What Makes Music Great?

Composer Benjamin Britten

Composer Benjamin Britten

In London right now, a festival is going on that surveys twentieth century music and takes its theme and title from Alex Ross’s excellent book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Related to the festival, David Nice has written a fascinating post, The Rest is Tonal, which has spawned a lively discussion about, among many things, the “importance  of introducing new ideas” (innovation), on the one hand, and the “importance of expression,” on the other. I began by writing a comment on that post, but it became too long for that purpose, so what began as a comment there is now a post of its own here.

As one of Milton Babbitt’s quintessential “lay listeners,” with very little technical musical knowledge, I don’t feel equipped to judge which composers are greater and which are lesser, much less which pieces are masterpieces that will stand the test of time. I do have criteria for listening, though, and, while a work in progress, here are those I currently find important:

  • Am I able to find something in the piece that communicates to me or at least piques my curiosity on a first or second hearing?
  • Does the piece demonstrate both a wealth of musical ideas at work and the ability to take from those ideas to create a satisfying whole?
  • Does the piece communicate something I experience as profound?
  • Does the piece reward many re-hearings, and does it do so over time?

I suspect these criteria all relate to expression more than innovation, but I also suspect that innovation and expression are often at work in the pieces I come back to again and again, as well as in new pieces (by new I mean new to me, not necessarily new in time) I add to my “canon-in-progress.”

I have often wished I had another life to live in which I could gain grounding in technical musical knowledge, as I know it would enrich my ability immeasurably with regard to why a piece makes it to my “canon” in an enduring way. What I’m less sure of is whether that knowledge would tell me what pieces I should come to love, if I would but try. While my musical ear continues to expand, in the end, if the music does not “speak” to me in some way that I experience as fundamental, it will not, for me, endure. (Examples of composers whose music has so far failed to speak to me include Milton Babbitt, Philip Glass, Anton Webern, and Helmut Lachenmann, though as to Lachenmann, I do find it hard to close my mind altogether in the face of Lucy Dhegrae’s charming encouragement to try again.)

On the subject of innovation, I think immediately of John Cage. Cage was, by my lights, an enormously innovative thinker (even though, in the end, I don’t agree with many of his views), but not, for me, all that interesting as a composer. As for serialism, I find little to detain me in the serial music I’ve heard so far. I do see Schoenberg as a complex case, not to be dismissed lightly. I like very much Carl Schorske’s commentary on Schoenberg in his book Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, an excerpt of which is below:

Like Kokoschka, Schoenberg had early developed a profound trust in his feelings and his instincts, assigning to his own psychological suffering paradigmatic value as moral and metaphysical truth. As a determined bourgeois individualist, he fought for the rights of the psyche against society and its confining art forms, just as a political radical would fight for social or legal rights. In his rock-solid affirmation of alienation lay both his revolutionary power as artist and his unwillingness as philosopher to envisage any scene of human realization except the wilderness. The truth of the wilderness—atomized, chaotic, indifferent, yet open and bracing—became Schoenberg’s substitute for the utopian beauty of the garden. [Schorske 360]

I’ll try again with Schoenberg, I suspect, but overall, I experience serialist, and particularly total serialist, music as akin to listening to math equations. As Ben Johnston once said, “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible.” [TM 153]  About Cage on the one hand and serialism on the other, Pierre Boulez himself may have said it best:

So we forced discipline to absurdity, which in turn brought back the return of chance. Curiously, we learned that extreme discipline and total chance produced more or less the same effect, which was rather strange, not disappointing, but interesting to see the limits, and to see that, beyond certain limits, you fall into the same indifference.”

As a “lay listener,” I think I would have to say that expression as a criterion is paramount, but at the same time, I wonder if expression can reach a real high water mark if some innovation isn’t involved. Yet, for a composer to be considered great in the eyes of history, does that innovation need to be innovation that changes music for all time? I don’t know. (As composer John Metcalf has wisely said, only history can be the judge of which pieces endure over time.) I do believe that innovation like that in the music of Debussy and Stravinsky has and will continue to endure because, in the end, they had the genius to create out of innovative ideas expressive music that is rich and deep. Innovation alone would not have sufficed.

Every composer grapples with tradition, whether by rejecting, embracing, or building on what came before. John Adams wrote about the issue a little differently. Rather than writing of innovation and expression, for example, he focused in one passage on complexity and simplicity:

Bach’s music at its apogee was one of manifold polyphonic structures and a highly evolved system of decoration and melodic ornament. Mozart’s language, no less subtle, represents a move in the direction of a more direct, song-based simplicity. Both composers are capable of the deepest psychological complexity. Only their rhetoric divides them.

Or complexity and simplicity might coexist, with neither owning the imprimatur for being the superior form. At the same time that James Joyce was taking literary allusion to the farthest reaches of intelligibility in Finnegan’s Wake, Ernest Hemingway was writing no less influential works in a style that was as direct and uncomplicated as Joyce’s was packed with ambiguity and verbal legerdemain. In our own time we’ve seen the fiendishly detailed, labyrinthine mazes of Brian Ferneyhough’s scores share the contemporary landscape with the grave, soft-spoken, monastic simplicities of Arvo Pärt. [HJ 312-313]

I don’t know whether others would view the music of John Adams as historically innovative in the same way as Debussy and Stravinsky have so far proved to be—perhaps some of those with technical musical knowledge would say not. But, for me, he is a composer who is “capable of the deepest psychological complexity” who has time and again met my own criteria for music that should endure. Evidence for this abounds in his most recent work, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, about which I previously wrote:

Adams does more than embrace the beautiful and make it new, though that alone would have been enough. He has grasped the nettle of musical traditions that once threatened his ability to find his authentic voice, and he has prevailed. In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, he not only absorbs their lessons, but transforms them to create a work of transcendent power.

I hope those who come to read this essay will take it not as a “last word,” but simply my current thoughts in a continuing conversation, and will add to and challenge what I’ve written here.

Postscript: The Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music in Wales, of which composer John Metcalf is the artistic director and which is dedicated to the music of living composers, runs this year from May 9-May 18. It’s a wonderful festival, and I commend it to anyone who is within striking distance of Wales. I attended three days of the festival last year, about which you can read here (opening post, with links to posts about the three concerts I attended).

Portrait of Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso


 Listening List

A Spotify listening list may be found here.

The first two pieces I’ve chosen for the Spotify listening list are 21st century compositions by composers who happen to be women that I’ve been listening to recently, both of which are well on the way to meeting my personal criteria.

Kaija Saariaho: Lanterna Magica (2008)

Sofia Gubaidulina: In tempus praesens (2007)

Also included are pieces by composers mentioned in Nice’s post and related comments:

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Debussy: Pelléas and Mélisande (on a separate Spotify play list here)

Poulenc: Gloria

Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra

Schoenberg: Moses und Aron (on a separate Spotify playlist here

Shostakovich: Fourth Symphony

Stravinsky: Agon, Petrouchka

Tippett: Second Symphony

Vaughan-Williams: Five Tudor Portraits

On YouTube

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra

Shostakovich: Fourth Symphony 

Stravinsky: Agon


Credits: The quotations in the first paragraph are from David Nice’s post and may be found here. The quotation from Boulez may be found here. The paraphrase of a comment by John Metcalf may be found here. (fourth video excerpt from my conversation with John Metcalf). The remaining quotations may be found at the links noted below, at the page indicated in brackets in the text. 


TM (Talking Music)

HJ (Hallelujah Junction)

The image of Britten may be found here, and that of Stravinsky here.

32 thoughts on “What Makes Music Great?

  1. friko

    I read the post but I didn’t listen to the music. It’s late and I ought to get ready for bed instead of sitting at my computer but there is one thing with which I must take issue now: you really and absolutely and for good need to stop calling yourself musically uneducated, lacking discernment, being a ‘lay listener’. You are most definitely not a lay listener, but a most accomplished one, a better listener than many musicians I know. You wrestle with contemporary music more than anyone else I know, professional musicians included. You ask more of music than anyone I know, fret over it, work at it, love it; the fact that you are not a player makes it all even more extraordinary.

    Your criteria for music appreciation are spot-on; many people who refer to themselves as music lovers do not analyse their preferences, they simply have them. “I know what I like”.

    You must stop apologising for your perceived ignorance and trust your judgment. It’s sound.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Mark S.: Nice to see you! I would more say that our “grounding” is different. Based on other comments you’ve made, it’s probably the case that I’ve listened to more contemporary classical music than you have, but you have a base of technical musical knowledge to which it would be silly for me to try and lay claim. What that comes down to, in listening, is that we listen each from our own backgrounds and experiences, and, as a result, may come away with differing–though I hope often complementary–judgments about the pieces we hear in common. I have listened to enough music of various sorts, old and new, now, to have the basis to form what I think is a thoughtful view on what makes music great for me. Where I most feel the lack of technical musical knowledge is in identifying and expressing more specifically what I’m reacting to, rather than pulling from a range of more generalized, if not altogether generic, descriptives to make my case.

        John Metcalf (composer and artistic director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales, which starts today) was the first to open the door to me and encourage my pursuit of contemporary music, for which I will be forever grateful. Needless to say, the musicians and composers of Contemporaneous, whom I discovered early in that journey, have increased my understanding and ability to listen effectively enormously, not to mention, through their vibrant programming, leading me to discover so much great “music of now.” What I particularly love about David Nice’s blog and his Arts Desk reviews (not to mention his CD liner notes for The Sleeping Beauty, about which I’ve written here: https://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/my-sleeping-beauty/) is the way he is able to, and so generously does, share insights into specifics that enrich the listening experience, not to mention providing chapter and verse in making a persuasive case for his judgment about any particular piece, whether pro or con. (As an example, on his blog in recent times, including the post to which I’m responding here, he has undertaken a review of the Bach Cantatas, including, in each case, carefully chosen musical examples and art.) I’ve learned an enormous amount from everyone I note here and am proud to count them among my friends.

        1. peculiaritiesandreticences

          it’s wonderful how you’ve taken such advantage of the opportunities your friends have given you to deepen your appreciation and listening skills, particularly with contemporary works. When I grow up I wanna be just like you :)

          Seriously, though, I think you’re right when you can appreciate the forest without getting bogged down in the details of each individual tree. This is an area where I can develop. My focus at the moment is working on fundamentals, basic skills, which can only enhance the appreciation and listening as well.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Goodness! I hope you did get some sleep after all this. Well, your comments are perceptive and well-taken. It’s interesting to think about your response in relation to what was in my head as I wrote. I didn’t mean to be coy or overstate my lack of knowledge, actually–I was more just stating what I thought were facts about what I do and don’t know technically. (BTW, for anyone not familiar with Babbitt’s article and the term “lay listener” as he uses it there, it can be found here: http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic244629.files/Who%20Cares%20if%20You%20Listen.pdf; the provocative title was not his choice, but the provocative content is.) I wear the badge “lay listener” with a bit of ironic pride, actually, and I hope I can stand as an example of the notion that it’s not necessary to have any technical knowledge to engage with, understand, and above all, to love classical music. All that’s necessary is a pair of ears that can hear and the desire to listen. Or, more colloquially (though I hardly need to say this to you): Jump in! The water’s fine!

  2. David N

    I was just thinking that Friko would heartily identify with your four ‘criteria for listening’, and I don’t think anyone would ask for more. No amount of study and learning will change those soundest of instincts – and I keep trying to persuade countless people who say, ‘but of course I’m not operating on your level’: absolutely you are – if a piece leaves you cold or head-fugged, coming out of the hall puzzled and saying, don’t know what I thought about that, then it’s failed. You may not understand it at a first hearing, but you have to feel engaged, spiritually and/or physically, by something within it and want at least to hear it again. It’s about communication, as the young musicians youve interviewed have time and again said and demonstrated.

    What one does need to write what you’ve so eloquently expressed is breadth of listening, not necessarily depth (though I believe you have that too). What was it James said, ‘the mind is made flexible by constant comparison’. We do that with everything around us, why not with music? And of all sorts, not just the classical.

    But these are random thoughts, not the clean and clear argument you’ve just stated. To which I say, three cheers and plenty more of it. Actually, I don’t think you doubt your judgment at all, and why should you?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David N: No, you’re right, I don’t doubt my judgment–though I recognize that judgment itself is, for me, a moving target. I’ve learned that really getting to know a piece that turns out to be an enduring listen can take time, and conversely, a piece that seems enthralling on first hearing can lose luster on repeated hearings. I would have to say that I’m not operating on your level (after all, you’ve spent a lifetime in studying music seriously, starting on that childhood swing, and that ought to count for something!). As I’ve written to Mark S., your musical commentaries in various places have led me down many dazzling trails, accompanied by information that has vastly enriched my listening (not to mention watching, as with Mahler’s Ninth: http://davidnice.blogspot.com/2010/08/abbado-zenith-2.html). I do, though, take your underlying point. That’s one of the endless reasons I value our ongoing conversations so much: you accord respect to the listener, as listener, and never treat a thoughtful listener as an “outsider,” as I’m sorry to say some continue to do. Yes, isn’t it so, that “the mind is made flexible by constant comparison.” That’s worth stitching into a sampler and hanging on the wall (of course, I don’t have the technical expertise to do that, either . . .).

  3. Nadia Ghent

    So much depends on the way modern music is performed–even musicians can have their biases against compositions that might seem especially challenging or is beyond their desire to comprehend, and so can’t or won’t project a sense of liking what they are playing. Things are changing, though–20th century music is already from a century ago!–and we are starting to form a better vocabulary for understanding newness and performing–and championing– contemporary music with the care it needs. I just wonder if we haven’t passed the point of ever again having these kinds of monumental masterpieces in music of the right now–where’s the monumental impact of a piece like The Rite of Spring going to come from, or La Mer? Music has been pressed up against a limit of expressivity–every possible tone, interval, dynamic, rhythmic, and textural combination has been explored and projected. Is it now a matter of basically rearranging the rhetoric, as John Adams writes, instead of finding something new to say in a completely new way? Who will take on Diaghilev’s command to Stravinsky, “Etonnez moi?” in our time?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Nadia: “So much depends,” absolutely–and particularly when live performance, at least for me, is, when it works as it should, the most thrilling of listening experiences and the best way of all to be introduced to a brand new piece. In addition to what you note, I’ve had my eyes opened to the impact of the “business end” of performance, including, among others, the lack of sufficient rehearsal time available to new pieces and the inability, for example, to finance the extra trombone or two needed for a piece. The list goes on.

      I don’t think, though, that anything is foreclosed about the future. The composing world is so vibrant and multi-varied now, anything seems possible. I don’t believe Adams’s point, by the way, goes to “rearranging the rhetoric” as the mode. I think what he does is change the measure of what makes music great altogether. In his calculus, music need not be judged in binary terms of any type, but instead on the depth of its impact. As he puts it: “Both composers [Mozart and Bach] are capable of the deepest psychological complexity. Only their rhetoric divides them.” Using “deepest psychological complexity” as the yardstick, I think there is no end to the possibilities for your “monumental masterpieces in music of the right now.” I hold to the view that only history can tell us what a masterpiece is, so I won’t even try to weigh in on that–but I would say to you that, in answer to my own “etonnez moi”?, several new works have delivered handsomely. As David Nice wrote in the comments to an earlier post of his, “there’s so much to wonder AT.”

      1. Nadia Ghent

        Yes, absolutely, there is so much to wonder at in music now, and it will only be after we are long gone from this earth that the monumental masterpieces of our time will reveal themselves. In a sense, all new compositions have the potential to give us an “etonnez moi” moment of our own, and maybe that is the best thing about our time–that there is SO much available to listen to and we get to make up our own minds about what we like! I think I was just commenting on the cultural difference between music’s place in the beginning of the 20th century, how an event like the premiere of the Rite of Spring had been such a huge, widely shared experience, and I don’t see that kind of commonality in music now–it’s all so fragmented. Everybody has their own “etonnez moi” experiences, and there isn’t always a chance to share them with each other. In many ways, technology has filled in for this kind of universally shared experience of wonder, which in some ways is also a great thing because we get to savor the amazing insights and superbly chosen playlists that you make available to all of us through the benefits of this technology we all share. So maybe we are approaching that universal experience of music after all, but through the back door!

        1. David N

          There have been watershed moments for me when I thought: ‘can I really be here, so close to the premiere?’ so, yes, those were ‘etonnez-moi’ moments: Adams’s Nixon In China at the Edinburgh Playhouse six months after it had opened in Houston, more recently his Gospel According to the Other Mary, so beautifully evoked by Sue here. James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice, Act 2 of which left me unable to move. Gubaidulina’s St John Passion. So, yes, it happens – and I’m of a generation just too young to have heard the last Britten and Shostakovich premieres, which I’m sure would have had the same effect.

          1. Susan Scheid Post author

            David N: Oh, yes, do I ever I know that “pinch me” thrill! And in the case of Nixon in China (though I only saw it two years ago) and of course the Other Mary, seeing Adams there conducting provided a thrill of its own. Now, you know I have to mention Dylan Mattingly’s Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island as another example–and in that case I was there to witness the absolute world premiere, conducted by David Bloom. I’ll never forget the impact of hearing those first notes sound–I knew immediately I was in for a night of nights. And there’s another I’ll add, from last month: David Bloom conducting the world premiere of his own very fine piece, “Beacon.” Next stop for that piece? The American Symphony Orchestra, with Leon Botstein conducting, and Sabrina Tabby, for whom he wrote the part, on violin. Not too shabby as a graduation present for Mr. Bloom, I’d say.

        2. Susan Scheid Post author

          Nadia: Yes, I know what you mean about the fragmentation. I feel lost in a musical wilderness a good bit of the time, there is so much there out there, and suggestions come at one from every direction. It’s quite a challenge to put together those playlists (you’re generous to call them superb, though I hope from time to time they provide discoveries to others as they do to me). Gives me a VERY high regard for those who put together concert programs, and particularly programs of new music. I love the idea of arriving at a universal experience through the back door!

  4. peculiaritiesandreticences

    Pat Pattinson, who taught the songwriting course that just finished up, gave a lesson on the topic “Why do we sing?” He cited the theory of a musical anthropologist (Joseph Jordania) who put forward an interesting theory about why we as human beings are into music.

    His argument was that out on the savannah, “music” had survival value. By banding together, standing on our legs, making a lot of noise (especially with dissonant harmonies and banging together rocks, etc) humans, could scare off lions and other large predators from their prey, leaving more food to scavenge. Support for this theory was said to come from the observation that findings of patterns of early human migration (through bone findings) exactly matched that of lions. We would follow them around and scare them off their prey to feed ourselves.

    By this line of thinking, we evolved to where music is encoded in our DNA- it’s in the primitive survival parts of our primitive brain, right there with food and sex. Music, he said, is about calling the tribe.

    I understand this theory is controversial, but hey- I like it. It works for me, so I’ll keep playing. No wonder playing music keeps me sane- as much as is possible anyways.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark S.: I don’t see why this would be controversial, though it doesn’t tell me much about why one piece of music resonates more than another, let alone what, in anyone’s estimation, makes any given piece of music endure over time–though certainly the idea that playing music, for you, and listening to music, for me, keeps us both sane is one to celebrate.

      1. peculiaritiesandreticences


        It’s an interesting question: why does one piece of music speak to you and not to me? Or vice versa? Following the theory, one would surmise that some sound preferences evolved from primitive noise “preferences” that maybe chased the lions away better- but if that’s all there were, why wouldn’t we all appreciate the same things?

        I was thinking about this in the car on the way home in a different context. Plants developed capsaicin and allyl isothiocyanate as defense mechanisms- to dissuade animals from eating them- but some of us find them delicious! (these are the active ingredients in chili peppers and wasabi, respectively)

        Working on the improvisation class is a study in coming to understand this phenomenon of taste: why do these notes here sound so great together, and these others sound like *(&^?

        This is really a fascinating question- and I haven’t a clue as to the answer. :)

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark S: Now what I love most of all here (among many things) is the kind of thoughts that occupied you in the car. So much better than yer typical, what do I need to get at the grocery store!

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    You and David Nice have inspired so much thought I could write a post of my own; I’ll try and limit my comment to a couple of issues. 1) I’d like to expand on your first criterion. The element that keeps you hanging on, that makes you go back and listen again, can be the tiniest, most evanescent of things. It doesn’t have to be a good reason either. It could even be: ‘Well, X says she likes this piece and I respect X’s taste, so…’ It might take more than two listens to find more; it could take repeated listens. This is not to say one should beat one’s self up over trying to listen to something you just don’t like, but that it just might be that you need more experience to get something out of it.

    2) The painter Barnett Newman famously said that formal discourses on art, however sophisticated and correct they may be, are, in terms of practical use for the artist, as ornithology to birds. I agree, and this applies to music. The discourses on music – all of them – can be rich, valuable and fun, but they run parallel to music, they exist in their own domain, and music in its domain. The two do not touch. For me the most important part of your post is this: “What I’m less sure of is whether that knowledge would tell me what pieces I should come to love.” I don’t believe one is a better listener by keeping one finger in a technical manual, even though familiarity with the manual can add textures and nuances to one’s experience.

    I feel compelled to add something else, though. My experience has to do with visual art. I have often longed to write about music but what stops me is a lack of technical expertise. Being a good listener does not make one a good writer on music. So I understand and appreciate your “lay listener” distinction. As a lay listener you do a far better job of writing about music than I could.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark K: I like that you picked up on “What I’m less sure of is whether that knowledge would tell me what pieces I should come to love.” As is apparent, I’ve gotten a great deal out of good music writing and the rich exchanges with David N., you, and others, notably a number of the members of Contemporaneous, not to mention John Metcalf, who first set me on the trail of “new music.” And I have to say that, as a result, some pieces that eluded me have really come alive–Mahler’s Ninth is a prime example. I was really lost in the soup of all those notes until David wrote about the Ninth and, even more importantly, identified the Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra DVD. As I noted to David, sitting with his notes from the concert and watching that DVD changed everything for me. At the same time, it does seem that the first thing that has to be there is that spark, no question about it–and there were plenty of beautiful moments in Mahler to hold onto, right from the beginning. In contrast, as I wrote in the post, even though I am fascinated by Schorske’s take on Schoenberg–he provides a context that demonstrates Schoenberg wasn’t engaged in a dry academic exercise, but a deep psychological battle about what music in his time needed to become–when I go back to Schoenberg’s serialist works (as I did in choosing a piece for the listening list here), they just don’t “speak” to me, and it doesn’t seem that any amount of reading about that music helps at all. (Schoenberg’s non-serialist pieces, like Verklärte Nacht, are an entirely different story.) I’ll leave you now with a bit of gorgeous singing, brought to us all courtesy, again, of David Nice: http://youtu.be/z5qXR_IekfQ

  6. angela

    I almost fear to comment for this comment field seems to be for the artistic elite. I have nothing really to offer to this fascinating discourse other than I echo the sentiment that you must give yourself a bit more credit regarding your ability to critique music.

    It is interesting, though, for does the idea of transparency ever find its way to music criticism? Eileen Myles posted a fascinating rebuttal to Marjorie Perloff regarding transparency and ‘feeling in poetry’. It is swirling a bit as it processes – esp. the concept of feeling as she approached it. Music, and poetry, has to evoke a feeling of positivity (not that the material is positive per se) in order for me to engage – which is terribly lazy of me for I shall never develop that breadth as David alludes to in his post. However, as I write this, listening to your spotify and disliking it because it is causing me to divert from the flow of thought – I wonder…if I sat and really listened, even if I did not like it, could I eventually learn to appreciate it, ergo, like it for it opens the possibilites. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if continuing to listen to only what is enjoyable without stretching my ear is that bad of a thing, really? Music helps me to create a reality that isn’t really there, so to remain in a reality that causes me unhappiness seems a cruel punishment… (ha! if this comment makes no sense, no worries, I am taking a break from reading/writing my last paper for Modern/Post-Modern course) ~ a

    P.S. ~ really, you dislike Glass – may I ask what it is that you dislike?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: I’m so glad you braved the presumed wilds here to comment—you’ve given me enough to ponder here to warrant several posts. Let me say first that there is no “elite” here—the only “e” common to the commenters (and poster) that I would warrant (and you are Exhibit A among them) is “explorer.” I love your questing mind, which inspires me to quest further and think again, as here. On a note akin to that, Mark K., in his great post (http://markkerstetter.com/2013/05/14/whos-afraid-of-milton-babbitt/), understood correctly what I was after. There is no underestimation or apology intended. I wear “lay listener” as a badge of honor—though, like anything else, it comes with its attributes and detriments. I use the term only to “place” myself (admittedly with a bit of irony) within the continuum of participants in music.

      Now, to your main question. You may have a chuckle at this, but “transparency” is one of those words I find a bit opaque—and in the heat of the poetry wars, watching the arrows fly from Perloff to Myles and back, even more so—so it’s hard for me to know whether or how to address the issue with regard to music. Your statements I think I may understand better, so maybe I’ll go from there.

      I think your point about “positivity” is akin to my “criterion”—Am I able to find something in the piece that communicates to me or at least piques my curiosity on a first or second hearing?—”communicates to me,” particularly. I’m put in mind of the conversation with John Metcalf that led me to explore contemporary music. I asked him if he had any suggestions for listening, and he said, “I think I like what you’re doing. Follow your [figurative, of course] nose.” He went on to say, “If you don’t like it, then don’t worry about it. Just move on to something else . . . . http://rainingacorns.blogspot.com/2010/10/conversation-with-composer-john-metcalf_23.html In this regard, if you started, in the current Spotify list, with the first two entries (Saariaho and Gubaidulina) and found them out of bounds, that wouldn’t be surprising. (They’re new listening to me, and, though they both have rewarded my rehearings, I have question marks about each.) And that you enjoyed Arvo Pärt on first hearing, well, you can’t beat that! (Others you might try, if curious, are John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, both in the linked post’s listening list, and Pēteris Vasks.)

      I think exploration of music, like anything else, is always in a state of becoming, which is part of the joy, for me anyway. I’m reminded of something my partner refers to often about how we learn, the “zone of proximal development,” quaintly known as ZPD. She’s written about it here: http://www.pdscompasspoint.com/?p=166 (I’m fond of raising the red flag of “outside my ZPD” when she’s explaining something to me and I don’t get it, by the way. But that’s cheating!)

      Oh, so much more to say, so I shall stop on that and turn to Glass. Now, whatever I write here, I’m bound to get into trouble, and just please know that I’m well in the minority. When I first dipped my toe into the new music waters, I wrote about my initial explorations into minimalism here: http://rainingacorns.blogspot.com/2011/01/slouching-toward-lachenmann-bjorks.html. (Interesting to go back and read this now. My views have moved on since then on other fronts, but it appears not as to Glass.) I’ve spent a good bit of time pondering my reaction to Glass’s music, and could perhaps state some specifics, but I think the “expressive” point is best: I don’t feel that positivity you note when I listen. I virtually always get aggravated and/or depressed after the first few bars and have to switch him off. I think a telling moment for me was when I finally broke down, at the behest of a friend, and went to see Einstein on the Beach. Now, I did find it a fascinating and memorable experience for many reasons—but as to Glass’s music, it was telling to me that, by the time an improvised sax solo entered the picture, I held onto it like a life raft. Finally! Music that is not in perpetual statis! Music that develops! Music that goes somewhere! Now, this really says nothing, in the end. Many, many friends whose musical opinions I respect love Glass. And after all, can’t the same as I’ve written here be said of Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt? Yet I find Pärt’s music (once he turned to what he calls tintinnabuli, the music of his you’ve been listening to) tremendously uplifting, and I turn to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim whenever I am looking for an assured ride to exuberant joy. Reich’s magnificent Different Trains I’d put in a different category of expression, but using wanderer’s great formulation, I would say all three “alter my state of awareness” in ways I find fully satisfying.

      OK, so now I have written the basis for another post, and I’d best stop. Thank you, thank you, for joining in the conversation and giving us all so much to think about!

      1. angela

        Susan, thank you for this most wonderful reply! I swore I would “tune out” before midnight, so will just thank you and come back for the links and your new post very soon.

        As an aside, I do hope that you know that was not judgement regarding Glass – it just surprised me. That said, I enjoy him for why you dislike him…the static nature and the darkness – music and moods are quite controlling of me. Glass will get a listen if I were in a contemplative mood, or a writing mood, in which I need to almost flatline. One could say that I control my moods and activities via free will – as in, I freely choose to build my state-of-mind around the music. I enjoy some of the work of the artist you have listed, but if it gets too busy, too orchestral, down it goes. That is NOT true for jazz – riffs and improv I find exciting, compelling and even inspiring to write to…go figure (okay, off course…so goodnight and I will be back)

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Angela: Not at all–I actually assumed you were wondering about the basis for my judgment. (Of course, I recognize that’s not what I provided, but rather gave you my reaction to his music!) You make a good point about how we listen to music for different purposes. Mark K. has elsewhere made a similar point to yours about the type of music that fosters his own creativity. Similarly when I am working on an essay, while I prefer o have music playing, I will likely choose something that doesn’t command my full attention. In these cases, music has a “supporting role” to play, perhaps. At other times, and certainly when I go to live concerts or listen to them on the radio, the music I am listening to is the center of my world: I wish to give it my full attention, and I want it to reward that full attention in return. I wonder what music you would choose in that case? (I do hope, in that regard, that you’ll get to Ravinia for John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary. How I would love to get there, too!)

  7. wanderer

    I nod and agree with everything, most everything, everyone has written. Reflecting at the most generic level on what works for me, and by that I mean what moves me emotionally, which is all I seek, I would say it is the hearing of something, anything, which alters my state of awareness. Well, let’s finesse that and say which increases my state of awareness – of myself, of the soundscape and all that implies, including the sheer visceral thrill of an acoustic experience, but mostly of what takes me out of ‘myself’ and places me somewhere ‘else’ whether alone or joined with others, though the latter is the far more elevating experience.

    I can think of examples, but they are intensely personal in that they are coloured often by my own circumstance at the time as much as the musical and so mean little in this context.

    Do others sometimes feel, as I do now, and have lately for longer than I am happy with, feel resistant to such experience? I have stopped listening lately. I’m not sure why. I tell myself I am full, sated, and need to rest and sleep as after a meal, as does my dog. But I think the truth is rather more telling and that I am in an ‘ego’ phase of self. The ‘ego’ does fight off beauty, and peace, and revelation (and that’s the word I really am looking for when it comes down to what makes music great for me) and I deep down know I need to resume meditation and seek leave of myself.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      This is so beautifully stated, and your insights into those periods when one pulls back on listening, which I suspect most of us have, are subtle and thought-provoking. Though I think this is a different issue in some respects, there are times when I must pull back from contemporary music and “go back to Bach,” or Sibelius, or Tchaikovsky, or [fill in the blank]. I don’t think, for me, my ego is much able to exit, but it does like to take rides to somewhere else. For the most part, music is my constant companion; when it’s not playing, it feels too silent in the house. (The mate has a bit of a different view of things, I might note . . . and who can blame her? I do try at least to moderate the selections, not to mention the volume, when we are both at home.)

      Now, speaking of Sibelius and your statement “what moves me emotionally, which is all I seek,” I am reminded of this passage in John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction [313-314]:

      “Writing in 1955 at the height of the postwar aesthetic power struggle over the future of art music, the French theoretician and champion of serialism René Leibowitz ridiculed the music of Sibelius, even going so far as to write an article titled, ‘Sibelius, le plus mauvais compositeur du monde.’ This French savant may have enjoyed pricking the bubble of an immensely popular composer who, although still alive, was little more than a relic, having done his greatest work nearly half a century earlier. But in retrospect the critiques of Leibowitz seem little more than gnats swirling around the visage of a noble beast. How one of Sibelius’s symphonies looked on the page or how it failed to fit the au courant compositional style of the 1950s was of no importance at all to the grateful listener who continued to find in it the deepest emotional and formal meaning. Sibelius understood what his attacker didn’t, that music is above and beyond all else the marriage of form and feeling. Even the ancient writers like Saint Augustine and Boethius, for all their attempts to treat music as a science or as a tool for moral elevation, tacitly acknowledged this fact.”

      And I say amen.

      Yours, the quintessential Adams “grateful listener” . .

  8. Steve Schwartzman

    “… I experience serialist, and particularly total serialist, music as akin to listening to math equations.”
    Oh, but equations are so much more enjoyable! For instance, take Euler’s equation that refers to polyhedra, which are solid figures like pyramids and cubes : E = V + F – 2. In that equation, E stands for the number of edges, F the number of faces, and V the number of vertices. This powerful formula says that for any polyhedron, the number of edges will always be 2 less than the sum of the number of vertices and the number of faces. That’s just the way our world is built.

    For example, with a four-sided pyramid like the one on the back of a dollar bill, there are 5 faces (including the base), 5 vertices, and 8 edges, so 8 = 5 + 5 – 2. With a cube, there are 6 faces (including the base), 8 vertices, and 12 edges, so 12 = 8 + 6 – 2.

    That may not be the music of the spheres, but it’s definitely the music of polyhedra.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I was almost totally lost, until I read this: “That’s just the way our world is built.” I suspect this is applicable to wildflowers, snowflakes, and much else (everything else?) in the natural world. So, thank you for this sage (I know I’m asking for it, bringing up a word that is an herb as well) comment, from one grateful listener to another . . . (Every time I go back to Adams’s book, I find another jewel like that. Here’s a fun fact about Adams: he’s composer-in-residence at the Library of Congress this week: http://www.loc.gov/rr/perform/concert/1213-johnadams.html.)

  9. wanderer

    Susan, that Adams passage, as Steve has said, is perfectly chosen. And Sibelius too. I fear my initial post was a wee bit self-indulgent but as another explorer and grateful listener, I really wasn’t able to comment on the music from the bottom up, as I think was your intention, but then again that is likely underestimating your openness, and so ended up looking at the topic top (Listener) down. Anyway, it provided that passage. And now another book, for after The Leopard, which has arrived. For the plane I think.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: I loved your observations, and so beautifully phrased as well. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on Hallelujah Junction (once you finish The Leopard, of course–what a beauty of a book that is!).

  10. hilarymb

    Hi Susan .. my comment is banal – all I know is .. that you have had the most amazing discourse with intelligent and musically wisdomed fellow bloggers – I applaud .. and really I should stay and read all through .. listen to the links and think … one day I’d love to do a brief course on music – but I’m behind the line in many ways …

    Enjoy the Spring and I’ll enjoy these posts and music sometime, I sincerely hope!! Hilary

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