Tag: taste

…But I Hate Modern Music

Disclaimer: The opinions that follow are my own. I do not wish to offend or belittle those who feel otherwise. Feel free to file what follows under “Truism: All Art Is Subjective,” and read no further. Just bear in mind—that same file tab could read instead: “Cliché: Art’s Alleged Intrinsic Value Spares It From Criticism.”

So you hate modern music. I hate it sometimes, too. The purpose of this post is to validate the discomfort so many listeners feel towards much new music.

My intent is not to descend into gross overgeneralizations. Nor is it to tell you to swallow new music because it’s good for you—like musical cod liver oil. My hope is that this post will give you a sense of the kind of new music I will (and won’t) present as the co-director of a concert series and how I came to that position.

Salastina will always champion contemporary music. This is vital to our art, and a huge part of what we are about. I am a musician precisely because of my love and respect for composition, and my drive to share its beauty with others.

But I really hate modern music sometimes. I hate it not in spite of, but because of, what makes me love music the rest of the time.


If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage. You can’t walk away until it’s over.

And that’s to say nothing of a unique quality of hearing itself: we never habituate to jarring sounds. Imagine living next door to the construction of a skyscraper. No amount of time and exposure can render the aural assault of a relentless jackhammer into white noise. Ugly wallpaper, on the other hand, recedes from awareness with relative speed.

If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage.

I can’t tell you how many times concert goers approach me and share their distaste for the modern. Even my own parents have avoided our new music concerts. They’ll give excuses like: “We’re going to pass on this one. That’s just not the sort of music we’re interested in.”

While this kind of categoric dismissal disappoints me, I can’t say I don’t get it. For better and for worse, making generalizations and stereotyping is how human beings navigate the world. Suffer through enough incomprehensible new music, and you very well may dismiss the genre altogether.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an early 20th-century philanthropist, made a case for new music that still carries weight today:

My plan for modern music is not that we should like it, not necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.

This noble sentiment puts taste and comprehension aside out of a sense of duty to the generation of new art. Many of the orchestras and chamber series in which I make my living adhere to this belief. As a result, I’ve played countless “challenging” pieces over the years. They’ve ranged from profound to insufferable.

Posterity is a far better judge than I could ever hope to be. And Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment is self-evident.

But duty calls me in other ways, too. As a presenter, my primary concern is the audience experience. Seeing to it that audiences understand and are moved by music is precisely what Salastina stands for. If we aren’t communicating something most could find beautiful and meaningful, then what’s the point?

Grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde. Most audiences don’t. Salastina’s answer to this musical double-bind is simple. We only play new music we love and believe in. And if we do decide to take a risk, we hope you’ll trust us.


To illustrate, what follows is an experience I had at a recent concert. (Spoiler Alert: it was mind-bendingly aggravating.)

I don’t want to disparage anyone. Whatever I may think of a particular piece, I respect that a human being poured blood, sweat, and tears into its creation. For these reasons, I will not share specifics.

Several months ago, my husband and I left L.A. for a weekend getaway in a major U.S. cultural center. At our hotel, I happened upon a concert advertisement for a performance by a local contemporary music ensemble. It featured the music of a composer whose name I knew, but whose work I did not. We decided to attend.

Being tourists, we underestimated how much time it would take to Uber to the venue. We were a few minutes late. We tip toed into a warehouse—replete with concrete floors, string lights, and artisanal muffins. This Instagram-worthy backdrop had been designed to attract a crowd that never came.

Because we’d arrived late, we weren’t able to read the programs before the concert began. Blank slates, we had no idea what was up next.

A small string chamber orchestra entered the stage. Each musician began to play a distinct musical gesture. Changes in these gestures were so subtle that they were imperceptible. The chord progression, while pleasant, was static.

Meanwhile, an abstract film played on a screen behind the orchestra. It was clear after a few minutes that this was a slow-moving audio-visual meditation. I was curious to see where this primordial ooze of sound and color might evolve. I admit: I felt a bit of a lift for “getting” something avant-garde. It appealed to my intellectual vanity.

About five minutes in, I began to feel restless. The more mature part of me gently persuaded me to give it a chance.

Twenty static minutes later, my irritation was mounting. If anything in the piece had evolved, it was imperceptible to me. I was beginning to resent the monotony.

All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutional arrogance.

Twenty tedious minutes after that, my patience was wearing thinner and thinner. My heart bled for the poor cellists. They’d been playing the same pattern over and over again for over 45 minutes. (“Oppress’d so hard they could not stand…Let my people go!“)

Eyes bulging, I looked at my husband. It was clear he shared my feelings. We got up and left after a few more interminable minutes. Thankfully, we were sitting near enough to the back that no one noticed.

During a considerably more entertaining activity (dinner), we read the composer’s program notes. In them, he’d shared something to the effect of:

Throughout history, human art has focused on the dramatic. In this piece, I intend to convey how my emotions change throughout the course of an hour in a more lifelike way.

To pit one’s work against the entirety of art is as pompous as it is absurd. One need not bother making the claim that it is better for it. The comparison alone betrays an important implication: different is better. No wonder the piece was the sonic equivalent of watching paint dry.

The program notes continued:

In the end, my piece is like life. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to go a very short distance.

This is a thoughtful and sobering sentiment. And to be fair, it was far more beautifully stated by the composer in his original program notes. But did it have to become a tedious hour-long sonic experiment? This was pretentious self-indulgence taking cover behind superficial depth. All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutionalized arrogance.


A few months ago, I listened to a fantastic course on iTunes U: Yale’s Introduction to Psychology. One of my favorite lectures was about language. It gave me a new way to make sense of why so much contemporary music communicates nothing meaningful to me.

Inherent to all languages are three fundamentals: phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes are the most basic differences between sounds. Morphemes are the smallest units of words that have meaning to us. (If you speak English, you know tens of thousands of them.) And syntax is the structure that strings words together. Thanks to syntax, sequences of words become intelligible thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

All languages contain a finite number of phonemes and morphemes. Likewise, languages are bound by the governing rules of syntax. But within these constraints, the possibility for expression and understanding is endless. This is the miracle of language.

I realized that musical language has its own phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes could be timbre, articulation, and dynamic differences. Morphemes could be pitches and chords. Syntax could be the structure that brings meaning to these things. Chord progressions, rhythm, voice leading, counterpoint, form.

Like English, Urdu, and Korean, musical language is limitless. Not in spite of, but because of, the finiteness of its fundamentals.

In An Infinite Variety of Music (1966), Leonard Bernstein writes:

[Music] is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living. The only reality these tones can have is form—that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect… One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form…The moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying them their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

In other words, abstracting music—which is, by definition, already abstract—castrates it. Like language, music relies on form to mean anything to us at all. When overly distorted, all we hear is gibberish.

I have long rejected the avant-gardist’s implicit credo:

Certain building blocks of music have played themselves out. They are no longer meaningful or relevant. Above all else, each artist must create something original for and of himself. Only this is worthy of respect. It doesn’t matter if people don’t understand it.

There’s a lot right and a lot wrong with this. Every artist must be true to himself. To what he wants to share with others. To take what has come before, and run with it.

But to value rugged individualism above communication is to pervert these noble pursuits. Does an author need to invent a new language to tell an original story? Is the organic evolution of any wide-spoken language ever dictated by one person?

Self-anointed visionaries willing to alienate themselves from the vast majority of other people as a point of ideological pride have, by definition, little of interest to share with anyone else.

I do not mean to discourage the beautiful and inevitable flowering of musical language over time. Nothing is static—not the words we use, the notes we play, nor the world in which each resonate. I am simply not convinced that authentic, rich self-expression depends upon the continual invention of a priori languages. Self-anointed visionaries willing to alienate themselves from the vast majority of other people as a point of ideological pride have, by definition, little of interest to share with anyone else.

For better or for worse, we humans have a few immutable aesthetic preferences. Here’s Bernstein:

It can be no mere coincidence that after half a century of radical experiment the best and best-loved works in atonal or 12-tone or serial idioms are those works which seem to have preserved, against all odds, some backdrop of tonality…

It has occasionally occurred to me that music could conceivably exist, some distant day, ultimately detached from tonality…Perhaps we are some day to be freed from the tyranny of time, the dictatorship of the harmonic series. Perhaps. But meanwhile we are still earth-based, earth-bound, far from any Omega point, caught up in such old-fashioned things as human relationships, ideological, international, and interracial strife…

No, we are still earth creatures, still needful of human warmth and the need to communicate among ourselves. For which the Lord be praised. And as long as there is reaching out of one of us to another, there will be the healing comfort of tonal response.

I am not advocating that art music plummet to the lowest common denominator. But why should “accessible” remain a bad word as it pertains to art music? When will a natural preference for beauty and heart not merit condescension?


A few weeks ago, Salastina’s resident violist Meredith Crawford and I discussed this topic before a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. She expressed the discomfort she feels when contemporary music comes up in conversation with other musicians.

When it comes to taking a stand on contemporary music, we have two choices:

  1. Admit to a preference for “intelligible” or—gasp—“pretty” music, and risk silent derision. Accept the possibility that we are shallow and missing an intellectual chip. Live with icky, ungenerous feelings of contempt for self-indulgent composers. Risk the embarrassment of not appreciating something posterity will know to be genius. Judge ourselves for all of the above.
  2. Overstate our belief in Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment. Accept that in so doing, we are distancing ourselves from the audiences we purport to serve. Live with icky feelings of insincerity, elitism, and fraudulence. Risk the embarrassment of failing to realize that the emperor has no clothes. Judge ourselves for all of the above.

Neither choice feels good. The awkward limbo between them isn’t any better. (Even writing this post was difficult thanks to this polarization, and the awkward spot it puts me in.)

As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel genuinely inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?

Happily, there does exist a bulletproof litmus test. One that transcends both over-generalizations.

Like meeting a person or drinking a glass of wine, meaningful opinions are best made on a case-by-case basis. As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel genuinely inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?

Again, Bernstein:

I wish there were a better word for communication; I mean by it the tenderness we feel when we recognize and share with another human being a deep, unnameable, elusive emotional shape or shade. That is really what a composer is saying in his music: has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release? And when you react to (“like”) a piece of music, you are simply replying to the composer, yes…

If we don’t say yes, then no—we won’t make you listen.

Maia Jasper White

Maia Jasper White

Maia Jasper White is a chamber musician, teacher, orchestral and studio musician, and musical entrepreneur. A dedicated teacher, she is on faculty at the Colburn School of Performing Arts and Chapman University. She is a member of the first violin sections of both the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony, and twice served as concertmaster of the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado.

Maia studied English and musicology at Yale, and continued her violin studies at USC and the Paris Conservatory. She is a recent graduate of the Center for Nonprofit Management.

Listen To Music, Dammit!

pile of CDs
Too often I hear people say things like “pop and rock concerts are a massive snore, unless you live and die by A minor and C major.” Defenders of popular music then launch back with lists of bands making sophisticated art in popular mediums, often followed by lists of pieces of concert music generally considered great that stick to one or two harmonies (hello, Electric Counterpoint; hello, first 136 bars of Das Rheingold). This line of argument isn’t that productive, though, and while we can use specific examples to poke each other all day, doing so doesn’t address how unhelpful the thinking behind such opinions can be. More importantly, it doesn’t address how positive keeping your ears open can be.

Listening to and trying to understand as much music as possible, even music that you don’t enjoy, is an incredibly important part of becoming a better and better musician. Different genres make use of different musical processes and ideas, and listeners raised in different traditions pay attention to different markers. Classical training, for instance, teaches us to follow tonal changes and listen for transformations, largely in the realms of pitch and rhythm. No wonder people who grew up steeped in this tradition find radio rock so boring—it does, in rather a lot of cases, tend to repeat the same four chords.

The rock tradition, on the other hand, trains listeners to pay attention to changes in color (here meaning timbre/sound). Those might be the same four chords, but this time they’re distorted, the drummer has moved from a closed high-hat to a crash, and the singer has moved from singing to screaming. Those markers, in rock, can mean the same thing to a rock listener that the move to dominant in a traditional sonata means to a classical listener. A rock listener, moreover, might entirely miss the structural importance of a change in harmony, because it may not be accompanied by a change in instrumentation. It certainly won’t in a piano sonata.

I’m not an expert in Hindustani music, but I assume there’s an equivalent structural/narrative device involved in listening to different ragas; different makams in Turkish classical music might serve the same purpose for its listeners, as might differences in the ways that different MCs place their lyrics across beats in rap and hip hop.
There is no way to make an argument that one type of music’s formal devices are better than another’s. This is not to say there isn’t a range in the quality of how well pieces take advantage of those devices. How convincing is that cadence? How dramatic is that color change? How cray is that shit, Jay?

I believe that creators have a responsibility to listeners to make ourselves aware of what’s out there, and to use what we learn through listening to improve our own art. I see no reason not to take advantage of multiple sets of signals to affect our listeners in the deepest way possible. If I’m writing something, I want it to be the best thing that I’m capable of writing, but there’s a whole world of possibilities out there that I might be missing. Even if hearing some of them doesn’t contribute directly to the work at hand, they can all contribute to my artistic understanding.

This, to me, is an extremely practical application of Plato’s allegory of the cave. A quick explanation: a group of people is chained up in a cave, in such a way that they can only see the wall in front of them. Behind them are their captors, and behind their captors is a fire. The prisoners have only ever known their current situation, and thus assume that the world consists entirely of their captors’ shadows on the wall in front of them. If they get free of their chains, they might think that the world consists solely of the cave, which includes the fire and the captors themselves. Upon escaping the cave, they’d learn that the world consists of a valley, and so on, and so on.

Today is an amazing time to be a listener with open ears. As we now have a practical means of easily accessing music from all times and all regions (Spotify and YouTube aren’t without their moral quandaries regarding royalties, but they’re a godsend for curious listeners), we have no excuse not to listen to everything we can get our ears on.

To be fair, no one has time to listen to everything that’s out there. I’ve only heard a little bit of Turkish classical music, and I don’t expect that I’ll ever become an expert on it. Of what I’ve listened to and read up on, I honestly haven’t enjoyed much. But for having heard it, I am a better composer, and better listener to other musics, than I was beforehand.

Maybe that’s the other side of expertise. If we realize there’s no way we can hear everything, and accept that we’ll never have anything near a complete understanding of the music being made today, then that frees us to grow infinitely. Knowing, experiencing, and learning from more than I knew, experienced, and learned from yesterday is a worthwhile goal.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: what, as an artist, is the benefit of being closed-minded or closed-eared? There isn’t one. What are the benefits to listening to and being aware of as much music as possible? There are about a zillion. Make it a mission to hear something new each day. Even if you hate it, figure out why you hate it. It’ll make you a better musician.

Tanglewood: Sessions and Lessons on Successful Composition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Music’s Quality Problem

quality control

Photo courtesy of Eduardo on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks

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

You Used to Like Terrible Music

I’m going to admit what is probably my deepest, darkest musical secret. Of all the potentially career-ending things I’ve said online, this may potentially be the worst. Here we go: I was briefly really into the music of Yanni when I was a teenager.
I don’t have any good explanation or justification for this. The best I can say is that I guess I really liked synths? And, I don’t know, he played piano, and so did I, and he could emote without singing, in a really overwrought way. Recently I went back and listened to some tracks in the hope that I could find anything remotely redeeming in them, something that would rationalize my enthusiasm after the fact. But there was nothing I could latch onto in the aimless melodies, the poorly chosen synth patches, the excremental quality of the production, the self-congratulatory schmaltz slathered over everything.

If this seems superfluously harsh, it is more of an indictment of myself than anything. There is other music I liked during that period—e.g. Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Patrick O’Hearn—that I used to denounce, but gradually came around to appreciate again, though in a drastically different (and occasionally contradictory) manner. This is, I think, a healthy impulse, a good way to reintegrate your past musical selves and learn from them.

But what do you do when you simply can’t relate to a past self? Here’s the thing: tons of people still like Yanni. A lot. And I can’t write them off, because I used to occupy that space. But I can’t understand them either, any more than I can understand the 13 year old rocking out to Keys to Imagination on giant headphones (if such a thing can be said to be rocked out to) while reading a Tolkien novel (though while I’m being honest, it was probably actually a Dragonlance novel, statistically speaking).

A Matter of Taste

After the news of Elliott Carter’s passing earlier this week, I was quite moved by the outpouring of tributes to the composer that I encountered through social media. Obviously my window to the world through social media is skewed toward new music nerds, but even so, I have to admit I was slightly surprised at the extent of the outpouring. Among many of my new music friends, Carter was a figure who was more begrudgingly admired than universally adored, though this seemed to be changing in recent years. It says something about Carter’s musical imagination that even those who professed to dislike his work had a favorite piece by him.

It also got me thinking about the limits of what we can do as composers to advocate for our own music. When our music is poorly or (worse) indifferently received, we may perceive it as a failure of presentation, contextualization, education, or marketing. The audience just didn’t have the right frame of reference. Or, maybe we think the problem is the music itself. Maybe it was too intricate, too subtle, too esoteric. Maybe it was flawed, or just plain bad.

Most of the discussion around what to do about the state of new music today seems to vacillate between these two proposals. Change the music, or change the stuff around the music. I should say that I’m an advocate of both of these plans in certain situations. But I also wonder if there is a natural limit to what these changes are capable of. Maybe it doesn’t come down to intelligence or education. Maybe it comes down to aesthetics, or to put it more bluntly, maybe it’s a matter of taste.

For example, lots of people like spicy food, including me. But I wouldn’t call someone misinformed for not liking spicy food, and just because that person dislikes a particular spicy dish, doesn’t mean that it’s not well-made. Dissonance in music is similar–some like it mild, others want a jar of hot sauce on hand at all times. Maybe this seems obvious, but the difference is that dissonance still offends people in ways that spicy food doesn’t. No one insists that chefs should stop making spicy food, or that spicy food has ruined gourmet cuisine forever.

The idea that some music is an “acquired taste” is not exactly new, but I hope we can learn to avoid those annoyingly classist mistaken assumptions that often ride along with other acquired tastes. Not everyone will like Carter’s music, or mine, or yours, and that’s okay.