Monday, December 10, 2007

And this is a problem because...?

Yesterday's NY Times featured an article by Charles Rosen about his friend Elliott Carter, whose 99th birthday is tomorrow – the same day as my wife's 28th, I'm inexplicably tickled to discover. Rosen writes very sympathetically about Carter's life and music. Although I've never been a big Carterhead, I appreciate some of his early works like the cello and piano sonatas, and find that his music is becoming ever more appealing as he approaches his centenary. However, it's not so much Rosen's tributes to Carter's music that caught my attention as his mild slam of an unnamed piece in a contrasting aesthetic. He relates the story of his first meeting with Carter at an ISCM concert in 1956:

"One generally went to the society’s concerts to see friends; only a small amount of the music played there was attractive, since most contemporary music, like most of the music of any other period of history, is of little interest."

Hmm, whatever. But go on...

"On this occasion, if I remember correctly, one work was a single note on a solo violin to be sustained for 1 hour 20 minutes (but the performance was abbreviated to 40 minutes)."

Ack! Shock!! Horror!!! A piece that only employs a single pitch! For a very long time! What a laughable, ridiculous idea! Seriously, though, how does one write a credible criticism of a piece, even a pithy one, by citing a work's very means of articulation as a pejorative? Rosen's comment proceeds from the offhand, a priori assumption that the very concept of this piece is unworthy of consideration. Nothing else is revealed about it, no other factors taken into account. What was the nameless composer trying to achieve with the piece, and was he/she successful? Was it performed by a sympathetic musician, or did the violinist treat the piece with contempt and play it badly? Was the piece well programmed, or did the other works on the concert not leave it enough space to be received in a favorable light? These and many other questions could be asked before dismissing a piece, but its use a single pitch (a trick that, I might add, is deployed to great effect by Carter himself in Four Études and a Fantasy) and long duration seem to be grounds enough to treat it as inconsequential. If it's not even worth asking these questions, why comment about said piece at all, except to score cheap points for your side of a largely no-longer-relevant aesthetic debate?

This post once again reveals my tendency to blow tiny comments way out of proportion, but I think Rosen's flippant attitude toward this mystery piece is indicative of a larger contempt held by certain proponents of mid-century modernism for any piece that does not aspire to their particular brand of complexity and ambition, and is therefore by its very nature flawed. But to criticize a piece based solely on its means of construction is no criticism at all, really. A similar thing happened to a colleague of mine last spring. She had composed a piece for the Finnish Radio Symphony, a ballsy, uncompromisingly repetitive work that sounded like Morton Feldman's Coptic Light on steroids. It was a very risky thing to do for her first big orchestra commission. I thought it was incredible: beautiful, powerful and stirring. I ended up being one of a tiny minority of people who liked it. It was, as I recall, vocally disliked by many, and even booed by a few. The review that appeared a day or two later, though, based its criticism on the fact that the percussion section carried most of the musical argument in the early stages of the piece, as if writing extensively for percussion in an orchestra piece is in and of itself a bad thing. No further comment necessary.

It's okay to make choices as an artist. I generally think that holding to strong beliefs about the "rightness" of one's aesthetic choices creates art that speaks urgently and convincingly in most cases, and that the idea that everyone should like everything is somewhat naïve. But one can and should remain open to meeting the composer halfway. A good critic, professional or armchair, knows how to check their expectations at the door and be receptive to what an artist is trying to accomplish, and evaluate a work on the success or failure of its particular project. Perhaps the piece Rosen is so dismissive of was indeed a failure. But the way he comments about it implies that such an idea is destined to be a failure from its very inception, and should be given no further consideration. Good criticism – of one's own work and that of others – needs to be based on more than knee-jerk positions, taking into account myriad factors that go into the creation and presentation of an artwork. Simply pushing it aside in this way diminishes the discourse and the critic both.

22 comments:

Steve Hicken said...

Good catch, Matthew. That comment stopped me in my tracks, too.

My only quibble is that the tendency to build up the aesthetic you support by knocking down other aesthetic is symptomatic of criticism by all sides of the style wars, not just the proponents of "mid-century modernism". What it does, in my opinion, is to decrease the cultural space for our music rather than increase it, and we all are hurt by that.

Also, I enjoyed your post on some of your pre-compositional process, too. It covered very familiar territory.

Matthew Whittall said...

Many thanks for your comments, Steve. Your quibble is a valid one, and I should perhaps have added that all aesthetic intolerance is anathema to growth in art, not just that which comes from a particular "side". However, I do think that the attitude Rosen espouses, one of dismissal of contrasting ideas, is pretty typical of the "progress in art" set from the mid-century, which tends to take a slightly less live-and-let-live stance toward other lines of inquiry. I know plenty of contemporary modernists who are very open and receptive toward the ideas of other groups, recognizing that their choice is just that, and not everyone is duty-bound to follow them.

As such, it's the attitude itself that I condemn as mid-century, antiquated and unnecessarily fundamentalist, not the modernist aesthetic more broadly. I personally love a lot of modernist music. I just wish it weren't touted as the only True Way by so many of its visible proponents.

A.C. Douglas said...

My response to the above post can be read here:

ACD

Matthew Whittall said...

"Our business is to listen and respond to the finished artwork on its own terms. And if that finished artwork is but “a single note on a solo violin to be sustained for 1 hour 20 minutes,” then the only possible informed and honest comment is a one-sentence dismissal “citing [the] work's very means of articulation as a pejorative.” Anything else, or anything more, can be nothing other than an attempt to justify the composer’s clear charlatanism and contemptible hubris."

You're more than welcome to disagree with me, but I stand by my belief that Rosen's comment is a cheap shot directed at the aesthetic premise behind the piece, not the piece itself as a sounding result. If your response is to just back up what he writes, blaming the composer for charlatanism and hubris, then I won't be able to make my case to you no matter what. I can only assume that you infer from your answer that the idea of sounding a single pitch for a very long time is an invalid compositional idea in and of itself.

My aim isn't to discredit Rosen, accuse him of crotchetiness or diminish his words about Carter and his chosen aesthetic. Maybe the piece was a terrible exercise in hubris, an utter waste of the audience's precious time, but labeling it as such for its very existence isn't particularly productive, and the comment remains superfluous, an unnecessary blemish on an otherwise loving and enlightening tribute by a great musician to his friend.

A.C. Douglas said...

I can only assume that you infer from your answer that the idea of sounding a single pitch for a very long time is an invalid compositional idea in and of itself.
-------------------------

When that single pitch constitutes the entirety of the composition, you betcherass I believe it "an invalid compositional idea in and of itself."

ACD

A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. Douglas said...

Maybe the piece was a terrible exercise in hubris, an utter waste of the audience's precious time, but labeling it as such for its very existence isn't particularly productive, and the comment remains superfluous....
------------------------------

Within the context of Rosen's remarks, it wasn't in the least superfluous. It gave concrete point to his immediate prior remark.

ACD

Matthew Whittall said...

"When that single pitch constitutes the entirety of the composition, you betcherass I believe it "an invalid compositional idea in and of itself.""

M'kay. I choose not to assume that the concept of a piece is flawed and/or pretentious until I hear the result. And if I didn't like the result, I'd base my criticism on more than just the concept, single pitch or no.

Daniel Wolf said...

I suspect that there's a much more fundamental problem with Rosen's remark -- a piece matching even part of his description was simply not present on an ISCM concert in 1956. Even if one examines works of long duration of the era which were definitely not on ISCM programs, you won't find one to fit the description: Christian Wolff's pieces with very small sets of pitches were all relatively brief, La Monte Young's Trio for strings, which has very long sustained tones, but still only fractions of Rosen's length was not yet composed, and painter Yves Klein's Montone Symphonies require a string orchestra and use all the tones of a triad.

It's one thing if Rosen wants to make a critique of minimal music, but quite another if he just wants to make stuff up.

Marc said...

The clause "if I remember correctly" means he might be a little hazy on this detail. And simply describing the work as a single pitch for a specific duration isn't necessarily a dismissal; it's an objective observation that can be taken either as approval (Look at what he did with just one note!) or disapproval (It sucked because it was just one note). That you think it's a harsh criticism says more about your determination to read between the lines than what Rosen's lines actually say.

Matthew Whittall said...

"Even if one examines works of long duration of the era which were definitely not on ISCM programs, you won't find one to fit the description"

This occurred to me as well. I can't think of anything that would fit the bill, either. The idea sounds vaguely like Christian Wolff or La Monte Young, but the date doesn't quite work. Then again, that particular decade isn't one in which I'm all that well-read.

------------------
"That you think it's a harsh criticism says more about your determination to read between the lines than what Rosen's lines actually say."

Rosen's actual passage reads:

One generally went to the society’s concerts to see friends; only a small amount of the music played there was attractive, since most contemporary music, like most of the music of any other period of history, is of little interest. On this occasion, if I remember correctly, one work was a single note on a solo violin to be sustained for 1 hour 20 minutes (but the performance was abbreviated to 40 minutes).


You may be right, and I could be misreading this, though to what end I don't know. But I really don't think it's too much of a stretch on my part to conclude that the two sentences are connected. Why else state that most contemporary music is uninteresting if not to have the comment bear on the violin piece? Honestly, if there's another way to interpret this, I'd like to have it pointed out to me. I'm certainly not purposely trying to pervert his meaning to some nefarious end of my own.

A.C. Douglas said...

But I really don't think it's too much of a stretch on my part to conclude that the two sentences are connected. Why else state that most contemporary music is uninteresting if not to have the comment bear on the violin piece? Honestly, if there's another way to interpret this, I'd like to have it pointed out to me.
-------------------------------

I already have.

Your above is a 180-degree reversal of the clear intent of Rosen's two sentences. The two sentences are indeed connected, as I've already pointed out. But your contention that Rosen's statement that most contemporary music is uninteresting was a setup for his comment on the violin piece is manifestly in error. The comment on the violin piece was clearly a concrete instance given in support of his statement that most contemporary music is uninteresting. Your above imputes to Rosen some underhanded intent. There was none that I can see.

ACD

Steve Hicken said...

I had the same thought as Daniel. It's very hard for me to believe that the piece Mr. Rosen describes would have been on a program by that organization at that time and in that place.

Both Matthew and ACD are correct about Mr. Rosen's intent in those two sentences. He means for the violin piece to be an illustration of the axiom about all eras of music producing mostly junk. But it is also a piece of style wars rhetoric, especially if the piece is "misremembered" in some way. The two intents are not in opposition at all. Mr. Rosen is an experienced and skilled polemicist. Killing two birds, etc. It would have been better had he mentioned Wellington's Victory. Funnier, too.

A.C. Douglas said...

[I]t is also a piece of style wars rhetoric....
——————————

Or simply the soberly considered judgment of a highly skilled, hugely knowledgeable, performing musician, musicologist, and scholar. Anyone familiar with Rosen’s writings would know that the very last thing he could be accused of is engaging in anything so petty as what you quaintly call “style wars.”

ACD

Steve Hicken said...

I couldn't disagree more, ACD. Anyone who has read Mr. Rosen's writing over the years, expecially on 20th century music, knows he is a dedicated style warrior.

A.C. Douglas said...

I suspect you mean he doesn't have much, um, enthusiasm for much of 20th-century music. I don't blame him. Neither do I. But that's hardly cause for calling him -- or me -- a "dedicated style warrior." Unlike the real style warriors such as the charlatans Cage, Babbitt, and Boulez, we don't argue on doctrinaire grounds. We simply deplore the slow death of genuine music.

ACD

Christopher Culver said...

I love how Mr Douglas in this instance is holding up Rosen as a great thinker, just so he can score some points in this inter-weblog debate, yet Mr Douglas undoubtedly doesn't agree with the views which Rosen spends so much of his defending: that Schoenberg and Carter are perhaps the greatest of composers.

Furthermore, Rosen has played all of Boulez's piano works (though perhaps not "Incises"), so deploring them in the same context as praising Rosen is hardly consistent.

A.C. Douglas said...

I love how Mr Douglas in this instance is holding up Rosen as a great thinker, just so he can score some points in this inter-weblog debate, yet Mr Douglas undoubtedly doesn't agree with the views which Rosen spends so much of his defending: that Schoenberg and Carter are perhaps the greatest of composers.

Rosen does NOT speak in behalf of those two composers as their being “the greatest of composers.” Only an imbecile would. As to my agreement with Rosen’s assessment of those two composers, I very much agree with him that Schoenberg was a great composer. My thinking on Carter is in suspension simply because I’m not familiar enough with his work to make any informed judgment beyond my judgment that he without doubt is a writer of genuine music and no charlatan.

Furthermore, Rosen has played all of Boulez's piano works (though perhaps not "Incises"), so deploring them in the same context as praising Rosen is hardly consistent.

Certainly it’s consistent. Rosen thinks Boulez a composer of genuine music. I think Boulez a charlatan. IOW, we disagree on this composer. Or do you imagine only perfect agreement across the board would constitute being consistent?

ACD

Matthew Whittall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Whittall said...

ACD, if you'd be kind enough to take this to e-mail, I'd appreciate it. I've more or less had my say, so I see little sense in kicking this particular horse any longer. I'm sure the issue will come up again at some point. If you'd like to pursue this discussion, I'd be happy to stop by your blog and bloviate.

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