September 25, 2016

One of those absurdly overcomposed monstrosities

i)  ... eccentric without being amusing; and laborious without effect.

ii)  ... a crass monstrosity.

iii)  ... oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music!

iv)  ... eccentric, unconnected, and incomprehensible ... wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful ... monstrous and tasteless.

Stretching to the very last year of the 19th century, these dismissive criticisms of Beethoven's symphonies[1] show that even the long-term reception of a musical work is a very poor indicator of the work's artistic significance.  Where is today the once so successful and praised music of Hasse, Hummel, or Dittersdorf?  By contrast, there isn't a major orchestra these days whose season programs do not include Mahler's symphonies - the symphonies which half a century after their premieres were still dismissed by major music critics as "cheap", "banal", "interminable platitudes".[2]

Such readily available historical examples (there are many more) make it easy to look with detached amusement on an occasional aggrieved bottom-feeder in today's musical ecosystem (musicologist, critic, philosopher) who can't come to terms with the fact that respected musicians want to play, and some people want to hear, modernist music which he finds irritatingly incomprehensible. It seems plausible (read: feels comforting) to him to suppose that his inability to derive pleasure from such music is due to some objective defects in the music itself, say, because the works in question are "absurdly overcomposed monstrosities"[3], or because they somehow violate innate cognitive constraints on musical comprehension[4].   As for those musicians and listeners who claim to enjoy this kind of music, the aggrieved bottom-feeder will insist that these people are either insincere or have been brainwashed by powerful and sinister forces working behind the scenes.[5]

Being an anonymous blogger, I take it for granted that my often expressed enthusiasm for the music of Elliott Carter is accepted as sincere.  And if this enthusiasm is a result of brainwashing, the responsible agency is no other than myself.  I can't be so sure, however, about the audience at St Michael's in Manchester, which listened to Carter's Triple Duo performed by the Manchester-based contemporary music ensemble Psappha on January 7, 2016.  Perhaps these listeners were a bunch of musical zombies brainwashed by years of exposure to subliminal pro-modernism messages from BBC Radio 3.  Or maybe the performing musicians were secretly bribed by the CIA to program the capitalist Carter instead of the communist Shostakovich.  The truth, as conspiracy theorists are fond of emphasizing, may never come out...

[1]  i) Eighth Symphony, The Harmonicon, London, 1827;  ii) Second Symphony, Zeitung fur die Elegente Welt, Vienna, 1804;  iii) Ninth Symphony, Musical Record, Boston, 1899;  iv) Ninth Symphony as described by the 19th century composer and violinist Louis Spohr, Louis Spohr's Autobiography, London, 1865.

[2]  Olin Downes, "Bruno Walter, as conductor of the Philharmonic, offers Mahler's Fifth Symphony", New York Times, Feb. 7, 1947.

[3]  This is how the pugnacious musicologist Richard Taruskin described the music of Elliott Carter.  Of course Taruskin never bothered to explain what exactly in the music may be taken as evidence of its being "overcomposed" (let alone absurdly so).  But given Taruskin's conviction that the post-1936 Stalinist works of Shostakofiev, along with the numbingly repetitive sonic doodles of the American minimalist Steve Reich, are among the most important compositions of the 20th century, my guess is that by "absurdly overcomposed" Taruskin meant "more challenging than a typical Socialist-Realist or Minimalist composition".

[4]  This thesis is maintained by the prolific and breathtakingly superficial British philosopher Roger Scruton.  As is typical of philosophers, Scruton's argument in support of this thesis amounts to a vacuous tautology: If one starts (as Scruton does) by assuming that the said cognitive constraints are represented by the tonal organization of music, it will then follow necessarily (and trivially) that any other way of organizing sound will violate these constrains, making the result musically incomprehensible to human listeners.  By the same token Scruton could have started by assuming that our innate physiological constraints on sexual gratification are represented by genital contact with kitchen appliances, and then confidently conclude that no other form of genital stimulation can be sexually gratifying to human subjects.

[5]  With Taruskin these brainwashing fantasies come close to delusional paranoia, as witnessed by his article Afterword: Nicht blutbefleckt?   Admirably calm rebuttals of such fantasies can be found in Charles Rosen's essays Modernism and Cold War and The Irrelevance of Serious Music.

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