There are two kinds of music, Duke Ellington is supposed to have said: Good music and the other kind. I wish this were true—if it were, we could all just figure out how to write good music, and then we’d be set. But it’s not that simple: Old myths to the contrary, there are no empiria to consult that might determine whether a piece of music is good or bad. The fact that this problem only materializes when a difference of opinion arises is cold comfort.
A recent premiere was the site of one such difference of opinion. I loved the piece—it enabled me to make exactly the kind of speculations that I treasure as a listener. But it was very clear that the rest of the room wasn’t on the same wavelength. What is wrong with me, I thought, that this piece presents a meaningful experience for me but not for hardly anybody else? I wrote earlier about the possibility that differences in personal context and formation may illuminate the incommensurability of viewpoints on music—in other words, that divergent social conditionings might preclude people from reaching consensus on their reception of music.
Frighteningly, my recent experience seems to suggest that this is even truer than I’d thought: Even a crowd of new music specialists generally sympathetic to one another’s orientation—and who are, moreover, friends!—might have diametric reactions to a new piece. “Good music and the other kind” is only a useful rubric if everyone agrees on what “good music” is, and in this case we certainly didn’t. So how do you know? What if you have an unquenchable desire to write music that nobody else “gets”? It would be like if every time you opened your mouth to say something, gibberish came out, but a particular flavor of gibberish that you found very aesthetic and couldn’t stop producing. I guess you just have to stop composing if that happens.