The Epistemology of Elitism

August 6, 2009

By Kyle Gann

The composer friend I referred to recently who loves most new music but doesn't like Feldman told me why: he doesn't care for his harmony. Well, I had to grant him that. Your typical late Feldman piece starts out with a pitch set like B-C-C#-D, and while sometimes there's a third thrown in so it's C#-A-C-D, he doesn't vary a lot in that respect. I don't even think it's a fault: Feldman needed to create a floating musical stasis, and harmony tends to mooooove somewhere, so to do what Feldman needed to do, he had to put harmony on the back burner and turn it down to simmer. His sonorities are in technicolor, but when you reduce them to pitches and ignore timbre and spacing, there's not a lot there. In fact, I would charge that some of the young composers who picked up where Feldman left off, like John Luther Adams and Bernadette Speach and Peter Garland and me, did so thinking: "Hmmm, I could do the same thing and use funner harmony." So if one of your ear's big things is harmony and you hear everything in Feldman but that - well, case dismissed. You're off the hook.

Truth, as has been said, is in the details.

There have been some comments to this blog lately lamenting relativism in aesthetic judgments, saying that if we give up the idea of objective musical standards, then we can't argue that classical music should be supported over pop music, everything is relative, and our entire art is doomed, everyone will listen to rap and pop because there's no factual standard on which to defend classical music. I believe there is no such thing as complete objectivity, but I also believe there is no such thing as complete subjectivity. There's always something there that our perceptions did not create. (Had a fun e-mail argument about this with Glenn Branca, once. He proved to me there was no complete objectivity and I proved, I think, the impossibility of total subjectivity. It ended amicably.)

I've alluded here before to an unforgettable conversation I once had with John Luther Adams, trudging in high winds and freezing cold through the snowy woods around Fairbanks, and I've promised to tell you about it someday. Maybe this is the time. John and I put together a registry of musical virtues that was isomorphically analogous to a classification of audiences.

For instance: there are people for whom the best music must involve innovation. These people are likely to value Varese, Partch, Cage. There are others who value craftsmanship above all else. These people tend to like Hindemith, Sessions, perhaps Ligeti. Other people feel that music should be, above all else, emotionally true; perhaps they gravitate toward Barber, Vaughan Williams, maybe Messiaen. There are people who love music for its sonic lushness and sensuousness, who may relish Takemitsu and Feldman. There are people who value clarity, who value simplicity, who value intellectualism, who value memorability, who value physicality, who value theoretical rigor. Most people value several of these virtues, and we could create Venn diagrams of audiences who love different new musics because of the specific virtues they possess. The innovation + emotive sincerity intersectors love Ives. The intellectualism + sensuousness people love Takemitsu. That's what John and I were coming up with.

I think these virtues could be categorized, and I think it would be a worthwhile and revealing musicological exploit. I think it could become the prolegomena to a sociology of new-music (and other) audiences.

Where subjectivity comes in is that there is no objective criterion by which we can proclaim that craftsmanship is a higher virtue than innovation or sensuousness. We just can't. One type of personality will value the careful, revising craftsman over the visionary innovator who comes up with something radically new, and that's what makes horseraces. There is no way to objectively rank the artistic virtues. They are too closely allied to the structure of personality. Where objectivity comes in is in determing what innovation or craftsmanship is. Say you love innovation but don't believe Varese was innovative? Good luck. I want to read the treatise proving your point, but if it doesn't grab me in three sentences I'm trashing it. We can prove on paper that Varese was an amazing innovator, whether that impresses you or not. I happen not to care much for Varese because, for me, innovation is kind of wasted if the music doesn't grab me emotionally, and his doesn't; but I grant he was innovative. You think Crumb is a better composer than Sessions? You have my blessing. You think Crumb was a better craftsman than Sessions? You're an idiot. If there was a virtue that Sessions nailed to the floor immovably and for all time, it was craftsmanship. Maybe lacking in spontaneity, lacking in originality, in imagination, in goal-directedness, in sensuouness, arguably, but craftsmanship? If craftsmanship means anything in music, Sessions had it in spades. We can argue whether Partch's music shows good craft, and give examples; that's a still partially subjective but more limited and rational dispute than whether he was a "good composer."

The only question then is, how high is craftsmanship in the list of musical virtues? For me, personally - and no one else is bound by this - craftsmanship is one of the secondary virtues. I fancy that there is considerable craftsmanship in my music, but I do not want it calling attention to itself, and I try to keep it in the background. Though I do value craftsmanship, I'm not a fan of the sound of exposed craftsmanship, but a believer in Mozart's "artless art." I feel that what an artist has to say is more important than how well he says it, and for an impetuous sincerity or an uninhibited imagination I will easily forgive a shortage of craftsmanship. If you disagree I cannot refute you, nor can you argue me out of that position because there's no objective basis to do so with. It's just my personality. Or at least, having made more defensible determinations about which music possesses which virtues, perhaps we can have a different argument about which virtues should be accorded a higher place. After all, I have reasons for placing imagination and convincing emotion above innovation, and innovation above craftsmanship, and if I have reasons (as opposed to irrational personal preferences), I can be wrong.

There are people for whom depth is the major musical virtue - and by depth in this context I mean not profundity per se, but the ability of music to reveal more and more layers of meaning on repeated hearings. Depth is certainly a virtue. Many people use this virtue to prize classical music above popular music. I have often had the experience, though, of listening to a pop record and not really appreciating it the first time, but having it grow on me more and more. I've had that experience with pop music as often as I've had it with classical music. Many people who push this virtue use it to prop up the reputation of complex music. But in the early 1980s I turned off a recording of Carter's Double Concerto on what must have been my 75th listening with the score precisely because of that: I wasn't getting any more out of it than I had at the last ten listenings. I had milked it dry. It wasn't yielding anything else.

You want a composer with depth? Robert Ashley. There is so much in his music that pieces I've listened to and even studied for 30 years are yielding up phrases and patterns I've never noticed before. He is utterly inexhaustible. And yet, I don't think Ashley is the kind of composer the depth advocates have in mind. In general I think depth is kind of a red herring, a nice virtue but not truly at the top of anyone's list. The last time I listened closely to Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, I savored it, but I don't really think I found anything I hadn't heard ten years ago. Satie is one of my favorites and I find him extremely profound, but I don't think I'll hear things in Embryons Dessechees the next time I hear it that I haven't noticed before. What's important to me is that I can keep listening to a piece without growing tired of it.

This is where some pop music I like, but not all, falls apart for me. I'm a Waylon Jennings fan, which I don't often admit - must be something in the Texas water. I find his songs inventive and emotionally satisfying, but I can't listen to them often because the production values - canned audience shouts, instrumental bridges so identical that they sound cut and pasted in the audio software - seem plastic and articifical. Once every other year I can ignore that for the great word/tune relationship and the fuck-you attitude, but too soon a second listening and I feel sick.

But in the pop music I love best, like Brian Eno and the Residents, the virtues I enjoy are exactly those I love in the classical music I love best: imagination, inventiveness, emotional connection, memorability. Earlier in my life I searched hard for the DNA that separates pop music from classical, and you know what? I never found it. The more I looked at the pop music I loved, the more exactly its virtues resembled those of my favorite classical music. I never found a line I could draw. The only pop/classical distinction that ever made sense to me was the one Bob Ashley told me on a bar stool in Chicago in 1986: "Over five minutes it's classical, under five minutes it's pop." Accordingly, I've always thought of Schubert's songs as really, really good pop music. And of Brian Eno's Evening Star album, with its long tone poems, as utterly classical. Imagination is near the top of my virtues list, and I hear more imagination in almost any Eno song than in all the Elgar I've ever heard put together.

So all these bloggers who reel on endlessly about the pop/classical problem, and how we have to protect classical music in a pop-oriented world: I simply will not partake. I believe in genres defined by specific, pin-pointable qualities, from reggae to heavy metal to totalism to postminimalism to impressionism to spectralism to to space-age bachelor pad music to bluegrass, but "classical" and "pop" are industry-created categories, economic categories, and they leave no traces for me in the music. Whether I'm listening to a song by Loudon Wainwright III or Brian Eno or Charles Ives or Sir William Walton, I want the relation of melody and accompaniment to words elegantly and creatively handled.

What I will defend is the right of people with different values to have the music of their favorite virtues preserved. Thus I suppose I end up having the same aim as the elitists, but I will not use elitist rhetoric to achieve it. I will not say that "depth," or length, or complexity, or intellectualism - or simplicity, or communicativeness, or innovation, or memorability, or sincerity - is a higher virtue than some other. But I do feel strongly that minorities have their rights, and that those who want to hear craftsmanship, or sensuousness, or intellectualism, or depth have the right to have their music supported. Insofar as most pop music is songs, there are some virtues that no pop music has, virtues that can't be demonstrated in three minutes. The "objective standards" that some of my commenters use against pop music has just as often been used against minimalism and a lot of the other music I love. There are no objective standards. But there is an infinity of objective facts, there is a quasi-infinity of musical virtues, and no majority or plurality has the right to proclaim that we all have to content ourselves with the music that embodies their particular favorite virtues. That is as true for those who would defend classical music from pop-music encroachment as it is for those who would defend minimalism against the classical snobs.


individualfrog says: This is SO GREAT. I wouldn't be surprised if I link to this entry often. It articulates pretty much exactly my opinions about tastes in art.

Dan Rabin says: I'm not sure about putting Feldman in the sonority column. His late works attract me through innovation: "Don't listen that way, listen this way!" And I like the craft in all little shifts in what sound like repetitions but aren't.
I would also suggest another virtue, which is what science-fiction fans call "world-building". Feldman, Radigue, Eno, the Residents, and Cecil Taylor, for example, all create alternative internally-consistent universes of sound. To echo your essay's rhetoric, you can tell me that you'd rather seek out the masters of common-practice harmony or verse-verse-bridge-verse, but don't try to tell me that the aforementioned artists don't excel at sound-world building!
KG replies: "World-building" is good, I would maybe take that as a major and specific subset of innovation, allied as you suggest with consistency, another virtue some composers care a lot about.
Sonority is a truism in the usual discourse about Feldman, but now that you mention it, perhaps his early works (and rhetoric) got us in that habit, with their carefully spaced mallet percussion and fermatas. Whether String Quartet II and For Christian Wolff are really about sonority is worth another look.

mike says: when all else fails, true music virtue is found in the orchestration...
KG replies: Sigh... you're right, forget I mentioned all those other virtues. >:^D

Frank Hecker says: This is a great post, one of your best I think; like individualfrog, I'll definitely bookmark it.
Your discussion of Venn diagrams and combinations of virtues made me wonder: To what extent would works embodying particular combinations of virtues be more likely or unlikely to exist? If there is variation in the likelihood of particular combinations, could it be because the virtues in question are more or less "compatible" by their nature? Or could this be a natural consequence of the way a particular art form evolves over time (for example, that formal innovation occurs first, followed by emotional elaboration and greater craftmanship)? In either case, perhaps a work that embodies less likely combinations of virtues might be scored objectively higher than works embodying more "natural" combinations, all other things being equal.
For example, in the field of business and technology there are theories (most notably Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation) that predict that innovations enabling new uses, or appealing to new markets, will be of objectively lower quality than innovations directed at existing customers in existing markets. In other words, formal innovation and craftmanship in this context are relatively incompatible, so that we would expect to see few products exhibiting this combination, and would likely value such products accordingly. Perhaps an explanation for the success of companies like Apple, whose products embody both disruptive innovation and meticulous design?
KG replies: That sounds entirely plausible. I've written many times that American composers have historically suffered from classical critics because (partly because American music was young) they have prized innovation over technical polish, and it's nearly impossible to create a new technique and also simultaneously finesse it to maximum perfection. It'd be great if we could use findings from other fields to lay out the groundwork for all this.

Mark van de Voort says: Totally agree on Robert Ashley! But to pigeonhole Gyorgy Ligeti in the stuffy craftmanships-department is besides the point. Ligeti's music transcends all these categories: his music is about personality, character and not sticking to ideologies. Trademarks of every great composer.
KG replies: That's a big jump - I wouldn't attach "stuffy" to craftsmanship, nor do craftsmanship and ideology seem to me any way linked. I was just thinking of the formal elegance of Ligeti's Continuum, which a friend of mine did her master's thesis on, nor was I thinking any of these people possessed only the virtue I linked them with.

Frank Hecker says: "It'd be great if we could use findings from other fields to lay out the groundwork for all this."
Having thought about this some more, there are actually some quite interesting analogies between your framework and disruption innovation theory in particular. I don't have time or space to explore them here, but I'll try to put together a blog post on this in the coming days or weeks.

richard says: Amen! There is little Varese I love, but Octandre is on my all time hit parade. Like I've said, I believe in great works not great composers. Your Venn diagram approach is interesting, though my thoughts on musical "virtues" are always fluid.

ben wolfson says: Regarding length--I think your artsjournal co-blogger Greg Sandow mentioned this somewhere, but perhaps it wasn't him: Fred Frith apparently once (or sometimes, or often?) played a snippet of Tony Conrad's album with Faust, Outside the Dream Syndicate, and asked them whether it was pop or art music, or something like that. (Obviously the details have somewhat escaped me.) The album, especially in snippet form, would present itself as a violin drone over a persistent duh-rock backdrop. The answer would be that it's pop. Then he asked them, what if I told you it goes on like this for forty minutes? Then: art music.
Some of Schubert's more melancholy songs sound right at home next to In the Wee Small Hours.

Zeke says: Amen (and one for the newest post, too). You're on fire, Kyle!

Bob Gilmore says: Yeah, what is it about Varese? I mean, I like Varese, but hardly ever listen to the guy. With some of the pieces I'm kind of bored and twitchy after a few minutes. Is it just that there are so few pieces, so there's hardly an *oeuvre* there? - not enough to really get your teeth into? This year's Holland Festival did the complete Varese, about twenty minutes walk from my front door, and I didn't even think about buying tickets to go and hear it. These unfinished or suppressed works that Chou Wen-Chung has added to the canon (like Tuning Up or Dance for Burgess) are just the pits. I mean, I like Varese, and yet...

Derek says: I definitely agree with your comment about Schubert's art songs.
Although I'm sure one could find tons of anti-pop nonsense on the internet, some of the worst and most hypocritical I've found is at Yuck!!!

Z. D. Smith says: After all, I have reasons for placing imagination and convincing emotion above innovation, and innovation above craftsmanship, and if I have reasons (as opposed to irrational personal preferences), I can be wrong.
Kyle, in general you seem to be setting up a rough dichotomy between essentially rational, objective stylistic qualities, like innovation, formalism, etc; and our irrational, subjective preferences towards and experiences of them--our taste or preference for music to be emotionally gripping overriding a need for it to be innovative, for instance. This is an approach that I find deeply resonant and useful, in considering both composition and the act of listening.
The above quoted paragraph, though, seems to include one's actual hierarchy of preference and taste inside the domain of the defensible (and therefore rational), which the entire rest of the essay seems to be acting directly opposite against. Am I reading one or the other wrong?
KG replies: No, you're right - I just suddenly realized I had given a rational defense of one of my preferences (whether truly rational or just a rationalization I can't tell), and thought I'd better leave room for the possibility. Consistency has always been pretty low on my list of values. But thanks for keeping track.

gurdonark says: I do not know the answer to the question of absolutes versus relativism. I do know that cyclically an older "generation" pronounces 'the new music' irreverent and relative,dating back almost as long as classical music has existed.
The absolutes I believe in are more or less the seven virtues, not the absolute truth in one system of sound over another. The cultural narrow-mindedness of a lot of these "rules" causes western classical music to convert into a set-piece in a dollhouse when it should be a living, breathing mansion.
I love the Residents in part because I believe they understand the teaching of the American maverick composers, and Partch in particular, better than some "serious composers".
I like very much your point about different traits appealing to different people. This can be true in a single performance-one can believe that Hilary Hahn's Schoenberg performance "matters" because it shows a mass audience that Schoenberg is part of their beloved canon, and not outside it, or it "matters" because she is quite gifted, or it "doesn't matter" because it's all very yesterday. One can even adopt some almost-quaint dialectic of the past and turn it all into a screed about the star system and Deutsche Gramophon. Yet on some level we all see this work as different facets of the same crystal.
At the same time, I read a column in Gramophone trumpeting how someone wants to save classical music (which, in my view, is not really in jeopardy) by giving more negative critiques. All well and good, in the abstract, and even in application. But the example given was "it's okay to say you don't like Brahms'. Well, of course it's okay to dislike Brahms-or to like Brahms-but the key thing is that the musical virtues to which you refer don't depend on whether one makes a "bold statement" about not liking Brahms.
The reason why "Music for Airports" matters is not it's some bold statement about liking or not liking furniture music or even just Satie.
It matters because with a keyboard and a voice sample it pursues for a mass audience a quest for a particular musical virtue. In my mind, it's the equivalent of the Velvets-10,000 listeners, and each became a composer or electronic musician.
Pop/classical is an interesting metaphor, but it's metaphor-not real. The "pops" things miss an opportunity when they present it as "dumbing it down to pop level to get patrons in". The real opportunity is music without these walls.
It's not that there are no standards-or no ideal performers/performances. It's that the goal is not to wrack up brownie points towards some classical afterlife, but to create the Kingdom within whatever the mode.

Maready Larcher says: But don't forget what Feldman said about orchestration when Messiaen's name came up (and I'm paraphrasing): "That's not orchestration, that's Technicolor!"

Erling Wold says: Yes, I completely agree. It may be my engineering background, but it always seemed pointless to talk about what is better than what without first agreeing on a metric by which to compare them - speed, power, prettiness, whatever. Often one hears the adjective "religious" applied to such metric-less arguments to dismiss them, which I guess implies that one side or the other is merely basing their case on faith rather than any underlying preference, but that's almost never true. Although, sometimes I have no idea why I like something. It won't seem to have strengths along any of my personal axes of musical importance. Maybe I was just on the right drug when I first heard it.

DaveX says: I don't think music is intended as a communication between individuals, so perhaps part of the difficulty lies with judging it as such.
I'm struggling a bit with how to describe this- perhaps a more meta-criticism is appropriate, something like the difference between noting your own impression of a speech given to a large crowd versus discussing the impression of the crowd itself.

Eric Grunin says: Pardon this babbling, I'm just *so* happy to have read this. I've been mulling this very topic (and boring my friends with it) for years, and am in a very similar place.
Okay, just one difference. It's not about what one 'values', it's about what one needs and/or tolerates.
For a simple example, imagine that we each need a minimum of harmonic motion, below which we get bored, the minimum varying with the individual (it can be zero). At the same time, we can each tolerate a certain maximum of harmonic motion, above which we get confused (which quickly turns to boredom). Personally, for example, anything which moves more slowly than Feldman is going to have to be really special in some other way for me to stick with it; anything that moves much faster than Wolpe and I honestly can't keep up. (As a friend of mine once said, "You can play it that fast, but I can't *hear* it that fast.")
The reason I make a distinction between purely perceptable attributes and 'values' is because a piece can evince all the things I know I value and still leave me utterly bored.
For this reason I'm very wary of considering things such as 'innovation'. I mean, I think I value that very highly, and it may get me to give something a second or third chance, but that's it.
"Craftsmanship" is actually an objective attribute, in that it means maximizing the signal-to-noise ratio in certain measurable ways. Of course, sometimes you *want* noise: sometimes the mess is part of the message. From this one can expect that some people are bored by music that has no loose ends, like (some) Sessions, just as some can't tolerate music with too many, like (some) Ives.
And then this is why some people instinctively cherish music they find "unanalyzable": because their inner parser can't quite make all the pieces fit, and they *like* that feeling, it gets their endorphins flowing.
As to your comments on Waylon Jennings: you describe the parts you dislike as if they're 'mechanical', i.e. lacking the natural low-level complexity charcteristic of all human activity. This is so deadening it prevents your enjoyment of the sophisticated interplay of lyric, setting, and performance.
As for the pop/classical pseudodichotomy: there has never been a clear bright line, but typically pop shuns certain kinds of complexity and embraces others. Even a mediocre pop vocalist is 'inflecting' his performance more than your average world-class opera singer. Listen to a few performances of Berio's "Folk Songs", and you can tell right away which singers understand that and which don't.
A lot of these conclusions come from micro-analyses of performances. There are just so many things that *all* performers do which are essentially imperceptable, yet measurable and consistent. (Across cultures as well as styles.)
I hasten to add that perception is not static. The levels of musical complexity I need and/or tolerate shift gradually over time, and I assume this is true for most people.
Okay, I'll stop ranting now. Again, thanks so much.

Julian says: great post, likewise i'll be sharing this one and referring back to it

msk says: Thanks for a really great post (yes, I'm slow to respond). My friend and I just started what I think is going to be a long conversation about this, so I have nowhere near anything cogent to add. If I do, I'll share.

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