May 12, 2008

Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it

Washington, D.C., has always seemed to me a place suffused with intellectual insecurity (especially this millenium) but it seems to have spread into its musical life this past week. First, Greg "We Must Kill Classical Music In Order To Save It" Sandow—who's jumping the shark on pretty much a weekly basis these days—finds that Felicity Lott just isn't pandering to him as much as he would like. (He plays coy with specifically identifying the performance, but come on, your wife covered the thing.)
But let's look at the Baudelaire group. We weren't reading the poems, or hearing a lecture on them. We were reliving them, or at least reliving them as they were set to music by French composers. Which meant that the singer and pianist were reliving them, too, and that rather than think about them, or experience them distantly, they should have hit us right in the gut.

Did that happen? Of course not. Which isn't to say the performance was bad. By normal standards, it was quite good, thoughtful, nuanced, expressive. But that's not enough. Baudelaire is far more than that. He's uneasy, troubled, sick, sensual, seduced by evil, drenched with regret. Is that what we felt, hearing those songs? Of course not. The concert was far too genteel. If the spirit of Baudelaire had emerged -- if all of us wondered what secret we hid, what secret was making us suffer -- the unspoken rules of the concert would have been violated. It wouldn't have been artistic, thoughtful, genteel. It would have made us uneasy. We would have been troubled. We would have had fantasies, of nudity, jewelry, decay. Is that what we'd come for?
My initial reaction—which I still think is true—is that if your idea of listening is to sit back in your chair and wait for something to hit you in the gut, then, yeah, the glories of Duparc and Debussy and Baudelaire are probably going to slip past you. The power of Baudelaire isn't just in his transgression, it's in the combination of that transgression with his formal discipline and poetic restraint. Decadence is supposed to be elegant, after all—that's part of the whole point. It's why Duparc's Baudelaire settings, or, to give a more extensive example, Faure's Verlaine settings, are so successful—the polished surface in quiet tension with the implications of the poetry. That demands an active engagement on the part of the listener/reader, and active engagement is what those composers would have expected; the unease is more profound if you find it on your own. Duparc and Debussy knew what Baudelaire was up to. Sandow doesn't.

Sandow blames standard recital presentation—"The form of the concert at war with its content," he writes. As usual, he implicitly proscribes something closer to popular culture—a presentation that underlines whatever the content "is." (Felicity Lott in torn nylons and safety pins, maybe.) But the form isn't at war with the content—even given the way that term has been cheapened through overuse along the banks of the Potomac—the form is content-neutral. The conventions of recital performance are designed to stay out of the way of as wide a variety of content as possible.

It's that aspect of concert performance—be it vocal, chamber, or orchestral repertoire—that Sandow objects to. I don't think it's because the performance isn't telling him what to think about the music, but I do think it's because the performance isn't reassuring him that what he might think about the music is OK. There's nothing stopping him from approaching the songs and finding those aspects that would reveal Baudelaire to be an eloquent degenerate, but since the recital doesn't seem to be giving him explicit permission to go there, he doesn't. I suppose his gut would be adequately hit by a concert that goes out of its way to highlight an interpretative attitude that's congruent with his own—but then, of course, those of us who think Baudelaire comes off as more uneasy the less you wallow in the uneasiness would be left cold. I think that's a pretty high price to pay just to have Sandow's own opinion validated. I have a particular bent towards vocal repertoire, and I can say that men in tails and women in organza very frequently move me to laughter, desperation, shock, and enlightenment; if you're sitting around pouting that your gut remains unstruck, I rather think that's more your problem. To have a performance that highlights an aspect of the music that the performers want to highlight is fine, but to call that necessary to a meaningful audience experience? That's abdicating most of the joy of being in the audience.

What Sandow wants, I think, is closer to kitsch than art, if one uses those terms in the Greenberg/Adorno/Benjamin sense. My favorite explanation of this sort of kitsch comes from Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
A desire for the experience of kitsch is a symptom of insecurity. Sandow wants the focus not just on how the music moves him, but accompanied by a reassurance that everyone else in the audience is being moved the same way. Safety in numbers.

So it was interesting that D.C. was also graced last week by a masterpiece of kitsch in the somewhat different postmodern sense, the neo-romantic sprawl of David Del Tredici's 1976 Final Alice. I mean that sincerely, Final Alice being an early and persistent favorite of mine—Del Tredici is one of that small group of composers (like Richard Strauss) whose music gets more compelling as it gets more self-indulgent. That said, Stephen Brookes' preview of the piece for the Washington Post is a revisionist mess.
But in one bold stroke, Del Tredici jettisoned the strict composing system known as serialism (which dominated new American music, to the despair of most audiences) and embraced a neo-romantic style -- scandalizing his colleagues and setting off an earthquake in American music whose aftershocks are still being felt.

" 'Final Alice' changed the face of music in this country overnight," recalls Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra's music director, who was in the Chicago audience that night. "It destroyed all conceptions of what 'new music' was supposed to be, and many composers will tell you that they were now liberated to write how they felt. It was the start of a revolution."
Serialism dominated new American music? It changed the face of music overnight? Um, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington and George Rochberg and Terry Riley and Steve Reich and Philip Glass might have something to say about that. Brookes is, of course, reiterating the simplistic serialist-hegemony-tonal-rebellion narrative which is turning into as hoary a "fact" as Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball. It's all here: Forbidden tonality! Outraged avant-gardists! Brookes even joins the too-long list of lazy critics who reference Milton Babbitt's "Who Cares If You Listen?" in such a way that reveals he never bothered to read past the title.

But reorienting that narrative around Final Alice—a variant on this past weekend's ruminations—is interesting. Unlike that above list of composers who either kept on with their longstanding tonal preference or reworked tonality into minimalist radicalism, Del Tredici's opus is such a conscious throwback, a deliberate re-creation of 19th-century Romantic rhetoric, that it would have been impossible to miss. The novelty of Final Alice was its time-machine aspect, not its return not to tonality—that was already in full swing—but its return to an era prior to atonality's existence. (And even here, Rochberg got there first, just not on Del Tredici's scale.) A reproduction of the past for an age saturated with reproduction: kitsch layered on kitsch, to exuberantly entrancing effect.

But it's important to note that the "revolution" that Slatkin and Brookes—and, to an extent, Del Tredici—keep insisting the work ushered in is kitsch as well, an ersatz revolution, a bid to conjure the emotional high of a revolutionary act without the uncertain prospect of revolutionary consequences. It was a novel expression of a style that everyone already knew how to interpret, that everybody already knew what to think of. To celebrate the work for what it is—a grand, emotionally promiscuous entertainment—is deserved. (I would be a little suspicious of anyone who couldn't enjoy at least part of the piece.) But to celebrate it as a revolution is a sigh of relief that it wasn't a real revolution, something that would have required the risk of uncharted critical engagement—and to fear that is to be insecure of one's own critical judgment. One could say that part of the genius of Final Alice is that is does make the form of an orchestra concert and the work's content, to a certain extent, congruent; Del Tredici even acknowledges the conventions by having the piece grow out of the sounds of the orchestra tuning. But in the process, the music's atmosphere and intent is at least partially fixed—some path of individual resonance and reinterpretation has been closed off. If you're constantly worried whether your own reinterpretations are right or wrong, that might be a good thing. But if you're like me, at a certain point, you're going to chafe at any presentation that insists that music can only be one particular thing. Because it never, ever is.

23 comments:

Sator Arepo said...

Great post. Music is never, ever only one thing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I still have not attempted to tear apart the orchestra-as-art-museum posting. Thank you for taking on this one.

credit savvy said...

music is in the soul man

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Henry Holland said...

Well, unlike Greg "Jumped the Shark Years Ago" Sandow, you're really on a roll with these last two posts.

The question I can never get an adequate answer to is "OK, so you don't like the stiff formality of the usual concert, what's the alternative?"; usually, it boils down to: "different clothes".

Brookes is, of course, reiterating the simplistic serialist-hegemony-tonal-rebellion narrative which is turning into as hoary a "fact" as Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball.

Blasphemer! :-)

Lisa Hirsch said...

I think his alternatives to stiff formality include more casual attire for audience and musicians; applause between movements; and...um...maybe we should sit on the floor? Oh, wait - the NY Phil tried that under Boulez back in the '70s. He also likes the idea of opera performances where people sit around and talk. I'm perfectly happy to experiment with all of these - I just don't think they'll make that much of a difference.

A.C. Douglas said...

Brookes even joins the too-long list of lazy critics who reference Milton Babbitt's "Who Cares If You Listen?" in such a way that reveals he never bothered to read past the title.

Irrespective of who chose the title for that Babbitt article (supposedly it wasn't Babbitt himself, but I don't believe he didn't at least approve the title), Brookes references the article in exactly the correct context and sense. Brookes wrote:

Composers in the 1970s saw themselves as being in the vanguard of a revolution, forging a new musical language built on the 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality belonged to the past, and audiences were treated as almost irrelevant. "Who Cares if You Listen?" asked Milton Babbitt, one of the leading serialists of the day, in the title of a celebrated essay.

In that "celebrated essay," Babbitt wrote:

I say all this not to present a picture of a virtuous music in a sinful world, but to point up the problems of a special music in an alien and inapposite world. And so, 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 life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

What else is that but treating "audiences...as almost irrelevant" — nay, as totally irrelevant.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

Babbitt published that essay in 1958, so Brookes is wrong to imply he wrote it in the 1970s or that it represents the thinking of most or all composers in the 1970s. Further, I would think that you approve of Babbitt's stance against pandering to the proles.

A.C. Douglas said...

Babbitt published that essay in 1958, so Brookes is wrong to imply he wrote it in the 1970s or that it represents the thinking of most or all composers in the 1970s.

Brookes made no such implications.

I would think that you approve of Babbitt's stance against pandering to the proles.

Babbitt's stance wasn't against pandering to proles. It was against anyone and anything that had no time or stomach for his gibberish (his "music", I mean; not his prose).

Such is the stance of all charlatans.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

Perhaps we're interpreting "composers in the 1970s" differently. Brookes certainly is implying that all 1970s composers were serialists who agreed with Babbitt.

Henry Holland said...

I think his alternatives to stiff formality include more casual attire for audience and musicians; applause between movements; and...um...maybe we should sit on the floor? Oh, wait - the NY Phil tried that under Boulez back in the '70s.

Yes, the Rug Concerts. They took out the seats at Avery Fisher Hall and put bean bags and soft couches in and people could lie on the floor if they wanted. Wow, heavy, maaaaaan.

The obsession with clothes is utterly baffling. Maybe it's because I live in Los Angeles, but I can count the number of dudes I've seen in a penguin suit at the opera or symphony in the last five years on one hand. It's Dockers, a nice shirt and nice shoes. Is that so difficult?

The LAP's Casual Fridays was written up and it prompted this letter:

BEFORE the L.A. Philharmonic mothballs its tuxes and black dresses ["Bach? Kick Back," by Donna Perlmutter, May 1], someone should remind them that the whole point of concert formal wear is to present a uniform visual effect. The classical audience should be able to focus on the music, not what the bassoonist is wearing on his feet or why the cellist is wearing a pink polo shirt with orange pants.

But that's an aesthetic detail. "Casual Fridays" is really based on one deeply objectionable premise -- that there's nothing particularly special about what we're doing here. So the players dress as if they're lounging at home, and the audience is encouraged to kick back, relax and forget concert etiquette.

By the time food and drink show up during concerts (the next logical step, I'm sure), those of us who treasure live classical music as something special and valued will be long gone.

Bonnie Sloane

Los Angeles


Right on, Bonnie Sloane! :-D

He also likes the idea of opera performances where people sit around and talk

Um, you mean: intermission? :-) If it means "as soon as the conductor raises his arms", well, NO, that's a non-starter.

Lisa, I don't know if you go to standing room at the San Francisco Opera, but there's a guy I know who's tall (6'5") and and as soon as someone starts talking after the music has started, he'll lean over the rail and just glare at them. They clam up instantly. If they persist, he'll report them to the ushers.

Rodney Lister said...

I feel compelled to protest the characterization of Babbitt's music as gibberish. I love his music--both playing it and listening to it. I'm not prepared to make any sort of defense of "The Composer as Specialist" (Babbitt's title--and, incidentally, I seem to remember that he says he had no idea about the publication title until he saw it in print--I'm not sure it makes much difference, since, as far as I can tell, he might as well have called it that himself. Nonetheless I'm not sure any of us want to convict a composer's music on the basis of his prose pronouncements--unless you're happy to ban Wagner and R. Strauss, and God knows who else.

Anyway--PLEASE, don't diss Babbitt.
It's too easy, and I basically don't believe that most of the people who keep railing against his music haven't actually heard any of it. Of listened, anyway...

A.C. Douglas said...

Re, music and gibberish, see this S&F post.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

There are people who can't follow Wagner, too. That doesn't mean it's gibberish.

Henry - I attended one of those Rug Concerts. I hated sitting on the floor!

Greg keeps plugging Baroque opera performances where the audience sat around gossiping and drinking coffee. I think that would be an entertaining experiment on an occasional basis, but on the whole, I prefer quiet so I can listen.

I would like the silly prohibition of applause between movements abandoned. I've been to a few concerts recently where applause between movements would have been highly appropriate.

David Hanlon said...

Great post and thread!

It seems to be the problem with the applause thing is that concerts have such a wide range of repertoire, from different centuries, places, and traditions that it is unreasonable to hope that every audience member would know to go crazy at the end of the first movement of Greig's piano concerto, but to hush up for Quartet of the End of Time.

The only solution I can think of is to design concerts around the desired audience response so you can essentially create your own ettiquete for the concert in question. On the other side of more applause and interaction, some of my favorite concerts (attending and performing) have been ones organized so as to have no applause at all!

But if we're talking about the general concert, our present form, as problematic as it is, allows for different folks to have their different reactions to a wide range of pieces. And let's not kid ourselves that a rock concert is necessarily an ideal musical form either. I've certainly been to tock shows where the hooting and hollering was every bit as unspontaneous and insincere as not clapping after a rousing inner movement.

Matthew said...

On this whole Babbitt thing: Brookes clearly wants to give the impression that composers in the early 1970s were doing nothing but writing 12-tone music, when that is hardly the case. (I only mentioned the most tonal composers I could think of who were high-profile at that time, along with the by-then well-developed minimalist scene, but I could also throw in a host of eclectics: Corigliano, Crumb, Persechetti, etc.) And Brookes caricatures Babbitt's point, which was not that the audience didn't matter, but that just because the advanced serialism he was writing about wasn't attracting a wide audience didn't mean it was pointless or not worthy of being written. (Whenever Babbitt talks about the "composer" in the essay, remember, he's talking about composers, in his words, "of what we will, for the moment, designate as 'serious,' 'advanced,' contemporary music.") If you want to write populist music, have a blast—I will point out that Babbitt taught Stephen Sondheim for a period. (And apparently spent their lessons doing in-depth analysis of American popular song.)

One thing I didn't get into (this post was long enough) was the contrast with Del Tredici's earlier "Alice" works, which also had a lot of tonal elements, but in a far more free-wheeling, genre-mixing way (elements of rock and folk alongside the modernism and lyricism). So even "Final Alice" wasn't so much of a surprise in vocabulary, although it was in both scope and the tight focus on Romantic style. (I'm also remembering that one of those earlier "Alice" works grows out of everybody tuning as well. Did he recycle the idea, or did I mix the pieces up?)

Henry Holland said...

Greg keeps plugging Baroque opera performances where the audience sat around gossiping and drinking coffee.

In other words, the music is background aural wallpaper. Dude, we already have that situation, it's called any Starbucks on the planet. Why would I pay $50 to replicate an experience I can go three blocks from my apartment and have?

I think that would be an entertaining experiment on an occasional basis, but on the whole, I prefer quiet so I can listen.

Sorry, I think it's a horrible idea. Sandow seems to want to cater to the stereotypical 20-something's inability to focus on anything longer than a YouTube video, but for those of us that only care about the music, not the social aspects of concertgoing, what a nightmare that'd be.

I've never gotten why he's taken seriously; the link that Matthew provided has him gushing over Things The Youth Of Today Are Doing like scraping things, recording it in to a sampler and making music out of it. I sat there reading that and I said to myself: "Hello? Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, in the 30's and 40's?". He constantly thinks something is so cool simply because some hipster in Brooklyn is doing it, but it turns out, it's often stuff that was done before that hipster's parents were born. It's just astonishing to me that people actually pay him to consult.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Those are quite good counterarguments! By "on an occasional basis" I meant that I'm willing to give performances with talking a try ONCE to see if it's worth a damn.

Michael Walsh said...

I already can't stand going to movies where people talk. Allowing conversation during music would drive me to violence, I should think.

Stephen Brookes said...

Just came across this post, and am impressed at how much huffing and puffing my article in the Post seems to have inspired. Relax, folks -- it was just a quick journalistic introduction to "Final Alice," designed to put it in context and give the paper's general-interest audience some inroads into understanding the piece, with some commentary from Slatkin and the composer himself.

That said, it's clearly wrong to say that I mischaracterized the temper of the times. Babbitt may not have liked the "vulgar" title of his essay, but he didn't pull it from publication, either. (Anyway, his preferred title was "The Composer as Specialist", which makes the same point, just more pedantically).

And as A.C. Douglas has kindly pointed out, the title reflects Babbitt's main idea quite accurately. I actually had a chance to discuss all this with the great man himself at a seminar at Harvard in the early 80's, where he reiterated quite clearly his belief that composition is an advanced field of study which, like advanced physics or mathematics, could only be understood by specialists. The general audience, not being specialists, was no longer relevant.

Which was -- ahem -- exactly my point.

You also take issue with the widely accepted idea that serialism dominated new American music in the 1970's. Obviously there were other things going on, from jazz to minimalism -- it doesn't take any brains to point that out -- and you can split hairs over what "dominated" means.

But the fact is, in academia (where most serious composers, including Del Tredici, were working), serialism ruled.

I'll refer you to Alex Ross,who writes in The Rest is Noise: "In the late sixties and early seventies, twelve-tone composers were reaching the height of their influence. By some accounts, they effectively took control of university composition departments across the country."

He goes on to quote George Rochberg: "[Twelve tone composers] have proclaimed an orthodox cultural church, with its hierarchy, gospel, beliefs and anathemas." And Michael Beckerman: "Trying to write a tonal piece at a place like Columbia University in the 1960s and 70s was like being a dissident in Prague in the same period, with similar professional consequences."

So, there you go -- "dominated" seems to describe the scene pretty well, according to the people who were actually there. Anyway, this is getting tedious -- take it up with Alex if you like.

Lisa Hirsch said...

"In academia [in the 70s], serialism ruled" is not the same as "serialism dominated new American music in the 70s." And note Alex Ross's qualifier "By some accounts."

Stephen Brookes said...

lisa, honey: when you find yourself in a hole ... stop digging

Lisa Hirsch said...

Talk about digging holes....!

Perhaps you could stick to the facts under discussion and leave the condescension out.

Matthew said...

Stephen: You are implying that Babbitt was saying that all composition should be for a specialized audience, when the article explicitly says the opposite—Babbitt is arguing that highly esoteric serialism, etc., should have a forum even though it's small, not that it should replace all other musical vocabularies. (Babbitt may prefer it to all other musical vocabularies, but that's something different.)

The only serious study I know of the anthropology of serialism in post-WWII American academia is by Joseph Straus, who concluded that any claim of serialist hegemony was, at best, rather exaggerated. You can counter with anecdotal testimony of the "that's how it felt" variety, but really, aren't a majority of young, creative people going to feel some sense of their older authority figures holding them back in some way? Look at a list of Babbitt's students, or Roger Sessions'—they run the stylistic gamut. If they really intended to be fundamentalist proselytizers, they weren't trying very hard.

I hate this whole false dichotomy between hardcore serialism and everything else because a) it's a caricature, and b) it turns the history of classical music in the 60s and 70s into this two-category black hole when, in fact, the era produced a ton of interesting music—from all points along the stylistic spectrum—that gets shortchanged nowadays because so many critics are too concerned with shoehorning every piece into either the hegemony or the backlash. It's also, I think, contributed to the comparative centrist blandness of the current new-music landscape. Hardly a week goes by that I don't see another variation on the "serialism is to blame for classical's marginalization" trope, but I could just as easily argue that said marginalization correlates nicely with both the abandonment of experimental modernism and the domestication of radical minimalism. It's worth considering whether an art form with no room for stylistic extremes is all that healthy—and worth remembering, after all, that "Four Organs," not "Final Alice," was the real scandal.