Postclassic: Spot On, but a Little Late

April 1, 2006

By Kyle Gann

From David Byrne, as part of his response to Zimmermann's opera Die Soldaten on his web site

There are lots of books exploring what the fuck happened with 20th century classical music, when many composers willfully sought to alienate the general public and create purposefully difficult, inaccessible music. Why would they do anything that perverse? Why would they not only make music that was hard to listen to, but also demand, as in the case of Zimmerman, that the piece be performed on twelve separate stages simultaneously, with the addition of giant projection screens and other multimedia aspects? Were these composers competing to see whose works could be heard and performed the least?  Why would anyone do that?

Having closely observed the behavior of New York's downtown, avant-garde music scene for a few decades, I can say that this impulse is not limited to academic classical composers. There are many musicians and composers of experimental works who seemingly compete for the title of most obscure and most difficult for the listener, and even record collectors like to play along. In this world, any trace of popularity, however slight, is distasteful and to be avoided at all costs. Should a work become unexpectedly accessible, the artist must then follow the piece with something completely perverse and disgusting, encouraging members of the new, undesired audience to walk away shaking their heads, leaving behind the core of pure and hardy aficionados. This is elitism of a different sort. If one can't be fêted by the handful of patrons at the Met, then one can be just as elite by cultivating an audience equally rarified in the completely opposite direction. Extreme ugliness and unpleasantness becomes the mirror image of extreme luxury and beauty.

This passage suggests that Byrne has not closely observed the behavior of the Downtown scene for a few decades, for had he closely observed it, he would have noticed that a broad swath of Downtown music - not all of it, admittedly - has been devoted to music of great beauty, clarity, and accessibility. (Not that those are the only musical virtues: some of the music included in the above critique I'm probably a fan of.) From a certain angle, clearly the only angle from which Mr. Byrne sees it, that multifaceted creature Downtown music has been encapsulated as the world of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, and their cohorts, who during the 1980s unfortunately succeeded in obscuring the fact that Downtown was first the world of Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, and a few hundred others. Byrne's eloquent attack is pitch-perfect as far as its appropriate target goes, and still relevant; still, he's about 25 years late in failing to recognize that hundreds, perhaps thousands of composers had already agreed with him by 1980, and set about doing something about it. Quite a bit about it, actually.

UPDATE: I guess I broke one of the main commandments of musical culture: Thou shalt not disagree with a Revered Pop Musician, even when he ventures an amateur opinion on a subject that Thou knowest more about than he does. But it's so, so easy to write this kind of blanket condemnation of 20th-century music: "Oh, those awful composers, they were elitists, they wrote ugly music on purpose, yada yada yada." It's so easy. It's so easy. Anyone can join in. Everyone knows the words by heart. And what does it do for composers? Makes us feel bad. What does it do for music lovers? Confirms the bad opinion they already have of new music. Meanwhile, thousands of composers have rebelled against that awful stereotype, and have labored mightily to write music that cares about its audience, that wants to seduce people, that gives generously of the kinds of beauties music can offer. Many of them can't get their music distributed because the powers in charge still think that the old ugliness is some guaranteed sign of quality. I've spent my life trying to convince people that music is out there. What good does it do for someone of David Byrne's stature to come along and tell people that all the old stereotypes are still in place, and we should avoid modern music because it's all elitist and ugly? Of course he didn't say that it all is, but he alluded to no counterexample, painted everyone he touched with the same brush, and segued smoothly from 1957 Zimmermann to the present as though it were all the same crap. He has nothing hopeful here to say about anyone. What good does it do us? Surely someone as insightful and talented as Byrne has something better to do with a blog than shovel more dirt onto those of us composers who've spent decades valiantly trying to dig music out of the hole it fell into.


Dan Johnson says: Well, I think you're misreading him a bit. It's pretty clear from the work Byrne and his bandmates were producing downtown in the 70s that he was well aware of Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich.
KG replies: I'm sure he was. But I quoted him right there: "Having closely observed the behavior of New York's downtown, avant-garde music scene for a few decades, I can say that this impulse is not limited to academic classical composers.... In this world, any trace of popularity, however slight, is distasteful and to be avoided at all costs." What am I misreading? What's unclear or ambiguous about that? Perhaps he's misspeaking.

Scott Unrein says: I can't help but chuckle that these critcisms are coming from a fellow whose 'play the building' installation exhibits some of the same issues (at least in scale and limited audience).
Nice to see some outside reflection though.

DJA says: Kyle, I don't think Byrne intended his comments to be as all-encompassing as you are making them out to be -- you left out the sentence where he says: "There are many [emphasis mine] musicians and composers of experimental works who seemingly compete for the title of most obscure and most difficult for the listener, and even record collectors like to play along." I think that's a fair statement.
On a perhaps related note, my CAPTCHA test phrase is "of stimulants."
KG replies: That is indeed a fair statement. But by expanding his comment into a generality about the entire "Downtown avant-garde" scene, he impugned hundreds of musicians I know to whom his generalization does not apply. I'm not saying Byrne's a bad guy by any means - I agree whole-heartedly with his general premise, which already means that his generalization doesn't apply to me - but he specifically names the scene I come from, and presents a completely one-sided picture. As a matter of fact, virtually the entire part of that scene I'm involved with, which is a large percentage, is entirely devoted to, even found its original sense of purpose in, ameliorating the abuses he describes. It's just not accurate to paint the entire scene, the "this world" he refers to, with the same traits as "academic classical composers."
For that matter, even the fact that he uses Zimmermann (d. 1970) as an example of what's going on in "academic classical music" today means he's fighting a fight from 40 years ago as though it were still current. Like most people in his part of the music world, he obviously has no idea what's going on in classical or postclassical composition today. Zimmermann was part of a late-20th-century historical period to which Byrne's gripes are entirely relevant - but it's *over*, man, it's long *over*, though there are still admittedly elements surviving in various corners, many of them wielding too much power.

kraig Grady says: Not at all like the west coast where composers will do anything to get a show and as much PR as possible. many spend more time and energy doing this than composing

mclaren says: Well, yeah, I tend to agree with you...Byrne shoulda coulda woulda mentioned that things have changed in serious contemporary music a lot since 1957.
But then...
But then, I hie myself hither to Darcy James Argue's blog, and he observes with razor-edged wit yet another contemporary musical awards ceremony right here, right now, in 2008, and whadda we got? Oy! Milton Babbitt gettin' another frickin' award. Man...can't we just stop feeding those musical trolls? Y'know? Can't we? Please???

Samuel Vriezen says: DJA - I don't agree that the inclusion of 'many' somehow makes such statements better. They're just there as a kind of exit strategy should someone call bluff.
The real content in statements like this, by people who get A LOT of money doing music that MILLIONS of people like, about music that much smaller but quite passionate audiences find important, is pure display of power at its bluntest and least meaningful. For Byrne to be dismissive of some marginal music is not hard. None of his listeners will call him out. There is no threat involved to his own position in taking up a position like this. Nothing is at stake. It's just so much swatting of flies.
To actually spend much time that could have been spent making money on music for a small audience, however, is to actually take big risks - in a sense, it can be risking your life.

Rand Steiger says: Thanks for taking a stand Kyle. It is sort of quaint to hear someone make the same old tired arguments that scholars and journalists were making decades ago and acting as if it is some kind of great revelation that will save the soul of the music world.
Perhaps we should take these same criteria to literature (ban Joyce and Pynchon, and everything that follows) and art (pretty pictures of landscapes only please!). Let' drop the pretense that we can do something profound in music and follow Byrne's lead. Let's all limit ourselves to repeating major and minor triads and appropriation of music from other cultures..... and before programming anything, or giving anyone an award, let's ask the question "are you now or have you ever been an academic composer".....
Of course there is great music that is accessible and popular. But it is downright anti-intellectual to argue that this is the only measure of value. Musicians who have achieved a certain level of notoriety should have the wisdom and generosity to respect and protect a place in our musical culture for those who express themselves sincerely in ways that others find obscure and esoteric.
KG replies: The more I think about it, the more pissed off I get even at letting poor Zimmermann be the fall guy here. I never got interested in Die Soldaten from listening to the record, and I could do without his cello sonata, but there are some fantastic Zimmermann works: Photoptosis, Monologe, Musique pour les soupers de Ubu Roi.

Marilyn Nonken says: Byrne's comments (and Joe Queenan's 9 July essay in the Guardian, and related responses brought to my attention at Superfluities Redux) leave me baffled. Why this hostility directed towards composers, artists, and audiences drawn to "difficult" music and art? It falls to the artists in today's society to be openminded, and to be the first to recognize what seems entirely natural: that different listeners want different things from their musical experiences. I play and find very intense pleasure listening to music that others sometimes find "ugly" or "unpleasant." I know others who share my tastes and am well aware of those who don't. Thankfully, we are all free to listen to and play the music we prefer. Yet whether Zimmermann's or Ferneyhough's or Lachenmann's or Babbitt's music is abstract, novel, complex, "ugly," "perverse"...This is part of the spectrum. It is part of the expression of our humanity, and to reject part of this spectrum is to deny something in ourselves. To me, there seems to be sadly little attempt to uncover what it is that draws some composers and listeners different kinds of musical experiences.
As George Hunka wrote yesterday, "An admission of dislike or indifference towards this art, as I said, is understandable. Taste is personal; it takes all kinds to make up an audience. But hostility towards its audiences and artists is the expression of reactionary hatred towards persons - and, as Freud would point out, hatred emerges from fear." I do not feel we have anything to fear from Zimmermann's "Die Soldaten," unless one fears the emboldened artist and the power of the realized vision itself. When I was 18, I made a roadtrip to New York to see City Opera's production of "Die Soldaten" (on a weekend of crashing on couches that also included The Kitchen's 20th anniversary show, featuring La Monte Young and Blue Gene Tyranny, among others)--The Zimmermann was one of the most inspiring, breathtaking musical experiences I've had, and led me to explore his other works, such as the Monologue for two pianos, Intercommunicazione for cello and piano, and Requiem for a Young Poet. I've been deeply touched by this music and am only sorry I couldn't afford this summer's production.
KG replies: As much as I agree with all that, and before we all dogpile on David Byrne, I would like to reiterate my agreement with his basic point. It hinges on one assertion that I hope to god we can all agree with: Not every composer who writes thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music is a genius. There have been people who wrote thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music because it was trendy, because it would help get them tenure, because it was easier to look down their noses at audiences for not understanding than it was to write really good music, etc. Zimmermann, many of us would agree, was not among them. Byrne's examples were poorly chosen. I would not have characterized the Downtown avant-garde that way in general. Marilyn is right: there's a lot of great complex, difficult music that is never going to appeal to everyone, but that many of us draw tremendous sustenance from. Byrne is right: there's a kind of reverse snobbism that allowed a lot of bad composers to hide behind the perverse equation: incomprehensibility = superiority. These are both true. The limitation on Byrne's point is that it's old news: composers in the classical world figured this out a long time ago and analyzed the psychology of the situation, and there aren't really *that* many composers around anymore who don't "get it." The limitation on Marilyn's point is that, at one historical moment, the overabundance of complex, difficult music, both good and bad, created a very unhealthy social situation in which audiences were tremendously alienated from new music, and it's proved an extremely difficult breach to heal. There are no easy lines to draw here, which I think is part of the value of art, that it plunges us into ambiguity; but there are some important principles, which perhaps it will take another blog entry to puzzle out.

Rand Steiger says: Kyle - thanks again for your responses. Of course much of what you say in your response to Marilyn is true - I remember all too well hearing many bad pieces by students of Martino who emulated his vocabulary, but lacked the soul and musicality we hear in his music. But there is lot's of bad, unoriginal, competent but uninspired tonal music being commissioned and performed by major orchestras these days, and I don't think that solves anything.
The thing that baffles me is this notion that composers drove the audience away from classical music. To me there is just no real evidence to defend this fiction. Classical music always had a very limited audience, with very little accessibility outside of a small, affluent, urban elite. The composers that are being targeted as culprits were never embraced by the major performance venues and ensembles. How could you drive away an audience that you never had?
So many forces have affected the way music is created and disseminated over the last century. To point to dissonance as a singular negative force [KG: mmm, who mentioned dissonance? Not me] that has alienated an audience would need to be much more thoroughly and convincingly argued before I will believe it. Call me delusional if you wish.
One last example - when I was living in Boston a couple of years ago it was very interesting to observe the BSO audience during the Schoenberg cycle that Levine was conducting. The audience was different - some of the old subscribers stayed away - but in their place were others who were very excited and engaged. OK, so maybe Five Orchestral Pieces isn't music for those who wish to go to the symphony and relax and listen to something easy and familiar. But for those who wanted a rare and arresting musical experience, it was there in Symphony Hall finally after many years, and a large, engaged audience turned out to drink it in enthusiastically.
KG replies: Rand, this is the same ratatouille of wishful thinking, unconnected cases, false analogies, and anecdotal evidence that composers have been using for decades to justify theoretically dry music. Of course there's a new, younger audience for great 20th-century music (Schoenberg, Varese, Messiaen, etc.) that isn't the same audience for 19th-century music - I've been saying that for years. I'm not talking about pre-WWII music here. But during the 1970s and '80s, contemporary music concerts in general became *awful*, just awful. They chased *me* away, and I was in the audience, so I don't need any other evidence. A lot of awful things were said about the music of that era, and I couldn't defend the music, because it was all true! "Classical music has always had a very limited audience" - this is just no justification for the years of horrible 12-tone pieces with incomprehensibly technical program notes that we endured. Show me the audience for, say, Andrew Imbrie, Earl Kim, Leon Kirchner, Donald Martino, Donald Erb, and Mario Davidovsky - and then show me the audience for Steve Reich. Now, subtract from those two audiences all the people who are there because of professional reasons to be connected to that music. There's no comparison. Reich's music has had incomparably more impact. It wasn't because of any one thing as trivial as dissonance, it was because Reich's music was tremendously more musical, written for how it sounded rather than according to some trendy theoretical techniques.

Galen H. Brown says: Is there any chance that what's happening is that Byrne is defining "avant garde" in a way that excludes the composers you're talking about? I ask because the existence of large groups of composers in the downtown scene who are making beautiful and accessable music is just so obvious-I find it hard to believe that Byrne could be so wrong and have it not be some sort of misunderstanding.
If you define "avant garde" as opposed to mainstream culture, and if you see the beauty and accessability of, for instance, Postminimalism, as a sort of raprochment with mainstream culture, you might see the two as incompatible. Of course, if he's using that definition his argument gets a bit circular-it doesn't make any sense to criticise the avant garde for elitism, since when using this meaning for the term the avant garde is elitist _by defintion_.
Honestly, I'm pretty skeptical about the whole concept of the avant garde. Too many things are either avant garde or not depending on your political orientation for the term to have any real consistent meaning. Maybe there's some clear, consise, useful definition out there, but it doesn't seem to be getting used. I wonder if that's Byrne's real problem-he's using a term that doesn't mean anything, and he's using it inconsistently.
KG replies: It occurred to me that he might be equating the avant-garde with what he didn't like, but in that case his argument is just tautological. "But this piece was good!" "Then, it's not avant-garde, is it?"

Peter Lawless says: I think David Byrne has some feelings of superiority because he found the magical amount where modern art aesthetics and pop culture could form something that had cred but made a good bit of money. Perhaps he thinks these artists are stupid for not trying to be as successful as he, or maybe he thinks they are jealous of him.
Whatever, I think that playing the building thing is REALLY COOL!

arthur jarvinen says: "...many composers willfully sought to alienate the general public and create purposefully difficult, inaccessible music. Why would they do anything that perverse?"
Why, indeed?
It has been my observation that most composers, like most all other artists, make the works they need to, out of some inner need that is, admittedly, difficult to explain to one who does not live with a similar need driving them. I think that all of us who make art make art that we think is beautiful, which doesn't necessarily mean that it is pretty, or soothing, or easily digested, or popular, or commercially viable. Some of the best work is all of those things. But some of us need to make work, want to make work, and enjoy making and consuming works that are not any of those things.
This is how art should be. This is what art is.
I don't know the composer who deliberately alienates a potential audience. We all would like our works to be loved and embraced. I would love to be David Byrne - but with a better tailor!
I'm not. I can only make the work I have been given to make, to the best of my ability, with complete honesty to myself, and for whatever audience I might be able to reach.
Joseph Campbell said "Whatever you do is evil for someone".
I suggest that whatever art we make is probably beautiful for someone. Let them enjoy it, and if you don't like it, don't buy it.

john says: Hmm. 3 years ago Byrne was confessing his own cynicism upon having learned that his first real-deal big radio hit ("Burning down the house") benefited from record company payola:
Money quote: "I began to think a whole lot less of our audience. When people would come up to me and say 'boy is that a great song, I LOVE that song!' I would be tempted to tell them, 'no you don't, you've just been saturated with it and manipulated like the rest of us. You like it because your soul, your likes and dislikes, are up for sale to the highest bidder.'"
So, 3 years ago he confesses his disdain for the pop audience; now he preaches disdain for the recondite artists with no audience. Who does that leave to respect?
All very interesting in light of his blatant ripping off and bland-ifying of Laurie Anderson's theatrical techniques and ideas in his film "Stop Making Sense."
I love some of Byrne's early music, up to the point where he started disdaining his audience. His music went downhill fast after that.
The breach between composer and audience is a symptom of the breakdown of the social role of non-pop composition. Same thing happened in poetry. Complex history here, obvs.

Ethan Iverson says: Right on, Kyle! I love the Talking Heads, but Byrne dropping the heavy on Zimmermann is unimpressive. Your point of how he could have pointed out some modern classical music that he does like (instead of lumping everything together) is excellent. I mean, does he even know any Ligeti that he hasn't seen in an old movie?

Bill says: I can't help but think that most here are on the same page as Byrne, just differing in the approach. After all he has (very) successfully merged popular music with some great experimentation, and in doing that he has helped fight off the image of modern art as ugly and nihilistic. Isn't the bad guy here a high profile performance of a fifty year old work that reinforces every stereotype of modern art?

Gavin Borchert says: Sigh. When people hear a piece of 19th-century music they don't like, they shrug and try something else. When people hear a piece of 20th-century music they don't like, it's because the composer is an elitist asshole who didn't want them to like it.
KG replies: Well, there's an obvious reason for that. When they hear a dull 19th-century piece, it's in the same style, idiom, and language as the 19th-century pieces they like, so they assume the composer just tried and failed. The 20th-century composer who created his own idiom seems to have gone out on a limb to be obnoxious. We'll never solve music's problems by ignoring commonplaces of listener psychology. There is a price to be paid for individualism.

Jake Wunsch says: Hey Kyle, I wonder if you have any advice for an open-minded newbie who wants to get into complex music. From what you've written, it seems repetition is probably most important, but I wonder if you could be a little more specific.
Like, is it better to start with pieces written for small forces (solo, chamber, etc.) rather than large ones? Is it better to listen to a piece several times in a row or over the course of several days? Is it essential to listen to a multi-movement work straight through or can it be broken down into more accessible chunks? At what point can you say you "understand" a piece? At what point can you fairly dismiss it?
I realize we all listen differently and that the approach might vary depending on listener and composer. But still. We were all new to new music at one time. Aren't there strategies we all employ that might be useful to the uninitiated?
KG replies: Boy, those are all endlessly open and subjective questions. I have commonly played complex new pieces I was trying to familiarize myself with on my car stereo, over and over for months, because you pick up a lot from peripheral hearing that escapes more direct attention. Some pieces with too much dynamic contrast are difficult to do that with, though. I wouldn't think size of instrumentation, or length, would make much difference.

mcmechanism says: Thorny issue indeed. It's always a bit dicey to try and codify taste, whether it includes complexity or simplicity.
However, don't you think you may be pouring a bit of gasoline on the fire by referring to Byrne as a "Beloved Pop Musician"? For many people, Byrne's music can be a gateway to other kinds of music, whether complex or no. I suspect, somehow, that the particular word he uses that triggers your response is 'downtown.' I, and most of the people who regularly read your blog, understand the mythos and power with which you invest 'downtown.' Downtown is good; uptown, by comparison, is usually the unholy home of mindless complexity and academic chest-thumping. I wonder, if Byrne had instead used the word 'uptown', would you have been as upset?
And, remember, there is a fair amount of craft necessary to construct a good pop song; no, not the mamby pamby crap issuing forth from the Miley Cyruses of the world. Also, might it not possibly take more artistic bravery to push the envelope of the pop world, as Byrne has done both with and post-T Heads, than in the academic classical world? Think of the huge corporate pressures that come to bear on a group like that - pressures to conform, to continue to produce the safe and known so all assorted nymphs and swains in their entourage continue to get a piece of the pie? For the experimental notationally-based composer, are there similar pressures? Even you, Mr. G, are known to bewail the academic pressures to 'complex up' students scores with frequent dynamic changes, tempo changes, etc.
And finally, I suspect there is just a little misplaced sensitivity, as if Byrne had insulted one of you personally. Could it possibly be a family issue? As in, I can criticize other notational/classical composers, but someone outside our circle can't?
As a steady reader of both blogs, yours and his, I believe Byrne has as strong bonafides to art and the avant-garde as any of us. He eschews any of the accessories of pop-stardom, he usually bikes alone to see bands or art exhibits, and he has a generally open mind. To return to my original point, by labelling him merely a 'pop' musician, beloved or not, tars him with an ad hominem brush, equating him with the nitwits of American Idol.
Please excuse slight rambling of this comment, but I'm writing in the same "thinking aloud" style you mention in your posts.
Music is a very big tent, there's room for lots of types. I can go as far into the avant garde as the next person (I found Cage - met him in fact - while still in high school; was the first in my music school to find the minimalists in the mid-70's, and so on), but I also still enjoy a good, well-crafted pop song.

Alex Temple says: Kyle, you wrote in one of the comments:
"Not every composer who writes thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music is a genius. There have been people who wrote thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand music because it was trendy, because it would help get them tenure, because it was easier to look down their noses at audiences for not understanding than it was to write really good music, etc."
That's true, but don't forget also the people who wrote that sort of music because they were honestly excited by what they were doing, but who simply lacked the musical imagination to create something exciting. Just like the people currently writing boring post-minimalist music now, the people writing boring sonata-form music in the 1780s, etc.
As for your post, I agree with you completely, but ... didn't you once write that Beth Anderson's music is so tuneful that there hardly seems to be anything of the 20th century about it?
KG replies: Mmmmm, possibly, but I'm not seeing the connection... ???

t.v.h says: It's so much that you are "misreading" anything, it is more that your obvious extreme over-sensitivity leads you to interpret one comment in a piece with a generally light-hearted tone to a blanket condemnation that is nowhere to be seen.
He has plenty of positive things to say about Zimmerman's work, and never seems to venture into the heavy-handed polemics on display in your post.
In something ephemeral and silly as a music scene, as in many other situations, the easily-summarized wide-spread interpretation of something becomes a truth about it; for Bryne to make the statement he does, he doesn't have to be condemning downtown avant-garde composers, he is only saying something about The Downtown Avant-Garde Composers. That may be valid or it may be not, but it is a different beast than what you are trying to argue against. >KG replies: Here's Byrne's upbeat, modern-composer-supportive conclusion:
"As classical music followed this bizarre, perverted road for some half of the 20th century, the audiences left in droves. I hope the composers were pleased, because it seems they got what they wanted in that respect. Their compositional ideas live, and even thrive in movies; but as a form of music and music-theater, they simply died -- rumbling and roaring all the way."
Feel free to ignore what's very obvious to some of us.

wr says: I'm reading this stuff too long after it was posted, so this is probably not going to be read by anyone. Oh seems that at least part of the bruhaha is based on a plain misreading of Byrne - he was NOT generalizing about the Downtown scene or composers, but just pointing out that within that group, which he'd been watching for some time, he did observe some composers who were dealing in various kinds of alienating musical behaviors. I'd be very surprised if he were completely wrong about that. But, agreed, he was slapping the paint from that broad brush around way too sloppily. He didn't even describe 12-tone music with much accuracy at the beginning (not that most of his readers would know or care, I suspect).
KG replies: I just can't see why everyone insists that I've misread Byrne in one sentence, then admits that he was "slapping the brush around too sloppily" in the next. Either he said something one can disagree with or he didn't, but I can't fathom the exaggerated reluctance to criticize a word he says. I sometimes wish people were that reluctant to criticize anything I say.

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