Willful Obfuscation

Willful Obfuscation

There’s been a great deal of chatter on these chatter pages in response to Colin Holter’s musings about composer bios. It’s somehow telling that his words provoked a debate about modernism, which seems somewhat inevitable these days.

A charge that was raised herein, and one which frequently gets raised by folks who are anti-modernist, is that modernism engages in a willful obfuscation with the audience. Yet from my vantage point it seems that no one aesthetic position has a monopoly on being obscure just for the obscurity’s sake. And in fact, I sometimes get the feeling that some of those modernists went more out of their way to explain themselves than anyone else.

For example, I recently chanced upon a copy of the score for Wallingford Riegger’s Music for Orchestra in the Strand. Since it was only five dollars, which nowadays is a steal for any orchestral score, I probably would have bought it anyway. But ultimately what made me take it to the register was the fact that the twelve-tone row upon which the piece was generated was printed on the first page of the score along with that row’s retrograde inversion. To someone for whom terms like “retrograde inversion” are de facto erudite this might appear to be the height of pretension, but to me it was a wonderful, if quaint, cipher to help figure out what was going on in the piece, especially since we live in an era where few people want to talk about how they’ve put something together.

Once upon a time even most jazz albums were carefully annotated, and those notes frequently helped clarify or give context for a listening experience. But since the dawn of the rock era, with the exception of occasionally printed lyrics, notes disappeared from recordings in most musical genres. Nowadays obscurantism seems to be part of the zeitgeist, and it transcends genre. Even many contemporary music labels such as Tzadik, Cold Blue, and New Albion largely eschew including program notes with their releases which could benefit from such verbal clarification. And some indie rock albums, perhaps taking the lead from Led Zeppelin’s completely nomenclature-free fourth album, go out of their way not to tell you anything.

Earlier this morning, I was listening to the indie rock band Animal Collective’s brilliant new album Merriweather Post Pavilion which comes in an extremely beautiful package which feels like a present. On the cover there’s a sticker telling you the name of the disc and the band, but it says, “Please remove this sticker after purchase.” Admittedly the cover would look prettier, but then you’d have no idea what the thing is six months from now when it was no longer fresh in your memory. Is it so terrible to have an identity marker? In my heart of hearts, I’d love to have them tell us what kind of lamellophone they used on the opening of “Lion in a Coma”, although I know it might be too much to ask rock bands to include program notes with their recordings.

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28 thoughts on “Willful Obfuscation

  1. coreydargel

    Frank, you make a good point about how modernists seemed to go out of their way to explain their work, but please don’t conflate the avoidance of printed lyrics or program notes and deliberate obfuscation. Speaking personally, I don’t include lyrics in my album art because I don’t think song lyrics should be experienced on the printed page. Although I’ve never refused to write program notes for concerts, etc., I’m not sure I would want a physical CD object of my music fused with, say, a printed text/essay about the music. There are plenty of reasons for separating the product from the explanation of how it was put together. and only one of those reasons is deliberate obfuscation.

  2. ScottG

    I would add that most of those modernists who explained their work so carefully were still obfuscating, but in a different sort of way. I’ve never met a composer writing serial music who thought the tone row and such were the point of their music. How helpful would it be for a tonal composer to give a list of major and minor triads on the first page of their piece? Not very helpful.

    I feel the same way about serial music. The tone row is a basic language used to say more complex things, and while it might provide some insight into the nature of the piece, it’s a misleading insight. I think that may be the reason some performers I know “hate” playing serial music. They think it’s all a game of numbers and tone rows, because the composers have repeatedly, in order to “explain” themselves, shown us those things. But that’s not really the point of the music, any more than a V-I cadence is the point of a Mozart sonata. I think many of those composers got so caught up in explaining their language (and people followed them down that path) that they forgot to articulate the MUSIC they made from that language. Now that’s obfuscation.

  3. BearRAWRR

    If you’re curious about how the sound was created for “Lion in a Coma,” check out the band’s video for “My Girls” on youtube. I’m pretty sure it’s just a sample due to the electronic equipment used in the video.


    At this point the band is not employing many acoustical instruments and they prefer not to talk about how they create the sounds they make. In a recent interview with Pitchfork they make specific mention of this. Something along the lines of: what drives them to create the music they make is from listening to other records with otherworldly sounds with similar obscurantist tendencies. Part of the fun of records for them is that magical mystery of studio work. If they gave away the mundane facts about what equipment they used and what settings and how exactly the piece was put together, other listeners might not be so inspired to make music themselves. So much of the fun of working in a recording studio (professionally or at home) are those happy accidents that make sounds we didn’t know we could make already.

    Thus I think that the obscurantist posturing of Animal Collective can be linked to the way in which they as a band love to experience the same product that they themselves make.

    That said, there are many pieces of music that I’ve had to put 10 tons of effort into to get past the unnecessary, posturing obscurantism to find aspects of the piece that click with me. It all seems rather relative to the material itself.

    One can only hope that when it comes to the application of extra-musical material to the work that the composer, publisher, record label, etc. derive it from the musical material itself and not from what is the hip and current packaging.

  4. rtanaka

    I don’t think most people purposely try to be obscure, but the continuous pressure put on by society for artists to be “new” and “groundbreaking” I think tends to encourage artists to defy common sense and coherency. A few years ago I was reading a lot of journals and papers on music theory, and since I had strong aspirations to continue my academic studies I used those as models for my own writing. Looking at them now it’s pretty embarrassing because most of them don’t make a lick of sense and it’s peppered with unnecessarily complex terms and pseudo-intellectual jargon. I didn’t know any better back then so I’m not too haunted by it, although it’s a little disturbing that this practice still goes on today in places which are supposed to carry a lot of prestige and high academic standards.

    I understand that sometimes complex terminologies are necessary in order for people to talk about certain things, but language cannot be an end onto itself because its primary purpose is to communicate something to another person. Obscurantism is often used to 1) try to make the author look smarter without adding any content, 2) intimidate the reader with a barrage of words, 3) avoid talking about anything specific or understandable as to avoid criticism — so I think it’s important to check the writer’s motives whenever reading anything that looks “complex” on the surface. In some writings the language may complex but if you skim the surface sometimes you’ll find very little inside, and the same can be said for music that does similar things as well.

    I was most disappointed by integral serialism because when I first made the switch from studying engineering to music I believed that the method would allow me to reconcile my interests between the sciences and the arts. Unfortunately as time went on I realized that the majority of people working in that style didn’t really understand science or the scientific method that much, and particularly lacked the respect for empiricism that’s crucial toward a perspective that we might be able to call “objective”. Fiascoes like the Sokal Affair reinforced by belief that there was something very wrong with how things were working.

    Oddly enough the idea of writing music from experience has always been a time-honored method because it allows for individual expression while at the same time having it be grounded in something very concrete. But nowadays you’ll find this idea more often in the realms of jazz, pop, and folk musics…unfortunate as it is, high modernism seemed to have made it a point to define itself against some of these practices which is why there is such a big rift between classical music and everything else.

  5. jbunch

    Is it possible that some authors and some composers are trying to make themselves look smarter or legitimate their work by providing glossy complex diatribes in response to your *totally* agenda-less listening habits? Maybe. But to assume someone is simply because you don’t automatically understand what they’ve said or written is unfair and disingenuous. It’s fine to express your frustration, but not ok (in my book) to blame your misunderstandings on someone else.

    What I take Frank to be doing here is to defend/make space for some writers whose music values concept, especially in light of the fact that the language we use to parse these people out is problematic to say the least. If one were to accuse people like Wallingsford Riegger of being “too academic” because he was interested in 12-tone technique, then you have to be fair and say that every artist that was fully (naively perhaps?) dedicated to rigorous conceptual schema that enjoyed a sense of historical moment is wonky and academic. This would have to include people like Sol LeWitt, and John Cage, and Gerard Grisey. If you don’t automatically understand spectral analysis, it’s not Tristan Murail’s fault that the topic can be dense. If you don’t understand Cy Twombley paintings, it doesn’t automatically mean that Cy Twombley works from a general disdain for simplicity and clarity.

    This kind of talk ultimately reminds me of a Palin-esque anti-intellectualism that seems to confuse substance with style. Supposedly “Joe the new music fan” hates 12-tone rows and hifallutin’ nested tuplets and words over 3 syllables, gosh darnit. Ultimately, I think this strategy is bound to fail because it’s based on false expectations and false perceptions. Artists aren’t elitists because of their style or aesthetic commitments. The new music community is sick with agenda-ridden language that serves only to marginalize people that don’t belong to the speaker’s consort. I find it profoundly discouraging to try to create fresh and exciting work when I have to navigate the ideological terrain that is being reinforced by this kind of language.

  6. rtanaka

    I just hope people are able to make a distinction between something that uses complex language and something that uses complex ideas, because sometimes I’m not so sure. Bach’s ideas are incredibly complex, but it’s laid out in such a logical and reasonable way that it’s difficult not to see the richness in it. The language of John Adam’s music tends to be simple but his use of counter-point tends to be incredibly dense, with a lot of things happening all at once. Whereas, say, the language of Cage’s work tends to be incredibly complex but there’s really no content inside because in the end he’s really not saying much of anything. (At least he admitted it, though — he has nothing to say and he’s saying it.)

    As someone who spent a few years of my life studying science I can tell you that a good portion of theory articles that look like science papers are just flat-out rubbish. (And actual scientists will agree with me, as pointed out in the Sokal affair above.) The human mind loves making structures out of patterns they see and utilizing mathematical formulas seem like a good way to give it a legitimate look. But these structures are all only on the surface and don’t explain anything about the content or function of how the music is operating on an audible level, and neither of its meaning. It’s the equivalent of say, finding Jesus’ face in your donut, for example — structure that the mind projects onto the surface rather than something that is derived from the substance itself. (The latter is the essence of empiricism that a lot of composers don’t seem to understand.)

    The main thing is that if you’re going to argue for a theory using science as your legitimizer, then it should respect the rules of the scientific method, which is to say that the theories need to be 1) empirically verifiable, 2) reproducible by more than one party, and 3) remains as a consistent generalization despite changes in context. Some ideas survive the test — Steve Reich’s “phasing” techniques, Elliott Carter’s metric modulations, and I would include some of the spectral musics on there, although the movement might be too loosely defined to really be called a method. If the theory is to be a legitimate one, first it has to be audible, then it has to be audible not just to the composer but to everyone else. The theory should point out some kind of universality that exists in more than one place, and as proof musicians should be able to reproduce its effect to show that it works (i.e. don’t write things that are impossible.)

    If you want scientific legitimacy, that’s the kind of rigor that you need. Most music theories simply do not meet these requirements but they get published anyway because they’re not proofed by people who understand what the scientific method is trying to achieve. As a result, despite its intentions the integral serialists have created a rift between itself and the scientific community. This is the reality of things, unfortunately, but you will not hear any of this in the history books because they have a vested interest in maintaining an image of legitimacy in the eyes of the students.

    But then again, the fact is that you don’t need legitimacy from science in order to write good music. Science tries to explain nature through observation of the physical world, while music serves a metaphysical purpose towards the politics and culture of its society. That’s why I think studying music through that lens will probably produce scholarship that might be of more interest.

  7. eaj

    If you want scientific legitimacy, that’s the kind of rigor that you need. Most music theories simply do not meet these requirements but they get published anyway because they’re not proofed by people who understand what the scientific method is trying to achieve.

    Your straw men are multiplying, Ryan.

    Can you give an example, please, of what you mean by music theory or compositional method aspiring to “scientific legitimacy” in this sense? Using quasi-mathematical notations doesn’t count. Drawing analogies to natural phenomena doesn’t count. Using the overtone spectrum as musical material certainly doesn’t count. I’ve never seen anything (outside the domain of psychoacoustics and related endeavors, Lerdahl and Jackendoff aside (and I suspect that has nothing to do with what you’re talking about)) that has anything to do, or wants anything to do, with the scientific method.

  8. jbunch

    Cage’s work said something insomuch as it said nothing. If he had nothing to say he wouldn’t have said anything at all. But to say “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” is to have something to say about a number of things and to have said them. In other words, Cage wasn’t admitting that he didn’t have any positive knowledge or ideas to contribute to the world of art, he was contributing the idea of nothingness – positing negation. But you are right, I think, if you intended to imply simply that Cage didn’t see himself as creating concretions that other people had to live up to.

    One of the things I am attempting to say is that art which draws inspiration from math or science doesn’t have to proceed mathematically or scientifically. And it most certainly (as you say) does not need to be certified by the scientific method. If the human mind loves making structures out of patterns that it sees that is because this is quite natural to it. This is the law of Pragnanz. Insofar as what you call mathematics relates to basic operations of logic, then yes everyone uses mathematics in some form or another to understand the things they experience. But I don’t understand how this innate logical process has any necessary connection with legitimation.

    The audible level *is* the surface. Anyone that is in earshot of a piece of music and is not deaf can immediately hear the audible level. Not everyone can hear the structure of a piece of music. Hearing structure depends on a number of things: the desire to, acculturation, training, trust…Hearing the audible level requires eardrums.

    You are tossing around words like structure, surface, substance, with a great deal of carelessness. I think it’s important to think and talk about musical meanings, and levels of listening, etc. But I think you are sort of uncritically grouping things together. You’ve made a distinction between structure and substance. If you are equating substance with “meaning” then because the meaning of a piece of music is not necessarily intended to be articulated by its structure it can’t possibly be a criticism of a piece that fails to live up to this unintended end. Structure is not always perhaps “audible” in the sense that you can hear the precise operations a composer has carried out upon the materials of a particular composition, but structure can be “experienced” as a consistency or a denial of a consistency. Structure in this sense causes a piece to work. No one is amazed at how well a bridge works when they drive their car safely across a deep ravine – but boy do they experience a real feeling of disappointment in the poor structure of a bridge if they are careening to their deaths from its poorly structured shattered remains!

    More importantly, you’ve also assumed that meaning can be 1) made audible, and 2) made period. Your complaint about seeing Jesus in donuts sounds like a complaint about having the burden of relying upon your own imagination to derive a meaningful experience out of listening to a piece of music instead of someone just telling you what they want you to think.

    What part of whose music is supposedly not empirically verifiable? What does that mean? “O why yes, I see, this piece does indeed exist – see here, we have a recording, a score, and some program notes.” Why would you aspire to create anything that could just as well have been created by anyone else? And why would you want your work to be thought of exactly the same way every time someone encountered it? Who decides if a piece of music passes the “test?” Does Jacopo Peri’s music pass the test? Do the Jonas Brothers pass the test? Do the Aka pygmies that are two villages down from the ones Ligeti read about pass the test?

    I don’t know many theorists that claim to want scientific legitimacy, mainly because I don’t think a music theory that departs from a mathematical or scientific concept needs to proceed mathematically or scientifically either. The function of a music theory journal is not to disseminate unchanging truths, but to provide a platform for ceaselessly shifting perspectives. No one really writes integral serialism any more so I’m not sure who your beef is with. But to implicate those that did in the particular moment is unfair. Composers try things and sometimes they don’t catch on. Fine. But that was still an interesting and worthwhile chapter in the ongoing legacy of contemporary music. We don’t need to punish people in retrospect for their own aesthetic choices. There is no rift between integral serialists and the scientific community because the scientific community doesn’t give a shit about new music anyway. If you don’t want to grant any legitimacy to integral serialists that’s your own business. But we don’t need more conspiracy theories about curmudgeonly professors who are out there forcing young impressionable teens to dedicate their lives to the advancement of hexachordal semi-combinatoriality.

  9. Leos

    re: pseudoscience
    I generally agree that there is a disconnect between some of the claims made by composers and real science. But audible to everyone else? That’s kind of a tall order in such a musically uneducated society; that should probably be qualiified at least a bit. Also, it is well known that J. S. Bach was obsessed with numerology and that certain aspects of that became part of his structural thinking, but I would dare say that not all such aspects are always immediately audible on the music’s surface. Other composers, Berg, for one, play with similar ideas. If I can’t connect these immediately to the surface of the music, does that somehow invalidate them, assuming they help the composer reach the point of creating something beautiful?

  10. rtanaka

    We can argue semantics all you want, but the reality is that people who study real science do not really pay any attention to integral serialism or any of its off-shoots. The reason being that there is a definite lack of respect for the empirical method within the music community, particularly among composers who have lost their ability to perform.

    My criticism is directed towards particular people who have used the scientific argument as a way to give their work an air of objectivity (most notorious one being Babbitt, of course) when in fact they were not even following the rules of science itself. They could get away with it because they knew that if they’re talking amongst musicians the chances of people calling them out on their BS would be relatively low. If you’re not trying to legitimize your work in this way then nobody would be having a hizzy, but when I flip through some music journals nowadays it’s pretty obvious to me that there is a ton of people who are doing this. Graphs and charts filled with useless data…and the conclusions drawn from them often just ends with a “well so this is why this piece is so good”. Oh man.

    But like everything, it makes sense when you put into a historical context. The reason why these types of works came about is once again connected to the Cold War, specifically the Space Race with the Soviet Union. During the height of that period the government was pumping in a lot of money into the sciences and there was a very strong pressure for humanities to “scientifize” their output. This is largely the reason why fields like political “science” and social “sciences” changed their names. So were they really writing something from their gut or we’re they doing it for the purpose of securing funding?

    So I would just be skeptical of the motivations behind why composers write certain things because what the music is doing is not always what they say its doing. I’ve found that the most reasonable explanations for artistic behavior could be found outside of the field because it’s virtually impossible to get a straight answer out of someone who’s so heavily invested in the cause itself. I’ve found that the art world really isn’t all that complex once you get down to it — just absurd conflicts over power and influence shrouded by a lot of romantic language.

  11. rtanaka

    Just FYI, I was easily able to teach several people with zero musical training how to do phasing and simpler forms of metric modulations during the last few years. Some were bewildered, some were amazed, but most people seemed to have gotten a kick out of it. When the effects are actually audible people generally seem to be pretty receptive.

    Now if you’re trying to convince someone of something that’s not there, that takes some proselytizing. I had several professors tell me that I should listen to the recordings over and over and over and over and then those interval transformations/aggregate systems/hexachordal combos/etc. begin to make sense. It never really did, and oddly enough when you’d ask them to reproduce or explain something that’s written on the score they wouldn’t be able to do it either. So are they really the educated ones or are they just posing as being knowledgeable by being obscure?

  12. Leos

    All I was suggesting was that composers often put things in their music that are not obviously hearable, at least not the first time around, and that this does not necessarily invalidate their work. This is not a defense of Babbitt or of integral serialism, which is not a method I have ever used, though I submit that Babbitt has written some beautiful music with such procedures. Stravinsky composed some beautiful music in his later years using his own peculiar method (learned from Krenek, who himself created at least one masterpiece, Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae, with it) of rotation/transposition of hexachords. Devices such as mensuration canons aren’t necessarily intended to be hearable in themselves, but can, in the hands of someone like Ockeghem, produce beautiful music. You don’t have to do any of those things in order to produce beautiful music, but it can be done.

    By the way, who do you know who is still using integral serialism besides Babbitt? No one is dictating this to anyone, so why all the fuss? Is it really even worth getting this exercised about?

  13. eaj

    We can argue semantics all you want, but the reality is that people who study real science do not really pay any attention to integral serialism or any of its off-shoots. The reason being that there is a definite lack of respect for the empirical method within the music community, particularly among composers who have lost their ability to perform.

    Well, I’m sorry you don’t want to “argue semantics,” but without doing so it’s completely impossible to know what you’re talking about. “People who study real science do not really pay any attention to integral serialism or any of its offshoots”?? Why should they, unless they’re interested in contemporary music? What on earth are you arguing against?

    Can you cite a single example of Milton Babbitt or anybody else making any claims of experimental repeatability or disproveability or anything having to do with your scientific method?

    And where does the empirical method come into play, perhaps among composers who have not “lost their ability to perform?” (I trust you have not heard Babbitt’s renditions of show tunes.)

  14. rtanaka

    Well I’m making a fuss about it because even though integral serialism in its pure form is pretty much dead at this point, the general mindset is still very much prevailent in academia. And I think that it tends to lead to bad scholarship if left unchecked. Theories should be “useful” in the sense that it points out generalities that exist in more than one place — learning tonal theory is useful because tonality follows rules that are common from one piece to another, giving the musician the power to anticipate changes in musics written in certain styles. The same can be said for modal theory (used mostly by jazz musicians), which has also proven to be useful for working musicians. The problem with a lot of “advanced” theories is that whatever structures they happen to see in the music is often isolated to a particlar piece of a particular composer, which doesn’t serve any purpose outside of itself. My guess is that this practice is a result of schools and teachers putting a lot of pressure on scholars to make a discovery of some sort that’s “unique”, but I think this completely misses the point. Since theorists are typically not required to demonstrate their ideas musically they can get away with just having their ideas on paper as well. If they were forced to demonstrate their ideas in front of an audience, I think it would make a lot of people think twice about what they write.

    As Richard Rorty would say, objectivity is determined by the act of consensus. It’s much easier to do this in science because it produces results which are tangible. Music, on the other hand, is ephemeral and temporary, disappearing as soon as the concert is over. Have you ever seen or touched a B-flat or a C major chord? There are manifestations of it everywhere, but notes and chords don’t really exist because they’re just an idea, not something in itself. That’s why music cannot ever be justified under purely empirical terms.

    The closest thing you’ll find to objectivity in music is if the 1) the ideas are based on personal experience or 2) if it is tied to cultural and social trends that can be observed retroactively. Unfortunately these methods have largely moved away from classical composition and into separate fields (the first going to jazz and other types of improvised musics, while the latter to musicology and art history), so what we’re left with is a culture of hyper-rationalism that’s largely fueling the compositional climate at this point in time.

    Rationalists claim that substance is derived not from the thing in itself, but from the individual’s interpretation of it, which is an oft heard phrase among academic composition circles. It’s not to say that it’s completely without value (useful for “framing” information, as Descartes did with mathematics), but without an empirical element to balance it out it has the potential to turn into a neo-Platonic ideology that interprets everything only on its surface.

    By the way, if you’ve read Babbitt’s most recent interview (which is on this site) you’ll probably notice his extreme pessimism in regards to the future of music. Music itself always survives so that’s really not the case, but he’s really talking about himself and the ideologies that he spurned throughout his career. I think that the “academic music” bubble has been punctured repeatedly and is dying a slow death at this point. I don’t have any ill-wills toward anyone, but it really might be for the better in the long run.

  15. philmusic

    A charge that was raised herein, and one which frequently gets raised by folks who are anti-modernist, is that modernism engages in a willful obfuscation with the audience.










    credit swap

    Am I getting warm?

    Phil Fried

  16. Leos

    No ill will? With all due respect, you sound pretty bitter to me.

    No one is defending bad theory or bad music. All I’m saying is listen to the music and judge it for yourself. Regardless of the method by which it was created, it will either move you or not, but the method in and of itself is no guarantee of good or bad music, and your grinding of his ax seems pretty pointless.

  17. rtanaka

    I’m really not bitter at all — I’ve been lucky enough to stay artistically active where I live despite the fact that I’ve been out of school for several years. My experiences performing and composing have been overwhelmingly positive so far and have been very rewarding. I might just sound that way because most of the time I spend here I usually end up saying stuff that most composers generally don’t like to hear. All of these things I’ve had to come to terms with myself so I’m not just trying to be an ass, I promise.

    What bothers me the most are some of the remarks made on this site that show an obvious contempt for the audience, accusing them of being yokels or uneducated if they don’t automatically appreciate musics being produced by certain sects of the classical music medium. Not only is this attitude harmful to the image of classical music, but it’s also misguided because it’s simply untrue. Alex Ross calls this the “mediocre elitism” that has been plaguing the medium for a while now. (i.e. modernization turning classical music into a social group rather than a signifier of aristocratic elitism.)

    If you go out into public thinking that knowing a lot about music somehow makes you superior, I think you’ll be sorely disappointed by how society responds. I know some people who get so caught up in the romantic ideal of the genius composer that they hang onto this type of grudge for years, unwilling to let it go. That’s a type of bitterness that goes beyond not just liking certain kinds of styles because it’s motivated by intensions other than self-expression that’s beyond the composer’s control.

    I find that the schools are often guilty in pushing this type of torment onto its students. It’s not really anybody’s fault in particular — it’s just that the system is fucked and it needs to change, that’s all.

  18. Leos

    Still your tone tends to be rather preachy, as though you are the lone voice of the “real world,” and you treat all of us as though we are contemptuous of audiences, which I know is not true. That the society is largely musically uneducated is not to say that all musically uneducated people are bad people, nor is it to say that I am superior–far from it. It is simply a fact of life that composers have to come to terms with in a reasonable and compassionate way. Forgive me, but it seems to be you who puts himself above the rest of us.

  19. rtanaka

    If the things above doesn’t apply to you, then just ignore it because it’s not directed at you. You don’t seem like one of them but I’ve met enough people who’s attitude toward the audience (and often towards the performers) were pretty horrible and I can see some of these sentiments brewing on this site as well. What’s disturbing is the fact that schools often reward this type of behavior, even though doing so will get you eaten alive outside of school.

    I really don’t mind elitism, arrogance, or prechy-ness as long as the speaker can back it up with substantial claims. I rather have an honest discussion rather than a polite one, and I consider this site a place to do it. You said that we should listen to each piece of music regardless of its method, but I’ve listened to enough of music done in that style to come to the conclusion that the method itself is bad and it stifles the creativity of the composer. (This includes Babbitt as well.) This is largely because the style is based on shoddy premises. Again, I have nothing against individual composers, just the method in which they work in.

    But anyway, I suggest reading the Babbitt interview because it’s pretty telling of how he perceives things are going. If you disagree with my opinion and think that it’s still worth pursuing that route, by all means please do, but you may find yourself being aboard a sinking ship.

  20. pgblu

    I’m afraid that what you’re saying is that Babbitt’s creativity is stifled. But he produced a lot of music did he not. Who is to judge that it is somehow ‘uncreative’ music? Is it just because you don’t like it?

  21. mclaren

    When all else fails, best way to whip up some pseudo-controversy is always to bait the modernists. Or the anti-modernists, as the case may be.

    At the danger of diverging exponentially from your topoic, though, what this situation really suggests is mainly the unebelievably retrogressive obsolescence of contemporary liner notes in serious music.

    I mean…look…we hit the 21st century 9 years ago. This ain’t your grandaddy’s LP cover. Most people get their music nowadays by downloads, everybody’s online, so what, prithee, sirrah, doest thou with thine antique CD liner notes?

    Haven’t serious composers gotten the message yet?

    CD booklets represent something like 80% of the cost of a CD. Chuck the goddamn CD booklet! Put in a slip of paper with a URL! Then slap up an hour-long video with the composer discussing each piece on the CD, give examples, play excerpts, early versions, re-orchestrations, discarded versions, take as long as you need to explain how the composition is put together and how it works with blow-by-blow sound & video examples… Jeez, folks, the sky’s the limit here. WHY ARE WE STILL USING IDIOTIC ANTIQUE PRINTED LINER NOTES AS THOUGH WE’RE ALDUS MANUTIUS, STILL LIVING IN THE 16th CENTURY????

    Let’s not even talk about the composition as a spime. A really astute together with-it contemporary composer would run the table with online audiovisual hyperlinked liner notes by hyperlinking each melodic line in the score, flag every older version of each part of the score, enter the whole score into a MySQL database and allow the listener to search it by context. Listeners could track the creation of a piece of music, hyperlink of older versions of the score, view or hear alternate orchestrations, multiple performances, even re-orchestrate a MIDI version of the score themselves with online real-time softsynths.

    Sure, that stuff is little advanced. That’s real 21st century liner notes. But forget about that, just break out of the insanely limiting pigeonhole of the “liner notes consist of silent immutable text of length short enough to fit on the back on an obsolete LP record” mindset. Seriously. Can’t we? This is the 21st century, can’t we at least think about jettisoning antique limited uninformative narrow text-only printed-booklet CD liner notes in favor of something better?

  22. Chris Becker

    “This is the 21st century, can’t we at least think about jettisoning antique limited uninformative narrow text-only printed-booklet CD liner notes in favor of something better?”

    “Something better”? Why can’t the two coexist?

    I like objects. Speaking as a creative person who does most of his composing at home, they are a source of energy for me.

    I have this great DVD showing Allen Toussaint at a photo shoot in an old place in New Orleans’ French Quarter and he’s talking about and actually stroking an old chair that is a part of the living space. The chair is speaking to him. Likewise, my records, CDs, and books speak to me.

    I appreciate a more fluid approach to how I might present my music. A world of databases and blackberries ain’t “something better.” It’s just another means we have at our disposal.

  23. rtanaka

    I like some of Babbitt’s works, actually — I think All Set is pretty interesting and I it listen to it from time to time. But overall I get the feeling that composers who’re writing those styles seem to be fighting against the systems that they use rather than using the systems to their advantage. There’s a certain level of integrity that you just can’t help but hear when the composer’s intensions, the methods that they use, and the audible result are all in sync with one another. I think the 2nd Viennese School composers understood this to a certain extent, but I’m not so sure about the high-modernists who came after that point. It even reached a point of absurdity when some composers began to claim that the intensions of the composer didn’t matter, even though at the same time they weren’t willing to let go authorship of their works.

    I’ve noticed that some student pieces might throw in a few bits of something tonal-sounding into an atonal work seemingly out of spite, but it disappears very quickly so as not to rock the boat too much. This particular thing happens so often now that one teacher I knew believed that the practice had turned into a cliche at this point in time. So I don’t know if people are noticing these little things or what, but the signs of sufforcation are all there right in the music.

  24. pgblu

    Thanks for the bowel cleanser, mclaren…seriously. Good stuff. Especially citing Aldus Manutius!!

    Can you provide an example of what you’re talking about, or do we have to create one ourselves?

  25. rtanaka

    When all else fails, best way to whip up some pseudo-controversy is always to bait the modernists. Or the anti-modernists, as the case may be.

    When all else fails, distract the discussion away from the problems of the medium and talk about marketing and technical issues instead. You’d make a fine politician, my friend.

    If the content stinks, it doesn’t really matter what type of packaging you use. The reality is that we’ve been losing support both on the popular front and from the intellectual elites, and something needs to be done otherwise the medium may very well be regulated to the sidelines in the near future. That is to say, if we’re not already there at this point.

    I saw Keith Jarett a few years ago and he mentioned that Elliott Carter has been writing some good music even to this day, but Jazz is really the only style that has any chance of survival in the future. He’s of course known for making provocative statements as such, but he did have a point — if something doesn’t change, classical music may be very well headed toward that way. Jazz in recent years has done very well for itself, establishing itself as a form of “art music” while also managing to infiltrate the academy. The medium has also done a very good job of incorporating styles from other musical cultures, which is in line with the age of globalization that we’re currently heading in as well. If Jazz manages to assimilate ideas from classical music, it may very well render our medium obsolete. Some musicians are already capable of doing this at this point (Jarrett of course being one of them), so it’s not just a hypothetical scenario anymore.

    Classical music, on the other hand, seems to have created an insular culture where we’re not even allowed to talk about modernism and post-modernism without being accused of “baiting”. Having closed its doors to outside influences and opinions, new music concerts are now primarily attended by only fellow composers and musicians. This is what Babbitt wanted and he got it, and we’re reeling from the after-effects of this tradition.

    Be careful what you ask for, eh?

  26. jbmelby

    Babbitt and “integral serialism”?
    I usually don’t participate in discussions such as these. They tend to annoy me greatly and they do absolutely nothing for my blood pressure. However, as a former student and a good friend of Milton Babbitt who has discussed “integral serialism” with him on more occasions that I can possibly count, I can state unequivocally that I have never heard anyone express more disdain for what is usually called “integral serialism” than Milton, many of whose comments on the subject would be well-nigh unprintable on this discussion board. While it is undoubtedly true that his music involves a high degree or organization (and by the way, there are still lots of us out there who believe in a high degree of organization, the reports of whose death may be highly exaggerated), he has stated to me numerous times that the term “totally organized music” is an absurdity. Anyone has a right to like or not to like the music of anyone else, and I (and for that matter, Milton, who has possibly the most catholic [with a small “c”] musical tastes of anyone I know) would vigorously defend that right. IMHO opinion, some of the opinions expressed in this discussion make a great deal of sense, and some (again, I hasten to add, IMHO — or maybe IMNSHO) are ridiculous. But as a long-time friend and admirer of Milton, I do hate to see him misrepresented. Sorry for the rant!

  27. mclaren

    pgblu: I can give a few very preliminary examples, in general terms. It’s hard for me to cite specific urls because (a) I’m typing this on a laptop in a wifi cafe on a Sunday night, and (b) this stuff is so fragmentary right now that the URLs tend to change or disappear with alarming rapidity.

    In general terms: one example involves orchestras giving the audience hypertext-linked liner notes on little portable PDA-type things with musical examples. Another example goes way back to the 50s and 60s — FM radio music appreciation broadcasts. I grew up on those things, and man, lemme tell ya, listening to someone explain (say) the structure of the Pathetique Sonata while playing various motifs and audibly showing how the sonata structure works by playing the recapitulation etc. really makes a whole world ‘o difference. This is an example of a kind of liner note that we had 40 or 30 years ago, but have now lost, because most of the classical music stations in the U.S. have shut down (when they got so valuable they were bought up and turned into top 40s AOR rock radio stations).

    But there are even more examples. The younger generation of composers are now starting to post YouTube videos of themselves explaining their music. It’s in its early days yet, but this trend is growing rapidly. Then there are composers who let you download their music for free, but charge a small fee if you want extra goodies like a DVD of the performance, the composer performing alternate versions, and so on. In fact, Kyle Gann’s new music blog right now, this minute, has a post showing 2 different versions of the same Harold Budd minimalist composition. They’re radically different. This is the kind of thing online liner notes were made for. It immensely enriches a listeners’ understanding of and appreciation for the music.

    The pop music world is really far ahead of the classic world in expanding the concept of liner notes — yet we classical people are the ones who vaunt ourselves as daring and cutting edge. Trent Reznor of NIN recently dumped one of his compositions on the web in Apple Garage Band format so listeners could remix it. Why can’t classical contemporary composers do that? What would Yvar Mishakoff’s orchestrations of Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano sound like if I could change the orchestration? What happens if I change the instrumentation of Michael Gordon’s percussion composition XY? There are endless worlds of new possibilities for interactive liner notes here.

    We classical folks need to catch up and get with these kinds of extras. As Clay Shirky pointed out in his classic 1995 essay “Help! The cost of information has fallen and it can’t get up,” all basic content is inexorably headed toward being made available for free. Ether Dyson has pointed out, though, that creative people will still be able to charge for their work by adding value to it. Liner notes, particularly audiovisual explanations of the compositions, alternative versions of the same piece, different orchestrations, early sketches, remixable Garage Band format soundfiles, PDFs of the scores, reorchestratable csound score & instrument files, and so on, represent the added value in classical music.

    In a 21st century digital downloading world, the actual recorded music is just the teaser — the real value is in the additional stuff that surrounds it. Moreover, this is where we classical music people have a real advantage over pop musicians. We have a great deal more depth of material to aurround the work with: in pop music, most songs are under 4 minutes long, use a ABABAB form with a C bridge stuck in near the last third, most songs use 4/4 meter, most pop songs use 2 lead guitars, a bass guitar, and drums, and so on.

    Classical music has a much wider variety of lengths, structures, a much longer history, and lots more to discuss and explain, so the richness of liner notes for classical music is potentially much greater for classical music than for pop songs.

    We in the classical community really need to start taking advantage of this tremendous untapped advantage and bring it to full flower. The 21st century has the potential to be the Golden Age of hyperlinked audiovisual interactive liner notes. As for physical objects, yeah, they’re great, and I like CD booklets — but the cost is just prohibitive. Well over 80% of the cost of a CD is tied up in the fancy glossy booklet. Have you seen the size of the CD liner notes booklets that come with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s CDs? That’s why Stockhausen’s CDs cost $120. I gotta tell ya, $120 CDs are not the future of classical music, not in a 99-cent-per-track iTunes world.

  28. TimR-J

    Stockhausen Verlag CDs are such an anomaly that I don’t think they’re a useful example for arguing the economics of CD booklets.

    But, if we are arguing economics, what about the costs of producing these detailed videos that you talk about, mclaren? To do so at any level of professionalism is going to cost a great deal of money. Then you have to consider the hosting costs. YouTube might be great for younger composers starting out (and I think it could be), but can you see DG or Sony posting video programme notes there, rather than on their own site, where they retain control over rights, copy infringement, quality, etc.? That hosting bill is an ongoing cost, year on year, rather than the one-off upfront cost that is printing a booklet.

    I might be persuaded on the desirability of video notes over printed matter (I emphasise ‘might’), but I need a hell of a lot of convincing that there’s a good economic argument to be made.


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