Tag: judgment

Unbound by “Programming”: A Counter-Hegemonic Reimagining of Contemporary Performance

I had meant, at least at first, to produce here an essay criticizing programs of “Music by [Insert Marginalized Community Here] Composers.” While I’m sure there are some who in their own heart of hearts find such marked categorization validating, I personally find it uncomfortable to have my utterances branded publicly as “female music” or “queer music,” the implication being that an unbranded program constitutes “real music”: music that needs no qualifier. However, this point has been articulated before better than I ever will, and perhaps more importantly, simply shaming the one practice that seems intended to help those of us whose work does not enjoy the privilege of de facto universality in our culture seemed unlikely to provoke any meaningful alternative. Moreover, in envisioning a culture of egalitarian programming–even in watching one come to fruition–I came to realize that a solution I would really like would have to be more profoundly transformative. A hegemony of Deserving Artists with a tiny handful at the top, but who equally likely happen to be women, if anything, feels like more of an exclusion than a culture of programming all men: at least, if women were never programmed, we could blame sexism entirely for our frustration, rather than be faced with the implication that we are inadequate standard-bearers for our gender.

To put it more generally, the assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to, or moreover in which there is an unequal distribution of opportunities within those who are actively working artists. We are simply in competition with each other whether presenting organizations intend this or not; scarce funding exacerbates this, but throwing money at the problem does not annihilate this fact, and I feel a degree of it would persist even if all artists were guaranteed a stable income. Rather, some disruption of the basic creative transaction is necessary: an option which does not require a composer to start her own ensemble and thereby insert herself into the decider-position.

“The assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to.”

Can we foment a culture in which composers’ utterances are deemed valuable solely on the basis of having been uttered, regardless of hegemonic notions of musical quality? Certainly explicit competitions are out. (As a side note, when a competition specifically asks for submissions from “underrepresented groups,” this language rings severely hollow. Forcing us to compete for the privilege of being tokenized–in the event that any such applicants are selected at all–is in fact doubly insulting, and it might be worth someone’s time to conduct a thorough survey of how results actually change when such language is imposed.) I have often daydreamed about the possibility of a course evaluating applications by random lottery. But how, then, can music reach the audience-facing stage without this notion of deserving-quality backing it up?

The best course I have foreseen is a change in dismantling our listening hierarchies: really dismantling them, rather than moving the locus of deservingness from the art’s own nature to the artist’s character. What, for example, would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears? What opportunities could be created, then, for every composer and every performer and every listener to form their own aesthetic values? I don’t mean to pitch a particular type of project as much as to posit a thought experiment and offer a gentle nudge in a new direction. What I envision, were the technical and economic barriers to such a situation eliminated, is a type of free association, in which creative communities would form without deference to a Discerning Other, and in which the bounds that force us to appease pseudoaristocratic notions of taste would cease to alienate us from our own inner creative wellsprings.

“What would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears?”

As for what I think you, dear reader, “should” do right now (who am I to say “should?”): remember as you evaluate that you are never without biases, and perhaps this is most especially prevalent when you attempt to abolish your biases. While it would be wonderful if we could fully sacrifice our creative urges to some sense of collective good, maintaining the illusion of such a sacrifice (and you do sacrifice your creative urge if you choose to defer to me, even willingly, even if you were to consider me particularly deserving) constitutes a dishonesty harmful both to yourself and to those you have chosen to “support.” Ultimately, at the root of all this, I say: imagine listening differently, as if you have never taken a recommendation from someone, as if you have never suffered through a “Music Appreciation” course, as if you have never read a review in any publication: as if, instead, you are simply searching for the particular combination of factors that stirs you most deeply, in this life and in this moment.

Tanglewood: Sessions and Lessons on Successful Composition

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

Stefan Asbury leading the TMCO in Roger Sessions Concerto for Orchestra. Photo by Hilary Scott

It is essential that the company be a big one
It should be at least big enough
So that nobody knows exactly
What anyone else is doing

—Frank Loesser, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Monday of last week I was at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, sitting in front of a chatty old lady. (The first rule of Tanglewood: you will always be sitting in front of a chatty old lady.) This was the final concert of the Festival of Contemporary Music (which I reviewed for the Boston Globe), and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and conductor Stefan Asbury kicked off the program with an old-school favorite of mine: Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra.

It was not a favorite of the lady behind me. This, in and of itself, is not that surprising. It was a great performance, but Sessions is an acquired taste (one that I am happy to have acquired). But it was the way she talked about it that caught my ear. “It’s not successful,” she kept saying, all through the changeover to the next piece. “It’s not a successful piece of music.”

I’ve probably heard (and used) a similar construction dozens of times, but she was so fixed on that terminology that it just started to sound weirder and weirder. It wasn’t successful. It’s an unsuccessful piece.
What does that even mean?


It was pretty clear what it meant in this specific case. She didn’t like it. She just wanted a more objective-sounding way of saying that. For all the criticism of the avant-garde modernist habit of deflecting personal responsibility by reference to some realm of impersonal, the-music-goes-where-it-has-to-go autonomy—here’s a handy example—it’s worth noting that the avant-garde’s discontents do the exact same thing. It’s the style that’s bankrupt; it’s the music that’s unsuccessful. (It’s not me; it’s you.)
So: is this piece successful? From a professional standpoint, Sessions’s Concerto was, in fact, a huge success. It was commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It got great reviews. The BSO recorded it, and the recording got great reviews. It won the Pulitzer Prize. But those are, perhaps, merely career-based externalities, and the buzzwordiness of that phrase is some indication that inherent musical quality is not its inevitable companion. These are the sort of markers that are easiest to dismiss (up to a point: everybody hates the Pulitzer Prize until one of their favorite composers wins the thing).

I think (I hope) I’ve been a little more specific with “successful” and “unsuccessful” when writing or talking about music, measuring it against some given goal: either a composer’s-note mission statement for the piece, or some sort of dramatic necessity, or some trajectory that the music seems to be implying so strongly that to abandon it would be perverse. But a lot of times, I am left in the dark as to those goals. When it comes to, say, a major work by an 85-year-old Roger Sessions, I tend to assume that the composer knew what he was doing, that what we’re hearing is what he intended us to hear. Not being exactly what one wants to hear seems like a pretty thin rationale for judging whether a piece of music succeeds or doesn’t.

The consensus of the group behind me seemed to be that the Concerto wasn’t flashy enough, that it didn’t justify its massive ensemble and its title with sufficient musical fireworks. To be fair, Sessions doesn’t have the generous glitter of that other BSO commission, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra—if that’s your benchmark, then the piece is going to seem unsuccessful. The question—an old one—is whether or not the listener has some responsibility to try and meet the music on its own terms.
My favorite part of the Sessions Concerto is about a third of the way through (starting at measure 126, if you’re the type to have a score lying around). The winds start to melt away, a couple of the horns fizz up their section with a few measures of stopped notes, and then a Largo section begins with about 45 seconds of nothing but the brass softly winding around each other then suddenly erupting into a brief flame. It’s like musical lava. I could pat myself on the back for enjoying what Sessions is doing at this moment, for getting it, but that’s false, too—the piece isn’t successful just because it’s unwittingly pandering to what I like any more than it’s unsuccessful for not pandering to someone else’s preferences. Still, I think there’s something valuable in getting out of your own way as a listener. I take the Concerto’s Gordon-Willis-photographs-the-Second-Viennese-School sound as something Sessions intended, and find that there’s a lot of beauty in that sound.

While I was out at Tanglewood, I gave a lecture to the Boston University Tanglewood Institute students about their following-weekend orchestra concert, which included Sibelius’s Pohjola’s Daughter and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade. While doing research for the talk, I ran across Rimsky-Korsakov’s wonderfully dry reaction (as reported by Stravinsky) to hearing Sibelius’s Second Symphony for the first time: “Well, I suppose that is also possible.” I decided to make it my mantra for the Festival, a little amulet of equanimity—the music might be good, it might be bad, but before anything, it is what it is, independent of what I wish it was. I still didn’t like every piece on the Festival. But I probably enjoyed the possibilities more than I might have otherwise.


Not long ago, I had a dream, part of which involved a fictional piece of music. (Another part involved Monty Python’s Flying Circus being filmed in northern New England, thanks, somehow, to an unsettled border dispute with Canada. Have at it, Jungians.) I don’t remember the (also fictional) composer or title, but I do remember that a recording and score of the piece came packaged with a very Jack Kirby-ish comic book, all far-out, cosmic pop mythology. The music itself was electronic, analog-synthesized nasality and ping, garnished with fashionable atonal and aleatoric features, but on a foundation that had the comfortable structure of a Hollywood soundtrack. The final section of the piece was a setting of a passage from some medieval, Vico-like bit of mysticism, the portentous narration filtered through some early version of a vocoder.

It was, in other words, just about the most late-’60s-America artifact one could possibly imagine. And that’s how it was perceived in the dream world, too. Everyone I was hanging out with in the dream—musicians all—knew the piece; it was one of those grad-school cult pieces, not part of the standard repertoire, but common knowledge among current and former composition students, say. In the dream, a lot of my friends were kind of rolling their eyes at the piece, at its cheesiness, its datedness, its lack of restraint. But that was just why I liked it, the fact that it was so over-saturated with its own zeitgeist.

I woke up and wondered how much American history you could map out this way—with pieces from the classical repertoire that were so much of their own time that they never really escaped it, either aesthetically or, in performance-frequency terms, literally. I didn’t get very far, to be honest. But I did realize one thing: any piece that fit these criteria was, by definition, on some level, unsuccessful.
But, as with that dream-world piece, that tends to have a lot to do with why I like them. The two strongest candidates I came up with—Marc Blitzstein’s Airborne Symphony for the 1940s and Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days for the 1980s—are both pieces that I love. They’re also both pieces that, from one angle, are flawed and dated. But, from another angle, they’re pieces that bring to the fore ideas and aspects of music that more conventionally successful pieces never do.

Songs from Liquid Days is particularly rich in this regard. For those who might have missed it (still reeling, perhaps, from Boy George’s appearance on The A-Team), Songs from Liquid Days was a 1986 album for which Glass set texts by various pop/art-pop artists (Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson) then recruited a bunch of different pop artists (Janice Pendarvis, longtime Rolling Stones backup Bernard Fowler, Linda Ronstadt, The Roches) to sing the results. If that sounds like a mish-mash, well, it is. And my first reaction to something like “Changing Opinion,” the opening track—both when I first heard it and when I recently pulled the album out again—was that all those different contributions, all those agendas, pulled the piece in too many contrary directions.

Which is exactly what I found most compelling about it the second and third times around. Each of the components—the Wagnerian harmonies, the R&B vocals, the nouvelle vague realism/surrealism of the lyrics—is thrown back on itself by the others, until it’s concentrated and pure. The stylistic essences are amplified by the sheer incompatibility. Even its period-piece-ness is profound, tapping into aspects of the era that tend to get sanded away by the retro-culture industry. (“Liquid Days (Part I),” with The Roches warbling in close harmony, nails the antiseptic nostalgia that saturated the ’80s better than any other piece I can think of.)

Is that what the piece set out to do? Nevertheless, it’s what the piece does. Or (to exorcise that autonomous musical realm) it’s what I think it does. And I think it’s pretty successful at it.


sessions concerto title
A lot of people, I suppose, would call Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra a period piece. I can hear something of that. I hear a particular, post war wing of the new-music establishment. I hear its late-’70s, early-’80s twilight. I hear the pre-World War II Vienna from which Sessions drew so much inspiration. But I also hear the years right around 1990—when I first got to know the piece in college. I listened to a lot of postwar atonal modernism in college. I listened to a lot of everything in college, mainly because I didn’t know a lot of it, and mainly because my musical taste was unformed enough that piling in additional, sometimes contradictory evidentiary material was still easy and fun, like filling a library rather than culling it.

Sessions’s Concerto was commissioned for the BSO’s centennial. He had also been commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary, writing his Third Symphony—a big-canvas culmination of his first explorations of serialist techniques. Cyrus Durgin, then the critic for the Boston Globe, was, it is fair to say, dismayed by Sessions’s Third:

What, then, are we to think? Is this music or not? Time will tell, of course, and all writers about art have been proved wrong at one time or another. But this morning is now, and I will say I do not believe it is music, or if it is, here is music of a curiously masochistic and perverse variety. (“Sessions’ New Third Symphony,” Daily Boston Globe, December 7, 1957)

Give Durgin a little credit—he doesn’t make any pretense of lofty objectivity. This is what he thinks, at this particular time. But deciding whether or not something is a piece of music—that is some prime old-school criticism right there. In a post-tonal, post-serialist, post-Cagean, post-minimalist, post-modern atmosphere, that kind of statement has ceased to be useful, or even meaningful. Child of Tree might not be your cup of tea, but if John Cage, as disciplined a musician as there ever was, hears music in the prick of cactus needles, are you going to tell him he’s wrong? But I think that some people miss that sense of certainty. And I think that’s where a lot of that “successful/unsuccessful” type of critical terminology can start to creep in. I’ll confess: I miss it every once in a while, too.

One’s relationship with music is built up brick by brick, piece by piece, concert by concert, judgment by judgment. I like new music, which probably means that I have a higher tolerance than most for constantly demolishing and renovating that house of taste—which I sometimes think might be more of a sign of immaturity than anything: an 8-year-old’s glee at getting to pick up a sledgehammer and bash in the drywall of my own opinions.

Still, sometimes you just want to sit in your house. I sense this most when I go to a concert when I’m in a bad mood. (This is one consequence of our societal norm of putting concerts in the evening: you can fit in an entire crappy day before the first downbeat.) If I’m there in some professional capacity, that means extra work: talking myself into the possibility of an unexpected epiphany, tasking myself with finding some bit of the music worth praising, obsessively applying Cage’s prescription for boredom (“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen.”) to keep from completely retreating into a daydream. My job is to recognize that I’m in a bad mood and filter it out; to suppose that whatever I’m hearing is, also, possible.

And then, often times, the concert filters it out for me, and I find that my bad mood has dissipated. How do I know? I find that I’m suddenly more alert. I’m more expectant. I’m more in the present. In short: I’m ready to be proven wrong. And I can’t wait.

Lapsed Composer and Curmudgeonly Critic Reveals All About the Reviewing Racket!

boxes filled with CDs
I’m a lapsed composer hovering at the fringes of new music. I don’t compose much, but I review and critique CDs of new music. It’s easier to find time for critical listening than for pencil pushing. It is slightly vicarious, but I get to keep an ear on what’s going on, even though commercial releases are different than the concert hall scene.

By day I earn my living working in high tech for a global technology company. New music listening is squeezed in at every opportunity. My co-workers think my stacks of discs are quaint and wonder why I don’t invest in an mp3 player, but they don’t realize that each week I devour fresh content. It’s not worth the time to create lossless CD conversions.

Everything the mailbag brings is spun at least twice. However, I can’t and therefore don’t review everything. I sort and prioritize. If it makes a good first impression or it aligns with my interests, it will likely be covered. Something poorly executed or recorded will fall to the bottom of the pile. I try not to be subjective on the initial pass. I crave new discoveries, and very often something set aside one day becomes compelling a few weeks later.

While I have no formal tutelage in “How to review new music CDs,” there are a few guiding principles I follow. Someone wiser than me shared them back when I began to spend more time in Word than Finale:
1)      Always be factually accurate
2)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to educate an unfamiliar reader
3)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to inform the composer/performer
Having the luxury of being a principal at my own shop, lafolia.com, I don’t work under deadlines and can babble about any topic that interests me, not just new releases but old recordings, obscure composers, stuff heard on the radio, or pictures from a recent trip. I’ve built up solid relationships with a diverse group of labels, publicists, performers, and ensembles over the years. I like to think this quirkiness is what sustains our readers.

There will always be some new music I will never cover and sometimes I feel conflicted about this. I always wish I could cover more releases, but there is only so much time. And even if I were able to produce words for everything that passes my way, there would then be a fair amount of neutral or negative criticism, which I think would do a disservice. I believe I’m not alone in working like this—in fact, I see it as a duty to be predominantly positive, especially when covering the obscure.

It’s not uncommon for reviewers to be handed assignments. Staffers might cover a genre or composer they know nothing about. Here’s where you might notice a reviewer sticking to rule #1, offering irrelevant trivia about the restaurant across the street from where the recording was made or regurgitating program notes. You want your post-downtown minimalist piano suite critiqued by someone who’s heard of La Monte Young, not a medieval chorister. Of course there are wonderful write-ups from reviewers who have stepped outside of their comfort zones and made discoveries, but such instances are becoming rarer in the everything-is-on-YouTube era.
Let me share some examples of what might fall to the bottom of my personal well:

  • Orchestral pieces which were clearly written on a synthesizer and scored using a paint-by-numbers technique
  • Noisy or dimly recorded live performances (unless they have historical merit)
  • Pieces where the composer doesn’t recognize the limits of their material (perhaps doesn’t develop it enough, or conversely doesn’t know when to let it alone)

I don’t sort the mail by likes and dislikes. I don’t have categories I detest or composers I hate. (Would I admit it, if I did?) I am actually more inclined to listen to someone’s second release especially if I didn’t click with their first. Of course my tastes can probably be inferred by reading what I’ve written (especially now that I’ve divulged the prioritizing aspect). A release titled Lachenmann pours Sciarrino coffee while Xenakis and Ferrari look on will probably migrate towards the top of the pile.
Because I don’t cover everything and I subjectively prioritize what I do, someone might suggest I should get out of the way. There’s a tacit understanding that I ought to say something about everything which I’m handed. Whether I inquire after a release or receive it unsolicited, there is always the assumption that it is for “consideration.” It’s not come up explicitly that the press release bandwagon would evaporate if I were overtly sour, but I have had some sources dry up when I wasn’t timely, whether or not I was eventually enthusiastic.

Nowadays, I don’t think speedy verdicts are necessary, except to create buzz for an initial launch. On the internet, things stick. Anyone doing a web search can find critical information, whether it coincided with the street date or was penned months, even years later. Widely spaced mentions in the press are often good indicators of music’s endurance.

New music, as diverse and percolating as it is, maintains a thin niche. Every day we’re told classical music, our close cousin, is on the wane, or that it died just last week. We want to attract new ears, be appealing to new audiences, and not alienate potential fans. Publicity hounds prefer positive and timely tweets. We’re drowning under an avalanche of good press. We’re a supportive and encouraging community.

But is too much positivism bad? I remember a professor at college who could be relied upon for the same peppy post-concert verdict. He loved everything, to the point that his consistent post-performance adulation became disingenuous, and some of us reused his catchphrase as a snide greeting. It was clear his opinion had minimal value. We don’t want empty voices in our community, yet we walk a fine line between supporting one another and ensuring that we’re raising the bar.

I would like to write more negative reviews (and employ rules #2 and #3 above). There’s the myth that they are fun to write, but I am simply not that clever. In my experience, a pan takes as much effort as gushing words, but the writing isn’t as satisfying. I could take pains to be fair, to draw upon experience, and wherever possible, educate. But I really don’t want to spend time on something which simply isn’t worth the trouble. It’s rewarding to write about good and interesting things. It wastes effort to be neutral or negative.

If I were to craft a scathing review, would it have any effect? I don’t think I have that power. I would honestly feel bad if I hurt someone’s chances for funding or derailed future opportunities. But then again, the true creators among us always pick themselves up and start again. Do negative reviews matter as much given how easy it is to set up one’s own soapbox? Do we expect a more critical stance from established journalism? Do you expect the Gray Lady to err on the side of meanness?
If you start to think about it, there really ought to be more negative press out there. We have all attended poorly prepared performances and have heard completely forgettable pieces. To compensate for the major labels’ disinterest in new music, countless vanity projects have sprung up. There are fewer barriers to self-publication and so it follows that the standard of quality would slip. Proportionally we ought to see more negativity, but in the interest of time and sanity, I think the critical legion is trying just to keep up with the good stuff.

Now and again, I have let neutral or negative reviews leave the house. I’m sure there’s a reader out there who thinks everything I’ve posted is evasive or dismissive, just as I worry that I’ve offended everyone at least once. Subjectivity is always a consideration, but if I think a piece or release is miscued, and the composer or performer is established enough to withstand some needle marks, then I’m more inclined to express negativity.

I frequently forage through Fanfare and American Record Guide and might find a non-stellar review of a contemporary release. I can often tell whether I might actually enjoy a disc because someone else disliked it. I have sought out and covered at least one Xenakis release because of this. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to restore the balance of the universe, but mostly it’s about countering a review where it’s evident that the critic has no clue about the composer and his music, very likely the result of an ill-fitting assignment.

Admittedly, no one actually bestowed upon me the ability to be a new music critic. Such is the greatness of the internet: anyone can hang out a shingle. I believe I am putting my experience to good and objective use. I’ve put forth some of the thoughts I think all critics wrestle with but don’t openly discuss, and invite your comments. For now, I need to get back to my listening. I really do want to review more CDs.


photo of Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell is the Managing Editor for LaFolia.com and tweets at @lafoliaed. He works in the Boston area for a global technology company that made hardware which Xenakis and Babbitt both used. Covell is also a composer of electroacoustic and instrumental music that has been performed in the U.S. and abroad; some of his electronic works have been commercially released on the Canadian Electroacoustic Community’s Presence III, The Door Project from the International Computer Music Association, and a 2012 disc also featuring music by Kazumi Umeda.

New Music’s Quality Problem

quality control

Photo courtesy of Eduardo on Flickr.

Whenever I come across a new music community post about the so-called “audience problem,” I think to myself: isn’t that a little entitled? What makes composers feel so deserving of an audience? It seems like the entire audience problem debate stubbornly looks outward, asking questions about marketing, “outreach,” and accessibility, all the while carefully avoiding some seriously necessary self-examination. Instead of an audience problem, I think new music has a quality problem.

I know this word might seem a little old-fashioned, conservative even, but its disappearance has left some still-unrepaired holes in our language. I’m not arguing for any sort of “objective quality”—it’s hard to defend black-and-white binaries after postmodernism. (Even those binaries one might put at either pole of a continuum.) Likewise, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that quality is culturally constructed, and that its indices might change from generation to generation. However, though postmodernism afforded some suppleness and relativity, its norms were quietly and insidiously eroded by late-stage (or neoliberal) capitalism’s very objectivity-oriented standards.

The present antimodernism, at its outset so strongly critical of binary logic, has started to look an awful lot like its structuralist predecessor. Instead of good/bad, present mores yield to profitable/unprofitable or popular/unpopular.* Worse, because new music culture thinks it has left such binaries behind, it lost those rich discursive weirdnesses one finds orbiting around absolutes in an inabsolute world. Defensively, it lost the words to talk about quality and then, sadly, the energy to conceptualize its increasing fuzziness.

I hear the phrase “it’s a matter of taste” quite a lot. What a prohibitive position—it sounds like “our differences in perception present irreconcilable differences and we should stop talking now.” “Taste” and “quality” strike me as entirely different forces. Taste brings into the room all those alliances one makes with the world, the ways one forms an identity. Of course, I don’t really have control over my taste—I inherit it generationally, biologically, culturally, from role models and archetypes, and from social and political modes of control. I can, however, establish some critical distance between myself and my taste. If I can’t, if I am unable to separate myself at least a little bit from the things I identify with, then I must live in some kind of agenciless misread-Foucauldian nightmare. Quality means something different, something exactly about the agency one exercises between oneself and one’s identity. I can think of few things more subjective than this space, but at the same time I think it’s possible and important to talk about it.

Another prohibitive conversational barrier comes in directives to “focus on one’s own work instead of interfering in others’.” I find this particular rhetorical strategy absolutely incompatible with the way most composers justify their existence. If I tell myself, constantly, that my musical work is incredibly and unquestionably socially important, why is its content inconsequential? Like “it’s a matter of taste,” this also invites a conversation about agency. I believe that music wields its own power, separate from the human agency of its composition and performance. Because music affects people, albeit invisibly, the new music community must find a way to meaningfully address the responsibilities of composition, performance, and curation. As I see it now, the greater community I cherish lacks any mechanism of accountability—it proliferates discourse, tirelessly circulating around the unfalsifiable idea that subjectivity somehow means incommunicability.

Quality is an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it. Surely we can speak of musical necessity without reverting to old and bankrupt black-and-white. I will write three more posts for NewMusicBox, increasingly attempting to open doors to a “discourse of quality”—a mode of talking, abstractly, weirdly, about our musical agencies. Next week I will address elitism, power, and the broader structural impediments to music-world conversation.

* WQXR’s report entitled “In a Rough Job Market, More Conservatories Stress Business Skills” reveals this type of objective thinking better than almost anything. David Cutler, University of South Carolina Professor of Musical Entrepreneurship, proposes the following:

“[…P]erhaps part of the recital requirement might be: you need to get 200 people there to get an A, or 150 people there to get a B.” Students might also be graded on how they can rethink the presentation to include multimedia or other visual elements.

Note the quiet reintroduction of objective metrics, posed in the guise of postmodern flexibility, when it comes to evaluating art.


Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks (b.1989) writes chamber music at Harvard University, where he works towards a PhD. His music mines for expressivity in threadbare spaces, exhausted resources, and absolute vacuum. He studies with Chaya Czernowin, but recent primary teachers also include John Luther Adams, Rick Burkhardt, Roger Reynolds, Steven Takasugi, Hans Tutschku, and Amnon Wolman. Prior to this, he undertook the majority of his education with his mentor Josh Levine at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

Fear of Simplicity

The recent death of British composer John Tavener has got me thinking, again, about simplicity and the way we talk about simple music. There’s a weird combination of admiration, envy, and condescension that often comes into play when composers talk about simplicity. We can admire its bravery, its unabashed unembellished-ness. But maybe we’re unsure how to judge it when there isn’t as much on the surface to analyze. And maybe we want to protest, “But I could just as easily have done that,” even though of course we didn’t. Maybe we resent someone calling “dibs” on that idea before we got around to it.

Maybe simplicity is complicated because the difference between a simple idea that is banal and a simple idea that has depth can be extremely subtle. Maybe we can’t tell, at first, which is which. But then, why should this be any different than complexity? Complexity can contain hidden depths, but it can also obscure a lack of substance at its core.

There’s no way to tell, then, on first listen. We can only trust our prejudices or our instincts, and what’s more, we may not even be able to distinguish prejudices from instincts. And maybe the prejudices have rewired the instincts, so that, while being drawn to the immediately attractive idea, we immediately distrust it, because we have been burned too many times by charlatans.
Maybe the non-composer is more likely to trust the naked idea and its fearless charms, while the composer prefers the idea with clothes, with armor. Complexity as a kind of modesty, as shyness, as parasocial anxiety. Maybe this petty yet fundamental disconnect is the source of countless tragicomic misunderstandings between artist and audience.

Then again, maybe I am overgeneralizing (or over-equivocating). There is room in the world for both simple and complex music and for all kinds of interactions between the two, and mapping this strange, non-linear territory is one of the things that new music has gotten pretty good at. The trick is to view it without judging—or to judge anyway while knowing your judgment is wrong. Creation unfortunately demands a perpetual, genocidal sacrifice of possibilities, so we might as well get it over with.

“How Old Are You Now?”

Over tapas and perhaps too much sangria one evening last week, I got into an extensive debate with a friend about whether or not something could “live on” if it was not “great.”

“Only the really good stuff survives. Can you name anything that’s still popular from over a hundred years ago that’s no good?” my friend asked almost rhetorically, pretty much convinced that I would not be able to come up with something to refute his claim.
Even though I completely disagreed with him, I was in something of a bind since I have made it a life’s goal to not think in terms of good vs. bad. If I don’t like something, I’m fully aware that my feelings toward it have more to do with myself than whether or not it is objectively good or bad, and my attraction to things has changed considerably over time. The same seems true for just about everyone else. Therefore to assess something based on its popularity (either among the general public or a small coterie of taste arbiters) holds no validity for me.

If opinion has no role in establishing quality, whether or not something remains popular for a very long period of time cannot be used as a way to prove that it’s “good.” So even though I have no idea what “good” means (nor do I ultimately believe that anyone else does), I decided to play the game just to challenge the notion that what the majority values over time could determine what is worthwhile. Of course if I were to play this game by my own rules, my subjective assertion that something was not good would have no more weight than the weight of that group of many people over time. But, chalk it up to that blasted sangria, I summoned up my own subjectivity in an attempt to refute subjectivity overall.

“The song ‘Happy Birthday’!” I blurted out. “The music is dreadful and the lyrics are utterly insipid. Yet it has undeniably been the most popular song for well over a century and I highly doubt it will ever go away, though I often wish it would.”

Birthday Cake Profile

Image via Bigstock.

That pretty much ended the debate. However, the following day I received an email from a different friend in response to my previous essay on these pages in which I described my personal realization that my own composing emanated from the same impulse as my writing about the music of other composers—advocacy through communication. For him, however, the “virtue of a piece of music isn’t its ability to ‘communicate,’ but rather its ability to supply a unique experience.” And here’s the zinger:

“No one in new music will ever communicate more directly than ‘Happy Birthday’.”
So then, might “Happy Birthday” be one of the great aesthetic achievements of mankind and might my disdain for it somehow reveal that I’m actually pretty close-minded? Or is my second friend right and might it ultimately not be about communication after all?