Are You “Serious”?

The Romans put it this way: de gustibus non disputandum est. In English, “There’s no arguing over matters of taste.” Of course, we often engage in such arguments, even though doing so is pointless.

My thoughts about this were triggered by a discussion of music, but they seem to relate somewhat to writing too, so I’m going to put my rambling, incoherent commentary into this, my mostly-about-writing blog. The connections, such as they are, will appear further down the page.

A small minority of music lovers, found primarily but not exclusively in university music departments, is passionately dedicated to the composition and enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of music that is ugly and difficult. Those who love the stuff don’t consider it ugly, of course. If pressed, they may admit that it’s difficult, or at least that it’s an acquired taste. The phrase “acquired taste” unpacks to mean, “If you had listened to as much of this music as I have, and knew as much about it as I do, you’d love it too.” This way of looking at it puts the cart before the horse, though. I suspect that listeners need already to have an affinity for ugly, difficult music in order to get very far with listening to or learning about it. Or at least, those who are introduced to it for the first time need to be motivated by a desire of some sort — perhaps the desire for a good grade, or the desire to be surrounded by sounds that express their chaotic, dystopian view of the world.

Meanwhile, most lovers of classical music are happy to subsist on a steady diet of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, with occasional side dishes of Vivaldi, Faure, and Debussy. I had the temerity to suggest to a couple of my Facebook friends that there are reasons for this, and that the reasons are rooted not in listeners’ familiarity with the standard canon of classical music, nor in a conservative approach to culture, but rather in the nature of the human nervous system. Our capacity to understand music, it seems to me, relies heavily on our ability to perceive musical patterns, and to store them in short-term memory so that their relations to other patterns can be examined retrospectively.

Where music has no perceptible patterns, it cannot be understood. It cannot properly be said to be saying anything. It can express incoherence, rage, bafflement, or ennui, but not much else.

This way of looking at music, which seems quite obvious to me, gave offense to the people I was conversing with. One of them responded, I have to say, rather abusively. He felt it necessary to insult me for having denigrated his beloved art form.

Needless to say, this is not how an intellectual discourse should be conducted. If I’m wrong about how music is perceived (or about how ugly, difficult music is perceived), then fine — please show me where I have erred. Insulting me does not allow me to amend my thinking.

Part of the problem is that when a group of people shares a passionate interest in something, be it a religion, a genre of music, a favorite author, or the success of a sports team, those people tend to look down on those who don’t share their passion. They may react to those who feel differently in any of several ways — by dismissing the outsiders as ignorant, by getting angry at them, or simply by huddling together in their feeling of superiority. If they understand, in some dim subconscious way, that the outsiders have a valid point of view, they’re more likely to get defensive and angry in order to preserve the supposed integrity of their view. This is why fans of opposing soccer teams start riots. On some level, the rioting fans understand that their beloved team is exactly like the other team in every respect.

I think that was what was happening today — not the soccer fans part, that was an aside; I mean the defensive in-group part. I think the fellow who felt it necessary to insult me knows, though he would never admit it, that the music he likes is ugly, difficult, and basically meaningless. That it’s rubbish. If he were comfortable with his love of that music, I don’t think he would have reacted that way. If someone says to me that Bach or Haydn is boring and meaningless, I don’t find it necessary to belittle their intelligence or dismiss them as misguided. I don’t hurl bricks, either real or metaphorical, at them. I just smile and move on.

I don’t find it necessary to display an emotional attachment to this music, because its value is simply obvious. Yes, your enjoyment will be vastly improved if you know more about it and listen to more of it, but its value and meaning are right there, in the dots on the page. No defense of Bach, Haydn, or Mozart is needed.

Instrumental music is a peculiar art form in that, with a few isolated exceptions such as Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, it’s entirely abstract. (We’ll leave opera out of this discussion, for purposes of clarity.) For this reason, a piece of music does rely on the listener to understand the idioms that make up its style. Writing in general, and storytelling in particular, is not abstract in that way. One could tell the same story (say, the story of Romeo and Juliet) in a dozen wildly different idioms, and it would still be exactly the same story. A story is not about its idioms or style in the way that a piece of music is.

You could, of course, arrange a piece of classical music — let’s say Beethoven’s Third Symphony — for synthesizers, or a saxophone septet, or a ukulele band, or even a sufficiently virtuosic doo-wop vocal ensemble. It would still be recognizably the same piece. You couldn’t do the same thing with a piece of difficult modern music that relies on sonorities (masses of crash cymbals played with mallets, say) for its effect, because sonorities don’t translate in the same way.

Difficult “modern” writing is so much less regarded and less common than difficult “modern” music. If you aren’t telling a meaningful story in a comprehensible way, readers will toss your book aside. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is perhaps the best known example of modern writing. It’s impenetrable — and it has inspired no imitators at all. Outside of university courses on modern literature, has anybody ever read Finnegans Wake? I doubt it. Why would anybody bother?

But because music is abstract to begin with, composers who feel a need to venture deeper into abstraction have no obvious anchor to hold them back. Anything goes.

If we’re going to blame someone for this deplorable trend, I suppose we have to blame Beethoven. I love his music — but his influence over 19th century classical composition could hardly be overestimated. Beethoven popularized the notion that the greatest music was music that overthrew the earlier conventions of music — that went further. That broke new ground. That revolutionized the art form.

He himself did all that. It was the age of revolution. The American and French Revolutions were fresh news, and the Romantic movement in literature, with its idolization of the Hero, was building up steam. Beethoven’s stance was heroic. He revolted against the polite conventions of the music of the preceding generation, and did a spectacular job of it.

For more than a hundred years after Beethoven’s death, classical composers were gripped with the belief that to be significant as artists, they had to produce work that was new and different and revolutionary. That they had to break fresh ground. Within the confines of the classical style, that became more and more difficult, and eventually their efforts became absurd. Schoenberg jettisoned harmony theory in favor of the 12-tone row, a sterile effort that today is taken seriously only by a few diehards. John Cage went even further, discarding the formal restrictions of serialism, harmony, and form in favor of complete randomness. Cage’s music cannot be comprehended, because it doesn’t say anything. It was meticulously designed so as to destroy any attempt to understand it.

Well, that was certainly revolutionary, wasn’t it? Arguably it was deeply insulting to listeners … but it was revolutionary, no doubt about that. As H. G. Wells said, “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.” Cage’s early music is interesting; his later work is not.

While Schoenberg was busily bemoaning the death of tonality, of course, jazz musicians on the other side of the ocean hadn’t received the memo. They were joyously creating entirely new kinds of music that were entirely tonal — that used traditional chord progressions in ways that had never before been imagined. Schoenberg had crawled out on a limb and then sawed it off.

This is one of the problems with the culture of modern “serious” classical music. It insists on taking itself seriously, and as a result it has to ignore everything that has happened in pop music for the past 75 years. Not all classical composers have fallen into this trap, of course. In the 1920s, Stravinsky and other composers in Paris were well aware of American jazz, as was Aaron Copland. Coming from the other direction, Frank Zappa fearlessly shuffled the abstract sonorities of Edgard Varese into doo-wop and progressive rock. Crossovers tend to work well! But insisting that your music be entirely new and groundbreaking is a recipe for failure and obscurity. New is not necessarily better than old. The golden ideal of progress has, in recent years, been revealed as a sham and a grave danger.

I’m reminded of a pithy observation made some years ago by a blues guitarist named Big Bill Broonzy. (I once asked Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records who had said it. He told me it was Broonzy.) Broonzy was once interviewed by a white musicologist. This was in the 1950s, and we may imagine, if we like, that the musicologist was from Harvard and was wearing glasses with black rims. The fellow, whoever he was, said, “Tell me, Mr. Broonzy — do you consider your blues a form of folk music?”

Broonzy thought for a moment and replied, “It’s all folk music. I never heard a horse sing none of it.” Leaving aside the deft way the guitarist deflected a racist question, we’re left with an important truth: It’s all folk music! Beethoven is folk music, and so are Varese and Xenakis. That being the case, there’s no pedestal on which to place “serious” classical music of the difficult variety. It’s all folk music. And if you can’t walk out of the dance hall whistling the tune, let’s face it: It’s a pretty pathetic excuse for folk music.

No, you don’t have to compose music that sounds like Haydn or hip-hop, nor to write novels that read like Ian Fleming or Jacqueline Susann, nor to paint the way Rembrandt did, in order to produce work that is interesting. But it is necessary to pursue meaning, and to produce work whose meanings can be comprehended by reasonably attentive listeners, readers, or viewers. By folks.

Unfortunately, the world of “serious” classical music seems to be infested by poseurs who find that challenge too difficult, or at any rate uncongenial. It’s not exactly true that Milton Babbitt wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen?” That title was added to the essay by the editors of High Fidelity magazine. His title was “The Composer As Specialist.” But in applying that headline they weren’t entirely ignoring what Babbitt was saying. As the entry in wikipedia puts it, “Babbitt’s suggestion in the article for the composer of ‘advanced music’ is ‘total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance.'”

As a footnote, Babbitt’s notorious article was published in 1958, the same year Bill Broonzy died.

The world of jazz and pop music doesn’t suffer from this isolationist attitude. Nor is it of much concern among writers of fiction. Writers of fiction understand that if you write gibberish, nobody is going to read your work. Some writers manage to find deep meanings, others are satisfied with shallow platitudes, but word salad is not highly regarded. A mash-up of Romeo & Juliet with Oliver Twist and The Sun Also Rises, sentences and single words chosen at random — or not at random but according to some arcane formula — and tossed into a blender on their way to the printed page, is not going to gain you any followers. Or at least, you’ll have to forgive me if I hope it doesn’t.

I have better things to do than listen to music that adamantly refuses to speak to me. And it’s really quite pointless for anybody to try to convince me that a piece by a “serious” composer of difficult noise music is as meaningful as a string quartet by Haydn. It just isn’t. If you think it is, you’ve redefined the word “meaningful” in a way that makes it meaningless.

That way madness lies.

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