Who's Going to Tell the Germans?

Today I abandon my traditional one-word post titles to respond to Alex Ross' fine post on "style wars" type criticism. Mr. Ross examines reactions to some recent British music in the German press and (rightfully) finds fault in the style-based criticism, which tells the reader nothing about what the music sounds like. (Writing that a piece is "tonal" or "atonal" doesn't qualify as helping the reader know what it was like to hear the piece, as far as I'm concerned.)

After a well-argued and link-rich discussion of the state of German composition and theory, Mr. Ross makes reference to my oft-stated desire that "we have to get beyond a politicized new-music scene and celebrate the best of all traditions, 'conservative' and 'radical.' A fine idea, but how do you arrange a cease-fire? Who's going to tell the Germans?"

Given Alex Ross' prominence in music criticism, I think it is fair to say that the Germans have now been told. They will undoubtedly have to be told again--more than once, to be sure.

As will others. Jens F. Laurson of ionarts ends a post on analogies about tonality with this slap:

P.S. I made someone (innocent) listen to all of Pierrot Lunaire last week. Somebody stop me before mere bystanders get hurt.
Well, OK. What. Ever. Substitute Beethoven 9 for Pierrot and it still "works".

A. C. Douglas posted the other day on some lame poetry, a critical response to it, and a response to the response. Mr. Douglas adds:

Why is it, I wonder, that the dissing of Ms. Houlihan and her criticism, and the defense of "post-avant" poetry (represented here by the above quoted two "nonorganic" poems) and poets by their champions sound eerily the same as the dissing of the critics and criticism of so-called "New Music," and the defense of such music and its composers by their champions? Could the answer be that New Music and nonorganic, post-avant poetry are eerily the same; near-perfect analogues, each of the other?

The lack of specifics in this rant is typical--no composers, pieces, or champions are named, so no response is possible. Mr. Douglas posts like this often enough that I wonder if he has a macro for it.

At any rate, both sides in the style wars would do well to listen to a call for a cease fire.

PS: Mr. Douglas fires up his macro again, as I was writing this. Who's going to tell the Bloggers?


  1. Oh my. AC's Haydn/Mozart post is preposterous. I'm wondering if he actually listens to the music he discusses or just reads books about it and then makes generalizations based on those. I'm also curious just what "mature instrumental works" by Haydn he's listened to, as I can think of dozens of works that directly refute the claim that he "neither risks soaring the heights nor plumbing the depths, but remains, in all its superbly crafted formal beauty, sensibly and resolutely earthbound." How does he expect us to take his postings seriously when he bookends them with caveats and preemptive dismissals anyway?

  2. Anonymous9:53 PM

    AC Douglas is quite right, and deserves to be quoted in full:
    (And as to "style wars," my above quoted remarks have nothing to do with commenting on differences in style. They have exclusively to do with commenting on the difference between our great 600-year legacy of genuine music and the willfully concocted, quasi-mathematical modern systems of composition specifically devised to turn out a simulacrum of genuine music that owes little or nothing to that great 600-year musical legacy, and for the mere appreciation of which simulacrum one needs either written or spoken technical explanation and justification at tedious length, or a master's degree in contemporary music theory.)

    I have argued these points myself many times on rec.music.classical.contemporary, and have run into the argument time and time again, that the means and traditions of past masters are obsolete, that they have no relevance to us today. One poster even claimed that we should listen to Haydn and Mozart, "with a grain of salt." To people like this, the art of Shakespeare, and his neverending insight into cause and effect of human action, must seem rather quaint. After all, we've graduated past that, haven't we?

    The Alex Ross article confirms AC Douglas' observation; the article is about the rejection in philosophy and practice of music past, and in its place, a "simalcrum" in AC Douglas' words of genuine music; as I see it, composers are always inventing new systems, rejecting the tried and true of the past. This is akin to a fish laying a thousand eggs, and going off to die, rather than a mammal rearing her children into adulthood.

    Ironically it was that archetype of a revolutionary, Arnold Schoenberg, who made the most potent observation - that whenever major developments occur, those that espouse those developments do all they can, in fact too much, to prevent what they see as a regression into what came before them.
    Unfortunately, Schoenberg's logically extreme developments contributed to the rejection of a "600-year old legacy."

    Of course there are many composers writing in many ways; but in general the atmosphere today is that, thou shalt not follow in the paths of the masters.

    Walter Ramsey

  3. I don't think there's anything wrong with inventing new systems, and some have quite wonderful results, such as Nørgård's infinity series works. Further, composers aren't " always inventing new systems, rejecting the tried and true of the past." Those two don't always go hand in hand. There are many examples of composers who have invented a new system to apply to one aspect of music and conflated that with something from the past, and there have been many good works produced this way. Indeed, for every composer out there that's rejecting the tried and true of the past, I'd wager that there's one on the opposite side of the see-saw, clinging to the past too tightly and fearing letting anything exploratory leak into their rhetoric. I'm not suggesting that there should be a perfect 50-50 balance or anything. Each case is unique and I think it just comes down to the talent, integrity and individuality of the composer. Some are great working in "traditional" mediums and some are horrible at it. Ditto for modernist composers. And it's always been so. For every Babbitt there is a Barber.

  4. Anonymous9:59 PM

    -- " Mr. Douglas posts like this often enough that I wonder if he has a macro for it." --

    hahahahehehehahaha... That line really cracked me up. :-)