For the past week I’ve been on a Reply All email list in which experimental musicians are being loudly abusive of those who don’t like their music. (I’m one of the latter, which is how I got on the list — the exchange started with a concerted attack on me, but it has now broadened its scope, and I’m mentioned only occasionally.)

I don’t mind the bashing too much, but it does strike me as a curious pastime. Today’s crop included an email (I won’t say from whom) that included this gem: “These hateful assholes should ultimately be ignored – after they’ve had their legs broken….;)”

The question that needs to be asked is not, I think, “Why are these people so angry?” Some people are angry at the world, for one reason or another. Some of the angry people make music. This is not surprising. Their anger does seem to spill over into their music; it quite often sounds angry. That’s okay too.

A more appropriate question might be, “Why do angry musicians insist that their music should be admired?” If you’re going to make angry music, shouldn’t you just sort of take it for granted that your outpourings won’t be enjoyed, except perhaps by other angry people?

Why go to the trouble of bashing people who don’t appreciate what you’re doing? Why take it so personally that your work is being dismissed as ugly and irrelevant?

To get a reality check, I visited the website of the individual who wrote that angry sentence. Sure enough, his music is filled with loud crashing noises and exhibits very little in the way of perceptible syntax. There’s some nice sound design in his music, but there’s not much else to hang your hat on.

Syntax is important. That’s why people still listen to and enjoy Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms — the musical syntax these composers employed makes sense. It is perceptible, it is logical, it nicely balances predictability and surprise. If your music is all surprise, non-stop, shouldn’t you just accept the fact that very few people are going to want to take the trouble to understand it?

Assuming there’s anything to understand. I’m not sure there is. You can write a short story by throwing together randomly chosen emotionally laden words in no particular order — that’s okay. But if you then proceed to get angry and hostile because no one appreciates your literary genius, it’s hard to avoid the impression that you’ve missed the boat somewhere.

If you don’t want to be misunderstood, make it your business to create works of art that people can understand. (To be sure, that’s hard work. But I don’t think for a moment that these musicians are lazy.)

To understand a work of art, one must be able to perceive its syntax — its method of organization. Events within the work must relate to one another in perceptible and cognizable ways. If you’re using the kitchen sink method of “organization,” in which anything goes, you really have no right to complain that you’re being misunderstood.

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7 Responses to Bashing

  1. Tom says:

    Hey Jim, it’s just amazing what people will say when they disagree with someone, even slightly. I’ve learned throughout the years to first consider WHY I feel so strongly about something and usually, it’s because I don’t have all of the info at hand. In the case of music, it seems like someone who would make such a comment is missing the KEY understanding of music appreciation…the artistic mind which expresses it self so uniquely…and if they can’t appreciate a contrary opinion or feeling, THEY are clearly the assholes, who never learned what it really takes to make music in the first place.

    • danstearns says:

      “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.” – Hunter S. Thompson

      • midiguru says:

        Uhh … nobody mentioned journalism here, Dan. I have no idea why you thought this quote was apropos.

      • danstearns says:

        no not really hmmm, but I figured a smart guy like you could put a few little dots together there…..and for all his nonsense, HS.Thompson had that shit down like a real man of passion and wit! Anyway, check the other reply if you want to get serious on the meat and potatoes of any of this. Because this kind of weak reply is a waste of everybodies time, especially mine. Listen….I know you are sincere, and I know you are intelligent and I think you are a gentleman with a sense of fairplay at your heart. You got an eye if not an ear for detail too…..I also know you are quite opinionated (not unlike Humter there), but dude, you’re not nearly as smart as that, or even you apparently like to think you are…and your other back-patting/back-stabbing contributer here was commenting broadly…….tmuch too broadly to be taken seriously, and that’s what all that’s about for someone who can’t follow a simple breadcrumb trail like you aparently can’t or slyly refuse to. As you no doubt full well know, Thompson was a very dirty player and he hit below the belt too….okay, get it now? But you play dirtier than he did because you’re not as smart or mature…yet you sit there on your laurals and expect people like me to respond at your bluffing too. Well buddy, just i did………………….your move

  2. danstearns says:

    My name is Daniel Stearns, I am a selftaught musician and idependent thinker… I am also a composer and a microtonalist who has become a target of Jim’s blog as an univited strawman to speak of his points of view and other ideas on aesthetics. This is my composition Cirrus and Pileus. It has been performed more than once by someone other than myself, no small miracle in my world:

    This is a review by another thinking person, and I hope it will serve to remind people things are not always as cut and dried as folks like Jim Aikin like to think and write about at others’ expense, sincerely, Daniel Anthony Stearns, composition and text, 2006:

    Cirrus and Pileus,

    The sun was trembling on the edge of the ridge
    Winter was alive
    I watched it sink onto the open lake
    silver and green and gold and black
    wheeled like a pathless wood

    Having lashed some undiscovered shore
    Heaven crashed against the pier
    in the gardens of the moon

    In this rain of iron
    the angles sing,
    Of fire of ice of blood
    of density and velocity
    and shattering and avalanching

    -du-du – du –
    du – du-du – du-
    du – du – du.
    du – du-du-

    In the shallow frozen water
    turns a great blue sun,
    like the seasons passing one by one
    in elliptical orbits around the sun
    (whistle) at aphelion (whistle)

    Mem’ries are time that you borrow
    to spend when you get to tomorrow
    here comes the setting sun,
    the seasons are passing one by one

    Du – du – du – du-du –

    — mclaren, Thursday, November 9, 2006


    “Nothing inspires consumer confidence like a giant angry intergalactic octopus with yellow daggers for teeth and a deadly hypnotic stare that suggests…that we humans are all mere appetizers in the galactic smorgasbord for a terrorizing colossal overlord. Nothing…except, perhaps, giant plastic mutated ants dangling ominously ten feet above the Maytag washers and the Amana ranges…
    “Oh mere mortals, don’t fight it. We have no chance; we have no choice! Get on your collective knees and how to the superiority of our new masters, the electronic superstore known as Fry’s.” -[Sceurman, Mark and Mark Morgan, Weird California, Sterling Publishing Company Inc., New York NY, 2006, pg. 164]-
    Like the giant ten-foot-tall ravenous alien octopus in front of Fry’s Burbank superstore, microtonality has become a way to get attention. In new music nowadays, the crush and pell-mell hubbub of our many new media sources tend to overwhelm even the most ardent composer’s effort to get the word out. Whether it’s mp3 downloads, ipod iTunes tracks, streaming internet radio stations, CD-Rs chock full of mp3s playable on our DVD players, or portable every-kind-of-media-rolled-into-one widgets like the Zune or the Video iPod or PS3, we’re bombarded by digital information…much of it music.
    In fact, music hurtles at us from so many directions, in so many forms, that it’s a major challenge for any composer just to get noticed. Maybe you’ve noticed how the usenet forum has changed over the past 5 years. Once upon a time, it used to be a haven for people to discuss music theory. Now it’s full of plaintive guitarists yelping, “Please listen to my music!” and pointing you to a free server hosting their mp3 files.
    Yes, the explosion of digital media has now reached the point where composers literally can’t even give their music away. There’s just too much of it. And it’s blasting at us from every direction. What with automated RSS feeds and automated blog aggregators hooked into bittorrent trackers, not to mention widgets like the TiVo, lots of my friends regularly lament that they’ve got a big backlog of music (and video, and audio books, and e-books!) that they don’t have time to listen to. And the feed aggregators keep running, and the backlog keeps building up.
    Call it “TiVo oppression.” People fill up their TiVos with 200 hours of TV they haven’t had time to watch by using the automated record functions…then they feel oppressed and guilty by all the TV they haven’t had time to watch. Same deal with the automated bittorrent RSS feeds that suck down mp3 tracks of music off the web. People have now got 100, 200, 500 gigs of mp3s on their hard drives they haven’t had time to listen to, downloaded automatically onto their computers in the background. And the automatic downloads just keep running, and the mp3s keep building up.
    One of my friends describes it as “Those damne vil mp3s just sitting there on my hard drive, watching me! It’s like they know I’m not listening! All this stuff I downloaded, and I don’t have time to listen to half of it. It makes me feel guilty. I want to wipe it all out and start over.” But of course he doesn’t. It just buidls up, unlistened-to, creating a big overhang of guilt like a thunderstorm.
    Into this digital media circus comes microtonality.
    Like the giant intergalactic octopus overhanging the entrance to Fry’s, microtonality gets a listener’s attention. They start flicking through tracks, and if they land on something like Barton’s 17 equal piano concert, they’re gonna perk up their ears. This ain’t your mommy’s serious music, kiddies.
    The first track on the mp3 collection I’m going to review is Dan Stearns’ “Cirrus and Pileus.” Each post will review one of these pieces. There were apparently two different concerts of 17 equal piano music: phase one, and phase two (which sounds like something out of an Incredible Hulk comic book. Bruce Apparently survive Phase Two but turned green and gained superhuman strength). There was of course a cheesy 1972 science fiction movie called “Phase IV” which dealt with giant mutant ants, but we won’t go into that.
    Phase one (first concert of 17 equal piano music) had 9 audio tracks (mp3s), while phase two (concert two) had 11 tracks (mps).
    Dan Stearns’ “Cirrus and Pileus” presents us with a piano accompaniment to a classic art song. The piano accompaniment starts off with high energy, and a female singer pitches in to overlay the piano’s rapid figures with a gliding melody. Dan Stearns has put a video of the performance of this piece up on YouTube, which is of course inaccessible to most us, since we don’t have $100 per month (or up) to pay for broadband internet. This means that most of the population can’t access Dan’s video, or, indeed, any of the video of the concert. So the rest of us must make do with mp3s.
    I downloaded the entire concert, which, at about 70 megs for both Phase One and Phase Two, took overnight on dialup. I guess that’s acceptable. Not sure most folks who tie up their computer for 8 hours download a concert of new music. This made me wish the music had been compressed at a higher ratio in a better audio codec, like ogg vorbis. Ogg is audibly far superior to mp3, and a 96 kbit ogg sounds at least as good as a 256 kbit mp3. (Apple’s iTunes music store uses downloads fixed at 96 kbits AAC, which is an mp4 codec roughly equivalent to ogg vorbis, except with DRM added. So avoiding mp3 is clearly possible. For those of us on dialup, it would’ve made a big difference.)
    Dan’s art song uses piano work which at first sounds like something you’d expect from early modernism; then the piano breaks into a radical change of piece and starts what sounds like honky-tonk ragtime. The piano shifts back and forth between these two styles unpredictably — ragtime or something like it, and what sounds like early Walter Piston tonal modernism. The singer’s melody floats over the top of the piano writing, tying it together.
    Overall, I found this art song effective and impressive. It did require some mental gear-shifts at first, once you realized Dan was going to change styles on you in the piano writing every few measures. This kind of postmodernist bricolage technique became popular with revanchist tonal composers like Jacob Druckman back in the 1970s, when they got sick of atonal serialism and decided to try a different musical path. Initially reviled and subjected to the usual smear tactic tactics and hysterical name-calling, po-mo musical collage experts like Druckman gradually became accepted into mainstream serious music, and now that the atonal cul de sac has been abandoned, they’re part of the contemporary serious composer’s bag ‘o tricks, recognized as an essential staple of modern compositional technique.
    To those of us familiar with Dan Stearns’ other music, this piece of quasi-Schubertian/ragtime collage came as one hell of a shock. Dan Stearns has for years specialized in industrial-type noise-scapes with bits ‘n pieces of sonic “objets trouves” thrown in. I had always thought of Dan Stearns as an industrial msuic composer with leanings toward 19th century art music…but now, hearing this composition and its expert piano writing and the dextrous vocal writing, I may have to revise my judgment. Maybe Dan is actually a 19th century art music guy with industrial noise music urges.
    In any case, once you get past the stylistic gear-shifting, it’s a great piece. I’ve listened to it a number of times. It holds up well, and does that hardest of all tightrope walks — it manages to do something comprehensible (which is to say in some way musically familiar) yet sounds fresh and new at the same time.
    Dan’s handling of the tricky major 17 equal third seemed especially adroit in this piece. You’d never even know the 17 equal j 3rd can be a problem listening to this piece. This composition really does sound the way Ivor Darreg described 17: steely, electrifying, high-energy. 17 equal need not always sound that way, of course. 17 equal can sound smooth and seductive, almost like JI — or 17 can sound raucous and outright in-your-face rude and cantankerous, if you emphasize those 17 equal thirds and keep hammering away at ’em in th listener’s face. This piece used rapid-fire ostinato and dextrous polyphony to thread the needle between rough acoustically grating major thirds, and polyphony so active you couldn’t have told what tuning you’re in. (Some polyphony does get so dense the tonal center tends to play a lot of a role than the individual melodic lines. For an example, consider Webern’s 9 Pieces For Orchestra,or, if you prefer a tonal example, Deutilleux’s Second Symphony.)
    A word about the performance. First, kudos for Jacob Barton in getting a trained singer to handle the vocal part. Probably wasn’t easy. This singer, however, had a big bravura operatic voice and a distinctly coloratura in-your-face operatic kind of delivery. I don’t that fits with the composition. It’s not just the performance, it’s the singer’s voice. She sounds like she should be onstage wearing a helmet with horns and carrying a great big shield and singing a valkyrie aria from Wagner’s “The Ring.” Her voice has this big, big “thing” to it, she’s got a heft intense voice that would cut through a full orchestra like a laser beam. She’d be great as Brunhilde in “The Ring.” Trouble is, this kind of art song seems to require a most silken diminutive voice. Less heft, more sensuous. The ideal performer for this kind of song seems to me to be a renegade jazz singer, rather than someone with such a classically trained E-MO-TIVE voice. You could hear her husbanding her breath to blast out those syllables. Not sure that’s the kind of thing that works for an oddball refracted mutation of Schubert lieder like this composition. Yes, if Franz Schubert got blasted by gamma rays and turned into a giant mutant plastic ant, this would be the composition he’d write. I don’t think an operatic hefty-voiced coloratura type of singer works for Schubert lieder, and this singer just seemed wrong for this piece.
    Too, the recording mix was off. The singer’s voice got moved too far into the foreground in this recording and the piano seemed to be pushed too far into the background. I haven’t seen the recording setup, but this might be an artifact of a coincident X/y miking setup, or possible too few mics, or bad mic placement. This isn’t a major issue, but I would’ve liked to have heard more piano and less singer in the mix. The piano part proves important as it’s far more than mere accompaniment. It counterpoints the singer as well as supporting her, and the stylistic gearshifts in the piano figures play an important part in structuring the composition.
    Overall, this was a classic A-B-A’ modified arch composition. Too short for the kind of sonata-allegro development we’ve come to expect from romantic music (like Schubert’s lieder), that’s probably a good thing. After all, our attention span has diminished as modern life has sped up, and we don’t have 10 minutes to listen to an art song anymore. At around 4 minutes this piece felt right. Also, let’s recall that despite similarities, this is NOT a Schubert art song. Dan Stearns lives in the 21st century, and he has to deal with 21st century listeners. You can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe wrote. Even when postmodern composers refract past usage through modern prisms like the 17 equal tuning, they have to compose 21st century music. There’s no getting around that. The must must speak to us and not just imitate past forms.
    This seemed to me one of the best pieces in both concerts. Perhaps because of the strong piano writing, perhaps because the whole trick of gear-shifting between modernistic piano writing and ragtime and overlaying it with a lieder kicks major ass. This was a great piece. Dan did a fine job.
    I could make a few minor complaints, but they’re hardly worth mentioning. As you’d expect, the rapid-fire piano writing split up between two performers sometimes got a little out of sync. That’s gonna happen when you can’t fit the whole 17 equal scale on one keyboard instrument. For that reason, I really do wish this piece had been performed on a synthesizer with a full 17 equal tuning on a single keyboard using piano samples. Also, the singer’s single scale steps (ostensibly 1/17 of an octave) seemed too large and her double scale-steps (2/17 of an octave) seemed too small. That’s probably inevitable given the rigors of trying to sing in the 17 equal tuning when you’ve spent your whole life learning 12 equal intonation by rote. Still I do wish this concert had been re-recorded with the vocal part performed solo while the singer listened to a recording, so that the vocal part could’ve been fed into the Antares Auto-Tune software with MIDI set up to twek it into 17 equal.
    But these are minor quibbles.
    It’s easy for any asshole out there to criticize this stuff. People who sit around doing nothing but typing on the internet don’t realize how goddamn hard it is to put on a concert. Much a concert of serious music in a variety of different styles, with a variety of different performers and performance requirements, like this one. Rice University in Tejas has been a place I typically associate with electronic and computer music. It’s fascinating to hear traditional tonal instrumental music being done in 17 equal.

    • midiguru says:

      Dan, I took the liberty of cleaning up the typos in your post. Also, your link (for some weird reason) cued up a video of a Schumann symphony, so I fixed it.

      I need to make three points here.

      First, I like this piece of music. It’s a lot more satisfying than the guitar piece that I criticized. At the time, that was the only piece of yours that I had ever heard. Look — even Beethoven wrote a few turkeys. He also wrote pieces, such as the Third Symphony, that were masterpieces but that provoked outrage at the time! The fact that I didn’t like that one particular piece is not in any way a wholesale indictment of your music. And in any event, you are no longer referred to by name in that blog post, so if you choose to add comments here in which you identify yourself, it’s your choice.

      Second, this particular mini-essay, “Bashing,” was NOT about you. It was about a comment that one of your compatriots made in an email thread. If you would like to remove me from your email broadcast list, that’s fine with me. Or keep me on it — your choice.

      Third, my blog is not the right place for long posts of this sort. If you want to post such extensive material, you really do need to have your own blog. I believe you’ve said that you don’t have good internet access, but you should be able to set up a free blog on WordPress using a computer at the nearest public library. I hope you’ll do that, because you absolutely deserve to have a forum in which to present your point of view in whatever manner you feel is needed.

      • danstearns says:

        Jim, as I’ve said in personal email and widely abroad of that I think we just have to agree to disagree on some core beliefs and notions here…..usually I’m okay to let things go at that, but it was the—to my mind at least—-ad hominen bits of fancifullness that somehow turned an ugly shade of personal in your initial Blog post Bent or Broken that clearly has ticked me (at least) off; and hey, I don’t even have a problem with acidic wit and negitavity per se, and I’ve just put the Thompson quote up in response to another of your mind here who responded earlier in this particular and related Blog. However, what I do have a problem with, is you kind of wanting to have your cake and eat it too here and elsewhere by slyly implying that it’s lind of all just in good fun and the opinon of one Blogger (you), while you also seem to want to tout yourself as a midiguru and a respectable jouralist and author of some note. And hey, I got no problem with the latter there either, but God man….that kind of underhanded way of shaking your hand with one hand and kicking you in the balls with the other just doesn’t wash nor cut it with this self-taught, country boy artist dude, and that’s the all, and certainly the IT of all that for me, personally…..does any of that make any sense to you? I hope so, because aside from all that, I really have no good reason to doubt the varacity of your opinions as respectable opinions….even if I do contend that they are in fact, quite insulting and more than a little onesided. you have proved yourself to me—-for whatever that is worth–to be a gentleman in the fairplay and goodwill you’ve pretty consistently shown here in the aftermath and its fallout: albiet, a gentleman whose teeth are usually hidden, even and especially in his own mirror! In any event and be all that as it may or may not be, well, take care, and here’s to hoping that we can all move as a community on to the onward and the forward part of all this all a little wiser and better equipped to talk to –and not at—each other down a better and certainly brighter-lit road on the path to expressing ourselves as adults and artists that are all just a bunch of clothed apes.

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