Lost in the Shuffle

Lost in the Shuffle

After reading about the iPod Random Challenge on “Dial M for Musicology” (hat tip to our very own Friday Informer), I was all ready to dive into a ten-track shuffle and report on the results. It seemed, on the face of it, like a convenient way to avoid writing a real column this week. However, a quick review of my ten songs au hasard put the kibosh on my scheme: The name of this website is NewMusicBox, and there’s no new music on my iPod. (I won’t bore you by recounting what my iPod did come up with, except to note that I would have been entirely satisfied to listen to it on the bus. Thankfully, no selections from the complete recorded works of the Style Council or that two-disc Donovan compilation sabotaged my mix.)

To me, what’s most interesting about the iPod Random Challenge is that it epitomizes a “listening circumstance” about as far removed from concert attendance as possible. In fact, I couldn’t design a more affirmative musical experience if I tried: I load my portable hard drive with recorded vernacular music I find appealing, much of which has sentimental significance to me; I configure my device to present me, at random, with these nuggets; I enjoy the unexpected collage that results while I wait in the Midwestern frigidity for the 3N Lavender Express that will take me home. If I don’t like the song—let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the song is “Harlem Interlude” off the Ma$e/G-Unit mixtape—I can dismiss 50 and Murda in favor of Nick Drake (or whatever the device happens to serve up next) with the click of a wheel. I am in complete control of the sound coming out of my iPod, even when I’m not.

This is why there’s no new music (or, for that matter, older concert music) on my iPod. I don’t want to listen to it at just any old time: I want to have no choice but to give it my full attention, because that’s what it deserves. “Listening to music” on your iPod—or, for that matter, “listening to music” on the Cerwin Vegas in your bedroom or the six-disc CD changer in your car—is an entirely different activity from listening to music that is actually being played in front of you by real live humans. Some people really dig good recordings of new music, which is fine, but for me they serve only an educational purpose, kind of like an aural score. They can tell you what the piece sounds like, but the best recording in the world can’t explain to you what a piece is.

In response to protests that the new music of his day was too demanding on audiences to be heard too often, Theodor Adorno proposed that perhaps it was the protesters themselves who lacked the requisite stamina and that they were only exposing their own weakness by complaining. I agree with Adorno completely; my place is very clearly among those derided low-threshold listeners. I wish I had what it takes to stop listening to my consoling opiate of an iPod and restrict my intake to classical concerts alone, but I just don’t think I have the right stuff. At its best, new music is capable of asking the hardest questions and challenging the most deeply sedimented assumptions. Do you really want to go through all that on the bus?

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

25 thoughts on “Lost in the Shuffle

  1. Philedwardelphia

    Interesting comments, Colin. I find, though, that the times in which I’m most likely to actually *listen* to the entirety of a more challening record (music written in/for a recording studio/personal recorder) are when I’m walking somewhere or if I’m driving. I can’t explain why, but those are usually my favorite times to experience records.

    And yet: last night when I sat down in my room with a recording and score of Lutoslawski’s Sting Quartet, I was blown away. I do agree with Colin in considering my experiences with recorded concert music to be One Step Removed from the actual experience. Whether or not this requires such a specific state of mind/physical space in which to experience it… I don’t know….

  2. david toub

    To be honest, you haven’t lived until you’ve worked out to Feldman’s Turfan Fragments or listened to works by Mary Jane Leach or Phill Kline on the inbound regional rail line to Philadelphia.

    New music does just fine in these situations. Really!

  3. justjonathan1

    workout music
    Yes, Paul Lansky Alphabet book is great for the gym…and there’s alot of new music that seems very fitting for LA traffic…

  4. AlexRossNY

    Although I fervently believe that the concert experience contains the deepest truth, I’ve come to understand certain works through home CD and iPod listening that eluded me in the concert hall. Not long ago I had an extraordinary experience listening to Lachenmann’s “Schwankungen am Rand” while traveling on the 1 train at rush hour and then walking through the Times Square station. The dull crush of rush hour turned into some kind of insane Darmstadt ballet, and I started laughing out loud in a way that probably alarmed my fellow passersby. The experience actually transformed my attitude toward the composer. I found a psychological context for the music that I’d previously lacked.

    Modern-day critiques of the “iPod generation,” “Shuffle aesthetic,” etc. are as inane as circa-1920 attacks on the demonic properties of the Victrola. The iPod is just one more medium, not a thing in itself, and within a few years it will be replaced by something else. Stuckenschmidt: “The machine is neither a god nor a devil.”

  5. pgblu

    But just because something isn’t a god doesn’t mean it can’t be a godsend, and just because it isn’t a devil doesn’t mean it can’t be “from hell”.

  6. AlexRossNY

    Oops! Even as I advertise my new-found fondness for Helmut Lachenmann here, Evan Johnson’s latest, very interesting NewMusicBox article has disinterred and denounced my prior attack on the composer. And he has a point. I’ve admitted on my blog that something went awry in the Lachenmann section of my 2003 Adorno article; I failed to separate the music from the accompanying intellectual publicity. I don’t deny that Lachenmann, Georg Friedrich Haas, Rihm, and others have written some amazing pieces; my complaint about contemporary Austro-German music has to do with the self-imposed limits on language, the still powerful taboo against tonality. I think you’d have to be a young German composer trying to write in a quasi-tonal language to realize just how strong those limits are. Why should this be? Why can’t composers finally have the freedom to write what they hear? That freedom really does not yet exist within the state-subsidized Central European new-music framework.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no escaping the bad logic of ideologically driven commentary except by adopting a pragmatic, case-by-case philosophy, which is what I’ve tried to do in my latest writing. When I went to Vienna last fall, I purposefully praised Adams and Kurtág side by side, without worrying about disparities in musical language or historical background. I did become annoyed at the ritualistic anti-Americanism that cropped up in the reception of Adams and Mark Morris, though I don’t think that my calling the “McTanz” critic a chauvinist makes me a chauvinist, any more than Evan Johnson’s calling me a chauvinist makes him a chauvinist, if you catch my drift.

  7. jonrussell20

    ” I wish I had what it takes to stop listening to my consoling opiate of an iPod and restrict my intake to classical concerts alone”

    That sounds like an incredibly depressing enterprise! Yes, it’s wonderful when music is challenging or disturbing, but what’s wrong with also enjoying music that is comforting or energizing, or makes us feel good? You make it seem like we ought to feel guilty about listening to something because it brings us pleasure.

  8. amc654

    Lachenmann, Georg Friedrich Haas, Rihm, and others have written some amazing pieces; my complaint about contemporary Austro-German music has to do with the self-imposed limits on language, the still powerful taboo against tonality.

    Those seem like three particularly bizarre examples for your argument, Alex. Rihm’s music is replete with very strong references to tonal harmony, and in several examples I can think of off the top of my head, operates in a fully-functional tonal framework.

    Much of Haas’s work is of the post-spectral variety and thus relies on triadic harmonies — often justly tuned and static, but triadic nonetheless. And he often approaches harmonic organization in a way that allows these triadic harmonies to establish positions of clear hierarchy. (I’m thinking at the moment about his utterly wonderful work for solo viola d’amore.)

    Lachenmann’s a more complicated case, but, as Evan’s article discusses, the history and language of historical European music plays a rather prominent role, and as such there are some pretty significant tonal references (Accanto is the most obvious example, or the Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied). But, far more to the point, several recent works of Lachenmann operate in an almost legitimately tonal framework, as in Grido, his most recent string quartet. The piece is, in all seriousness, almost entirely triadic, and those triads move in a manner that is no less ‘functional’ than triadic harmony in much overtly ‘tonal’ music of the 20th century. (Massive kudos to my student Ari Streisfeld for finding all of this in his recent analytical work.)

    Anyhow, I get your point, of course, but these seem to be problematic examples. How about these: Wolfram Schurig, Caspar Johannes Walter, Helmut Oehring, ….

  9. philmusic

    “my complaint about contemporary Austro-German music has to do with the self-imposed limits on language, the still powerful taboo against tonality.”

    A Minnesota composer just back from Latvia had a similar complaint. It seems that under Soviet “influence” composers there were not allowed to compose non-tonal music of any type and now that that influence was gone there was the natural reaction –everyone dumped tonality. Atonality was the forbidden fruit. Since I have not heard the music in question I can’t comment of the degree or type of reaction we are talking about. The world of the non-tonal is a huge umbrella encompassing many different styles some of them seemingly very consonant. Obviously, politics plays a much greater role in European music than in the United States, especial where nationalism and state support are a given. On the other hand aren’t you implying that to be an independent composer you have to be “tonal”? Isn’t that just the same thing in a different guise?
    Can’t I just be tonal in my spare time?
    Phil’s page

  10. CM Zimmermann

    Ipods have transformed the context of music into soundtracks for work-out routines. As with any new technology, what is dangerous is its uncritical use.

    ‘The danger is always the same, and it is a very simple one. As soon as something new appears, there is a temptation to look at the whole of history through it. That is to look at the world with the eyes of the computer. Then the whole world is inevitably ‘trimmed’ to fit the computer, and the computer itself turns into the chief and only thing in the world. A computer that takes over the whole world. Just like the world being taken over by war, politics, drugs, vodka. At a particular moment, something turns into a dangerous substitute for the whole world, and this can lead to catastrophe.’
    Alfred Schnittke

  11. pgblu

    It is interesting that we are always on the edge of a catastrophe — and every time we are, someone is saying “this time it’s for real.” While I don’t disagree with the late Schnittke on this one, I have to say that old perspectives on the world are constantly getting lost to history, which is lamentable, unstoppable, — and not at all catastrophic. I will never know what it was like to be my grandfather. Doesn’t mean I can’t get close… but I doubt that the computer is what is preventing me from doing so.

    The real catastrophe of today is global warming. Explain to me how computers and iPods are causing that. People may be a little stupid, collectively, but I don’t think that is made worse by the increased accessibility of media. After all, people are smart individually, and the iPod is a step toward greater individuality.

    What exactly did I have for breakfast this morning that makes me so darn optimistic? Whatever it is, you know you want some!

  12. Colin Holter

    If your iPod allows music – not the sum of music literature or the sound of music, but the quadrivial field of human endeavor we call music – to be something that makes you feel like you’re in a movie when you shop for groceries, and only that, the role of music in your life becomes much more limited than it could be.

    Obviously this is not a real problem in the same way that poverty, ozone depletion, and partisan districting are real problems. It still bothers me, though.

  13. philmusic

    Copland also spoke against casual listening or turning music into the background for something else more important. I find that as I grow older I listen to recorded music less and less though my wife and me are very fond of playing piano duets together. “The Family that plays together stays.. …” did I say that?


  14. EvanJohnson

    The thing that really bothers me is nothing novel: it’s the whole question of saturation. The more music people listen to, the less any of it matters.

    My wife is a doctoral student, and she led a discussion section yesterday morning for a class on media theory. One of the topics was an article by Emile Benveniste about structuralist models of the arts, and he discusses Boulez and serialism at some length through that lens. She asked me for an example of high serialism to play for her students; I gave her the DG recording of Structures II with Boffard and Aimard. She put it on as they were filing into the room.

    Not one of them seemed to even so much as notice that there was music playing. Far from the discussion-starter she had hoped for, she got total indifference — not just to Boulez, but to the fact of aural stimulation, and this of a musical sort that one can assume none of them had ever before heard.

    That really bothers me.

  15. pgblu

    Don’t get me wrong
    Don’t get me wrong, it bothers me too, but music has always benefited from being a topic of education. People have always had to be taught to listen before they could be taught to appreciate music. That is not new. Greater accessibility is not a panatia (intentional misspelling), but I disagree that it renders things meaningless. It merely de-ritualizes music. That opens up possibilities even as it disables others. The significance of something like Beethoven’s Fifth changes, but so does the meaning of Cage’s 4’33”, whose true effect of shock or insight depended on the strongly ritualized odor of the concert hall.

    What I am saying is that these changes have always been in the works and they don’t spell the death of music, only its evolution into something that bothers you. Well, tough donuts! Artists shouldn’t be bothered by anything. Their job is: they have to lead us into a place where we can deal with change. Obdure, Catulle! As I said some months ago, if music is thought of as obsolete, isn’t that the time when new artists get cracking and take us in new directions?

  16. Frank J. Oteri

    Colin wrote: Obviously this is not a real problem in the same way that poverty, ozone depletion, and partisan districting are real problems.

    And then Evan wrote: The more music people listen to, the less any of it matters.

    Perhaps these two issues are related. Despite their wonderful ability to make music portable, the Walkman and its latest incarnation—the iPod—also allow their users to tune out the environment around them and create in its place personally-chosen sonic cocooons. By creating your own soundtrack through life, you run the risk of not actually listening—and more importantly paying attention—to the actual world that’s around you. This makes it all the easier for these users to not pay attention to stuff like poverty, ozone depletion, and partisan districting. In fact, these chosen soundtracks are a form of “partisan districting” to mix metaphors here.

    I listen to tons of recorded music but have given up on commuting on subways or walking the streets with headphones on many years ago. I felt I was really missing out on the world going on around me. Admittedly it’s frequently less interesting than the music I could be listening to instead, but nevertheless it’s the actual world.

    I confess that I frequently read on the subway, which perhaps amounts to the same thing. But anyone who has tried reading and walking at the same time will tell you it’s a pretty bad idea (including a known pianist who once got mugged that way).

  17. AlexRossNY

    “On the other hand aren’t you implying that to be an independent composer you have to be “tonal”?”

    No, this is absolutely not what I am saying. What I wish for is simply more diversity in Central European music — the freedom to write music that is either complexly dissonant or purely triadic or anything in between. I am aware of quasi-tonal moments in the work of Rihm, Lachenmann, and Haas, but they are of a rather quizzical, oblique variety. The younger composers that I’ve heard seem in a way more entrenched in a postwar avant-garde vocabulary that some of the previous generation. If you follow the link to my blog post on the reception to Martin Suckling’s piece in Berlin, you see examples of how ideologically circumscribed new-music commentary remains: “All the traumas of the twentieth century were here obliterated….These young Brits obviously no longer recognize the need to say something new….” etc etc. All the same formulas appeared in the reviews of John Adams’s opera. And it’s not just about critics, it’s about the fairly uniform taste of publishers, radio presenters, festival organizers, etc. If you’re a British or American visitor, you can shrug it off easily enough. But if you’re a young German composer trying to write in, say, a post-minimalist vein, you’re in for a hard time. When I wrote my Adorno piece in 2003, I received several letters from isolated composers saying, “You have no idea how bad it is” or “I gave up and now just play piano.”

  18. pgblu

    Does all concert music in Germany sound the same? Or is it just “all atonal”? Does all atonal music sound the same? Is atonality a style? Someone who has heard a lot of music in Germany comes to realize that the rubric “tonality” says little and nearly nothing about the music in question.

    The word diversity then belies the bias of the listener, for whom things are either one of many tonal styles OR a stylistically monolithic “atonality”. It could very well be the other way around.

    Toshio Hosokawa gets a lot of air time in Germany, but to describe what he does as tonal or atonal is to be completely uninformative. His music is very affirmative of the whole consonance/dissonance dichotomy, and isn’t really critical of it at all. In short, it’s very un-German, or at least unlike the stereotype of German music being perpetuated here. Yet he has an enormous following over there, and not just because people like the exotic aura that comes with an ambassador of a foreign culture.

    Also, people who listen to Lachenmann and are waiting for the harmony to become more cohesive aren’t listening to the music, they are just trying to get it to fit into a mold. They’re missing out on a lot. On the other hand, if you want a nuanced approach to somewhat traditional harmony from Lachenmann, then I refer you to his piano concerto “Ausklang,” or the tuba concerto “Harmonica,” or the third string quartet, “Grido”. You will see that he is just as subtle, resourceful, and inventive with harmony as any so-called post-minimalist.

  19. philmusic

    Dear Alex, if I can call you that, it seems that what you really want is a little American “fair play” in the critical outlook of Germany. It would be ok for German critics to pan Mr. Adams and those like him if, like you, they did it on a case by case basis not as a lock step monolith. I can respect that. The question is, and since I am not a German (although I do have the Austrian Jewish name), is this; what is the perception of American music critics in Germany, Europe and the outside world? Is it simular? I do know that many successful European composers have made careers and home for themselves in the U.S., and not so many Americans in Europe. I also thought that no one was a profit in their own land. Well go figure.
    Phil’s page

  20. AlexRossNY

    I prefer to be called Prof. Dr. Abgrund, but Alex will do.

    I want to respond to pgblu’s thoughtful points by separate post, but, briefly, I don’t think of modern Austro-German music monolithically “atonal,” especially in the case of the fascinating Haas. I do however see it as a somewhat constricted sphere. In terms of diversity I think back to the extraordinary field of possibilities that it existed in the 20s, where you had Schoenberg developing 12-tone music, Krenek flirting with jazz, the young Wolpe testing outer extremes of sheer sound and Dada, Eisler writing his “battle music,” Hindemith pursuing his various paths, Strauss and Schreker extending romanticism, Weill creating a new kind of music theater, and Berg combining everything. The current scene does not seem so varied or lively to me. But perhaps there are others doing different things, who have not had the advantage of UE contracts and international promotion.

    Phil: I think you put your finger on the root of my own frustration. My “Lachenmann problem” dates from the semester I spent in Berlin in 2002 when I encountered rank ignorance on the subject of American music. It’s not just “tonal” American composers who suffer from lack of interest. Does Babbitt, for example, have any sort of German reputation? I assume he would be seen as terribly quaint. Indeed, much attention is paid to European composers over here. On the few occasions that Lachenmann is played, he is usually treated with respect, if not always with love. In 2004 “Grido” was reviewed by Tony Tommasini in the Times as “a 25-minute experiment in ethereal, quizzical, grating and wondrously bizarre sounds… If the structure of the work seemed amorphous on this first hearing, the experience of hearing it, especially in this staggering performance, was riveting.” That’s a thoughtful, honest reaction based on the case at hand. Most German-language reviews of the John Adams opera, by contrast, followed the same script; almost nothing in them was specific to the music. (Wolfgang Schreiber in Munich was an exception.) It’s the base line of respect that’s so often missing from German-language discussions of American music, unless it’s canonical experimentalism in the Cage tradition.

  21. pgblu

    I look forward to your future post…

    And just so I don’t seem like a mere contrarian, I do agree that a more nuanced critical apparatus in the German media would be good. It would be healthy for that society if more people admitted to liking Adams’ music. Having been a German for many years now, I can see why they don’t, but it’s not anti-Americanism, it’s anti-off-the-shelfism. They don’t like the facile juxtaposition of styles. Some of them do, but they tend to like their music extremely rarefied and the result of personal struggle, “Innerlichkeit”, etc. It’s definitely a culture clash.

    The fact that music by Adams is played at all, though, should be regarded as a step in the right direction. People need to be exposed to it, if only so they can form an opinion. And, as I say, media that tries to explain John Adams’ worldview to them would be a great service. The fact that I’m saying that is, alas, very German of me. An American may not care about the composer’s worldview. See Evan’s article for more of this drumbeat.

    I also believe in diversity, and don’t know anyone who would be opposed to it: it’s just a word, though, and it means different things to different people. I have been working at Darmstadt’s summer courses, for example, for the past four seasons; and in ways, the music there is frustratingly uniform, which is not a fault of the composers alone nor the promoters alone; but within its scope of “styles” there really is a lot going on. And that’s just Darmstadt by itself. It’s not all of Germany — most German composers have given up on Darmstadt as a place where the “real stuff” is happening, if they ever believed that at all. In the whole teutonic landscape, diversity of a sort is certainly rampant, and that it happens not to resemble American diversity (Ross-ian diversity?) is a sign of, well, diversity. So say I.

  22. EvanJohnson

    It’s not just “tonal” American composers who suffer from lack of interest. Does Babbitt, for example, have any sort of German reputation? I assume he would be seen as terribly quaint.

    Daniel Wolf provides a very interesting summary of Babbitt’s failed romance with Darmstadt here. It’s worth reading, not only because it’s little-known history but because it serves as a nice final riposte to the BABBITTANDBOULEZ school of aesthetic argumentation.

    Also, while I’m piping up, I think it’s worth keeping in mind the perspective problem. It may be true that the “official” international German school of new music is relatively monolithic – emphasis on the may – but, then, so is the American one. We here all know that the subset of contemporary American music that gets put through the amplifier of publicity, well-distributed recordings, publishers, etc. tends to be less than representative of the true diversity of the national culture; I’d venture to guess that the same is true – probably even more so – in Germany (not to mention France, where the disjunction may be even stronger).

  23. tbriggs

    “I listen to tons of recorded music but have given up on commuting on subways or walking the streets with headphones on many years ago. I felt I was really missing out on the world going on around me. Admittedly it’s frequently less interesting than the music I could be listening to instead, but nevertheless it’s the actual world.”

    Personally, I have never been one to commute with headphones for the same reason of feeling like I was missing out on the world around me. But I totally disagree about the sounds that the world offers up at any moment being less interesting than whatever music I could be listening to instead. When I was a freshman in college I had a visiting professor for a semester and he gave us an assignment to sit in a public place, listen to what was happening in that place and try to write down descriptions of our experience as accurately as possible. Not just a log of what sounds we heard, but what it was like to really listen to that environment in the way that you might otherwise listen to music. It was a really fascinating assignment and it completely changed my attitude towards the ambient environment of sounds that we are unconsciously “tuning out” in our everyday lives. Now I find myself really listening all the time. Sometimes what I hear is just as beautiful as any piece of music I could be listening to instead. And I always feel more connected to the world around me.


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