Holland Days

The New York Times' chief correspondent on the musical attitudes and tastes of Bernard Holland, Bernard Holland, has written another article (in a limitless, numberless series) on the musical attitudes and tastes of Bernard Holland. The composer whose music provides Mr. Holland with another reason to revisit this admittedly compelling subject is George Perle, who turns 93 next month.

There's a lot to criticize in this piece, and others have done a good bit of the heavy lifting. To my mind, the most important of these is Tim Rutherford-Johnson's post, which points out the radical ahistoricism of Mr. Holland's opening paragraphs. I would only expand on Tim's fourth generation of atonal composers by pointing out that even younger artists like Michael Hersch represent a fifth or even sixth generation of composers writing what I prefer to call "pantonal" music.

Mr. Holland argues that the "passing" of pantonal music will not be noticed by the general public "given that not many people knows it ever existed". Concerts are full of pantonal music, and the Times itself reviews quite a bit, so I'm not sure exactly what Mr. Holland means, even if one were to accept his faulty premise that pantonal music is passing. What percentage of the "general public" would note the "passing" of classical music itself?

I come not to fisk Mr. Holland ("Sator Arepo" does that thoroughly, if not completely effectively) but to raise an eyebrow at some of his assertions:
It sounds reasonable to say that Anton Webern’s Piano Variations take up where Brahms left off. I admire the Webern; I even like it for its strangely satisfying space-age spirituality. I don’t think it has anything remotely to do with Brahms.

Both Brahms and Webern made very clear (and often showy) use of learned contrapuntal techniques in context of extreme expression, in forms of the past. Both composers were unusually fond of placing the burden of the musical arguement in highly active middle voices. Both composers relied on variation form/technique throughout their careers. The line from Brahms to Webern is very clear, but since the subject of the piece isn't music, but rather Bernard Holland's attitudes about it, there's not much to argue about. If he can't hear the connections, he can't hear them.

While arguing in general that pantonality is something other than peachy, Mr. Holland does praise Mr. Perle's music. And it is indeed praiseworthy. A correspondent tells me that the article did make him interested in hearing the music, so it must be granted that the article fulfilled that important function. I found the description of the music so general as to be all-but-meaningless, but it was fairly accurate, as far as it went.

Somebody at the Times did their homework--the caption on the picture of the composer uses the phrase "Twelve-tone tonalist". This is a play on the title of the composer's book about his compositional techniques. I was going to say it is about his "very personal approach to 12-tone technique", but I've never encountered music written using 12-tone techniques that weren't "very personal". I was hoping to read something about this in the article, but it was not to be found.

In the end, Mr. Holland uses Mr. Perle's music as a club which he uses to beat Elliott Carter over the head:

I recently came across a television program about Mr. Carter, who, at the end, hoped that an increasingly complicated world would breed a public smart and alert enough to appreciate his music. That is a dangerous presumption, one that offers soap to an unwashed public as yet unworthy of his greatness.

Mr. Holland doesn't name the "television program", which is Frank Schaffer's film A Labyrinth of Time, and I'm pretty sure I would have left out the title, too, if I were going to so completely distort a quote from it. I can see why Mr. Holland might dislike Mr. Carter, since the 99-year-old active composer throws less-than-flattering light on the critic's pride in what he clearly sees as his hard-earned laziness.

This article has its defenders, notably Kyle Gann (musical politics also make strange bedfellows) and A. C. Douglas (regular fan of Mr. Holland's work). Kyle's post is especially thoughtful and nuanced.

The point of this is not to deny that Mr. Holland is entitled to his opinions. Of course he is. But he's not entitled to his own facts.

1 comment:

  1. Steve --

    It's precisely Perle's "twelve-tone tonality" that confused me with this article. The effect of Perle's technique is one in which, locally, the music has well-defined tonal characteristics and his style has always been rather traditional, conservative. If the critique had been that the music was boring or featureless, I would have followed Holland all the way, but a critique about tonal practice just doesn't convince.