Guest Post: Why Beethoven Is Not Enough, by Curt Barnes

Copper Multiphase 2 (acrylic on laminated birch) © Curt Barnes, 2002. With kind permission.

Copper Multiphase 2 (acrylic on laminated birch) © Curt Barnes, 2002. With kind permission.

. . . my own involvement in the art world has helped me find connections with music, not so much in content as in a preparatory attitude.
—Curt Barnes

Having encountered our remarkable host here in an online music course and continuing some very interesting conversations thereafter at the Great Composers Appreciation Society,  it was inevitable that I’d become a regular visitor to her blog. When she asked if I’d be interested in contributing something here, I said yes, without thinking exactly what. As a professional artist I’ve had a longstanding interest in music but no expertise in the subject whatever; I can’t read it or play any sort of instrument, just love listening. It occurred to me that my own involvement in the art world has helped me find connections with music, not so much in content as in a preparatory attitude. A familiarity with music history is indispensable, certainly, but sometimes even more important is working through irrelevant assumptions and fostering an elasticity of mind to access the new and often difficult. Here, then, are some thoughts on how to approach new music. Maybe some of you will make additions to the list in the comments, or critique what I provide. I’ve numbered the items to give the illusion of order.

Beethoven Is Not Enough

It took me a lifetime of listening to arrive fully at the present; fifteen years ago I was just absorbing Stravinsky, then some of the easier Berg and Stockhausen, and only recently Berio and Schnittke. Steve Reich had been an earlier breakthrough for me, and it was exhilarating to find a live composer I thought I ‘got’. It was helpful to relate his work to a version of pattern-on-pattern painting that I was involved with at the time (see work above, the last manifestation of that involvement). But to appreciate others I needed an attitudinal shift. Comparing them with the geniuses of the past wasn’t fair, and I needed to acknowledge a kind of tradeoff. Most music lovers grew up with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and assorted other geniuses and find it hard to graduate to what always sound like lesser lights. But as citizens of the 21st century, now, we need to acknowledge the truism that the art (read: music) of the past is to some degree artifact. Its force as art has been softened with age, and unconsciously or not we condescend to its conventions, its narrower world, to fully enjoy it. It coddles us with the safe haven of its familiar forms. Art, living art, has the capacity to be terrifying, disturbing, iconoclastic, risky, and if you find something of value by a living composer it can connect with you with unequalled vitality. If it lacks certifiable genius, it provides something else: it is formed of the rudiments of the here and now, it is yours as Beethoven is not, can never be.

So here, then, some of my own personal mental preparations for enjoying a new music concert:

  1. Expect the shock of the new. Your ear hears conventionally. I like a quotation from a psychologist, “A perception is an adjusted anticipation,” meaning that perceptions are almost completely formed by our expectations. If the music sounds like noise, give it a few minutes to try to adjust, find the right wavelength. Somebody thought it was sensible and if you can find the key, you’ll be the better for it.
  1. Remember when you hated what you now love. Be wary of initial hostility and recall that the Stravinsky you first thought was cacophonous is now one of your favorite pieces. And if you really hate what you’re listening to, could be it’s hit a nerve that you’ll adjudge all the more powerfully meaningful later.
  1. New music is often easy to ridicule. Resist. It’s easy to mock unusual ways instruments are used, or unconventional sources of sound, novel stagings, etc. Innovations often look (or sound) clownish, bizarre. But allow that new creation often means new sources: listen to the results without prejudice, and maybe, too, there is intentional humor of self-mockery in the composer’s methods. Or maybe a clown is the perfect emblem for our age (see no. 11)?
  1. Music is not necessarily for your entertainment. Some composers are charmers; some are hell-raisers. This is a toughie for some people to accept, but sometimes, in the arts as in life, what is ugly or uncomfortable needs saying anyway. Compositions could come from deep sources to reveal truths that even the composer can’t contain and that we might prefer hidden. If you can admit that some truths are difficult, and that anything other than an honest encapsulation would be sugarcoating, you’re ready for difficult music. There is an exhilaration to hearing a truth told honestly and effectively, after all.
  1. If something doesn’t click, try it again later. If possible, of course—assuming it’s available later. You come to a concert in a particular mood, and in spite of yourself it limits your capacities. It’s amazing how often a second hearing works to find real value in something I’d sold short.
  1. The fact that you hear something once but don’t need to hear it again doesn’t necessarily discredit it. I found this to be true of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Volumina, for example. As what he called “static form” and that I think of as “sound sculpture”, it’s great to know it’s there and great once, but I don’t need to hear it again. It forever changes the landscape of what is possible in music, and extended the boundaries of my world, and that may be accomplishment enough. This also applies to some events in music that can’t be repeated, though they may figure high in your firmament of great experiences.
  1. Great art can come from self-imposed limitations. From my limited knowledge, the twelve-tone system sounds like a ludicrous, self-imposed handicap for any composer to place on himself. (I think of Jackson Pollock, who limited his control of paint by dipping a stick in a can and spattering it over the surface, or Mondrian, who limited himself to horizontals and verticals.) Nevertheless I’ve found a lot of serialist music I love, from Schoenberg to Rochberg, and I think in part because I can never “learn” it, it never gets too familiar, and yet it moves and holds me. Innovations often come from seemingly arbitrary systems, and not just because they force new solutions.
  1. Consider that a composition may be an excuse to hear great instruments in action. I’m not alone in thinking that the modern piano has evolved into one of the wondrous inventions of the age. Its sonorities, subtleties are a sheer joy to the ear. The last few decades of music have exploited the instrument’s intrinsic qualities as never before; so don’t forget to just listen to sounds at a purely sensuous level. The same is true for most of the rest of the orchestral instruments as currently embodied. The new music you’re listening to may exploit those. (This is allied to a “visiting Amazon tribesman” frame of mind, in which I try to hear things freshly, without the weight of music history behind them.)
  1. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Quoth William Blake. New music is full of extremes, testing limits of all kinds and often as a result creating new genres and idioms. Like the sound of the bass clarinet? Try Marc Mellits’ Black at the link below.
  1. Think beyond categories; most composers do. Even big categories, like “music.” There have been so many overlaps and syntheses that this may not be a problem. A recent example is Kate Soper’s performance of The Understanding of Things, which melded spoken with sung excerpts from Kafka. Monologue or music, it didn’t matter, at least to me; it was compelling and captivating and memorable.
  1. All music is metaphor. As it’s evolved, all art can be seen as representing something larger, as being a symbol or metaphor for the world, the universe, modern life, existence, whatever. Even a four-minute piano piece can plausibly encapsulate the human condition. This is not the achievement of the composer alone but has to do with the evolution of art in general and its place in culture. So you can read the ugly and abrasive as revealing dark truths about our self-destructive species, or the lighthearted and elating as symbolizing our higher capacities—just to give two examples. And topical themes often go beyond the specifics of their inspiration, as with Sidney Boquiren’s string quartet, …in a mirror, dimly,” inspired by recent police violence.
  1. Don’t trust the program notes. Take even a composers’ own explanations, however eloquent, with a grain of salt. Harold Bloom wrote of deliberately misreading authors; I may have done the same with Alfred Schnittke’s output. Where others hear the sturm und drang of war-torn Europe, the agonies of existence, I hear the limitless inventiveness of a born auditory entertainer, and am always uplifted after hearing one of his compositions. I don’t admit to misinterpretation; I think he mischaracterizes his own temperament, or mistakes his Weltanschauung for it, and everybody else took his word as definitive.
  1. You don’t need to like everything. Perhaps self-evident. New music is such a huge buffet that you don’t need to grasp everything, even everything “important.” But without much effort you can compile a collection of works that embrace your conception of the world, that form kind of a musical self-portrait or profile. I enjoy the fact that everyone’s is different. And of course, it, too, can evolve.
  1. Some music might always be over your head. And that’s O.K. Some composers, like some writers, may be temperamentally unsuited to a wider audience, may speak only to musical insiders, in fact. This doesn’t make them snobs or bad composers, just default elitists. Just as I may never read Finnegans Wake or Nabokov’s Ada, I may never know what to do with Boulez’ Pli selon Pli. But I certainly respect those who celebrate it.

This is only a partial list of some of the personal caveats I carry to new music concerts, some of them gleaned from the art world. Feel free to add any you think are too important to leave out.

Curt Barnes is a visual artist who lives and works in New York City.

Listening List

Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976)

György Ligeti, Volumina (1962)

Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Concerto op. 42 (1942)

George Rochberg, Twelve Bagatelles (1952)

Marc Mellits, Black (2008)

Kate Soper, Voices from the Killing Jar (2010-2012) (Part 1)

Sidney Boquiren, Stop and Frisk 

Alfred Schnittke, Symphony No. 1 (1969-72)


53 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why Beethoven Is Not Enough, by Curt Barnes

  1. Elisa

    The Steve Reich is energy creation!! There is no way that I can express the benefit and gift to me that it is, though I wish to!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elisa: I’m so pleased you’ve weighed in. I would say you’ve expressed exactly my own experience of Steve Reich’s music: “energy creation,” and I certainly have no better words than those you chose. I want you to know, too, that, by writing, you’ve passed on the gift Reich’s music has given you: from now on, whenever I listen to Reich, your words will be with me, too.

  2. Virginia Anderson

    15. Accept that music doesn’t have to be complex to be intellectually absorbing (Satie, for example). When I first heard Hal Budd’s music, I was in my teens and full of New York Uptown ideas. I was shocked that music could be so pretty, but as Barnes notes before that, I soon came around with further listening.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Virginia: Your no. 15 and the accompanying story strikes a strong chord with me. I came to contemporary classical/new music very late in life, after being discouraged in my listening by the prevailing contemporary classical music of the time. The piece that opened the door for me was Welsh composer John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales. I, too, was shocked that music could be so pretty, while at the same time with real depth, and, feeling so welcomed, rushed in the new music door to find more (the next stop was Peter Sculthorpe). That, in turn, led me to do as Metcalf, on meeting him, advised when I asked for more suggestions: “I like what you’re doing. Follow your nose.”

      Perhaps that would be my No. 16, revised a bit: “Just open your ears and follow where they lead you.” Back to Curt’s words, I’ve certainly found it true, by doing that, “without much effort you can compile a collection of works that embrace your conception of the world, that form kind of a musical self-portrait or profile. I enjoy the fact that everyone’s is different. And of course, it, too, can evolve.”

  3. David N

    Your list is so helpful and wise, Curt. But I’d take issue with the notion of art of the past as artifact, the idea that its ‘conventions’ and ‘narrower world’ need condescending to. It’s up to the performer(s) to find what speaks freshly in it to them, and to communicate that, shaking listeners out of their complacency with what had seemed familiar to them. Even Beethoven 5 can still feel ‘terrifying, disturbing, iconoclastic, risky’, and it can be just as living and vital as any of the best new works (which are, of course, as in any generation, only the tip of an iceberg). So it’s not either… or… but both, surely.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I share your ambivalence about thinking about art of the past as artifact, though I do understand where Curt’s coming from in stating that. There is, for one, so much older music that is still “new to me,” or at least still to be grasped by me. I will never forget the breakthrough in listening that you provided into Mahler, by introducing me to the Abbado/Lucerne DVD of Mahler’s Ninth. Since then, many signposts have pointed me to Mahler, not least of which include the inspiration Shostakovich drew from his work and Brian Long’s enormous generosity in sharing his deep knowledge and insight into Mahler and his works. (Brian, for those who don’t know, is our beloved helmsman at the music discussion group to which Curt alluded.)

      Another recent breakthrough for me has been in listening to Charles Ives, which has in the past been an insurmountable hurdle. But with prompts from various sources, including Kyle Gann’s commentaries as he’s been writing his book on the Concord Sonata and Jeremy Denk’s helpful liner notes for the recording I recently purchased, among them, I began to learn how to listen. Then, again as the result of our online discussions in Brian’s group focused on the Holidays Symphony, I found myself wholly inside the music, on the 4th of July, hearing the sounds accumulate as I approached Fifth Avenue to watch the parade.

      I think for me, classical music is a multifaceted and continuing set of vibrant conversations, where ideas of all kinds, musical and non-musical, from all different periods, from all over the world, mingle together in extraordinary ways, so that, for me, at least in the right hands (which are not Long Yu’s), all music I embrace lives in my present and enhances it.

    2. Curt Barnes

      David –
      Humbled that you would comment! Note that when I said “condescended” I said “unconsciously”. I compressed a point of view that could easily take up a whole discussion, and a nuanced one, at that. One reason Beethoven, for example, is considered a genius is that his voice is as powerful and eloquent today as ever. Everyone could agree. But I was trying to speak to the difference between a performance of op. 133, for example, and one of new music. I bow to no one in my awed adoration of Beethoven, for example; the “mere” Grosse Fugue (heard last by the Dover Quartet) never fails to rock my world; it is inexhaustible. As are so many of Bach, Mozart, Handel, Schubert… Meanwhile Brian Long of our GCAS has provided revelatory insights into Debussy, Ives, Brahms, composers I thought I already appreciated enough, but in which there was really so much more than I’d ever heard before. I’ll never stop learning and expanding my appreciation of the music of the past. But I was attempting address those who favor the past to the detriment of the present, to communicate the thrill of what it feels like—to me—to attend a concert of living composers. They live in my world, they’ve heard everything I have (and then some), they have assumed the challenge of adding to the rich store of music we’ve all inherited and are about to deliver their best efforts. That’s a thrill unto itself, unlike any other, I’d argue.

      1. David N

        Absolutely, Curt, the pure museum-house approach to concert programming, which seems worse in the States, has had its day. And these orchestras will be in crisis if they don’t adapt. The plain overture, concerto, symphony format isn’t enough. Fortunately we have fabulous programme crafters (and talkers) like Jurowski, Ticciati etc who are bringing in new young audiences. We can’t exclude the core, of course, but there has to be more imagination and daring.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: The overture/concerto/symphony format is a perfect example of the “bad museum” approach. A lively discussion has ensued here on the imagination and daring some art museums have shown in exhibiting work, from which concert-programmers could also get ideas, and certainly, as you note, fine program crafters like Jurowski and Ticciati demonstrate what can be done.

  4. Dylan Mattingly

    What a wonderful post! I couldn’t agree with more with just about everything you wrote.

    The point about thinking of older music as artifact is key, I think. Orchestras are in many ways museums, though the classical music world has generally been pretty hostile to imagining this. It seems to me that if one accepts older music like one accepts older visual art — something that, no matter how transcendent, always bears the cultural stamp of its own time — then one can both connect to older music (who doesn’t love history for both its familiar and its alien humanities?) and value the necessity of new music without being forced. After all, museums have done a much better job selling themselves as continually culturally vital than have orchestras in the U.S.

    My only point of pushback — you may be right that all music is metaphor. Certainly, all music means something outside of itself (if not drawn up in intention, then at least from the act of perception on the listener’s part). But at the same time, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between music and language here. All language truly is metaphor. Any word (take the typical example of the word “tree”) is a representation of something else (that looks and feels nothing like the squiggly lines on your computer), and through your knowledge of that metaphor and its place in the larger structure of metaphors (language), you have some sort of intuitive, if imperfect grasp of what it means. But this is not how music works. When listening to music, you literally feel the emotions that it communicates. If I say “be happy,” you don’t immediately feel pleasure, but as a composer I have the ability to write music that you will literally experience as pleasurable. The hairs on the back of your neck will stand up, or you might have any other number of physiological responses that demonstrate not just an understanding of what the music means (or perhaps not that at all), but an actual physical experience of something, caused by the music. So in this way, music is much more direct than language and hence less metaphorical.

    Again, I just wanted to say what a fantastic post this was, and it’s such a great feeling to have listeners like you (and Sue) in the world!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Dylan: I’m fascinated by a number of your points (as always). I don’t know that I’d agree that orchestras are museums, but I certainly would endorse the idea that, in the hands of many programmers (and others), they are turned in to museums. It’s also my experience sometimes, in a large hall, that I have felt reduced to a spectator so off in the distance from what’s occurring onstage that it’s a struggle to connect (or even hear very well). On the music itself, though, I enjoy the porous boundaries between past and present, and I love the richness of the associations, so that’s part of any musical experience for me. It’s not that I don’t feel distance from some, particularly much older, music from the canon, I do–but it’s equally true that I can often feel distance from the new, and not necessarily because I’m not open to it coming in. It all depends on a lot of factors, musical and extra-musical, rational and a-rational, with the common basis that they are all authentically mine.

      Curt’s point (one you and David Nice have made as well from time to time) that, “If something doesn’t click, try it again later” has been of critical importance to me, and I really want to underscore it. I’ve lost count of the pieces that I couldn’t grasp at first hearing, that, on a second hearing, came to life, and by a third hearing, I really, truly “owned” as mine. The other thing (of many) Curt noted that I want to note again is this: “if you find something of value by a living composer it can connect with you with unequalled vitality.” I’ve had experiences like that, and I agree.

      1. Dylan Mattingly

        Yes, my point wasn’t that orchestras have to be museums, just that orchestras who play only dead-composer music, which is most orchestras are presenting art of the past, like museums. And I totally agree with your next words — the porous boundaries between past and present and the richness of associations are spectacular things, and important reasons that we love art from the past. And so too is it true that one can still be distant from music in the present, as not all lives in the present are lived in similar ways and circumstance.

        All I was really trying to say is that I see no reason not to embrace this idea of performing music from the past as like a museum show of older art. There is plenty to be beguiled by in the appreciation and study of older things, not the least is their very age and cultural context (I’ve spent plenty of my life studying art from Athens 2500 years ago, and there are things about that culture that resonate with us, some incredibly strongly, but I would not say that Euripides is fundamentally describing the experience of my present. Rather by getting inside something of human culture so far removed, what you’re really able to gain for the present is perspective, a vision of this world in negative space, which I think is of immense value), so I don’t understand why classical music feels so afraid to embrace this. If you allow yourself (as a presenter) to embrace the age of the music that you’re presenting, then I imagine it will become clear to you the need for music from the actual present time. If you focus on the message of Beethoven’s “timelessness,” then you justify away a need for any new music (someone who shall remain nameless in the Bard Conservatory purportedly once said “why would you need new music when Beethoven has already written all his symphonies?”) while simultaneously, in my opinion, missing some of what the music of the past can tell you about your own world.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Dylan: “Timelessness” is certainly a word that has lost all meaning, hasn’t it? What you remind me of here is how much I love discovering, within music, the way the past enriches and informs the present, even as it is not the present. Your Bakkhai is a superb example of that.

        2. Graham Clark

          “Rather by getting inside something of human culture so far removed, what you’re really able to gain for the present is perspective, a vision of this world in negative space, which I think is of immense value), so I don’t understand why classical music feels so afraid to embrace this.”

          This is a trenchant criticism of the classical music world in general, but it seems to me that the Historically Informed Performance movement is doing exactly what you describe.

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              Graham, Dylan: Please don’t feel obliged on this, but I’d love it if either or both of you would expand on how/why Historically Informed Performance might bring the past into the present (if that’s even an appropriate way to summarize this). I actually shudder a bit at the idea of “performing music from the past as like a museum show of older art,” but I view HIP (now that I have an acronym for this) as a living thing, differently from an exhibit in a museum. That said, I recognize that an exhibit in a museum, properly designed, can bring the past into the present, too. Perhaps Curt will be willing to weigh in on this, too.

              1. Dylan Mattingly

                Sue, I tend to agree — in general I like my concerts of old music to feel as new as possible, to be given a performance by a performer seeming to be creating them in the moment, like any great translation of an ancient text! And so perhaps there is a fundamental contradiction in my thinking here, or perhaps that contradiction can exist between presenter and performer? The presenter, presenting music with its age in mind, and the performer, bringing it to the present moment by whatever means possible? My guess is that there are so many negative connotations with the idea of “performing music from the past as like a museum show of older art” that it’s hard to imagine what this could look like in practice — I’m not really suggesting something towards the HIP movement, though I can see how they arrive at their conclusions based on perhaps similar inquiries. Rather, by taking into account the age of a piece of music, wouldn’t one be able to better understand how it can be understood in the present day? And hence, wouldn’t that help make the performance as new/relevant as possible? And my other point is that, though we shudder at the phrase “performing music as though like a museum” (yes, I do too!), haven’t museums been tremendously successful, not just at bringing in people, but all types of people to consider (sometimes difficult) art? I remember this past Summer going to the Hockney show at the DeYoung in San Francisco and being astounded by the many many thousands of people there — of all ages! So we do shudder at the vision of classical music as a museum, but I am trying to figure out why (again, it’s not just you, I feel it too), if we not only enjoy museums ourselves, but we see that museums have done a good job at drawing crowds to art?

              2. Graham Clark

                While there are of course many gradations among standard performers and HIP performers, I would say that the use of instruments like those the composer wrote for – or at least closer to what he wrote for than the standard instruments of today – shifts the basic premise of the performance, away from “This is a piece that we are going to play as though it belonged to our own time, with some consideration for the intentions of the composer, who wrote it a long time ago” toward “This is a piece of music from a different time, and we are going to try to recreate how it would have been played in that time (or how the composer and sympathetic listeners might have hoped to hear it played, with reference to the instruments and techniques that existed at the time), with some consideration of how to also find a specific meaning in it for today’s audiences.”

                There is of course another option: To entirely (or almost entirely) discard the ideal of doing it the way the composer might have done it in his own time, and deliberately update the piece into a modern idiom: Mozart reorchestrating Handel’s “Messiah,” Wagner conducting Beethoven with whatever tempi he felt like. This of course isn’t done much today, and actually HIPers such as René Jacobs and Andeas Staier are far more radical (for better or worse) than today’s standard practitioners in doing things for which there is no basis in the written score or in what is known about historical performance practice.

                All methods can produce potentially sublime results, but it seems to me that the HIPers at the moment are a vital force, while the standard practitioners seem to have been stagnating since 1970s, if not sooner – perhaps not coincidentally, about a generation after they stopped adding new works to their regular repertory (as Greg Sandow has extensively discussed on his ArtsJournal blog, the decline in classical concert attendance also starts in the generation born in the ’40s). It’s hard to make the music you’re playing sound like it’s part of a living tradition when you’re hardly playing anything by actual living composers.

                1. Susan Scheid Post author

                  Dylan and Graham: Thank you both so much for the additional information and insights on the HIP movement and so many other things. You’re reminding me of reading about a series by the Argento Ensemble called “Mahler as New York Contemporary,” pairing new works with Mahler works re-scored (if that’s the right word) for chamber ensemble. It seemed an intriguing idea, and reviews of the first concert suggest that the approach was a great success.

    2. Curt Barnes

      Dylan – Thanks for your comments (and much respect for your work, which I enjoy tremendously). I think of “metaphor” as different from “sign.” Somewhere I learned the distinction to be that “tree” is a symbol, since it merely stands for something and doesn’t in any way imitate, translate or re-create any quality of “treeness.” “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” on the other hand, may be a metaphor for the tragic loss from the ravages of war, but, more than a mere symbol, I think it creates or recreates that sense of tragedy on an emotional level, which is the distinction I think you were making.

      1. Dylan Mattingly

        Yes, and we’re very literally just talking semantics here… (ha ha) I was thinking more along the lines of Nietzsche’s depiction of concept-creation as a metaphorical act than a Saussurian angle, in that to understand a concept of “tree” one is metaphorizing the actual experience of trees into an overarching concept (and also, which was perhaps my leap, metaphorizing the signified into the Signifier). Nietzsche’s beautiful quote comes to mind, from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense:

        ““What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force.”

        And your point about the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is exactly what I was getting at. Plus it plays into your point about program notes and disconnect between composer’s intentions and audience reaction that Penderecki’s original title was “8’37″… I think it was his publisher (?) that suggested the famous title.

        1. Curt Barnes

          Dylan –
          I think Penderecki took credit for his title, acc. Wikipedia, anyway, but I enjoy that it was ex post facto. (the general form came first, then the specific reference) I also enjoy the Nietzsche quote, new to me. Reminds me of johnny-come-lately Wallace Stevens:

          The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.

          My intellectual life is scattershot, like my musical experience. (Though I wonder what an ordered or orderly one would be like?) I am coming to Nietzsche through the back door, E. M. Cioran. He’s dark but fun: “The Temptation to Exist.”

  5. Michael Robinson

    The real story of our time for both composers and music lovers is discovering the musics of other cultures and lands, whether it be the classical music of India for myself, the music of Africa and Indonesia for Steve Reich, or the music of Native Americans for Kyle Gann. One common denominator for everyone is a musical form indigenous to America – jazz.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Michael: How nice to see you here! Though I might not say there is only one real story, absolutely, the musics of other cultures and lands has enriched the musical palette immeasurably. We live in very exciting times for classical music, with composers drawing from everything and everywhere. It’s as Pasternak wrote of poetry: “People nowadays imagine that art is like a fountain, whereas it is a sponge. They think art has to flow forth, whereas what it has to do is absorb and become saturated.”

      1. Michael Robinson

        Fantastic quote! It reminds me of an email I received from Helen Vendler, amplifying my thought that Ezra Pound had an enormously positive influence on William Butler Yeats, including the time they spent living together. While the Japanese and Indian literary influences on Yeats are well known, I believe that the Chinese poetry Pound was translating must have come to the attention of Yeats, and I’m convinced there is evidence of that influence in the actual poetry of Yeats, but have not the time to do a thorough investigation. Certainly the rasa of Chinese poetry at least visits the poetry of Yeats after his time with Pound.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Michael: So pleased you loved that quote. I can see you have a mind that works a little like mine (are we both in trouble here?), just walking around following a trail of associations, although you with a bit more knowledge base than I certainly have. Interesting that you brought up classical Chinese poetry, as, in my previous post, I belatedly made one of those many discoveries of something so many have long known. (Mahler’s use of classical Chinese poetry in Das Lied von der Erde–and in the course of it, thinking about the act of translation and what it signifies, well, all sorts of thoughts over my head; I sometimes think such thoughts are my favorite kind!)

          1. Michael Robinson

            Two thoughts about Gus, I mean Gustav Mahler, not having known him well enough to call him Gus. Am I giving my age away here? (I was helping a friend restore a house in Maui recently, and we were ripped off by a fellow named Gustav who called himself Gus.)

            1. I am convinced that the most famous jazz ballad of all time, Round About Midnight, was inspired by the third part of Kindertotenlieder, as Thelonious Monk and others were famous lovers of European classical music.

            2. During my second summer at Tanglewood, I sat front row center for a Leonard Bernstein performance of the Ninth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with vivid memories of that rendering fresh in my mind. However, the following month, at Carnegie Hall, I heard the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra perform the same work, and it was infinitely more powerful. My conclusion, after analyzing both performances in comparison, was that the German orchestra played with more authenticity, being closer to the spirit of the music than the American orchestra, including the conductor. Thus, whatever technical superiority the BSO rendering may have had, which is doubtful – the NY Times review of the Carnegie Hall concert was a travesty – the long line and prescient content of the FRSO realization transcended such relatively irrelevant considerations

            (Also, no offense taken, Graham. I am trying to get some work done and don’t have time to respond to your interesting comments and questions now.)

    2. Graham Clark

      How is jazz “one common denominator for everyone”?

      What – everything we’ve realized about the latent imperialism of asserting that Beethoven is for all people and all times goes out the window as soon as it’s our own country’s product that’s getting talked up?

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Graham: While it’s certainly appropriate to raise the point, the tone is a matter of concern. I think Michael’s comment was sincerely made, even if one doesn’t agree. I really don’t want Prufrock’s to become another site where fights break out over music, and I will protect it from becoming that. We’re not folks inside the academy here, as a general rule, but just a lovely bunch of coconuts having a conversation, in this case springing off one thoughtful, articulate listener’s approaches to listening to the “new.”

  6. Graham Clark

    Thank you to Curt Barnes for writing this thoughtful piece, and to Susan Scheid for posting it (and to Kyle Gann for mentioning it on his blog, which is how I got here).

    Thank you also for the links at the end! – though if anyone reading this has just had her first experience of Schoenberg through the piano concerto, and found herself less than enamoured, I implore her to try “Pierrot lunaire.” ( (Text:


    1. The assumption that the past is automatically “narrower” than the present, hence that we are always getting better. This looks like either complacency, or a comforting lie, flattering the minor artists of the present (that is to say, almost all the artists of the present, like almost all the artists of every era) that they are, in some way, better than the greatest of their predecessors.

    Anyway, the case for learning to appreciate original contemporary art is easily made – an artist is of course in a unique position to say things about her own time – without callow insults to the past.

    2. If it is important for us, as citizens of the 21st century, to listen to 21st century music, that may be an argument for learning to appreciate John Luther Adams, Thomas Adès, and Jörg Widmann. (And, for that matter, Kanye West.) But it obviously can’t apply to Schoenberg, barely to Rochberg, Berio, Ligeti, or Schnittke, not much even to Steve Reich, and certainly not to a work written in the mid 1970s like Music for 18 Musicians, a product of an era that is now a universe away: before the destruction of the middle class by Reagan et al., before the fall of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc, before the internet, before the Iraq War, before the Great Recession.

    (To be clear, I enjoy and duly admire Schoenberg. The above should not be read as a dismissal of modernist classical music.)

    “Art, living art, has the capacity to be terrifying, disturbing, iconoclastic, risky…” Well, yes, but let’s be honest: It’s rare for music to directly impel the oppressed to fight the oppressors, and when it does – the “Marseillaise,” Bon Jovi in the Soviet Union – it’s often not very good. Granted, the 20th century may actually have seen the supreme example of music – GOOD music – changing the way the masses think and feel, but it was Elvis and the Beatles who did it, not classical musicians.

    The subversive potential of contemporary classical music is more modest: Exposing the petty megalomania of academics, grant committees, etc, who discriminate against anything that sounds insufficiently like Pierre Boulez or, alternately, gestures insufficiently toward identity politics. On that level, I submit that Beethoven et al. have ample capacity of their own for being “terrifying, disturbing, iconoclastic, risky.” I have, for example, seen iconoclast critics effectively eviscerate contemporary works – works that have been embraced by the establishment – pointing out their essential triviality and self-centeredness, by a comparison with the classics. More broadly, the examples of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, combined with the fact that we today don’t have anybody to equal them – again, let’s be honest, we don’t – are constantly telling us something profoundly disturbing: That we today lack something important.

    Also, a technical point: MOST music lovers today did not grow up with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but with modern popular music – incidentally with the result that Beethoven sounds LESS familiar to them than does Steve Reich.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hi, Graham: Thanks for stopping by and weighing in. I won’t respond in detail, but will leave that to Curt as he wishes and just offer some personal observations about my own classical music listening trajectory. As a person “of a certain age,” I identify very much with Curt’s story about discovering Reich. For a very long time, I had no idea about much 20th C music, let alone 21st. I really love Curt’s remark that “It took me a lifetime of listening to arrive fully at the present; fifteen years ago I was just absorbing Stravinsky, then some of the easier Berg and Stockhausen, and only recently Berio and Schnittke.” It’s going to take me a lifetime to arrive fully at the present–and in fact, I suspect I’ll not have time enough on the planet to fully arrive. But, as they say, it’s the journey, and I’m excited that there is so much to discover, over a wide span of time, that is entirely “new to me.”

      As a “lay listener,” I don’t really worry about what goes on inside the academy, other than to feel for friends subject to some of the nonsense that goes on, nor do I worry about whether a current composition will stand the test of time. I can’t know the latter anyway. My own guideposts, such as they are, are simple ones, and they are subjective, boiling down to these:

      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?

      1. Graham Clark

        Thank you for the reply!

        And thank you for the reminder of the primary criteria for music, preceding questions of relevance (“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?”).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Graham: And thank you so much for your response! I’m struck by your observation of criteria “preceding questions of relevance.” It’s not something that had occurred to me, but makes a lot of sense. We can get bogged down in “questions of relevance,” when, after all, we could be listening to something new to see what we make of it out of our own heads and hearts.

    2. Curt Barnes

      Graham –
      I had no idea that my comments would get feedback so soon and thus am somewhat late to the party. Granted that my introductory paragraph, “Beethoven..” is overcompressed and subject to misinterpretation, you made some leaps that weren’t implied:
      “The assumption that the past is automatically “narrower” than the present,”
      —yes, I meant that the idioms of the past are available to composers today, and idioms of other parts of the world, as well, and the possibility of creating new idioms–all of which makes for an expanding field of possibility.
      ” hence that we are always getting better”
      —now that I did NOT say. No qualitative distinction was made.

      Art, living art, has the capacity to be terrifying, disturbing, iconoclastic, risky…”
      —not that actual life and limb are in danger, just emotions, assumptions, values…
      “Well, yes, but let’s be honest: It’s rare for music to directly impel the oppressed to fight the oppressors”
      As I say, I didn’t mean to say anything about music aiding revolution, etc.

      David Nice took issue with the same part of the blog, and maybe my answer to him (above) will address some of your considerations. Thanks for reading the thing, though.

      1. Graham Clark

        Well, you didn’t use the word “better,” but come on. “Narrower” is pejorative.

        In any case, if you’re NOT saying that “the idioms of the past [being] available to composers today, and idioms of other parts of the world, as well, and the possibility of creating new idioms” will lead to better music than ever before, then ultimately what does it matter?

        1. Curt Barnes

          Graham –
          A river can be narrow and still very deep. In no way did I mean “narrower” negatively in terms of a work’s power, profundity, or relevance. (My own work can be seen as stylistically narrow compared to a lot of painting being done today, but I’d hardly concede its inferiority) If I had to choose between the Bach unaccompanied violin Chaconne and Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, which uses everything but the kitchen sink…but happily I don’t.

          “…what does it matter?” You’d get a better answer from a composer than from me, probably. But there’s an expression in the art world, “make it new,” (I first noticed it said by critic Peter Schjeldahl) which implies that “it” may be the same ol’ same ol’ human content, but we have to keep re-saying it, re-casting it in modern terms or it becomes…artifact. Don’t think I agree totally, but that’s one (existentialist?) rationale.

          1. Graham Clark

            Certainly, art has to be new, that is, original, but artists in every era have managed to be original without our brave new “expanding field of possibility.”

            1. Curt Barnes

              Not sure exactly what you mean, but every era has naysayers when faced with innovation, protesting that they like something a little new, sure, but not THIS. Are you familiar with the “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by Nicolas Slonimsky? My favorite section features reviews of Beethoven, in which there are complaints about “odious meowing” and “discords to shatter the least sensitive ear,” or sounds like “the upsetting of bags of nails.” That latter quote was John Ruskin.

  7. Susan Scheid Post author

    A wonderful person I’m so glad to be able to count among my friends is moderating a rollicking online discussion of poems by John Ashbery in which I’m participating at present. Whenever I try to compliment her about giving us this tremendous opportunity and bringing so many insights into the bargain, she says things like, “I just bring the tea and cookies.” I am not fishing, by any means, but at this moment, I know exactly how she feels!

    I, too, must get on to other things, so I’ll just leave you with this: for any of you who are either musicians or composers, make sure and hug a listener at the first moment possible. We’re all in this together, and I hope we can reach out our arms to enlarge the community of listeners of new music (and, indeed, classical music as a whole). “That, at least,” to quote John Ashbery, “is my hope.” (This comes from a poem, the name of which some of you may recognize: The Youth’s Magic Horn.)

  8. Brian Long

    What a great post and ensuing discussion, Curt. I don’t have much to add to everything that has been said. I just wanted to say THANKS!

  9. Mark Kerstetter

    Are the tea and cookies gone, then? Let me say there’s a lot of food for thought in this discussion. I would underscore some points you have already made, Susan, about listening. I go with an open mind and ears and allow the music to take me where it will. Sometimes I feel I’ve been there before, and don’t want to linger; other times the journey is slower, with surprises along the way. This attitude of openness and receptivity is appropriate for all sorts of life situations. I spoke with a man who restores old houses who told me, “The house will tell you what it needs. You just have to listen.”

    I wonder if I am unique in that I have more difficulty in learning about old (classical, orchestral) music than new music. And some of the reasons why are touched on in some of the comments above. It seems to me that orchestras that play predominently the works of dead composers play mostly to the memories and nostalgia of an older audience. Too often I have sat through concert situations that felt like a museum experience in the negative sense. Somehow it’s too easy for a group of musicians to play the same old notes over and over again until they sound just like that–a musical cliche. On the positive side, I have enjoyed pre-concert talks that, when done well, provide historical background for the program. I think Dylan Mattingly is right to draw a distinction between positive and negative museum experiences, and orchestras should strive for the positive kind when they present old music. And it’s imperative that orchestras find ways to reach younger listeners, and indeed play more works by living composers.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: For you, if ever the tea and cookies run out, I would run out to get in another batch. I’m delighted you’ve stopped by, and, as always, you make a number of thoughtful points. “I go with an open mind and ears and allow the music to take me where it will. Sometimes I feel I’ve been there before, and don’t want to linger; other times the journey is slower, with surprises along the way” beautifully describes the experience of listening, with allowance for both experiences that resonate and those that may not, and the art of giving oneself permission for both to occur.

      You make an excellent point, picking up on Dylan’s, about positive and negative museum experiences, and I agree that “It seems to me that orchestras that play predominantly the works of dead composers play mostly to the memories and nostalgia of an older audience.” It’s such a shame. In thinking about Dylan’s, and now your, “museum” comment further, I was reminded of several examples of positive museum experiences from which large classical music organizations could learn–and one of them, actually is the Met Museum’s initiative of having concerts in interesting and resonating spaces within the museum (like the Gotham Chamber Opera performance of Monteverdi and Lembit Beecher’s responsive opera:

      Critical factors bearing on the quality of a concert hall experience include conducting and programming. I’ve noted before that one of the most fascinating, involving concerts I’ve been to in recent memory was Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in early Shostakovich:; in contrast, one of the worst was Long Yu conducting the NY Phil in this program (I found it far short of a “commanding” performance, though I don’t put this down to the orchestra, but rather, and as indicated in the article, the conductor)

      By the way, on the new music front, there’s a great “new music” concert tomorrow night: the pianist Sarah Cahill is having a “piano party” for Terry Riley’s 80th birthday. The concert includes homages by several composers (including Dylan) and it’s going to be live streamed and also archived on Q2 for listening. Here’s the link, which also includes a listing of the entire program:!/story/watch-live-pianist-sarah-cahill-and-composers-celebrate-terry-riley/

  10. The Solitary Walker

    Yes, an excellent post, and it has certainly stimulated me and helped me find a clearer way in to ‘difficult’ contemporary music. Indeed, the suggestions here give me some measure of relaxation and relief: no, I needn’t be too worried about the meaning of a piece, or not ‘getting’ a work, or not even liking it! It’s all OK. What’s important is to be open to the new without prejudice, to cleanse the doors of perception, to follow one’s nose (and ears) . . . Just to add a snippet from my own limited experience, I’ve found that it can be transformational to hear a live performance first, rather than listen to a recording. I had that experience with a piece by Edgard Varèse. Had I just listened to it on a CD it would probably hardly have registered; hearing it in a concert hall (in a ‘special’ place and atmosphere conducive to concentration and contemplation) it had a big effect on me, and I can recall that effect many years later.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      SW: So nice to “see” you here–and I made sure to refill the cookies and tea for you, too! Yes, I think one of the many great things about what Curt wrote, as I’ve also indicated to Mark K., is that sense of “permission” to simply listen, without worrying about a piece’s meaning, etc. and see where your ears take you.

      I also definitely second your observation that “it can be transformational to hear a live performance first, rather than listen to a recording,” and have had that experience, too. My experience is in accord with yours, also, on the concert hall (at its best) as a “‘special’ place and atmosphere conducive to concentration and contemplation.”

  11. shoreacres

    It’s intriguing how many of the fourteen “preparatory thoughts” Curt lists might also be applied to literature and writing of every sort. Since he acknowledges coming to some of his conclusions through his involvement in the world of art, it makes sense that they’d transfer so easily to the word-world.

    Beyond that, as one who merely lurks around the edges of this musical world, I’m both pleased and relieved to find so much common sense and acceptance in his guidelines. While I love music, I don’t love every sort of music, or every piece of music within a given genre. When I come home from work, you can bet I’ll not be unwinding to Contemporaneous, But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested, that I can’t be caught up by an unfamiliar piece, or that I can’t appreciate the value of something I don’t “like.”

    And always, there are the surprises. I bumped into Julia Wolfe last week while browsing YouTube for something quite different, and found myself mesmerized by her “Stronghold (For Eight Double Basses).” It reminded me again of the value of music resources like Pandora. Just for fun, I created a Julia Wolfe channel, and listened while doing some chores at my desk. Some selections were dispatched pretty quickly — just too dissonant, too squeaky-chalk-on-blackboard. But here and there, I found pieces to jot down and explore further: new names, new music.

  12. Susan Scheid Post author

    shoreacres: Yes, I absolutely agree, the “preparatory thoughts” can be valuable across the arts, and indeed a preparation of mind toward encountering anything new and exploring the path of it–which, by the way, every one of your blog posts does, and beautifully. Who else but you, as just the most recent example, would have me thinking about statues in public places in an entirely new way? For your amusement, it could happen, given what you say here, that one day you WILL be unwinding to Contemporaneous–the group has played, in my memory, at least two pieces of Wolfe’s, and I believe she’s a favorite composer of members of the group. But you’re right, whether it’s “unwindy” depends on the piece!

    Your own selection is an interesting one from, among other things, the perspective of Curt’s point # 9, and particularly his point about Mellits’ piece Black. Similarly, you’ve chosen a piece for eight double basses (new to me, BTW, so thanks for the heads up). Now I’m curious: don’t feel the need to follow this trail, but if you should, I wonder what you might think of this #9-ish piece, Eve Beglarian’s In and Out of the Game for multiple trombones and pre-recorded electronics (the title is from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass). For me, any time at all, but particularly when nerves are frazzled and I need to unwind, this music does it for me–unraveling the tension and sending me along its lovely flow. When I put it on, I can never listen to it only once.

    Here’s the Whitman text from which she drew the title:

    Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
    Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
    Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
    Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,
    Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

    Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and
    I have no mockings or arguments . . . . I witness and wait.

  13. sackerson

    Listening to music by certain composers often reminds me of particular artists – e.g., Stravinsky-Picasso.

    To generalize about 20th century music (a dangerous thing I know) I think people often underestimate how visceral it can be, thinking, instead, that there’s some strange, intellectual side to it they’re supposed to “get” and don’t. However, the old, tongue in cheek remark that a piece “repays repeated listening” is true. I got into the more “difficult” 20th century composers that way.

    As for serialism, check out Bach’s first 2-part invention in C major – substantially constructed from a 7-note series and all its mirror forms. (

    1. Curt Barnes

      Great observations, if I may say so, sackerson. The Stravinsky/Picasso connection is a strong one, since both spanned the century, both were Protean and polystylistic, both were giants in their fields.

      “Every music is intellectual music until it is understood.” —Hugh Kenner
      I like that, but agree that often asking for intellectual justification misses the point.

      In visual art as probably in music, some say they don’t understand and demand some kind of explanation. Then they complain that they prefer art that doesn’t have to justify itself in words.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Curt: That’s an interesting quote, and you remind me of attending a “new music” concert with a friend who, though quite open to the experience, was at first baffled, until she realized that she didn’t need to try and figure it out, but just to let her ears take it in. It’s very freeing, but perhaps counterintuitive at first. In fact, Solitary Walker, in his comment above, put it very nicely: “Yes, an excellent post, and it has certainly stimulated me and helped me find a clearer way in to ‘difficult’ contemporary music. Indeed, the suggestions here give me some measure of relaxation and relief: no, I needn’t be too worried about the meaning of a piece, or not ‘getting’ a work, or not even liking it! It’s all OK.” I think that’s the key to comfort with listening to the unfamiliar. As you note, in your gloss on the quotation, an explanation/justification may not be the most useful approach, but rather it’s about finding points of connection and welcoming ways in, of which you have provided so many in this post.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      sackerson: Thank you so much for coming by. While I wouldn’t be able to parse it as it’s clear you can do, I am delighted by your reference to the Bach as “substantially constructed from a 7-note series and all its mirror forms” (the terminology, at least, is familiar to me). It’s a delightful example of the porous nature of the boundaries between music of the present and that of the past. In searching for something else in response to your comment, I came across this on a possible use of a 12-tone scale in Bach: A favorite of mine, though of course much more recent, is the use of a tone row in Shostakovich’s 12th String Quartet.

      Also, my friend David Nice, who is a wonderful guide to many things musical, and notably, the porous nature of the boundaries in classical music over time, has pointed to aspects of “the modern” in Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, including The Sapphire Fairy’s 5/4 meter and Puss in Boots “mewings that at first verge on the atonal,” particularly. He goes on to note, vis-a-vis Stravinsky, “the ballet constitutes an inventory of what at that time were new and unorthodox groupings of instruments, and went on to inspire a new generation of composers, among them Stravinsky, who declared The Sleeping Beauty to be Tchaikovsky’s chef d’ouevre.” I’m going on a bit, for which I apologize, but I just love discovering things like this, and you, with many thanks, have now added to the list!

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