. . . my own involvement in the art world has helped me find connections with music, not so much in content as in a preparatory attitude.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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)