Counter Culture

I quite agree with Alex Ross when he says:

I'll repeat my outré contention that classical music, for all its elite trappings, is actually a radical, disruptive force in American culture, whereas most popular culture, for all its rebellious trappings, is intensely conservative.

I'll only add that it's been true for a very long time.



Around the 'sphere:

Terry Teachout has some thoughful observations about the nature of criticism and its relation to art. Of particluar interest to me, as both critic and composer, are his musings on what it means and whether or not it's important for critics to be "right" about the work they criticize.

The Blogger Known as Pliable posts a fascinating, informative, and link-rich piece about the development and testing of the atomic bomb. Plenty to hold us until the recording of Doctor Atomic comes out.

Daniel Felsenfeld responds to an article in the Wall Street Journal about audiences and orchestras embracing new music that throws off the yoke of serialist oppression. Mr. Felsenfeld points out that this "might have been something worth noting were this, say, 1952". He also quotes composer Daniel Kellogg as saying he writes music that "he wants to hear," and that the article frames this as "novel". Mr. Felsenfeld sighs:

I do not come down on either side of this argument because frankly I think it is an old and dead struggle. These are no longer the sides any more than the Yankees and the Confederates. We hear daily of the "problems" in classical music, and if we are ever to take a step to solving them we have to address the issues of our own time (even if we do not like our own time) rather than a more simplistic contrempts of a vanished world. The implication--that serial music and its descendants rules the roost while there is a new generation trying to upturn it by returning to the old ways--is a quaint and lovely notion that might have been riveting half a century ago but in 2005 it is laughably far from true...though I, like Mr. Russell, [the author of the Journal article] wish these were the only problems we faced. Our world would be a better place were this true.

Finally, Heather Heise asks questions of composers. My answers, for the record: No; no; no; yes, I have two; sure, why not; no; yes and no; no; no; not for me; yes, though it's more an "ooze" than a "spill"; yes.



I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving Day. I hope it is going well.



Stirling Newberry's article on Jeff Harrington is important for several reasons. First, it's good to see a composer get some pub in a non-traditional place.

More importantly, the piece is among the first, to my knowledge, to take as a subject the relationship betweens a composer's work and his relationship to the internet. The internet (and digitality as a whole) will be, for a while at least, the best way for a composer (and other artists, too) to get their work before the public. It's good to see someone attempt a beginning of an analysis.



As should be clear, I like lists. Lists of essential pieces, lists of music for holidays, whatever. Here’s another one: my thirty favorite books on concert music (as of today). The criteria could neither be simpler nor as unassailable: they have to be on concert music and I have to like them. No more meaning should be ascribed to the order of the list than to the list itself.

The Classical Style; Charles Rosen
Silence; John Cage
Instrumentation; Andrew Stiller
Essays Before a Sonata; Charles Ives
The Time of Music; Jonathan Kramer
Arnold Schoenberg; Charles Rosen
Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds; Alan Edwards and Elliott Carter
The Music of John Cage; James Pritchett
The Music of Elliott Carter (Second Edition); David Schiff
Simple Composition; Charles Wuorinen
Give My Regards to Eighth Street; Morton Feldman
A Generative Theory of Tonal Music; Fred Lehrdahl and Ray Jackendoff
Music in Theory and Practice; Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker
Computer Music; Charles Dodge
Emotion and Meaning in Music; Leonard B. Meyer
Compendium of Modern Instrumental Techniques; Gardner Read
The Musical Experience of Performer, Composer, Listener; Roger Sessions
The Beethoven Quartets; Joseph Kerman
Writings About Music; Steve Reich
Harmony; Walter Piston
The Technique of Orchestration; Kent Kennan
Counterpoint; Kent Kennan
Harmony Book; Elliott Carter
A Practical Approach to Sixteenth-Century Counterpoint; Robert Gauldin
Music Notation; Gardner Read
The Acoustical Foundations of Music; John Backus
Poetics of Music; Igor Stravinsky
Form in Tonal Music; Douglass Green
For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet; Rebecca Rischin
Gustav Mahler; Bruno Walter



The blogroll at right has two new listings: Deceptively Simple, the blog of Chicago music journalist Marc Geelhoed, and Felsenmusic, the blog of composer Daniel Felsenfeld.

EDITED 15 Nov to reflect the correct spelling of Mr. Felsenfeld's name.



Start spreading the news! listen. is listed in this week's Big Apple Blog Festival. Should I tell them?

Critics and Critics

Ken Nielsen, commenting at Jessica Duchen's blog, observes:

Tis very useful to get such from someone whose taste I understand, even if I don't always share it.

This is the best reason to read criticism (in the "review" or "notice" sense) that I can think of. The more you read a given critic, the more you understand where she or he is coming from, in terms of aesthetics, tastes, and standards. It makes the expenditure of your cultural currency less of a crap shoot.

Example: I've read enough of Alex Ross' criticism to factor his views into the equation, even when I don't agree with them, which is true at least occasionally. His writing about John Adams hasn't convinced me, but it reminds me that Mr. Adams is there and that serious people take him seriously. His new review of music by Giacinto Scelsi, when taken along side other readings, seals the deal.

You can learn as much or more by reading critics you rarely agree with, too. The point is, that if the critic has a staked out, complex, and nuanced aethetic positon, it is easier to locate yourself in relation to that position and use the criticism to inform your own experience.


Holiday Listening

I want to give warmest wishes and thanks to veterans on this day. Here's a brief list of music appropriate to the day. My criteria were: 1) some relation to the first World War, 2) something about a soldier's life, and/or 3) music about peace (in light of the original intent of the holiday).

Benjamin Britten, War Requiem
John Adams, The Wound Dresser
Vincent Persichetti, A Lincoln Address
Terry Riley, Salome Dances for Peace
Elliott Carter, Adagio tenebroso, from Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei
Charles Ives, Three Songs of the War
Igor Stravinsky, l'Histoire du soldat

Please remember the sacrifice of soldiers and their families, and work for peace so that sacrifice can be more rare.


Tables Turned

Lisa Hirsch has written an article about how concert music critics prepare for concerts. It's very well done and the information in it tracks with my experience. The short answer to how a critic prepares for a concert is this: It depends. It depends on the program, the performers, the occasion--the variables are numerous. I'm finding my preparations for the current Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra season of music director auditions unique, in that the music is, for the most part, the Warhorses of the Apocalypse. I know most of the music fairly to very well, so I am able to concentrate on the various parts of the conductors' work.

I enjoy reviewing new music the most, though that has its own pitfalls. The greatest of which, in my experience, is not knowing for certain whether the performance of a new work has been a good one. And what does good mean in that situation? Accurate? Putting "more" into the piece than the composer meant so as to make it a better piece than the score? You might be surprised how often this happens when the composer is present at some rehearsals, especially if the composer is young and/or inexperienced.

At any rate, thanks to Ms. Hirsch for an interesting discussion.


Susannah and George


Also, this interview with playwright and blogger George Hunka offers a fascinating glimpse inside the world of theater. George's comments on the relationship between playwright, director, and actors illustrate a creative collaboration that is very similar to preparing the first performance of a new piece.