Felsenmusick - The Weblog of Daniel Felsenfeld
The Web Log of a Certain Daniel Felsenfeld: Composer, critic, avid reader, aspiring
bon vivant, capricorn, shadowy figure, advice for the lovelorn

Friday, December 09, 2005

Weighing In

I've been following the angry action on Kyle Gann's fantastic blog and the excoriation of the critics by those composers who have posted--followed through Deceptively Simple, wherein Marc understandably throws his hands in the air and wonders why. And I am reminded--particularly by the bile in posts by Hucbald and the person known as Chris--of grad school and its attendant dorm room epiphanies. In those days, everything (to me) related to my own work, and so if I'd found it appropriate to use set theory, I shouted down all those who had something against it; ditto the evil major (or the eviller minor) triad; ditto twelve-tone; ditto rock; ditto minimalism; ditto Britten; ditto Copland; ditto ad nauseum. I hear it in the anonymous Chris' voice: he wants to not be told he's on the wrong track, and will enter into Agon with anyone who does. It is a genuine reaction, completely and utterly needed for him to progress as an artist and so I do not with do deny him it; more hope just to refocus his attention, were he to do me the courtesy of listening.

The one thing I have never understood, from critics and composers alike, is the idea that a sound, isolated from its context, can carry with it a political connotation. I do not understand it when Schoenberg (I think) declared prohibition on the octave, nor do I get it when whole movements (read: neo-romanticism or minimalism) are blasted in the Times over and over again. Is a chord evil or good? Does it even MEAN when out of a context? An F major chord, in F major, might come off--in the wrong hands, mind you--as a bit predictable: in the key of C-sharp minor, it could outline a revolution. We do not live in even a musical world wherein these sorts of bitchy minutiae mean anything to anyone outside of an extremely narrow set of people. And we then turn around and wonder why we are often accused of elitism or snobbery?

The truth is: we live in a more complex world than we are wont to deal with, and in classical music our superheroes have either died (like Stravinsky or Schoenberg), gone into hiding (like Wuorinen or Babbitt, until a few years ago), gone rogue (anyone like Rochberg or Picker or Del Tredici who made a famous volte face as things were starting to heat up) or been rendered more ineffective by the dark march of pop culture (Boulez and his ilk). These people all have something important to teach us--MUSICALLY. Politically, I am not convinced there is a whole lot out there to argue: the expressions "Tempest in a teapot" and "the map is not the territory" were invented for just such occasions. The reality of what classical music endures is much more complex, and that hurts. So in moments of pain, we blame critics (I am not guiltless myself), we blame Britney Spears, we blame the administration, we blame Boulez or Corigliano or Kyle Gann or Alex Ross or Anthony Tommassini or The Met or Bob Dylan or sex or hip-hop or whatever Blue Meanies, Dr. Dooms, Green Goblins or Lex Luthors we can shape out of the sad truth that is our current cultural position. And we want a caped crusader, a volunteer fighting just outside the law (the law being, in our case, is either academia or the very notion of a symphony orchestra, or even the dark pull of history) to come and pull us out of the wreck. But the honest question--one many are afraid to ask, and even more to answer--is why don't they love us anymore? Ned Rorem, outrageous as he is, is one of the few who dares get huffy that Paris Hilton's 21st birthday was more of an event than his 80th. We can condemn him for this, or mock his self-servingness, yet does he not in some weird way speak for us?

So what about polytheism? One of the things I most admire about Alex and Kyle (not to mention Steve and Marc) is their ability to be plural without that plurality being strictly novelty. After all, there is a time for everything, and we all contain enough multitudes that we can accept, without irony or as champions of some heirertical aesthetic "slumming," many different kinds of musics. There is a time for Debussy, there is a time for Eminem, there is a time for Wagner, there is a time for Schoenberg, there is a time for Schubert, there is a time for Menotti, there is a time for Phillip Glass, there is a time for all of this. These are the musical aporias, the boundaries of truth, and while I am a true believer that Beethoven is inherently better music than Elton John, what pop culture has to teach us is that sometimes better is not necessarily better.

As to the critic/composer split, I must confess I've found it frustrating: there's this notion that composers, hewing to this or that stripe or camp or school, are inherently biased towards a certain type of music, while critics, unblemished by the lure of their teacher's wicked ways, can present things as passionate audience members who can string words together. This, to me, does both sides a disservice: after all, composers can also report on music with a learned perspicacity even if that is not their particular thing (and with the camps being totally dead, or at least deeply on the wane, and each composer being his own renegade agent on behalf of himself, these temptations are at best exaggerated; likely do not exist) while critics, promised press tickets, gift bags, buffets, hotel rooms, access and more records than they can store are in fact subject to the same personal failings as all people. The presumption the other direction, that the critics are warped and in the suck of their press contacts while composers are nothing but pure is equally ridiculous. Like anything, there are a zillion shades of grey: as there are composers who are good, there are also critics (not composers) who are same.

I am of the opinion that a critic needs to endure some sort of musical training, to write from the point of view of expertise--and that they should be as expert as a composer has to be to practice his craft. Criticism is, after all, no escape from work. But what I do as a composer--write a zillion notes per year and wonder if anyone really cares--is probably not dissimilar to what Steve or Marc endure to make their weekly sections fly at what I am sure is hardly a princely sum. They suffer like I do for what we collectively love. And if I do not always agree with even the critics I admire, I am always keen to know they've arrived at their opinions on these matters in as complex and difficult a fashion as I have. Read Alex on Wagner if you do not believe me, he's as clear-headed and understanding of this monstrously multitudinous composer as any scholar.

The world would be better if there were more composer-critics, I do agree, or at least if there were not the immediate suspicion that all composers were biased--an opinion put forth mostly by non-composer critics, might I add. I believe that the dialogue is in a little bit of danger because composers so seldom have a voice in these matters beyond their underheard pieces, and that a critic often has the final (and unjustly commercial) word without any conversation ensuing, and therefore without accountability. Hence, now, where us bloggers come in! But mostly, if we were to shuffle off the Spanish-Civil-war era that a musical technique can actually be a political statement--think if a poet fancied himself radical for using form when there was a whole fat lot of poets who had never abandoned it--and get over the Schoenbergian notion that everything done is done to ensure posterity of a particular race of music, be you critic or composer or (hopefully) both, and we might be able to defeat the notion that The Great Tradition is on its final page.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Jet said...

Oh man, don't stop...

7:46 PM  
Blogger rgable said...

I'm also a believer in musical polytheism.

http://rgable.typepad.com/aworks/2005/05/sonatas_and_int.html

9:53 PM  

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