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.