Tag: reception history

Playing Like a Girl: The Problems with Reception of Women in Music

By Carrie Leigh Page with Dana Reason

The year was 1942. In the USA, all-girl orchestras toured extensively, rather like a jazz version of A League of Their Own. Audiences were surprised to find that these girls played “just like men!” As in A League of Their Own, though, when the men returned, women were expected to go back to homemaking or other acceptably female professions. Those women who were leaders found themselves in the background once more. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington play large in the bylines of the Swing Era, but women’s bands such as the Sweethearts, the Melodears, and Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “All-Girl Orchestra” disappeared. According to Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, the story lived on in a small way, not in music schools, but in oral histories from women’s jazz festivals and in women’s studies programs, as a sociological phenomenon. One such group that crossed both gender and racial boundaries was the integrated International Sweethearts of Rhythm from Piney Woods, Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the precursors to the Freedom Riders.

How do such important contributors to 20th-century music get lost so easily? This is a question of reception.

Leaving out receptions related to touchdowns and weddings, Merriam-Webster associates the word reception with three synonyms: receipt, response, and admission. Working from that definition, we can perhaps refine the distinct meanings of reception into three musical steps:

Receipt – Getting the music to an audience, which involves access.

Response – Having an audience react to the music and form judgments about its worth.

Admission – Allowing the work to be part of a collective group, canon, or curriculum.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception.

Any new music or new message has problems with reception. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all had problems with reception. Even Jesus had problems with reception in his own hometown. Women in particular, though, have problems with reception in music. Lucy Green, music education philosopher and author of Music, Gender, Education, posits that there is a spectrum for acceptance of women in music. A woman singer is accepted because using her body to make music is an extension of her femininity. Put an instrument in her hands or in front of her face, and it interrupts the impression of a woman as either “sexually available or maternally occupied.” The role of composer (and, I would add, producer), the dux femina facti, is the greatest challenge of all according to Green, because it places the woman in control and invites the audience to gaze upon the inner workings of her mind, disembodying the woman entirely.

The struggle to actually get our performances and compositions to an audience is particularly cumbersome and well-documented. Critical reviews of works by women can be a mixed bag that is not always based on the work itself. Actually acknowledging the worth of work by women seems painful for some in the establishment. This is true for women across all genres of contemporary music making.

Receipt: Accessing the Audience

The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) exists because women found difficulties with reception, and the problem begins with access. In our last IAWM article, we raised a gruesome specter in the “Editor’s Choice” list of concert and contest band works on the J.W. Pepper website. Just 16 works by women out of more than 1600 made the cut. (For those of you who asked, yes, I counted.) Even when works by women are available, many performing organizations seem to be sticking with men. A Baltimore Symphony Orchestra report by Ricky O’Bannon showed the representation of women composers in major concert halls around the USA to be around 1.3% during the 2016-2017 season, and only 10% of the works by living composers were by women. According to Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, only about 4% of the time scheduled for this year’s BBC Proms includes music by women composers.

Instrumental performance interrupts the expected roles of women: mother or sex object.

We’ve established the problems for women composers. What about the performers and conductors? Green’s work shows that instrumental performance interrupts the expected roles of women: mother or sex object. Case in point: Most Miss Americas win while competing as dancers or singers. A few exceptions to that include piano, flute, harp, or violin. A notable outlier is Debbye Turner, who won in 1990 with a marimba medley. There is not a winning trumpeter or saxophonist in sight. What about the wildly successful Pietà ensembles of Vivaldi’s time? According to Rosie Dilnot, “They generally performed in the galleries, or cantorie, of the church, by candle light and stationed behind gauze curtains and a metal grille.” That “mystique” of femininity was preserved.

This is why blind auditions are so important to the rise of women in our orchestras. The story of Abbie Conant and her struggle to keep the orchestra job she had already won in Munich was a flashpoint issue in orchestras of the 1990s, and a 2000 Harvard study determined that the screen between jurors and the musicians they are evaluating increased the number of women hired by 30%. A 2014 article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlights that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra now enjoys a higher proportion of women than men in its ranks, and even the Vienna Philharmonic, which did not admit women until 1997, is likely to equalize its gender imbalance by the next generation. (Pay differences between men and women are a concurrent question to be addressed in these institutions.)

A blind audition is probably impossible for conductors.

However, a blind audition is probably impossible for conductors, and we still see an enormously thick glass ceiling, or as some sources term it, the “glass podium.” There are a few women making headway, but the number of women conductors remains embarrassingly small. The same BSO report mentioned earlier shows female orchestra musicianship to be around 47% percent in the 85 American Symphony orchestras surveyed, but they are overwhelmingly led by men, with only 8.8% of concerts being conducted by women (5.2% for major orchestras). Linda Hartley shows that the same problem exists in the band world, with similar numbers observed at that Mecca of “brass ceilings”: Midwest Clinic.

Though most of the discussion above centers on classical genres, jazz and experimental music programming is similarly restrictive. Biddy Healey commented on the gendering of instruments and the exclusion of women in the “social art” of jazz culture in her essay, “Be a Good Girl or Play Like a Man.” Even the title emphasizes the uncomfortable binary of expectations placed on women.

Women are most often hired as part of someone else’s group rather than as a leader of a large group.

IAWM board member and musicologist Dana Reason has conducted extensive research in this field. Reason’s 2002 dissertation on experimental women improvisers and jazz programming examined five major jazz festivals and concluded that the festival planners at times seemed locked into gender stereotypes: women pianists and singers were hired for “emotionality or sensuality”; women were most often hired as part of someone else’s group rather than as a leader of a large group, and the same small pool of women was rehired each year, seeming to fulfill an implicit “quota” of gender diversity without more extensive research into or appreciation for the breadth and depth of music making in the larger pool of women jazz artists. Such programming creates “silos within silos”—a small experimental jazz pool, and an even smaller pool of women practicing in that genre, and an infinitely smaller pool of the same female artists getting hired year after year.

In pop music as well, grave differences need redress. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published a study this year that notes that women make up only 22.4% of artists, 12.3% of songwriters, and 2% of producers. A recent article in Billboard (“Where Are All the Female Music Producers?”) , the response from Ebonie Smith (“Why Are Female Producers Everywhere, Yet So Invisible?), and countless other sources highlight the invisible role of the woman producer. Smith seems to agree with Tricia Rose’s position that the primary factor that hinders growth is the cold reception of female apprentices in the tech-heavy, male-dominated studio culture.

In short, many audiences do not get access to works created by women, whether notated, improvised, or produced.

Response: Recognition and Value

Over 90% of Grammy nominations for popular songs go to men.

In the Annenberg report, we see that just over 90% of Grammy nominations for popular songs go to men. This lack of critical recognition in the pop industry, combined with the paucity of women awarded prizes and fellowships, emphasizes the invisibility of women across multiple genres.

As Reason points out, we feel the absence of women twofold: they are inadequately programmed and inadequately covered by media:

When coverage of women does occur in magazines or online, the tendency to foreground physical descriptions, make overtly gendered remarks, or advance theories as to the exceptionality of the woman in question. . . can distract readers from the quality of the work and the artistic achievements of experimental women.

In 1903, musicologist Arthur Elson (1873-1940) published a book entitled Woman’s Work in Music, a surprisingly comprehensive and relatively sympathetic tome for its time, detailing the historical roles of women in Western music as performers, patronesses, teachers, researchers, and composers, with a special focus on contemporary women composers at the end of the book. However, despite his own evidence to the contrary (literally over a thousand years of evidence on women making music), Elson still asked if women were “handicapped by the constitution of their sex” and believed that “woman’s work in music will always show more of delicate grace and refinement that man’s, and will be to some extent lacking in the broader effects of strong feeling.”

Elson seemed to claim the ability to distinguish a woman’s compositional product from a man’s, but Ethel Smyth, a contemporary composer about which he writes, was often accused of writing music that was overly masculine, according to researcher Elizabeth Kertesz. In her analysis of critical reception of Smyth’s works, Kertesz explains:

In Smyth’s case, she was accused of being too masculine for demonstrating excessive ambition in her attempts to compose using major forms which employed substantial resources and advanced techniques. Even loud, bold writing, hardly a rarity in Smyth’s style, was seen as masculine, as was technical and formal mastery. The charge of insufficient femininity was levelled at her because some critics considered her expressive range to be too limited at the tender, feminine end of the spectrum. Femininity itself was less clearly defined, including vaguer attributes such as charm, simplicity and grace. (p. 168)

Kertesz organizes the gendered critical reception of Ethel Smyth into three main categories (p. 136):

1. It’s good – for a woman.

2. Comparisons of “feminine” music and “masculine” music.

3. Reflections on the composer herself or the issues of the women’s movement.

Unfortunately, these categories are still applicable to some critical responses to women’s music today, from Vasily Petrenko’s comments about Marin Alsop to that totally weird, “there’s a good reason why there are no great female composers” article from The Spectator . (Don’t miss Emily Hogstad’s snort-laughingly funny response to it!)

Admission: The Musical Canon(s)

[The canon] can imply ideals of unity, consensus, and order. To adherents such ideals serve moral ends as they forge a common vision for the future. To opponents, however, they paper over the realities of social diversity and political dissent.—Martha Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon
It is a question of perspective, a question of emphasis. Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition, a tradition not defined by a pseudoscience of racial biology or a mystically shared essence called blackness but by the repetition and revision of shared themes, topoi and tropes, the call and response of voice, their music and cacophony.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Whose Canon is it Anyhow?”

Martha Citron’s work, quoted above, is one of several winners of the IAWM’s Pauline Alderman Award. This award specifically honors researchers in the field of women in music with prizes for books, articles, and reference works. The Alderman awards are one of the ways the IAWM is working to encourage the study of women’s music and to help women music makers find responsive and sympathetic critics.

Change is intimidating to some, and glacially slow to others.

As we can glean from Henry Gates’s quote, whether discussing the musical canon or the literary canon, the idea of change is intimidating to some, and glacially slow to others. The furor over Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning DAMN. demonstrates that our musical world is still woefully reluctant to admit newcomers.

The fact is, women have been working in these musical canons alongside men all along. Studying Suor Leonora D’Este’s madrigals and Francesca Caccini’s Ruggiero does not detract from the accomplishments of the Gesualdo or Monteverdi; it enriches our understanding of early Baroque. Playing records of the multitalented Clora Bryant and Ginger Smock does not take anything from Dizzy or Bird. Julia Amanda Perry’s Stabat Mater more than holds up to those by Vivaldi, Poulenc, and Szymanowski and deserves a place in sacred concerts.

In one indicative pop culture canon, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we find very few female songwriters honored. The first class of more than 118 stylistically divergent inductees included Irving Berlin and Cole Porter alongside John Philip Sousa and William Billings, but only four women: Katherine Lee Bates, Anne Caldwell, Julia Ward Howe, and Carrie Jacobs-Bond. Since then, only 20 women have been added, and, as Lashonda Katrice Bennet points out, only two black female songwriters.

Reason offers the following comments about the process of changing the canon:

Discovering the many voices of contemporary music making by women and allocating space for them is an important step to bridging the discursive gaps in emergent practices involving women. A research and arts presentation model that from the outset, encourages different authenticities, aesthetic practices, and musical languages to co-exist without hierarchical agendas, could emphasize the importance of individual and collective identities and voices of innovative and creative women working with music and sound.

Women do not exist in a vacuum unto themselves, and neither do the men.

Publishers, concert curators, record labels, and textbook authors—in short, those who in our time define the “canon”—need to take note that women do not exist in a vacuum unto themselves, and neither do the men. We can acknowledge the plurality of experiences of women musicians, AND we can place them within the larger framework of the musical canon.

To lift another quote from Dr. Gates’s article—perhaps a bit out of context, but apropos to the moment—it’s time for the gatekeepers of the canon to “say ‘yes’ to the female within.”

Receiving Women in Music: How receptive are you, really?

How receptive are you to women in music? Answer these 10 questions.

If you’ve gotten to the end of this article, thank you and congratulations. The International Alliance for Women in Music serves as a platform for many types of music-making women from all over the world and encourages active performance and study of women in music. It is our job to bring up questions that allow all musicians to examine their day-to-day work closely and critically to see if they are truly aligning with ideals of inclusion. Are you giving women access to audiences? Are you giving women adequate coverage and thoughtful criticism? Are you creating space for women in your canon? This list is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a starting place for individuals and organizations to evaluate how receptive they are being to women in music.

1. Take up the #5x5Challenge: Can I name at least five women composers in at least five different eras of music history? Can I name at least five living women composers on five different continents? Can I name five women music producers, or music editors, in five different genres? Once you start working on this, it will be a challenge to stop.

2. Do I program works written by women every year? What is the percentage of time that I actually devote to women composers? Do I segregate these works into a “works by women” concert, or do I give my audience opportunities to hear works by women throughout the year?

3. When I choose teaching materials, do I seek works written or performed by women, including women NOT singing or playing piano?

4. Do I seek out a diverse pool of women of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds practicing in different fields, genres, and subgenres, or do I choose the same performers, lecturers, and composers that are typically on my circuit?

5. When I program women, do I ensure that they are getting adequate and equitable media coverage in our printed and online materials and in press releases?

6. When I talk or write about music created by women, am I gendering my language or focusing on issues tangential or unrelated to the work itself?

7. Do I invite women to join chamber ensembles or to collaborate on projects? Do I only think to invite a woman because I collaborate with her (male) significant other? Do I require a woman to modulate, deny, or sexualize her femininity to be part of a creative space, whether blatantly or subtly?

8. Do I consult with female colleagues regularly about the mission, trajectory, and management of musical organizations with which I am involved? If so, do I enact any of their suggestions?

9. Do I actively create and support opportunities for women to assume leadership roles?

10. Do I work to ensure that women’s compensation is equal to men’s compensation, and distribute opportunities equally among my colleagues and people I may supervise?

Time Is Flat

Last Friday, my new CD Shores Against Silence was released on the Songlines record Label. I’m very proud of this recording, which features some of the finest musicians working in the jazz field today: pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Tom Rainey. The music integrates contemporary classical compositional techniques with a fairly traditional jazz approach in a way that’s fresh and novel.

The catch? The music was recorded on June 16, 1992—almost 25 years ago!

That means the music had been created even earlier, because we certainly didn’t just go into the studio and record the day after the music was written. Its gestation took place over the several years preceding, when we rehearsed, developed, and performed it. Which means I wrote the pieces when I was around 21 years old.

The day-to-day life of a young, aspiring musician in 1992 was very different from what it is in 2016. This project was created and executed before the internet age. No one in the band had email or even a cell phone. We communicated with each other largely through good old-fashioned landlines.  Digital recording was in its infancy—Shores was recorded live to two-track DAT tape, if anyone remembers that format.

Even writing an article like this one would’ve involved an entirely different process. I would’ve gone to multiple libraries (at Columbia University in New York, where I still had library privileges), had books and CDs spread out around a desk I’d claim, and probably be scribbling a draft into a notebook that I’d later type out. Now I’m writing at a café in Paris, watching the sun rise over the Seine, all the information I need to draw on conveniently arrayed in Safari tabs that require only screen space.

Looking back at music that I wrote so long ago has provided an occasion to reflect on the changes that have occurred since. How does a composer’s body of work change and develop over their lives? And how have our very responses to this kind of question changed over time?

At earlier points in intellectual history, a teleological response might have seemed self-evident—a composer’s work would increase in complexity and ambition over the course of his or her career.

It feels like the answer itself is in a state of transition. At earlier points in intellectual history, a teleological response might have seemed self-evident—the idea that a composer’s work would increase in complexity and ambition over the course of his or her career; that the work would assume more technical assurance, would integrate its influences and show with increasing clarity the unique voice of its author; and that it would retain some stylistic commonality, based on the composer’s immutable, indivisible identity.

But in the 21st century, in the internet age, can any of these things be taken for granted?

An image of a spiral clock found @ ffffound via cea+(https://www.flickr.com/photos/centralasian/)

found @ ffffound via cea +

Some of the music that’s been in my “playlist” recently (which is to say either on my computer or my piano stand, or a combination of both) dates from 1717 (Lotti’s Crucifixus) to 1749 (Bach’s B minor mass) to 1878 (Dvorak’s A minor Sextet) to 1907 (Schoenberg’s Freide auf Erden) to 1911 and 1915 (Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite) to 1960 (Hank Mobley’s Soul Station) to 2006 (Lisa Bielawa’s Song of the Lay of Love) to 2016 (Dan Coleman’s Third String Quartet).

Perhaps (following the theory that all art is political) these pieces are all rooted in time and place, express something about the events that were happening around them, or even embody the political circumstances of their creation. But I don’t think those circumstances, interesting though they may be, are what bring the modern listener to the pieces. After all, there are many uninteresting works born of perfectly interesting political circumstances. What’s more important is the fact that they are all relevant to contemporary experience. They have something to say in 2016. They have something to tell us now.

One could, of course, call into question the relevance of these particular pieces; it’s true that each given piece may have very little meaning to a given person’s life, musician or otherwise. No artist or work is relevant to EVERYONE, and yet perhaps relevance to ONE person (myself in this case) is insufficient proof of relevance generally. So perhaps any claim to relevance is no more than an unprovable conjecture.

Perhaps any claim to relevance is no more than an unprovable conjecture.

If one did want to be so bold as to seek ways of putting relevance to the test nonetheless, one metric might be number of YouTube views. Though not remotely scientific—after all YouTube viewers represent a very specific cross section of the listening public, the figures alone wouldn’t take into account the relative fame of the performer, nor repeat views, and would moreover be dependent on random, non-comprehensive uploads—they might nonetheless give us a very rough index of the current interest in a given work. A quick search for each piece (taking the video with the highest number of views for each piece) yields the following table:

 PIECE/PERFORMANCE/DATE UPLOADED/VIEWS: Lotti Crucifixus/Cambridge Singers/3.26.10/547,241; Bach B Minor/Proms/3.21.12/2,056,376; Dvorak Sextet/Amici Ensemble/2.15.11/12,039; Friede auf Erden/Accentus/1.2.09/32,652; Valses n et s/Danmarks RO/9.1.10 /72,686; Scythian Suite/Ukrainian SSO/10.13.08/272,433; Soul Station/Mobley/7.22.13/362,501; Song of Lay of Love/Bielawa/Not on YouTube; 3rd Quartet/Coleman/Not on YouTube

(Note, since Song of Lay of Love is not available on YouTube, I chose her most viewed piece Chance Encounter, which was uploaded on 1/15/08 and thus far has had 8,173 views. Dan’s not represented at all on YouTube as far as I can tell, but trust me it’s a cool piece!)

If this table contains several surprises— who would’ve guessed that Soul Station was so frequently YouTubed?—the only thing it might be said to demonstrate conclusively is that far more than one listener considers these pieces still sufficiently relevant to be at least listened to; and that there is no correlation (or, if anything, an inverse one) between the year a piece was written and how broad its current relevance is, at least to YouTube listeners/viewers.


A thought experiment: Let’s take two pieces at random, say Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Brahms’s B Major Trio, written more or less a century earlier. Of course these are both old pieces, but one is supposedly contemporary music, and one is much more traditionally romantic, complete with a four-movement form—scherzo, adagio, and so on.

But suppose, in our new internet world, one has connected to the Boulez in one’s teens, but only discovers the Brahms much later, in one’s 30s. It might seem much more unlikely for someone steeped in the oeuvre of Boulez to be ignorant of Brahms or the romantic tradition generally than the converse, until one considers the many Boulez fans that must’ve come to his music through his Frank Zappa collaborations, or the influential Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s well-known interest in his music.

Both the Brahms and the Boulez pieces provide revelations, insights, unique ways of looking at music and the world. But in the case of my invented listener, by her 30s the Boulez would have grown familiar, while the discovery of the Brahms would be completely fresh. So which is the piece of new music? For this listener, wouldn’t the Brahms be serving all the functions of what is new—providing new material, adumbrating new paths, suggesting previously unheard, even exotic, ideas?

But if that’s the case, is the idea of “new music” still relevant, still interesting—even still possible?

The idea of newness is completely relativized, and utterly personal, at this moment in cultural history.

It seems to me that the idea of newness is completely relativized, and utterly personal, at this moment in cultural history. With the amount of music flooding onto the internet from all corners of the world, it’s incredibly easy for even the most dedicated fan of music to stumble upon something amazing from the past that they had never heard before, even while being steeped in the music of today.

Jazz educators that I know have confirmed this phenomenon in their students, who may have discovered and absorbed the playing of a current jazz musician without having any idea who his or her precursors were. In this case, the flatness of time is a liability to be remediated, but in any case it’s clear that now more than ever it’s common to have revelations in reverse.

As the physical space required to house knowledge is being reduced asymptotically to zero, then, the moment of impact of a work has ever less to do with when and whether it was written and ever more to do with when it is perceived or appreciated as “new.” Increasingly, rediscovered old pieces stand alongside contemporary creations as providing fresh material for the masterwork-saturated classical music listener (think Venetian opera). This should also be a consolation to composers who feel like they have created something interesting, unique, and significant that may not yet have gained visibility in the current thrum of culture.

A photo of a digital time display with backwards numbers by Kenneth Lu

Reverse Time by Kenneth Lu

The sum of these observations bears heavily on the story of Shores Against Silence.

The music on the CD represents a very intense period in my creative life that was never thoroughly documented, but the development of my music since Shores has hardly gone from simple to complex. My artistic path has inverted that teleological trajectory, which had been the province of composers from Mozart and Beethoven through Schoenberg and Carter. Similarly, my music has in the intervening years arguably gone from more to less “original,” and has definitely abandoned any pretensions to stylistic unity.

In the catalogs of numerous composers working today, pieces don’t necessarily build on each other from one to the next, but rather provide contrast with each other.

Nor would this be particularly interesting if I were an isolated exception, the sole composer to have undergone such an unpredictable stylistic trajectory, but I find it not uncommon among my contemporaries, particularly among composers who came of age at the end of the academic vogue for serialism. I am hardly alone in having simplified my style as I matured. In the catalogs of numerous composers working today, pieces don’t necessarily build on each other from one to the next, but rather provide contrast with each other. Many composers these days pursue careers in contemporary classical music and pop/electronica simultaneously, and no one bats an eyelash.

After all, what matters in art has nothing to do with when and where it was made, or when it comes into the world. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had it right: Eternity is the depth of a moment. Which is to say, Time is flat! A great piece comes to you when you’re feverish with ideas, when you follow them to their limit, not when you’ve attained x and y technical ability or z maturity. And it comes into the world, if it’s sufficiently worthy, when it will and in good time. Let the quality of afflatus be our sole guide to what is good in what we do, regardless of where or when we do it.

Is It Dangerous?

Female violinist with tattooOver 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.”[1] 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[2] 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? [3]

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[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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
matchesIn 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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
velvet ropeThere 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,[10] 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,[11] 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”[12] 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
Hazard warning label.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.[13] The storied premiere,[14] 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.[15]
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,[16] 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
wagnerIf 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.[17] 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[18] 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[19], 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.[20]

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”[21] 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[22], try though one might.

Finale: One Last Thing (There is a Point Here)
fire alarmIt was once true that certain musics spoke of and for and were born from deep rebellion, like all art[23], 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[24] 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.


Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld

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.

More Famous Than You

There has been a deluge of commentary in response to Dan Joseph’s extremely measured reaction to Daniel Asia’s recent anti-John Cage polemic for The Huffington Post, as well as a more modest, but also significant set of reactions to my own thoughts about how the arbiters of taste and relevance in the media ultimately determine what becomes mainstream. It amazes me that now, 13 years into the 21st century, there are so many people still actively fighting the battles of the 20th century.
I’m pretty much open to any idea except an idea that winds up being exclusionary. To me the genre sanctity debates (whether they’re about music that is not popular enough to be “popular” or about music that’s not classical enough to be “classical”) are ultimately about keeping people out. I like letting people in. Similarly, the debates about whether music should be either tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist, precisely notated, contain elements of indeterminacy, or be completely improvised on the spot are all fences that ultimately keep folks from enjoying the picnic. From my vantage point, the 21st century has gotten past a lot of this, both in terms of the plurality of aesthetics that inform today’s creators and interpreters, as well as in the ways in which listeners come to this music.

LPR Carter Memorial

There wasn’t a single empty seat at LPR’s all-Carter program last night and standing room seemed worse than a rush hour commute. So much for Carter’s music not being “part of the popular soundscape.”

In the late 1970s when I first met him, Elliott Carter represented “uptown music,” an approach to music I initially felt, as an aspiring “downtown composer,” that I needed to reject during the final years of the stylistic wars being waged around me. Yet Carter lived downtown in Greenwich Village for the final 60 years of his life. On Sunday night, his memorial concert was held at (Le) Poisson Rouge and it was the biggest crowd I had ever seen there. When I first met John Cage—not long after I had first met Carter—he represented for me the freedom to do anything I wanted to do. Of course, it turned out that there was ultimately method to Cage’s seeming madness. He also wasn’t open to everything.

But now with decades of hindsight, all that music has been absorbed into our history. Cage and Carter are both no longer with us, which means that they’ll probably finally be embraced by some sectors of the classical music community who only care about dead composers. They will undoubtedly both be lionized in a way that was never possible while either of them were among the living, although they probably will never catch up to the fame of Beethoven and that gang. Not because their compositions are any less worthy, but because we continue to subscribe to the absurd received wisdom that music evolved to a higher plane in Europe than anywhere else in the world, and that after reaching a pinnacle somewhere in the 19th century it devolved from there. But just as those classical tastemakers may decide to begrudgingly allow a few 20th-century Americans into the vaulted canon of Western classical music, the pop tastemakers won’t care a hoot about this news from yesterday and will proclaim certain fleeting trends to be in and everything else out. So for better or worse, Beethoven and whoever is the Lady Gaga du jour will always be more famous than the rest of us who are making music that we feel passionate about.
Nevertheless, fascinating music continues to be made all over the planet; it continues to evolve and to incorporate elements from wherever and whatever its creators see fit.

Finished Business?

For the past approximately nine months, the main compositional focus of my life has been a song cycle based on the poetry of Stephen Crane. A 19th-century American author who died at the age of 28, he is known mostly for his 1895 Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage. Some adventurous readers have additionally tackled Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, an 1893 novel about life in the slums of New York City. While both of those novels are literary landmarks for their naturalistic approach, Crane’s poems (which he preferred to call “lines”) are deeply surreal, aphoristic, and at times border on inscrutability. Rhymeless and often only a sentence or two (when they were first published they were typeset in all capital letters), most of them are extremely contemporary sounding, so it did not seem a terrible anachronism for me to want to set them to music in the 21st century.


The final bar line in a piece of music is rarely the last thing I write.

I first had the idea for setting his poetry in early December, about a month after learning I had received a commission to write a song cycle from the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund. I spent the next couple of months scouring through Crane’s entire poetic output trying to figure out which ones would work set to music (particularly music I would want to write), how many I should ultimately choose, and then how the poems I chose would fit together to form a whole. To get myself further into Crane’s head, I also re-read both Red Badge and Maggie. I did not start composing a single note of music until March 25, at which point I had already identified the 12 poems I wanted to include in the cycle, as well as their order. While I frequently will create a structural framework in which to work and then start composing actual music somewhere in the middle, for this project I actually began at the beginning and pretty much completed setting the first poem for the cycle that day. But then I jumped to the fifth poem and, shortly thereafter, to the twelfth and very last song in the cycle. For the most part, all of the subsequent songs were created between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.—the daily regimen I’ve put myself on to work on composition every day—although ideas sometimes came to me at other hours and I spent a few afternoons and evening testing things out on the piano. (For the sake of neighborliness, I opted against banging on a piano before sunrise.) Throughout the process, my original order for the twelve poems remained intact with only one switch. (The setting of the fifth poem inspired an idea for the setting of poems five through eight, but as they got fleshed out it made more sense to swap the order of six and seven.) Anyway, by last week eleven of the twelve songs were done, and late on Saturday afternoon I completed the remaining one, which is actually the ninth in the sequence.

I’ve recounted all this, including more details of the process than you perhaps need to know, because since Saturday afternoon I’ve been ruminating on what it means to complete a musical composition. Although all of the songs are done, in that I have composed them all and have engraved them all, I have yet to play through them all (physically singing and playing the piano or even via the MIDI protocols on my computer) for myself, let alone other people, and have not even printed them all out on paper. I have yet to present the score to the performers and work through all the minutiae of the piece; undoubtedly there will be a few changes here and there, and perhaps there are even some misprints in what I wrote. So is the piece actually done? And did I start composing it on March 25 or months before when I started compiling the texts? If I keep revising it up until the premiere (unlikely, but who knows), will it not be complete until the premiere? Some might argue (along the lines of that tree falling in the forest) that until other people hear it, it doesn’t really exist. Even in the extremely unlikely event that it was someday performed at Madison Square Garden, it would only reach a finite number of people unless it were also recorded and/or made available online. When should something enter history? And if by some unfortunate circumstance it never gets recorded and is not heard again after a poorly attended premiere, does it even qualify for becoming a part of history?

I ask these questions because musicologists get really obsessed about when things were written, as if that’s the only date that counts. Admittedly, I do, too—I keep extensive lists of when various of compositions were written as a way to remind myself that a clear stylistic zeitgeist is as much a panacea for anytime in the past as it is for the present. But time can be elusive. The debate about when Charles Ives composed certain pieces or which versions of the Bruckner symphonies are definitive (since he kept revising them) have been extremely contentious among certain scholars, but perhaps we give too much weight to the calendar. Ultimately determining a precise timeframe is not so cut and dried, nor should it be. Ideally, music is a living and ongoing process. While I’m not quite ready to consider my song cycle done and start working on another piece of music—though this will happen very soon—that piece will hopefully continue to evolve through others’ interpretations of it. After all, isn’t that what any composer would hope for?

The Tyranny of Lists

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Anyone charged with teaching the history of classical music, especially in the one semester “intro” model, knows what a thankless reductio ad absurdum it can be, a rectilinear gutting of the Great Western Tradition, beauty reduced to a series of “progressive” victories. In the interest of cramming a vast amount of information into a tight space—canvassing 1000 years in the confines of a single term—much is jettisoned in favor of a linear argument, exhausting but unavoidable. Chant begat polyphony which begat fugue which begat sonata which begat symphony which begat bigger symphony and really long opera which begat atonality which begat our current mess today. We learn of famous schisms, of Brahms (retrogressive) contra Wagner (pro- and/or transgressive), Stravinsky contra Schoenberg, of the old-and-now-painful saw of up-, mid-, and downtown, of history with its attendant right and wrong sides where progress is less about achievement and more about a sequence of erasures. We learn that composers travel in packs, and that eras are divisible by the turning of centuries. A toe gets dipped, an historic trajectory (under the best of circumstances) is at the fingertips, and the great whos and whens and wheres are all rolled into a tidy line suitable for framing. This brooks little argument, and is a solid and digestible introduction to the notion of a musico-historical continuum (meaning it is truly meant, with best intentions, as a place to start, a leaping point into something more complicated, more beautiful). It is how the learning commences rather than anyone’s completion, but it does music a grave disservice, this line, this list. This concatenation of mere facts, birthdates and deathdates, while in and of itself not objectionable because it is the only practical and effective approach, nevertheless skips blithely toward the dangerous notion of the Grand Metanarrative, that “next” supercedes “previous,” that culture proceeds apace, and that the progress comes in the form of a long series of solved problems.

Never mind that this whole history is predicated on a lie because Pope Gregory was an amazing and learned man but by many accounts music was hardly an arrow in his quiver, unless you honestly buy the singing bird myth. Never mind that the realities are always more complex than the story (Brahms admired Wagner a great deal, despite the us-and-them-ness of their storied rift, for example), or that the convenience of named movements (“modernism” or “impressionism” to name two) is, like most conveniences, an oversimplification. But like George Washington and his fabled cherry tree, the concretized tale is simpler than the misty truth, and these handily compressed notions string together digestibly, reduced to a timeline, a sequencing of events, a list.

I’m not suggesting the big story be ditched; its value as a placeholder outline is obvious. But for those of us who work or seek to work in the “profession” this kind of thinking—call it “listy” thinking, this notion that anything as elemental and sloppily chaotic as music (or any art, for that matter) can withstand this sort of ordering, this-or-that-ing—can be, at best, problematic. Failing the much-needed later investigations, this listy notion becomes not just emblematic of the tradition; it becomes the tradition. The list can take the place of the work, much like ideas of the people involved—the workings of the collective life of the people involved is called history, but history is not populated with people but is in fact made exclusively by people—can be easily replaced by received notions. And that represents a danger because when something complicated is easily and quickly understood, the chances are that you are doing something wrong.

Do not be too quick to understand me: not every list is a bad idea. Even the lists I will go on to gently excoriate—those whose sole benefit is marketing, those capitaLIST lists—are not in and of themselves disastrous, dangerous, or even, if there’s a use for them, annoying. They can create light in the stochastic darkness or (if you want to get really academic) can lay out the signs and signifiers in the long semiotic discussion of art, history, and thought. Not a bad deal, in certain instances, and crucial in others. However, the sort of thinking that helps to ferry these lists into print—mostly mainstream or “commercial” print—and therefore into the at-large consciousness, that endows them with any cultural meaning beyond their immediate use, leads to nodal thinking. These lists, not ending where they begin, can become a kind of reward unto themselves, a stand-in for what they enumerate, and that kind of oversimplifying can lead to false constructions, to barriers, to ideas of genre and style that do more harm than good.

1. Beautiful Lists

In his masterful book The Infinity of Lists, (from whence my own title was obviously cribbed) novelist-semiotician Umberto Eco makes glorious hay of the notion of the list as a work of art. He found quite a few, “from Homer to Joyce to the present day,” enough, he wrote, “to make your head spin.” And in true Eco double act fashion, by simply listing the lists, he in fact creates the exact thing he is expressing: his book about lists is, in fact, one giant list. But as gorgeous as these lists are, the project, Eco admits, is flawed, because he in fact is just one man and no doubt several excellent examples eluded him, making the book both personal and incomplete, which is not a harsh criticism but in fact the reality of the project itself. “The fact is,” he says, “that not only am I not omniscient and do not know a multitude of texts in which lists appear, but even if I had wished to include all the lists I gradually encountered in the course of my exploration, this book would be a thousand pages long, and maybe even more.”

Eco’s preternatural capacity for scholarship is in full evidence here: the book includes everything from the famous “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni to huge swathes of Rabelais and Shakespeare; long listing passages from Homer, Joyce, Prevert, Cendars, Borges, the King James Bible; pieces by Joseph Cornell, paintings by Bosch, Damien Hirst, New Yorker covers by Saul Steinberg, Andy Warhol’s soup cans. One of the principal things that separates us from the animals is our capacity to organize—lists are vital enough to be worthy of themselves becoming works of art. Eco includes Roland Barthes’ “J’aime, je n’ aime pas” where the French semiotician makes a long, lovely list of what he likes (“Glenn Gould” and “having change”) and does not like (“telephoning,” “the harpsichord,” and “women in slacks”) after which he lays out a truly salient point: “this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning.” Yes, these lists are useful for him (on this, more in a moment) but like any true postmodernist, and there is none truer than Barthes, the whole exercise becomes in and of itself something beautiful to consider—in other words, a work of art, a thing of difficult beauty, a challenge because one is moved but one does not know why. Not far off from that famous apotheotic moment in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where our hero realizes he is in love with his impossibly young paramour in the middle of dictating himself a list of what he does, in fact, love.

And, as Eco promised, he does make omissions; we could all add to his list of lists. I Remember by Joe Brainard, is a long poem (or poetic meditation) comprised of single notions commencing with the plangent words “I remember”: (i.e. “I remember the old man who lived next door to me on Avenue B. He is most surely dead by now”). Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is just one long sequence of lists—the first section follows what happened to the “best minds of my generation,” the second a dire set of variations on “Moloch” (read: capitalism), and the last section a long, exhausting rumination on being in a madhouse (“I’m with you in Rockland”)—whose power is in its repetition. Carole Maso interrupts her gorgeous novel The Art Lover with the occasional stand-alone list, and the later work of David Markson is little more than chunks of prose ably strung together to create a huge accruing of small detail. In his novel House of Leaves (itself a wild set trick of narrative on narrative), author Mark Z. Danielewski offers, as evidence of someone’s waning grasp on sanity, a list of literally hundreds of famous photographers in alphabetical order—and the past-present-future list of historical events that serves as the spine for his masterpiece Only Revolutions defies my listy description. Rick Moody, in his short story “The Preliminary Notes,” numerically itemizes a sad tale of a husband determined to eavesdrop—and later in that same collection (The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven) in a devastating story called “Primary Sources,” a whole narrative comes from a standard format bibliography and footnotes. Peter Greenaway, in his film Drowning by Numbers, draws a visible line through the narrative about three murderous sisters by visually adding the numbers 1-100, a participatory postmodern game as well as a statement on the whole order-of-things thing. And then there’s the so-called “list songs” of Stephen Sondheim—“I’m Still Here,” “I Remember,” and “I Never Do Anything Twice,” to name merely three.

All of the above are my contributions to what I might call “Lists I Like.” I have more, many more; if you want, I can make you a list. These lists are beautiful, and they are not designed to be functional, do not seek to distract from or distill art down to a collection of vague essences because they are themselves art. These poetic lists are more about accumulation than the simplification. They don’t strive to reduce; they are something that might, at some point, require their unpacking.

Lists rendered in music are harder to come by because music fails to represent directly: watch Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard lectures The Unanswered Question for an hours-long teasing out on whether or not music can resort to the quotidian enough to leave the realm of poetry. (Spoiler alert, he tries to make a case for Hanon as being the only example of dull musical “prose,” and even then…) A case could be made for any theme with variations as an equivalent to all the glorious enumerated chaos Eco unveils or, say, Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The “Farben” movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, where a single chord (with derivatives) is put through dozens of orchestrational changes is, in essence, a list of timbral possibilities. But these are reaches: to get artistically listy, references are of necessity: Eco could easily have made mention of the final movement of his friend Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia or of Mr. Bernstein’s Jubilee Games, both of which are unknowable tangles of layered musical quotations. And of course, there’s always Wagner’s Ring

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2. Useful Lists

I am something of a manic list maker, an alphabetizer. I keep meticulous track of a lot of things: from the books I read to the food I eat, from the goals I have to the pieces I’ve written and their performances, from the hours I work to the movies I watch in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep. I don’t know why I do it, but I always have—perhaps the very act of making the list calcifies whatever fleeting thought I have, reminds me, when looking back, how deeply I read or hard I worked, and does the disservice of dipping in amber the things I have not done. This is not poetry; this is a compulsion. I cannot shop without a list. I often have trouble conceiving of a full passing day—how I will fit in all the different and difficult tasks before me—without having made a list. Often I feel I need to organize my lists—to list my lists, as it were—and have sunk a small fortune into new blank notebooks, legal pads, and loose-leaf paper unblemished by lists yet to come. I make these lists to better understand myself, to help with the complicated task of simply carrying on, and to make the charting of my own personal patterns that much easier, to help me see through the darkness of what T.S. Eliot calls “this twittering world.” A shopping list helps us remember what to get at the store, a to-do list enables the checking off of daily tasks, a date book lists our appointments, a phone book lists our contacts, and iTunes handily lists our music and movies in orders of our own devising. Have you, like I’ve recently done, ordered and catalogued your books? These lists help the center hold; nobody is suggesting these are anything but helpful. But then again, nobody is suggesting they be published, presented, or performed. These lists are strictly inside jobs. Like Mr. Barthes’s funny little meta-list, they’re meant to explain us but never to be cared about by anyone else.

When Elvis Costello published his own list of top 100 records in Vanity Fair, I found it useful and excellent not only because he has the proverbial skin in the even more proverbial game, throwing down readily with his own work which one can take or leave, but also because I am what one might call a rabid fan. From the depths of his own learnedness he allows us to avail ourselves of it in this take-or-leave setup, but his credulity is unimpeachable because he offers, as a list-making avatar, his body of work by way of consubstantiation. If you like Elvis Costello, you might like what he likes, and so on. The flawed nature of the exercise—or rather, the impossibility of the task—is admitted because his list aims to be his list. He’s not a gatekeeper or a kind of cultural definer (as is the ostensible job of the critic) so his recommendations are not supposed to carry weight beyond themselves—they do not serve the future as part of an historical nexus as criticism, in its best intentional formulations, ought to do. They just help you find some nice records you might not have otherwise known. His list is not poetry, but—like the “if-you-like-this-you-might-like-this” data mining marketing notion—it can efficiently point the way to new listening.

3. Problematic Lists (or What They Fail to Mean)

It is the kind of list whose sole aim is to sell something, to make a commercial case, that is the list that can do the damage. We all know these lists—lists that define the “best” or “top” of something where there is no best or top. How, for example, can you be one of the “top” of anything when it comes to the ineffable, the immeasurable, the innumerable? These are notions lifted from history, from military campaigns and athletic competitions. You can, in fact, win a war (though there’s room for debate there), you can run a certain distance in a shorter time, you can hit more balls with a stick in the midst of an ordered, socially contracted “game.” These things can be tallied, or at least the tallying is expected. Athletes want to win gold medals, to be the best. And yes, the best swimmer in the world is an approximation—not everyone in the world can obviously swim the same race in the interest of comprehensive proof—but it is, at least, one on which enough people are in agreement to make the designation mostly relevant.

The same is true of marketing concerns: you can sell more of a certain book than another, more people can in fact go to see your movie than go to see mine. These are not vague statistics, nor are they invalid. They stand as facts, though facts under agreed-upon terms of measurement. However, when this kind of tallying comes to equal or even to mean more than the work itself, where there can in fact be an “A” list, then things are being run by marketing concerns exclusively, which lie in the interest of selling products rather than advancing quality.

We can go on—add to the list, if you like—mentioning the “Top” anything lists. Award winners, anything ever given the neo-, new-, or next prefixes, which, like calling anything “modern” or “contemporary” means not that it is up to the minute but that, to revivify our unfortunate parlance of bloodshed, there is a victor and a victim. I once read an article about a very successful composer—and with no disrespect to him or his work, none at all—that said he “may be the best composer in the world,” a title I hope to which even this person might object, flattering as it is. It is a ludicrous claim to make because it implies that 1) you know all the composers in the world well enough to establish that he is, in fact, the best, and that 2) you have a handle on the Pritchard-Scale level of criteria to make such claims. It is a bit of humbug, like claiming somewhere has the World’s Best Coffee.

As an artist, lists are part of our “kit.” They come in the form of bios, resumes, curriculum vitae. All accomplishments are listed, stem to stern, or cobbled into an impressive prose representation of our careers. It is a necessary—and not wholly unproductive—means of “getting to know” someone at a glance. Salient details because you cannot know every work of every artist—teaser, taste, brief introduction. Obviously, as we all well know, this can take a darker turn in our minds, and the resume can become more important than the work, the career more important than anything. Listy thinking is also resume thinking, because obviously your bio or CV has to impress and impress quickly.

Eco’s eighteenth chapter of The Infinity of Lists is titled “Mass-Media Lists” and begins:

The poetics of the list also pervades many aspects of mass culture, but with intentions different to those of avant-garde art. We can only think of that model of the visual list which is the parade of girls adorned with ostrich feathers coming down the staircase in the Ziegfield Follies, or the renowned water ballet in Bathing Beauty, or the multiple parades in Footlight Parade, the models who file past in Roberta, or the modern fashion shows of the great designers.

What Eco is saying is that there is built into lists a certain homogeneity, an uncomfortable sameness, a single definition of an ideal, an adherence to a system, which in turn is even more problematic because it leads to in/out, top/bottom, inside/outside, good/bad thinking, new/old, today/yesterday, beautiful/ugly, adventurous/conservative, garde/avant—to best-and-slightly-less-so thinking, which stems from the notion that there is the lone top to which one can aspire (“I’m sitting here talking to the best composer in the world”). The challenge is to either get there or risk becoming cultural dross. Nobody says this directly, but it is built in to listy thinking, its principal defect. It implies, simply, that creation is a zero-sum game that one can win, when it simply cannot be. This leads to asking absurd and deeply unnecessary questions: Is Shakespeare a better poet than Milton? Is Beethoven a better composer than Bach or Mozart? Is Rembrandt a better painter than Leonardo Da Vinci? Not even asking if one prefers Finnegans Wake to Ulysses, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to The Waste Land, or even modernism to postmodernism. These overgeneralized questions are unnecessary, and actually do more harm than good, and the fact that we’re asking them at all is the sad by-product of listy thinking because their concern is for marketing rather than exploration. Even the best intentioned listy-ness is eventually subsumed into the very task of making the list, which is impossible. If you’ve ever served on a panel whose aim is to distribute prizes for creative endeavors, you get this: the fact that the list of winners is near impossible to determine with any “accuracy” makes the whole process a kind of exercise in despair because you are being asked to measure the unmeasurable. It hurts a little, as it should.


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The new Sight and Sound critics’ poll, wherein many a British film expert now cede that Hitchcock’s Vertigo has in fact replaced Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane atop the Greatest of All Time list, was a masterpiece of listiness and got a lot of media attention. I wondered, as I read that, how Messrs. Hitchcock and Welles would have felt on hearing that—after all, is it actually possible to make the Greatest Movie of All Time? Is that a height to which any filmmaker can—and should—aspire? What would those admittedly brilliant filmmakers have to say on the subject? And while we’re at it, why should anyone care? Sight and Sound no doubt has very strict criteria by which it has elected to judge the pictures it judges—but the very existence and use of their rubric epitomizes listy thinking. Because by even engaging in the making of this list—which is, I guess, intended to be a document of critical consensus; can critics arrive at consensus? One is in fact creating the standards-of-no-standards impossibilities. And are we to think that, after all these years, something has finally been found wrong (or at least not perfect) with Citizen Kane? Or has it been suddenly revealed that Vertigo, languishing shamefully at the #2 Spot, has hidden virtues, enough to cause its sudden ascendance? Or did enough Citizen Kane people die or retire to allow enough Vertigo people to weigh in and tip the scale? Are we to now believe that the time of Citizen Kane has come and gone and that we are now living in the more up-to-the-minute Vertigo era?

This or that, us or them, in or out, these can be a powerful tools in selling something—one wants to be part of the solution, on the winning team, the next wave, the new thing, the right side of history. It is an obvious part of human (especially American human) nature to want to be part of the absolute best, to be, in essence, right—be it a cultural innovation, an election, or a war. But at root this kind of non-critical binary thinking can become, easily, bandwagoneering, which means we’re not discussing art or even artists anymore; it is, when put so bluntly, a discussion not of the multifarious depth of art but the handier (because it can be listed down) notion of style. And not only do most artists dislike being lumped together in a de facto School of Thought—ask any member of Les Six, of the Second Viennese School, any twelve-tone or atonal composer, any minimalist, post-minimalist, neo-romantic, or alt-classical composer what they think of these labels—even if they enjoyed the sense of community and shared purpose, can they actually be taken effectively as a set? Ever heard someone say, “I don’t like classical music,” or maybe something a little deeper like “I don’t like minimalism”?

I’ve been involved at the deepest personal and professional level of “classical music” for over two decades, and I’m unable to answer the simple question of the–isms because they often have as many exceptions to the rule as they do rules. Fine, maybe you didn’t like that Philip Glass piece you heard; you are more than entitled to think that, but no one composer or work can stand for the style and/or genre that is minimalism. In fact, find yourself some recordings of the hundred or so famous composers who are considered to be toiling in that particular garden, and I suspect you will find more differences than similarities, save for a few basic shared notions. Once you do that, once you’ve spent time with the music, the work of these very different men and women, go ahead and admit to anyone who will listen that minimalism is not your especial jam. Like it or not, you are now possessed of knowledge enough to discern and make such a statement, and from your experience with the work itself and not simply the idea or representative sample, you know what a vast category it is and have not yet found something that moves you.

The most convenient terms for the listiest list are unfortunately martial—is progress a series of overturned rulers who are to then be overturned, one “Darwinian” banjaxing after another? Fine—or at least reasonable—for athletics and for wars, but an unnecessarily violent way in which to look at the great vivid wheel of the genuine span of music history, for example. No blood was shed in the development of the symphony; no sonata ever did grievous bodily harm to a sonatina. Evolving thought—the product of many amazing minds and daring souls—bears little resemblance to Iron Chef. In this rectilinear estimation, Beethoven remains present in our concert halls because Beethoven won; he bested not only all his contemporaries but also those who predate him—his structural innovations bested the structural innovations of all who came before him. By placing him atop this particular “A” list, we move further away from Beethoven the man (or even Beethoven the artist), his personhood replaced by an easily repeatable set of progressive ideals. This replaces the modest service of seeing to it that his work is reexamined over the years all with the disservice of removing his humanity—in place of the actual flesh-and-blood person who wrote astonishing music (“groundbreaking” if you like) stands his whitewashed portrait, a bust on our piano, our received notion of the man, “Beethoven” (or worse, “Beethovenian”) rather than Beethoven. It might be absurd to refer to him in the plural, to Beethovens, but it might also be a little closer to the truth. He was many things; he wrote many moving pieces within a vast multiplicity of moods, emotional conceits, intentions, and yes his music changed things, but that is hardly the only reason we still listen to him. As Cesar Franck’s biographer and advocate R.J. Stove says, “Sibelius took satisfaction from realizing that nobody ever put up a statue to a critic. He could equally well have said that nobody ever put up a statue to a structural innovator. One does not (however the more simple-minded historian would have the world believe) leap into music’s pantheon by virtue of bringing back, at a piece’s conclusion, the theme one has periodically used from the beginning.” There are no easy answers to the questions of durability, but “victory” because you changed an extant form is not one of them.

4. Not a Solution, Exactly


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To paraphrase author Martin Amis, there’s only one list about any writer that’s important, and that is the frontispiece list of books they’ve written. That ought to stand as their only resume—and not just the accumulation of titles, but the work contained within. That’s how you separate an artist from their avatar, the raw data of the work itself. One’s list of works speaks greater volumes than any pithily worded bio, CV, or resume, their awards, and certainly how many critical lists on which they’ve managed to land. Promotion is promotion, and there are people who are in the business of doing just that—and I am by no means saying it is a bad thing because it is not; it’s necessary. I’m not suggesting that these lists are in and of themselves bad. But I do believe they need to be placed in proper perspective.

I am not suggesting an evisceration of the idea of personal preference, of taste. Nor am I suggesting we remove order from the chaos by mandating a lack of bullet pointing as a means of conveying information. I’m not even suggesting we remove the consumerist lists from the places where consumers go to buy things. To the contrary, I suggest it be embraced, to have your strong opinions and stand by them. Prefer Rachmaninoff to Beethoven, De Chirico to Bosch, Sibelius to Bruckner, Wallace Stevens to Emily Dickinson, Stones to Beatles, Scarface to Citizen Kane, by all means love what you love because that kind of love is pure love, especially if your involvement with the arts is that of an enthusiast, a listener / reader/ watcher / eater / drinker &c.

Art is and has always been (and should be) an outsized, shaggy, throbbing, complicated mess, made by people who are attempting the impossible with a certain ferocity, dedication, and near-sexual drive. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, and ought to scare you into grabbing whatever lantern you can find—any port in a storm, right? But embracing the negative capability—in short, understanding that you will not understand—is where you will find all the beauty, and at the end of the day, the multifarious forms beauty takes is what this whole struggle is about, it’s broad cultural crux. It should never be about being a node on any given list, but about the list of accomplishments, of works, of thoughts. To return to Beethoven (the man who wrote music) versus “Beethoven” (the figure who triumphed against all odds), his oeuvre is so complex, so brimming with individual notions, with rash failures, with work that is profound and strange (not by any means exclusive), beautiful and exotic. We all contain multitudes, and should not that apply to a “genius” like Beethoven?

And then there’s the complicated notion of second place, the “lesser” that get left out of the equation, the raw shame we espouse at being anything other than the “best.” Because history is full of beauty, and beauty comes in many forms from many sources, isn’t it possible that there’s much to be loved from the silver medalist? Perhaps an out-and-out analysis of Beethoven’s entire canon does in fact net 1) more brilliant (read: still performed) pieces than, say, a similar examination of the canon of Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Anton Reicha, etc. and 2) a cozy place in the Metanarrative, but does that make him, in this sense, better? Or is the despair of that question enough to at least serve as a rallying cry to stop asking.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is nothing at all wrong with list-making because it can be a valuable at-a-glance tool in leading to a wealth of experience and deep knowledge. Listy thinking cannot be stopped, nor should it be; all I hope, in my own dream-the-impossible-dream way, is that it be minimized, put in perspective, and that we as artists at least try to rise above it. The simulacrum is not the experience, the map is not the territory, whichever postmodern buzz-phrase you want to admit. Careers are great, prizes and accolades impress and will always impress, and presence on a list, be it a year-end wrap up, a best-of, or a list of Pulitzer finalists, gives the occasional fillip in what can be a lonely pursuit. But credentials are just another list. We all know that awards beget awards, honors beget honors, lists, therefore, beget lists. And while it is almost impossible to put these matters from one’s mind, it is important, if nothing else, to try.

I could have replaced the word tyranny in this essay’s title with any number of words—ubiquity, dishonor, deception, despicability, dull thud, crappiness—and I instead, as I have admonished others for doing, resorted to military description. It was no accident—nor is the obvious meta-trope of this essay itself being put into list format. It is more intended as an illustration of what is, for me at least, a deeply held belief: Not in the ill effects of listy thinking so much as in great faith in the writing, playing, recording, distributing, listening to, and discussing of music. It made me reach for stronger parlance because it did echo how I felt as an artist—that we (those who are not only reading this but who have stayed with me this far) deserve better.

As a student, I heard a lecture by director Peter Sellars that changed my life, mostly because his principal part was that it was going to be to the benefit of culture to remove power from the critics and academics and return it to the artists because classically it was the artists who were the harbingers of social change. It mattered to me, and it still does, not out of any lust for “power” (none I will admit, at any rate) but because it seemed to be a way to make the thing I did, intended to do, still love, continue to matter. And in a world that places increasingly less emphasis and value on it, now more than ever I think the mess needs to be embraced, the tidiness abandoned, and these easy commercial conveniences put as far from our minds and hands as possible. Or, in the immortal words of Robert Altman who, when asked if he was disappointed not to have been nominated for an Academy Award, offered a Sellars-worthy clarion call: “We have to start concentrating on making better films.” Enough said.


Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld

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.