Show Don’t Tell

Show Don’t Tell

“After 55 years, Le marteau sans maître is still a drag,” wrote Steve Metcalf not long ago on NewMusicBox. Here’s what I want to know: Does it often happen that Metcalf arrives at a concert to find that someone sneaked Le Marteau onto the program without his knowledge? Where does he live, that local ensembles are programming Le Marteau left and right? (By the way, how’s the real estate market in this magical land?) In short, in what sense can Boulez’s hammer be considered a drag? Le marteau, as I experience it, is a rainbow-hued timbregasm. It’s a well-paced, dynamic, and extremely pretty setting of a surreal and wooly text. Given that hardly anybody ever plays the damn thing anymore, I can’t imagine what’s so irritating about it. Or can I?

I suspect it’s not the piece itself (insofar as one can talk about “a piece itself”) that bothers most people, deep down, but rather the piece’s canonization. Fair enough. It sucks when the world seems to have decided that something you don’t like is Very Important. However, after searching three nearby study anthologies for a score and the Naxos Music Library for a complete recording all in vain, I must conclude that Le marteau‘s sanctification is pretty half-hearted: It’s a piece that people of Metcalf’s generation were told, probably with little or faulty explanation, was Very Important. Absent substantial and convincing evidence to support this claim, it’s not hard to see how the idea of Le marteau could indeed become a drag, the handprint of The Man on your shoulder, trying to get you to walk in his prescribed direction. As that generation has taken positions of influence in the world of new music, it’s harder and harder for them to make the effort to care about pieces like Le marteau. Why should they? Even though serial music never dominated the American concert stage, it’s fair to say that at one time the prestigious end of the American academy was indeed home to a nontrivial population of serialists. But the fact that these composer/pedagogues may have been more invested in being right, in winning the Cold War, in unworlding and positivizing the production of “art” than in making meaningful culture—that fact doesn’t mean that it’s responsible to sweep postwar serial music under the rug and breathe a sigh of relief that nobody gives a shit about it anymore.

It goes without saying that no one hearing Le marteau is obliged to care about the composer’s process of pitch multiplication, his schematic formal construction, or the accolades he received from his peers. These aren’t reasons to invest oneself in a piece of music, and nobody in his or her right mind would expect a listener to swoon to a gesture in Le marteau because of its common tones under transposition.

I’m not trying to dog Metcalf here. If, like him, I had to make my point in 25 words rather than the 500 to which I’m accustomed, I have no doubt that my grill would be swarming with even more objectors than I usually confront. But I do want to speak up in defense of Le marteau: It’s a piece that deserves a better discourse than it’s received, even from its proponents.

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8 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell

  1. TJOG

    If Mr. Metcalf ever was a music major (and I assume that’s likely), he may well have first encountered “Le marteau” on a required listening list in a music history or theory class. The circumstances surrounding these lists (students are often given listening exams based on their contents) don’t always inspire affection for the music first heard in this context. Although my students seemed to be a bit more interested in “Le marteau” than most of the serial-derived pieces from that period that they were obliged to listen to (not so much because they appreciated the complexity of the serial organization but because of the work’s undeniable sensual qualities), I can understand the negative associations he has with the piece if he first encountered it under those circumstances, circumstances that only intensify the “handprint on the shoulder” effect to which Colin refers. By the way, although I don’t agree with him about “Le marteau,” I thought that most of the points Mr. Metcalf made in his “random thoughts” were clever and provocative.

  2. rtanaka

    Funny enough, Kyle Gann just posted a blog about this exact topic: How to Care How it Was Made

    Defenders of post-war serialism almost always say that the more you learn about the process the more you appreciate it, but as with many others now, I’ve found just the opposite. Having spent 8 years in music school I tried my best to like it — I really did — but there’s just too many holes, both intellectually or theoretically, for any honest inquiry to lead to the conclusion that Le Marteau is supposed to be some kind of awe-inspiring masterpiece. It’s OK for what it is, which makes it interesting to analyze from a political point of view I guess, but it really doesn’t warrant the type of success that it enjoyed in classrooms if you ask me.

    There’s the arguments of music theory, which the above post shows are highly problematic, then there’s the argument that his methods were a type of “science” that needed to be explored. The latter doesn’t work either because Boulez’s methodologies are akin to playing numbers games where the structures doesn’t contain any meaning outside of itself. I hate to say this, but a lot of the arguments that attempt to justify those types of approaches rely on the fact that most artists and art patrons don’t really have the time nor motivation to hold music to the standards and rigors of the scientific method.

    It does manage to give the impression of rigor to some extent — but its complexity lies in its language, not necessarily in the quality of its ideas. Schoenberg could justify his 12-tone system as an extension of tonality and harmonic modulation, but post-war serialism never really made much sense to begin with because it never accomplished any of what it set out to do. It has no purpose outside of itself and is written for its own sake — representing something very narrow, individualized, and self-interested — using complexity largely as a smoke-screen to hide power relationships and ulterior motives. These were the sort of games composers were playing during the Cold War, where trust and honesty were not exactly in demand.

    Maybe at the time it was something that needed to be written — I wasn’t alive then so I can’t really make that type of judgment, but enough has time has passed that we can probably start asking ourselves if it really makes any sense to program that work in the year 2010. It’s pretty easy to compare the approaches of integral serialism with what has happened in the finance market, and its reception will probably be as such.

  3. TJOG

    It always makes me a little wary when I hear blanket condemnations of any serious musical style, including post-WW II serialism. Maybe we’re all getting too preoccupied with the relationship of this music to the Cold War period and as a result are unwilling to take these pieces as individual works of art. These are, after all, individual pieces of music, each with their own particular merits (and, quite possibly, defects). I have some trouble developing a great deal of affection for some Babbitt pieces, but I’ve always thought “Le Marteau” was mesmerizing. And just because I’m attracted to certain aspects of Cage’s philosophy, that doesn’t mean that I am endlessly intrigued by every one of his pieces. I think some of them are fascinating, others less so. I think we ought to judge these works on an individual basis. I don’t think we shouldn’t dismiss (or deify) all compositions deriving from post-war serialism, indeterminacy, minimalism, “new tonality” or anything else on the basis of the mindset we associate with them or the motives that we ascribe to the composer who created them.

  4. rtanaka

    These are, after all, individual pieces of music, each with their own particular merits (and, quite possibly, defects).

    Which is exactly the type of sentiment the United States was attempting to export at the time — the idea of individualism in itself. The contrast is made very clear when you compare this attitude against communism, which preaches the exact opposite. They’re both kind of similar in a way, though, in that they rely on generic signifiers (“the individual”, “the proletariat”) in order to propagate a type of overarching ideological construct.

    This is not an aesthetic judgment — I’m just stating facts, which are well-documented and uncontroversial at this point. The question is now that we know the things that we do now, what does this mean for future programming? You could say, for instance, Cage’s 4’33” reflects the attitude of investors on Wall Street who thought they could get “something for nothing”. The piece is, after all, devoid of content but nonetheless still marketable as a commodity. In the context of today’s economic climate, this might appeal to a particular brand of elitists, but it will probably turn off (or even anger) others as being pretentious and unresourceful.

    All I’m saying is that if you know what sorts of things artistic gestures are supposed to signify and represent, it becomes possible to make smarter decisions regarding career paths, programming, and compositional choices. I’m not one to leave things to chance if I can help it, if you know what I mean. Why bother putting on another concert if it’s just going to be met with indifference?

  5. Frank J. Oteri

    To quote Kyle Gann, who sums it up better than I can:

    “John Cage’s 4′33″ is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew. To Cage it seemed, at least from what he wrote about it, to have been an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music. It begged for a new approach to listening, perhaps even a new understanding of music itself, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between art and life. But to beg is not always to receive.” (

  6. rtanaka

    Yes, I respect Kyle Gann’s work and I agree with everything said there. Certainly there was a lot of good intensions involved when the piece was written.

    Now that it has been more than 50 years since its conception, however, I think we have enough information to assess the piece’s effects on our current culture. You could say that 4’33” can also represent a kind of barren, empty landscape, which plays into the idea of pioneerism that this country has founded itself upon.

    On one hand it can evoke feelings of exploration, inventiveness and freedom — positive traits which are hard to argue against. On the other hand, to a lot of people pioneerism is just colonialism, and with that comes with all its negatives. I think the fact that 4’33” is an important work is pretty undisputed at this point, but not all of what it contains is positive — it’s a double-edged sword, as with many things American made.

    So would you program this piece at a convention for Native Americans? No. Would you use this piece to protest the war in Iraq or Afgahnistan? Well you could, but it would be ineffective because it doesn’t really contain anything that forbids that type of policy. A cocktail party for venture capitalists? That could possibly work — and in a sense, that’s the sorts of crowds that it had always appealed towards anyway.

    Dunno, I think it’s just something to think about if you want to avoid being disappointed.

  7. TJOG

    A cocktail party for venture capitalists? That could possibly work — and in a sense, that’s the sorts of crowds that it had always appealed towards anyway.

    Yes, of course. John Cage was always known for being particularly tight with venture capitalists.


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