November 1, 2009

What it takes to "get" contemporary music...

Suppose I don't "get" the above painting: no matter how much time I spend viewing it, this painting does not "speak" to me, and the emotional response it elicits from me is no richer than what I feel when looking at a brick wall.  Now lets imagine that one day it is discovered that Rothko secretly studied optics - and not just at the high school level, but all the way down to the most advanced quantum mechanics and electrodynamics of his time.  (He kept his superior mathematical talents in secret from the rest of the world.)  To everyone's astonishment it is revealed that Rothko's paintings (including the one pictured above) exploit previously unknown macroscopic effects of certain quantum mechanical properties of light - the properties which can be understood only with the help of very abstract mathematical constructs.   Fortunately, I happen to know enough about this stuff to dig into Rothko's amazing investigations until I uncover that at the heart of Rothko's discovery lie very clever applications of theorems from operator algebra and non-commutative geometry.
     Upon grasping this deep, abstract truth behind Rothko's Orange and Yellow painting, I lean back in my chair, light up a cigarette, close my eyes, and (with a knowing smile on my lips) whisper "I got it"  ...   And then it dawns on me (and hopefully on you too, if you've read this far) that whatever it is that I "got", I still didn't "get" that painting!

Now back to reality.  I am puzzled by people who insist that in order to "get" a piece of music - not as performers or as students in a music theory seminar, but as experienced listeners - they have to study the score.  It is as if upon identifying the tone row in some piece by Babbitt, and discovering that the set of its permutations generates an Abelian group, they will suddenly respond to a composition that previously left them cold after many repeated hearings.  Or that after carefully going over each of the 46 individual string parts in Xenakis' Metastaesis they will suddenly get misty-eyed and call grandma in the middle of the night to rave about how beautiful that composition turned out to be.  I am puzzled by this because I can't see how one can conflate an object whose primary goal is to induce certain psychologically significant experiences with the means by which that object was constructed.  Such experiences can be no more facilitated by studying the score than the rewards of sex can be facilitated by studying the anatomy of erection.  In short, I can see how it makes perfect sense to want to study the score (or the composer's diaries, sketches, letters, etc.) because I want to learn more about a piece of music which had already established its aesthetic credentials by leaving a significant imprint in my mind.  What does not seem to make any sense at all is the attempt to establish the music's aesthetic credentials through studying the score.

In the past I used to worry that my understanding of musical aesthetics may be either badly misinformed (because I received only rudimentary musical training in childhood) or, at best, hopelessly antiquated (because it reflects an intuitive, romanticized view of music, which perished early in the 20th century along with the tyranny of tonality).  I don't worry about it anymore, not since I've discovered that quite a few 20th century composers whose music I admire seem to share my point of view.  So I conclude with  a few representative examples (italics are mine):

--  The score is not only a string of notes, of course, but a human experience expressed in musical sounds... 

Elliott Carter


You have dug out the series of my string quartet correctly...  That must have been a very great effort, and I do not think I should have mustered the patience for it.  Do you think that it is useful to know this?  I really cannot imagine it.  ... it might be stimulating to a composer who is not yet well trained in the use of the series ... but the esthetic qualities do not open up from this.  I cannot warn often enough against overvaluing these analyses, for they lead only to what I have always opposed: to recognition of how it is done; while I have always assisted people to recognize what it is! 

Arnold Schoenberg,  1932 letter to violinist Rudolf Kolisch


--  [Schoenberg's Violin Concerto is] the work that I really felt was a burning, intense, hyper-emotional piece.  And I loved it for that.  My reaction to music, then and now, is still very much related to my perceptions, my emotional responses.  The intellect comes later.  ...  [I've studied] a lot of stuff I didn't like before ... and liked it even less after I've studied it.

George Rochberg


... knowledge of  serial operations is not required for full appreciation of the music.

Anton Webern


[In response to the question "What is your interest in the idea of breaking the scale into quarter-tones or smaller intervals... is it philosophical, is it technical...  What?"]

--  It sounds marvelous.

Karlheinz Stockhausen


Schonberg is quoted from W.A. Austin, Music in the 20th Century, Norton Press, 1966, pp.304-305.  Webern's comment comes from Peter Stadlen's article "Serialism reconsidered", The Score 16, 1956.  All remaining quotes are from Trackings: Composers speak with Richard Dufallo, Oxford U. Press.

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