Beautiful Music, R.I.P.

Beautiful Music, R.I.P.

I wonder whether I’m an unusual listener in that I very rarely invest myself completely in a piece of music when I hear it. My usual “listening behavior” is a combination of on-the-fly thumbnail analysis, periodic reaction-monitoring, and subcontracting part of my brain (how large a part depends on the quality of the piece) to think about my own music. In special cases, these mental tasks can be subsumed by surges of sentimentality, although this kind of response is rare and getting rarer. The other night, however, I heard a performance that captivated me completely. I wasn’t in a simple emotional stupor, either—this was serious, full-on, gamma-wave… I almost just typed “love,” but I what I really need is a word that’s equally powerful but more complex.

The piece was Beethoven’s string quartet, Op. 130; the interpreters were the Pacifica Quartet. I can’t remember the last time I reacted that way to a performance. I think it must have been a cocktail of things that did it to me: The music itself, late Beethoven, is some of the best ever written. The quartet’s rendition was immaculate, which didn’t hurt either. But there was something else, something that hit me but passed by the nearby elderly couple, who apportioned a little more applause for the Franck quintet that followed the Beethoven. I was expecting Op. 130 to be fantastic, which it was. I was not expecting to have a profound revelation about new music while listening to it.

The feeling of personal inadequacy upon hearing a piece like Op. 130 is staggering, it’s true. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to write such phenomenal music. However, what really tore me up was the dawning realization that it may no longer be possible to write music like that anymore, music that’s capable of eliciting a reaction like the one I experienced. Can new music have at once the same quality of “pushing at the edge of the conceivable” that Beethoven’s had in its day as well as its emotional resonance? What moved me so greatly, I think, was the suspicion that the beauty of that piece—not just its sensual (i.e. sounding) beauty but its experiential beauty, the sublimeness of hearing it from start to finish—is something we may never be able to recreate. If you wrote a piece like Op. 130 today, it wouldn’t mean shit, although that doesn’t stop hundreds of composers from trying. How do you make something so precious in today’s post-Verfremdungseffekt cultural climate? I’m not convinced that it’s possible.

There’s a lot of music from the past fifty years that I like. A lot. I’m talking about new music that’s changed my life, new music that’s forced me to reconsider what I thought were self-evident, ironclad truths, new music that’s inspired and amazed me, new music that’s convinced me that the pursuit of new music is absolutely the best thing I can do with my life. My experience with Op. 130 is one that I’ve never been able to achieve with a piece of new music. The irony is that I can’t imagine a more wonderful way than Op. 130 to make such a deeply saddening discovery.

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30 thoughts on “Beautiful Music, R.I.P.

  1. wjmego

    But really was your reaction dependent upon the knowledge of the period in which Op. 130 was written, knowing that it was pushing the boundaries for the form, knowing his deafness, periods of being confined to bed…..or were you having a reaction to the qualities of the absolute music? It’s a question only you can answer, but speaking only for myself, while you can argue that the reverence many of us feel for Beethoven’s work, and our knowledge of his life turns the experience of listening to his work into a kind of program music, filtering everything through his mystique, I would say that NO, that isn’t the soul of our reaction. It’s pretty. Pretty music is pretty whether you write it now, 200 years ago, or 100 years from now. However, trying to sound as if you belong to Beethoven’s time with your own work is just as silly as trying to sound like you belong to the current time. Sound like yourself and no one else. I suppose I feel as Debussy said, ‘Some people wish above all to conform to the rules, I wish only to render what I can hear. There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law.’

    P.S. I hope you don’t tell your signifant other that you have a “Full-on Gamma-wave” for them. Call me a romantic, but it lacks a certain something.

  2. pgblu

    Emancipation from duty
    Dear Colin, Beethoven is dead. You don’t have to kiss his a** anymore.

    I am puzzled by this post. What is the difference between the feeling that he’s pushing the envelope of what’s possible and the feeling of “emotional resonance”?

    Obviously, if he went over the edge of the envelope, the resonance would be gone.

    It is too simplistic to suggest that that envelope was somehow “broken” by later generations: nobody has surpassed Beethoven’s innovations on Beethoven’s terms. That doesn’t mean that all emotional resonances have become impossible, but that the specific resonance he created in you can not be duplicated. Later composers simply had a different idea of what the “envelope” looked like, not because they ignored or rejected Beethoven’s limitations, but because they just were not him.

    To contradict me, someone is going to have to show me exactly “what Beethoven did not dare to do” and then show me a composer that had the gumption to do it (and I don’t mean aleatoric music or twelve tone rows or the whole tone scales in Schubert (!!), but an innovative step that was adequate to Beethoven’s own time, intentions, and materials).

    By the way, I am totally supportive of your endorphin-laced reaction. Op. 130 is fantastic, and I wish I could have gone to the concert. Fatherhood’s sometimes a drag!

  3. philmusic

    Later composers simply had a different idea of what the “envelope” looked like, not because they ignored or rejected Beethoven’s limitations, but because they just were not him.

    Excellent point!

    The rules for music organization change as musical sounds evolve and the unfamiliar sound becomes second nature to us all–but the concepts like -the envelope push – don’t.

    Colin, your not the only composer to feel the daunting presence of Beethoven overshadowing them. Yet Schubert and Schumann, and Brahms among others didn’t do too bad. Composition as an activity does not stop — and a great composers music is never surpassed its equaled.

    Phil’s Page

  4. amc654

    “However, what really tore me up was the dawning realization that it may no longer be possible to write music like that anymore, music that’s capable of eliciting a reaction like the one I experienced.”

    I completely and totally disagree. In addition to Evan’s nod of approval for the Frey 2nd Quartet, I could list several dozen pieces written over the last 25 years or so that have moved me deeply. But, rather than going down that route, I would argue that perhaps part of the problem, in your case, is not getting to see enough new music performed live. My hunch is that something like 98% of the new music you hear is through recordings, which, frankly, could never stand up to a great live performance of Beethoven Op.130.

    Among my all-time favorite listening experiences are the Bozzini Qt performance of Fragmente-Stille, Ensemble Intercontemporain’s performance of the Ferneyhough String Trio, Claudius & Klaus von Wrochem’s performance of Patterns in a Chromatic Field, and, actually, a recent performance of a really stunningly beautiful piece by a student of mine. …. I could go on, but the point is that those performances were no less moving and emotionally engaging than, say, the Mahler 5 that I heard over the weekend.

  5. jbunch

    Perhaps there is something reassuring about listening to the beautiful music of the past. What is really a fantastic experience is the day you come to the conclusion that you can once again allow yourself to learn from dead composers. It raises questions to me like:

    Is there some necessary link between levels of dissonance and lyricism that operates apart from style that effects us emotionally? What would it look like to write lyrical and predominantly consonant music that doesn’t seem to destroy faith in the present moment (or suggest a sort of nostalgic regret for departing from the good road embodied in the music of the past)? I’m assuming that the emotion you felt was not that sort of nostalgia.

    What other pieces do this to you?

    There are pieces for me that set up these fascinating little situations and bowl me over with the perfection of their culminations (Boulez’s Derive 2), there are pieces that just captivate me with sheer sounds (Sciarrino’s opera Lohengrin). Nono’s music has such a particular and haunting sense of timelessness – it never fails to engage my emotions. My point is, even though Beethoven evokes also in me that sense of lost beauty, he’s not often able to capture my intellect and emotions in the same ways as Boulez, Feldman, Messaien, Lachenmann, Frank Zappa, or for that matter DesPrez, DeVitry, Venetian Snares, or Bahamut (my pal Terry’s tech-metal band). The sense of romantic beauty is only a small slice of the aesthetic pie – I think that music’s progressive growth over the centuries has provided a vastly widened repertoire of emotional/aesthetic experiences – we shouldn’t be afraid to revel in all of it (without getting stuck in a mess of unrealistic/uncritical idealisms).

  6. SonicRuins

    Feldman and Beethoven…
    I’m listening to Rothko Chapel right now and it’s giving me chills. Beethoven does too, and esp. the late quartets but certainly not more so than the Feldman.

  7. kmanlove

    They’re right
    I couldn’t agree more about the necessity of hearing the music performed live. And that certainly doesn’t necessarily mean hearing a university new music ensemble (stocked with kidnapped grad students) perform it live.

    I have been lucky enough to hear Rothko Chapel performed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and the audience was so moved by the experience that the ensemble played it again. It was great! And, in defense of university new music ensembles, that University of Houston performance was wonderful.

    Having ensembles not only deliver an accurate performance, but also investing themselves in the piece’s successful presentation to the audience is the key. I’ve been involved with amazing performances of Pauline Oliveros’ Four Meditations, Cage’s Fourteen, lots of Feldman, premieres of new works, et al, and a dedicated and thoughtful performance has always been key. Unfortunately, this behavior seems to be automatic for Beethoven, but it should be automatic for all.

  8. JKG

    Don’t worry, Colin…
    Thanks to the sociological doctrine of “inclusivity” via the civil rights era, there are no longer any standards for judging what is beautiful because everyone’s subjective opinions are equally valid. Thus, by emancipating music from its past, now we no longer have to concern ourselves with its future. All we need do is listen to what we like, and to hell with everyone else, right? If there is no ugly, then there can be no beautiful (but at least the untalented can call themselves “composers”).

  9. pgblu

    Civil Rights
    “Civil rights” does not mean everyone’s subjective opinion is equally valid. It means no one’s subjective opinion may be suppressed on the basis of race, class, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. Civil rights means “Let every Tom, Dick and Harriet speak their mind,” and not “Every Tom, Dick, and Harriet must be agreed with.” The willingness to gloss over this important distinction has always contributed to the perpetuation of bigotry. And so we learn about civil rights in, like, elementary school, so that even little children can understand its value.

    I notice you took a rather long hiatus from this site, JKG; but the ice on which you tread somehow hasn’t gotten any thicker.

  10. tbriggs

    JKG, your post makes absolutely no sense. The civil rights movement had nothing to do with making everybody’s subjective opinions valid and everything to do with making every person, regardless of race, creed, or sex, a valid human being in the eyes of the state.

    There have been many, many attempts over the centuries at determining standards for judging what is beautiful; it’s a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics. It’s something that people think about, disagree about, and debate about. Just like everything else that people think and talk about, it’s open to different interpretations, but that certainly does not make everyone’s opinions (however well informed they might be) equally valid. Unlike you, most people feel compelled to argue for what they believe in with reasons.

  11. Colin Holter

    Good points from everybody except JKG.

    I think part of the problem is that I’m not giving the quartet themselves enough credit. I hear great performances of old music much more often than great performances of new music; if I witnessed a rendition of Fragmente – Stille, an diotima as good as the Pacifica’s 130 (by the way, are any of them reading this?), I might feel differently about the matter.

    I’ve heard some pretty awesome performances of new music, though – Steve Schick and Marc Ponthus come immediately to mind – and even those didn’t quite do it to me like Ludwig Van.

  12. jaquick

    I heard their Carter cycle in Cleveland, loved it, and I’m not really a Carter fan. So I can imagine how good their Beethoven was.

    I think people are interpreting “pushing the edge” differently than you meant it…or maybe differently than I heard it. Yes, Beethoven does that in a technical sense…but there’s a vision thing and a human thing involved too. When we read literary work, we are much more accepting that what the author has to say and who he is is an important part of the experience. With music, as composers, we tend to be more interested in HOW it gets said. Part of that is “shop interest”, but part of it is avoidance of a painful truth: we cannot BE Beethoven (or his contemporary equivalent), we can only be LIKE Beethoven, unless the Muse does her special dance for us. Add to that a new-music culture which for a long time was more concerned with hows than whys, and the chances of writing soul-blowing music get smaller. All we can do is be honest people and write honest music, and if we hit it, we hit it. And if not…there’s no shame in being Ferdinand Ries.

  13. SonicRuins

    Well, Colin, to be honest, I hear complacent performances of old music all the time–more so than new music.

    New music performances are either really, really good (because people care) or really, really bad (because they don’t).

    It’s true that I rarely hear outright BAD performances of old music; just simply a disproportionate number of ‘ehh’ performances.

  14. marknowakowski

    Brilliant post. I’ve been trying to figure out if/how to reply. In the end, beyond the numbers and craft-related items, it’s about the embracing of a human experience. How often do academies, once they’ve gotten past the teaching of craft, deal with the management of the deeply human/spiritual creative impulse? (or, the thing that really makes for meaningful compositions?) I’m thrilled that people are still willing to talk about the nature of beauty, in a field filled with so many people that shun, distrust, or viewsuspicion anything that can’t fit neatly into a matrix or table… as if beauty needed numerical justification in order to be an “accepted’ field of inquiry.

    On a related note — why is the study of Aesthetics not a primary subject in most music schools?

  15. kmanlove

    In my recent experience, teachers have rarely addressed issues beyond craft and techniques. One of the best things about my undergrad teacher was his willingness to address this. Further, I took a lot of philosophy classes and had teachers and peers that weren’t afraid to take on these issues.

    I think there are lot of reasons for not teaching aesthetics in music schools. There is a lack of competency (it’s a daunting endeavor). It sometimes doesn’t gel with ideas of how music should be taught. Composers come up with some crazy stuff when they read too much Adorno, etc. I’ve heard that Aaron Cassidy has (or has at least pitched) a Deleuze and Music class that I would’ve killed for in undergrad (now too, actually).

  16. Philedwardelphia

    mmm… “of the refrain” makes me drool. Could we maybe say that the Beethoven creates a different sort of territorial assemblage? Hehe.

    Other than that chapter did Deleuze say much more about music directly?

  17. CM Zimmermann

    ‘Of the Refrain’ is Deleuze and Guattari’s most comprehensive treatment of music and improvisation. I would have to look at my notes for specifics, but there are references to music in other plateaus and in ‘Difference and Repetition’. There are several essays in the collections ‘Two Regimes of Madness’ and in which Deleuze discusses music, time, Boulez…


  18. amc654

    Yes, I did in fact teach a class on Deleuze (actually, it was a class on Musical Space, for which Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus was the primary jumping off point, at which point we talked about experimental poetry and architecture and film and form and memory and even occasionally listened to some music, old and new (but mostly new)), and, for the record, there are direct references to music all over ATP, and in fact the terms “smooth and striated space,” which are so central to D/G’s larger spatial argument, are actually terms initially coined by Boulez.

    But, in fact, that’s probably the least interesting part of the text in terms of its relationship to music, but, as I could wax on about this for months on end (ask Eric), maybe I’ll stop here b/f I get up a head of steam and write a long and meandering post.

    Also wanted to point out, though, that actually -all- of the classes that I’ve taught here (even, to some extent, the Advanced Orchestration class I’m teaching now) have really been “aesthetics” classes (and occasionally politics classes or philosophy classes), which perhaps is why I won’t be on the faculty here after this term. ;-)

    I’m going on the record: Kyle Gann is right about Northwestern. (It might be the last time Kyle and I agree on much of anything …)

    And, btw, if anyone happens to be interested in seeing a syllabus or a reading list from the Musical Space class, I’d be more than happy to share it.

  19. kmanlove

    By the nature of the writings, I believe that all of Deleuze’s work can/should be applied to music, even beyond when he specifically mentions music. Most of the “Deleuze and Music” books I’ve read fixate on free jazz and drum and bass/’techno”… things like that. Can’t remember if I’ve read that. I’d very much like to see the syllabus to the Music and Space syllabus.

  20. kmanlove

    I want to know what it means… I’ve always been told, “Who needs aesthetics when you have money?” or “Who needs aesthetics when you have a post-Verfremdungseffekt cultural climate?” but never the other.

    I’ll save you all any ‘self-glorifying mannerism’ puns.

  21. pgblu

    Teaching aesthetics systematically is indeed a daunting task, mostly the realm of philosophy departments, in, um, … 19th-century England.

    I do see a possibility, however, of teaching aesthetics through score study and comparative score study. Aesthetics from the ground up, which is how most people develop their own aesthetic sense anyway, rather than from the top down, i.e., reading aesthetics treatises and then finding music that fits the premises. That latter approach is more rigorous and academically sound, but, as you say, daunting and perhaps unsatisfyingly open-ended. The point of teaching aesthetics in music schools would be to enrich the composers’ relation to what they do, not to be rigorous.


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