The Times Are Never So Bad

Two recent posts highlight some issues that are central to artistic experience in today's world.

Greg Sandow rebuts the canard that young people have a shorter attention span than earlier generations. Greg mentions activity after activity associated with young people that require intense concentration for long periods of time. He goes on to attribute the aesthetic trends that some point to when leveling the short-attention-span charge--quick cutting in film and video, especially--to a desire for complexity, due to the ability to process more information, faster. I tend to agree with Greg, in part, but I would point out that more information doesn't necessarily lead to more complexity. And both of these desires may be in play here. (Alex Ross gently bemoaned the desire of some younger composers for more complexity not too long ago in a post that pre-echoes some of Greg's points.)

I think the kind of complexity that Greg notes may have more to do with an aesthetic that I have felt in the air for a few years than with a desire for complexity, per se. I call it the aesthetic of co-incidence, and I've seen and felt in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love), the television series Boomtown, and in the novels of Richard Powers (especially Gain and Plowing the Dark). All of these treat coincidence as thematic material, and have coincidences that would be eye-roll inducing in other contexts. The techniques used in these works--radical tone shifts, changes of cinematography, multiple points-view, and changes of voice and tone--all provide the layering necessary for this aesthetic of co-incidence to work. And they can be very complex.

The other post is an excellent one by George Hunka on his struggles with one of Schoenberg's piano pieces. Read the whole thing, of course, but the part most relevant to our discussion is this:

As I mentioned in an earlier post (and with the nagging feeling I'm beating a dead horse), the piece I'm working on is scarcely a minute long, but so far I've heard it (in both my own dreadful rendition and those of other pianists) a hundred times, at least. As Beethoven and Wagner reshaped the course of music, their more daring compositions waited for years to be recognized; now the Choral Symphony and the Tristan love-death motif are as familiar and listenable to many of us as old show tunes, even if only as an element of a movie score. As we heard them over and over again, as their innovations trickled down to more popular and less rarefied forms of music, they became a part of the culture–not offensive or challenging to the ears any more, even boring to some. Considering the disapprobation that still attaches to the work of Schönberg and the Second Viennese School generally nearly a century or so following its composition, I wonder how much of this is attributable to the fragmentation of our leisure time.
I think he's right about the fragmentation of leisure time, though that doesn't square with certain points Greg made about the willingness of people to spend hours learning the complexities of video games or to spend hours getting a sound just right on a recording. Still.

There's something to this, and it may be, as George suggests, related to the strangeness of Schoenberg's idiom, despite the fact that it is nearly a century old. It is interesting to note that in an age when people will gladly sit through multiple viewings/hearings of Tolkien and/or Wagner, the blazing intensity of these short pieces by Schoenberg (and others like them) remains problematic.


  1. Hi, found your blog via the Carnvial of Music.

    Re: Schoenberg. I'm an unabashed Second Viennese School fan. What puzzles me is that people find most of Schoenberg's music really difficult, but I hear stuff like that in film scores all the time and people don't flee from the movie theatre when a 12-note chord is played by an orchestra as the background music to a murder scene or whatever. I wonder if that's the key, the visual trumping the audial, making that grinding dissonance more palatable.

    I've now heard it so many times (300-400) that Moses und Aron sounds *almost* like Puccini to me. Hey, I said *almost*! :-) I'll never forget going to a performance of it at the City Opera and listening to the comments on the way out: "Well, there's no tunes, but it was very gripping on stage". Yep.

  2. I think a visual and/or narrative element can help a lot of listeners follow music they are not familiar with--regardless of the style.

  3. I recall being gratified to hear some of the audience raving about the performance of the Schoenberg Suite for three clarinets, violin, viola, cello,and piano which I participated in when in grad school. The fact that there were people in the audience that even had scores was a source of true shock to me. That doesn't happen too often.