Two Metaphors in the Politics of Musical Style

A lot of talk about the new-music scene is based on a metaphor in which the people who write and listen to “difficult” music are the elitist aristocracy, and the people who write and listen to “accessible” music are the downtrodden average joes.  There’s also a lot of talk about the new-music scene which is based on a different metaphor, in which the people who write and listen to “accessible” music are the jocks who rule the school, and the people who write and listen to “difficult” music are the picked-on nerds.  And when someone who sees things through the first lens tries to have a conversation with someone who sees things through the second, real communication is almost impossible.

Part of the problem is that both of these metaphors are spot-on, in certain situations.  The first one might seem very apt if you’re studying in a composition department where anyone who writes music that’s tonal or in 4/4 or influenced by popular genres is accused of being naive, unsophisticated, and unable to appreciate the weight of history.  The second might seem very apt if you’re working in a scene where populism reigns supreme and modernist-oriented composers are mocked and dismissed.  But these metaphors are so culturally and politically potent that it’s tempting to apply them to the new-music world as a whole, or even the entire art world — and then suddenly you have a situation where two people could be at the same concert or presentation and leave with two completely contradictory understandings of what they just saw and heard.

What do you think?  Is there any way to reconcile these two worldviews, or is that like saying that Ralph Nader and Pat Robertson should try to find common ground?  Is one metaphor more apt than the other?  Would it be better to stop politicizing style altogether, or is doing so useful for fighting aesthetic prejudice and closed-mindedness?


  1. Rachael Briggs
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    This seems like an ingroup/outgroup thing: people are more likely to see their own favorite approach as unfairly beleaguered, and to see outsiders as nasty bullies. (You get something it in poetry too, with page-oriented poets playing the role of the stodgy upper class, and performance-oriented poets playing the role of the jocks.) I think it’s a pity to moralize creativity: both the “accessible” stuff and the “difficult” stuff are valuable.

    Is this really about composers fighting amongst themselves for limited arts budgets? There are hard practical questions about resource allocation. There, the only general recommendations I can think of funding a lot of different things (because homogeneity can’t be good if your goal is to encourage the production of novel art) and trying not to be too zero-sum about it (because artists have a hard enough struggle against anti-intellectual neo-liberalism, without the added burden of fighting among themselves).

    With Ralph Nader and Pat Robertson, it’s not really possible to let 1,000 bloom, because the debate is about how we should manage our sole supply of fertilizer, and whether we should spray Roundup on those flowers that we deem weeds. With the case of “difficult” and “accessible” music, every composer is free to tend their own garden. (Hello, runaway botany metaphor!)

  2. Posted July 26, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    The problem is, I think, the human tendency to reduce everything to a binary, and to view anything unfamiliar as foreign and therefore the same.

    I am always asked by my students “do I have to write in an atonal style?” when I don’t recall playing them any truly atonal music at all. Instead, I prefer to examine and analyse music that teases us with tonal references, but is not “simply” modal or tonal in the common-practice sense. I think students feel that because it’s not common-practice, it’s therefore atonal.

    In the US, politics seems to be similarly “bipolar” – you’re either a Democrat or a Republican, and the system seems to be geared to keep this duality entrenched and concretised. It’s very difficult in US politics to recognise subtle shades of political leanings.

    Similarly in music, it’s very difficult to talk to students (and some audiences) about the universes of difference between Schoenberg and Webern (or even Webern and Andriessen!), when, to them, they’re simply not tonal, and therefore sound the same.

  3. Posted July 27, 2012 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    I think the biggest problem with these analogies is that they are both so adversarial, and cast the new music scene as a team sport. A more helpful metaphor might present possibilities of how the “difficult” and “accessible” music both have important places in the world — that art can both be an challenging, individualistic pursuit and communal/populist one, sometimes in the same piece of music. To take Rachael’s botanical analogy further, picture an ecosystem, with the majestic trees of populism falling and in their rot, strange beautiful new fungi breaking down the fertile bark and creating rich new soil for both new fungi and new trees to grow.

    (And please don’t tell me you’re sick of trees!)

  4. Posted July 28, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Rachael — There certainly are limited arts budgets, but that in itself can become politicized. This comes up more when people are talking about pop music vs. contemporary classical music in general, rather than more esoteric vs. less esoteric forms of contemporary classical music, but occasionally you get arguments like “if you can’t succeed in the marketplace, clearly people don’t like what you’re doing and it doesn’t have any value,” or on the other side, “pop music gets tons of money in the marketplace, so it shouldn’t get any additional institutional support.” (I’m more sympathetic to the second one, but it’s a dangerous oversimplification, especially since classical musicians tend to use “pop music” to mean “anything played by a band”; Thinking Plague needs a grant a lot more than Philip Glass does.)

    I agree that we should fund a lot of different things!

  5. Posted July 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Michael — it’s continually amazing to me that tonal vs. atonal is still a relevant distinction in 2012. We’ve been having that debate for a century already! How do you get your students past that way of looking at things?

  6. Posted July 28, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Ethan — Yeah, I think both of these analogies come up when people feel that the “other side” is already being adversarial. I definitely understand the temptation to respond to “you’re ruining new music!!!” with “no, YOU’RE ruining new music!!!”, but it really doesn’t get you anywhere useful.

    I like your elaboration of Rachael’s analogy. I think my music is a strange fungus that feeds on plants that are usually considered weeds.

  7. Posted August 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Musically speaking, this debate is irrelevant today. I would say that, a priori, composers should be completely free to write whatever music they want to—this is the enlightened vision, which is extensively described by Foucault in his “Les Mots et les Choses”. It is the idea of Man (its individuality and free will), which probably one day will come to an end and will be surpassed by a different idea—at least it has always been this way. For this reason, I highly doubt we have any power as mere artists to directly influence this process. Hence, the irrelevance.

    Though from a completely different perspective, what we do within the context of universities should only be “new” music, i.e. artistic research. In this very particular context, funding music that still deals with issues from one or two centuries ago seems to me very odd—we wouldn’t be able to imagine a philosophy department that funds and encourages somebody who claims to invent cartesian ideas; neither would we see money poured into medical research that attempts to find a vaccine for measles. Now, it is very common for some people against this budget strategy (I’ve bumped into many who think this way) to claim that “art (and music) is different”, that this is a “modernist approach”, that this simply goes “against” the aforementioned idea of individuality/free will. Of course, art and music are different than philosophy or science, in that they all attempt to explore the inner and surrounding world(s) following different methods/resources. However, the final purpose of all is the same: to achieve some sort of knowledge(s)—as in concepts, aesthetic experiences, scientific theories, among others.

    This, in fact, is not plain modernism, but rather a level of awareness that comes from post-modernism and post-structuralism (Jameson, Deleuze/Guattari, Derrida). When dealing with music within the university, this seems to be an approach commonly used in the most advanced European countries (Germany, France), but generally not in the US, where a lot of the composition departments tend not to contribute with new musical ideas (in fact, they produce “orchestral” composers whose main goal is to keep alive a business that is dying). Fortunately, things are changing in the US and we have a few very strong composition departments today, which seem to encourage critical thinking while allowing composers to write music far from dogmatic aspects and ignorant prejudices.

  8. Posted August 23, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Joan — could you be a bit more specific about what you mean by “music that still deals with issues from one or two centuries ago”?

  9. Posted August 23, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I can try to summarize it. I mean, music that is born out of the general philosophical approach of the West after the 17th century (rather than the general, I would rather say “the official”). Descartes, Kant, Hegel… of course they all expressed different ideas, although in my opinion, this differentiation is not on a fundamental level, but rather on a completely superficial one. In fact, the dichotomies (the ones we already see in Plato and that will further be developed by Hegel) are still there, as well as the firm belief in “one” God, in “one” way, in “the” Truth, etc—such major entities are usually achieved after a process of duality. This strict sense of a single linearity (discovered after two opposed entities) has been the vast part of Western thought up to Chomsky’s linguistics—this included. Of course, there are exceptional philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, even Cioran) who rejected such a simplistic approach and tried to conceive something beyond duality, although they were literally considered as freaks by the majority of their contemporaries.

    In Western music up to the second half of the 20th century, the dichotomy is what works as a fundamental developmental parameter—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert… they all create extreme contrasts as a way to potentially achieve intermediate states, which enrich the musical form. This approach goes all the way to the 20th century (Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok… their forms are still quite simple when compared to later music, probably because of their tendency towards functional tonal harmony, pitch centricity, and modality—in my opinion, such a hierarchical understanding of pitch unbalanced the possibilities that a higher sense of awareness as for other parameters could’ve contributed with, thus “forcing” the aforementioned dichotomical apparatus to appear over and over again, composer after composer, piece after piece).

    Fortunately, after Webern (and Boulez, and Stockhausen), things started to finally change and new paradigms were being explored—ironically, that’s the time when the post-structuralists start to revise older texts (Deleuze and Kant, Derrida and Husserl) as a way to deconstruct them. Thus, the change of paradigms not only does take place in music, but also in philosophy. In my opinion, Boulez’s serialism is still very rudimentary and achieves a sense of formal multiplicity not directly, but rather by being a byproduct of the decentralization of pitch. In fact, it seems to me that we had to wait until literally these days to see young composers who truly consider the conceptual universe that was developed in the second half of the 20th century. Now I really see composers writing what I believe is amazing music.

    Therefore, what I mean by “music that still deals with issues from one or two centuries ago” is a particular compositional approach that ignores the strength and the influence of such philo-musical ideas. To me, approaching musical formalization from an approach of “here’s A, here’s B, here’s a mix of both” today not only contributes to creating poor music, but also it shows that such hypothetical composers who compose this way are not aware of the implications of what they’re doing. Again, people should be free to do whatever they want, but I truly believe that an artist (and in fact a citizen) shouldn’t start making art until the essential question is asked: what can I contribute with. That’s why I believe that universities should encourage true research.

  10. Posted August 24, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the elaboration — I understand what you’re saying now. I’m going to take some time to think about this before responding. In the meantime, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on a piece of mine from a few years ago, whose title and form were both inspired by a passage from A Thousand Plateaus:

  11. Posted August 24, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing the piece Alex—I already listened to it. I probably understand where you were coming from and what you wanted to achieve in this piece, and frankly it seems something extremely difficult to do. A priori, the main problem I see is the use of such historically non-distorted materials (as you explain in the notes, you clearly hear some sort of Bach, Debussy, etc). It seems as if you applied Stockhausen’s “momente-form” with some sort of transitions that help connect such stylistically charged materials—although I also can hear juxtapositions of different historical materials performed simultaneously. Each of the historical materials you use has its own historical formal development (Bach’s harmonic progression for example), and we clearly hear that. However, I wasn’t able to get an overall sense of “network”—I was listening to each single historical material, its implications, but not to the connections between these materials. To me, because of the extremely strong historical implications of each single material, it was very difficult to perceive the piece beyond experiencing a collage (and I don’t have anything against collage per se).

  12. Posted September 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi Joan,

    I’ve been thinking about your comments here a lot and trying to figure out how to respond to them, and I keep running up against a big wall: namely, we seem to have wildly different and completely irreconcilable ideas about what art is for. I can elaborate on that if you think it would be interesting or productive, but I don’t want to come across as needlessly confrontational. What do you think?