What’s New?

I usually find things to disagree with in Greg Sandow’s posts. Here’s an excerpt from a recent one that raised some questions in my mind.

But, briefly, new classical pieces might fit into three broad categories. Modernist stuff (marked by dissonance, and, often, irregular rhythms); pieces that sound (despite updated harmony) like the older music in the classical repertoire; and then a big third category, which we  might very roughly call minimalism and beyond. (And which includes pieces that blend classical music and pop, even if those might not sound as if they stem from minimalism, because without minimalism, which (re)opened classical composition to a steady, driving pulse, the pop blend might not have happened.)

If you want names, try Elliott Carter, Paul Moravec, and David Lang. Understand that I’m not making value judgments, not saying any category stands out for good or bad music. And forgive how broad the categories are; plenty of pieces might have traits of more than one at once.

But still the categories are useful, and I’d say that only the third really sounds contemporary, especially outside the classical world. And even within it, since modernism lost its dominance a generation ago, and the pieces that sound like standard classical music — even if they make the classical audience sigh with relief — by their very nature don’t do much that’s new. While third-category music resonates with many things outside classical music, including many kinds of pop, visual art, graphic design, fashion, film, you name it.

The categorization is actually pretty useful, though I certainly agree that there are lots of pieces that fall between the chairs. Here are my questions:

– do the categories of modernism or “minimalism and beyond” truly do anything more that is “new” beyond what “pieces that sound like the older music in the classical repertoire” do? And why is “new” (which is usually old) to be valued?

– Is “new”-ness in a piece really a function of its style?

– are there really no connections between the music in the second category and the “many things outside classical music” that Sandow mentions?

– why does a connection with the “many things outside classical music” make a piece more musically interesting?


Greg Sandow declined to approve a comment I wrote on a recent posting of his – which is fine, I don’t think my quickly scribbled paragraph captured clearly everything I wanted to say. Let me try again here.

Sandow writes:

Remember the commandment: Respect the culture we find outside classical music.


We’d better embrace the culture we’re in, enjoy our status as one of the many musical genres that give us so much diversity, and tell people not why we’re better, but why we deserve their attention even while they’re giving money to WNYC, so they’ll get the new Springsteen.

Or else we’re going to get very lonely.

Sandow is quite right that we need to take seriously the dominant musical culture – commercial music. Classical musicians need to be knowledgeable about it, conversant with it, realistic about its place in our overall cultural landscape. Frankly, I’m not sure the problem of willful ignorance about pop music is terribly widespread among classical musicians – maybe it is more of a problem among classical fans? I would guess that more classical musicians know something about pop music than the other way around.

But to respect the culture of pop? Maybe the problem is that word “respect”. As much as I enjoy pop music, collect recordings of pop music, teach pop music – I will never “respect” it the way I respect some classical pieces. I think I can “respect” pop music by acknowledging its dominant place on the cultural scene – after all, for the vast majority of the population, music = pop music. And I can respect pop music for the pleasures and meanings it affords.  But I do think that the pleasures and meanings afforded by some classical music are unique. I resist the notion that classical is just another “one of the many musical genres”, as Sandow puts it, a phrase that strikes me as close to saying that all musical genres are pretty great. They’re not.

I used the word “resist” a moment ago. I feel that while a smiling acceptance of classical’s place as “one of the many musical genres” has a certain limited merit, we also need a spirit of resistance regarding the dominant commercial culture. It’s a little like being a locavore instead of accepting the products of corporate agribusiness as the only game in town. To take that metaphor a step further, Sandow’s blog includes a link to a listing of “solutions” to the problems of classical music – one such solution is to emphasize support for local classical music culture. It might be more important to support your local chamber music society than to worry about lining up enough petrodollars to pay for another edition of “Live from Lincoln Center”.

I sometimes feel classical musicians are expected to pay homage to commercial culture in a way that novelists, poets and painters are not expected to. (I say that fully aware that a good deal of  “high” art is very much engaged with pop culture, as is some classical music.) I once heard Terry Gross ask Pierre Boulez whether he liked pop music, and she seemed bemused when he said no. Would she really ask William Gass, for example, which airport novels he esteems?

Sandow’s post talks about a variety of headlines in print media that, like this post’s name, can only be understood with a knowledge of the dominant pop culture. But notice that the headline for an article about Springsteen in the Times yesterday can only really be understood if you know something about Copland.

(alternative post title: “Fight the Power”)

Greg Sandow on Abstraction

In a post about classical music’s abstract qualities, Greg Sandow suggests emphasizing this side of music is not helpful to the cause of promoting it. The post closes:

Think of symphonic movie scores. Everyone can follow them, can tell you when the music changes mood, and what the changes are. Why can’t they do the same in Beethoven or Richard Strauss?

First of all, they can. The storm in the Beethoven 6th is pretty easy to catch. But more importantly, of course everyone can follow movie scores – the whole point of movie music is to push emotional buttons clearly and powerfully and without ambiguity. That is not the point of classical music. Why is “it sounds like movie music” a valid criticism of a new piece? It means a piece has an insufficiently rich abstract life. Classical music’s abstract quality – the fact that it is, in part, not about anything other than itself – is precisely what attracted me to it as a kid.

Why did the music video develop? In part because the abstract life of pop songs (at least some of them) is too under-nourished – and under-nourishing to the listener. Visuals (usually vacuous themselves) jumped in to fill the vacuum created by vacuous music.

In the same way, some musicologists these days seem to prefer to write about vacuous music – because it gives more room for the critic to play. Sandow’s concern about the abstract side of classical music reminds me of the modern musicologist’s contempt for the notion of “the music itself” – use the phrase in front of many of today’s scholars and you will get a snicker, polite or otherwise. Musical scholarship is all about social context these days; everybody wants to be an ethnomusicologist. And scholars are quite right to insist that music is not just about notes, but about race, gender, sex, politics and more – it is about all those things all the time. But it is also about the play of forms, about patterns of notes and rhythms. To throw formalism (a dirty word these days) completely out the window is as dumb as pretending music isn’t political. But if everything is social context and what note comes next (exactly what composers care about) is beneath contempt, then the critic has more room to play. Since there is not much to say about the chords in a Madonna song, a discussion of, say, the social construction of gender immediately comes in to fill the void.

Then there are the scholars who try to explain the play of forms by means other than the formal. Hence we get “gay chords” or sexually violent recapitulations. (Doesn’t sex wish it was like music, rather than the other way around?) This kind of writing can be interesting, as well as causing a good deal of eye-rolling. It can easily remind one of critics and musicians from an earlier era who wrote fantastical programs for pieces – Hans von Bulow, for example, writing about how one of the preludes depicted Chopin hitting himself in the head with a hammer until the blood dripped.

James Anderson Winn’s book The Pale of Words is relevant here. To quote the description given here,

He [Winn] exposes the hostility and fear with which writers and philosophers throughout Western history have regarded forms of expression not couched in words, despite the fact that much of what humanists study originates in performance.

The insistence on social contexts and social contexts only as the proper focus for thinking about music reflects this kind of fear.

So, long live abstraction in music. And excuse me now while I try to figure out what note should come next.

Sandow on Pulitzer

So Greg Sandow in a series of recent posts (here’s the first) wants to know why the Pulitzer prize never goes to pop music, fending off arguments by saying you aren’t on the same planet as he if you don’t think, for example, Bob Dylan represents some of the best in American music. Personally, I hardly think of Bob Dylan as a musician at all, but that’s my bias. When I set aside that bias for a moment, I, of course, recognize Dylan, and all the other folks Sandow mentions, as terrifically important figures who are the very best at what they do, and I love the work of some of them. But what they do is too different from what classical musicians do to throw them all into the same pool. To invoke the cliche, we really are talking about apples and oranges here, or maybe apples and pine trees. How could you possibly pick between, say, Lucinda Williams and Peter Lieberson? You don’t make the swimmers and the marathon runners compete against each other at the Olympics, right? To really give a broader spectrum of music its due we would need more than one award. How to divide it up? Notated and non-notated? (with jazz on either side of the fence?) Best score and best recording?

With one prize, the consequence of including pop will be to make the prize reflect the marginal place of classical music in the wider culture. Exactly why is that a good thing?

By the way, Sandow is not quite right about none of the finalists in recent years coming from outside the classical realm. Don Byron (2009) is best known as a jazz musician, John Zorn (2000) is beyond category, but is certainly not part of the classical world the way other finalists are, and it could be argued that Elliot Goldenthal (2007) is better known as a composer of film scores than for his classical pieces.