I thought serialism was something that just wasn’t for me. Never heard a performance of a piece that particularly moved me. For every time I enjoyed the grating emotional overflow from Schoenberg (certainly his atonal works, even the serial works I can get through) or every time I felt a logical sense of relation and progression in a work by George Perle, I would also hear the maddening confusion from Milton Babbitt or Pierre Boulez. Serialism—it was dry, illogical, confusing, unaesthetic—would never be my thing. I got to a happy place having decided there was nothing wrong with serialism if people wanted to do it, I won’t say it’s ‘bad’ music, but I had no intentions of enjoying it.
Then I came to Bowling Green. And seeing as how I am in a program dedicated to the performance of contemporary music I felt obligated to give it a shot. Then an opportunity came—a saxophonist asked me to play a Wuorinen piece with him so I decided to suck it up and do it. I put off working on it until a couple days before our first rehearsal. Lo and behold, yes it’s difficult, yes the rhythms are nasty, the chords and pitches appear all over the place…but I could play it. I wrote out nearly every beat (often every subdivision) of nearly every bar, I tapped my foot incessantly, I counted out loud, I wrote in accidentals, note-names, fingerings and drew colored lines; whatever it took to cue my brain of what to play next. Come the first rehearsal, of course there were struggles, we did not lock in right away, yet it started to click much sooner than either of us thought it would. The second rehearsal was the same and I got more excited each time we broke down a passage and nailed it.
Once I got past the initial mental bewilderment, this music was exciting—it makes sense, it’s not so illogical, it was tickling something in my brain, in a similar but not quite equal way that “tonal” music did. I started to see the color in it, the subtle hues of sound and more than anything the brilliance of how motives weaved in and out of the texture throughout the piece. I guess I don’t mind serialism afterall.
I said this to my saxophonist and he said that indeed, he has found he enjoys playing it more than listening to it. I think this is very interesting—perhaps the intellectual element that draws some composers to it—can only be experienced if one is involved, otherwise it sounds only like an intellectual exercise. It made me think about the history of classical music, particularly chamber music. I would even include most piano music, up to but not excluding some of Chopin and Schumann, as chamber music—in the sense that it was not written to be concert music but written for a few people to enjoy playing together. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and other works certainly pushed its way in to the concert sphere, but they were still written as chamber pieces to be played at home, they were not written to be concert pieces to be played by concert artists. I have long found Mozart and Haydn’s chamber music unendurable and boring. Both could write brilliantly in other genres but I never felt they brought their most appealing music ideals to their intimate works. I’d rather not hear a recording or see a recital of Mozart sonatas, but I could play through them all day.
Maybe there is more connection between early chamber music and serialism than what one hears on the surface. Haydn’s string quartets are surely important works but maybe not so important to be heard, just important to be played. I will never know because I have no intention of being able to learn a string instrument well enough to rehearse a Haydn quartet, but I imagine that I might enjoy doing so more than I enjoy listening to one. Perhaps that same tickle I started to feel actually playing through the Wuorinen piece is the same thing that attracts so many to this classical chamber music which I find so dull.
Why ‘I Hate Music’
This blog title is certainly to be taken tongue-in-cheek. I don’t hate music but what I do hate—and what I think the Bernstein song that inspired the title was getting at—is the culture of what classical music has become. Stuffy concert-halls, egotistical performers, interpretations that must follow a standardized formula based on modernly-conceived “rules” of tradition. I hope to explore many of the contentions I have with the classical music world through this blog.
I did not begin to truly enjoy music until just a couple years ago. There are only a couple books that have changed my life: the Bible, Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, William Westney’s “The Perfect Wrong Note” and Kenneth Hamilton’s “After the Golden Age”. The last I read over Christmas break in the first year of my master’s degree and found it such a relief. I will surely talk about it a great deal later so suffice to say now: it addressed a side of making music that was lost in the 20th century. It inspired me to listen to the oldest recordings of pianists who studied in the 19th century. We have on record performances by people who were trained in the musical style of the time in which the great piano canon was created. These recordings sound bizarre but here are the performance practice of Liszt and of Chopin, of Brahms and Schumann, even of Mozart and Beethoven. And yet it is not the performance practice propagated by performers today, whether or not they claim to be authentic interpreters.
Music was openly subjective back in “the day”. Says Richard Taruskin (another hero of mine, though he certainly goes over the top on occasion, and his repulsion towards contemporary music is alarming) regarding music as museums and performers as curators: “In musical performance, neither what is removed nor what remains can be said to possess an objective ontological existence akin to that of dust or picture. Both what is ‘stripped’ and what is ‘bared’ are acts and both are interpretations—unless you can conceive of a performance, say, that has no tempo, or one that has no volume or tone color. For any tempo presupposes choice of tempo, any volume choice of volume, and choice is interpretation.” (Texts and Acts, page 150).
I have arrived at the point that anything claiming to be music is worth a listen. Popular, classical, why must we even make the distinction? I believe to tout the genius of composers of the past, or the inerrancy of a musical score is to do a severe disservice to our art and the satisfaction we can get out of performing that art. I used to be more close-minded, in music and all walks of life. I knew what I believed, that I was ‘right’ and I arrogantly defended my positions. Just a few years ago I would have openly shot down my two great music loves: Liszt and contemporary music. Now I could be satisfied playing both, or either, for the rest of my life. Music—in the most subjective and therefore true sense—should never be boring and it should always throw you for a loop once in a while.
Final thoughts go to Alex Ross in a great article in the New Yorker from a few years ago: “Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, ‘The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.’ They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.”
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act