principal American advocate—conduct this dangerous music, music that “stirred” them in seriously non-Victorian, pre-Kinsey ways to heretofore-unknown heights of sexual arousal and climax, the danger of leaving the body, of losing control, of rapture. “They lived for Wagner,” Horowitz writes, “No less than the roller coaster or revival meetings that serviced the lower classes. Wagner was a necessary source of violent excitation. And Seidl, with his irresistible gift for climax, was the necessary medium. At the Met, Isolde’s death-song, thrusting toward regions of oceanic wholeness, of womb-like security, of pre-pubescent play, was consummated by the hypnotic and statuesque [soprano] Lilli Lehmann. The bad effects of husband and bedroom were silenced by a musical-dramatic orgasm as explicit and complete as any mortal intercourse.” He also quotes the contemporaneous poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox on Tristan who says, “I heard wild willows beat, and thunders roll / and as the universe flamed into fire / I swooned upon the reef of coral lips” and Willa Cather writing in the voice of a man watching his own dowdy aunt Georgina subsumed by a Wagner concert, “The deluge of sound poured on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that before the last numbers she had been carried out where the myriad graves are, into the gray, nameless burying grounds of the sea…” One need not discuss the obvious deployed image here of the sea-death to know to what these two powerful writers were referring.
If you think this a mere Victorian-era notion which can only happen set against vast acculturated repression, to be disabused one need venture no further than WNYC’s 2007 The Tristan Mysteries (in which I happily participated) in which a friend of mine, her voice disguised to protect her reputation, recounts in hysterically lurid detail her own similar experience listening to the “Prelude and Liebestod” from, yes, Tristan und Isolde, unexpectedly dampening the seat of Carnegie Hall. This in 2001. This is persuasive power; this is dangerous. Little wonder famously brutal director Lars Von Trier used the prelude and other chunks as an idée fixe for his apocalyptic Melancholia, specifically for a long-focus nude scene, because this music speaks to the sex and to the death instinct in equal parts. Little wonder the work caused stirring in otherwise unstirred repressed American housewife loins.
The Ballad of Atonality
The most persuasive case for music actually being dangerous, that there is a kind of music that intends to not only exclude but do harm, has been made by firebrand musicologist Susan McClary. To sum up her argument, when speaking of Carmen, the seductive title character’s music is chromatic, a whiff of the foreign which seeks to intrude upon the (exclusively male-created) tonality of Don Jose, luring him in with her white-and-black-note witchcraft because it threatens the purity of his I-V-I tonal cadences and therefore she has to die. While this 1) sounds like a flimsy argument and 2) seems to be better suited to the associative than to the strictly musical, scanning forward to other operas, there is certainly merit to the idea that the chromatic intrudes upon the diatonic. (e.g. Salome, where the title character there is wildly chromatic, who sets her mania against the alarmingly tonal John the Baptist and is fallen upon by guards; the chromatic Isolde is bested by the tonal Tristan and therefore she has to have one last orgasm and die.)
The danger of chromaticism was not just in the context of these operas, with their dangerous and seductive characters, but also because it was set against the ever-stalwart and purer cadences and melodic figurations of the foundation of tonal harmony. Lose that, though, and you lose more than just the tonic: the whole notion of atonality was a dangerous thing because, on the echt level it spoke of rootlessness, of homelessness, of an unceasing wandering, of trying to find sense when old rules no longer applied. This was dangerous because it was impossible to follow—two and three on the danger calculus fleshed out for all to hear. In an earlier time, a ninth chord that Arnold Schoenberg had put into an “improper” inversion and not properly resolved in his musical essay Verklärte Nacht was thought by one critic to be the harbinger of the death of classical music.
It is almost impossible for those of us who have lived through the rise and (ostensible) fall of the idea of non-tonal music as the banner-waving face of “modern music” to understand how powerful and genuinely terrifying it must have been. I think I would trade just about anything I have to have been at the premiere of Wozzeck—not just to have heard it but to have the luxury of hearing it afresh, of feeling the house trembling at what they had to have seen as the barbarians at the gate (some of whom welcomed them because they were their own; some of whom were probably afraid because they felt the plants in their especial terrarium could not weather the new sounds). Obviously nobody can, and in that fact lies the essence of the argument: that danger is not just a personal but also an historical precept, one that at the very least—especially when rooted in the surface rebellion of what might shock—can never be recaptured, try though one might.
Finale: One Last Thing (There is a Point Here)
It was once true that certain musics spoke of and for and were born from deep rebellion, like all art, but imitating their imitations and toning them down in order to be loved is no rebellion whatsoever. So where does that leave us, especially my friend who aspires to a tattooed neck and a simultaneous career as a performer of the classics? Has the danger—mock, echt, or otherwise—been siphoned out of the Great Tradition so much so that it has in fact been withered down to a calcification of itself? Is there any hope for any concert composer to make a string quartet, orchestral piece, or solo piano work that has the raw power and down-and-dirty daemonic grit to be actually interesting and potent? Can classical music actually be dangerous? Can a simple collection of pitches and rhythms rendered from a score scare us, turn us on, make us think in a fashion unbecoming, get us dirty, make us laugh in the face of terrible bloody tragedy, do glorious violence to our preconceptions?
The short answer is: probably not. The subsequent answer: who cares? If music is, as Stravinsky famously quipped, “powerless to express anything except itself,” then music qua music needs the ballast of some kind of narrative thrust—a background against which the danger can be implied; a personal association with the sound; a plain flesh-and-blood story—or at least the Great Metanarrative of Music History to lend it anything resembling danger.
The gist of the problem is that what humanity seems to long for is a closed system because it is easier to manage, even for the most intelligent among us. What philosophers—and in this phylum of thinkers I include artists—try to do (and, wow, will this be alarmingly general) is create visible patterns, ways to latch on to the voluptuously untamable and ineffable spirit of this thing called humanity—which is also why we need not just a single philosopher or school of thought, or a single discipline with which to express, delineate, define, and process the hugger-mugger of existence. But obviously, no door is shut for long because humanity is the ultimate open system, and that notion, much like the infinity of the cosmos, terrifies we who want to understand. And so we force square pegs of art into round holes, to great and important effect, and occasionally something happens to remind us how artificial much of that is, and that is the great and untenable terror, the agape of true, untrammeled awe.
Maybe you love classical music like I do: not as an aperitif or some kind of relaxing thing to get you away from it all, but as a vivid and messy thing that is rich and strange; perhaps the story of my friend aspiring to the neck tattoo but fearing for the career feels like an unjust exsanguination, a commuting of something made by complicated people to something built by statues. To remove the sense of danger is, of course, to do harm to the work though, like anything, every generation gets the danger it deserves. I think, then, as artists it is important to keep the idea of what scares people in check and use it to our best advantage, to mind the distance between scaring and shocking, and to not presume the rebellions of the previous generations will be met with the same dumbstruck looks and contra-paeans in the press as previously, because that helps nobody. It is important to be bold—fortune favors it, or so the saying goes—but it is equally important to (at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna) follow your own compass rather than just presume the vanity of immediate on-the-grounds-of-danger rejection. And if that scares you or makes you feel you have entered dangerous waters, then my guess is that you are on the right track.
1. Google this at your own risk.
2. There was an entire movement called Danger Music. Much of it involved turning the music up so loud as to damage the eardrums of the listener, or Mr. Paik’s excursion into a whale, that sort of thing.
3. The best iteration of this terror can be found in the pages of my friend Wesley Stace’s novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which is about a composer but written from the point of view of a critic who seems lost in the aesthetic tidal shifts of concert music trends.
4. A piece of music so dangerous that not only did it feature in A Clockwork Orange (Burgess, a composer himself, and Kubrick were no strangers to classical music) but it also served as the source of much musicological heat when enfant-terrible but brilliant scholar Susan McClary wrote: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” Indeed.
5. In my composition class, I had something called “Dangerous Music Day” wherein I played pieces (as did the class) that were in some way “dangerous.” As my two strongest examples of those pieces you simply should not be listening to in any way if you are trying to write music I used Stravinsky’s Les Noces and the theme from the Mr. Softee truck, the former because it is difficult to not write that piece once you hear it and the latter because it makes you loathe music altogether.
6. Every important piece seemed to need its riot.
7. Where every last scrap of famous lyric has to be drawn directly from the projected life of the subject in flashes of “inspiration”; and where almost always nobody is ever seen actually making music. Apparently rewriting and rehearsing are anathema to Hollywood notions of how legendary songs are made.
8. This is not to say they got worse—the solo records of Nico, John Cale, and especially Lou Reed are, to a certain extent, musically more powerful and profound than their collective VU efforts, but the inexplicable mystique of their rough-around-the-edges youthful efforts speaks to something different.
9. Let the debate begin over Reed’s Metal Machine Music—artistic overstatement or middle finger to record company? I’ve certainly heard both.
10. On which I’ve written about in these pages and so will not rehash here.
11. Another mea culpa for vast oversimplification and the square-peg-round-hole lumping together such diverse and radically different artists simply because they can conveniently be called “experimental.” It does them a disservice to help me make a point.
12. Though I really really am, I swear.
13. As was the WPA, eventually.
14. You can see this in Tim Robbins’s ham-fisted but ultimately effective piece of contemporary agit-prop (read: anti-capitalist) cinema called The Cradle Will Rock. Don’t get me started on either the disrespectful portrayal of Orson Welles or the deep historical inaccuracies in the script, but overall it stands as 1) an excellent portrait of the time and 2) a really good portrait of the life of Mr. Blitzstein—there should be more movies about composers.
15. I want to mention Tori Amos here because while she did not, until recently, identify as a “classical” composer, her unaccompanied song “Me and a Gun” which recounts her own rape is one of the more hair-raising pieces of contextual gut-punching on record.
16. Yes, I went back. Rabid fan or glutton for terror?
17. Or so the legend has it.
18. Or how many shades of gray she enters into…
19. Though Alex Ross says of this very phenomenon that in doing so Mr. Von Trier “buys into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist.” I say nothing.
20. Though to be fair, what “advance has not been thought, by someone, to be the death knell of said thing?
21. Not to mention the movie Psycho, which made every atonal sound need its concomitant shower scene. How many times has a composer heard “that could be in a horror movie” about some piece of theirs?
22. Any more than Borges’s Pierre Menard could not, though not for lack of effort, become the author of Don Quixote.
23. Not every piece of art, but every discipline has seeds of revolt within it, or at least certain practitioners do.
24. For lack of a better term.
Composer Daniel Felsenfeld has been commissioned and performed by Simone Dinnerstein, Two Sense, Metropolis Ensemble, American Opera Projects, Great Noise Ensemble Da Capo Chamber Players, ACME, Transit, REDSHIFT, Blair McMillen, Stephanie Mortimore, New Gallery Concert Series at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, BAM, Kennedy Center, Le Poisson Rouge, City Winery, Galapagos Art Space, The Stone, Jordan Hall, Duke University, Stanford University and Harvard University. He has also worked with Jay-Z, The Roots, Keren Ann, and is the court composer for John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. Raised in the outlying suburbs of Los Angeles, he lives in Brooklyn.