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

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Queenan's Reich

That self-proclaimed warrior on behalf of all that is good and true in culture Joe Queenan now writes a scathing review of about 1,000,000 pieces of music at least. His thesis: nobody wants to hear contemporary music.

Now, from the outset, I have to confess a broad ignorance of Queenan's work. I tried one book, but after the sixth comparison of pop culture to the onslaught of National Socialism in Germany within the first 30 or so pages, I was sickened and gave up. "That's not a polemic," I thought, "but a rant." And, as someone who does rant from time to time, I know full well that disagreeing is futile, and that rants--at least my rants--are somewhat selfish, along the "everything-would-be-so-much-better-if-everyone-in-the-world-were-a-bit-like-me" lines. So I let him scream between closed pages. But now he hits where I live.

He begins by citing a soprano (unnamed, but "famous") singing at the Met. Now perhaps her stated analogy is a little strained (people being willing to attend sporting events whose outcome is unknown but being unwilling to entertain new music) but his take on it is even more so. "The reason the sports analogy fails," writes Queenan, "is because when Spain plays Germany, everyone knows that the game will be played with one ball, not eight; and that the final score will be 1-0 or 3-2 or even 8-1 - but definitely not 1,600,758 to Arf-Arf the Chalet Ate My Banana. The public may not know in advance what the score will be, but it at least understands the rules of the game."

And yet...You go to the Met to hear, say, An American Tragedy or The Ghosts of Versailles, (or The First Emperor, or A View from the Bridge or The Great Gatsby)and in fact you do know the rules. There are arias, overtures, trios, duets, sopranos, an orchestra, sets, costumes, plots, an orchestra, an intermission, a proscenium arch, a lobby with drinks, the coat check, etc. And even if you go to see something a little less specific (say Satyagraha, which, incidentally, is quite different, even from the Met's newer fare) many of those things still exist, just done in a different way. So it's not like you set out to see an opera and end up hearing someone with an electric guitar played with a fish, to borrow a potential Queenan-ism. Hyperbole, I fear, but to what end?

He goes on:

"In New York, Philadelphia and Boston, concert-goers have learned to stay awake and applaud politely at compositions by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. But they do this only because these works tend to be short and not terribly atonal; because they know this is the last time in their lives they'll have to listen to them; and because the orchestra has signed a contract in blood guaranteeing that if everyone holds their nose and eats their vegetables, they'll be rewarded with a great dollop of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn."

With this sentance, he proves himself more interested in the strength of his rhetoric than facts. He speaks for all, for all those who barely tolerate the newer, shorter, "not terribly atonal" stuff, for you perhaps. If this piece is to matter, for this to be more than just an if-you-don't-think-my-way-you-must-be-really-dumb kind of piece (and, after all, this is the Guardian, so you'd think they'd have higher standards) an occasional fact or statistic, or perhaps an interview of another unsatisfied concert customer might be in order to lend legitimacy to his claim. He reminds me of those overzealous critics who smugly took on the newest Star Wars franchise simply to be contrary. But just disagreeing--or disliking--does not qualify as an opinion, unless you are, of course, blogging. In print, in a respectable place, we need a little more than one who dares to say the unsayable (sic). We need some kind of grounding.

Then he goes on to state what I think is the crux of his argument: he feels the sense of belonging to an elite simply because most of the people who attend concerts are stupider than he. "after attending roughly 1,500 concerts in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Paris, London, Berlin and Sydney," he writes, "I no longer believe that fans of classical music are especially knowledgeable - certainly not in the way jazz fans are." So the plants in his terrarium are dying, and why? Because he's surrounded by ingrates. Not like those jazz fans. Now of course he is part right--there are people who attend these concerts as a sort of "thing" that occurs between dinner and drinks, out of some kind of sense of monied obligation. To him, however, all of them seem slightly dumb, or certainly not as smart as he is. How brave to say this.

But what of those who really know and love this music? What of the ever-increasing (and ever-more-talented) ranks of students who are dying to be part of this great tradition? What of the professionals, the record collectors, the thinkers? They do exist, Mr. Queenan, because I am not only one of them but I know a few hundred of them myself. Do they know nothing? "These people may think they care more about music than the kids who listen to hip-hop," he says, "but I've been eavesdropping on their conversations for 40 years and the results are not impressive. They know that Clair de Lune is prettier than Für Elise, that Mozart died penniless, and that Schumann went nuts. That's about it." Ok, please offer just a little proof, other than your eavesdropped recollections, which at this point, because of your condescending superiority, I am having a little trouble trusting. Again, your plants, your terrarium, and while I feel your pain, I wonder why it needs to be aired at my expense, because your bellicose tone is starting to sound a little personal. And when you begin to counterpoise hip-hop against a much older, less saleable quantity, I begin to wonder if you have not slipped into a slightly corporate way of thinking: that only the biggest and most impressive moneymaker need be admitted. And I also think you are doing what you berated contemporary music for doing earlier: not just comparing apples to oranges, but comparing apples to missiles, shoes, cars. It doesn't fly (and this is not to denigrate hip-hop; in fact, being wholly ignorant, I'll defer.)

He goes on to cite a concert he saw--the New York Philharmonic playing Berio's Sinfonia--which earned a rave in the Times but snores from the audience. Again, he attaches a lot of his own baggage to the audience to make a point: "I gazed down from the balcony," he say, "at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programmes, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture." I wonder, did you speak to the students to gauge their reactions properly or is this another broad and "edgy" presumption? Did the snoring men tell you what they thought? What did you want from the piece that it did not deliver? And mostly, does someone's private enthusiasm for a work have to be palpable to you in order for it to be believed? Is the mere fact that this piece is still being performed, recorded, and spoken about in the press not enough to persuade you that, while it might not be to your taste, it might be worth something? Or do you just presume that I, who found this piece not only powerful and influential but downright breathtaking when I heard Essa-Pekka Salonen lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic it some 15 years ago, have simply, to borrow from a current rhetorical flourish I suspect you've used, drunk the Kool-Aid?

And why, I wonder, is the professional critic supposed to figure audience reaction into their review? After all, the books are (cliche alert) full of scathing reviews of established masterpieces, or glowing reviews of forgotten works, or even of glowing reviews of pieces that few love but many in the know admit to being important. The critic's role is to sort out the work in context, not to glamorize those in attendance.

He goes on:

"When I was 18, I bought a record called The New Music. It featured Kontra-Punkte by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. I was incredibly proud of myself for giving this music a try, even though the Stockhausen sounded like a cat running up and down the piano, and the Penderecki was that reliable old post-Schoenberg standby: belligerent bees buzzing in the basement. I did not really like these pieces, but I would put them on the turntable every few months to see if the bizarre might one day morph into the familiar. I've been doing that for 40 years now, and both compositions continue to sound harsh, unpleasant, gloomy, post-nuclear. It is not the composers' fault that they wrote uncompromising music that was a direct response to the violence and stupidity of the 20th century; but it is not my fault that I would rather listen to Bach. That's my way of responding to the violence and stupidity of the 20th century, and the 21st century as well."

Alright, now we're getting somewhere. You tried to eat your vegetables, you really did, you tried to get to the heart of a certain kind of music, and you feel like you might be dumb for not getting it, for not hearing the beauty in all that gloom, for just wanting a pretty melody. I applaud you for making the effort (and please, I do mean this with all my heart) and you of all people are entitled, after listening to your "tons of records," to your opinion. But there are names absent from your list, and I fear you might have been handed a modernist line as to what matters. "I am no lover of Renaissance Muzak," you write, "and own tons of records by Berg, Varèse, Webern, Rihm, Schnittke, Adès, Wuorinen, Crumb, Carter, and Babbitt: I consider myself to be the kind of listener contemporary composers would need to reach if they had any hope of achieving a breakthrough. So far, this has not happened, and I doubt that it will." But have you tried more than the standard "this-then-that" history books say is contemporary? Have you tried Barber, Britten, Copland, Weill, Rorem, Del Tredici, Puccini, Nyman, Rorem, Harris, Ives, Adams, Reich, Sondheim, Picker, Bernstein, Rakowski, Hindemith, Stalling, Ellington, Part, Chanler, Messaien, Fine, Schrecker, Gershwin, Laurie (and Leroy) Anderson, Strauss, Adamo, Rzewski, Davies, Debussy, Moravec, Hagen, Musto, Leon, Kraft, Hyla, Hoiby, Part, Stravinsky, Shapero, Shostakovich & c, & c...? Surely in this rangy list of composers--most of whom did not hew to what you call those "post-Schoenberg" ideals--must have some beauties for you. Or is your definition of "contemporary" based on a sound rather than on a chronology?

In a way, I feel your pain: you didn't like Stockhausen and you felt like you'd been left behind (and were, as I was, perhaps harassed for these opinions); I felt the same way, and I also tried. I hear about great composers whose work does not move me, and I wonder what I am missing--and even, from time to time, suspect that certain Emperors are not wearing much. But now you go on the attack, throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and in a way that is not too kind:

"Earlier this year, I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the National Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. Slatkin is a canny, industrious conductor and a champion of American music. His philosophy seems to be that if Americans do not support living composers, American composers will cease to exist - though if the best America can do is John Corigliano and Philip Glass and the dozens of academics who give each other awards for music nobody likes, this might not be such a bad thing."

OK, music nobody likes. I can't agree with that, not one bit, because I like it, some of it. And OK, you don't like Corigliano (who, incidentally, counters your example by selling out two runs of his opera at the Met some years back; audiences, those audiences you say hate everything, were raving and scrambling for tickets, but we can leave that for a moment) or Glass (whose very name can sell out just about every concert not to mention thousands of discs) but to say that this is the "best America can do" is pretty cruel, and while I am sure you are not advocating for anyone's death, but to say that because you don't like their music that Corigliano and Glass have little merit and deserve to perish along with all American composer is pretty insulting to all those people who flocked to Carnegie Hall to hear Circus Maximus and wept, or to the Met for Satyagraha. Were we all just duped?

Now you really go for blood, though: you attack "...an ambitious new work by a young American named Mason Bates." "This last piece, entitled Liquid Interface," you write, "examined "the phenomenon of water in its variety of forms", something Ravel and Mussorgsky never got around to." Poor grammar and a completely inexplicable sentiment, especially since Ravel in fact did address water, or at least a boat on an ocean (and let's not forget Debussy). "It featured wind machines and bongos and an electric drum pad and a laptop and a gigantic orchestra. It was bloated but thoroughly harmless, and the audience responded warmly; nothing thrills a classical music crowd more than a new piece of music that doesn't make them physically ill." Again, you do in your point with some open-throttled rhetoric that belies your seriousness. Physically Ill? Pardon me for being literal, but if you are going to damn a young composer (and a friend, admittedly) with faint praise, you might at least avoid such a meaningless--might I say, perhaps, bloated and therefore harmless--cliche.

For some reason I've stayed with you, despite your broadsided and overtly macho attacks, but when you say intimate that jazz is dying because it lacks funding to which classical music has access, I threw up my hands and began to say things like "what the hell are you talking about?!" to my innocent computer screen. Where have you been, Mr. Queenan? Don't you read the news: classical music is in fact dying; there's an article to that effect so often that it has become its own cliche. And when you tell me that the public has taken to abstract art but not to abstract music, I want to scream the words: WHAT PUBLIC? If you really like jazz more than new music, fine, go fund it, support it, there are a million ways. But when you scream it steals our funding simply because you like it better, this becomes less an article and more a blog post, and take it from me, just because something is available for all to read in writing doesn't make it worth terribly much.

And then you begin to insult my intelligence even more: "Would contemporary music attract more listeners if a truly great composer came along? The last time the American public got excited about a living composer was when Leonard Bernstein was in vogue; but Bernstein, a superb conductor and Broadway tunesmith, never developed into a great composer. At present, the American public seems most taken by anachronisms (Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt), infantilists (Glass), eclectics (Corigliano) and atmospheric neo-Brucknerites (John Adams). Even when the public embraces the new, what it is really looking for is the old. It is hardly surprising that so many composers simply throw in the towel and compose music that will be ignored in their own lifetimes, hoping it will find an audience with posterity."

Do you not remember that Verdi--VERDI!--said that as soon as you begin to look back you will have progress? Or do you think that those who love the greatest Italian composer of operas have been duped as well? (And I won't even get into your description of those composers, how easily you dismiss some truly electrifying work. To call Adams an "atmospheric neo-Brucknerite" is...) But you also latch strong onto something your book seemed to rebel against: the idea that what is popular is in fact what is best. In fact, you find that mode of thinking so pernicious that you compare pop singers to Nazi murderers. Hackles raised, but to what end? And here your perspective jumps the shark, because I wonder: are you a man of the people disgruntled with the elite? Or are you elite disgruntled with those below? Or are you, in the world of cliche as we are, trying to have your cake and eat it too? I simply cannot get a bead on you, and frankly I don't think it is because I am too dumb to understand.

Points for brio, I suppose, but overstuffed and edgy enthusiasm does not for opinion make. Instead, file under the reductive and populsit down "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" school of criticism--it pops, it makes you go "ooh, MAN!" but is it in any way useful to anyone except the author? Can it not be true that there are in fact beautiful things that move fewer people than other more established beautiful things?

Mr Queenan, I am prepared to forgive you because I think you are lost, and I whole-heartedly pronounce you off the hook: you've done your bit. But when you go into print and claim that I, who love a lot of the music you loudly and proudly hate, have been simply fooled despite my glittering musical credentials and a lifetime of not just listening but doing, you remind me of a current political trend wherein certain people who have enthusiasm for a certain candidate have simply "drunk the Kool-Aid" and are clearly not capable of formulating their own thoughts (despite our resounding majority) because of a clever snowjob we've all fallen for, that I cannot help but be made uncomfortable by your tack. Please, check out all the Bach and Beethoven and Brahms you like, I will not judge you. Skip the new stuff, set alight all your Berio records and trade them in for a shiny new Beethoven Cycle; you've earned that. I only ask for understanding in return. Perhaps you are right, perhaps all our work will be forgotten while Haydn will stand tall, perhaps I have in fact fallen for something that lacks substance. But I love it as much as you love what you love, and I am willing to take that chance. Just please, I ask you to clear the decks with grace, stand out of my way, and accept that there are other educated people who might have an evolved and equally enthusiastic perspective that is simply different than your own. Or, in the words of Goethe, who I am sure you will agree had a far superior mind than the two of us combined, "Tolerance should actually be only a transitional attitude: it must lead to acceptance. To tolerate is to insult."


Blogger William said...

Bravo. Beautifully done.


3:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're all grateful to Danny's fine work defending new music from the bitterness all too many newspaper reporters throw at it. It takes a strong person to resist the easy temptation of knee-jerk cynicism, and to recognize that, in fact, there are many wonderful composers living today. Mason Bates

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did agree with one of the big points in Queenan's article, as tough as it is to take. Statistics do show that most mainstream audiences dislike new music. Ask any orchestra administrator and they'll tell you that they could completely ignore new music and ticket sales wouldn't slide a bit. There's really no demand among opera audiences for new works either. The weakest selling tickets each season at the Met are consistently for the one new work they manage to put on. Again, ask any opera marketing guru and they'll tell you that the new work is always the biggest challenge. That's not to say everything must be bottom-line driven - these are non-profit organizations with a great mission after all - but it is worth keeping in mind as just a reality of the marketplace.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...


I am not in the habit of responding to anonymous posts because I think it is a poor way to do business, but I will respond to you.

Please cite me exact facts and figures: where are these statistics? Because I know, for example, that both Little Women and Lysistrata did very well for City Opera; and I know that Satyagraha and The First Emperor did well for the Met. As to the orchestral world, perhaps you are right, an all-Carter concert won't sell as well as Lang Lang playing Prokofiev. But these are indeed non-profit institutions with missions that do run contrary to the public sometimes. After all, you'd sell far more tickets at the Philharmonic if, say, Justin Timberlake played with them, or Billy Joel. Not to equate Lang Lang with that, but you see where I am going with this. Otherwise, just rent out the Met to rock bands and hip-hop acts and be done with it.

But that is not what Mr. Queenan was saying, not at all. He was not lamenting the poor orchestras and their being duty-bound to promote less-than-profitable things; he was saying that literally nobody likes this music, that American composers should just disappear, and he got this from the fact that many in the audience of one Berio piece did not seem to enjoy it; or that Mason's piece didn't quite hold up to Ravel.

So you agree not with him but with the larger--and sometimes wholly untrue--idea that because a subscription audience doesn't rush to the ticket window that this kind of work is not worthwhile. There may not be millions who disagree, but do you trust those millions?

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

danny, I read Q's insufferable remarks and could not begin to find the tenacity or clarity to reply. THANK YOU for doing it.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Sator Arepo said...


Brilliant post, first off. Second, Lang Lang playing Prokofiev, 100 years ago, might have elicited the same kind of response that our humble correspondent from the Guardian gave us. Just saying is all.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am not in the habit of responding to anonymous posts because I think it is a poor way to do business, but I will respond to you."

i like your style, and i'm sure you made her day:D

3:04 PM  

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