Musicological Observations 1: Björn Heile, Lauren Redhead and myself on the relationship between scholarship and new musicPosted: September 18, 2014 Filed under: Academia, Higher Education, Music - General, Musical Education, Musicology | Tags: björn heile, brian ferneyhough, ian pace, lauren redhead, mauricio kagel, michael finnissy, musicology 26 Comments
I am continually fascinated by the possibilities available to musical scholarship and by interactions between plural musicological methods, but equally disappointed by how few such possibilities are regularly taken up. I hope to blog at more length in the future on some of the dangers inherent within various musicological sub-disciplines – the so-called ‘new musicology’, ‘soft’ ethnomusicology, and some aspects of popular and film music studies in which the music becomes the least important area of study – but on this occasion I just want to offer a few quotations relating to the relationship of scholarship on new music to the practical operation of that field, hopefully as a starting point for discussion here and elsewhere.
The first is by Björn Heile, Reader in Music at the University of Glasgow and best-known for his work on the music of Mauricio Kagel. This is the opening of a key-note lecture (reproduced with permission) entitled ‘‘Un pezzo … di una grandissima serietà e con una grandissima emozione … e con elementi totalmente bruti’: aesthetic and socio-political considerations and the failure of their integration in Mauricio Kagel’s work post-1968’, given at the conference ‘Faire “de la musique absolue avec la scène”: Mauricio Kagel’, University of Nice, 24-25 April 2014 (held on 25 April).
Scholarship on new music typically suffers from its lack of critical perspective. PhD theses are written, articles and books published and whole careers made on the basis of work that does little more than trace the stated intentions of the composer in question in their work. The process could be described as bargain basement hermeneutics: study the composer’s so-called influences, his or her own pronouncements and look at the work with these things in mind – something will no doubt be found. As a result, the scholar becomes the composer’s spokesperson, dutifully explaining how the master would want their work to be understood – which, evidently, is the only way of correctly interpreting it. There are many reasons for the predominance of this approach. New music scholars are often dependent on the goodwill of their subjects: one critical remark and you may find yourself frozen out from access to the person, their work and other materials, and from speaking and writing engagements – there are a number of (in)famous examples. Furthermore, the new music business is a tight network in which composers, musicians, institutions, broadcasters, publishers, record companies, journalists and scholars cooperate in often murky ways. There is a fine line between scholarship and PR, and some so-called journals are more akin to trade magazines. Finally, the tried-and-tested method delivers results with ease: it’s relatively simple to fill any space needed with material that will appear informative and well-founded; no-one is likely to complain. It would be unfair to pick out individual examples for what is a widespread problem. That said, Charles Wilson has analysed the literature on Ligeti with respect to what he calls Ligeti’s ‘rhetoric of autonomy’, by means of which the composer sought to overstate his artistic independence, as a way of positioning himself in the compositional marketplace. As Wilson (2004, 6) argues, ‘composers’ self-representations often serve a function that is as much performative as constative. They are “position takings”, to use Bourdieu’s expression, and their assimilation by scholars as straightforward claims to truth often bespeaks a fundamental category mistake.’ He quotes numerous cases in which Ligeti’s exegetes dutifully adopted the composer’s own terms, criteria and outlook, so that their commentaries are little more than summaries of the composer’s own pronouncements. Ligeti’s is hardly a special case: Messiaen’s Catholicism, Nono’s Marxism, Cage’s Zen-Buddhism, Cardew’s Maoism, Lachenmann’s ‘refusal of habit’ – time and again one finds scholars piously repeating or paraphrasing lofty assertions, instead of subjecting them to rigorous critical scrutiny. And – you probably saw this coming – I am not at all sure whether the literature on Kagel represents an exception to the rule. Nor is it my intention to accuse you while exonerating myself. Although I have long been aware of the problem and have sought to avoid it, I am not sure that I have always succeeded. I have to confess that while I was writing The Music of Mauricio Kagel the thought that Kagel would read the book crossed my mind more than once, and I had already found out how touchy he could be. I’d like to say that I remained steadfast, but I could be deluding myself.
Back in 2011, composer and musicologist Lauren Redhead, Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, published an article on her blog following a symposium at the Institute of Musical Research on the music of Brian Ferneyhough, at which the composer was present. This presents a situation self-evidently not an issue for historical musicologists dealing with dead musicians. Whilst unable to hear the academic papers, Redhead made the following important observation (which, having seen some of the papers and other work by the participants, I believe is backed up by the results):
The Ferneyhough day was the latest in a line of academic events which I notice are celebrating authors who are still alive. My initial problem with these events is that it seems healthy debate, critique, and innovative perspectives are hardly likely to be encouraged when the composer or thinker is involved, acting as an authority and essentially vetting the speakers before they are let loose on the audience.
As one who wears two hats, both as performer and musicologist, it is rare for these issues to be far from my own mind. My own earlier writing on the music of Michael Finnissy, as collected in the volume Uncommon Ground, I now consider hagiographic and of little other than documentary value; hopefully in my more recent monograph on Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound a greater degree of critical distance has been established, but (as Heile found with Kagel) it is hard to escape the inevitable thoughts of what the subject themselves will make of it, especially in the context of a starkly hierarchical new music world in which composers’ decrees and intentions are frequently assigned an ontological priority. Recently, I have been undertaking my own comparative examination of scholarly and other writing on the music of Ferneyhough (to be published on the Search online music magazine; also a review-article on a new Ferneyhough monograph will appear in Music and Letters), and have found hagiography, unreflected employment of both intentional and poietic fallacies, and simple hero worship to be rife, in the manner diagnosed by Redhead above. I blogged about this subject a little over a year ago, arriving at what I believe were similar conclusions to Heile, and wanted to offer a few quotes from this here alongside the others:
When considering historical composers, there are many obvious ways in which listeners may also approach the music in question in ways very different from those of the composers (or others from the time). One does not have to be a strict Lutheran to appreciate Bach, nor necessarily accept some of the theological motivations proffered for some of the musical decisions. An atheist would believe these were a delusion or at least a fiction, and might consider them as the expression of some wider human issues. A similar situation can apply to the tropes of heroism which inform some of Beethoven’s mid-period work (and a good deal of subsequent reception), or more ominously the anti-semitic views expressed by Wagner in his 1850 article ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’; much work has been done considering the question of the extent to which these views, and other common anti-semitic views of the time, might have informed some of the characterisations in his music-dramas, and been understood as such by audiences of the time. If one concludes that this might indeed have been the case, this does not require automatic rejection of the work, but can facilitate an engagement with the music-dramas not simply as art works existing outside of time and place, but ones which reflect a particular set of ideologies of the time, held by the composer, which a reasonable person would today reject without necessarily rejecting all cultural work which sprang up in a context where they were indeed acceptable. Similar positions are possible with respect to representations of women, of characters from outside of the Western world, in musical works involving theatre or text; on a deeper level it is also possible to consider the ways in which abstract instrumental music might itself have grown out of texted/stage work and inherited some of the oppositions between musical materials (especially as had become codified to represent masculine and feminine characters) which were intrinsic to the latter. In all of these cases, the approach of the writer or listener amounts to something different from simply reiterating the composer’s intentions and wishes, or at least applying a different set of valorising standards to them. When applied with sufficient care for proper and balanced investigation of factual evidence (with proper referencing), rigour and transparency of argument, and elegance of presentation, not to mention some commitment to producing an argument which does more than simply reiterate that of numerous previous writers, this constitutes one variety of critical musicology. Not all or even most such work need arrive at negative conclusions, and some might affirm existing perceptions, but it does so as a result of serious consideration of alternative possibilities, rather than simply declaring them off-limits from the outset. [….] But the situation is more contested in the field of contemporary classical music. This is itself a field in which many practitioners feel themselves to be marginalised, with very little music of an atonal nature having won any degree of widespread public acceptance (even to the extent of that of composers such as Stravinsky, Britten or Shostakovich). Yet there are musicological critiques of some of this body of work emerging from people other than conservative classical music listeners. A body of work by various scholars associated with the ‘new musicology’ has contested the claims for primacy of various avant-garde music, drawing attention to what is argued to be its elitism, individualism (maintaining a nineteenth-century focus upon the ‘great composer’), abstraction and consequent social disengagement, white male middle-class bias, and artificial institutionalisation (including institutionalisation in higher education) despite its being a small minority interest. This latter point is extremely charged considering that some such musicologists inhabit university departments which they will share with some of the practitioners said to benefit from such institutional privilege.
I would welcome any comments and reflections on the thoughts by the three authors here. Is this situation inevitable? Are there any things which can be done to combat it (for example, lesser tolerance within scholarly communities towards hagiographic or deferential so-called scholarship)? Is this situation likely to be exacerbated by a scholarly environment, like that in the UK, which lends primacy to that work which has an ‘impact’ outside of an academic environment, and does achieving such impact require playing along with the politics of (and fragile egos within) a professional new music world in which critical scholarly perspective is far from being a top priority? Is the only route to one’s work gaining a wider audience and impact by serving a system of institutionalised prestige, or might impact be achievable in other environments as well? How can those involved in both scholarship and practitioners reconcile their two worlds, if indeed they can?
I feel myself slightly beyond the point where I can be useful, but hope there’s an interesting debate to follow. I’d just like to say (1) don’t knock the documentary; first-hand documentary study of a living composer will have some usefulness, just as a composer’s self-representation has usefulness in our efforts to explore/understand (and that includes long dead composers who have represented themselves, e.g. by autobiography). (2) I am all for respect, but not when it amounts to hagiography; but note that hagiography isn’t confined to living composers. See for example Arnold Whittall’s review in the Autumn 2014 Musical Times of a book about Stravinsky, which seems to represent him (if Arnold is to be believed, as he usually is) as ‘a flawless hero’. No. He was human.
In his Music and Letters review of my Stockhausen title other Planets, Björn Heile had nothing of value to say about the composer’s music and ideas, so waffled on at length about the inconvenience of the composer having died when he did. Likewise, Julian Rushton would be well-advised to read my book Experiencing Stravinsky: A Listener’s Guide before mindlessly endorsing Arnold Whittall’s disdainful inference in The Musical Times that I regard the composer as a flawless hero simply because I do not buy into the fashionable odium of recent biographers who have nothing better to say. As the series title suggests, my compact study is aimed at a general public open to extending their acquaintance beyond the familiar masterpieces, now that the terms of recommendation have changed from mainly literary to mainly acoustical, with online access to entire repertoires readily available. Trashing a composer’s reputation as an excuse for not engaging with his music is silly, counter-productive and out of touch. The more interesting option is taking Stravinsky at his word, discussing his texts and examining the aesthetic consequences of fifty years of technical developments in audio, subjects alas beyond the competence of a majority of musicologists.
To Robin Maconie: there is nothing wrong with writing designed as an introductory primer for the uninitiated. I wouldn’t call such writing high-level scholarship, for sure. But more important is not writing and scholarship which is an extra wing of the promotional industry, but which asks real, searching questions about the social function, ideological underpinnings and cultural meanings of music which had come to occupy a position of some prestige. Including the question of why prestige is afforded to some varieties of music which have never achieved more than small minority audiences.
So Julian Rushton impugns an author he does not know, or will not name, by circulating a dismissive opinion of a book he has not read. You then compound the offence by incorrectly speculating on what I am supposed not to have written in justification of a patronising opinion of its author and subject matter. Well done. Taruskin and Walsh would be proud.
Not naming an author might simply be tact, rather than plastering a name on the internet. My post above was a direct response to what you had yourself posted on this thread.
And I think it would come as an incredible shock to Taruskin, who holds me up as someone out to get him, to think he would be proud of me. I do think Walsh is an important biographer and scholar of Stravinsky’s music, though (actually I think the same of aspects of Taruskin, despite all his rhetorical posturing and false arguments).
Many thanks for opening up the possibility of what ought to be an interesting debate on this topic.
I will confine myself at this point to just a couple of issues.
Might the risk of hagiography (or indeed the opposite!), like any other aspect of the study and consideration of living composers, be a kind of musicological by-product influenced in part by the extent to which those composers write or speak about themselves and their work and the amount that they give away (not to mention its reliability or otherwise!) when they do? Some composers, after all, have been and continue to be far more forthcoming than others about themselves and their own and others’ work.
There are two aspects of the issue of Wagner and anti-Semitism that immediately strike me as having at least some importance in any consideraton of that subject but which might sometimes risk being overlooked or underestimated. The first is the relevance to – or indeed even recognition by – anyone today (other than Wagner specialist scholars) of the “coded messages” (of a kind often rightly or wrongly attributed, albeit in a very different context, to Shostakovich) which might have been a good deal more apparent to some listeners of his own time and place but which have arguably acquired a kind of subliminality with the passage of around a century and a half; the other is the question of the extent to which certain of Wagner’s writings and utterances on the subject of anti-Semitism, wholly unacceptable as there were and remain in and of themselves, might have their origins in a kind of political naïveté on his part or even as an attention-seeking mechanism, however inexcusable is the former and however pathetic the latter.
‘Might the risk of hagiography (or indeed the opposite!), like any other aspect of the study and consideration of living composers, be a kind of musicological by-product influenced in part by the extent to which those composers write or speak about themselves and their work and the amount that they give away (not to mention its reliability or otherwise!) when they do? Some composers, after all, have been and continue to be far more forthcoming than others about themselves and their own and others’ work.’
Certainly, but I would expect a good scholar to be wary of this, especially when (as I have known) composers try to essentially steer others’ critical responses. A biographer who always took an autobiography at face value and never independently checked out or tested some of its content (or consider what may be omitted) would not be doing their job very well; I believe the same applies for other analytical and critical work.
Fair comment; many thanks!
If we accept the composer to be de-centred from the ‘work’, it doesn’t then follow logically that we have to accede to the New Musicology in using the one to critique the other. Problems for both scholarship and performance arise when either aims to establish a self-identity of the work (a ‘definitive’ reading); they can be mutually supporting by opening up cracks in would-be substantive positions – precisely by taking a critical attitude. In that sense ‘impact’ can surely be as much a process of negation as it can be a positivist determination of a given work or composer. That’s my twopenneth!
And to clarify a little (responding to a request from Richard Barrett): Composer and work aren’t the same thing, and they don’t belong to each other exclusively. The one doesn’t necessarily validate or critique the other. A critical position – either through performance or scholarship – can be critical by avoiding conflating a work with its composition or with its reception.
Richard Barrett is right about that; in fact, in observing this, he highlights one of the problems that can risk besetting certain critics and musicolgists (through their own shortcomings) to the potential or actual disadvantage (I almost wrote detriment) not only of their readerships but also of the composers themselves. This was, indeed, one of the motivating factors behind my remarks about Wagner; we all know what he said and wrote about anti-Semitism and we know how he frequently mistreated those who were seeking to do positive things for him (Liszt being perhaps one of the worst examples of this), but does or should that encourage listeners of later generations to allow some of all of their listening experiences to be coloured by the composer’s conduct? I for one would ceratinly hope not – and I say so without in any sense seeking to undermine the grave flaws in Wagner’s character that gave rise to such deplorable comments, writings and behaviour on his part, or their consequences…
Coming to the end of my career, I could go on about this forever, but I won’t. I’ll just point out that all my work, analytical or otherwise, was driven by primarily by what Kipling called ‘insatiable curtiosity’. When I started my work, it was of no conceivable interest to institutions, and I’ve never sought grants; everything has been funded from my own pockets. I analyse or examine music simply because I want to try to find out what drives particular pieces that fascinate me, If that interests other people, then it’s a pleasure to distribute one’s findings through publication. I don’t claim any great originality for any of my work; it simply served to supply information that was not otherwise available, but I hope that some of my underlying enthusiasm came across. I’m happy to leave broader interpretations to others, so long as they can convince me that they really know the music they refer to, If they don’t, I have very little time for them. .
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Perhaps the point is to measure actual music against what you want from it. Of course knowing what you want from it is not necessarily straight forward, but I do hold definite views on what a piece of music should do. It should ( at least) challenge me, change me in a certain sense, and I would want to participate as a listener in the aethetic risks I detect in it.
If I were to be a musicologist I wouldn’t try to step outside of this a priori position, but rather explore and explain the detailed musical reasons why some pieces work better than others – even when written by the same composer and presented with the same verbal commentary. Might this be something like a “critical scholarly perspective”?
Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.
… Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication
Quite applicable to many of todays modern composers. Intuition is dead today.
These modern “composers” are probably even deluding themselves.
Well, thank you for providing this homily-like piece of implicit advice. I’d better stop writing music, then. I wonder why I hadn’t thought of that until you wrote as you do above. It does indeed seem as though my own “intuition”, such as ever it might have been, “is dead today” and, for all that I know, might well have been moribund for some time.
If you’re also “new complexity” or one the many of the other deluded facets of modern (snobish, pretentious) music, then I suppose you cannot be helped…
It’s as well that you begin with the word “if”. Since you presumably have no idea what kind of music I write or whether I could be said to subscribe to a “deluded facet” of anything (whatever that might be, if anything – and what is “snobish” in any case?), the question as to whether or not I might be amenable to being “helped”, by you or anyone else, remains open and is hardly for you to ask, let alone answer.
The interesting thing, is that many performers of modern works are deluding themselves, into thinking they’re being all intuitive, in their highly-sensitive performances of Ferneyhough (etc.).
Which is true delusion, since it can be likened, to being intuitive while following rules that intricately command one to throw rubbish into a bin. No matter how much feeling and pathos the performer thinks he’s putting in: he’s still just throwing rubbish into a bin.
Another nice way of looking at it is this: performers of modern works, are giving fantastic renditions of Tourette syndrome! plunc, ding, …. donc, dong, plinc, booooooom, bash, ca-dong…
OK, I did at least think that I was endeavouring to participate in a serious and well-considered discussion here, whatever my own views on any of its issues might be and irrespective of the way that I might personally write but, having read a handful of the recent contributions here, I realise that I do not belong and am therefore am of necessity outta here.
Your remarks being as exceedingly – and trenchantly – dogmatic as they come across to be (to me, at least), I cannot help but ask you on what specific grounds you make them; I am neither arguing with them nor endorsing them but simply seeking to ascertain by what particular means you have arrived at the highly polarised conclusions that you appear to have done. Have you, for example, traced the entire history of Ferneyhough’s compositional output over more than half a century and sought to work out why his creative career has taken the particular trajectory that it has? – and are your comments based upon having done so? Somehow I doubt it but would be pleased to be authoritatively disabused of my suspicion.
As to the main points at issue here, I do think that one consideration that deserves to be included in any such discussion is the manner in which and extent to which composers talk or write about themselves and their work and how this might influence or otherwise impact upon critical and other responses to them and it. I’ve long thought that, however unwelcome it might at first seem, the composer’s duty ought best to extend as little as possible beyond his/her compositional activity lest he/she might otherwise risk unduly encouraging critical or other commentators to adopt particular stances on it that might not arise were the music to be left principally to its own devices; the entire business of composers spouting forth along the lines of “what I was aiming to do in piece × was…” seems to me to have done little other than to obscure the contents of the work and what it might have been intended to stand for.
That said – and to return to Ferneyhough – I am far from convinced that the majority of listeners to his work over the years have felt especially dependent upon what he has said about it (and/or the processes and persuasions behind it) in interview or what he has written about it; in any event, it would be surprising if his own thoughts and perspectives upon his Missa Brevis and Sonatas for String Quartet had not undergone numerous metaporphoses over almost five decades…
Some quotes about Brian Ferneyhough:
Ferneyhough’s obsession with “model”-making itself results, inevitably, in the erection of a surrogate-metaphysics, a substitute universe of the artist’s own making, and reflecting primarily his own arbitrary flights of ego-whim. (Fanfare, Volume 3 (1980), Issues 4-6, p. 86)
Musicologist Peter Franklin commented of Ferneyhough in 1985: “whose works, and whose commentaries upon them, show every sign of synthesizing a final ne plus ultra of orthodox avant-garde conservatism”
The name of Brian Ferneyhough, who in the 1970s was England’s most prominent export to the heartland of modernist Europe and in the eighties consolidated a reputation as spiritual leader of the ’new complexity’, seems even today to be a byword for all that is best and worst about hard-line musical modernism. … Ferneyhough’s risks may have seemed too great at times, his compositional solutions failing to live up to his stimulating, endlessly questing diagnosis of the problems as a highly engaging public speaker, self-confident and articulate.
Brian Ferneyhough is one of the last of this school of people who go with simple arithmetic ideas rather than a musical score – we call them blackboard composers. Their forum is in the classroom, talking about the music.
His article, “Form, Figure, Style —an intermediate assessment,” is as impenetrable as the title. What is an “intermediate assessment”? From Ferneyhough’ s prose style it would appear to be jargon, wordiness, vague abstractions, and pretentious prose. Consider, for example, the following sentence, which seems like a mish-mash of structuralist theory: “One conceivable approach to a provisional resolution of the dilemma might be a renewed concentration on, and redefinition of, the term style itself: in particular, it seems vital to focus attention more intensively on the diachronic features of stylistic formation, since this alone promises a salutary counterbalance to views of style which concentrate on the simultaneity of diverse physiognomic features in some historically referential, but apparently extrahistorically utopian subjectivism.”
[…] Ferneyhough talked about the disruption of time and the structure of emblems as if they were as straightforward as, perhaps, the choice of form or the biographical impulse behind composition. He sounded either delusional or extremely pretentious, and indeed there were snickers in the audience […]
While his music could never be said to “sound nice”, though, it arguably creates a space for rich reflection […]
Ferneyhough’s own Carceri d’Invenzione I was nearly incomprehensible to this listener […]
Brian Ferneyhough […] His programme notes suggested that he might even have forgotten his mother tongue. “This multiplicity largely undermines the spirit of the original autonomous ‘time slice’ principle, leading to a sort of mirrored or negative hierarchy of material and form conveying a qualitative reformulation of the work’s initial conceptual environment.” Eh? … I came with open ears. I read and listened. I listened and read. Yet I came away from this performance defeated. Bafflement refused to give way to any enlightenment. I could make neither head nor tail of Ferneyhough’s 20-minute work. I tried following the tiny fragments and their fleetingly intriguing textural journeys. At times the work seemed to be making sense as a mini-Mahlerian canvas full of intense collisions and sharp changes of tack. But it was all in vain. I was flummoxed in the face of what seemed like a starry sky of discombobulating chaos.
[…] Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II, for example. Here the main purpose seems to be an exhaustive examination of how far the performer can be driven by noise and impossible scoring before he is broken down and destroyed. In this sense it is an ugly and de-humanising piece. It exemplifies the way in which the composer-musician relationship can be pushed, and the antithesis of the aspirations associated with contemporary improvised music; yet (to my anger) such pieces generally acquire more credibility as ‘works of art’
Anybody who was unfortunate enough to have sat through Ferneyhough’s disastrous ‘opera’ Shadowtime a few years ago may be relieved to hear that the composer has salvaged something from the wreckage. […] Les Froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel, is taken from Shadowtime, it is one of the extended interludes […] The piece is the least successful on the disc, but there is still plenty of interest here, particularly the timbres and instrumental effects. In general, though, it seems that the rambling incoherence and lack of structural focus that plagues Ferneyhough’s opera is as evident in the excerpts as it is in the complete work.
Some quotes by Brian Ferneyhough himself:
Oh, I don’t like listening to my music, not even new pieces. Generally they sound pretty much like I expected them to sound, so it’s what I wanted and that’s it.
Yes, I do regard this software as something important to my work. I don’t, however, use it always in relationship to everything that happens in the piece, but I do tend to use it in terms of the rhythmic structure––how the size of a measure reacts to the sort of material that was placed in it. If-then procedures are very important. For instance, if you have a certain measure length, it can only be followed by one of three other measure lengths; the next measure reads that and decides one of two measure lengths. So, on the large-scale, you see a certain evolution of consistencies, of tendencies, but on the local scale, it’s very much a sort of mechanistic procedure.
[…] subjects. Some of my earlier writings on this blog relate to this subject, including my posts on scholarship and new music, the need for musicology to distinguish itself from promotional writing, the question of how much […]
[…] issue, which I have touched upon in earlier blog posts (see here, here, here and here) is naturally very close to my own heart, as I straddle the worlds of performance […]