Mike Brown and the Information Age Imbroglio

22 August 2014 ·

Did You Make It Clear?: I don't understand the disdain or contempt that so many academic musicians have towards romanticism.



It’s not like I don’t have an understanding of harmony, function, form, and the like. Yet I always find that academics just dislike romantic composers. Y u mad bro?

Orchestras and people play a lot of Romantic music. And there may be some hipsterdom going on but I think it’s mostly that Romantic music is played to the point that other types of Classical music are ignored - mostly to the detriment of art music that’s being composed now. Romantic music has this legitimacy to a lot of musicians and laypeople so when composers write music that doesn’t fit the same aesthetic, people are very wary of it.  They don’t pay attention to it, they don’t trust it, preferring to listen to music by guys that are established and long dead. Or pop music.

If we keep on only showing Romantic music to the masses, they’ll never have a chance to get a taste for anything that differs significantly to that paradigm. Romantic music was relevant to composers back then. Maybe it’s still relevant to a degree to some of us now, but not in the same way. What would happen if composers gave up on new music and decided to compose only in the Romantic style forever? The thought kind of upsets me. Besides, whenever I write in too romantic of an idiom, I always feel more like I’m imitating someone than discovering something for myself.

Romantic music isn’t bad. I fucking love Schubert, for example. Schumann Lieder still make me cry.

It’s just so…everywhere. And I’m not always in the mood to hear it. It’s been done a lot. So maybe we could move on. Not completely, but just a little bit.

Also some good thoughts ^

There is a wide trend in academic composition in which students are sometimes encouraged, in my opinion at least, to pursue an often starkly cerebral originality at the expense of almost every other aspect of musical craft—a trend in which being seen as warmly conversant with the methods and materials of past masters is almost a sin, and in which novel constructions and new heights of complexity are often lauded without any regard for the actual content of the work in question.

I think this disdain for Romantic ideals and for pre-modern ideals more generally is mostly the result, as imaginarydances has pointed out, of reactionary developments  in post-war composition which had a pretty strong and complex political basis. I personally feel that its predominance in academia (but not its inception) is an inevitable (but not incontestable) result of rather forcefully adapting music education to the factory farming-like model of modern mass-produced institutional education in which composition students from widely disparate backgrounds and with various levels of ability and differing areas of interest are expected to complete their post-secondary specialized education according to the same standards as everyone else, through the same curriculum as everyone else, in the same amount of time as everyone else, &c. In state universities especially, and even in many conservatory environments, there isn’t enough time to teach literature and craft in the way it had been taught to young composers for many generations. Standardization was also an important feature of the old French conservatory system, we mustn’t forget—but that system was far more inclusive, voluminous, and stringently demanding than what we see today. 

Consider Schoenberg, who was nothing if not an adventuresome pioneer; but his method of teaching centered not on his own unique ideas, but on a thorough exploration of harmony, counterpoint, melody, and orchestration as they had been practiced in the centuries before him. This was certainly not the place of arrival he intended for his students—neither was it for Nadia Boulanger—but they apparently believed these studies to be the necessary starting point for composition, from which subject they are being systematically divorced across much of contemporary music education.

To me, the argument that people aren’t given a chance to appreciate new styles of music because of the preponderance of Romanticism—a common argument, with an understandable basis—is a little like saying that people would eat more Clif Bars if there weren’t so much bread around. The problem isn’t just that one is hallowed and one isn’t, it’s that one is apparently much better at serving a lot of different people in a wide variety of applications than the other. Hopeful composers today face extremely daunting odds in many cases, a lot of them market-related artifacts of the mass-media age that we feel ought to be helping us, but I’d love to see more of us address the problem by genuinely reaching out to audiences rather than expecting the “masses” to ferry over to our sometimes woefully uninviting islands. It certainly worked for the Beatles. 

In practically all cases I can think of, I much prefer an artist in any area who can bring something uniquely personal to an established tradition to one simply content to do something new and call it valuable. Maybe that sounds harsh, but that’s how I feel about the nature of art. This frantic sense that music always must be reaching, stretching, and groping is something that seems analogous to our bizarre Western economic model of constant growth at all costs, and its consequences are proving similarly distressing.

(Source: thesoupofthedayiswhiskey)

3 July 2012 ·

Anonymous said: What's your opinion on Prokofiev, and what's your favourite piece by him?

I like Prokofiev’s music a great deal, and I’m particularly fond of some of his lighter, more “populist” works: Romeo and Juliet, Alexander Nevsky, Chout, Peter and the Wolf, as well as some of his more serious music, like the Fifth Symphony and Third Piano Concerto in particular. The Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Piano Sonatas (the “War” trilogy) are groundbreaking works, but I don’t especially enjoy them from a pure listening standpoint. 

Prokofiev’s personality was focused and energetic in the extreme. Despite the novelty and complexity of his musical language, he was a man of relatively simple tastes and habits. A number of his contemporaries—Shostakovich and Stravinsky included—criticized him as an opportunist, interested only in escalating success at the expense of artistic and personal integrity (in this charge they are dealing most specifically with his decision to return to the Soviet Union mid-career, a move he lately sorely regretted). Stravinsky called Prokofiev’s repatriation “a sacrifice to the bitch goddess, and nothing more.” But I think it would be grossly unfair for us to judge him for such a thing out of context. 

4 March 2012 ·

"The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star, but to go one’s way in life and work unflinchingly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause."


Gustav Mahler

19 January 2012 ·

World Enough & Time: Anyone have any analysis or opinions on Socrates' quote "The unexamined life is not worth living"?


I mean if you go through life without really thinking about what you’re doing or why you’re here or why you’re doing what you’re doing… if you go through life pretty much without taking time to think about your situation, you haven’t actually done anything, have you?

To create something assumes…

The quote comes from Plato’s Apology, an account of Socrates’ defense of himself at the trial in Athens which is ultimately supposed to have led to his court-mandated suicide. Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth of the city and inventing false gods, charges which, it is generally agreed, were probably the result of a combination of his eccentric behavior and unorthodox, socially and politically contentious teachings. 

At the core of Socrates’ ethic seems to have been the idea that we learn what it means to be good people and what it means to do good works through investigation and reasoning, not by simply accepting the norms handed down to us from authority; when Socrates says that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” he is speaking specifically about virtue. An alternate and slightly more nuanced translation is “The unexamined life is not worthy of humanity,” implying that a person’s ability to examine, interpret, and organize his or her own behavior is an important part of what makes that person a human being. 

For Socrates, the answer to “What makes something a good thing to do, or a bad thing to do,” could never be “Because it is what someone says is a good or bad thing to do.” Indeed, Socrates seems to have thought (as Plato certainly did) that, while our values might have some ultimate source, it is difficult for us to know anything concrete about that source—the best we can do is to intelligently probe it, to “examine our lives.”

(Source: sinkme-theladyissarcastic, via of-cannibals-and-kings)

12 September 2011 ·

Why do we hate modern classical music?




Read this, show it to all your friends.


 For decades, critics, historians and even neuroscientists have been pondering the question of why so-called modern music seems to perplex the average listener. After all, adventurous artists in other fields have met with a very different reception. The highest-priced painting in history is Jackson Pollock’s swirlingly abstract No 5, 1948, which sold in 2006 for $140m. Tycoons and emirs covet avant garde architects. James Joyce’s Ulysses inspires worldwide drinking parties every 16 June.

Once, these cultural untouchables were dismissed as charlatans – merchants of the “emperor’s new clothes”, to employ a phrase that remains commonplace among unappreciative concertgoers. A New York Times editorial threw a “new clothes” insult at Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase when it showed in 1913. The same conceit was trotted out in 1946 by a commentator who perceived no difference between a Picasso and a child’s drawing. TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock was cited for its “incoherent banalities”. These days, you would draw puzzled stares if you announced at a dinner party that Pollock is a crock. But if you said the same of John Cage, you might get no argument.

Alex Ross: All the awards.

I’m reading his other book, The Rest is Noise right now. Marvelous stuff, everyone should read it

I am also reading it, and just ordered Listen To This. Fantastic author, just brilliant.

This was a good and worthwhile read—thanks very much for posting—but I have to say I disagree with a lot of it, and I suspect the overall argument is a little rhetorically self-serving and simplistically framed. 

I do think the observation that the world of classical music has always been a little skewed toward the past is a keen and important one.

I also think it’s undeniably true that concert-going audiences tend to react more favorably to the familiar than the untested, and that this can be partially blamed on a kind of intellectual slovenliness. I don’t see the value of trying to draw comparisons with abstract art—they’re two entirely different animals, and I seriously doubt the credibility of the suggestion that insulting John Cage would be met with absolutely no resistance at a party where Jackson Pollock would also somehow be defended. 

To Ross’ credit, there is a lot of merit in the idea that how people respond to music is more an individual affair than groupthink, though there is certainly room for both sociological approaches to frolic around together, since people certainly do influence one another. People who have a lot of interest in new sounds and the more purely sonic aspect of music are going to have an easier time gravitating toward the avant-garde. If you’re really interested in quarter-tone shading, or the possibilities opened up by aleatoric techniques or electronic soundscaping, then you’ll naturally be more enthusiastic about envelope-pushing, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I would encourage it. 

But that doesn’t mean that everyone else is somehow ignorant, closed-minded, or has the wrong ideas about aesthetics. Personally, I’ve never been a “sonic” musician, if that makes any sense: I react much more strongly to singability and motivic development than to new, complex systems, exotic timbres, or rhythmic repetition, or jaw-dropping virtuosity (though I will drop my jaw to yawn, occasionally). You can even tell this in the way I listen to music casually: I have virtually zero interest in awesome speakers and pristine sound quality, in contrast to friends of mine who are genuinely sophisticated audiophiles but don’t know a motive from a motet, and get along great regardless. I’m not at all as naturally interested in creating new sound-worlds as in seeing how much I can get out of what’s already in place, and I don’t know exactly why that is—just a function of personality, maybe—but I definitely know that it’s not because of a lack of education or curiosity or any sweeping misconceptions about music itself, which is what I think Ross is sneakily trying to imply in much of his article. 

One thing Ross doesn’t acknowledge is the relative violence with which the avant-garde has swept the music scene in the 20th Century. I don’t use the word violence in a negative sense—I just mean that the rate of change and proliferation of new ideas since the early post-tonal adventures in Vienna has been truly cataclysmic by comparison with the past; and while I wouldn’t attempt to pass any judgment about whether that’s good or bad, I think it’s undeniable that this has a real effect on the way that people get interested in music (or fail to) and the way they listen to it (or fail to). 

We know that Beethoven and Debussy, for example, were great innovators—but, for goodness’ sake, they did not immediately set out upon the effacement or obliteration of everything that had come before, nor did they attempt even to peacefully colonize Mars, metaphorically speaking. All of their significant innovations were clearly rooted in their heritage in a non-destructive way. They led audiences down new paths without mowing down entire forests of sound and idea. There are plenty of 20th and 21st Century composers who seem to recognize this—Britten and Ferneyhough, and even Copland and Carter, are not the same. Arturo Márquez moves me viscerally, and something in me seems to require that; Pierre Boulez makes me wonder what’s for lunch within seconds, though I recognize his genius and the sincerity of those that really appreciate him. 

I’m sorry, but I think attempting to coach the listening public into equating car-part percussion with Beethoven is fundamentally the wrong approach, even though I totally agree that the listening public can be moronic and that car-part percussion is probably really boss. We need people who are interested in, enthusiastic about, and gifted at developing new sonic possibilities. We also need composers who understand things like aesthetic sustainability, the simple power of a singable melody, nice harmonic colors, the biological and humanistic nature of music, and genuine, old-fashioned craftsmanship.

(Source: , via brokofiev-deactivated20121001)

10 July 2011 ·


I don’t deviate that often from my musical focus on tumblr, but occasionally I comment on world events; and like several of my tumblr friends, I have something I’d like to say about the death of Bin Laden and the “War on Terror.”

Earlier I saw a graphic posted on tumblr which really helped me put things in perspective. I checked and double-checked the sources, and the math, which reports through September 11, 2010, is relatively sound. I’d invite you to do the same, if you feel so inclined:

Read More

3 May 2011 ·

David Macaray on Government Spending and the Defense Budget

From Dissidentvoice.org:

Question:  Could we afford these social programs?  Answer:  Yes.  Question:  Who would pay?  Answer:  The same taxpayers who currently underwrite America’s gargantuan defense budget.  The same taxpayers who’ve already been ripped off for, literally, trillions of dollars, and who are being asked to support 1,000 military bases around the world for God knows what reason.

7 January 2011 ·

Why US exceptionalism is not exceptional.

Great editorial from the BBC’s Michael Goldfarb on the emptiness of nationalism.

Speaking of France, it is not just the British who join Americans in feeling exceptional.

The French make a national fetish of their notion of “gloire”. French glory lies in the nation’s claim to wonderful words that Americans regard as their personal property, like liberty and equality.

My guess is that if Germany hadn’t taken such a disastrous turn pursuing its own notion of exceptionalism, one could write similarly about Germany.

Even today the ordinary Russian will tell you that the capacity for enduring suffering in his nation is proof of how exceptional the people, the narod, are…

26 December 2010 ·

It’s sort of a silly question

I think, but if you’re trained in classical music then people frequently want to know which composer is your favorite. 

The question brings a dozen possibilities to mind, at least, and yet I’m always surprised at the ease with which I find an ultimate answer: Bach, always Bach.

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26 December 2010 ·

"Why I'm dreaming of a white-noise Christmas"

Interesting editorial by CNN’s Simon Singh.

While Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, atheists may wonder if there is another birth they might be able to commemorate.

One possibility is to give thanks for the arrival of Isaac Newton, who was born on Christmas Day 1642 according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in England at the time.

Another possibility, and probably my preference, is to use Christmas Day as an excuse to celebrate the biggest birth of all, namely, the creation of the entire universe.

24 December 2010 ·

Curtis Lindsay
Pianist, composer,
expert in nonsense.

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