In several recent writings and various upcoming ones I have been considering in a more sustained fashion wider aspects of the culture of new music, both historically and in the present day. My long chapter, just published, ‘New Music: Performance Institutions and Practices’, in The Oxford Handbook of Music Performance, Volume 1, edited Gary E. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp. 396-455, traces the growth of a network of festivals, concert series and other aspects of a new music infrastructure from after the end of World War One, as well as the development of specialised performance skills on the part of individual interpreters and ensembles, all as part of a specific culture of ‘new music’ which developed with a degree of autonomy from a more mainstream culture of art music performance (as represented by orchestral, chamber, choral, solo concerts of repertoire primarily from the common practice period) over the course of a century. This very fact of inhabiting a separate realm is to me a defining aspect of new music, a term which has developed ever since the publication of Paul Bekker’s vital essay ‘Neue Musik’ (1919), advocating a range of new approaches to music, some of them then still relatively latent, which constituted a significant break with or at least shift of emphasis from the immediate past, one which was amplified at a time which saw the collapse of various aspects of the pre-war order, revolution in Russia, and an attempt revolution in Germany, which members of the influential Berlin Novembergruppe sought to sublimate into artistic creation.
In ‘Modernist Fantasias: The Recuperation of a Concept’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol. 144, no. 2 (2019), pp. 473-493, starting from a detailed critical examination of The Routledge Research Companion to Modernism in Music, edited Björn Heile and Charles Wilson (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2019), I consider the provenance and development of the term ‘modernism’ (and its equivalents such as French modernisme, German Moderne, Spanish modernismo and so on) both in music and other arts, not least in terms of recent attempts to frame the concept more broadly than hitherto (in some cases to date it back to the French Revolution) as well as to recapture it as a living force deserving of reconsideration, as informed the so-called New Modernist Studies in literary and cultural scholarship beginning in 1999, which has been matched more gradually by the growth of parallel scholarship in music. I have also been working on a book chapter considering the historiography of new music since 1989, and recently gave a lecture looking more broadly at historiographical issues through the 20th and 21st century, which have also been the theme of other lectures and publications considering the ways in which ‘experimental’ and ‘minimal’ music have informed such historiography.
All of this work, combined with my ongoing work on the creation and development of the infrastructure for new music in post-1945 Germany, have brought to the fore difficult questions relating to new music as a whole and its place today. I have been professionally active as a pianist in the world of new music for three decades, and have become intimately aware of its range of mores, orthodoxies, internal politics, and so on, and the ways in which its institutions and those operating those tend to work. It remains a field of cultural activity which in my opinion has immense value, but claims for its wider importance and significance are less easy to articulate in a manner which might convince those who need convincing. But this latter activity, if one believes this importance to be the case (which I do, but in a less unequivocal manner than I might have done 15-20 years ago), is vital if those engaged with new music seek an impact and respect beyond the narrow realms of fellow travellers. This is not so often to be found, and a reticence to engage with the wider issues concerned suggests either dangerous complacency or even a wilful disregard married to a sense of entitlement, which I believe should be challenged.
I am fully aware that there are a great many who would describe a lot of the atonal music I play (and even some of the more dissonant late tonal music as well), and which those I know compose, at the politest as ‘not music’, often through much harsher derogatory epithets. These will include some friends, some students and many other members of the wider public with no personal investment in this work nor necessarily any desire for such. It is much too easy to dismiss those who think in such a way as idiots, philistines, etc., in the process writing off large swathes of any population. But in my experience those who think such a way do not particular care unless they feel made to listen to such music, whether in a performance situation where it is not their reason for being there, feeling it is imposed upon them in education, or in the face of stentorian claims about its importance.
Yet one might struggle to be aware of this within the rarefied circles of those professionally involved in new music. That a great many people might be not simply indifferent but actively hostile to their music in the contexts described above can seem a subject which it is unacceptable even to consider. That the work of musicians involved must be vital and must deserve the widest support is an article of faith, or at least amongst different factions of individuals, who do not necessarily extend this view to members of rival factions. Some looking from outside might be shocked to see the extent of the personalised vitriol extended by some towards anyone (not least critics, but also various others) who aver an opinion that they do not find some piece of music engaging, moving, or some other quality they seek. The response can be to pathologise those who think such a way, or seek to disallow their opinions from being heard. Following the recent death of Richard Taruskin, there was a furious set of posts on social media about a highly critical review he wrote of two CDs of the American composer Donald Martino, which extended into a wider critique of aspects of new music (see below). The view seemed to be that the only type of legitimate review is one which praises this type of work, and anything else should not be allowed to be printed. It would be interesting to see this principle applied to restaurant reviewing – I am sure some restaurant owners would be more than happy.
There are ways to frame new music and its particularity which avoid the need to make wider claims for its public significance. In a 2014 article, Martin Iddon conceptualised new music as a type of ‘subculture’, drawing upon the concept propounded most notoriously by Dick Hebdige in his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style. I have used this concept myself in my ‘New Music’ article mentioned above, but have doubts (some reservations expressed in a footnote there did not make it into the final version!). Certainly new music has from the outset entailed a realm of activity distinct from a ‘mainstream’, as is true of many subcultures explored and theorised by Hebdige and others (space does not allow consideration here of the later concept of ‘post-subculture’). But its economic situation is not at all comparable with the subculture of the mods, rockers, punks or whatever. In large measure, new music activity relies heavily on subsidy for its continued operation; it would not be financially viable via ticket sales alone, other than very small operations. This subsidy comes either from public money generated through taxation and distributed in various ways via local, regional and state arts organisations, as is the case in much of Western Europe and to a lesser extent the UK (though considerably less so in the United States), or through the patronage of universities, in which those involved in new music production may find employment and some concomitant financial support for their activities. These things lend such music a level of institutional or official prestige which is quite uncharacteristic of other forms of subculture. If one could imagine a group of death metal fans receiving regular government grants to develop their music, clothing, writings, and so on, and present these in major government-backed venues, this would surely seem a long way from the conventional idea of a subculture.
Here subcultural theory does present one phenomenon which is familiar in part: numerous studies observe how subcultures, despite defining themselves in opposition to some mainstream, exhibit marked homologous tendencies and appear to require a degree of discipline and unity from their own members, with little tolerance for internal dissent. In the case of new music circles, it would be untrue to deny the existence of divisions, because of the opposing factions mentioned earlier. But these are divisions between different groups competing for the mantle of new music, seen as representing progress, the one true way forward, the most supposedly enlightened form of music, and so on. It would be much more rare to hear many within any faction questioning the status of new music as a whole, or the purpose of its institutions. Some who have done – not least various of the key figures viewed as ‘minimalist’ (Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, etc.) – have tended to operate to a large degree outside of these circles, while others holding to a neo-romantic or other related late tonal aesthetic have sought and sometimes found recognition within more mainstream performance circles.
In subsequent posts, I will consider wider issues to do with the institutionalisation of new music, the means by which it is legitimated (not least, in present times, by attachment to various political causes), and look more widely at the question of why new music and its practitioners enjoy a status in universities not always granted to other types of musicians and scholars. But here I want to consider some of the starkly opposed views from musicians scholars regarding the prestige of new music.
Milton Babbitt was one of the most articulate advocates of the benefits of new music composition in a university setting, allowing some degree of autonomy from audience indifference or hostility, or commercial pressures. This was outlined in his essay ‘The Composer as Specialist’ (1958), first published in High Fidelity, vol. 8, no. 2 (February 1958) to which editors (rather than Babbitt himself) gave the title ‘Who Cares if you Listen?’
Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music oranything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields. But to this, a double-standard is invoked, with the words “music is music,” implying also that “music is just music.” Why not, then, equate the activities of the radio repairman with those of thetheoretical physicist, on the basis of the dictum that “physics is physics”? It is not difficult to find statements like the following, from the New York Times of September 8, 1957: “The scientific level of the conference is so high . . . that there are in the world only 120 mathematicians specializing in the field who could contribute.” Specialized music on the other hand, far from signifying “height” of musical level, has been charged with “decadence,” even as evidence of an insidious “conspiracy.”
I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.
But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that, after all, such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university, which—significantly—has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the “complex,” “difficult,” and “problematical” in music. Indeed, the process has begun; and if it appears to proceed too slowly, I take consolation in the knowledge that in this respect, too, music seems to be in historically retarded parallel with now sacrosanct fields of endeavor. In E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics, we read: “In the eighteenth century the universities were not the principal centers of research in Europe. They might have become such sooner than they did but for the classical tradition and its understandable hostility to science. Mathematics was close enough to antiquity to be respectable, but physics, being more recent, was suspect. Further, a mathematician in a university of the time would have been expected to put much of his effort on elementary teaching; his research, if any, would have been an unprofitable luxury.” A simple substitution of “musical composition” for “research”, of “academic” for “classical”, of “music” for “physics,” and of “composer” for “mathematician,” provides a strikingly accurate picture of the current situation. And as long as the confusion I have described continues to exist, how can the university and its community assume other than that the composer welcomes and courts public competition with the historically certified products of the past, and the commercially certified products of the present?
Perhaps for the same reason, the various institutes of advanced research and the large majority of foundations have disregarded this music’s need for means of survival. I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study.
Babbitt’s article demonstrates an unerring faith of a notion of musical ‘progress’, which he maps onto scientific research. But he does not ask what purpose the ‘complex’, ‘difficult’ and ‘problematical’ in music serves? It is not so difficult to demonstrate the wider impact and application of various types of science, but what is the equivalent for music? Over a hundred years on, Schoenberg’s atonal and dodecaphonic explorations have won only a modest following even amongst musicians, certainly compared to the more widespread valuing of music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, and others who were once viewed as members of avant-gardes. Some might cite the occasional use of atonal material in film or video games for particular effect, but this seems very modest in comparison to the claims made by Babbitt.
The polar opposite of Babbitt’s view can be found in feminist scholar Susan McClary’s essay ‘Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition’, Cultural Critique, No. 12 (Spring 1989), pp. 57-81, somewhat notorious in musicological circles. McClary considers the views of Arnold Schoenberg, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt on certain valorisations of ‘difficult’ music and its distance from mainstream audiences (though she has relatively little to say on the music itself):
Perhaps only with the twentieth-century avant-garde, however, has there been a music that has sought to secure prestige precisely by claiming to renounce all possible social functions and values [….]
This strange posture was not invented in the twentieth century, of course. It is but the reductio ad absurdum of the nineteenth-century notion that music ought to be an autonomous activity, insulated from the contamination of the outside social world. […]
In this century (especially following World War II), the “serious” composer has felt beleaguered both by the reified, infinitely repeated classical music repertory and also by the mass media that have provided the previously disenfranchised with modes of “writing” and distribution-namely recording, radio, and television. Thus even though Schoenberg, Boulez,and Babbitt differ enormously from each other in terms of socio-historical context and music style, they at least share the siege mentality that has given rise to the extreme position we have been tracing: they all regard the audience as an irrelevant annoyance whose approval signals artistic failure. [….]
By aligning his music with the intellectual elite-with what he identifies as the autonomous “private life” of scholarship and science (this at the height of the Cold War!) – Babbitt appeals to a separate economy that confers prestige, but that also (it must be added) confers financial support in the form of foundation grants and university professorships. [….]
Babbitt’s rhetoric has achieved its goal: most university music departments support resident composers (though many, including the composers in my own department, find the “Who Cares if You Listen” attitude objectionable); and the small amount of money earmarked by foundations for music commissions is reserved for the kind of “serious” music that Babbitt and his colleagues advocate.
I objected a good deal to McClary’s essay when I first read it some 20 years ago, but as time has gone on have come to felt that she is onto something important in her allusions to legitimation via alignment to scholarship and science, though the exaggerated statements about claims to autonomy are unsustainable, especially today, when so many composers seek to justify their work as much through allusions to society and politics as through its musical merits.
I mentioned earlier a review-article by Richard Taruskin which generated a lot of anger amongst new music practitioners. In a range of writings, including in the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin has been sharply critical about many claims made by those associated with modernism and the avant-garde to the mantle of history, and of the ways in which historiography and pedagogy has foregrounded work of this type and marginalised other varieties. Perhaps the most prominent expression of Taruskin’s view is that article which takes some CD reviews of the music of Donald Martino as its starting point, ‘How Talented Composers Become Useless’. This was first published in The New York Times on 10 March 1996, and reprinted in the collection The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2009), pp. 86-93. Like McClary, Taruskin grounds his critic in an attack on the position of Babbitt:
By comparing “serious” or “original” contemporary music to mathematics (and appropriating concepts like seriousness and originality to one kind of music was where the arrogance lay), Mr. Babbitt was saying, in effect, that such music was to be valued and judged not for the pleasure it gave but for the truth it contained. Truth, in music as in math, lay in accountability to basic principles of relatedness. In the case of math, these were axioms and theorems: basic truth assumptions and the proofs they enabled. In the case of music, truth lay in the relationship of all its details to a basic axiomatic premise called the twelve-tone row.
Again, Mr. Babbitt’s implied contempt and his claims of exclusivity apart, the point could be viewed as valid. Why not allow that there could be the musical equivalent of an audience of math professors? It was a harmless enough concept in itself—although when the math professors went on to claim funds and resources that would otherwise go to the maintenance of the “lay” repertory, it was clear that the concept did not really exist “in itself”; it inescapably impinged on social and economic concerns. Yet calling his work the equivalent of a math lecture did at least make the composer’s intentions and expectations clear. You could take them or leave them. […]
Mr. Martino’s piano music […] strives for conventional expressivity while trying to maintain all the privileged and prestigious truth claims of academic modernism. Because there is no structural connection between the expressive gestures and the twelve-tone harmonic language, the gestures are not supported by the musical content (the way they are in Schumann, for example, whose music Mr. Martino professes to admire and emulate). And while the persistent academic claim is that music like Mr. Martino’s is too complex and advanced for lay listeners to comprehend, in fact the expressive gestures, unsupported by the music’s syntax or semantics, are primitive and simplistic in the extreme. [….]
The reason it is still necessary to expose these hypocrisies, even after the vaunted “postmodern” demise of serialism, is that the old-fashioned modernist position still thrives in its old bastion, the academy. Composers like Mr. Martino are still miseducating their pupils just as he was miseducated himself, dooming them to uselessness. Critics and “theorists,” many of them similarly miseducated, are still propagandizing for Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms in the concert hall, offering their blandishments as consolation for the loss of a musical language and decrying the attempts of younger composers to find a new one.
Taruskin has gone on to be a leading advocate of the ‘Cold War’ view of avant-garde musical history, which maintains essentially that the institutionalisation and prestige of avant-garde music was a product of both an intellectual culture privileging quasi-scientific positivism, and was dominant in US universities, but also the conspiratorial view, which I maintain is utterly false on the basis of a lot of archival result, that the success of the Darmstadt Summer Schools for new music, and other aspects of new music in Europe, were the result of covert funding by the CIA. There is no evidence to substantiate this (unlike with some other art forms, from which information this conclusion has simply been inferred); as Ian Wellens in particular has shown, the primary CIA-funded organisation, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, had as its secretary general Nicolas Nabokov, who showed no real interest in serial and other avant-garde composition in the post-1945 era (as compared to his advocacy of the music of Stravinsky), and the events sponsored by the CCF are too exceptional and unrepresentative as to be defining in terms of the wider history. I will expand on this in a subsequent post.
A British figure who has delivered harsh critiques of new music and the prestige it entertains is Nicholas Cook, from whom I offer two citations. The first is from his ‘On Qualifying Relativism’, Musica Scientiae, vol. 5, issue 2 supplement (September 2001), pp. 167-189.
As Richard Toop (who works in Sydney but is closely associated with the European avanr-garde) points out, composition occupies very different roles in different countries. In North America it has been almost inextricably entangled with universities since the early days of Babbitt (whose “social contract”, as Herman Sabbe points out, “is with the academy”); the relationship is only a little less close in Britain, where composition is fully accepted as a form of research for purposes of institutional and national quality reviews. But in continental Europe, as Toop goes on to say, contemporary music revolves around festivals and radio stations; “One may be dealing with a heavily subsidized market place,” he adds, “but it’s a market place none the less.” Makis Solomos also raises the issue of subsidy, contrasting the subsidization of contemporary music in France with the situation in Britain (where the subsidies do exist, incidentally, but they go towards propping up the social rituals of the Royal Opera House rather than into contemporary music).
Solornos’s key observation, however, is that “en France, où les subventions existent, la musique contemporaine a un public”. It does in Britain and America too, of course, but there the audience has traditionally been one of contemporary music buffs, a niche within a niche. (One should recognize the potential for change not only through the cross-over musical styles of composers like Glass or Zorn, but also through the incorporation of contemporary music within educational and outreach programmes, which is why I said “traditionally”: all part of the crumbling of barriers to which I referred in my Foreword.) And when taking part in conferences or workshops in such countries as Holland, Belgium, and Germany I have always been struck by the centrality of contemporary composition within the definition of what “music” is and what an intelligent interest in the subject might mean: it is simply taken for granted that one has an interest in and commitment to contemporary music, in a way that it would never be in a similar situation in Britain or America. But it seems that the position of contemporary music is even more varied than this might suggest, to judge by the comments of Robert Walker (who writes from the University of New South Wales, Sydney): “it is indeed ironic”, he says,”that the academy can now include Beatles songs in analysis classes and research reports, but still not Berio’s vocal music”. And later he talks of Messiaen, Britten, Cage, and electronic music, and comments that “The music academy has shown comparatively scant interest in all this”. That surprised me, not only because new music was high on the agenda when I was teaching at Sydney University (though that was back in 1988), but also because music from Messiaen and Cage to Berio and beyond is well represented in the British academy, far beyond any possible measure of the music’s dissemination throughout society at large. It is popular music that is under-represented, resulting in a situation where the few PhDs in this area get quickly snapped up by university departments anxious to respond to the interests of their students.
Writers on contemporary ‘art’ music—what they often call ‘new music’—generally act as apologists, in the same sense as the earliest analysts did: writing in the early decades of the 19th century, these analysts’ basic purpose was to explain the coherence and hence the greatness of Beethoven’s music, despite its discontinuities and sudden irruptions and otherwise incoherent appearance (it would hardly be exaggeration to say that the whole genre of musical analysis developed as an act of advocacy for Beethoven). In the same way, writers on new music either argue that the music is aesthetically attractive even though it might appear otherwise on first acquaintance, or they argue that its aesthetic unattractiveness is integral to its cultural significance (and sometimes, just to make sure, they argue both). Their advocacy is prompted by the increasingly marginalised nature of the music—now even to some extent within academia—and this apologetic function is built into the genre: if you pick a book on new music off the shelf, you expect it to fulfil this role of advocacy, and again the few books that have attacked new music have appeared anomalous against this background. [….]
I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) And at least as far as the contributors to the Musicae Scientiae collection were concerned, this revolved not so much around the aesthetic properties of new music as its critical potential. In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?
Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’.
There are many ripostes to the views of McClary, Taruskin and Cook, just as there are to that of Babbitt, or those advocates of latter day composition-as-research who essentially adhere to his view. In subsequent posts I will consider some of these in more detail.
But for now, I just want to end with a plea for moderation. New music is a niche interest; this much appears very clear, and there is little evidence of such a situation changing. Can we accept this, and move away from both the unmediated and exaggerated claims for its centrality of Babbitt, the hatred and aggression towards dissenters, but also the types of denunciations of McClary, Taruskin and Cook, often clothed in ferocious political language (as with Cook’s attempts to link Boissière to the Nazis, to which I have alluded on here before)?
Those involved in new music who enjoy institutional prestige and economic wherewithal because of existing situations are unlikely to be sympathetic to any view which questions their status. Nor are those who jealously covet such a thing from different fields likely to have any sympathy towards them. Neither of these groups are likely to engage in mature scholarly debate. But such a debate ought to be possible without degenerating into polarised oppositions, including some of those presented above.
Those pianists who play a lot of new music will recognise certain things experienced during the course of their careers. Some also apply to other instrumentalists/vocalists and other types of musicians. Here are some of them……
(Caution: this list should not be read by composers as a statement of intent never to do such things! 🙂 )
- What it is like to sit on your stool, having played something marked ‘verklingen lassen’, for what seems like an eternity, while there are still some vibrations going, and wanting to tell the piano ‘get on with it’.
- Playing something very quiet at one end of the piano, then having to move to the other end to play something equally quiet, and trying in vain not to shift your weight on the seat such as will cause the stool to creak very obviously.
- Middle pedals which like to pick and choose from the notes you have depressed, in terms of which ones they will sustain, but then like to pick some more up as you proceed.
- The hardest passages of a piece have to be left to the very end of a recording session, when you are completely knackered, because they might put the piano out of tune.
- Pencils which continuously gravitate to the top of the raised keyboard lid, dying to fall down inside the instrument.
- That sinking feeling when you get a score which includes lots of stopped harmonics inside the instrument.
- Accidentals before grace notes, for which the difference between a natural and a sharp can only be distinguished with the aid of a microscope.
- That terrible feeling of guilt when playing an atonal/serial piece and one wrong note produces an unwanted consonance.
- A3 scores placed in a carrier bag (because they are too big for other cases), sticking out of the top a bit, then you have to walk somewhere with the bag, and it’s raining.
- The composers on account of whose handwriting you want to pay yourself for a copy of Sibelius for them.
- Trying to lower the pedal very slowly and carefully for a rounded damping of the strings, then the result sounds more like they are being touched by razor blades.
- If the performance goes down well, all praise will be upon the composer. If not, likely the performer will be held responsible.
- Annoying people saying to you, ‘what does it matter if you play the right notes or not? Just make it up as you go along, no-one will know the difference.’ Then free improvisers dismissing what you do because you are not making it up as you go along.
- Playing a long passage for both hands in the bass from the right hand page of an A3 landscape score. (contributed by Karl Lutchmayer)
- Explaining why it is pointless to put down the middle pedal when you already have the right one depressed.
- Seeing pp and thinking ‘am I allowed to use the una corda for that, or does it have to be ppp at least?’
- Conservative owners of venues who are convinced that if you play music with many dissonant harmonies, it will do more damage to their instrument.
- That slightly smug expression on the face of a friend you see before a concert, or during the interval, as they hold a drink in their hand.
- That terror at the prospect of not having brought one of the scores with you.
- Keeping a very large repertoire on the go, always changing and expanding, while knowing some non-new-music ‘great players’ get the chance to play the same programme 50 times before they have to work on more.
- When another non-new-music ‘great player’ plays a short work of Stockhausen, Berio or Ligeti every once in a while, and receive immense praise for their commitment to the music of our time.
- Pretending to look for the composer in the audience to bring to the stage, when all you can see is a sea of indistinguishable faces and a bright light above them dazzling you.
- Exchanging stories with other new music pianists about just how late before the first performance you got that score.
- The other extreme, the composers who expect you to be able to play their piece to them six weeks or more before the concert.
- Performing a work using electronics, for which hours are used up during the rehearsal because something doesn’t work. When it does work, it produces a few faint ambient sounds at occasional places in the work.
- Pieces with electronics in which you play something and it is repeated and looped back at you, and you feel violated as a result.
- In order to do some things on the strings, having to place the music stand some way back under the piano lid, so that an A3 score will never stay up (it catches the lid), the page turner cannot reach it, there is little light shining on it (and the lights cannot be adjusted), and the score was too small anyhow, even on an A3 page, let alone for distance viewing.
- Practising stuff involving stopping, damping, plucking strings, then having one hour to practise that music for a performance on a piano with beams in wholly different places, and where the places you need to stop strings lie underneath other cross strings.
- The absolute total impossibility of playing inside the instrument, on a new piano, and being able to look at any other musician or a conductor at the same time.
- Composers telling you ‘It’s all done, I just need to write it down.’
- How pianists’ first gift is not singing, acting, playing percussion instruments, kazoos, etc.
- Getting to a page like this, playing the ppp note fff, then hating yourself for the rest of the piece. (contributed by Ben Smith)
- Just as it is easy to push a door which says PULL on it in large letters, it is easy to play a note marked ppp as fff.
- That yearning for a dynamic which lies somewhere between ppp/pppp and fff/ffff.
- When you have to play a piece for prepared piano and mallets on the strings and you end up using the mallets upside down to pick up the preparation from under the strings (during the performance, of course!) (contributed by Lorenda Ramou)
- There is no document you would guard more from prying eyes than the edit list on one of your recordings.
A good many non-musicians look bewildered when I tell them I am a musicologist as well as a performer, wondering what on earth a ‘musicologist’ is. I usually answer by saying something like ‘I am also engaged in critical historical study of music and music-making’, aware that this is far from being an exhaustive definition of the range of activity encompassed by musicology. Some musicologists are engaged primarily in highly technical analysis, others do fieldwork, some spend long periods in detailed study of old manuscripts, others investigate non-Western musical cultures, philosophies of and strategies for musical education, the psychology of music, and so on; my own work concentrates on document-based historical study, some analysis, sketch study, lots of historical contextualisation, ideology critique, performance practice, and in general a wide range of music and music-making from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing not least upon the institutions of music (including educational institutions) as well as musicians.
But, whilst many people would understand the difference between the critical study of literature such as one might undertake in an English degree, and a course in Creative Writing, designed to help students develop their skills for becoming a writer, the equivalent distinction is insufficiently understood and appreciated for music. This can be a major issue with prospective students and their parents, who imagine that a music degree is essentially a vocational qualification in order to become a professional musician. Unfortunately only a small minority of those who go through the advanced professional training provided by conservatoires succeed towards this end; the chances for those who go to university are correspondingly fewer.
Much can be said about the wider benefits of a music degree, the range of transferable skills it can entail, which not only prepares students well for many fields of life in which they might work, but also opens up an enriching outlook on culture and society in general. But this relates to a much wider conception of the study of the subject than would be involved in a more narrowly vocational degree, and in particular to the role of musicology.
Many musical practitioners (performers and composers) are sceptical or even downright hostile to musicology as a discipline with a degree of autonomy, seeing it as of secondary importance compared to the acts of making or producing music. Certainly as a formalised academic subject, dating from the mid-nineteenth century in the German-speaking world, musicology is very young compared to practical musical activity, though wider thinking and writing about music can be dated back a lot further. As long as human beings communicate with one another about music, then some verbal discourses are established; musicology attempts to find ways to develop these discourses into something employing more rigorous and self-critical methods for arriving at conclusions.
Not all of those who listen to or take an interest in music are necessarily involved in producing it, any more than all readers are professional writers, or viewers of art are themselves artists (I personally have interests in a wide range of visual art, but my abilities to produce anything of the type are practically zero). And the priorities of those interested in music might be quite different to those who have a professional stake in certain outcomes. In this context the intermediary role of the critic can be important – bridging the intentions and desires of the producers with the wishes and requirements of the consumers, whether reviewing concerts or restaurants. In the case of reviews of atonal contemporary music, this relationship can become fraught, depending upon the target readership; a critic writing mostly for an audience already likely to be broadly sympathetic (such as the readership of a specialist new music journal) has a different task from one writing for an audience whose sympathy might be highly selective, or may even be actively hostile to such music, and are reading this critic for advice on what they might listen to. This latter type of critic would in some sense be failing their readers if they simply reiterated composers’ own perception of their work with no consideration as to how it might be perceived by someone who does not necessarily share all of those composers’ assumptions and priorities.
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.
To some extent, I believe the value of this type of work is more widely accepted than it would have been several decades ago. The situation might be different with other forms of critical investigation, such as examination of the cult of artistic genius, the privileging of particular forms of music (orchestral, chamber) over others (opera, some solo music) on grounds of apparent ‘depth’ and ‘substance’, or for that matter the devaluation of some popular music or musical forms rooted in practices from minority groups as compared to a Western art music tradition, taking on board the associated assumptions and ideologies upon which such positions are founded. All of this involves countenancing the notion that music, music-making and musical reception may not be ideologically neutral fields belong to the realms of ‘pure art’, but might themselves reflect and reflect back upon wider social perceptions.
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.
As both a practitioner (as an active performer) and a musicologist, I was naturally somewhat thrown when first spending serious time with this body of work in the early 2000s. At first I was hostile, as it seemed simply another nail in the coffin of the type of avant-garde music I felt bound to defend. I began framing an extensive critique of several of the key writers concerned (to date unfinished but in a quite advanced state of development, which I will return to at some point), after realising the extent to which much of this work had become easily absorbed and was now little questioned within academia, despite sometimes being based upon major assumptions which I felt never to have been properly tested. But after spending a considerable amount of time reading the work in question, I felt myself forced to conclude that it did indeed raise many issues which could not be dismissed out of hand, however much these issues might be difficult for those of us intensely involved in the field being critiqued. From this point onwards I began to take a somewhat more sceptical attitude towards various aspects of the musical world in which I was most deeply involved as a practitioner, and especially became aware of conflicting priorities as a scholar and a performer, a conflict I have never wished to artificially elide.
For those writing about contemporary composers and their work (of which I am one) this can create a very difficult situation. The work concerned is already deemed marginal, and the scholar can encounter distrust or even hostility if their own work takes a critical perspective. Such scholars value opportunities to speak and write about composers outside of the usual academic arenas, but many of these opportunities are determined by the composers in question; in several cases I know of these opportunities promptly being curtailed after the scholar in question dared to express an even mildly critical opinion about some aspect of the work of the composer in question. Perhaps as a result of this, a lot of scholarly work on new music has tended to be defensive or hagiographic – and I would include a good deal of the early writing on Boulez, Stockhausen and John Cage in this category, as well as some of the writing on Michael Finnissy by myself and others – or else simply outright hostile. Little middle ground exists between this ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ mentalities towards new music, though the situation is changing a little. The failure on the part of many actively involved with the composition and performance of new music to address the issues raised by new musicologists and others has allowed the sometimes simplistic arguments of the latter a free ride.
In my own more recent work on Finnissy (which I have been revising and editing over the last months) this has been a continual concern. Finnissy can be most articulate about his own intentions and ideas behind certain works, but it ill behoves a scholar of integrity to simply reiterate these without asking any questions first. In his piece North American Spirituals, Finnissy finds ways of combining eighteenth-century white American hymns with African-American spirituals, to make a comment about racism and racial tension. A brilliant idea (especially in the sophistication of its implementation), but to what extent does the sounding result necessarily communicate the latter to someone who has not been told what they are meant to be hearing and interpreting? And what are the wider implications of appropriating music borne of slavery into a concert hall environment generally populated by white middle class people? For reasons too detailed to explicate here, the view which I ultimately concluded was mostly affirmative of some of Finnissy’s positions, but not without attempting to consider how they might be interpreted quite differently.
The ‘intentional fallacy’ (the fallacy of granting primacy to the intentions of an author) has been widely recognised as such in literature ever since the publication of W.K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks’ 1946 essay of the same name. But in much writing about new music, the composer’s intention remains almost sacrosanct, and some writing is judged better or worse by the extent to which it concurs with this. This is a very poor state of affairs compared to that appertaining to literature. The composer is an individual existing in a particular time and place, having inherited (and of course themselves mediated) a range of beliefs and ideologies, who is inevitably a flawed individual with their own set of interests, prejudices, perhaps petty jealousies, and so on, not the be-all and end-all of meaning in the way that is implied through a deferential attitude towards ‘great men’ (and the odd ‘great woman’).
One can read any number of pieces of writing which will present the finest detail of compositional technique involved in creating a piece – in a duly ‘respectful’ manner – but when it comes to dealing with the sounding result, restrict themselves to a few choice adjectives of praise, saying little about what relationship exists between the means and the ends, let alone about why (or if) the final result might be capable of generating any type of meaningful response amongst listeners. This may not be entirely unwilled: to address the latter issue would involve asking difficult questions relating to the fact that much new music has never succeeded in gaining more than a very small audience relative to the totality of the listening population, and many of them have professional connections to the work concerned. That some artistic work is a small minority interest need not necessarily be cause for censure or dismissal, but to pretend that this is not the case, or continue with the far-from-proved assumption that simply a greater amount of promotion and publicity will generate these so-far elusive audiences, is simply naïve.
At a round table discussion at a conference a few years ago on the symphony orchestra as cultural phenomenon, one musicologist opined that whilst it was all very well for such musicologists to look critically at these types of institutions, at a time when funding is in question this was the wrong thing to do, and we should all be putting our weight behind supporting them. But this would be a prime example of substituting propaganda for scholarship. In other contexts, musicologists may want to lend their names to campaigns to preserve state funding of symphony orchestras, but to censor critical scholarship for this reason is a betrayal of every principle upon which rational investigation is based.
There are many ways in which legitimate criticisms can be made of a whole range of musicological work (some of which I intend to consider in some later posts on here); I personally would identify excessive use of jargon, sometimes to mask a paucity of any more incisive argument, and simply the production of work which seems intended primarily to satisfy a few other like-minded academics in a particular sub-field, with no real interest in whether it might have any wider impact. But the alternative to this is not simply for musicologists to line up to write what practising musicians want them to, and sacrifice any independent perspective in the process.
Musicology should be properly valued as an independent discipline which enhances understanding of music, the role of music in different societies and cultures, approaches to performance, modes of listening, and much else. These ends are not served by its inhabiting a subservient position relative to practical music-making and producing material more akin to that one might expect from composers’ publishers or musicians’ agents. And the study of music can be an enhancing experience for a great many people, regardless of whether they go on to practise it professionally.