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Classical Music,
Why Bother?
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Classical Music,
Why Bother?
Hearing the World of Contemporary
Culture through a Composer’s Ears
JOSHUA FINEBERG
Harvard University
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fineberg, Joshua.
Classical music, why bother? : hearing the world of contemporary culture through a composer’s
ears / Joshua Fineberg.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
ISBN 0-415-97173-X (hb : alk. paper) -- ISBN 0-415-97174-8 (pb : alk. paper) 1.
Music--Philosophy and aesthetics. 2. Music--Social aspects. I. Title.
ML3800.F444 2006

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V
Contents
Acknowledgments vii
Prelude ix
Chapter1 AestheticValue 1
Chapter2 Taste 27
Chapter3 ConceptandCraft 35
Chapter4 Elitism 45
Chapter5 Technology 57
Chapter6 DesignSpace 73
Chapter7 “Understanding”Music 91
Chapter8 DesigningMusicforHumanBeings 105
Coda 139
Notes 149
Index 157
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VII
ACknowledgments
Te ideas in this book have been shaped over many years of casual and
not so casual discussions with countless people I have encountered.
Most essential, though, have been my interactions with the students
passing through my undergraduate courses since I began teaching at
Harvard in 2000. My discussions with them have helped me to see the
absolute necessity of engaging with a broader public, if my profession
is to survive.
Leonard Bernstein famously quipped that in his day the professors of
Harvard’s music department believed that music was meant to be seen
and not heard; my experience, however, has been completely diferent.
Te music department is one of the very few places I know where music
is both carefully seen and deeply heard. Art music is taken very seriously
as both something to do and something to study, ofering an ideal envi-
ronment for a practitioner like me to engage with some of the world’s
fnest scholars and students. Moreover, the Walton/Harvard Fellow-
ship, awarded by the music department and the Fromm Foundation
in collaboration with the William Walton Foundation, allowed me to
have a concentrated chunk of time within Lady Susana Walton’s idyllic
gardens at La Mortella to do the heavy lifting of turning a moderate-
length article into the start of this book. Lady Walton deserves special
thanks for putting up with what I am sure must have been the horribly
boring dinner-table rehearsal of several of the book’s central arguments.
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VIII CLA55ICAL MO5IC
While I cannot individually thank everyone who has contributed to
this book, particular thanks must go to three people. First, Andrew
O’Hehir, the arts editor for the webzine Salon.com, gave me invaluable
help and advice for the article “Classical Music, Why Bother?” which
Salon.com frst published in October 2002; many parts of the text in the
frst three chapters originally appeared in that article. My father also
deserves special thanks: He has tried throughout my life to teach me
how to write prose and, as if that Sisyphean task were not enough, was
also willing to put up with my stubbornness and petulance through
several drafts of this manuscript. Finally and most importantly, my
wife, Ioana, has had to bear with me throughout the whole process,
arguing out each idea in turn, and was forced to endure my accepting
yet another project on top of everything else.
RT4509.indb 8 5/4/06 11:59:44 AM
IX
Prelude
Even among members of the supposed “educated elite,” questions con-
cerning the nature and purpose of art no longer have the clear answers
that they might have had in the past. Tis, I believe, is the underlying
cause of the rupture between contemporary art music and its audience
that has grown of late to Grand Canyon-like proportions. I hope this
book will ofer my perspective, that of a working professional composer
of contemporary “Western art music,” regarding these questions and
the long-term impact our society’s answers to them will have on future
art. My perspective may seem far too specialized at a time when many
people probably don’t know that “classical” composers still exist and the
culture at large dictates that most of those who do either don’t care or
resent our intrusion and demands. However, we happen to be among a
small handful of groups in society who are so directly afected by these
seeming abstractions that we cannot avoid confronting them.
I am not a philosopher or a cultural critic; I am a composer and
teacher of music. Over the last dozen years, I have studied, worked,
and taught in Paris, New York, and now Cambridge, Massachusetts. In
all these places I have listened to and participated in innumerable (and
virtually indistinguishable) conversations that touch upon the nature
and purpose of art in our society without addressing them directly. Few
of these discussions move past a very short-term view of some immedi-
ate problem regarding art and its reception. We may discuss how to fll
the hall for a particular event; who the really “great” living composers
RT4509.indb 9 5/4/06 11:59:44 AM
X FÞHLODH
are; why can’t we sell more copies of some CD; what’s a real modern
masterpiece; or any of a host of other momentarily important issues.
It is very hard, however, to believe that this or that decision or tactic
will really afect the fundamental trends in the world of so-called “art
music.” Over more than ffty years, this music has moved towards an
increasingly marginal social and commercial existence, an ever more
historically oriented repertoire, and an older and older audience; more-
over, these trends show no signs of meaningfully improving.
During the last few years, a signifcant portion of my teaching has
been directed at students who are not music majors. Trough my dis-
cussions with this highly educated, but non-musically oriented, group
of students, I have come to feel that ideas concerning the nature
and purpose of art were no longer givens. Working with this more
heterogeneous set of students, I became increasingly convinced of the
need to address to a nonspecialist public some thoughts on the role of
art in society, especially difcult art (and its relationship to the lack of
audience for contemporary music).
I hope to address in a personal, rather than a detached philosophical,
way some of the greatest of all abstractions: art, culture, society, worth,
ethics, and meaning. Yet rather than jumping right into these rather
daunting issues, I propose to begin by recounting a conversation I have
had again and again with diferent people at various receptions, din-
ners, cocktail parties, student meetings, and lunches. It is not so much
a real introduction as it is a way of setting the tone for what is to follow
— please think of it as a sort of prelude.
Te discussion often begins like this: “So, you’re a composer?” (A guf-
faw or an incredulously raised eyebrow is optional.)
As I answer this in the afrmative, I’m not quite sure which path the
conversation will take, but I am sure it will be well trod. Te next ques-
tion is often about my music: perhaps, “So, what kind of music do you
write?” or “What sort of songs do you compose?”
While there is nothing at all wrong with the question in principle,
in practice there is almost never a meaningful way to answer it. Let me
explain by using an analogy: I am color-blind, and when people fnd
that out, their frst question is usually, “So, when you look at this [they
hold up a random object], what color do you see?” I then try to explain
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FÞHLODH XI
that I can’t say what I see. We have no shared vocabulary; I’ve never
seen green or blue as a person with normal color vision would see it. I
explain that to the extent that I am capable of fguring out what label
most people think should go with a given object I can answer, but I
know that even if we reach agreement on the label, it still does not
mean that we see the same thing in the same way (since my retinal
cones are defective, due to a fairly common inherited trait).
When it comes to music, we also lack a shared vocabulary; in this
case, however, it is not due to an inequality of perceptual capacities.
On the contrary — we hear essentially the same thing but lack a shared
context. Terefore, I generally feel impelled to attempt an answer, even
though I am skeptical that any verbal answer could really be helpful. In
good faith, someone with little or no exposure to contemporary music
is asking me to conjure the sonic image of something completely unfa-
miliar using a few words. (Try describing one of Mark Rothko’s large
color feld paintings to someone who has never seen an abstract paint-
ing of any kind, without reducing the description to something equally
applicable to a multicolor stone-washed T-shirt.) I usually try to answer
in a way that will help my questioner categorize what I do, rather than
actually undertake the difcult (and, I suspect, not usually desired)
challenge of evoking a sonic image, which a complete answer to his
question would require.
First, I explain that my music is “classical.” By that, I mean that it
is written for mostly the same instruments and ensembles, and using
essentially the same notational system, as what they think of as classi-
cal music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.). While many cave-
ats would be necessary to make that last statement completely accurate,
I usually leave it at that and go on. I explain that while I and other
composers of contemporary classical music feel that our work is the
continuation of the classical tradition, it often does not sound at all
like that music. I continue by saying that it often sounds quite diferent
from popular or flm music as well. By this point both the questioner
and I may well be growing frustrated at the difculty of communi-
cating with such a limited body of common terms. Terefore, I try to
mention a few names of composers just in case the listener has chanced
upon something that might give us a point of departure. I mention
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XII FÞHLODH
some of the most celebrated composers of contemporary classical music
(Boulez, Ligeti, Berio, Grisey, Stockhausen, etc.).
Often, none of the names are even vaguely familiar to the indi-
vidual, or he or she shows the sort of disembodied recognition that
comes from having seen a name in print or heard it in a discussion (e.g.,
“Boulez — didn’t he conduct the New York Philharmonic?”). It is one
of the truly unfortunate consequences of contemporary music’s mar-
ginalization that, through no fault of their own, even highly cultured
individuals — who would be embarrassed not to have read a book by
a well-known author or seen an important art exhibition — have no
knowledge whatsoever of these composers’ work. Tis kind of music
has been pushed so far outside of the cultural mainstream that hardly
anyone would feel the slightest compunction about failing to recognize
the names of the most important contemporary composers.
Classical composers have become the equivalent of some nearly
extinct species of European men from the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries whose modern-day descendants, if they exist in some lost
corner of a swamp, have long ceased to afect mainstream cultural
consciousness. Why would anyone keep track of the most renowned
steelsmiths making samurai swords? While this was an important and
respected art in feudal Japan, such activities are totally irrelevant today
except for souvenir collectors. I suspect that, for many, contemporary
music of the sort I practice has no more cultural relevance than the
work of those few artisans still practicing ancient techniques for forg-
ing steel. Yet, here my poor partner in this conversation is face to face
with a living composer.
At some point we give up our blind attempts to name the elephant
by fondling its parts and start dancing around the really big questions,
the ones they really want to ask.
Te frst big question for all of us, whether we’re four or forty-four,
is always “Why?”
Usually people are too polite to spit out that word, but they must be
thinking it: “Why?” “Why would a grown man do such an obscure,
irrelevant thing? After all, I didn’t even really think there still were
composers.” Being a rock star or a concert pianist might be a crazy
ambition, but that is because the chance of success is so slim. Being a
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FÞHLODH XIII
contemporary composer — having to compete with the giants of the
last 300 years in an environment where even the most successful are
hardly known and make modest incomes — why dedicate a life to that?
It seems absolutely crazy.
If recruiting for today’s classical music composers were done in the
want ads, I’m sure nobody in his or her right mind would sign up. Can
you imagine the text of the ad?

WANTED: Contemporary classical music composers. Preparation
should ideally begin before age seven. At least ffteen years of eye-
straining, back-breaking, unpaid, or even costly eforts will eventu-
ally be met, at best, with hostility or, more likely, with indiference.
Financial prospects vary from nonexistent (or in many cases nega-
tive) to mediocre. Only one out of several thousand applicants need
even dream of a subsistence income from his music. Te only poten-
tial for a secure but limited income is that a very small percentage of
applicants may be ofered the chance to instruct future prospects in a
structure quite similar to a pyramid scheme.
With other musicians or with regular concertgoers, the conversa-
tion often takes another tack. Tese are people whose love of music (at
least older music) is such that they don’t wonder why. Te question they
really want to ask is closer to “How?” “How can you hope to make a
meaningful addition to an impossibly exalted corpus?” A more typical
phrasing might be something like this: “Do you really believe that any
recent music can truly equal the works of _______ [fll in the blank
with whichever timeless genius you prefer: Bach, Mahler, Mozart,
Brahms, etc.]?”
In some ways, the “how” question is easier to address than the “why.”
As you will no doubt have already surmised, I do believe that wonder-
fully great music is still being written and that even in our modern
society it is important enough to dedicate a life to; however, any answer
I propose will probably fail to satisfy the questioner. No matter how
passionately I might argue for the potential greatness of new works,
my opponent is likely to remain unconvinced. Even if he — or she
— wants to accept what I say, he cannot because of the next question:
“Where?” “Where is the audience?” If I’m right that there is all this
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XIV FÞHLODH
amazing music out there, then where is the audience that ought to have
been won over by now?
Tis is perhaps the question that musicians and critics think about
most when discussing or writing about contemporary music. Anyone
who reads the arts section of Te New York Times or Te New Yorker will
have read countless think pieces about why contemporary music is not
more popular. Tese ruminations often fall into several broad categories:
1. Some are written by composers who blame the audiences for
not making the personal investment necessary to understand
their art.
2. Some come from critics who bemoan the inaccessibility of the
work of today’s composers.
3. Sometimes a critic will laud one or another newly arrived “revo-
lutionary” composer (often his or her personal discovery). Unfor-
tunately, this revolution usually consists of using the classical
instrumentarium to produce works that sound like pale imita-
tions of popular music, or being radical enough to write music that
sounds like something a particularly hopeless student of Brahms
might have come up with (pandering is considered both positive
and progressive in this context; it is like lauding as revolution-
ary a sex therapist who advocates rediscovering the missionary
position).
4. Some “more serious” critics write pieces beseeching listeners to
make the personal investment that the composers (mentioned in
point number one) berated these same listeners for not having
made up until now.
5. Some pieces ofer no hope; they are darkly pessimistic, mourn-
ing the dismal future of classical music (usually citing poor demo-
graphics for season ticket holders or donations at major musical
organizations.)
6. Some pieces attempt to ofer a triumphal solution, hailing some
organization or composers’ marketing eforts that seem, at least
temporarily, to have successfully hoodwinked some sought-after
market segment (young concertgoers, for example) into attending
a concert or opera. Te really sad versions of this story are when
we learn that the ever-diminishing resources dedicated to cul-
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FÞHLODH XV
ture have been used to support a multimillionaire rock star per-
forming pop tunes with orchestral accompaniment in a so-called
efort to reach new audiences (perhaps this sort of outreach is
efective in winning some orchestra patrons over to pop music).
7. A fnal sort of piece falls back on the ever-present human inter-
est profle. Tis sort of story is, I suppose, meant to convince us
that if composers are hardworking or likable, hating the music is
somehow petty.
In my imagined conversation, I won’t ofer arguments that corre-
spond to any of these models — though in the heat of the moment I
have sometimes fallen back on one of those golden oldies. In this book,
I wish us to look at all three of these problems (Why, How, Where)
diferently. No standard argument is sufcient, or there would be no
need to continue discussing these questions. I believe that the real
issues at hand are not purely musical and, therefore, no stylistic discus-
sions — no matter how intellectually probing or unabashedly populist
— would address them. I’m convinced that the real reason you see or
hear less and less classical music of any kind and hardly any new music
on your TV or radio is related to the changing place accorded to art in
general within contemporary society.
In the current era, when the Rite of Spring has already outlived all but
the oldest audience members (who still think of it as a bit risqué), we
cannot address either the reason that composers are drawn to writing
contemporary classical music or the audience’s rejection of (or, worse,
indiference to) contemporary works without confronting the “A word”
(Art) head-on. To go beyond a quick, placating answer to something
with real relevance, we will have to enlarge the subject to art and its
place in society. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to be a bit of a bore,
that guy with whom you may come to regret beginning a conversation.
I’m really going to try to answer those three very important questions
even if the answer takes us far afeld and forces me to monopolize the
conversation. Moreover, I’m not going to give you my cocktail party
response; instead, I’ll try my best to answer these questions in the rest
of this book. If you aren’t up for the ride, now is the time to look at
your watch, mumble some lame excuse about forgetting you had an
appointment, and head for the door.
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XVI FÞHLODH
By playing the blame game — did composers drive away the audi-
ence, or has the audience abandoned its responsibilities? — we have
ignored a fundamental diference between what composers think they
are ofering and what audiences think they are, or should be, receiv-
ing. Most composers, since at least the nineteenth century, have held
a deeply felt, quasi-religious belief in “Art”; I know that I certainly do.
Tis is, I think, what leads us to choose the profession in spite of the
unpleasantly poor hourly wage that it brings most of us. We believe
that if through determination, hard work, and talent we are able to
make truly great works of art, sooner or later people will grapple with
these works, come to see their value, and develop the sense of awe we
feel in the presence of true masterpieces. Tis is not to say that many
composers are certain that they themselves are writing masterpieces.
It has more to do with a belief in the possibility of masterworks and
the inevitability that these works, once extant, will eventually receive
recognition. Ultimately, we believe that great art enriches the world
whether or not the world knows or cares.
An analogy that comes to mind for the situation faced by contem-
porary classical musicians is the environmental movement. For years
discussions about species extinction (at least those that reached the
general public) centered on specifc abuses: stopping poachers, elimi-
nating a pesticide, saving a nesting ground. Te real problem, though,
is more systemic: the ever-shrinking size of the habitat and the increas-
ing competition with humans for a share of fnite resources.
I think that something parallel needs to happen if we are to under-
stand the situation in the arts. Tere is not a single cause, whether on
the part of audience or composer, but a changing environment to which
the kind of art and music that has thrived for hundreds of years in the
West may no longer be well adapted. Changes in our society are having
profound efects on the artistic ecosystem that has allowed nonfunc-
tional, nonpopular art to be valued and supported (at least enough for it
to have come into existence). Although we as a society may ultimately
decide that this kind of music is out of date and built on superseded,
elitist premises, I believe we should at least pause and refect on what
we stand to lose if we decide no longer to support and foster the work
of today’s classical music composers. We must at least take note of these
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FÞHLODH XVII
changes or we may fnd very soon that things we believed would always
fourish have mysteriously gone extinct, leaving us with a very diferent
silent spring than the one that was averted by banning DDT. In other
words, this is perhaps my one and only chance to present you with my
best case for why I believe what I do is important and necessary, and
why I think you should care that it might disappear.
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RT4509.indb 18 5/4/06 11:59:47 AM
1
1
AH51HH1IC VALOH
It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken
for granted any more: neither art itself, nor art in its relationship to the
whole, nor even the right of art to exist.
— Teodor W. Adorno
“Wait one second,” you say. “Art is not so imperiled as all that.” You
might be thinking something along the same lines as Alice Goldfarb
Marquis, an independent scholar who works in various felds as a sort
of arts journalist and cultural critic. She likes to take the contrarian’s
perspective that what the arts need is less government support (not
more), therefore she regularly shows up on panel discussions about arts
subsidies; in a “crossfre” world people who take an opposing view are
always precious, even if the debates are sponsored by subsidized orga-
nizations. At the conclusion of Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and
Fall of Public Funding, her rather damning critique of well-meant but,
she believes, ultimately misguided arts funding in the late-twentieth
century, Dr. Marquis asserts that the National Endowment for the Arts
is a group that “purveys a multitude of fctions: […] that non-proft arts
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2 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
deserve support while commercial arts do not; that there exists a dis-
tinct cultural realm worthy of subsidy, a realm easily distinguished from
simple entertainment; and worst of all that the arts in America would
perish without federal intervention.”
1

Like Dr. Marquis, you are probably thinking that we have had paint-
ing since at least the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet (ca. 25,000
years ago); and it appears that even the Neanderthals made music with
tuned bone futes. Indeed, even in my worst fts of alarmism, I do not
claim that music and the visual arts are in any danger of disappearing
from the world. But Adorno meant something slightly more, or difer-
ent, than that when he referred to “art.”
One of the fctions Marquis feels the NEA purveys is the existence
of a “cultural realm worthy of subsidy, a realm easily distinguished
from simple entertainment.” And it is this particular realm, fctional
though it may be, that I fear is in danger of disappearing. I believe the
passage of this realm out of our world would be tragic — even for the
vast majority of people who have no interest in art that is made there.
Dr. Marquis believes that the arts in America have declined from
what she perceived to be a high point in the twenty years after World
War II toward ever-lower depths. She blames this decline on the
cumulative efects of a centralized bureaucratic source of government
arts support (the NEA) and, more generally, of the nonproft struc-
ture of arts organizations and universities in America. She believes that
these kinds of institutions inevitably reward mediocrity. By focusing
only on America and only on the second half of the twentieth cen-
tury, she can ignore the defects of earlier funding schemes — used by
assorted states, princes, kings, and popes — that nonetheless produced
art she would have more trouble summarily dismissing. She can blame
inefective bureaucracies and conservatism, as if these were new prob-
lems. All of her sociological and economic data do show changes in
the acceptance and importance of subsidized art, but I think they are
not the changes she believes them to be. Tere has been a slow shift in
worldview over the last hundred years or so that has accelerated in the
last thirty years. Tis change is as far-reaching in its own way as the
Copernican revolution. Fifty years ago the cultural realm that Marquis
mocks would still, in fact, have been worthy of subsidy, not because the
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AH51HH1IC VALOH B
NEA said so and not because it was easily distinguishable from simple
entertainment, but because it was better: Te art produced within this
realm had more worth, or so the public and government believed. (I do
not intend to imply that it was therefore easier to get funding — people’s
attachment to their money has not changed — only that the premise
behind subsidizing art was widely accepted even though this art was no
more popular in absolute terms at that time.)
Te psychologist Nicholas Humphrey wrote a book debunking
claims of paranormal activity, called Leaps of Faith,
2
in which he quite
persuasively argues that, in spite of all their surface diferences, all reli-
gions (and more broadly all belief in the supernatural) are at least tacitly
dependent on a dualist view of existence. Belief in afterlives, reincarna-
tions, miracles, divinities, and so on, all fundamentally depend on a
more basic belief in an immaterial soul — or at least in the existence
of a nonphysical, nonmaterial realm. Likewise, a true belief in art is
also predicated on an underlying conceptual framework that depends
just as absolutely on a belief in abstract criteria of worth. Tis notion,
which is profoundly out of fashion today, has formed the underpin-
ning of artistic endeavor in the West for a very long time. Adherents of
this idea believe that even if societal fashions or institutional structures
are opposed to a particular artist or work, some essential greatness (or
lack thereof) will ultimately determine the worth of the art object if
given the chance. And even if the work is never recognized, it is still
of equal (albeit latent) value. In other words, a Rembrandt hanging in
the woods would still be great even if no one had the good fortune
to see it. Partisans in the “culture wars” tried to attack these notions,
but that battle mixed the issue of what should be in the canon with
whether there should be a canon at all. Moreover, it constantly mixed
artistic values and political ones in a way that eliminates the possibility
of really discussing art.
Contrary to most contemporary ways of thinking, I believe that taste
and social constructions are of decidedly secondary importance if there
is such a thing as intrinsic value or worth. Composers often speak of
pieces being well constructed or clever, even sometimes brilliant — and
then say that they don’t particularly care for them. Tis is because they
see personal preference as being much less important and enduring
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4 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
than these other, harder to defne criteria of worth. Tis should not be
an unfamiliar concept, because it is for this very reason that even real
Shakespeare haters are unlikely to criticize the quality of his verse. We
can all feel the genius even if we are not all sensitive to the charms (at
least this is what I tell myself).
Some composers have no doubt begun to bristle by this point,
thinking that they are not so cavalier as to completely disregard pub-
lic taste and societal demand. And though they may even believe this,
ultimately they are wrong. If taste and society were the real yardstick,
then the Billboard Hot 100 would be the true arbiter of worth and value
(in the noneconomic sense, as it already is in the economic sense) and
any “classical” composer holding that view is in the wrong business.
Tis is not to say (as some have done) that success is a refection of low
cultural value: It is merely to say that the worth of a work is ultimately
either intrinsic to it (as I believe) and therefore completely independent
of success or a lack thereof, or it is determined by societal reception
— in which case the most fash-in-the-pan “boy band” is “better” than
just about any “classical” composer. From this point of view, while an
individual composer may feel he is considering both his audience and
posterity, the work will ultimately be valued either solely on its intrinsic
merits (if there are such things) or solely on the reception it receives.
Whether high ideals or low commerce motivated the work is ultimately
irrelevant; the value or reception of the work will be what counts, not
the creator’s intentions or motivations.
Moreover, if you believe that something like intrinsic value exists,
then the outreach eforts many arts organizations make seem quite puz-
zling. If the cost of reaching people is to destroy or at least dilute the
“value” of what you are ofering, then there is no gain to be had. Arts
organizations are being subsidized to promote fne art, not mediocre
entertainment. We must not forget that each ticket sold, each show
repeated, is usually a fnancial loss, not a gain — even when the tickets
are as expensive as seats at the Metropolitan Opera. Te only possible
(and therefore mandatory) gain achieved by subsidized art is cultural,
not economic.
You may think there ought to be a middle way; things would certainly
be easier for all of us if there were. Could we not somehow evaluate
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AH51HH1IC VALOH 5
quality, accessibility, and popularity in some sort of astutely weighted
equation that would make everyone happy? After many years of trying,
however, I have never come up with a middle ground that does not sit
on a very slippery slope. Every attempt to construct an intermediate
framework seems rapidly to devolve into one of two opposing world-
views: Any system for evaluating works ultimately depends on either
public reception or an attempted assessment of the works’ “intrinsic”
merits. Ad hoc systems of this kind justify particular actions but don’t
address the underlying trends.
Some might object to my emphasis on this dichotomy, but our soci-
ety has reached a junction where making a choice has become inevi-
table. To return to our analogy regarding the immaterial soul, one can
claim to believe in a basically materialistic worldview and yet hope for
an aphysical eternal afterlife; this is the essence of Pascal’s wager. (Pas-
cal’s wager is the calculation that if there is no God there are no nega-
tive consequences from falsely believing in one; while if there is a God
the price for disbelief is eternal damnation. Tus Pascal asserts that
belief is by far the safer bet.) But times occur when one’s life is truly in
the balance, a choice between fesh and spirit is unavoidable, and nei-
ther option is without consequence. (I think this is why some creation-
ists fght so hard against all forms of scientifc proof: Tey realize that
ultimately materialism and an immaterial soul cannot coexist.) Facing
up to this dichotomous choice is not something most of us like to do.
We live in a deeply inconsistent society, where reliance on science
and rationality is much greater (or at least widespread) than at any time
in the past, yet large numbers of people still manage to believe in UFOs
and government conspiracies conducted with perfect secrecy — not to
mention the widespread religious fervor in contemporary America that
rivals that of the Medieval era. Current debate about whether Intel-
ligent Design is a rival to evolution that belongs in school or simply a
religious fairy tale is only one instance where we will be forced to make
a choice that will inevitably seem entirely unacceptable to a large group
of people on the other side of the divide. Although humans are very
good individually at not reconciling our incompatible beliefs, society
ultimately makes choices and sets priorities, even if we don’t realize it
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6 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
until many years later. In the domain of subsidized arts, I believe that
we have reached such a decision point.
Let’s back up a bit and look at what brought us here. It may well be
that this crisis in belief, this elimination of hierarchies of value from
our worldview, goes back to the secularization of culture that has pro-
ceeded since the Enlightenment. In speaking about cultural modernity,
Jürgen Habermas recalls the following idea from Max Weber:
He characterized cultural modernity as the separation of the sub-
stantive reason expressed in religion and metaphysics into three
autonomous spheres. Tey are: science, morality and art. Tese came
to be diferentiated because the unifed world-views of religion and
metaphysics fell apart. Since the 18th century, the problems inherited
from these older world-views could be arranged so as to fall under
specifc aspects of validity: truth, normative rightness, authenticity
and beauty. Scientifc discourse, theories of morality, jurisprudence
and the production and criticism of art could in turn be institutional-
ized. Each domain of culture could be made to correspond to culture
professions in which problems could be dealt with as the concerns of
special experts.
3
Tis system could work throughout the late eighteenth, nineteenth,
and early twentieth centuries because we were willing to accept its
premise that “truth, normative rightness, authenticity and beauty” all
existed; moreover, we were willing to believe that they could be evalu-
ated and if not determined in absolute terms, at least they could be
arranged hierarchically (e.g., this new theory is more true than the old
one; because we can only add one more painting to this room we will
take this one because it is more beautiful or more important). By the
mid-twentieth century, thinkers like Tomas Kuhn were questioning
this premise even with regard to truth. Kuhn believed that because
some aspects of older theories might be more valid than some (usually
peripheral) aspects of newer theories, it was unfair to think of the new
theory as more “true.” Kuhn believed we should simply see these new
ideas as a diferent “paradigm.”
4
He felt that any sort of hierarchy was
an illusion. He did not, however, take this further and suggest how one
might proceed if we were to accept his ideas. Must we teach phlogiston
theory along with everything else? If we cannot judge the validity of
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AH51HH1IC VALOH ?
one idea over another, I think NASA is in for many more disappoint-
ing and costly failures in the future.
A belief in intrinsic values that can be evaluated has shaped our
entire system of cultural production and delivery over several centuries.
Museum curators, artistic directors, ministers of culture, music direc-
tors, and all sorts of nabobs from the chattering class were there to sift
through the masses of mediocre work and fnd those with real quality.
Tey were Habermas’s “special experts,” and to get their positions they
had to demonstrate the acuity of their judgment, at least in principle.
With each choice they were to some extent placing their career on the
line. A poor judgment refected even more on them than on the artist
who made the work, because they were the person who was supposed
to know better. Tis was almost the inverse of the current pop music
or market-oriented system, where music is played for demographically
sorted focus groups, and — presuming the sampling techniques are
adequate — it’s immediately obvious what’s a hit and what’s a fop.
Over the last few decades, even the most revered cultural institutions
have been afected by “market-think.” You need to have a clear theme
or a marquee name: something to pull in the customer. But because
even hit shows lose money, you also need to convince advertisers to be
“sponsors.” Most major symphonies are giving marketing directors the
equivalent of veto power over the music directors. If you look at cov-
ers of recent recordings by classical soloists you will be amazed at the
amount of cheesecake or beefcake that goes into marketing. Te fne
young violinist Hilary Hahn has a Web site (http://www.hilaryhahn.
com) that looks as though it should be the publicity site for a new show
on the WB about a beautiful teen violinist and her struggle to balance
being a teenager with the rigors of art and touring. (I want credit if
they actually launch that series.) In 2004 Te New York Times published
a piece about how difcult it was for another attractive young violin-
ist to be taken seriously after posing nude (with a carefully positioned
violin) on her frst album cover. She seemed to feel it especially unfair
to judge her in this manner because her taste in music is so conservative.
(God forbid we get beautiful, naked, contemporary music performers!)
When you look at those photos and the seasons now ofered by classical
music institutions you have to wonder: Are they listening for the next
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B CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
great composition or performer who will transform how we hear, or are
they instead looking for a cute girl or a sexy guy or a performer who
wears strapless gowns or has an attitude, in an efort to repackage what
they think is a recipe that works?
Tis is all over the cultural world. Does anyone believe that the Gug-
genheim exhibits on motorcycles or Armani suits are driven solely by
their artistic merit and not the needs of sponsorship and patronage (read:
advertising). Moreover, if they are merely being held to attract a “larger”
public, what is the point when each ticket is sold at a loss anyhow?
One of the books I came across while doing research for this vol-
ume was Alvin Reiss’s Don’t Just Applaud — Send Money!
5
Tis volume
presents 139 pages of gadgets and gimmicks used by real arts groups to
trick or at least prod people into supporting their causes. It contains no
advice about the quality of art or really trying to help people grapple
with what you are ofering; it only ofers stories of fund-raising suc-
cesses, like the very successful efort of the Kamloops Art Gallery in
Canada, which bought 1,500 ceramic cows, put them on display in a
grass feld, and then resold them to donors for twice what they paid.
Tis was apparently so successful that the art gallery still stocks and
resells (presumably at a proft) these ceramic cows. Other suggestions
for how to help the arts in America included sending out joke-flled
postcards soliciting donations. Another category of ideas included sug-
gestions for how to completely reshape your programs to supposedly
attract a public. Te Long Wharf Teatre in New Haven brought in
Julia Child to give a cooking demonstration — so perhaps Te Food
Channel is the real future of the arts. I think the blurb on the back
cover sums up the strange attitude we often confront in the arts. Jane
Alexander, then chairman of the NEA, says: “Te bottom line he
[Reiss] illuminates is this: Be as creative in your marketing and fund-
raising as you are at your art.” With that as her attitude is it any sur-
prise that, tiny though the NEA’s budget is, as of 1991 it managed to
spend more than half (53 percent) on administration, grants panels,
and “infrastructure.”
6
After all, I’m sure the NEA feels that its admin-
istrative work is just as creative as the artists’ projects.
Even the priests of the art religion have lost their faith and are look-
ing for other reasons to convince the masses. Te Louvre, an institution
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AH51HH1IC VALOH O
whose very existence demands a belief in absolute hierarchy of worth,
has trouble with the notion. It held a series of conferences and then
released a volume titled “What Is a Masterpiece?” In that volume, Jean
Galard put it like this:
It is commonplace and convenient to say a flm, a building or a book
is a masterpiece: in other words that one places it among the works
whose vast superiority, through excellence over all comers, one feels
ready to proclaim. However, if forced to give one’s arguments, if one
has to make explicit the system (or at least the somewhat organized
body of ideas) in which this excellence can be established, the idea of
a master-piece becomes embarrassing. One might even say that, for
many reasons, it seems completely indefensible.
Firstly, by defnition as we just saw, this idea supposes that one
can make use of a principle of classifcation and ranking of works.
However, any such principle would be of doubtful objectivity. A
knowledge of history contradicts with all its force any hope for an
objectivist aesthetic.
7

In the rest of that volume, eminent art historians and curators try to
explain how they can single out works in practice, even though there
are no criteria to allow it in absolute theoretical terms. Particularly
amusing is the article by Neil MacGregor,
8
which holds as a sign of the
value of the altarpiece known as Te Wilton Diptych the vast number
of visitors who came to see it and the fact that it even appeared in a
humorous cartoon in Te Spectator. He writes, “only a masterpiece can
touch each person in a unique way.” Does this mean that iconic value
is what makes a masterpiece? Does he really believe that (if the Dip-
tych is a masterpiece now) it was not a masterpiece until the publicity
department of the National Gallery managed to draw in 200,000 visi-
tors? How good would the work have been if only 100,000 had come to
see it and a few schoolchildren sketched it for art class? I do not mean
to suggest that fnding ways to engage the public with great art is not
critically important, but you can’t have it both ways. If it is only though
appreciation by masses and by engagement with a social context that
the art is great, then why go to the trouble? After all, the public will
RT4509.indb 9 5/4/06 11:59:51 AM
1O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
fnd a way to engage with something without any outside help, and we
can then simply pronounce whatever that is “great.”
Tis is essentially the advice Alice Marquis gives in her book. I don’t
think she really believes in the equality of everything either, however.
She says again and again that the cultural “experts” make the wrong
choices, that poor work is advanced. She bemoans the segregation
of art into high and low, but what about good and bad (or great and
mediocre)? What do any of these terms really mean? She says that at
the extremes there might be some clarity: the diference between mud
wrestling in a local bar and King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Com-
pany, for example. But if we are to believe Jean Galard, then we will
have trouble formulating a problem-free way of justifying our judg-
ment even in these extreme cases. Yet it remains very difcult to get
over the notion that there is in fact a diference and that it is not an
entirely arbitrary construction. It is a grave error to consistently assume
that the problems the arts have in relating to society today are mostly
the result of infelicitous funding mechanisms or poor selection criteria;
funding mechanisms have always been fawed and people have always
made bad choices as well as good ones. Te change is something more
profound than all that.
I fear that for the music we are discussing to survive, it will be
essential to convince even those who don’t love it that this kind of
difcult, nonfunctional, nonpopular art makes the world richer. Per-
suading someone to value and ultimately help support something they
do not really care for will be no easy task, and it will take me most of
this book to even attempt to do so. We must convince people that it
has real value — not just to me or a handful of others like me, but in
absolute terms. So let’s see just how bad the situation is.
Our discussion cannot focus on purely aesthetic and artistic issues
— it must address fnancial ones as well. Very few people object on
principle to the existence of the kind of art that requires subsidies;
what they object to is being asked to pay for it when they don’t con-
sume it. Marquis claims that the “arts have survived far longer with-
out government intervention than with subsidies.” But this is, of
course, completely false as it relates to the kind of art I practice. Te
form of subsidy changes, but the arts as I mean them here (symphony
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AH51HH1IC VALOH 11
orchestras, ballet companies, etc.) have always cost far more than they
bring in, and society (whether in the form of a prince, a pope, a Rock-
efeller, a spouse who picks up the slack, or a Ministry of Culture) foots
the bill. Moreover, in a time where wealth is less concentrated than in
the past (at least in the more distant past), this inevitably means solicit-
ing the patronage of people whose preferences are elsewhere.
You may notice that I am avoiding, and will go on avoiding, the ques-
tion of exactly what sorts of public or private patronage would be ideal.
I am not a public policy expert, and I believe that any scheme we create
will have its advantages and disadvantages. My goal in this volume is
to convince you that as a society it is worth it to continue trying to sup-
port this sort of noneconomically viable art. Te broad acceptance of the
general premise is what the art needs to survive, because it allows and
even obliges those with the expertise and experience to keep looking for
better models of sustaining subsidized art.
Lest we be tempted to spout something about diversity and say
we should help preserve as many diferent kinds of music as possible
— we should give all forms of expression a chance, and so on — we
need to understand just how expensive Western classical art music is
and how unlikely it is to survive without the patronage of society as
a whole. We should begin this review with a conclusion, that reached
by William Baumol and William Bowen in their report commis-
sioned by the Twentieth Century Fund: Performing Arts: Te Economic
Dilemma (1966). Tey found that the performing arts will never be
self-sufcient, because they are inherently labor intensive and cannot
take advantage of economies of scale. As Alice Marquis pithily sum-
marizes, “a string quartet must always have four players.” Marquis and
others, though, question this conclusion by suggesting that larger con-
cert halls, recordings, television broadcasts, and so on, do in fact per-
mit economies of scale. I suspect they would be right if we were dealing
with a commodity. But as anyone who has sat in the Family Circle at
the Metropolitan Opera knows, the experience is not the same as see-
ing an opera from the middle of the orchestra seats (although you don’t
have to take out a second mortgage to buy your tickets). It’s not called
“chamber music” for nothing, and intimacy is not only a preferable
environment for some works, it is an integral component. In fact, by
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12 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
trying to seek supposed economies of scale, the largest arts organiza-
tions have made it so expensive to operate that they now have the per-
fect excuse not to let any untested new art through the door; it would
be too big a risk to their entirely artifcial bottom line.
Even in the most successful and populist-oriented arts groups, tick-
ets are sold at a horrendous loss. Nonproft theater ticket receipts rep-
resent on average 52 percent of the cost of opening the door; opera
tickets — as expensive as they are — represent no more than 40 per-
cent of the cost and often much less; symphony orchestra tickets repre-
sent less than 30 percent of the cost; and dance company tickets are a
mere 27 percent of the cost.
9
But those are only best-case numbers for
large, well-publicized organizations with conservative, market-consid-
ered programming, and they are from some time ago (the 1970s); the
real situation is much worse. When I work with contemporary music
ensembles, we do not even include in the budget any income from tick-
ets. In the end we may realize a few hundred to a few thousand dollars
on tickets if the concert is a great success. But $1,500 on tickets from a
concert that costs $45,000 to produce is too insignifcant to even calcu-
late a percentage. Moreover, I think that is exactly the point.
We can’t support this art in the long run based on the math that
Marquis cites so thoroughly, because there is no market-based reason
to do any of this:
In a survey in 1993, the National Cultural Alliance, using highly
leading questions that should have favored the arts, found that only 5
percent of the population was “extremely interested” in the arts and
humanities and that even among the more afuent and educated only
30 percent would even claim to be “very interested.” 57 percent say
that the arts and humanities play at most a minor role in their lives.
10

Marquis is not painting an unrealistically bleak picture when she
recounts the story of when the frst President Bush, after holding a lun-
cheon for the ten very eminent winners of that year’s National Arts Medal,
stood up and said “All right you artists, now I want you to meet some real
artists!” With that, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams entered the room to
accompany President Bush to a baseball game. Te arts are simply not a
signifcant part of most people’s lives, even among our leaders.
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AH51HH1IC VALOH 1B
In 1974, Joseph Rody found that, after more then ten years of out-
reach by the NEA, only 1 percent of the population had attended a
single symphony orchestra concert.
11
So, why do we keep going back to
marketing analyses or arguments? So what if you manage to entice 1.2
percent of the population instead of 1.1 percent to attend an arts pro-
gram? So what if you lose only $30 per ticket sold instead of $32? Tere
has to be another reason why we’re doing this.
It seems clear that even with fantastically efective arts education and
outreach, this kind of art has never and probably will never interest the
majority and perhaps not even a signifcant minority of the population
(at least not one willing to do more than attend the occasional block-
buster museum exhibit once every couple of years). Moreover, even if we
could interest these masses, the kind of arts developed in the West over
the last few hundred years probably still would not be self-supporting.
Another market argument is often made in favor of the arts, and I’d
like to eliminate that as well. Tat argument is not so much in favor of
the arts as it is in favor of the buildings that house the arts. Boosters
claim enormous fnancial gains to regions that construct arts facilities
(both direct gains in tourism and taxes and indirect gains in property
values and quality of life). Te multibillion-dollar redevelopment of
New York’s Upper West Side after the construction of Lincoln Center
is a classic example. While this argument may be more viable politi-
cally than “art for art’s sake,” one has to wonder about how economi-
cally valid it really is. What is often left out of these arguments are the
enormous tax subsidies that go to the arts (yes, even here in America)
in the form of tax breaks on contributions to nonproft organizations,
land concessions, discount postal rates, and so on. Any equivalent redi-
rection of tax dollars to an area might well produce similar efects.
More important, if this is really the argument, and no more reason
exists to support the arts than to support more playgrounds or a sports
stadium, or perhaps even a shopping mall, then the battle has already
been lost. When the only medical argument that can made for a cough
syrup is that it also contains alcohol, one has to wonder whether there
might not be other ways to get drunk.
As a society, the only reason to go to all this trouble and spend all
this money is that the result has great worth — not economic worth,
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14 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
but cultural value. However we can no longer really evaluate cultural
value, and therefore it cannot easily fgure into our calculations as a
society. (For an individual, especially one who does not care for this
supposedly “valuable” art, this concept is even harder to accept. I’ll try
to ofer some arguments in the coming chapters as to why I think you
might and how your personal taste and my rather abstract notions of
aesthetic value can interact.)
Tis reticence should not be surprising; it results almost inevitably
from a situation where the public is no longer willing simply to take
someone else’s word on whether they should see or hear something.
Today we want to decide for ourselves; we’re a democracy, after all.
“Choice” is the word of the day, and how can one object to it with-
out seeming to be some sort of arch-reactionary snob who wants to
force his taste on others? But there’s the rub; the whole market-driven
system happens to also be predicated on a basic belief that is entirely
incompatible with the idea of intrinsic value or worth. Under a market
system, one must absolutely believe that there is no worth other than
what someone will pay for something (its market value). A seat at the
symphony is worth $40 if that’s what the ticket can be sold for. If it
costs $75 per seat to put on the concert, that just shows how badly run
the groups are, or how much better they need to become at market-
ing or branding, or that they simply ought not to exist: Tey are not
“viable.” Value outside a market has no meaning.
If I want to maintain that the arts require the existence of another
sort of value that is intrinsic to the works — and if I am not advocat-
ing a full-scale return to a hierarchical worldview where it is closeness
to God or the word of a prince that conveys this value — where does
this value come from? How can we justify the value of one work over
another without succumbing to the pitfalls of objectivist aesthetics that
(as Jean Galard reminds us) are bound to fail in time?
I would like to address this problem in two diferent ways, and both
of them require the same frst step: We must correct Kuhn’s error. We
must abandon an absolutist view of relativism. It seems to me that we
can perfectly well judge one theory to be truer than another without
claiming that we have found the fnal Truth, or that such a thing is
even possible. If a current theory in physics corresponds to the results
RT4509.indb 14 5/4/06 11:59:53 AM
AH51HH1IC VALOH 15
of experiments out to thirteen decimal places, I am willing to say it’s
“true.” Moreover, if physicists work out the details of string theory
and fnd that it subsumes the former theory’s results while using fewer
experimentally determined variables (more of it comes from the struc-
ture of the theory directly) and now allows us to make accurate predic-
tions to ffteen decimal places, I will be happy to say it is more “true.”
Tat the two theories imply slightly incompatible physical systems, and
that even the new theory will undoubtedly be further revised, does not
(at least for me) undermine my willingness to believe in the greater
truth of the more refned theory. We are all willing to get on airplanes
made with theories that we know in advance are not true, but merely
true enough to work for that application (most aerodynamic problems
are solved with approximate answers that can be calculated on ever
smaller grids of points — say, along the surface of the wing). I certainly
would not want to be the test pilot on the helicopter that da Vinci made
using the theories of aerodynamics of his time — advanced though he
was in relation to his contemporaries.
Te same notion of “more” and “less” true might have a parallel in the
arts. Rather than seeking a perfect set of guidelines, we could choose
to accept theories or aesthetic frameworks that allow us to make judg-
ments with some amount of validity — even if these frameworks them-
selves cannot be absolutely and timelessly true. Were we to make this
leap, the kinds of useful approximations of truth we are familiar with
in science might also become available as tools for evaluating the worth
of art, or what Habermas in a perversely poetic way referred to as the
“amount of Beauty.” We must accept that these systems are not now
and can never be perfect, however. Perhaps physics will have a fnal,
perfect “Teory of Everything,” but the arts will not. Our individual
ideas of beauty and meaning are too twisted and blown by our culture
and our personal history — not to mention the bias that taste inficts
on even our most objective judgments — to hope for a fnal “Teory
of Aesthetic Value.” Nonetheless, we can have and have had skewed,
incomplete, biased — albeit useful and meaningful — theories. Fur-
thermore, our inability to determine with precision the intrinsic value
of a work does not mean that its worth is nil or entirely relative, or that
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16 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
it is impossible to make meaningful approximations of its worth rela-
tive to other works.
Even if you’re willing to go along with me up to this point we still
have a real problem: What are these theories supposed to be measur-
ing, albeit imperfectly? In the case of science, we can suppose that the
theories are approximating a physical reality. I suspect that even the
most dedicated and dogmatic postmodernist does not really stop to
gather his or her socially constructed thoughts before turning on the
light switch — for fear that otherwise electricity might suddenly cease
to exist. I fnd it extremely compelling to believe that, in fact, a world
exists out there, and that this world appears to be largely constant,
regardless of our mental states and cultural constructs. Tat is not to
say that mental states and cultural constructs are not real and powerful,
but that — while those constructs and states afect how we perceive
and interpret the world — the physical world (call it Truth in this con-
text) is largely indiferent to those beliefs.
12

All right, you say, even if I buy this, what about beauty or, to use a
less loaded term, aesthetic value? As I have mentioned, I have two pos-
sible answers. Tese are not theories about measuring aesthetic value,
but theories about why one might believe that intrinsic, aesthetic value
could exist at all, independently from sociocultural values. I am hoping
to avoid the error of trying to badger you into agreeing with me about a
set of specifc aesthetic judgments, because such agreements are short-
lived. Ultimately, Harold Bloom is probably right when he writes that:
“Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it
cannot be conveyed […] To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder.”
13

But we cannot escape the question, What could aesthetic value possibly
be and why ever would one believe that it exists?
One theory I can ofer as to why beauty and aesthetic value exist
abstractly is that they are part of the human mind. In other words,
they are the inevitable result of the operation of natural aspects of
human cognitive universals within aesthetic domains. Linguist Noam
Chomsky famously claimed that aliens coming to Earth would judge
us to all be speaking dialects of a single human universal language. He
believed that the structure of this Universal Grammar was the result
of our human perceptual apparatus coupled with our mental language
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AH51HH1IC VALOH 1?
organ (a simple example of the universality of human languages is the
consistent division of reality into nouns [things] and verbs [actions]
rather than into some sort of imaginable composites that mix those two
notions, although the similarities go much deeper). He claims that all
of the apparent diversity on the surface of languages is the result of a
more unifed set of tools and rules at lower cognitive levels.
I suspect, though I certainly cannot prove, that a similar univer-
sal aesthetic organ (or perhaps several suborgans) exists in the human
mind. While diferent “dialects” may implement very diferent forms
of aesthetic systems, as do the diferent manifestations of human
language, they all share some of the same structural underpinnings.
Although this does not necessarily imply that we are all artists, it
should at least mean that we are all capable of being art appreciators.
We must remember, though, that just as not everyone is drawn to lit-
erature, or even puns for that matter, the range of uses each individual
applies to the art faculty are as shaped by personality, culture, and
experience as our applications of language faculties.
14

A basic feeling for the universality of aesthetics can be achieved
by comparing a visit to a natural history museum with a visit to any
museum of ancient arts or culture. At the natural history museum,
some objects may seem beautiful, others frightening. Many may
appear strange while some are familiar. It is clear to me that I am
imposing these sensations; I am giving those “meanings” to the pile of
bones or colored rock in front of me. To really make sense of what we
are seeing, we need quite a lot of information (fortunately supplied on
the placards next to the exhibits). At the museum of ancient art, the
sensation is entirely diferent. Look at objects from any culture, recent
or ancient, and I defy you to feel them as wholly strange or foreign.
One always experiences at least some sense of familiarity with even
the most exotic objects. And why shouldn’t there be, because we know
that hands and minds very much like our own formed these objects?
Whether symmetrical or wildly irregular, we see a form created by
a human mind. Whether it is simple and elegant or ornamental and
rich, we can recognize aesthetic intentions. Certainly, we cannot
instantly judge what is the best of each kind of work (although we may
have gut preferences), but it is clear that there are difering degrees of
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achievement. More important, it is easy to imagine that with more time
and more context (knowledge) our appreciation could deepen. Tis is
not so with the fossils down the street. No matter how much we learn
about dinosaurs, or how much we might appreciate the rarity or sci-
entifc importance of a particular exhibit, it feels artifcial to speak of
its beauty. Beauty in this aesthetic sense is not just in the eye of the
beholder, but also in the eye of the maker; it is the product of the human
creative spirit.
To be perfectly clear, I believe that if there were extraterrestrial
intelligent beings and if they were to judge our arts, they would most
likely fnd them completely bafing and might never be able to under-
stand the aesthetic criteria that let us say one imperfect representa-
tion of nature is better than another. Fortunately for us, though, we
are not extraterrestrials; we happen to be human just like the maker
of the artwork. Te calipers with which these absolute intrinsic values
can be measured, at least approximately, can perhaps be made with our
own human minds. It seems perfectly plausible (although perhaps not
proven) that our sense of beauty and our need to create could be as
much a product of our native gifts as the ability to learn language or
walk upright on two feet.
Now, any specifc theory about how this sense works and what specif-
ically it says about one work of art or another may still be very problem-
atic. Tis is why I have no intention of ofering even my best theories of
what artistic criteria we should use to judge art. Any of the defciencies
you might fnd with my proposed guidelines could be used to under-
mine the broader argument about the ability to approximate meaning-
fully (even though problematically) such judgments. Tese approximate
theories do, however, at least potentially provide a framework in which
one work could be better, more perfect, or more beautiful than another,
in a sense that goes beyond a specifc cultural framework.
I know that most people are not content with this answer. Te idea
of cognitive universals can be hard for many people to accept, espe-
cially when used to account for any but the most trivial aspects of
human activity. Perhaps an even greater problem is that other types
of cognitive abilities do not yield hierarchical judgments like “better”
and “worse.” Even though we may speak of more and less correct use of
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language, most linguists would argue that as long as enough people
agree, the mistake can, in time, become the rule. I don’t think either
of these problems is ultimately fatal, however. I believe that cognitive
universals have far-ranging repercussions for human activity and that
it is possible for the human mind to contain biases toward confgura-
tions of sounds or objects that might lead to some things being more
beautiful or fascinating than others, even than others that we prefer
(because they are more useful, or familiar, or comforting, or remind
us of something specifc). But, if you just don’t buy any of this, I have
one last proposition to ofer you. I ofer a choice, just like Morpheus
did in the Matrix: You can take the red pill or the blue pill, but either
way you’re going to have to live on in the world you chose. Tis is the
artistic or aesthetic version of Pascal’s wager, only this time neither
choice is without risk.
In many ways any big choice about how we organize our society
will boil down to choosing the kind of world we want to live in and
the premises it needs to exist. Hobbes’s “social contract” sees us as
trading in our “natural state” of freedom for peace, so perhaps we need
to construct a parallel “aesthetic contract” that would acknowledge
the tradeofs we must make if we want to fll our nasty, brutish, and
short lives with wonderful art. Tis is what I meant when I implied
that it doesn’t really matter whether the NEA is purveying fctions,
as long as they are fctions that make the world better. Tere is a
fairly recent novel called Te Life of Pi, which tells of a similar choice
involving how a grown man should remember a trauma he sufered
as a boy, and relating this choice to believing in God. Ultimately, the
author suggests, the only way to avoid falling into despair is to believe
in a world where there is reason for hope, justifed or not.
In other domains, such as morality, the acceptance of an unprovable
set of intrinsic values represents the norm and is clearly advantageous to
society. For example, most of us believe that the gratuitous murder of
another human being is not simply wrong because a deity or a law says
so; we believe that in some way it is intrinsically wrong. Whether or
not this view is true (we wouldn’t think of a lion killing another lion to
establish its territory as wrong), the world is a much safer and I believe
better place while we hold this belief. Moreover, as a society we have
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such a strong belief in the rightness (or at least utility) of this view that
we are willing to lock away in jail or kill those individuals who disagree.
It is a useful exercise to perform a thought experiment. We should
imagine that there are, in fact, intrinsic values, or at least that we are all
willing to act as if there are (the distinction between these two worlds
would probably be impossible to detect). Don’t worry for the moment
where these values come from or how to evaluate them. Let’s just con-
trast, in our imaginations, a world that acts as if it believes in intrinsic
aesthetic values with one that does not.
What happens if intrinsic values truly exist, or if we at least believe
that they do? Tis view has led schools to force children to read Shake-
speare and college students to read James Joyce. Te idea is that whether
they enjoy them or not, these works are somehow important.
Even in the United States (one of the few countries that does not see
the need for a cabinet-level guardian of culture), presidents have invited
orchestras to play whether or not they liked orchestral music; John F.
Kennedy had an aide who told him when to clap so as not to embarrass
himself. Families have dragged children to operas, museums, and ballets.
Furthermore, the idea of intrinsic value has by no means been lim-
ited to “high culture”; it has had an equally profound efect on even the
most commercial of art forms. Guys have tried to impress their dates
by taking them to jazz clubs instead of going to hear a Bee Gees cover
band. Rock fans who aimed at sophistication have sought out more
ambitious “underground” music and were quick to display their highly
developed taste to their friends. Liking the most popular or accessible
group was often seen as a sign of superfciality. Generally, people felt
that if they got nothing out of more “difcult” art, the problem was
likely their own. After enough time, some, perhaps even many, might
make it over the hurdles and come to love “it” — whether “it” is John
Donne, Richard Wagner, or John Coltrane, and regardless of whether
they want to tell a survey taker that arts and humanities play a major
role in their life.
On the other hand, what happens if there are no intrinsic values
or if we act as if there were none? Ten it seems a waste of time to
grapple with much of anything. People will need to have a wide menu
of choices. If something doesn’t satisfy them, they’ll fick to another
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channel, and if nothing good can be found on any channel, the search
itself becomes the program. Te father of President George W. Bush
was known to prefer the Beach Boys to the Philharmonic and saw no
need to pretend a love for high culture: If he didn’t like broccoli, he just
wouldn’t eat it. To him the true artists are baseball players, because he
likes baseball.
Te lesson that has been taken from John Cage and Marcel Duch-
amp’s attacks on the artistic status quo (placing a urinal in a museum
display, or claiming that trafc noise was as much music as Mozart) is
that if a urinal or trafc noise could be appreciated aesthetically in any
way, then they must therefore be the equal of Mozart and Rembrandt
as must be Garth Brooks and black velvet Elvises. Tis view quickly
leads to taste being the only legitimate arbiter. With current distribu-
tion schemes, this leads to the downward homogenizing of taste toward
the lowest common denominator, a phenomenon that makes almost
everyone vaguely uncomfortable.
But even in a techno-utopian future where content on demand lets
each person’s taste be perfectly satisfed — those who like Schoenberg
and those who prefer Billy Ray Cyrus — there may not be any place
left for art. Art is not about giving people what they want. It’s about
giving them something they don’t know they want. It’s about submitting
to someone else’s vision; forcing your aesthetic sense to assimilate the
output of someone else’s. And if there is not even the possibility of a
really valuable return, why bother? Certainly, why pay for it?
Te lesson I take from Cage and Duchamp is not that all art is equal,
but that all art demands a surrendering of your vision in submission to
the artist’s or at least the museum or concert curator’s. Duchamp dares
you to see the beauty he found in a urinal or a shovel, or perhaps he
wants you to see the absurdity he sees in the whole museum setting
as a way of perceiving. Cage tries to force you to turn the same ears to
the trafc that you would give to Mozart. Tey both know that art is a
team efort between artist and audience and that the latter sometimes
needs help in understanding the importance and nature of its role. Tis
is not to say that Cage and Duchamp are necessarily great artists, but
they understood how difcult it is to engage with art. Tey lived in the
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world where art could be great — even as they were trying to subvert
one particular theory of what might constitute art.
Some of us, even today, may have waded through Finnegan’s Wake
or A la recherche du temps perdu, but how many would read such dif-
fcult works, demanding that level of investment, knowing that ulti-
mately they could not, even potentially, ofer anything more than a
John Grisham novel (which, after all, already ofers all the benefts of a
Grisham novel without all that extra difculty)? Even just the knowl-
edge that in all likelihood they were complex dross (as inevitably will
often be the case with new art) would make it all but impossible.
Most artworks are mediocre, if not downright bad! Tis idea,
which is shocking to many people, will be true whether or not there
are abstract criteria by which to judge how absolutely awful they are.
We think of art as the great masterworks we know, but it’s very easy
to forget the mountains of mediocrity that were sifted to lift Bach or
Dante or Emily Dickinson to their Olympian heights. I have heard
people suggest that the gene pool has somehow been diluted, through
massive population growth in the twentieth century, to the point that
no more Beethovens are possible (this came from a composer). What
they forget is that even if you had been living in Beethoven’s time, it is
not certain that is what you would have heard when you went to a con-
cert. Gioacchino Rossini was arguably more famous than Beethoven in
the early nineteenth century and the French opera composer Giacomo
Meyerbeer was much more popular than his German rival Richard
Wagner, and that is before we even start naming the legions of widely
performed mediocrities whose works have mercifully been consigned
to history’s dustbin.
It is easy to forget how, at any given time, the sheer mass of bad or
mediocre work tends to dwarf the good or great works. Tis can lead us
to assume that the past was somehow better, because we remember only
the best parts. I would venture to say, however, that there have certainly
been more masterpieces created during the past twenty years than were
made during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century (an easy
bet because the population is so much bigger now). We just haven’t fn-
ished sifting out the gems from the garbage yet, and if we believe that
gems are not really there to be found, we might as well not bother.
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Imagine having to go through the 50 million paintings — probably
a very low estimate — done last year by everyone from famous artists to
unknown talents to my ninety-something-year-old grandmother (who
paints as a retirement hobby). Even if you knew there were a Guernica
hiding in there somewhere, which of course you wouldn’t, how would
you keep your eyes fresh enough to see it? And if you don’t think art is
anything more than a cabal designed to extort subsidies from the pub-
lic, why even try?
However, if no one were willing make this enormous efort or to
carry forward with a belief that there really is something special to
some works, even before 200,000 people had seen them and humor-
ous cartoons of them have appeared in Te Spectator, most great new
works would never be discovered. Difcult works, like those of Joyce or
Proust (or Schoenberg or Messiaen), would become completely impos-
sible to fnd, and perhaps also to produce.
Tis is why culture became an undemocratic realm in the frst
place, and why any attempts to democratize it may bear unwanted side
efects. To fnd great art, we need people who are able and willing to
go through those 50 million paintings on the of-chance of fnding one
masterpiece. Tis screening process means that when you or I decide to
spend time on art, we can reduce our choices to works that have already
been evaluated and recommended. Someone — presumably someone
who has demonstrated a greater knowledge of this realm than we pos-
sess — thinks they are worth spending time on. Tey can’t know if we
will like them, but they have judged that these works possess value.
I’m not saying that the system was ever perfect. Individuals will
always try to advance their friends and punish their enemies. But the
pressure not to be left out of an important (read: valuable) trend, and
the desire to fnd the next big thing, will force some degree of integrity
and openness in even the most corrupt arts administrators. Ultimately,
it is in their interest to promote as “great” things that truly are. But
when the so-called authorities buy into the idea that nothing is intrin-
sically worth more than anything else, they become a negative force.
Tey’re no longer trying to fnd great works and expose them to the
public; they’re just hoping to impose their tastes, promote their politi-
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cal or social agendas, or simply get rich and famous. Tis is how Dr.
Marquis sees the NEA: a bumbling, unethical, unhelpful force.
Te lack of a belief in intrinsic value does not only afect so-called
high arts. Te same deleterious efects are appearing in more popular art
forms like jazz or flm or some kinds of pop music. Perhaps because these
forms don’t make quite the same outrageous demands on listeners, view-
ers, or the society that subsidizes them — and I mean that in the best
possible sense — the process doesn’t seem to be as far along. Still, around
the world Hollywood blockbuster productions increasingly dominate the
market, driving the various traditions of art cinema to the margins. Jazz,
which requires an enormous amount of knowledge and connoisseurship
to appreciate in-depth, seems to be fghting for its survival — in constant
danger of becoming upscale aural wallpaper or getting moved into the
same prison/museums that have locked innovation out of the symphony
orchestra. Tere seem to be fewer and fewer hardcore bufs who scour the
clubs, sure that another Coltrane or Miles Davis is waiting to be found.
In jazz and rock, the work itself and the performance of the work are
joined in a way that is quite diferent from the case in theater or classical
music. Tat relationship may blur some of the distinctions I have been
making and certainly complicates the sort of atemporal judgments I’ve
been describing; however, I don’t believe it fundamentally alters them.
When high school students start broadening their record collections
and searching for more adventurous artists they haven’t heard before,
they do so because they believe that great things are to be found out
there, things with real value. Once that belief disappears, turning on
top-40 radio will be enough.
Real art cannot be an act of manipulation or marketing, but only
an act of faith — faith that great art is something truly remarkable;
faith that someone, somewhere, sometime might make the efort to
understand what an artist has to ofer and not merely seek what is
already known and liked.
It requires a tremendous leap of faith to surrender control of our
perception to someone else, on the of-chance that he may ofer us
something we never knew we wanted but now would not want to be
without. We are risking our time, our attention, our money, and our
frustration. If we don’t believe at all anymore in the inherent value and
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transformative potential of art, then why would anyone in his right
mind take the risk?
If we could turn back the history of the human race and run it over
again, I’m very doubtful that anything like the Western artistic tradi-
tion would happen twice. You might think that aesthetic values as I
have described, if real, should inevitably lead to some similar outcome,
whatever the cost, but the structural principles that allow skyscrapers
hardly guarantee a society willing to pour money into building 100-
story towers. A cultural form that serves no obvious function, does
not appeal to most of the population, and is so expensive that it can
never support itself seems like such an aberration. Yet, those of us who
believe there truly are aesthetic values can see that this odd form of
expression, which sets a tiny handful of individual humans free to pur-
sue their own visions of aesthetic achievement without regard to taste,
understanding, and practicality, has given us an astounding body of
work. Ovid said: “Nothing is of more use to man than the arts which
have no utility.” In an age when we spend so much on so many things,
it would be a terrible shame to give up completely on something that
can bring society moments and objects of such value.
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RT4509.indb 26 5/4/06 11:59:58 AM
2?
2
TA51H
… you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfll-
ment of expectations.
— Harold Bloom
Let’s assume, at least for argument’s sake, that you’re willing to con-
sider that something like aesthetic value might exist, or that it would be
benefcial to pretend that it exists. Either way, we still need to explore
why more people aren’t clambering to acquire as much of this supposed
value as possible: If it is so valuable in the abstract, why is it not more
personally attractive to many people? In other words, we need (at least
partially) to account for the thing that there’s no accounting for: taste.
To deal with taste, we need to diferentiate several entangled con-
cepts. Tese concepts have been the subjects of entire books, and I have
no intention of giving them anything approaching such comprehen-
sive treatment here. I am simply trying to specify my meanings for the
purposes of the present discussion, to avoid confusion and misunder-
standing. First are the notions of art and culture. I will avoid the term
“culture” as much as possible, because the broad (societal) meaning and
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the narrow (art-related) meanings are too intertwined in our “cultural”
(academic meaning) discourse.
Although it presents many of the same difculties, the word “art”
will be impossible to avoid. For present purposes I’d like to defne “art”
in a very limited way as an aesthetic object (i.e., an object produced
with an aesthetic intent) either produced by humans or by following
instructions produced by humans (e.g., a computer program used to
create an image). I will also use the word in the context of collections
of such objects or the quest to produce such objects. I realize that many
other defnitions are possible and perhaps preferable in a general con-
text — especially since the early part of the twentieth century when the
centrality of objects over processes came into question. As I will touch
upon the latter point in the next chapter, however, for now please bear
with this very limited use of the word “art.” If I don’t limit our meaning
from the start, we are all too likely to fall into playing a game of “art is
______,” which never seems to yield much insight.
Te next term needed for our discussion, “entertainment,” can cause
real confusion. Although art may be entertaining, by my defnition art
is not entertainment. I defne, in this context, entertainment as either
the subjective feeling one experiences while doing something enjoy-
able (potentially, though certainly not necessarily, while engaging with
art) or as objects and activities designed to produce enjoyment in the
user, consumer, or observer. Because I have defned aesthetic intent as
central to art and diversionary intent as central to entertainment, they
could be considered separate categories, if we were able to determine
intent perfectly and if it weren’t so easy to have multiple, simultaneous
intentions for the same act or object. I am the frst to admit that much
entertainment has a high degree of (presumably intentional) aesthetic
value and that much art has (also presumably intentional) diversionary
utility. Nonetheless, in many if not most cases, the primary intent,
artistic or entertainment-related, is discernable and we can consider
these as two separable categories.
Confusion between art and entertainment pervades much of the
discourse on “high” versus “low” art or culture. According to my def-
nitions, no high or low art exists per se, but certainly good and bad art
(or at least better and worse) does; difcult and accessible art perhaps
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TA51H 2O
also does. Whether the medium is grafti or carved Carrara marble,
aesthetic intent creates art. Herbert Gans’s book Popular Culture and
High Culture
1
is a good example of the high/low culture discourse
genre. Gans mixes metaphors of programming and consumption with
ideas like art and aesthetics in a way that clarifes neither and obscures
both. Gans sets out with what I suppose he views as the noble intent
of defending popular culture from the attacks and condescension of
“High Culture.” But his fears strike me as comical (perhaps in 1974
when the frst edition was published this would have been less the case).
One hardly needs to defend the choices of the overwhelming majority
over those of a curmudgeonly few. Popularity, in this context, is its
own unassailable defense. If enough individuals, commanding enough
resources, enjoy it enough to support it, it will exist in a free market
society. Te threat is elsewhere.
Whether we call art and culture high or low, those things that can-
not support themselves in the marketplace are threatened. We must
decide whether in some cases artistic or aesthetic value ought to over-
ride economic value and popular preference in the allocation of society’s
resources. In other words, we need to ask, “Why should I pay (or help
to pay) for something that I don’t like?” Te frst step toward answering
this question is to address the underlying paradox: If it’s really better
in a meaningful way, why don’t I prefer it? Unless I can satisfactorily
answer this frst question, it will be very hard to continue onward to
the benefts, other than sheer satisfaction or diversion, that might jus-
tify continued support.
To approach an answer, we must admit to human fallibility. Judg-
ments made by you or me or the curatorial staf at New York’s Museum
of Modern Art, in good faith, can be wrong. Even if intrinsic, absolute
aesthetic values do exist, our individual or collective judgments about
a given work will often be incorrect. What we took for the “emperor’s
new clothes” might turn out to be a shadow on that poor, old, deceived
emperor who now appears naked after all. However, if we assume that
all artistic assessments are probably wrong — a sort of artistic caveat
emptor — we may foreclose many possibilities in advance. As Har-
old Bloom wrote, “great art is strange” (he was actually writing about
canonical literature, but I will extend his lovely sentiment). Tis doesn’t
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mean that art has to be innovative or diferent in that sense, but it is
always at least deeply personal and of itself, and thus a little of from
anything we might expect. It places our aesthetic senses in a con-
fguration they have never experienced before, except perhaps with
the same work at an earlier time. Tis is not always very comfortable
or entertaining. In fact, if one is not in the right mood it might be
downright irritating.
Tis strangeness that comes with great art is a big part of the reason
we often hesitate to approach such works.
As Henry James wrote in the preface to Te Wings of the Dove:
Te enjoyment of a work of art, the acceptance of an irresistible illu-
sion, constituting, to my sense, our highest experience of “luxury,”
the luxury is not greatest by my consequent measure, when the work
asks for as little attention as possible. It is greatest, it is delightfully
divinely great, when we feel the surface, like the thick ice of the
skater’s pond, bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw
on it. Te sound of the crack one may recognize, but never surely to
call it a luxury.
2
Te sound of the crack is of course our normal expectation. It is what
ought to happen, if we had not moved into that very strange (to James,
luxurious) place where art lives. Te price we must pay for that luxury is
the efort of our attention and concentration. We must throw our stron-
gest pressure against the ice to see if it is, in fact, capable of resisting.
Modern life puts us in a sort of double bind. An enormously stressful,
constantly changing work and personal life is coupled with an unprec-
edented amount of “leisure” time. Tis often leaves little or no men-
tal energy for consumption in each “free” hour. Terefore, we (myself
included) quite reasonably seek to fll much of our leisure time with
light entertainments: things that will occupy and divert us. Although
these entertainments may well have some aesthetic value, that is not
why we choose them and it is not the way we are using them. Art, in
the way I refer to it is, as the Marxist critics decry, a bourgeois activ-
ity in that it requires real leisure, both mental and physical, to make
and to appreciate. Only those able to give their full attention and con-
centration, without a reward of any concrete utility, can really experi-
ence art. A deep aesthetic experience of even the most accessible art is
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TA51H B1
exhausting and consuming. Glancing at the paintings in an art exhibi-
tion or playing Mozart as background music is perhaps entertainment,
but the experience is not the experience of art.
You may at this point quite reasonably say, “But I have, at least occa-
sionally, made such an efort and I still didn’t like it.” How much is
enough efort before I call the supposed experts’ bluf? Although I don’t
have one clear solution for this dilemma, I do have a guiding principle
that bears upon it: “Te Chinese Food Efect.”
I distinctly recall a big banquet dinner at a local Chinese restaurant
when I was a child. In addition to my parents and siblings, my maternal
grandparents were there. My grandparents (especially my grandfather),
like many of their generation, were extremely leery of “ethnic food.” I
remember peppering my grandparents with questions both during and
after the meal to determine whether they liked the food or whether
our eforts to force them to try this or that dish had yielded only the
polite endurance of an unpleasant taste. I felt for the longest time that
they were avoiding the questions, giving me evasive responses. Perhaps
they were too polite to come out and say how awful everything tasted
to them. As I persisted, however (and I was nothing if not a persistent
child), a diferent sort of understanding dawned on me: Tey didn’t
actually know if they liked it or not.
When my grandparents tasted this deeply unfamiliar food, the sen-
sation of diference or unfamiliarity overwhelmed all other sensations.
I assume that this is what people mean when they say that all classical
music (or all country music, for that matter) sounds the same to them.
Tey are saying that the diference from their norm is so great that dif-
ference is their only salient perception.
Tey may also be saying something more subtle. Tey probably do
not yet have the categories they would need to parse the experience
into meaningful units. Cognitive science suggests that we can’t really
think about too many things at once, no matter the context.
3
Instead,
we employ various sorts of mental data reduction techniques, such as
categorical perception and something psychologists call “chunking.”
Even chess grandmasters do not really hold in their head the next 350
moves; they have chunked together families of possible moves into
a still large, but less superhuman number of categories. Tis is not a
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B2 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
conscious strategy we decide to employ; it is an inevitable part of the
way we process our enormously complex environment. It does require
experience, however, or at least repeated exposure.
After eating a dozen Chinese meals, perhaps in a few diferent res-
taurants, one can start to form some reasonable expectations about the
next meal. Some of these may well prove false, but expectations will
form nonetheless and gradually more reliable ones will take the place
of those that are debunked. You may notice that the starch served is
always rice, until one day you are served noodles; however, you can still
probably hold on to the idea that they will not give you potatoes. You
may start grouping the kinds of dishes you eat into categories, perhaps
by the type of sauce: sweet-and-sour dishes, soy sauce-based dishes,
steamed dishes with dipping sauce. Moreover, within each category
you can now make and remember many fner judgments: the sweet-
and-sour sauces here are a little on the gloppy side; this dish is very
spicy whereas it is a dish that is usually mild; this dish has a strongly
scented spice in it (maybe star anise). I’ve probably already pushed the
analogy too far, but once you get some bearing, I suspect that in a cui-
sine that covers most of a continent and was developed by one the most
ancient civilizations on Earth, there are things for everyone to love (my
grandfather became especially partial to sweet-and-sour fsh).
Tis principle in application puts a real burden on those who pro-
gram and present art. Tey have to astutely mix repetition with dis-
covery, all the while knowing that no one can attend every concert.
Neither an ever-changing smorgasbord nor a constant diet of comfort
food (the two most commonly ofered options) will really help someone
develop his or her palate.
But what does it mean for you as a receiver of art? How many
meals that lead to a night of indigestion must you endure before you
can legitimately call it quits and say, this is just not for me? No single
answer works for everyone, but I have a rule of thumb: Keep trying
until you’ve gotten past the threshold I’m calling “Te Chinese Food
Efect.” By the time you can clearly remember details about works in a
given genre, when you can compare and contrast them to other more
or less closely related works, you are at least seeing the aesthetic object
not only through its deviation from your expectations. If by that point
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TA51H BB
the genre or style of work is still unsatisfying, it may not be for you. As
universal as I believe human aesthetics to be, we are all still very difer-
ent individuals. Each of us has been shaped by particular endowments
and experiences. Some of us may simply be lactose intolerant when it
comes to a given type of expression. I suspect, though, that once you
have explored a few kinds of cuisine you may start to see what one
might love even in dishes that may be too spicy for you.
I believe that the investment of time it may take to explore some-
thing really new rewards one with enormous gains. Even more than
reconsidering the works you love, exploring a whole new artistic terrain
is a staggeringly powerful experience. I am tempted to cite the studies
about greater stimulation increasing the production of new neurons in
rat brains, but that’s not really the point. Te point is that wonderful
luxury of Henry James, if you’re ready to exert the strongest pressure.
If all you need to do is take a walk, a treadmill or a small park will
do. But we need places like Yellowstone, Patagonia, or the Galapagos
to show us the extraordinary range of nature’s possibilities. So, too, our
aesthetic sense can be adequately exercised most of the time with the
stimulation of entertainment we enjoy and the discoveries of everyday
existence. But every so often, when you’ve saved up your pennies and
energies and want to go someplace extraordinary, you’re willing to put
up with the discomfort and inconvenience of traveling so you can go
to someplace strange and new. Tat’s the goal of subsidized art — to
provide those really exotic locales that you may never see but that can
make you dream by just being out there.
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B5
3
CCNCHÞ1 AND CÞAF1
Te artistic communication is cut: it no longer exists. Te object presented
no longer has any aesthetic, moral, marketable, or consumable function. It
is solely and undisputedly there for nothing. Te observer fnds that he is
alone with himself and confronted with himself in front of an anonymous
thing that gives him no solution. Art is no longer there. It’s about some-
thing else.
[…]
My position is the logical conclusion based on art history and its apparent
contradictions. […] Chance, inspiration, and the right moment must be
forsaken for a theory, and art is not capable of this.
1

— Daniel Buren
Until now I have tried not to bring specifc styles, aesthetics, or tech-
niques into the discussion. One trend within the arts has done so much
to undermine the very premises of subsidized nonfunctional art, how-
ever, that I feel the need to address it. More damning than any other
criticism of subsidized art is the idea that artists are simply charlatans
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B6 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
out to bilk our patrons with aesthetic snake oil. In earlier times when craft
was a more overt component of a piece of art, this critique did not really
exist. Te notion of an art that is purely conceptual, however, opened this
foodgate.
Te Conceptual art movement had its heyday from about the mid-1960s
to the late 1970s, but the ideas that led to the movement were already appar-
ent in the early part of the century. Surrealism, Marcel Duchamp, John
Cage, Fluxus, and many other individuals and movements had already
embraced large parts of what would become the full Conceptual credo.
Even now, more than twenty years after the tide has turned against this
attitude/approach, museum shows are still highly infuenced by the Con-
ceptual revolution brought about by these artists who in essence do not
believe in art.
Let’s look at an “important” piece of Conceptual art by Lawrence
Weiner:
One Hole in the Ground Approximately 1’x1’x1’. One Gallon Water
Based White Paint Poured into this Hole.
Tis is neither just a mental exercise, nor is it a set of instructions. It is
all and none of these things at once. Here is Weiner’s declaration of intent
relative to these works (there were many such pieces):
1. Te artist may construct the piece.
2. Te piece may be fabricated.
3. Te piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the
decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion
of receivership.
2
Weiner really seems intent on preserving all possible ambiguity. In
an interview from 1972, he said, “I don’t care aesthetically which of the
three conditions the work exists in. It would be a fascistic gesture on my
part if I were to say you can accept the things only on a verbal information
level, which would be type on a page, or you can accept them only on an
aural information level. It doesn’t matter whether it is conveyed verbally or
aurally.” Later in the same interview, he amplifed the meaning: “Tere’s
no way to build a piece incorrectly.” For Weiner and for (most if not all of)
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CCNCHÞ1 AND CÞAF1 B?
the Conceptualists, the question is not art, it is art’s use in and by soci-
ety. Tey believe that the necessary role of the artist has become that
of a social critic. Tey believe the creation of objects with aesthetic or
expressive value is an anathema.
In that same interview Weiner said:
Anyone who imposes a unique condition for receivership, for inter-
pretation for seeing a work, is placing art within a context that is
almost 19th century. Tere is the specifc, unique, emotional object
produced by a prophet, produced by the only person who can make
this. It becomes Expressionist to say: “I am the only one who can
make this work, there’s no other viable means of doing it.” I fnd
Expressionism related to aesthetic fascism. And being basically a
Marxist, I fnd any kind of Expressionism fascist. It becomes a moral
issue as well as an aesthetic one.
3
I have quoted at some length, because I feared that some readers
unfamiliar with this sort of discourse would assume any summary I
might make to be hyperbole. Unfortunately, though, it is almost
impossible to exaggerate the rhetoric of these social critics–cum-artists
beyond what they have done themselves.
In Chapter 2, I mentioned that, in a certain way, art is bourgeois:
In other words, it is a luxury. Although art consumes some societal
resources, it does not directly improve the lot of the sufering masses.
Art will not feed the hungry, and, though it was tried during the
French Revolution, it does not make a very efcient source of heat when
burned. Te artists of the Conceptual art movement decided that this
was not a situation that could be accepted. Te societal respect accrued
by Romantic artists through the nineteenth century gave the artist a
privileged position in modern society. Although these new Concep-
tual artists thought of Romantic art as representing everything they
despised, they were more than happy to make use of this public vis-
ibility, or at least legitimacy. In fact, the public nature of the artist’s
role became the most important thing for the Conceptual artists. Tey
would use their art to show the world that “art was no longer there. It’s
about something else,” as Daniel Buren said in the quote that opens
this chapter. I’m tempted to equate their posture with that of a petulant
child overturning the board of a game they no longer want to play, so
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BB CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
that everyone else must also stop. I believe their critique does, how-
ever, contain at least a grain of something more serious, so it is worth
exploring a bit more why this happened and where their mistake lies.
I believe that there are two converging tendencies that led to the cata-
clysm of Conceptual art. Te frst is related to society’s view of art and
the second to the art itself.
Troughout the course of the twentieth century, with its catastrophic
wars, famines, population displacement, and genocide, social critics
became convinced that something was deeply wrong in Western society
and that the people in these societies needed to be awakened from their
complacent slumber. Tese critics believed that a self-satisfed bourgeois
existence allowed unscrupulous leaders to manipulate the populations
of their nations. Tey began to vehemently reject nineteenth-century
notions such as the ideas of Téophile Gaultier, whose 1834 preface to
Mademoiselle De Maupin called for removing the utilitarian and moral
purposes from art in favor of what I have been calling aesthetic values.
Tis Romantic creation of an art-for-art’s-sake philosophy that had led
to what André Malraux called “the most profound metamorphosis,”
from utilitarian craft toward purely aesthetic creations, was viewed as
outdated if not dangerous. Te artist Sarah Charlesworth has put it
this way: “When the power of validation and legitimization of human
enterprise occurs more and more within an institutionalized system,
where corporate power and investment potential are becoming increas-
ingly the social consensus by which we signify meaning, it is clear that
no private vision, no personal vision, no personal iconoclastic gesture
can withstand.”
4
So, one might say that this impossibility of personal
vision and iconoclastic gesture led to what were surely some of the
most, shall we say, idiosyncratic gestures in the history of the world.
Conceptual artists were not the frst to raise this critique. Earlier
critics also questioned whether art-for-art’s sake was not some sort of
opiate that the ruling classes used to stupefy and control the bourgeoi-
sie. Tey just did not go quite as far. Te philosopher Teodor Adorno
encouraged modern music precisely by praising its shocking and ugly
aspect. He thought that Schoenberg’s ugly music was just what the
bourgeoisie needed to hear as a way of prodding them out of their com-
placency. What was “good” about the music was precisely that people
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CCNCHÞ1 AND CÞAF1 BO
did not like it. Adorno and other modern theorists thought of art as a
sort of critical mirror that would help society see its faults and jostle it
into corrective action.
Te best artists paid little heed to this sort of discourse. Schoenberg
had no intention of writing ugly or shocking music. He sought a difer-
ent kind of beauty and believed that his type of language would become
so commonplace that it would be no more shocking than Mozart in a
few more decades. Tere was such an overwhelming amount of critical
discourse fowing concerning meaning and modern art that the poet
Wallace Stevens quipped: “Even the lack of a reason becomes a reason.
Picasso expresses surprise that people should ask what a picture means
and says that pictures are not intended to have meaning. Tis explains
everything.”
5
Stevens is being facetious, but Picasso is right. Te only
really viable argument for art is artistic (aesthetic) and the work itself
makes the argument far better than any text could. Trying to bring art
or, even worse, artists into a social discourse (although we might sup-
port their social goals) is a terrible error.
If the problem had remained confned to the critical/philosophical
side of the street, I suspect things would never have gotten quite so out
of hand. However, artists and musicians joined in this folly, although
initially their motivations and goals were quite distinct.
Tough certainly not the earliest, a good example is John Cage’s
work (originally for the piano) from 1952 titled 4’33”. Tis piece calls
for a pianist to walk onstage, prepare to play with all the usual ges-
tures, and then wait, counting of set amounts of silence. Cage has
been somewhat contradictory in subsequent writings and interviews
about whether he wants the audience to “listen” to the silence or to
grow uncomfortable with the situation — thus calling into question
aspects of the concert ritual. Extreme though this work is in some
ways, it is downright traditional in others. For example, it has a writ-
ten score and title; the piece takes place in a concert hall and involves a
performer who has the composer’s performance instructions in front of
him or her; more signifcantly, the piece takes place in time and elicits
some sort of afect from the audience (boredom or annoyance, perhaps,
but afect nonetheless).
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4O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
I do not believe that the intention of the early conceptually oriented
works was to undermine or destroy from within the very premises on
which artistic endeavor was based (as later Conceptual artists explicitly
intended). Te pieces, or experiments, were meant to show us the too
constraining boxes we had unwittingly placed ourselves in. Many dif-
ferent sorts of artists felt that the weight of tradition (with the assump-
tions and habits that come with it) had become unbearable.
Tese artists responded by focusing our attention on the frame: a
concert, a hall, an audience. To do this they chose to reduce the amount
of aesthetic content inside the frame. In the case of 4’33”, calling atten-
tion to the concertgoers’ expectations required the complete elimina-
tion of the aesthetic object (at least one crafted and controlled by the
composer) that is presented in the frame.
Tis was not the inevitable unfolding of a historical process. It grew
out of the choices made by a small number of artists and composers
with a wonderful knack for self-promotion. Even many decades earlier,
other ways of addressing these same issues were possible. Impression-
ist painters had also been bothered by the limits of a frame. Tis is
why many late Impressionist works have painted frames, continuing
the work outside its conventional border. Seurat and others at times
went so far as to paint a portion of the wall surrounding the canvas.
Now, perhaps Cage felt he had to go even further, yet I believe the
Impressionist example shows that the need to draw attention to the
periphery and its confning assumptions does not necessarily require
draining the object of its aesthetic center.
More recently, Pierre Boulez sought to call attention to another part
of our inherited framework: preexisting textbook musical forms. He
wrote articles, one of which famously attacks Schoenberg — the com-
poser most directly responsible for developing the very technique of
Boulez’s musical language, serialism. In this article, “Schoenberg Is
Dead,” Boulez proclaims that Schoenberg did not go far enough in his
revolution; that pouring new contents into the mold of old forms was a
contradiction that was fatal to modern aesthetic aims. To promulgate
his view, Boulez did not burn efgies of Schoenberg in concert halls
or stage eighteenth-century-style waltz parties to Schoenberg’s music
where everyone wore wigs. He published his conceptual ideas as ideas
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CCNCHÞ1 AND CÞAF1 41
presented linguistically in texts and then went home to write his music,
where he hoped the aesthetic rightness of his views would become
artistically evident. While Boulez felt the need to criticize and attempt
to correct the past, that efort did not require sacrifcing the present
or the future as it did for Cage in 4’33”. Cage would probably have
disputed this characterization. He would have tried to maintain that
the silence of the concert hall, or, more precisely, the random rustling
sounds of the increasingly agitated audience, were real, perhaps even
beautiful, “music,” but I have trouble accepting that even he believed
this as anything more than a useful intellectual posture.
Te capital error of many artists is to assume that the issues that
obsess them, in their constant absorption with their work, are neces-
sarily the central issues of that work for outside observers. For the audi-
ence, at the moment of perception, other aspects of the work are likely
to take precedence. Great art is generally balanced in a way that calls
for mastery over everything from the smallest details to the largest
concepts. By fattening the possible readings to a pure social critique
of the existence and relevance of art — even while allowing for infnite
acceptable realizations — it is the conceptual arts whose conception is
“fascistic.” Tese artists have completely divorced the ideas that might
motivate an artist from the root origin of art, artisanal craft.
Until the modern, industrialized era, when we could buy nearly
everything in an industrially produced, premade, ready to use form,
people always made things, whether by cooking their food, fashion-
ing their tools and utensils, or building their homes. Tey also made
music: by singing or tapping their feet or learning to play an instru-
ment (as used to be much more common than it is today). Some people
were even very good at making some of these things. One consequence
of this process of individual creation/production/fabrication has been
the sort of specialization that led to systems of barter and economic
exchange. Another consequence led to artisanal art. People who were
able to make (or decorate) objects or music especially well could be paid
by those less skillful or possessing other skills. In this way, their work
could gain economic value that would allow them to spend more time
on a single work. Eventually, society came to see that letting them
develop these skills beyond what an individual buyer might be able to
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42 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
aford to subsidize could be of beneft to society as a whole. Part of the
reason we could admire these particularly well-made objects in the frst
place, however, was our ability to empathize with the labor involved in
their elaboration. I suspect that it was this sort of projection (imagining
the amount of efort) that frst helped people separate the ideas of taste
and value. With an object whose elaboration we can empathize with it
is relatively easy to say, “I don’t like the style, but can you imagine how
difcult and time consuming this must have been to make?”
Tese artisanal origins can still be seen all over the vocabulary and struc-
ture of the art world. Even the notion of a masterpiece is an outgrowth of
artisanal work. A masterpiece was just that: a master’s piece. Within the
corporate structure of crafts, artisans worked under contract for a speci-
fed period of time as an apprentice. Ten the artisan spent an unspecifed
period of time as a journeyman. When a craftsman was ready to settle and
open a proper workshop where he (only men were allowed) could have his
own apprentices, he had to convince the appropriate local craft corporation
to admit him as a master. Te two aspects to be adjudicated prior to his
acceptance were the craftsman’s fnancial viability (measured by his ability
to pay a hefty professional tax) and his skill, which was demonstrated by
producing a master’s piece. Tis masterpiece became the property of the
craft corporation (these corporations were very similar to the guilds that
operated in some parts of Europe, but were a bit less restrictive) and estab-
lished the artisan’s high level of professional competence.
Craft corporations used the word “masterpiece” in this way since the
Middle Ages; it was during the sixteenth century that the broader notion
of an “absolute” masterpiece entered artistic discourse. At this point, the
idea that a (absolute) masterpiece had a sort of perfection became cur-
rent. In 1669, the sculptor Gaspard Marsy spoke of a sculpture as being an
inimitable masterpiece whose origin was more divine than human. It took
the creation of public expositions, then museums (the Louvre opened to
the public in 1793) for the modern and romantic notion of the masterpiece
to be complete in the minds of the general public.
6

While no one disputes this link between artisanal craft and art’s
past, since we now live in the industrial (or perhaps postindustrial) era,
many see no reason to maintain that link in art’s future. I wrote in
Chapter 2 about the changes that Max Weber felt broke the previously
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CCNCHÞ1 AND CÞAF1 4B
unifed hierarchical view of society into separate domains of knowledge
and expertise. Tis separation gave artists greater freedom, not just to
perfect their craft but also to choose at least some of the ends to which
that craft was directed. Concepts and ideas could drive their creations
and become an important ingredient in ways that were much broader
than had been possible when works had to correspond to rigid catego-
ries or be highly functional. I would argue, however, that really great
art can only happen in this way, when craft and concept are married
in the realization of aesthetic objects. By keeping art attached in some
way to its artisanal past, by at least preserving a made object, audi-
ences can still develop the sort of empathy that allows them to imagine
themselves in the place of the creator. Tis empathy allows them to
interact personally, not remotely and abstractly, with the object (and a
piece of music is also an object in this sense) in a way that can engage
their aesthetic sense.
With the rise of industrialization, however, both artists and their
audiences think much less about craft when they appreciate objects. So
few of the things around us are actually directly made by an individ-
ual. Much more important to our contemporary view of an object is its
function (What does it do?). How most modern devices work or how
they were made may be hopelessly beyond the usual learning abilities
of even highly educated individuals. In this context, it is not surprising
that many artists would begin to feel that what their art does is more
important than what it is or how it was made. Tis is the central preoc-
cupation of conceptual art: What does art do? If that is their guiding
principle, it is no wonder that they were ready to destroy art if its efects
(what it does) were detrimental to society.
But, as I said before, Picasso had the right idea. Art is diferent: It
doesn’t really have a function in that sense. Tis can be puzzling because
we have made our lives so function oriented, but art doesn’t really do or
mean anything other than what it is (as an object) and perhaps what it
does on purely aesthetic terms. Oscar Wilde quipped, “All bad poetry
is sincere,” and I think the larger truth to his quip is that the more
art tries to be about or for important, extra-aesthetic (especially politi-
cal) things, the weaker it tends to be artistically. In the fnal paragraph
of her essay “How One Should Read a Book,” Virginia Woolf wrote
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44 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
of her aesthetic pleasure in reading: “Are there not some pursuits that
we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures
that are fnal? And is this not among them?” I think it is ridiculous
to accept the Marxist critique that creating wondrous aesthetic objects
can somehow help fascist regimes by anesthetizing the bourgeoisie into
tolerating their most heinous acts. What I believe aesthetic objects can
do, however, is improve the existence of some individuals, regardless of
the regimes under which they must live. Te great error of all Marxist
reasoning is granting the individual so little voice; Marxists call for an
existence with the diversions of entertainment but not the joy of art.
It may be a primitive sensation, but the ability to appreciate an aes-
thetically formed thing — whether visual, aural, linguistic, or physical
— is a remarkable experience, one that lets us empathize across time and
culture. Moreover, creating and appreciating aesthetic objects shaped
by our hands and minds are part of our identity as human beings. Te
skills and techniques developed over millennia have allowed us to cre-
ate remarkable things. Tese objects are often far more awe-inspiring
than the many technical wonders of modern life, because there is still
that empathic echo that lets the receiver imagine himself in the role of
creator, discovering or imagining the intentions of that creator. Tough
that link can survive a great deal of stretching, once it is completely sev-
ered, when an object no longer feels created or no longer exists — and no
sense of human thought or hands can be sensed — then Buren is indeed
right: “Art is no longer there. It’s about something else.” Once there is no
aesthetic value, what remains is, at most, a limited sort of philosophy.
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45
4
ELI1I5M
Gradually and reluctantly, however, I realized that the wrath directed at
elitism has less to do with money than with […] scorn for the very kinds of
intellectual distinction-making I hold most dear: […] upholding of objec-
tive standards; most important, the willingness to assert unyieldingly that
one idea, contribution or attainment is better than another. Te worst
aspect of what gets called “political correctness” these days is the erosion of
intellectual confdence needed to sort out, and rank, competing values. It
used to be that intellectual debate centered on the results of such an assess-
ment. We have retrenched to the point that the very act of starting the
process requires audacity …
— William A. Henry, III
1
In the late 1980s, I attended the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore,
where I studied musical composition. Once a week all the composi-
tion students took a seminar along with the composition faculty.
Guests were sometimes invited, but the main purpose of the meetings
was for students to present their works. Most composition programs
ofer something like this seminar, but never have I seen one reach the
level of aggression, meanness, and almost brutality of these meetings.
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46 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
Just prior to my enrollment as a student at Peabody, a group of four
students had so terrorized their colleagues at these seminars that they
became known as “the gang of four.” Tis shark-pit/feeding-frenzylike
atmosphere is hardly the norm for composition seminars. In fact, in
the equivalent seminar at Columbia, I can remember almost the whole
student body rallying around colleagues who received even mild criti-
cisms. (I have been back to Peabody’s composition seminar in recent
years, and while the discussions are still lively, the environment there,
too, has become more civil.) While I can certainly think of many prob-
lems that grew out of this incredibly confrontational atmosphere (and
it certainly felt awful the frst few times you were publicly ripped to
shreds), sometimes this environment made it possible to speak a truth
that usually remains unsaid.
At one particular session a composer presented a long, slow work
during which very little happened and the things that did happen were
not very interesting. Te sharks, smelling blood in the water, began to
circle (the atmosphere tended to get more and more charged the worse
the piece being presented was thought to be by the seminar partici-
pants). Te comments began with gentle probing, dancing around the
surely fatal attack we all wanted to make: “Te piece is boring.” Tis
particular composer was not some naïve freshman who would break-
down in tears and leave, however (as I’m ashamed to say happened
several times); he was prepared to fght back. Te composer began to
explain his work. He stressed that he was trying to achieve a sort of
stasis, a lack of happening, and then he pulled out the ultimate trump
card. He said, “I really wanted to create an efect of boredom — music
is too much about things happening; I wanted you to feel like there’s
nothing; I wanted the listener to feel bored and restless.” Tis, of
course, suddenly turned the whole debate on its head. Now, if someone
said, “Your piece was boring,” the composer could respond, “Tank you
— that’s just what I was going for.” Our best weapon now blunted, we
discussed, for some time in a fairly civil manner, how one might evoke
the notion of boredom without actually inducing the sensation of bore-
dom. But, no — he wanted to bore us. He was adamant about this, no
half measures or analogies: we were meant to be nodding of. Finally,
Robert Hall Lewis, one of the professors known for his outrageous and
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ELI1I5M 4?
very politically incorrect statements, raised his hand and said, “Just
because you have an idea and you realize that idea, does not mean it is a
good idea and certainly does not mean it is a good piece.”
Readers who have persevered to this point are probably willing to
concede that some pieces of music are better than others in at least some
way. However, once we stop thinking of a piece as the disembodied art-
work of an anonymous human being, but as the personal creation of an
individual person, things get much harder. If we could believe that the
diferences were simply a refection of difering degrees of skill, we might
be all right. It seems fairly acceptable to assert that some people have
more skill than others at particular tasks, but this is certainly not enough
to explain why some works and, more troublingly, some ideas seem bet-
ter than others. Great art seems to be the result of someone having the
right ideas for his or her particular set of skills. Or perhaps it comes from
having great ideas and at least sufcient craft to realize those ideas.
A well-known anecdote involves the composers Hector Berlioz (1803–
1869) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Saint-Saëns was a remarkable
prodigy, even in comparison to others like Mozart. It was said that you
could name any piece from the entire history of music and he could go to
the piano and play it, not just the main theme but the whole thing. (I sus-
pect this reputation must have been at least a little exaggerated, but the feat
is astounding nonetheless.) In concert he let the audience chose any of the
Beethoven sonatas for him to play from memory. Saint-Saëns must have
been thoroughly familiar with thousands of works. Late in his life when
he had become an acknowledged leader among the so-called “advanced”
composers, Berlioz was asked for his opinion about Saint-Saëns, and
he replied that there’s not much you can say about Saint-Saëns, since he
knows everything. He ventured, however, that the one thing Saint-Saëns
might lack was a bit of ignorance (sometimes the term used in the anecdote
is “inexperience”). For all his incredible knowledge, skill, and talent, Saint-
Saëns’s ideas were only mediocre. He lacked the imagination, ambition, or
ability to reach beyond the vast reservoir of his knowledge and strive for
something truly new or personal. Saint-Saëns unquestionably knew what
he wanted to say and was able to say it with great skill. Yet, his music does
not have the same power or impact as the best works of a composer like
Berlioz, whose technical skills were only middling.
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4B CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
By now you’re probably wondering what these anecdotes have to do
with elitism. Te word “elitism” itself has become a terrible condemna-
tion. Calling someone an elitist is only slightly better than calling him
or her a racist or a bigot. It has come to imply disdain, or at least a lack
of respect and understanding for the value of everyone and everything
outside of the elite to which one is said to belong. History, of course,
gives us ample historical reason for mistrusting any group that holds
itself above others. So many of these groups have based their supposed
superiority on criteria that most of us would judge to be at best invalid
and at worst immoral (racial superiority, gender superiority, divine
right, hereditary position, etc.). If one is to be fair, however, most of
these repugnant elites were drawn from societies whose dominant
views were almost equally distasteful.
Sociological discussions of elitism, especially those prevalent prior
to World War II, and found even in Aristotle, did not build their argu-
ments around whether there ought to be elites or whether valid crite-
ria (absolute or political) existed for forming elites. Te authors’ ideas
resulted from observations of human societies and organizations that
all contained some sort of elite. Tat elites refect realities in human life
is as true today as it was in 1896 when the sociologist Gaetano Mosca
published his Elementi di Scienza Politica:
We all know that, in our own country, whichever it may be, the man-
agement of public afairs is in the hands of a minority of infuential
persons, to which management, willingly or unwillingly, the major-
ity defer. We know the same thing goes on in neighboring countries,
and in fact we should be put to it to conceive of a real world other-
wise organized — a world in which men would be directly subject to
a single person without relationships of subordination, or in which
all men would share equally in the direction of political afairs.
2
Moreover, at least in the realm of politics, most of us accept these
elites perfectly willingly as long as they seem to be chosen either by the
majority (democratically) or upon some evident system of merit (meri-
tocratically). At times we are even willing to accept the idea that a bad
elite could, under certain circumstances, be preferable to no elite. Look
at the system of referenda in California, which is so often criticized.
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ELI1I5M 4O
Here is what we should all be seeking: a truly egalitarian system of
governance. Yet the result is anything but felicitous. Referenda allow
majorities to state their will without having to reconcile the conficts
inherent in their desires. Tus it is easy to vote for increased services
although they come at a higher cost, then place a cap on spending
because government is wasteful, and fnally top it all of with a vote to
decrease revenue through tax cuts — and we have three desires whose
admixture is ruinous. Any party that openly tries to achieve all three
goals at the same time would appear ridiculous, but in a referendum
the responsibility is so difuse that the ensuing mess feels more like an
act of fate than a fault of governance. Any actual elite eventually bears
the consequences of its decisions (though it may cause enormous harm
and sufering frst). Te paradox, though, is that in spite of our clear
acceptance of elites, even in spite of the fact that nearly all of us are
constantly jockeying for position within one hierarchy or another, the
word “elitism” has become an epithet — why?
I think the quote that opens this chapter, from an otherwise disturb-
ing volume (the author’s main goal is to rail against afrmative action
and to lobby for wealth as the true measure of worth), gets at part of
the answer. We have come to believe that while some hierarchies may
be necessary, they are never fully legitimate — they always represent
biases and distortions. Tis essentially correct notion has sometimes
led us to the opposite extreme, which I think is at least as wrong as
blind faith in authority. Too often people have come to believe that all
hierarchies are completely illegitimate. I don’t wish to rehash the argu-
ments in favor of absolute values and criteria from earlier chapters, but
we do need to look at the beneft all of us might reap from an unequal
distribution of resources. In other words, a completely egalitarian
distribution of resources might not be in the interests of the vast major-
ity, even of some of those who would have more under that system.
In the domains of politics and economics, most of us have accepted
the idea that a fully egalitarian approach does not work. Without going
into a detailed review of the complexities of Cold War politics, it seems
clear from the ruinous and inegalitarian results of so many attempts to
create communist societies and the needs of even small-scale communes
to adopt a leadership structure that a completely egalitarian division of
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5O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
wealth, power, and responsibility is incompatible with human psychol-
ogy. We need incentives, hopes, at least an illusion of progress. It is very
difcult to imagine a human society where everyone would receive the
same salary, spend the same number of hours a day on work and leisure,
have identical levels of education and responsibility, and so on. Even if
everyone had identical abilities, their inclinations would still be varied.
In modern societies, we try to create a mixture, where certain min-
ima are guaranteed to all. While on the upper end we don’t necessar-
ily directly limit the accumulation of wealth, some societies do tax
wealth directly, and most tax inheritances (cross-generational accumu-
lation). A progressive income tax structure — used in some form by
most nations — is also an attempt to redistribute wealth from upper
incomes to lower incomes. Even foreign aid of various sorts is a sort of
transnational redistribution of wealth from richer countries to poorer
ones whose aim is presumably to promote more equality, social justice,
or at least social stability — although no nation ships enough of its
gross domestic product abroad to eliminate the enormous imbalances
between rich and poor nations.
In felds like education, we adopt a similar system where societies
determine minimal amounts of schooling (for example, until age six-
teen) required for all, while permitting a subset of the population to
invest a larger portion of their lives in pursuit of further studies; the
more years of studies, the smaller the fraction of the population to
which it can be ofered. Similar criteria apply to the performing arts:
Everyone can be in his or her frst grade pageant or junior high talent
show, but very few can star on Broadway.
On purely empirical grounds, it does not seem that we have a fun-
damental problem with inequality. For me personally, the problem is
not elites based on merit, but elites of birth, gender, race, or class. I
suspect that for many people, however, the acceptance or rejection of
an elite is based not on a sense of social justice, but on one of two con-
ditions. Te frst is a belief that it might be possible (even if unlikely)
to one day join that elite. Tis is why politicians who come from the
most charmed backgrounds still pretend to be regular Joes, allowing
us to think, “If he could do it, so could I or my child.” We also accept
elites whose membership requires special qualifcations that most of us
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ELI1I5M 51
cannot even delude ourselves into believing we will ever possess. We
must believe society as a whole will beneft in some way from the out-
put of these elites and that the criteria for membership in the elite have
at least some validity (e.g., medical research). Te arts used to be more
like this latter type of elite, although the cult of celebrity has made at
least some art forms into something more like the former.
Of course, these two justifcations for elites (lotto winners and highly
trained benefactors, if you like) leave someone like a contemporary art-
music composer in a terrible bind. While I believe that most people do
not feel they could ever do the work of a composer, they are far from
sure that there is any beneft to them from the work these composers
do. Many are also probably unsure whether these “artists” have any real
skills at all and must wonder whether they are simply charlatans. Per-
haps the only value (utility, beneft) that most of society is still willing
to grant to even the most esoteric art-forms is its usefulness as self-
expression, which is thought to be a good thing (at least in the abstract)
and which is certainly a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, this creates a new problem.
Although we tolerate grave inequities in many domains, especially
quantitative ones, we have come to demand at least a semblance of
equity in the domains of human and civil rights. We expect at least the
pretense of equal justice under law; we expect medical care to be avail-
able to all (or at least are briefy outraged when reminded that it is not);
and if we have come to view art as frst and foremost self-expression,
how can we possibly accept some “selves” as being more worthy of being
expressed? Tis is a sort of elitism that seems completely intolerable.
As I mentioned earlier, we might avoid this problem by defending
artistic elitism based on a notion of craftsmanship, but that just doesn’t
work in a post-Conceptual art era because almost no one would now
claim that greater craft leads automatically to greater art. Even in ear-
lier eras, the exact correlation between craft and art is not linear (as
the Berlioz comments about Saint-Saëns point out). I think that most
people would still recognize that the level of skill required to make
most art of whatever type requires intense and (from society’s view-
point) expensive training. It seems clear that this training cannot be
made freely available to all comers without posing a burden that society
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52 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
would never be willing to bear. Moreover, an art like contemporary
classical music is doubly burdensome. Composers don’t produce wealth
as they become more successful; they consume it. Bigger, more promi-
nent events lose even more money (and require more subsidies) than
small student concerts. Te success of a composer can be measured by
taking the inverse of the composer’s market value: Te more negative
the market value, the more important the composer.
Self-expression is a domain where assessments like right or wrong,
better or worse, are not considered appropriate. Terefore no elitist-
type judgments can be made. From this point of view, Robert Hall
Lewis had no right to tell that student that his idea was bad or con-
sequently that the piece was bad. It belonged to that individual and
expressed something he felt. Tat composer already knew the power
of this attitude — the power of saying, “Tat was my intent.” In a less
contentious environment than those campus seminars, this viewpoint
will nearly always end all possible argument. It’s permissible to discuss
whether someone has achieved his or her aims, but not the legitimacy
of those aims. Debating the validity (or interest) of someone’s inten-
tions has become “elitist.”
Evaluating the legitimacy of any type of self-expression has become
somewhat hopeless. You can never be sure you’re right, so most will
not even try. I once asked one of my teachers what he would say to a
composer he thought had no chance of becoming a good or even ade-
quate composer. He responded by recounting a well-known story told
by the composer John Cage in Conversing with Cage. When Cage stud-
ied briefy with the renowned modernist and inventor of twelve-tone
composition, Arnold Schoenberg, Schoenberg apparently became very
frustrated with Cage’s work one day and said to him, “You have no ear
for harmony and no sense of melody or rhythm; if you stay in composi-
tion you will only be banging your head against the wall.” To which
Cage says he replied, “In that case I would devote my life to beating
my head against that wall.” Tis story ofers a glimpse of one of the
greatest composition teachers of the twentieth century seen through
the eyes of perhaps his most “untrainable” student, and even in this
extreme case Schoenberg could not be sure whose ideas would turn out
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ELI1I5M 5B
to be important. Some might even argue that Cage is the most infuen-
tial composer to have studied with Schoenberg.
If we accept this idea that even the most skilled teacher cannot
always diferentiate among the validity of individual approaches, we are
trapped in two diferent ways. First, a composition teacher can’t really
help any students he or she might fnd particularly worthy, because this
would be unfair to the others who are a priori equally worthy. Second,
it is very hard to try to convince and educate a public to see the worth in
works if we adopt a view of art so focused on the self of the artist. Tis
attitude requires the transformation of art appreciation into a form of
spectator psychoanalysis — an approach that is widely in use by a seg-
ment of art critics. So how can we avoid these traps without reasserting
some, clearly false, notion of composer infallibility?
We must frst try to defate the myth that art is self-expression. Art
is both expressive and personal, but, especially with an abstract art like
music, it is much more than (and somewhat less than) self-expression.
Another former teacher of mine told the following parable (composi-
tion teachers, myself included, are very fond of telling stories):
One summer three composers fall madly in love. All three of them
independently decide to express their feelings in the form of a love
duet for oboe d’amore and cello. Te frst is more in love than anyone
has ever been in the history of the human race. Te second, while
only normally in love, is more sensitive and self-aware about his
feelings of love than anyone has ever been. Te third composer on
the other hand is a bit of a cold-fsh. While she is somewhat infatu-
ated, it is quite superfcial and not very important (this composer is
already planning on how to break it of in a week or two). However
this person is by far the best composer. Whose piece will be the most
beautiful, most moving, most expressive of love? Without a doubt it
would be the third composer.
It seems cosmically unjust, but there is nothing special about the
humanity of artists. What is special is their artistry — nothing more or
less. If your goal were to know love, a date would have a greater chance
of success than a work of art. Art is a special substance into which
some individuals are able to transform life through a poorly understood
alchemical process. If we even partially accept this notion that artists’
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54 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
humanity is not special and what we are engaging with is not their self,
but a work; if we accept that even the greatest artists are not special
people, but people who make special things; then we can remove the
second obstacle I mentioned. Tese are not narrowly focused pieces of
introspection, but potentially meaningful exteriorizations.
Te frst problem — fairness — remains, however, because we can-
not be sure of our judgments: How can we single out one person to
whom we will give an opportunity and ignore another? I have sug-
gested in previous chapters that there might be legitimate criteria for
making these choices, yet you will have noticed that I am not going to
suggest exactly what they are. Tese criteria — if they exist — refect
deep and sometimes contradictory aspects of the way we perceive.
Moreover, any insight about these criteria we might possess will be fl-
tered by our culture and experience. I suspect that, like the position
and velocity vector of a subatomic particle, we can never achieve more
than a working approximation that will always be somewhat stochastic
in nature. In Chapters 7, 8, and 9, I will try to look more closely at the
kind of mental representations that must be involved in creating these
criteria. For now, I would like to suggest that even if we use the wrong
criteria or make the wrong choices, an erroneous or random selection
still might be better than not making any choices. I believe that giv-
ing resources even to the “wrong” artists would still be better than an
egalitarian system that gives almost nothing to almost everyone.
If we choose a select few to train and even fewer to disseminate to
the public, we will undoubtedly make choices that are less than perfect.
Our biases and tastes will interfere with even the most well-intentioned
eforts to evaluate the potential of creators and the worth of works.
Moreover, there may well be diferent frameworks, styles, or idioms for
evaluating these works and creators and the evaluations yielded may
be incompatible. Sometimes the evaluators may be corrupt, sometimes
they may be fat-out wrong, but making these choices, right or wrong,
will do something wonderful: It will open to those selected individuals
(worthy or not) enormous possibilities to freely explore their artistic
abilities. You might say, “Sure that’s wonderful for them, but what does
it do for the rest of us? Surely society cannot be expected to do this for
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ELI1I5M 55
very many individuals, so what’s the point?” However, by granting this
opportunity to even a few individuals, all of us will beneft.
Te frst thing that happens is that we can compare the works these
artists produce. In this way, we begin to establish a context. We start to
see what people are capable of freed from most of the constraints that
are normally present. Moreover, these works allow us to consider the
criteria for judgment we used in selecting these creators and works in
the frst place. Once a system and a context exist, it is easy to improve
them. Building this system from scratch is a monumental task, how-
ever: It is like compiling the frst dictionary. Even in periods when the
link between audience and artist is weakened and we wonder whether
the results of most working artists are worthwhile, it would be tragic
to risk the entire system that allows artists to be trained and works
to be created. Tink of what it takes to create a new opera: an opera
composer, an orchestra, set designers, singers, and so on. Te apparatus
reaches all the way from a neighborhood piano teacher through conser-
vatories like Juilliard or Peabody to the great opera houses. Te amount
of societal infrastructure that allows the Metropolitan Opera to put on
the occasional new opera is mind-boggling. Even if most of these operas
are truly awful (although more likely they will just be mediocre), none
would be possible without this apparatus.
Tis is not to say that the public should sit back and passively accept
whatever art an “elite” ofers them. Te advantage of having works pro-
duced and ofered is that it gives us the best possible tool for really
evaluating and comparing them. We may decide that everything at the
Whitney Biennial is awful, but events like this give us the chance to
judge a few works and consider some ideas in an enormously idealized
situation where we can engage with the work on as close to purely aes-
thetic terms as possible. Perhaps equally important, new generations of
artists can interact with these works and a few of them will use their
experiences as a background for refning their own still inchoate ideas.
As long as traditions and institutions don’t become an absolute bar-
rier against change or openness to innovation, their presence provides an
enormous service. Te cost of maintaining this system once it exists is
orders of magnitude less than the cost of building it initially. Terefore,
allowing that infrastructure to wither during artistic low points poses
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56 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
the great risk of not having the conditions necessary for the next renais-
sance. If we have a canon, it is easy to debate what should be included
within it. If we do not attempt to make those choices and limit our hori-
zon constructively, however, I fear that almost everything will drown
in an undiferentiated food of work. It would be wonderful to discern
faultlessly the most meretricious works, to have a truly meritocratic elite
that represents the best from all domains using various and complemen-
tary criteria. However, until we can be sure we have achieved that perfect
standard of judgment, I think society as a whole benefts more from our
honest attempts at creating an approximation of that ideal. As long as we
are on the lookout for ways to improve our approximation, we gain noth-
ing and lose much by demanding perfection before accepting a fawed
compromise; we run the risk of ending up with nothing.
Something that often surprises the friends and families of composers
is that we don’t spend much time listening to music recreationally. Some
composers I know don’t even like most other people’s music (even that
of the greats). We don’t become composers because we see this amazing
thing and want to do the same; we become composers because we think
something is not being done or is being done wrong. I think many, if
not most of us, believe that we are the only ones who see something that
needs to be diferent. Nietzsche spoke of creation as a form of mental
illness. He said anyone really sane would be content with what already
exists. For those of us with this disease, we are willing to spend as much
time in training as a brain surgeon, and work for wages that are some-
times lower than the custodial staf that cleans the hall after the concert,
so that we might have the opportunity to fgure out what we believe is
wrong with the works out there and how to fx it. Most of us may be
wrong, but if even a few of us are on to something, and if even a few of
those few are given the chance to develop their skills, and if even a few
members of that much smaller group have the chance to use their skills
to make works that can cause all of us to reassess how we see or hear, it
seems amply worth the cost.
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5?
5
THCHNCLCGY
By its nature, interactive technology will also ofer a wealth of choices
about how a story unfolds, so no two people’s entertainment experience
need ever be the same. Writers will not have to script entire tales ahead
of time, because the people who enter the story will become the characters
whose decisions move the story along. A writer may shape the initial cir-
cumstances, but the story will unfold improvisationally. Te story envi-
ronment — and characters within it — will respond to personal messages,
news and other forms of information. What this kind of virtual storyworld
will require is a database network that is embedded with enough story ele-
ments and decision-making algorithms to generate various serendipitous
actions with unique content.
— Glorianna Davenport
1
Some have turned to new technology as a possible savior for the ills
faced by contemporary art. Certainly, technological innovations in
computers and digitization have revolutionized many areas of our lives.
Industrial development has taught us that things will continually get
better, smaller, faster — whether we need them to or not. Often, new
technology seems to be created simply because it is possible. Often we
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5B CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
must just scratch our heads and wonder about some new technology’s
usefulness until someone comes along with that “killer app” that makes
us wonder how we lived without it. However, the possibility that a
transformative application of the technology might be possible is not,
in and of itself, a justifcation for confdence that technology can cure
the ills aficting artistic domains. For many years some have ofered as
the defense for mediocre works (both artistic and commercial) employ-
ing technology the underdeveloped state of the technology. Developers
and artists say, “Just wait, when the computers or software get a little
better, this will really be something.” It is hard to believe this could be
the real problem, however.
Look at the history of musical instrument design: Every stage of its
technological development saw wondrous works written for whatever
instruments were available. We went from hard-to-tune keyboards
with no dynamic range to the technological wonder of a modern con-
cert grand, yet a generation of composers never existed who said, “Our
music for keyboard instruments would be great if only we had dynam-
ics, or better temperaments, and so on.” We still admire pieces written
for all stages in the development of these instruments. In fact, one of
the great ironies of music is that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is often
presented in music appreciation classes as requiring and helping to pro-
mote the emergence of our modern tuning system of “equal tempera-
ment.”
2
I have even heard it suggested that these pieces were the “killer
app.” convincing the world that equal temperament was needed. Te
pieces were not written for equal temperament, however, and I suspect
that given the choice Bach would not have wanted a performer to use
this “more perfect temperament.”
Te idea of equal temperament is that, as far as possible, all keys
should sound alike (in practice they must all be a little, but only a
little, out of tune). Mistaken music appreciation teachers will say that
Bach needed this temperament to be free to modulate to distant keys.
However, prior to the development of truly equal temperament there
were many systems of achieving “well-tempered” music. Tese tunings
would allow one to play in any key (unlike earlier mean-tone tempera-
ments, for example, which would only make usable a small subset of
the keys, while leaving the others too far out of tune for use). Tese
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THCHNCLCGY 5O
well-temperaments, however, left the various keys very dissimilar.
Some were extremely out of tune and tense, barely playable, while oth-
ers boasted the almost perfectly in-tune thirds
3
that equal tempera-
ment so sorely lacks. With a well-tempered clavier, modulations are
not just movements from one key to another; they are huge transforma-
tions of the color of the instrument: pure to gritty, stable to wobbling,
and so on. An important reason for writing in all keys (besides the
obvious pedagogical reasons) was to show how diferent they were, not
to exploit their homogeneity.
To take a more general example, the instruments used in a modern
orchestra have changed tremendously since even the late-nineteenth
century. Yet Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn seemed able to come up
with awfully good pieces in spite of the technical defciencies of their
technology (poorly tuned woodwinds, brass with limited agility, etc.).
A major trend of the last couple of decades has even been to use these
less-developed instruments to play more “historically accurate” versions
of the pieces. Tese recordings are often more popular and more criti-
cally admired than recordings that are more technically perfect (more
in tune, better balanced, greater range of instrumental timbre, etc.).
Tis is not diferent from other domains, even technological ones. A
major movement in video games in the last few years has been retro.
Software simulations of early arcade and Atari video games are now
available. Tere is no question that new games ofer a greater palette
of graphical and interface possibilities, but that doesn’t mean that they
will be more fun or engaging. Te success of a work depends on how it
uses its medium, not on the absolute sophistication of that medium.
Caveats aside, though, we should still consider whether there might
be a technological cure for many of the problems we’ve been discuss-
ing. Could technology, in and of itself, heal the division between artist
and audience? Perhaps the difculties lie not with aesthetics or values,
but with an aging media. Maybe the medium is the message, and it is
not the art music that turns people of but the concert hall. Perhaps too
often the music itself does not take sufcient advantage of the techno-
logical possibilities now available. Bach used the most up-to-date tech-
nology available to him (especially in the domain of organs), and while
his works don’t sufer from advances not yet developed, perhaps we
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6O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
would feel diferently if he had turned his back on “modern advances”
and written only for Renaissance instruments.
As I see it, there are two ways in which technology could make a
real impact on the kind of nonfunctional art we’ve been discussing and
both of them already are being actively explored. First, technological
innovations could facilitate many things that are not new. Tey might
make existing processes better or cheaper in ways that might alter the
situation meaningfully. For example, we might all be able to make the
kind of total multimedia art experience Wagner dreamed of a reality
— and we could do it without getting a government to build a special
theater and fund a festival (though our grandchildren might need to
look for work if we skipped those steps). Wagner had been inspired to
move in this direction by the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Sym-
phony and he had the clout, talent, and acumen to accomplish a large
part of his goals. When Scriabin (a much less forceful politician), how-
ever, wanted to take the ideas even further using massive mechanical
and human resources, it was impossible. Technology might change all
of that. We could reach far-fung virtual audiences and perhaps render
viable art that could not command enough of a public in any one city
or country. Moreover, we may need these new facilities to replace the
vanishing infrastructure of publishers, orchestras that play new works,
stores that stock new works (or even more generally classical music) in
score or recording form, and so on.
Te second way technology could change art is through the more
profound revision of the role of artist and art-perceiver, as noted by
the MIT Media Lab researcher Glorianna Davenport. Perhaps entirely
new ways of imagining and creating art exist now. Some might even say
that better, more engaging kinds of art can now be created. Perhaps we
have alienated audiences because they will no longer accept the largely
passive role of art-perceiver; they want to be an art-shaper as well. Say-
ing that they must actively listen and that their perception shapes the
work might not cut it any more in our brave new world. Maybe what
art needs is more interactivity.
I’d like to discuss these two potential applications of technology to
art separately, at least initially. Before we accept these technological
panaceas, we need to look at the potential artistic cost that could come
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THCHNCLCGY 61
from adopting these technologies. Let’s start with the second situation.
I have heard many artists argue that this is the future. Some feel that
user-shaped environments are somehow more engaging, more demo-
cratic, potentially more meaningful to the individual viewer. Moreover,
many have claimed that this kind of work is more in tune with the
everything-at-the-same-time quality of contemporary life.
Imagine that you received a commission to create an interactive
environment for a church. Te church walls are already decorated, but
you can use all the space above the windows. Te idea is to convey not
just one or two subjects but a whole panorama of Christian iconog-
raphy. You need to include images of thirty-three separate ancestors
of Jesus as well as twelve diferent oracles and prophets. Te central
images to be framed by these fgures will be three sets of three images
depicting the creation of the world, the creation and fall of man, and
the story of Noah. Because congregants want to be able to use the space
for services and don’t want to obscure the artwork already in place, you
can’t hang any screens downward, but you can cover the ceiling with
projected images. Perhaps you could convince the congregation to put
some sensors on the foor, but high volumes of visitors are expected,
so you will only have limited ability to tailor the experience to each
person who enters. You can certainly divide up the territory and have
many images going at one time. In addition, you might make some
images bigger than others to create a perceptual gradient to the dif-
ferent narratives. Perhaps you could measure the density of people in
the room and when more congregated in one section you would favor
the creation of the world (perhaps near the entry); when people were
congregating near the altar you might concentrate on the creation and
fall of Man. Perhaps the Noah scene would be triggered by a humidity
sensor on the roof (detecting when it was raining). One can imagine
that viewers coming in to see the installation might go to considerable
eforts to see “what it will do.” Tey may try to trigger the sensors in
various ways to solicit diferent permutations. Tey may even try to stay
long enough to have seen most or all of the variants.
Tese congregants may be deeply engaged, but my fear is that two
crucial things will have been lost, which both contribute so strongly
to the efectiveness of the noninteractive version of this site-specifc
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62 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
installation. First, we might lose our ability to appreciate the thing that
is there in front of or above us. I fear that when we try to manipulate and
control something it is harder, if not impossible, to observe and perceive
it in a deep way. Tink about the diference between really watching a
fre crackle and burn and using a bellows to try to keep the fre going. In
both cases you see the fre, but in the second case your vision is largely
quantitative and utilitarian: How big are the fames? Are things getting
hotter or not? When staring into a fre, however, we appreciate it quali-
tatively and make aesthetic, not utilitarian, judgments: It is beautiful or
fascinating. I fear that these may be highly distinct cognitive systems; in
which case real aesthetic appreciation would to a certain extent require
the freeing of cognitive resources ofered by some degree of passivity. It
might certainly require the disengagement of the problem-solving sort
of attitude we often engage in active tasks. (I think this is why many
professional musicians describe a sort of professional deformation that
forces them to analyze whatever they hear in an active manner, which
can diminish the visceral aesthetic appreciation.)
Te second potential loss comes from the diminished sense of
the artists’ agency within the work. I have criticized previously the
idea that a work of art is a direct form of expression or communica-
tion, highlighting instead the as-if communication that comes from
our empathic link to a creator. Even the most puzzling features will
be assumed to have some sort of as-if meaning. And while it will be
impossible to decode the actual artist’s intentions (and some features
may, from the artist’s viewpoint, have been unintentional accidents),
the efort to decode a sort of as-if, imagined, intention will lead us to
a deeper and perhaps more meaningful (to us) reading of the work. In
a famous psychology experiment viewers see geometric objects moving
randomly on a television screen as directed agents with purpose and
even personality; so, too, do many cultures and most young children
attach agency to the seasons or the weather. However, if I raise my
hand, triggering a motion detector that causes something to appear,
I am the agent and I know why I lifted that arm: to see what would
happen. Te magical quality of trying to intuit meaning may be greatly
lessened. I might wonder why the artist associated that image with
a raised hand, but my reading may well stop at the level of why link
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THCHNCLCGY 6B
gesture x to result y. If I am reading a complex multifaceted individual
creation, however, I may be inclined to go further and read into how
the placement and execution of the image should impact my reading
not just of that choice but of that choice’s efect on the object. Even in
the case of work with a much lesser degree of richness (say an all-blue
canvas of Yves Klein), I will be forced to ask why he would stay with
a single color, how his reading of art history led to this. If placing my
foot in a certain square turns the ceiling blue, I’m not sure that I would
take my attribution process as far; I would be more inclined to see how
it changes if I move to another area.
Tese two problems are from the viewpoint of the receiver; I fear
that other problems may enter if we look at the situation from the art-
ist’s perspective. Although Davenport is right that richness and com-
plexity can be generated with “a database network that is embedded
with enough story elements and decision-making algorithms to gen-
erate various serendipitous actions with unique content,” I’m not sure
how easy or even possible it might be to make great art this way. Many
great novels have great characters, but great characters are surely not
sufcient to ensure their quality. Likewise interesting situations or
types of interactional ground rules may be fascinating, but I fear they
are more likely to generate an infnitude of so-so works rather the sin-
gularly remarkable work that is art’s essential contribution.
Interactive environments are by their nature approximate (some
might say fexible), making it difcult to present a strongly personal
result. You might argue that I am making an error, because in these
new types of works the singular artist is not the creator of the envi-
ronment, but the amalgam of that creator plus the creative input of
the perceiver. While I cannot absolutely deny the possibility of a team
efort producing something special, I am highly skeptical. Artists, for
good or ill, invest heavily of their time, thoughts, and ideas in a work,
whereas viewers are necessarily coming in only at the end. Teir contri-
butions can only have a limited amount of artistic control or planning.
In most cases, viewers need some time just to fgure out what diferent
actions accomplish, so their attempts to control the action will be ad
hoc. Tis kind of interaction captures the improvised nature of life, but
lacks the pseudo-improvised, but actually controlled artifce of so much
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64 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
great art. Moreover, art has always served to give us feelings, ideas, and
sounds that change us, and this is difcult to accomplish while we are
in control. We achieve these states by submitting to the artist and try-
ing to decipher his or her meaning, not by controlling them ourselves.
Religious individuals do not achieve a worshipful state by being God,
we achieve it by contemplating God’s actions (or the actions we attri-
bute to a God).
Let’s return to the commission for a site-specifc religious installa-
tion and see what an actual artist decided to do. Te actual commission
was awarded in 1508, so Michelangelo Buonarroti had no computers
or projection screens available. Tus interactivity was not an option.
He faced some technological issues, however. He was not very familiar
with fresco techniques, and their use in such a large-scale work was
particularly problematic, but he sought advice and learned the necessary
techniques. Te more profound problem was how to order the quantity
of images he wanted to include while still creating a comprehensible
overall structure. His solution was to make use of image size and place-
ment. In the lunettes and spandrels along the lateral wall, he placed
the ancestors of Jesus. In the space between these ancestors, he placed
the prophets and oracles. Together all these fgures create a frame for
the central story images that run down the center of the ceiling (both
a pictorial and a theological frame). Te nine story images are divided
into three triptychs, beginning at one end with the most cosmologi-
cal, the separation of Light and Darkness and leading across to the
most human, the Drunkenness of Noah. Michelangelo painted arches
across the ceiling to delineate these nine pictorial felds. Yet in the clut-
ter of images, another level of hierarchy was desired. From the nine
images, the four placed over the spandrels were made larger, the other
fve smaller. Te fve smaller framing works and the prophets/oracles
below them were decorated to appear as wide framing pillars around
the four, now highlighted, works: Te Creation of Sun and Moon, Te
Creation of Adam, Te Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise, and Te
Flood. Tus the three three-part story lines are combined into a single
four-part story that tells of the creation of the world in which we live.
Tis vast number of items is now arranged to allow readings at levels
of hierarchy stretching from the unitary decorative conception through
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THCHNCLCGY 65
three levels of theological and artistic separations down to the indi-
vidual panels, which are all multifaceted in and of themselves.
Although it is possible to imagine other combinations of these ele-
ments, which might perhaps be equally full of both aesthetic and con-
ceptual meaning, the sheer detail of the choices allows us to feel that
the arrangement is meaningful. A more mobile form might be equally
beautiful, at least in some confgurations, but I fear we would lose the
essential illusion that we are seeing something through someone else’s
eyes. Even if the ever-shifting slideshow of images hit on exactly the
confguration of images that currently exist, would we really read so
much into the hierarchical arrangement, especially if we knew that a
new arrangement was only minutes away?
Peter Weibel, one of the main artists behind Austria’s Ars Electron-
ica festival and prize, stated the case for interactivity this way:
I realized that this is in fact the point of electronic media. In the
natural world we have the illusion of being external observers; when
touching something it appears not to change. But in the electronic
media the basic principle is interactivity. Even a painting, like a star,
exists when not being watched, but you have to put a videocassette
into a recorder to watch it. Tis is the lowest degree of interactivity.
All these multimedia events only come into existence through one’s
observation. In the electronic world we are merely internal observers,
the world becomes an interface problem. Te art product is not a pic-
ture anymore, it is not a two-dimensional window on the world but
a door to multi-sensorial events; an artifcial environment consisting
of a dynamic system of diferent variables. One enters into a new
kind of event horizon. Tese events can be visual, tactile, or audio.
Te observer is both an external and an internal observer — inside
the event, part of the system that is observed.
4
Te problem, I fear, is that to make this (no doubt real) subjectivity
apparent, we move from observing the work itself in all its intricacy
and specifcity to observing the epiphenomenon surrounding the work
that is inherently more theoretical, abstract, and general. And, at least
for me, the more we lose the visceral presence of an object and replace
it with a more abstract concept, the less I feel drawn into an aesthetic
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66 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
vision, the less I feel that illusory empathic connection that draws me
toward works of art.
Let’s return to the other potential use of technology; we can think
of this as the facilitative potential of technology. Even if we decide that
great art might not be a likely product of new technologies that allow
the roles of art-creator and art-perceiver to be merged, might technol-
ogy make a meaningful diference in more traditional modes of art cre-
ation and consumption?
Without question, in the arts, as in all other branches of contempo-
rary life, technology is everywhere. In some cases even relatively early
advances made an enormous diference. It seems unnecessary to spell
out how profoundly recordings have changed music, but what might be
less evident is the efect of photocopying. In the bad old days, to make
a score that could be reproduced easily, we had to use India ink on
vellums (nonafectionately known as onion skins). In order to “erase”
mistakes, you had to wait for the ink to dry and then scratch it of with
a razor blade. Te ink pens were called Rapidographs (there were other
brands as well, I suppose, but these were what I learned on), and they
would leave a big dot of ink that would then smudge if you didn’t blot
the pen before almost every stroke. I can still see my entire hand and
forearm covered with little black dots of ink. What made all of this
worse was that when one made a signifcant mistake, it could mean
redoing entire pages. Moreover, reproduction processes were expensive
and of low quality. To get better printing you needed to make larger
quantities than those needed for scores and parts that are mostly rented
from the publishers. Only the most widely performed works could jus-
tify the huge cost of engraving. Te advent of high-quality photocopy-
ing, which allowed pencil scores, transformed music publishing, as did
computer engraving (using programs like Finale) a few years later. By
now, I doubt that there is a single music publisher who has not switched
to computer engraving of new scores.
Te kind of change produced by computer engraving or photocopi-
ers, however, will not make any fundamental diference in the situation
for contemporary composers. It may make their life a little easier, or
allow their publishers to achieve a fnancial equilibrium, but the basic
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THCHNCLCGY 6?
situation we’ve been discussing throughout this volume is not mean-
ingfully altered by these technologies.
Computer music
5
is another domain that you might expect me to
mention, but, again, I do not think that this development changes
the underlying sociological realities of making new music. Wonderful
research centers for electronic or computer music have been created in
universities and independently. Tey have allowed some amazing pieces
of music to be created that possess sounds and efects undreamed of in
earlier generations, but they still demand the kind of infrastructure and
subsidies that other new music demands. In some ways, they make the
situation even worse by enlarging the already great skill set a composer
needs to acquire.
Some new technologies, though, might make a real diference to
both the production and distribution of new art. While I suspect that
the developments I am going to discuss in music have parallels in the
other arts, I’ll confne myself to music because I’m not really the person
to present new technological developments in the other arts properly.
First, let’s look at the production end. Classical music is not very
expensive to write (even the most famous composer’s commission fees
are relatively modest), as long as we don’t expect composers to live of
the commissions and royalties they receive for their music. It is out-
rageously expensive to rehearse and perform, however. Te amount
of infrastructure used to create scores and parts, rehearse pieces, rent
concert halls and percussion instruments (because percussionists play
such a variety of instruments, they don’t usually own them all, and so
they are rented for concerts), tune pianos, make recordings, and so on,
is enormous. I have spent a lot of time organizing concerts, and while
the best of them are amazing experiences, a certain suspension of dis-
belief is required to justify such an expense for something that exists so
briefy. Tis is a real disadvantage the performing arts have relative to
the plastic arts.
One result of this situation is that composers have begun placing
an ever-larger emphasis on recordings. Making recordings is usually
at least as expensive as playing the pieces in concert, but the product
is more durable. Certainly, recordings have greatly afected musical
composition. Composers can become important fgures even without
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6B CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
being very widely performed. Many of the leading composers of our
time gained their reputations at least as much through recordings as
through concerts. I am dubious that acoustic music can achieve its full
force in recordings, however, especially because the quality of home
stereos has been relentlessly degraded as people buy ever-smaller equip-
ment. What recordings do indisputably accomplish is to allow music
from much farther afeld to be vetted and compared in a classroom or
when making programming decisions. Recordings have allowed com-
posers to participate in a world market of music. We’ll return to this
when I talk about distribution, which is the greatest change to date in
the music world.
Recording technology may help optimize the impact of the money
being spent but won’t change the basic fnancial equation (unless recordings
manage to greatly enlarge the audience) that requires society to subsidize
this kind of art for it to survive. What would change things is eliminat-
ing the performers. Tis is to a large extent what is happening on TV and
movie soundtracks. Between sampling, synthesizers, and sequencers, it is
possible for one person to realize a wide range of music without touching
an acoustic instrument, and without even going into the whole world of
new sounds that can be created through synthesis. Even when writing for
solo piano, many composition students ask the computer to play them a
model of the piece rather than going to the keyboard themselves.
Tis may not sound like such a bad idea (at least they are hearing
their work) until you actually hear the results of these simulations. Te
problem is that learning to write for instruments is very much about
learning the translation between the linear music notation system and
the very nonlinear system that musicians and instruments propose.
For a computer, playing two adjacent notes is no easier or harder than
jumping from one end of the keyboard to the other. An impossibly
quiet sound at the top of the fute’s range is no harder for the com-
puter to produce then a powerfully loud one at the bottom of its range.
Moreover, the weight of notes is completely lost: Will it speak quickly
or resist? Will a rhythm dissolve into texture or remain articulate? Te
homogenized sounds of even the best synthesizers give only very gross
approximations of these attributes and no sense at all of the physicality
or even possibility of the music. I have had students complain that the
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THCHNCLCGY 6O
real performers don’t play something as “well” as the simulation. Tese
models are often a real barrier to the learning of instrumental writing
(especially when students are not able to interact regularly with per-
formers). A sculptor may well be able to make a wonderful model in clay
of a sculpture that will ultimately be 60 feet high, but that doesn’t mean
the sculpture will be structurally sound once it is fnally produced. Tat
requires real knowledge of the materials that will be used in the fnal
realization. If one imagines a computer-generated recording as the fnal
product, however, most of those objections might sound old-fashioned.
One thing that would be indisputably lost if performers were mini-
mized or eliminated from the composition-performance-recording pro-
cess is the interaction between the work and interpretations of the work.
One of the great virtues of the performing arts is that the work does
not exist as a fxed object: rather it is perpetually recreated. Recordings
have already blurred this aspect of music, but in the world of computer-
generated sounds, the recording of a computer realization of a work (or
even a composer performance of the work) may be the composer’s only
opportunity to hear it. While this might be a boon to those who have
trouble getting their music played, composers, by eliminating the need
for instrumentalists, would lose the much-needed direct contact with
performers. Composers cannot master every instrument, they cannot
be objective about decisions they have agonized over for months, and
they cannot step outside themselves. Yet by interacting with perform-
ers, all these things are possible. An additional problem, if we get rid of
the work for vast numbers of performers, is that we would then lose the
justifcation for the whole system of musical training that is as essen-
tial to composers as well as performers. Although I love having the
ability to integrate computer-generated sounds into instrumental works
and additionally use computers to help work out nearly all of my music
(though not through realistic simulations), I require some amount of
interactivity with both the audience as well as the performers.
I fear the day when composers will stay behind their computer screens
— isolated in their studios — from a piece’s genesis all the way through
to its realization. Te tension that exists between composer’s pushing
and an audience’s pulling may well be lost, and what now smacks of
elitism may well degenerate into complete solipsism. A number of very
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?O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
successful compositions for tape alone have already been made, and
while these works now represent a highly distinct genre, this is likely to
change. If the concert experience were to become a rarity as high-speed
Internet, wide-screen televisions, and home cinema systems prolifer-
ate, the line between static tape work and piece for performance would
surely continue to blur. You may dismiss this possibility as akin to the
current use of digital actors in flms: a curiosity without much depth.
It is likely, however, that the use of technology in musical composi-
tion will increase in the future as indicated by the increasing number
of simulations of orchestra pieces submitted by applicants to graduate
school. Te real doubt is only how soon and how pervasively this trend
will afect the musical world.
In one area, however, I think technology has already begun to make
a meaningful and positive change for art: distribution. One of the rea-
sons that really cutting-edge art has been limited to the world capi-
tals is that those are the only places where you can fnd enough people
to create a community of composers, performers, and listeners. Te
Internet has really changed this, however. I remember when I was in
high school: A trip to New York or Chicago meant the possibility of
going to a real record shop that would have a wide selection of con-
temporary music. Records, then CDs, would eat up nearly my whole
budget on these trips. Now, of course, those stores are gone or don’t
carry much of a stock anymore. You can get just about anything that is
available online, however. In one way this is a huge advantage, because
even in its heyday Tower Records could not stock everything and all
possible imports. But, of course, without the stores, you also lose the
highly knowledgeable people who worked in them. With electronically
connected individuals, however, one can still fnd virtual communities
from whom advice can be solicited.
Moreover, the virtual community phenomenon is not confned to
recordings. Te rise of online communities means that a few thou-
sand people scattered throughout the world can actually be reached
in a coherent way: Look at how international festival audiences have
become. If contemporary art music is doomed to speak to a shrink-
ing audience, that audience is at least becoming more accessible. Even
ffteen years ago you had to go to Paris if you wanted to know what was
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THCHNCLCGY ?1
happening there; now it is nice to be there, but you can stay informed
from almost anywhere.
A further advantage to this larger community is that it has raised
the standards for composers. It is ever more difcult to stay a big fsh
in a small pond when the ponds keep linking up. Composers are more
and more drawn into a world market. Tis is especially valuable in that
it diminishes the role of personal ties (because you can’t be friends with
everyone, everywhere). For your music to succeed not just in one or two
places but in many very diferent areas, it will have to be judged valu-
able by many diferent groups of listeners/critics/performers.
I doubt that better distribution will ever be able to make up for a
society that does not have an interest in difcult art, but it can certainly
help delay the worst efects of that attitude. Additionally, if things
begin to change for the better, the efects could spread quite quickly.
As much of the traditional publisher/record company infrastructure
pulls out of this nongrowth business (the stock market is not content
for a business to be viable; it must grow ever bigger), we at least can
construct a jerry-rigged replacement that is cheaper and more fexible.
To conclude, I think technology will certainly have an impact on
what artists do and how audiences learn about it and perhaps even
experience it, but this will not be a sufcient change to alter the issues
discussed earlier in this book. No matter how we learn about, receive,
or interact with it, we still must be convinced that art can have great
value and that the value has meaning beyond our preferences. Oth-
erwise, we will simply increase the efciency with which an overpro-
duced, undesired commodity is marketed and distributed.
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?B
6
OH5IGN EÞACH
It has been drolly observed that linguists are unable to provide a convinc-
ing description of the grammar of language, yet young children can quickly
master it. It also seems true that performers and listeners can understand
music even though musicologists cannot agree what music means. Te
drollery is perhaps misplaced since there are many examples in physics,
biology, and psychology of self-organizing systems which can converge on
stable solutions to problems that defy formal analysis. Tus it should not be
surprising that we do not yet understand the basis of many human skills.
Te history of ideas has shown that failures of understanding often arose
from a poor initial perspective …
— L. Henry Shafer
1
I’ve emphasized the idea of absolute aesthetic value and suggested that
this might be a useful notion even if it is not “true” in some deep sense,
but now I’d like to look a little bit at its potential reality and the con-
straints it might pose on art. I will move away from a more general
discussion of artistic principles here and take most of my examples and
ideas from music and from other felds only as they relate to music.
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?4 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
First, I should say that the existence of absolute criteria of worth
does not mean that one true musical language or idiom exists, as some
have tried to argue (notably Leonard Bernstein in his Norton Lectures
at Harvard). At most it means that there may be general cognitive tools
and principles that, when combined with auditory perception, place
constraints on what is perceivable and thus potentially meaningful.
Furthermore, this might ofer a sense in which value-laden words like
“richness,” “complexity,” “formal-coherence,” even perhaps “beauty,”
might have a real, almost universal meaning — at least until we meet
some extraterrestrials.
How could this be? If we want to speak about anything absolute, we
need to postulate a sort of unitary framework that is deeper than the
apparently very diverse surfaces of diferent musical idioms. Only if we
fnd some sorts of perceptual and/or cognitive universals, or at least
quasi-universals, can we hope to fnd any sort of absolute criteria that
could be the source of aesthetic value. We need to imagine some uni-
versal musical language toolkit that allows the construction of a vast, if
not infnite, number of diferent languages. Is such a thing plausible or
even possible? In this chapter, I propose to look at some of the reasons
why I believe it is and some of the tools we might possess. Moreover,
I will begin to move our discussion from why listeners should support
music that is something other than pure entertainment to how com-
posers might go about creating art that tries to merit this support.
Let me say right of the bat that the word “language,” which I
will use liberally, presents an imperfect analogy at best. In language
one fnds a clear duality between the mechanisms of communication
(grammar) and the content being communicated. With music, this
division, though perhaps present, is anything but clear. It may still
be worthwhile, however, to think about music for a moment as if it
were a language. We can think of a particular musical idiom as having
forms, harmonies, idiomatic musical expressions, and gestures that
confrm or contradict learned expectations, all of which can be related
to parallel linguistic and literary structures. Furthermore, it is at least
plausible that in the same way that human linguistic symbol manipula-
tion machinery can be customized for English, French, or Navajo, our
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OH5IGN EÞACH ?5
musical machinery can be trained in classical music, Balinese gamelan,
or hip-hop.
In the domain of language, Noam Chomsky famously said that from
a Martian perspective all humans speak one language. Te linguist
Steve Pinker describes what Chomsky means in this way:
Chomsky’s claim that from a Martian’s-eye-view all humans speak
a single language is based on the discovery that the same symbol
manipulating machinery, without exception, underlies the world’s
languages. Linguists have long known that the basic design features
of language are found everywhere. […] Languages use the mouth-
to-ear channel as long as the users have intact hearing (manual and
facial gestures, of course, are the substitute channel used by the
deaf). A common grammatical code, neutral between production
and comprehension, allows speakers to produce any linguistic mes-
sage they can understand, and vice versa. Words have stable mean-
ings, linked to them by arbitrary convention. Speech sounds are
treated discontinuously; a sound that is acoustically halfway between
bat and pat does not mean something halfway between batting
and patting. Languages can convey meanings that are abstract and
remote in time or space from the speaker. Linguistic forms are inf-
nite in number, because they are created by a discrete combinatorial
system. Languages all show a duality of patterning in which one rule
system is used to order phonemes within morphemes, independent
of meaning, and another is used to order morphemes within words
and phrases, specifying their meaning.
2
Pinker then goes far beyond these design features to include other
common attributes across all human languages: large vocabularies,
parts of speech including nouns and verbs, phrases organized accord-
ing to something called the X-bar system (which we don’t need to go
into here) as well as “the higher levels of phrase structure including
auxiliaries, which signify tense, modality, aspect and negation. […]
New word structures can be created and modifed by derivational and
infectional rules. […] Te phonological forms of words are defned by
metrical and syllable trees […] their details […] found in language after
language […], give a strong impression that a Universal Grammar […]
underlies the human language instinct.”
3
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Pinker specifcally wants to put language in a very diferent category
than music, which he thinks of as an “artifcial system” like a computer
language. However, here, I believe, he is wrong. Much to the chagrin of
some composers, music does not work simply through an arbitrary set
of logical rules like a computer language. Some musical systems seem
“learnable,” while others seem like just the sort of artifcial construct
Pinker calls all music. So although musical language is indeed very dif-
ferent from human language, I believe that there are real parallels.
To highlight the convergence between the human language instinct
and the human musical instinct, we need to look at what “basic design
features” might underlie the world’s musical languages. Basic design
features are not quite the same as the often-discussed universals; they
are more like potential universals, or elements contained in a universal
toolkit. Polyphony is a good example: Humans clearly seem capable of
processing multiple simultaneous melodic lines when those lines are at
least somewhat related harmonically and not too large in number. And
while many types of music take advantage of this capability (choral
hymns, Bach fugues, jazz combos, etc.), many others do not (Grego-
rian chants, college fght-songs, “house” music, etc.).
One feature present in most music is pitch. If I say to you that pitch
is an important musical feature, you will probably be tempted to say,
“So what?” You probably think of pitch as such an obvious part of the
sounds in the world that we would necessarily use it in our music. Te
traditional view of music often treats pitch as if it were a sort of unitary
atom possessed by and characterizing all sounds: as if a sound and a
pitch were essentially the same thing. In fact, we tend to think of the
pitch description of a note or sound as somehow being, if not com-
plete, at least sufcient to describe the note or sound. Tis is why many
musical notation systems show little else. Most sounds in the world,
however, fall more into the category of noise than pitch. In order for
a sound to produce the sensation of pitch, its sonic constituents must
approximate a particular “harmonic” relationship (integer multiples
of a fundamental frequency). A sound with energy distributed less
regularly in terms of frequency will be nonpitched like the wind, a
door slamming, breaking glass, breathing, purring, a cymbal crash, a
bass drum “hit,” and so on. A violin or fute is very good at produc-
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ing pitch (although even with these instruments the nonpitched part
of the sound — bow or breath noise — is still signifcant), but this is
because we designed and built these instruments with just that purpose
in mind. You might also think we focus on pitch because of the human
voice, but only vowel sounds contain clear pitch and a great deal of our
vocalizations including all consonants are very noisy.
From a perspective parallel to language, we can see that pitch is a
very useful thing for music to employ. Because of the specifcity of rela-
tion between the internal components of a pitched sound, it is much
easier to separate two pitches into distinct sources than it is to separate
noise sounds. When our ears receive a complex sound signal from out
in the world, they can more easily divide up the auditory “scene” into
its various constituent elements (a clarinet note, a violin note, a piano
note, etc.) if the internal logic of each of those notes is simple, as it is
with a pitched note. Tis separation of the auditory stream that reaches
our ear into distinct sonic objects is at the heart of how our auditory
system analyzes the world. We have no trouble hearing the TV dron-
ing in the background while still following a conversation, and real-
izing the dog is barking because he wants to be taken for a walk. Our
ears and minds have multiple and overlapping strategies for performing
this task, which psychologists call auditory stream segregation. But in a
situation where all the sounds are coming from approximately the same
distance and direction (say, from an ensemble on a concert stage), the
internal coherence of a structure like pitch is a huge help. You can test
this for yourself; just try asking two or three friends to stand across the
room and sing diferent notes. See if you can hear who is singing what.
Now ask them to blow unpitched air, making a windlike noise, and
try to sort out who is making what sound. You may well succeed, but
it will be much harder, and if you multiplied the number of “sources,”
this processing advantage would become very signifcant.
If you want to go beyond the frst level of sensory perception
and build a more layered cognitive structure, notes can be treated
discontinuously (categorically) like speech sounds, which presents a
huge advantage. When a jazz singer sings his or her “out-of-tune” blue
note, we do not hear a diferent pitch from the one specifed by the
scale, and we also do not hear a hybrid between two members of the
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scale on either side of the “blue note”: We hear the expected pitch with
an infection that carries expressive meaning. Tis is a very close paral-
lel to what happens in language, where, as Pinker said, “A sound that
is acoustically halfway between bat and pat does not mean something
halfway between batting and patting.” Tis is why, although we could
understand the speech of almost any speaker, some, like James Earl
Jones, get paid large sums of money to read for television commercials,
because their voices seem to communicate more than just the discrete
linguistic content.
Pitched notes organized into a limited number of categories have
other advantages as well. Many musical cultures generalize notes
across register through a principle called octave equivalency. Tis is the
principle that lets us think of middle C on a piano as being in a sense
the “same” note as a high C on a piccolo. With octave equivalency,
men with low voices and women with high voices can sing the “same”
tune in the “same” key but in diferent registers. Neuroscientist Jam-
shed Bharucha has even used his self-organizing neural net model to
show that octave equivalency can form just through untutored expo-
sure to the acoustical structure of pitched notes without any concep-
tual or theoretical predisposition. Perhaps more signifcantly, pitches
and octave equivalency allow us to divide the frequency spectrum into
a small number of related notes. Diferent cultures do this in difer-
ent ways and some don’t do it at all, but the vast majority of music in
the world is organized according to these hierarchical arrangements of
pitches called scales. When scales are deployed in music, they can cre-
ate the hierarchical sensation of key.
Music that uses a scale to produce a sense of key usually shares some
additional design features. Te scales tend to have between fve and
seven distinct scale member pitches. Tis should not be surprising,
since fve to seven seems to be just the right number of units for human
working memory (think of phone numbers or zip codes, or the com-
mon representation of dates, etc.).
4
Tere are some entities we tend to
call scales that don’t have this “magic” number of notes, like the twelve-
note chromatic scale (all the notes in one octave on the piano). How-
ever, the chromatic scale is not really a scale in that it cannot generate
a key: All the notes in it are equivalent. By this I mean that whatever
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OH5IGN EÞACH ?O
note you begin or end on, the chromatic scale always contains exactly
the same pitches and relationships, so one never has a sense of one note
being more important, more tense, more fnal, and so on, than another.
Tis same problem exists for the whole-tone scale and several other so-
called symmetrical scales like the octatonic scale: In all of these scales,
the collection of notes does not allow a unique set of relations between
each scale member and the other scale-degrees. Tus, it should not be
a surprise that when you look at how these “scales” are used in pieces of
music it is never to generate a key. Tese symmetrical scales seem to be
used for ornamentation and color, while a more limited or specifc col-
lection of pitches creates the sense of key.
Sandra Trehub and others did a series of studies exploring why this
might be the case and found that infants can detect mistuned notes
much better within even completely unfamiliar scales made up of
unequal steps than within equal-step scales. Adults are better with
the familiar unequal-step scales like the major and minor scales, but
equally bad at all unfamiliar scales. Tey interpret this result as show-
ing an inherent processing bias towards unequal-step scales that allows
the learning of particular unequal-step scales as we grow older.
5
It is
certainly tempting to see this as something like what happens with lin-
guistic phonemes. Tere seems to be a limited repertoire of potential
human phonemes, which is nonetheless much larger than the set used
by any given language. Although all human babies are born with the
capacity to learn any of these phonemes, there seems to be a critical
period beginning at around nine months of age and stretching until
around age two when babies start to permanently lose the ability to
hear any and every possible human phoneme. Tey start to focus exclu-
sively on the subset of phonemes used in the languages they have been
hearing spoken by those around them and which they will soon begin
to speak. Within a very short time they even lose the ability to difer-
entiate some phonemes that they could have easily diferentiated a few
weeks earlier. Tey have pared down a large space of potential language
sounds into a smaller but deeper set of usable and understandable ones.
By limiting the number of meaningful categories, we allow infection
of those categories both for the sake of meaning (the verbal equiva-
lent of the musical “blue-note” already mentioned) and robustness (the
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BO CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
equivalent of my being able to recognize the tune based on its general
contour in spite of my mother’s out-of-tune humming).
Keylike hierarchical systems often have the added virtue of allow-
ing us to attribute sensations like tension or incompleteness to various
scale degrees. While these properties, at least for tonal music, are prob-
ably learned in a harmonic context, the association causes us to feel
functional associations when we hear even unaccompanied single-line
melodies. Te psychologist Carol Krumhansl has done a lot of work
in mapping out these relations into multidimensional “pitch-spaces.”
6
Jamshed Bharucha has used self-organizing neural nets to show that
this can plausibly happen without any prompting from a music theory
teacher. Te nets learn to recognize scale degrees and even to follow
modulations like we do. Tey were able (just through self-organization)
to go beyond individual notes to recognize the scale-degree function of
chords. In fact, Bharucha also showed that a set of hierarchical associa-
tions and expectations analogous to that of tonality is formed by these
neural nets when they are trained with Indian ragas instead of Western
tonal melodies.
7
Tese learned key systems with their accompanying
sensations are clearly very important to our perception of music, but
I suspect the more basic design feature that allows the mind to form
these networks is tension.
Tension is clearly very important to many types of music, but it can
be hard to speak about from a common vantage point. When you take
a traditional harmony class, tension is almost always taught in a gram-
matical way: Tis chord requires that resolution, that one is incomplete
without this, like linked clauses in a sentence. Tension can be generated
in all sorts of ways in all diferent art forms (contextual tension, physical
tension, emotional tension, etc.), but here I want to confne myself to
harmonic tension in music. In the mid-1990s, I was collaborating with
an American expat psychologist then based in France, Steve McAdams,
on some studies looking at harmonic tension in unfamiliar music. He
and his students ran some pilot studies to try to determine how they
should explain tension to the experimental subjects who were going to
rate the relative tension of chord pairs. What he found was that if he
tried to call listeners’ attention to any of the specifc features that might
contribute to tension, they came to very diferent conclusions about the
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OH5IGN EÞACH B1
relative tension of chords. When he just said “tension” and told them to
defne it in their own way, however, they agreed almost perfectly on how
relatively tense the chords were. Tis leads me to believe that in mental
terms some underlying reality to this category exists even if we cannot
easily create a direct mapping onto one particular set of sonic features.
Harmonic tension, like pitch, almost certainly begins with a percep-
tual phenomenon — in this case roughness. Roughness is produced by
simultaneously sounding components of the total sound-feld that fall
close together within what is called the critical band. Because of the
way the ear works, these neighboring sounds interfere with each other
and produce a parasitic amplitude modulation called “beating.” Piano
tuners count the beats-per-second between notes to tune a piano in
equal temperament. (If you listen to the beating between the C below
middle C and the E above it, it should beat 5.5 times per second — I
was taught to think of this as the speed of saying “Denver-to-Milwau-
kee” moderately quickly.) Roughness is something many other animals
also are sensitive to, including cats and starlings.
If you look at the roughness produced by intervals played on a piano,
you will see that the total amount of roughness corresponds very closely
with the perceived dissonance of each interval. What is surprising,
though, is that if you play these same intervals with very pure sounds
made by sine-tone generators lacking all sonic richness (upper partials
for the more technically minded) that caused the roughness in the frst
place, musically trained listeners will make the same dissonance judg-
ments as they did with more realistic complex sounds, while inexperi-
enced listeners will not. Inexperienced listeners will tend to judge any
sounds that lie entirely outside of the critical band as consonant even if
these same sounds played by real instruments with rich timbres would
have produced roughness, because some of the sonic components (rich
sounds are complex and consist of many internal components) would
fall within the critical band. Tis is true even for intervals we usually
categorize as very dissonant, like the major seventh.
Tis seems to suggest that we can all perceive roughness and learn
to associate that roughness with musical structures, even if the rough-
ness is later removed. None of this should be too surprising to anyone
who has ever watched a black-and-white TV: Although color is clearly
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B2 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
a part of how we perceive the diference between the animate skin of a
person’s face and the cold gray of stone, we have no trouble seeing the
gray face of the TV program as full of life because we have already seen
so many Technicolor faces and have other cues for knowing that it is a
human face.
Western tonal music ofers a familiar example of this. If you are
in C-major, a G-major triad will sound tense, even though acousti-
cally it is no diferent from the relaxed C-major triad. Te reason is
almost certainly that the triad built on the ffth scale degree is often
accompanied by a seventh scale degree that introduces extra roughness.
Because we have heard the dominant seventh chord (the version with
that extra, dissonant note) so often in this context, the perception of
tension remains even without the psychophysical cause.
For those of you who have never really studied music, this may seem
to be incredible, but you can experience these degrees of tension very
easily yourself. Take almost any recording of a classical piece and play
the fnal section until the second-to-last chord (it may be easier to start
at the beginning of the next piece and scan backwards to get to the last
thirty seconds or so of the piece). If you play the recording until this
second-to-last chord, but stop it before the fnal chord, it will likely
sound very unfnished. Tis is due to a particular use of the tension I’ve
been describing. If you now play the end of the piece again, you should
be able to feel your gut unclenching ever so slightly as the tension of
the penultimate chord gives way to the release of the fnal chord. You
will have something like this experience with almost any tonal piece,
even though the particular identities of the more tense chords and the
less tense chords will be diferent and sometimes interchanged.
You will no doubt have seen the pattern I’m suggesting by now: A phys-
ical or perceptual reality creates a bias toward the adoption of certain types
of cognitive structures for use in the development of musical language.
Approximate rhythmic regularity, quasi-periodicity if you will, is
another very common feature of music, and one might argue that it
comes about in this same way. (Traditional theory refers to this as
“pulse” and usually treats it more as an assumed axiom than a moti-
vated choice; we mainly refer to the pulse on those occasions when
the composer chooses to mask or contradict the prevailing pulsation.)
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While I would imagine that heartbeats, breathing, and other quasi-
periodic phenomena that are part of our daily life may lie at the origin
of our attention to regular rhythm, I think that the reason we use them
in so many diferent musical traditions has to do more with a process-
ing advantage similar to the one bestowed by asymmetric scales of
pitch. We’re not very good at making rhythmic judgments about the
length of two notes in a vacuum. Ask someone to take a stopwatch
and sing one note for 6 seconds and another for 6.5 seconds. Tell them
to mix up the order and try to guess which one is which without tap-
ping your foot or counting smaller units: Just try to hear which note
sounds longer. I’d bet that if you really refrain from counting, you’ll
hear the second note as longer whether it was or not. Now have them
tap seconds with their hand while singing the two notes, and you’ll see
that there is not the slightest difculty in distinguishing the two dura-
tions; in fact, you could easily tell 6 seconds and 6.05 seconds apart
with a reliable metronome, because one would end right on the beat
and the other would end just after the beat. Rhythm, like 5 to 7 note
asymmetric scales, is also an aid for our processing of musically useful
information — in this case, in the time domain.
In many musical systems, we add further levels of related hierar-
chy. In the pitch domain, multiple keys can be organized hierarchically
into a sort of larger metaset of relations called a pitch-space. Pulses are
almost always organized into groups of two, three, or four in what we
call a metrical grid. In each case we have taken the power of the local
relation and given it a higher-level function. While this is certainly
very diferent from language, it shows the same sort of uniform toolkit.
In fact, because music does not possess the direct information coding
of language, the universal-musical-tools exhibit efects at larger time-
scales and higher levels of structure, like musical form. Tink of how
many types of music take advantage of contrasts between fast and slow,
tense and relaxed, lyrical and rhythmic. Also note that while the pulse
speeds of music vary quite a bit, it is not by a factor of 100, or even 20.
Te slowest pieces will tend to have a pulse of 20 to 30 beats per minute
and anything faster than 240 beats per minute is very rare. Moreover,
slower pieces tend to have more subdivisions per beat, making the dif-
ference in average note density even less. Again one suspects that the
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B4 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
natural motor ability of performers has much to do with this constraint,
but regardless of the origin it has become part of the language.
Tis is not the place to seek comprehensiveness in mapping out the
basic design features of musical language; I have just been trying to
convince you that some such set of principles does exist. My motivation
is that if such principles exist in any absolute sense, the way in which
a particular musical language uses them might afect its possibilities
of being meaningful, and the way a particular work interacts with the
underlying mental principles might be capable of making it successful
or not in some absolute way. Now you will notice that just like linguists,
I am forced into post hoc reasoning in trying to determine these design
principles. No musician (at least prior to recent ones) set out to decon-
struct the underlying principles of music in order to write it; instead,
they could depend on an enormous body of empirical data generated by
the musical tradition to which they belonged. In fact, in the twentieth
century advocates of a return to tonality were often forceful in arguing
that new musical languages were simply not “understandable.” (In this
context “understandable” might be read as “coherent.”) Tey maintained
that much contemporary music has given up the very elements that lead
to a listener having a “musical experience.” While it is tempting to dis-
miss these arguments as reactionary, self-serving, or narrow-minded,
they have greatly infuenced the discourse of most composers and
music theorists. (For those with more of a music theory background,
I would suggest that from a certain perspective, one might view much
of PC set theory as an attempt to “prove” the coherent and structured
nature of the atonal and twelve-tone repertory.
8
) Rather than dismiss
or attempt to “disprove” this argument, however, it might be better to
admit that there may be an element of truth that, if properly evaluated
and understood, might impact in a positive way the development of
musical languages not derived from the tonal model.
Te perspective I have adopted in speaking about a universal
design-toolkit for music is borrowed from evolutionary psychol-
ogy and evolutionary theory. Perhaps an even better analogy for how
these basic principles interact with potential musical languages comes
straight from evolutionary theory. Richard Dawkins in his book Te
Blind Watchmaker talks about the metaphor of design space. By this
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OH5IGN EÞACH B5
he means the theoretical multidimensional space in which each poten-
tial characteristic that an organism could develop is represented on a
separate dimension. And while any possible organism would be situ-
ated somewhere within this space, it is not a limitless space, where any
attribute or combination of attributes is possible — where cows can
sprout a spacesuit and fy over the moon. Evolutionary design space
is constrained by embryology, past events, current conditions, and a
plethora of other things that guarantee that the vast number of possible
designs is not the unbounded, unstructured chaos of Borges’s “Library
of Babel.” Some creatures that are easily imaginable, like dragons, do
not seem to be accessible to evolution. (DNA would have a tough time
specifying an asbestos-lined throat.) In our musical analogy, we might
be able to create almost any sound, at least with a computer, but these
sounds are not necessarily capable of functioning — in the sense of cre-
ating a musical sensation in a listener.
In all felds of applied design (and music is in a sense the applied
design of sound), “design space” can be used to designate the range of
solutions that satisfy the design criteria. Te dimensions are not fully
independent or even necessarily continuous: If you make SUVs taller
so the people driving them can feel powerful and safe, you will almost
inevitably raise the center of gravity and make it easier for the trucks
to fip over in an accident — thus reducing the driver’s actual safety.
Design features that may seem very diferent can be linked at these
deeper levels, and it may not be possible to treat them independently.
Tere may well be no region of the design space with a tall car and a low
center of gravity. An understanding of this space can help us see how
almost inevitable certain design solutions are (the philosopher Dan-
iel Dennett calls them “forced moves in design space”) and may let us
appreciate how special and unique other regions of the space might be.
Evolutionary theorists use this concept when trying to disentangle
two similar creatures whose resemblance might be caused by converg-
ing lines of development within a small design space or might be the
result of related development within a potentially large design space.
Put another way, when two creatures resemble each other in some
respect, it might be because they are closely related or it might be
because they are both trying to accomplish some similar task that can
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B6 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
only be done in a few ways. Streamlining is one of the classical exam-
ples given to illustrate a small design space. Fish, whales, birds, cars (at
least since the advent of computer modeling and wind tunnels), and air-
planes all seem to share a related set of smoothly curved shapes called
“streamlined.” Tis resemblance is due not to tradition, imitation, or
shared lineage, but is the result of an attempt to accomplish the same
goal — reducing drag on motion through a viscous medium, water or
air — and streamlining is an efective means to that end, perhaps the
most efective means. Tis distinction between the two possible expla-
nations for similarity (relation or forced moves) is very important for
us, because relational similarity tells us only about history, while the
forced moves help us map out the boundaries of design space.
What is important from my point of view as a composer is that this
may be a way of understanding the constraints, if any, on comprehen-
sible musical compositions. In other words, what are the limits to the
design space in which coherent musical languages may be created?
Or, how can we create these languages while avoiding the Scylla and
Charybdis of renouncing the potential for innovation versus creating
impossible artifcial grammars that can be studied but never “learned.”
If music that has absolute aesthetic value really exists, are there con-
straints on it or could it be anything that someone can imagine? I am,
of course, not posing this question in a vacuum. A whole series of
musical styles from the twentieth century takes starting points in com-
binatorial mathematics or chance-related procedures, or a host of other
extramusical sources. Some critics have attacked exemplars of these
musical styles as “unhearable.” Rather than debating the “validity” of
specifc styles, the more interesting question is the general one: If we
admit that some sequences of notes that may be logically coherent are
not musically coherent even in principle, is it possible to determine the
“design space” in which a musical language must reside to be viable?
Furthermore, is it possible to use this information to design a musical
language that is both novel and comprehensible?
We ought to start with what we know. At least one elaborately
developed musical language exists that most listeners agree is learnable
and capable of producing satisfying musical results: tonality. While it
goes far beyond the scope of this book to address the common-practice
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OH5IGN EÞACH B?
heritage in detail, a few observations are necessary. Tonal music — like
most other music in the world — was created through a long process of
trial and error, in which the successful eforts of the current generation
were assimilated both by contemporary and succeeding generations: It
was not created by an individual who “dreamed it up” and expected
the world to learn it and adapt to it. In spite of stylistic diferences
between composers like Mozart and Beethoven, enough similarity
between the various composers of a given generation and even across
generations existed to allow one composer’s insights to be proftably
applied to another’s dilemma and to allow one composer’s failures to
forestall another composer’s attempt. Ideas that failed to function for
performers and/or audiences had little chance of enduring. Tis golden
era of collaborative research and development (of course the partici-
pants in this R&D would certainly not have seen it in this way) created
a vast base of knowledge about what types of musical ideas, structures,
and materials could be employed in efective musical works. Tough it
was only later and gradually that this knowledge became codifed in
theoretical terms, the pedagogical practices that depended on study of
older works and style imitation leave little doubt that most of what a
composer did was based on what others had done. Tis knowledge was
both liberating and constraining.
Composers were free to create novel structures of vast proportions
without incurring a correspondingly greater degree of risk — because
while the overall design might be novel, the elements were all well
tested. Risk may be a difcult notion to assess relative to a musical
work, but it is nonetheless real. Without the experience of other com-
posers, one would have little hope of creating forms that could hold
a listener’s attention over time, create large-scale relations, impart a
sense of departure and return, and so on. At least from the perspec-
tive of a tonal composer, the lack of any of these elements would have
constituted a serious failure. Just as structural principles of construc-
tion do not hinder an architect from building a novel geometry on a
traditionally designed foundation, composers in the later part of the
nineteenth century were not impeded from pushing the organizing
principles of tonality far from their roots while still profting from
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the structural principles that allow tension to be maintained over long
time-scales.
However, in the twentieth century many composers began to lose
sight of the reasons that had motivated the choices made by tonal
composers. Te materials of tonal composition that had been superbly
designed for compelling reasons (at the time) became blind articles of
faith separated from their raison d’être for many twentieth-century
composers. In recent years, although a few composers have continued
to ignore the contradiction created by preserving the symptom without
the cause (making a virtual religion out of the permutation of an inher-
ited set of symbolic elements drawn from traditional Western notation),
many have tried to address the issue.
9
Te rise of neoromanticism, post-
modernism, and other movements that return to tonal principles refects
an awareness of this problem. Te composers belonging to these move-
ments have recognized the futility of using the tonal model to write a
music that shares few, if any, common goals with the music for which
that model was developed. Teir solution has been to restore the foun-
dation and return to tried-and-true methods of musical construction.
George Rochberg expressed this concern to me. Like many listen-
ers, he said that he remembered a lot of music of Brahms or Beethoven,
but that so much new music just faded away after he heard it, leaving
nothing. He felt that an efective model should create music that sticks
to you like burrs to your clothing after a walk in the woods. He saw no
reason to build on what he saw as failed modernism, when successful
older styles remained viable.
Other composers have confronted this same problem — which of the
inherited materials of tonality still make sense in the context of their
music and which should be jettisoned and replaced with novel devices
— through highly personal and sometimes eccentric means. Compos-
ers like Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, or Iannis Xenakis opted for
a difcult and lonely course, turning away from our inherited tools to
prospect in solitude for usable principles of compositional construction.
Tese “mavericks” have sometimes produced remarkable results. Te
languages they developed, though, have turned out to be extremely
personal, individual visions, and as such they have not formed the
foundation of any broad movements to rival tonality, Indian classical
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music, or other systems. While this does not reduce the artistic impact
of their oeuvre, it does limit the usefulness these composers ofer as
a model for other composers whose aims deviate even slightly from
their own. Tis should not be surprising, because it seems very unlikely
that these isolated fgures can hope to build anything approaching the
depth or scope of tonal music. Tonality was developed by thousands of
composers over hundreds of years and has received millions of hours of
feld-testing with audiences. It would be hard for even the most bril-
liant intuitions to rival the strength and depth of that collective efort
(and it is astounding that sometimes this has happened).
However, another solution may be suggested again through our anal-
ogy with the study of design space. Today’s architects and structural
engineers don’t need to build endless models and perform impossible
calculations; improved technology changed the givens. It is now pos-
sible to accurately model a complex and completely novel structure and
yet still know if it will stand (think of any building by Frank Gehry).
Teories are available that can give predictive and not simply descrip-
tive information. If both abstract criteria and design constraints exist
that create the background in which those criteria can be evaluated, it
may be possible to create work that is both meaningful and novel: Look
at the range of forms that suspension bridges can take, while all using
the same set of principles.
If we want to understand the design space of musical language, we
are going to have to reverse engineer some of the world’s musical tra-
ditions. Any tradition that has endured over time must on some level
“function” for its listeners. By studying the music, we ought to be able
to deduce some of the principles that allow it to function. Our goal
as composers ought not to be the goal of music theorists, who want
to understand the language itself; composers need to discover the frst
principles that allow the language to function. We want to understand
the “whys” rather than the “hows,” so that we can create new ways of
satisfying those same design criteria. Tis will not be sufcient infor-
mation for us, however, because it is not just the language that will need
to be developed, but also the content — and the two are intertwined
in complex ways in a piece of music. Before we look at my personal
deductions and the frst principles that seem most important to me,
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we need to look at what the word “meaning” might mean in a musical
context. In discussing comprehensible or learnable languages, we must
remember that it is perfectly feasible to write an uninteresting novel
with correct grammar. Te linguistic framework cannot provide any-
thing more than the point of departure for a compositional elaboration.
Great music must do more than function: It has to inspire.
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7
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What I like about music is its ability to be convincing, to carry an argu-
ment through successfully to the fnish, though the terms of the argument
remain unknown quantities.
— John Ashbery
Music, not being made up of objects nor referring to objects, is intangible and
inefable; it can only be, as it were, inhaled by the spirit: the rest is silence.
— Jacques Barzun
In Chapter 6, we discussed music as something like a language, but in
order for that metaphor to be viable we need to discuss further what it
might mean to “understand” a piece of music (or even a single musical
idea). When I use a word and you listen to it, we will be objectively
communicating only if we agree almost exactly on what the words
mean. If we are to deal with the kind of subjective communication that
takes place during a musical experience, we are going to need some
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help defning our terms. Although it often seems that philosophical
concepts can obfuscate more than clarify, in this case they might help.
Philosophy has a word for subjective personal experiences: qualia,
the subjective “quality” of an experience, what it feels like. Tere is also
a word for coded communication like language: semantic, referring to
categories and labels, not the subjective experience that elements bear-
ing those labels evoke. It is very easy to explain semantically why the
sunset produces colors (perhaps not for me, but certainly for any physi-
cist who understands the light emitted by the sun and its interaction
with the atmosphere). However, it is completely impossible to explain
why it is beautiful or why watching it is pleasurable. Tis is not to say
it cannot be discussed at all, just that a clear semantic explanation (the
sunset is beautiful because the light at this frequency provokes, etc.)
cannot be formulated for the qualia of a subjective percept. Even an
evolutionary “just-so” story about why it might be advantageous to fnd
the sunset beautiful, or a neuroscientifc description of neuron activa-
tion patterns, would not really answer the qualitative question of why
we fnd it beautiful. Every painting of a sunset is, in fact, a more or less
successful attempt to communicate the qualia of beauty produced in
the artist by that event.
A musical performance is a somewhat parallel attempt by the per-
former to communicate to the members of the audience the qualia he
or she experiences when hearing a musical composition: It is the single
most relevant and eloquent way to discuss the real “meaning” of a piece
of music. While the added complexity of having the three layers of
composer, performer, and audience complicates the relations to some
degree, anyone who has studied an instrument will have had at least
a hint of this experience of purely aesthetic communication. A typi-
cal lesson embodies a dynamic back-and-forth between student and
teacher: Te student plays; the teacher says “no, like this,” then plays;
the student tries to emulate the teacher’s performance, or resists and
goes a diferent way until an agreement or perhaps a surrender has been
achieved. A real discussion has taken place and real information has
been exchanged — even if we cannot put it into words.
Because I’m not there and we cannot hold this discussion around
a piano or even a hi-f, the frst question we have to address is what,
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if anything, can we discuss semantically (our only option in this situ-
ation) about pieces of music that might be of value. So much of our
thinking is semantic in nature — we think in words — that we should
probably ask ourselves whether semantic knowledge impacts the sub-
jective experience of listening to music at all and, if so, in what ways?
Te answers to these questions are not direct. Semantic knowledge
is clearly useful in that it can give referents. I can explain that a musical
motive is called “x” and then refer to it without having to play it for you.
Categorizing things this way will unquestionably aid memory (this is a
form of the chunking that we discussed earlier). Semantic knowledge
of a piece of music and its score will also help us separate the autho-
rial voice from the interpretive voice. Moreover, it will help us think
about the work’s relationship to other pieces even when their surfaces
are quite diferent — although one still might wonder if any of this
allows us to listen “better.”
What does it mean to listen well? Paying attention is certainly a big
part of it. Letting music wash over you may be pleasant, but you will
only perceive the tip of the iceberg. Tere are all kinds of things one
can hear without any special knowledge or skill, and, ultimately, it is
the sensation produced in each moment as you attentively listen that
will matter.
I do not believe that charting out forms and labeling themes will
help you very much in listening to and enjoying a piece of music — just
as making an outline will not make you love a novel with a compli-
cated plot. Decoding how the composer built the piece also will not
guarantee a more satisfying experience. One might be tempted to listen
for clues to the composer’s life or emotional state; though this may be
interesting, you probably will not love or hate a piece based on whether
or not it was written while the composer played skittles. You love a
work because of the sensations or qualia it produces when you hear it.
Terefore, I believe you can get more out of close listening by starting
with the afective, subjective experience the work creates in your mind.
In a certain sense it will not even matter if the afects in the piece you
love were intentional compositional choices or by-products of some
other process or even just happy accidents.
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If we go ahead and remove intentions, circumstance, as well as the
detailed recipes for writing the music (la cuisine, in French) from our
discussion of understanding a piece, it might seem we are taking away
your best listening strategies. What is left to the close listener to lis-
ten for? Te answer, I believe, comes from the way Daniel Dennett
and others use the term “intensions” (with an s). We can’t really know
what a composer intends. If you believe the psychoanalysts, maybe the
composer himself did not know what he intended. We can, however,
know what afects the piece produces in us when we hear it. Moreover,
we can imagine that creating this result (the afect) was the composer’s
intent. Terefore, rather than calling this projected intent a real inten-
tion, we will use the funny philosophical lingo and call it an intension.
If you listen to a composer’s “intensions,” you can look at a piece
from the viewpoint of an industrial spy. Here is the fnished piece that
produced a specifc afect in you, the listener, and the question is how.
At this point we no longer care about the composer’s intentions; we are
assuming that the bit of music in question is a machine designed to
produce an afect, and through reverse engineering we want to know
how it was done. Tis so-called “intensional stance” removes the ques-
tion of “why” without upsetting the supremacy of efect over cause. It
is “as-if ” the piece was designed to make these afects, because they are
why we listen to it and care about it.
Even more traditional, semantic-oriented, analytical schemes will
eventually need to address afect and the ways it is produced, but they
are often hampered by a rigid framework that can force our judgments
into a narrow mold. We tend to break our way of listening and analyz-
ing into two opposing viewpoints. Te two quotes at the start of this
chapter represent the two ways that musical meaning has tradition-
ally been discussed. Tese views are usually presented in oppositional
terms, and the words used to describe them say a lot about on which
side of the divide you situate yourself. Some of the ways this dichotomy
is presented are:
German vs. French
Discursive vs. Decorative
Developmental vs. Static
Expressionist vs. Impressionist
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In each case, though, the conceptual divide is basically the same.
Do you appreciate the object itself on an aesthetic level, or do you use
the object as a tool to comment or explicate some other thing or idea?
Debussy advised that if you want to understand nature, you should
watch a sunset, not listen to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, while
I suspect that Adorno would have given the opposite advice. Which
gives us another way of framing the divide: Does art help us under-
stand the world or ourselves, or does it give us something that is won-
derful but distinct from other aspects of the world — existing in some
aesthetic realm? Is the object itself only the surface of a meaningful
dialectical network of meaning, or is it the entire work? In this, as in all
dialectical presentations, both sides, in fact, capture some of the truth.
Tis debate is a little like those representations of a 3-D cube (fgure
7.1) that we all doodle (its ofcial name is a Necker cube in honor of
the nineteenth-century Swiss crystallographer who discovered the illu-
sion): You can see it one way or the other way, but not both ways. You
can fip your vision of a Necker cube back and forth, seeing the dot in
either the left front corner or the left rear corner, but you cannot see
it in both places at once. (Tink of the lower square as being in the
foreground and look, then think of the upper square as being in the
foreground and look again.)
All this is still a bit abstract. Let’s demonstrate this binary way of
perceiving as it is applied to the analysis of musical forms. I’m going to
talk in more specifc ways about music than I have up until this point,
but I will try to make sure it remains understandable. I’ll mention some
Figure 7.1 The Necker cube.
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musical examples, but they will be taken from very famous works you
can readily fnd at any music store, library, or on the Web. We will
analyze a form in the traditional discursive manner, then discuss briefy
a piece that calls for a diferent, less directional sort of analysis. After
presenting this fairly standard way of using these diferent perspectives
on repertoire to which they are well suited, we will discuss how the
two views might in fact be more complementary than we tend to think
— even for pieces normally considered as belonging to one or the other
camp. Ten we will look at how the manner in which we analyze or
listen to a work may condition our expectations in ways that interfere
with really hearing a piece on its own terms. Finally, I’ll try to ofer a
less conditioning framework for attentive listening.
Te most famous of all musical forms is the “sonata” form; anyone
who has had any sort of music appreciation class or read much in the
way of program notes has at least seen references to this form. Tis
form earned the name because it is generally used in the frst move-
ment of instrumental sonatas (which are sets of movements for a solo
instrument or an accompanied instrument that were very popular from
the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries). Sonata form was
probably the most important form in all types of large-scale instru-
mental works throughout the classical and Romantic periods, so the
name is something of a misnomer: Concertos and symphonies use
sonata form as much as sonatas.
If we look at sonata form from the traditional viewpoint (which we
could also call the German viewpoint) we have two ways of describ-
ing it: harmonically or thematically (motivically). In either case, we
will divide the movement into three parts: exposition-development-
recapitulation. Te exposition presents some material and is often
immediately repeated in its entirety. It also serves to move the piece
away from the key in which it started to another closely related har-
monic region. Te development takes tunes or tune-fragments from
the exposition and transforms them in various ways that can be more
or less clearly linked to the original form of these tunes (occasionally
new themes are even introduced). Te development will typically go
through a number of diferent, less closely related key areas, but will
not return to the original key. Te recapitulation follows the develop-
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ment and presents a more or less precise repetition of the exposition
(though often shortened). Te recapitulation begins in the original key
and, unlike the exposition, also ends in that key. While the exposition
is repeated by itself (expo-expo), the development and recapitulation
are often repeated together as a unit (dev-recap-dev-recap).
When analyzing a sonata form movement from a harmonic point of
view, we focus on the notion of departure and return. We will still need
to refer to thematic material, but we will be more concerned with the
tonal space that material occupies than with the nature of the mate-
rial itself. We might even look for ways of reducing the complexity of
the musical surface to see this underlying architecture. Tis viewpoint
highlights the “classical” side of the form (its symmetry) while still
shedding light on its highly directed (goal-oriented) Romantic side.
From a thematic standpoint, we will focus more on the material
itself, and probably will go into great detail in our labeling of material.
Tis will allow us to classify what is happening musically and trace
the way it evolves and how it returns. We will probably go beyond the
larger divisions to label small, memorable snippets called motives. Tese
motives will allow us to see connections between apparently diferent
tunes. Tey will also help us see the profusion of ideas that may fy by
in the development as being “organically connected” (that is, built from
the same musical molecules). Because it highlights directed, progress-
oriented change (one of the hallmarks of Romantic music), we can
think of this as a highly Romantic way of viewing music. It places more
value on parsimony (a desire to account for as much of the piece as pos-
sible from the fewest possible generative elements) and development
and can somewhat mask the role of symmetry.
Now let’s consider a little snippet of a Romantic symphony frst
movement. Try Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the so-called “fate”
motive (da-da-da-dahhh) is easy to follow and remember. It is typi-
cal of motives in that you keep redefning it as you go: Is it a specifc
set of four notes; three notes followed by another note, a third lower;
three repeated notes followed by a diferent pitch; or just short, short,
short, long? In some ways, the motive can be any of those things as
long as you can hear a connection between the germ-idea and its cur-
rent form. Te overall description of the piece that comes from this
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sort of listening should be very familiar from program notes and music
appreciation texts: “And then the so-and-so enters picking up the such-
and-such element from the third horn’s this-and-that, etc.”
If you’ve had any training in formal analysis, it most likely was in
this Germanic viewpoint. Te American classical musical tradition
was to a large degree a German transplant and most of the music being
analyzed is Germanic as well, so this makes sense. But, as we men-
tioned above, there is another way to look at things.
Listen to the “Danse Sacrale” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and try
to remember a few of the little modules that keep coming back. Notice
how, in spite of the asymmetries, the driving pulse helps everything
hang together. A few simple units keep swinging around so they can
be seen in diferent contexts almost from diferent angles (now elon-
gated, now shortened). You could almost think of this movement as a
sort of musical equivalent of a very big Calder mobile. While the music
certainly drives us forward, it is hard to think of it as developing: trans-
forming from one thing into another. I will not go through a detailed
presentation of how these modules interact in the piece, because it is a
singular structure, not a widely used form like sonata form. I chose a
frst example for this nondevelopmental view from a piece that is musi-
cally, historically, and geographically ill-suited to the more familiar
(Germanic, Romantic, developmental, thematic) mode of analysis to
help clarify my meaning. Te developmental and nondevelopmental
views can be informative in all sorts of works from all sorts of places
and times, however.
Blanche Selva, a pianist who taught at the Scuola Cantorum in Paris,
wrote this about the sonata form:
In the sonata, where tonality can be compared to the place of the
action, the themes are the characters possessing word, gesture and
movement within it. Te rhythm is the gesture and the melody
the word. Te characters or themes all converge, by their gestures
or words, in the general action, which is the work. Trough inter-
pretation, the character-theme should be presented from the start,
with all the habitual rapidity of gestures, the timbre of the voice, the
accent of the speech.
1
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While this view certainly allows for development, it doesn’t require
it. In fact, if we look back at a lot of older music (Couperin suites, for
example) we can view the music as a series of character pieces that are
lovely but don’t necessarily add up to some grand edifce. Moreover,
this characteristic is not necessarily a failure.
Development is generally thought of as a virtue in music (or at least
in music appreciation classes), so you might be unsure how a nonde-
velopmental work could be equally meaningful. Part of the problem is
that terms like “development” mean so many diferent things to difer-
ent people. In a strictly musical sense, let’s just think of development
as directed change or transformation. Directionality is the key feature:
We move from one state toward another. But lots of wonderful things
are not directional. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David of Seinfeld fame had
a motto, “No hugging, no learning,” which could also serve as a motto
for many nondevelopmentally oriented composers, even perhaps for
Debussy. Beautiful (or funny) ideas need not all be transformed into one
organic, inevitable package. Return could be a prod for memory (like
Proust’s madeleine) without being a triumphal revelation of the second
theme now in its true home-key or some other inevitable achievement.
While I have been trying to suggest that either of these approaches
could be applied to almost any work, you will sometimes be frustrated
by this approach. Tere are works whose conception is so entangled
with one or the other view that trying to look at them with a contrari-
an’s spirit may be like looking for fgurative objects in a Jackson Pollock
painting; perhaps it is possible, but it’s beside the point.
Adopting the wrong approach may blind you to the virtues of the
piece you are hearing. More developmental pieces may seem square,
repetitive, and blocky if you don’t follow the “discourse.” More nonde-
velopmental works may seem static or merely decorative if all you are
searching for are developmental transformations of material.
So the problem remains: What should you do while listening atten-
tively? It’s almost impossible to pay attention to something without
developing expectations, but what kind of expectations should you form
and how should you feel when your expectations are defed? Tis prob-
lem becomes particularly acute with contemporary art, where there is
nothing like a consensus among artists. You must practically know the
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specifc work already if you are going to have any chance of developing
realistic expectations. I think, however, there are ways of developing a
framework that is general enough to help you pay attention to what you
hear and the subjective afects it causes, without trying to force works
into boxes that will impede your ability to discover novel ideas.
It might be helpful to think of a piece as having three aspects:
CONTENT AFFECT FORM
Tese are not separate things, but they can proftably be looked at inde-
pendently. Content is the aspect that varies most from work to work.
Form and afect are very much infuenced by human memory and cul-
tural experience, so, though they vary, they often have the commonalities
we have mentioned: contrasts, continuities, repetitions, developments,
juxtaposition, surprise, closure, tension, drive, lyricism, and so on.
I’ve said that we must be skeptical of the value that semantic labels
bring, but within this current framework at least a little jargon might
be helpful:
Content
Content is what we study most often when we frst start to look at music;
content is what happens at each moment of the piece, like the vocabulary,
sentence structure, and the plot or character elements of a novel. Let’s
look at a few specifc kinds of content that are most important for music.
Harmony is generally the combined sound of the notes being played
simultaneously. It might be more useful, however, to think of harmony as
the element of content that is critical for generating the afect of tension.
Harmonies are one of the best devices composers have for creating varying
degrees of tension and closure. Even without specialized labels for various
sorts of sounds it is easy to hear how the combined harmonic color can
make a music unsettled or calm, and so on.
Cadences (strong to weak) operate much like punctuation in text,
except that there are many more gradations of fnality. Tey are
achieved musically both melodically (think of the way a line can slow
down and descend at the end of a phrase) and harmonically (by resolv-
ing a tense chord to a stable one). Take any classical piece and every
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time you hear a break or an ending to a phrase or a section of a phrase,
a cadence has occurred.
Structural highpoints of a work are critical to determining an over-
all shape; mapping out these highpoints can reveal much about how a
piece is structured. By simply following the increases and decreases in
energy and tension it is possible to achieve a real sense of the shape of a
work, regardless of any specifc formal analytical terms.
We’ve already defned motive; in some works it is a critical element
of the material.
Texture is the specifc way the musical elements are structured (e.g., a
melody with accompaniment, multiple independent lines, thick chords,
unison lines) in terms of general confguration. Texture is critical to
our perception of any music. Te same musical elements arranged in
diferent textures can have greatly diferent afects.
Afect
Although many kinds of afect are very personal, many others are more
objective: a sense of closure, surprise, satisfaction, boredom, and so on.
As we’ve mentioned, even the more inefable afects contain aspects
that can be discussed. Although, as with the sunset, we cannot defne
the whole issue, we may still be able to clarify aspects of these qualia.
Form
Because form is created through content and the afects it produces,
one might wonder what it really is and how it’s generated. We’ve talked
about some of the most basic devices:
Repetition: exact or varied
Development: directed change
Expectation: fulfllment or frustration
In real pieces, form has a richness and complexity that would require
an entire volume to even begin discussing in any depth. Form can allow
the sum of the moments within a piece to be vastly more meaningful
than each moment in isolation could ever be. Te building blocks with
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which these complex afects are achieved, however, need not be much
more complicated than the simple examples given above (e.g., a fulflled
expectation that comes after a long series of frustrated ones is very dif-
ferent than an immediately fulflled or frustrated expectation — with
each frustrated expectation, the weight placed on the next expectation
increases). It is not so much the complexity of individual formal devices
as the rich network of relationships between these devices that gener-
ates formal complexity.
In order to apply our observations in any of these three categories,
we should combine these semantic notions with our perceived afects
through the intensional stance we discussed earlier. Simple cases are
obvious. Why are interior cadences weaker than the fnal cadence? To
keep the piece moving forward with an incomplete sensation then grant
closure in the fnal cadence. Te specifc techniques of weakening those
cadences are not so important and will change from one stylistic period
to the next, but the musical functions will not. A sense of completeness
or incompleteness is pretty close to universal even if some musical styles
elect to project a sense of infnity by never achieving that closure.
Certain more concrete structural principles occur again and again,
like alternations of slower and faster music. More generally, contrast
and continuity seem like important afects that can be achieved with
devices like repetition (exact or varied), juxtaposition, and so on. Even
certain gross emotional shapes are a part of vastly many pieces: slow
and melancholy; fast and joyous; tense and driven; lyrical, and so on. I
don’t mean to reduce the richness of a real musical experience through
the banality of these labels. It is important to point out, however, these
ways that we can engage with what we’re hearing — not with a set of
theoretical labels that we have been taught we should fnd.
Tere are two possible interpretations of the common complaint
made by many listeners, “I just don’t get that piece.” First, they may
have expectations when listening to music that the piece in question
does not fulfll. Second, the piece may sound like gibberish — it may
seem completely random to that listener, like a cat walking on a piano.
Te cure for the frst ill is fnding a way to free yourself from a single
listening style, and the solution to the second is probably forcing your-
self to listen more or more closely (see my earlier description of the
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“Chinese Food Efect”). In either case, though, not getting it is not
about how much music theory you have studied. Music theory may
help you understand how music does something, but understanding
the music itself does not, at its most important level, involve that sort
of semantic knowledge. When you have listened thoroughly, often, and
well there are ways not to like a piece, but no way not to “get” it. Music,
ultimately, is made for what it does in a human mind, not on a piece of
paper or in a scholarly article. You might not get how the lungs oxy-
genate the blood, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t get breathing.
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1O5
8
OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ
MOMAN EHING5
We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not math-
ematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrol-
ogy or acupuncture.
— Gérard Grisey
We ought not to forget that we still must account for the tones actually
sounding, again and again, and shall have no rest from them nor from
ourselves — especially from ourselves, for we are the searchers, the rest-
less, who will not tire before we have found out — we shall have no rest,
as long as we have not solved the problems that are contained in tones.
We may indeed always be barred from actual attainment of this goal. But
more certainly, we shall have no rest before we do; the searching spirit will
not stop pursuing these problems until it has solved them, solved them in
a way that comes as close as anyone can to actual solution. I think, then,
contrary to the point of view of those who take indolent pride in the
attainments of others and hold our system to be the ultimate, the defnitive
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1O6 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
musical system — contrary to that point of view, I think we stand only at
the beginning. We must go ahead!
— Arnold Schoenberg
In this chapter, I will ofer my more specifc, personal views about
how I and a particular group of composers attempt to write music that
corresponds to the limits on musical languages and musical meaning
discussed in the last two chapters. Tis is the “how” question of the
dialogue I imagined in the prelude: How can a modern composer hope
to make a meaningful addition to an impossibly exalted corpus? Up
until this point I’ve tried to argue in a somewhat general and abstract
way about art and music, but this chapter will deal more specifcally
with contemporary composers, compositions, and techniques to serve
as a case study of a possible application in artistic works of the ideas I
have been discussing theoretically.
Te focus in this chapter will shift somewhat, from the audience’s
perspective to the composer’s, to illustrate how artists explore the sort
of aesthetic design space that I discussed earlier. Tis viewpoint is per-
haps more familiar in the world of visual arts, where curators have long
oriented their expositions around design space explorations whether
tacitly or explicitly (e.g., placing late Medieval and early Renaissance
works in a way that highlights the emergence of perspective in the rep-
resentations; placing Impressionist, then Fauvist, then abstract land-
scapes in a way that highlights a deepening preoccupation with light
and color at the expense of “realistic” depiction). It is, of course, equally
possible to construct concert programs around the gradual evolution of
some aspect of musical practice; however, this is much less frequently
done, therefore discussing music in this way may seem less familiar.
Yet if I am to have any chance at convincing you to support the kind
of art we have been discussing, it is essential that you get a feel for how
this art might continue to develop without simply transforming into
something entirely abstract and unperceivable. I need to give you a very
small peek inside the workings of a living composer’s mind, and because
I only have access to my own head, that will have to do. Some parts of
this chapter may be a bit difcult for those with little or no experience
in this domain, and some readers may want to skim the parts that are
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 1O?
too difcult to follow. I would, however, recommend to everyone that
they try to listen to some of the works and composers I discuss in this
chapter, in concert or at least on recordings.
Let’s ask it again: How can a composer hope to make a meaningful
addition to an impossibly exalted corpus? Te frst step in fnding a
solution is to acknowledge that there is a fundamental dilemma at the
center of new art music: Even if you believe that basic cognitive prin-
ciples allow novel musical languages to be created, when is a listener
supposed to learn these new languages? Even the most adventurous
or committed among us will have relatively few occasions to hear new
composers’ works. Te pieces we do hear will often not be available
in recorded format and will not be played again anywhere near us for
years to come. Tis indisputable reality makes many wonder whether
it is necessary to deviate so greatly from our existing musical models,
because many listeners have already learned those languages. I suspect
that some of these doubters are unsure of even the theoretical possi-
bility of creating something meaningful that is not essentially similar
— in not just deep ways, but also more evident ways — to our tonal
models (most music critics fall into this category).
I have suggested in earlier chapters that I think this is possible: A
composer can use the frst principles deciphered through studying the
music and sound humans generate and process to create something
very diferent from what we have known before, but possessing equal
potential as a musical language. Te bulk of this book has been my
attempt to answer why, if possible, this might be worthwhile, or even
important. Now what remains to be attempted is ofering an answer to
how a composer might try to do this.
In the fnal analysis, general theoretical observations will not be
worth much unless artists are able to fgure out a concrete way of using
them to make real works of art. We must discuss the hard, specifc and
personal “Here’s how I …” at this point and not the general “How might
one… ?” Although I could try to analyze certain works I fnd successful
(and will do so to a small degree), I fear that would be too specifc. So,
instead, I would like to try putting forward the way that I, and some
of the contemporary composers I most admire, attempt to answer this
question when we sit down to work each day. Because I have been part
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1OB CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
of a small movement, I will try to focus on the movement as a whole so
that I do not descend too far into personal specifcity and self-justifca-
tion. For the purpose of our discussion, the utility of the compositional
approach I will present does not depend on whether I’m right; what
really counts is the quality of music these attitudes allow me, or others,
to produce. And in the context of this book, what is really important is
to show one possible framework for responses to the dilemmas facing
the creation of the sort of new, difcult art (the reception of which) we
have been discussing up to this point: one possible “how.” Although
you may reject my conclusions, I think that looking at one way a group
of composers might try to solve these problems in artistic works can
perhaps convert a somewhat bleak assessment of the current situation
for art into the groundwork for attempts to go ahead. At the very least,
it ought to show that the very difcult set of constraints that face a
composer today are not completely irreconcilable.
I need to ofer one major caveat before we begin in earnest. When I
move away from my work table and start to look at music as an observer,
it seems obvious that a whole range of solutions to the problems inher-
ent in composing a piece are possible. Tis is the detached reasoning
of an outside observer, however. When I’m in the heat of the moment
making the actual decisions that let me create a piece of music, I am
incapable of taking this broad perspective. Intellectually, I may be sure
that there are many potentially successful responses to a given set of
compositional problems, and that my own is just one possibility; how-
ever, on a gut level, I can’t really believe in those other solutions (at
least not while I’m still writing the piece). To create efectively, I think
you need to be certain, not just pretty sure. Artists may be wracked
with doubt about whether they have achieved their aims, but I don’t
believe they can be efective if they doubt those aims.
All this is my way of saying that you will get the sense in this chap-
ter that I’m awfully sure I’m right and everyone else is wrong, because
this is the way I need to think when writing my music. I want you to
get a glimpse of the way a set of composers see the world and how that
shapes their work. In a certain sense I could probably have chosen a
diferent set of composers with a somewhat diferent outlook to dem-
onstrate something very similar, but it would be a view from outside.
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 1OO
Terefore I decided to risk the danger of this seeming too much like
self-justifcation in order to ofer a more direct and personal view of
how at least a few composers try to make their music.
So, we return to our question once again: How can someone set of,
without a map, on a quest for the compositional “grail” of really new
music that possesses the same potential for aesthetic richness as the
greatest tonal music? Every day when I sit down to compose I think
about this question, and every day I have to feel sure that I have found
some kind of answer in order to continue. You might think of the way
I, and several others, try to create musical structures that are both novel
and “comprehensible” to human listeners as the “spectral approach.” Tis
approach is built around the idea that writing music is not just pushing
around tunes, intervals, numbers, or harmonies; it is designing evolutions
of sound in time to be processed by human beings listening attentively.
Te Spectral Approach
Te spectral approach looks beyond the specifcs of tonal music for the
more general rules that allowed tonality to function so well. Te idea
behind this approach can perhaps be most clearly explained through
an analogy: Engineers who have built fantastically complex devices
through successive refnements of existing apparatuses sometimes hit
a roadblock. In this case, the scientifc method tells them to go back to
the basic theories that allowed the initial device to function and recon-
sider them. It is often the case that a new consideration of these same
“frst principles” can lead to a very diferent perspective. Continued
progress may depend upon the use of an entirely diferent apparatus
to accomplish the same underlying function. Tis was the approach
adopted by the spectralists starting in the early 1970s with the French
composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail.
Spectral composers felt that much new music was not producing
satisfactory results: Te theoretical constructions that were being dis-
cussed at great length by the composers of the time did not seem to
correspond to anything audible in the actual works. In their refections
about a basis for musical construction that would function, be audible,
and not return to tonality, they saw only one realm in which to explore:
sound. Even the earliest Western treatises about music have used sound
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11O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
as the underpinning for their theoretical constructions — long before
any deep understanding of acoustical or psychoacoustical principles
existed. Tis recognizes the indisputable reality that human hearing is
not primarily for music and therefore music must be designed for hear-
ing. Teorists have always regarded musical hearing as a secondary,
nonindependent efect of our general capacity for hearing. Nonetheless,
phenomena afecting our general hearing (such as the combination of
multiple partials into a unifed sense of pitch) have clear implications
both for musical and for environmental sounds. Tis is not to suggest
that hearing can dictate a musical style, but rather that a study of sound
and hearing can elucidate the borders within which a valid (from the
perceptual point of view) style might be created (the contours of some
region in the design space we discussed earlier).
Clearly, the extended relations of tonality were not “natural” in any
meaningful sense, but they were developed from models that, just as
surely, were (the opposition of consonance and dissonance, the hierar-
chy of tension between intervallic relations played by instruments with
complex timbres, etc.). Twentieth-century composers who speculated
that consonance and dissonance were purely cultural, and that one
could create a music where the ffths were dissonant and the minor
seconds consonant, were simply wrong. While many aspects of most
musical traditions are learned (through context and exposure), we can
only learn to hear things that do not too directly contradict our natural
intuitions.
1
Like the king in Te Little Prince, composers who wish to
command the stars must be careful only to order the sun to rise in the
morning and set at night, because we are severely lacking in the means
to alter that arrangement signifcantly.
Spectral composers have sought to create a music that was built to
function (by function, I mean to create specifc, compositionally controlled
auditory impressions in the listener’s subjective awareness), instead of a
music that functions in spite of how it was built. For example, some
of the classic pieces from the Darmstadt era of serialism in the 1950s
and 1960s — such as Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso or Pierre Boulez’s
Le Marteau sans maitre — whose efectiveness derives from a sense of
orchestration, motion, and contrast, not through a study of the volu-
minous analyses of permutations and calculations that went into their
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 111
composition. Te pieces work in spite of this intellectual baggage not
because of it. Terefore, the spectralists turned to the developing felds
of acoustics, psychoacoustics, electronic and computer music, and cog-
nitive sciences to fnd directly things that could be heard and impres-
sions that could be created. Tis information did not tell them how to
compose, but merely where to look.
I will try in this chapter to give a general guide and orientation to
spectral music. However, just as a study of overtones, temperaments,
and formal models (while useful) does not clearly defne Mozart’s style,
I cannot really “explain” spectral music, but can ofer background and
perspective for further study and listening. Real musical understanding
is sensory. Ultimately the real “meaning” of the music lies in the feeling
of rightness, surprise, beauty, tension, or whatever else the music pro-
duces. Te real ideas of the music are musical in nature and no amount
of conceptual description should be accepted as a substitute for “the
tones actually sounding.” Nonetheless, we must address the question
I’m sure you are all ready to ask: What is spectral music?
What Is Spectral Music?
As I’ve said, formulating a clear defnition of a broad musical category
like spectral music is nearly impossible. Only through extended famil-
iarity not just with a type of music, but also with its milieu, can one
hope to develop meaningful categories that are more than mere simpli-
fed labels. Tus, I will try to describe a mixture of historical and musi-
cal developments that together have helped defne the spectral school.
I’ll also include a few very targeted “analytical” examples interspersed
within the discussion.
2
Tese examples will be very broad in nature and
are really intended for those readers who have little or no experience
with this music. All the examples are drawn from works that are avail-
able on commercial CDs, and hopefully some of them will incite you
to hear the pieces themselves. While my defnition of spectral music is
a personal one, its broad outlines are largely undisputed. As with any
defnition, however, many of its specifc details are controversial and
many of those to whom this label would be appropriate do not like
being classifed. In any case, for the present discussion what really mat-
ters is the general outline.
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112 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
Spectral music developed as a school of composition in the early seven-
ties inspired by the works of two composers, Tristan Murail and Gérard
Grisey. Its composers now cover three compositional generations and a
large variety of styles. Tey write for all types of instrumental groupings
and often take advantage of new technological possibilities for enriching
their musical palettes. Te musical approach is profoundly diferent from
both structuralist (postserial) approaches and hybrid (neo-Romantic or
postmodern) aesthetics; however, the pieces remain intimately linked
to the interpretive tradition of Western instrumental music. While tape
pieces have been written by some spectral composers, their goal is not
electro-acoustic music, but rather a new type of instrumental music with
diferent sounds, textures, and evolutions.
Te term spectral music was coined by Hugues Dufourt,
3
but the most
pertinent remark for understanding its meaning was made by Tristan
Murail during his lectures at the 1980 Darmstadt summer course. He
referred to spectral composition as an attitude toward music and com-
position, rather than a set of techniques. While that remark was made
without elaboration, it ofers a useful starting point for our investigation
of what spectral music is.
Spectral music addresses broad aesthetic consequences instead of
specifc stylistic ones. Tus, spectral composers can have vastly difer-
ent styles and some even prefer to reject the label. However, all of these
composers share a central belief that music is ultimately sound evolv-
ing in time. Viewing music in this way, as a special case of the general
phenomenon of sound, facilitates these composers’ use of the available
knowledge in the felds of acoustics and psychoacoustics within their
music. Tey can refne their understanding of what sound is, how it
may be controlled, and what, ultimately, a listener will be able to per-
ceive. Tat knowledge, when applied musically, provides powerful
new compositional tools. Musical works may be conceived much more
closely to the manner in which they will ultimately be perceived than
would otherwise be possible. Sounds and musical colors (timbres) can
be sculpted in time to produce musical efects. Te panoply of methods
and techniques needed to create these efects and to manipulate sound
in this way is secondary. Tey are simply the means of achieving a sonic
end and not a discourse with intellectual pretensions in its own right.
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 11B
Combining and manipulating spectral materials in the same abstract
ways in which intervallic materials are treated (without taking into
account the precise nature of these materials and a listener’s perceptual
capacities) does not yield music that I would classify as spectral. Spec-
tral composers have often, in fact, chosen points of departure or made
use of materials that are not directly related to sonic phenomena. Te
manner in which a spectral composer treats and develops his or her
material, however, constantly takes into consideration the sonic entity
that is being generated. Tis is what Grisey really meant when he wrote
that our model is sound. It is not that a composer cannot take inspira-
tion from “visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupunc-
ture”; in fact, Grisey wrote one piece inspired by the painter Piero della
Francesca and another inspired by a pulsar, but I don’t think he was
just a hypocrite. Sound is the model for spectral composers in the same
way that light is the model for Impressionist painters, yet Monet did
not simply paint luminous washes of color. In Monet’s series of paint-
ings of the Rouen cathedral at diferent times of day, it is clear that the
proximate subject (the cathedral) is just a vehicle for communicating
the real content: light, shadow, and color. Tis is what Grisey means:
Te real content of music is not mathematics, quantum physics, or even
aesthetic philosophy, but sound, the way sound changes in time and
the afects it produces in the human mind.
Tis may seem like an obvious idea to anyone who was not a com-
poser in the twentieth century, but to those of us who were, this was
a major breakthrough. Te prevailing schools of composition either
regarded music as the structured combination of musical symbols
(notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc.), with an emphasis on the interest or
complexity of these structures; or as a vehicle for conceptual ideas (in
parallel with the conceptual movements in visual arts we discussed
earlier). In more recent years, new trends have also emerged that refer
back to a more romantic notion that regards music as being essentially
a vehicle for emotional content — usually produced through references
(literal or evocative) to past works already possessing cultural associa-
tions. Yet in any of these cases the piece at its most essential level is
something other than sounds heard in time by human listeners, and
this is the fundamental belief of spectral composers. Any other ideas
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114 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
(brilliant or insipid) will be useful or not only in how they afect those
sounds and the mental representations they create in listeners; they
have no independent justifcation.
A score created by a composer with this spectral attitude serves sim-
ply as a means of communicating the composer’s sonic intentions to the
musicians. Te score is not the actual musical work, and any notational
or other innovations that may be present in spectral scores are attempts
to express the composer’s intent more clearly with regard to fnal real-
izations; the actual piece of music is what the sonic realization becomes
in the mind of a human listener.
Because neither the technical manipulations used to generate and
manipulate the musical material, nor the procedural means of notat-
ing the score are central or indispensable to spectral composition (these
aspects are in fact in constant mutation), we must instead return to
Murail’s observation that, in fact, spectral music is neither about tech-
niques nor styles but, at its core, is simply a question of attitude. Tis
doesn’t mean that a spectral composer does not need to have technique.
In fact, writing this sort of music is often very technically demand-
ing, and a lack of technique may well cause the piece to fail. Spectral
composers do not believe, however, that the success or interest of the
piece on technical terms is a justifcation or validation of the musical
work. In whatever manner it was made, the work must ultimately suc-
ceed “independently.”
A great advantage of viewing the problems of musical organization
from the perspective of the broader category of sonic organization is
that very successful models already exist. Some of the best sets of models
for sound organization are the instruments that have evolved over time
into sound generators that composers want to use and listeners want to
hear. Tus, it is not surprising that some of the frst important spec-
tral pieces made use of instrumental models in creating their orchestral
sonorities. You may not think of an individual instrumental note as a
particularly complex or rich model for music; it might seem like some
tiny indiferent musical atom. However, each and every instrumental
note, in fact, contains a very complex interior structure that constantly
changes in time — as complex in its own way as a piece of composed
music. Tis is why so many synthetic sounds have an “artifcial” sheen
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 115
to them — they lack this interior mobility and are thus perceived as too
simple or static by our ears. It is extraordinarily difcult to generate an
artifcial sound with the richness of internal structure that most nat-
ural sounds already possess.
4
For acoustic instruments, builders have
sought to use the physical properties of vibrating materials to create
sounds that are at once extremely appealing in their richness and suf-
ciently coherent in their structure to be usable as elements within larger
structures like chords (multiple notes played simultaneously by one or
more instruments).
Of course, to listeners much of this richness exists at a level too
microscopic to hear. We perceive the sound globally as brassy, reedy,
bright, or somber; we perceive its pitch, its loudness, and so on. We
would certainly notice the lack of complex internal structure, but we
are not consciously aware of the details of that structure and the way
they infuence our global perceptions (any more than we perceive the
atomic motion that gives rise to temperature in the air around us). With
the advent of electronic devices that decompose sounds into their con-
stituent elements, however, we could begin to see the workings of these
structures. Tis internal organization ofered a new model for how a
large number of elements might evolve together in ways that ofer both
juxtaposition and collaboration within a larger structure.
In Gérard Grisey’s frst pieces, he used a close-up view of this struc-
ture as the model for much larger orchestral structures, sometimes
even complete sections. Grisey liked to describe the process as “putting
a microscope on the sound.”
5
His idea was not to recreate the original
sound (which he could have just played, after all), but to make some-
thing new that preserves the overall coherence that comes from being
part of a unifed acoustical structure at a larger level. Tis may sound
a bit puzzling, but there is a very good parallel in the visual arts. Te
painter Chuck Close has made a career of painting realistic represen-
tative paintings where the picture is pixilated into individually visible
shapes and colors. Each spot in the picture has a defnite size and shape
while still giving its overall color and shading characteristics to the
larger image, which becomes clear once you step back from the can-
vas to view it. Te total is defnitely something more or at least difer-
ent from a photographic reproduction. Te diference between Close’s
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116 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
paintings and these frst works of Grisey is that the end result in the
musical use need not remain photorealistic to even a moderate degree;
it has to preserve just enough of the structure of the model to main-
tain its dual nature: as a fused global sound and as the sum of multiple
individual sounds. Te musically inclined may notice that this model
is used in a parallel manner to the use of tonal harmony within late-
Baroque counterpoint; this is an example of convergent musical evolu-
tion. Tis musical technique of using the interior structure of a sound
as a model for a rich new orchestral object, transforming its micro-fuc-
tuations into macro-forms, is called “orchestral synthesis.”
Let’s look briefy at an example of this orchestral synthesis from one
of Grisey’s pieces, Partiels (1975), for eighteenth instruments. I’m going
to include some music notation in this example, because it is fairly
simple and it should be easy to follow the shapes, even for those who
do not read music. For the later examples, I’ll try to do as much as
possible with descriptions. Partiels is one of the best-known and earli-
est examples of a composer using an instrumental analysis to create a
harmonic and gestural model that is then realized by an instrumental
ensemble. Personal computers were, of course, not an option for Grisey
at the time that he wrote the piece, so he used an electronic sonogram
device to analyze the attack of a low E2 (an octave and a sixth below
middle-C) played loudly on the trombone. Te analysis of this attack
became the model for the opening gesture of the piece (this gesture is
then repeated with increasing degrees of alteration throughout the frst
section of the piece).
While the specifc analyses and devices he used are no longer avail-
able, we can very easily approximate the steps Grisey took with current
tools. Te frst step is the generation of a sonogram showing the attack
of the low E on a trombone played forte.
Notice that the sound is made of component bands (called partials)
that are equidistant on the frequency axis. Tis is because the sound is
“harmonic” like most pitched sounds (the partials are located at integer
multiples of the fundamental frequency that determines the pitch of
the sound). If we look at the way the loudness of the partials changes in
time, we can use the darkness of each band to see that the partials enter
one after the other with lower partials generally entering earlier and
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 11?
higher partials appearing later. We should also notice that the lowest
partials — including the fundamental — are not the darkest (loudest)
ones; the ffth and ninth partials are louder. Tis is especially interest-
ing because both of these partials form dissonant high-tension intervals
with the fundamental. Tese loud dissonant partials give the aggres-
sive, brassy quality to the trombone sound. Finally, we can observe that
the partials above this louder region gradually trail of in amplitude.
If we want to use this information in an instrumental score, we will
have to translate it from the domains of time, frequency, and amplitude
to more musical dimensions like pitch dynamic and rhythm. Tis will
often require approximations to the nearest available values that we
call “quantifcation.” By quantifying this sonogram, we can generate a
Figure 8.1 A sonogram showing the low E on a trombone played forte. The x-axis shows the time, the
y-axis shows frequency in Hz, and the darkness shows amplitude.
Figure 8.2 A musical model that corresponds to the partials of the harmonic series (approximated
to the nearest quarter-tone). The numbers above the top staff represent the partial rankings within
the harmonic series.
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11B CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
musical model that corresponds to the partials of the harmonic series.
When this is transcribed into musical notation of pitches (approxi-
mated to the nearest quarter-tone) and dynamics, the series in fgure
8.2 is produced. Tis series, coupled with a rhythmic modeling of the
successive entrance of the partials, can then be used to produce the
instrumental score.
6
In the following excerpt from the fnal score, Grisey wrote the partial
ranking next to each note. While it is generally not very helpful to write
a textual commentary on the efect of a musical passage, I think it is
important to note how striking this moment is. At the very start of the
piece one hears the trombone attack forte, with the double bass repeat-
ing the attacking gesture with less and less determination. Tis allows
the sound of the sustained trombone to gradually emerge. Just as this
happens, the sustained note that has been performing a decrescendo
begins to give way — through a cross-fade — to an instrumentally syn-
thesized imitation of itself. Tis instrumental timbre does not seek to
present an indistinguishable copy of the original, but rather to generate
an amplifcation and transfguration of the trombone note. Te listener
can still sense the underlying trombone color of the sound, while at the
same time a doorway is opened up to a vast new domain of sound found
within the original sound. Deploying these notes in a vastly stretched
out imitation of a trombone does not really sound like a trombone; it
sounds like something entirely new, while preserving a distinct trom-
bone-color in its overall presentation. It also creates an orchestral
entrance that sounds neither like a chord nor like a single sound, but
that manages to simultaneously possess many elements of both.
Tis particular musical moment, especially at the time it happened,
was to have an enormous impact. Many of the second- and third-genera-
tion spectral composers have cited their frst hearing of Partiels as having
caused their initial interest in the musical potential of sonic phenomena.
Another defning piece of the spectral movement is Tristan Murail’s
Gondwana. Te brief opening section of this piece for large orchestra is
a series of enormous, orchestrally synthesized bell sounds that are grad-
ually transformed into an orchestrally synthesized brass sound. Again,
the idea is not to ofer a realistic simulation; after all, Murail could
have just included bells with his orchestra. Te idea is to go inside of
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 11O
a bell sound and render audible the normally microscopic structures that
make it beautiful. Moreover, by recreating a hybrid with bell-like proper-
ties, it is possible to gradually manipulate these structures and make musi-
cal objects less and less bell-like in gradual increments (doing this with real
bells would at least require a foundry).
One way to create this efect would have been to analyze acoustic bells
and then analyze a brass instrument, but by looking at distinct objects like
that it is quite difcult to create a convincing intermediate space between
the bell and brass sounds. So Murail turned to the developing world of
electronic synthesis. A few years earlier a researcher and composer at Stan-
ford, John Chowning, had published the description of a versatile and sim-
ple technique for sound synthesis based on frequency modulation. (Tis
is like the vibrato of a string instrument, but instead of vibrating seven
or eight times a second the vibrato might cycle hundreds of times per
Figure 8.3 Excerpt from the opening of Grisey’s Partiels with the composer’s annotations of the par-
tial ranking of each note. © 1976 by CASA RICORDI — BMG RICORDI SpA. Used with permission.
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12O CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
second.) Tis technique became the basis of the Yamaha DX-7, one of
the frst really successful digital synthesizers. For Murail, however, this
technique ofered a single method, which when used as a model could
generate both convincing bells and brass spectra.
Murail used a simplifed form of this FM-synthesis model (one
that did not take the relative loudness of the partials into account) and
constructed a bell sound and a brass sound using the same carrier fre-
quency but diferent modulators. He then chose three other modula-
tors that produced sonorities with intermediate sonic properties. In all
this series of fve carriers afected by a single modulator produces fve
diferent modulation-based harmonies that are played by the orchestra.
In the piece, these chords are completed by other chords that were gen-
erated by calculating intermediate steps (interpolations) between some
of these FM chords.
7

Tere is more to a bell sound than a set of pitches, however. Tere is
also the way those pitches function in time. Unlike brass instruments,
bell sounds have a very sharp attack, meaning that all the partials sound
immediately. In fact, these partials are completed by a brief spurt of
noise called the “attack transient.” What then happens is the gradual
disappearance of the partials moving from high to low, until only the
fundamental of the bell (called the “drone”) remains. In the opening
passage of Gondwana, Murail wants to move from a bell-like orchestral
sound toward a brasslike one, so the overall shape of the orchestral ges-
ture is gradually transformed as can be seen in fgure 8.4.
I have given quite simplistic descriptions of the Grisey and Murail
passages; the music in question is in fact much more complex. By focus-
ing on one very prominent aspect, however, I hope to give a clear han-
dle on some of the basic ways spectral composers have tried to integrate
sonic models into musical processes. Tese sort of literal models never
represented the totality of a piece or even a section of a piece, but they
were very important to the early spectral works and can still be found
Figure 8.4 The overall shape of the orchestral gesture as it transforms from a bell-like sound to a
brasslike sound in the opening section of Tristan Murail’s Gondwana.
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 121
in new pieces; however, a more complex and sometimes less direct sort
of model is now more common.
Examples of this more subtle type of model can be found in any
of Grisey’s or Murail’s pieces after the mid-seventies. However, I’d
like to illustrate this more complex use of models with one of my own
pieces, «Receuil de pierres et de sable…». In this piece, I had many dif-
ferent categories of models ranging from the purely poetical, through
statistical behaviors, all the way to fully concrete. Tis work is scored
for two harps tuned a quarter-tone apart and an ensemble of six
instruments. Together, the two harps create a sort of microtonal super
harp that can play parts one harp is not capable of performing. Te
other six instruments create something like a sounding board for the
two harps. Te sonic/instrumental analogy at the heart of the piece is
drawn from the piano.
Sounds produced by the piano have two distinct characteristics: the
percussive attack produced by the hammers and the long sustain pro-
duced by the cast-iron sounding board and facilitated by a sustain pedal
that allows the dampers to be lifted and the strings left free to vibrate.
Of course, because I’m only using the piano’s hammers and soundboard
metaphorically, the nondirect nature of the analogy opens up many pos-
sibilities. Te sustaining instruments of the ensemble can draw out the
notes attacked by the harps, but they can also change and color them.
Tis is a malleable sort of resonant body.
Tis technical or logistical analogy is inspired by a more poetic anal-
ogy: the raking of the sand in Zen gardens. I was drawn to the idea of the
successive passages of the rakes being like successive percussive attacks
that leave an ever-richer pattern on the sand or in the ensemble. All of this
leads to the point where the raking, or playing of new attacks, becomes
less important and interesting than the design that has been created.
Other types of models appear in the piece that are more specifc,
closer to the Grisey and Murail examples that we’ve already discussed.
At three pivotal points, the ensemble recreates through orchestral syn-
thesis the sound of a Japanese mouth organ called a sho. Te specifcity
of these three moments could be thought of as somewhat akin to the
boulders encrusted in the sand/ocean of a Zen garden. Te piece also
uses what I would describe as behavioral models in the central solo for
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122 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
two futes (accompanied by the harps). For this solo, I analyzed a Japa-
nese fute called a Ryuteki. Tis fute is basically a tube (like all futes)
made of smoked bamboo, but it has a small lead tube with a diferent
diameter between its head joint and its body. Te story is that a fut-
ist broke his fute on the way to the concert and had to repair the fute
quickly, producing this instrument. Anecdotes aside, this fute has a
very strange doubleness to its sound because the oscillating air (called
“standing waves”) in the two tubes with diferent diameters and lengths
interfere and interact with each other. Te way this doubleness occurs
is very specifc, yielding certain intervals in its spectrum and producing
certain melodic confgurations when a futist changes pitch by increas-
ing the force and speed of his or her breath. In the central solo for the
two futes, I mimicked this behavior with two Western futes. Tough
many of the gestures and sounds these two futes communally produce
come straight from Ryuteki analyses, I could take this “instrument”
into speeds, registers, and harmonic areas a real Ryuteki, with its more
limited key system, could never go.
One has to take these very limited examples with a grain of salt; in
each case I have dealt with only one or two aspects of a much richer
musical situation. Moreover, even if I were to give many more exam-
ples and spend much more time describing them, they would remain
an incomplete way of understanding the attitude. Any summary afr-
mations that I might make about a spectral style are all both true and
false. I might assert that the music has made color into a central element
of the musical discourse, often elevating it to the level of the principal
narrative thread; or that orchestral fusion is often a main feature of its
surface texture, so that individual voices are subsumed in the richness
of the overall texture and color; or that the basic sonic image is often
sonorous and resonant, giving the music a sort of acoustic glow that
comes from the coherence — in the domain of frequencies — of the
diferent constituent pitches; or even that this music simply sounds pro-
foundly diferent from other musics. While examples could be found
to support all of these attributes, counterexamples could certainly be
found. Spectral composers have produced music that is too diverse for
any kind of blanket assertion to be true. Te only true constant for
composers like me is that we consider music ultimately to be sound, not
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 12B
symbols or concepts, and see composition as the sculpting in time
8
of
those sounds that a listener will hear. If we can only go so far in a book
like this with technical/musical examples, however, perhaps we ought
to enrich the ideas with a little more general and historical context.
Where Did Spectral Music Come From?
Spectral music has always cast itself in the role of a revolutionary
movement, fghting against the academicism (in the French sense)
8

and dogma they perceived in the French New Music scene of the sev-
enties. And while this revolutionary stance does refect the reality of
the movement’s emergence as a counterweight to the postserialists
surrounding Pierre Boulez, it does not mean that the movement was
purely reactive.
Spectral music does have its compositional forebears. One can
certainly cite Edgard Varèse’s sensitivity to sound or even the Italian
futurists’ obsessions with making a new sonic vocabulary for music.
9

Or, more specifcally, one might point to André Jolivet’s experiments
with harmonic spectra (inspired by an attempt to imitate the mix-
ture stops on an organ), or the early microtonal experiments of Ivan
Wïshnegradsky or Julián Carrillo, not to mention some of Karlheinz
Stockhausen’s works.
10
In a certain sense, Stimmung, a vocal piece by
Stockhausen built around singing diferent vowels in a fxed harmonic
spectrum, is a spectral piece already. And Stockhausen’s experiments
both there and in his large piece for multiple ensembles, Gruppen, were
very infuential on Grisey, albeit less so on Murail. Per Nørgård’s Voy-
age into the Golden Screen (1968) is another example of what might be
called a protospectral work, but don’t worry if these references don’t
mean much to you. Te point is that many of these ideas were in the air
in the 1960s and I wanted to list some names and works for those who
might want to listen to some very strange, but quite wonderful, musical
experiments.
Although all these infuences on the development of the spectral
movement were important, in a general way, my focus will be on the
three fgures who had the most direct impact on the origins of spec-
tral music: Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, and Giacinto Scelsi.
Tese three fgures played pivotal and very diferent roles in Grisey
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124 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
and Murail’s compositional and aesthetic development. It is difcult
to imagine their music of the early seventies — the pieces that have
become the defning classics of early spectral music — without the
profound infuence exerted by all three fgures on the young and still
searching Grisey and Murail of the late sixties. Don’t worry if you’ve
never heard of these composers — I’ll try to briefy explain the aspects
of their musical thinking that were important to the Spectralists.
Le Maître des Maîtres
Olivier Messiaen was the composer who assisted most directly in the
birth of the spectral movement. While his music was probably less infu-
ential for spectral composers than that of Ligeti or Scelsi, it was Mes-
siaen who was the professor of both Grisey and Murail. Tis infuence
afected not just Grisey and Murail, but a whole group of French com-
posers who formed the group L’Itinéraire with Murail. (L’Intinéraire
in its original incarnation was, a composers’ collective and performing
ensemble that tried to elevate sound and timbre from a decorative role
to the center of musical discourse.) Tese composers (Michaël Levinas,
Roger Tessier, Hugues Dufourt, etc.) shared many of the attitudes that
would come to be associated with spectral music. Messiaen infuenced
all of these composers, and through them the spectral movement in
several diferent but very important ways.
Messiaen’s most direct infuence was the weight that spectralists place
on the harmonic dimension of musical composition, as opposed to the
emphasis on melodies and the linear (lines) dimensions of music, which
had become preeminent in the mid-twentieth century. Tis aspect of
spectral music is often attributed to the traditional French preoccupa-
tion with color (think of Fauré or Ravel), but I think that it goes deeper.
In the late sixties most European composers, even in France, were still
under the thrall of Darmstadtian postserialism, which sought might-
ily to limit the importance of the vertical dimension of composition
(harmony) at all costs.
11
Yet Messiaen, while encouraging his students
to adopt this postserial approach (at the time he saw no other “pro-
gressive” option, and Messiaen was not one to suggest returning to the
past), was also talking to them about the “vraie harmonie” of a piece.
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 125
Te idea was that really successful music needed to be more than
logically coherent, and that some note choices were not just more inter-
esting or complex than others; they were more “right.” Tis idea, which
might seem naive to many composers, struck a real chord with the
spectralists. As Tristan Murail has said, “I verify the truth of this idea
in my work each day, as do all composers who attempt to write a music
based on sound.”
12
Messiaen’s use of all diferent sorts of music in his teaching (Greek
and Hindu metric systems, Gregorian neumes, well-known and
obscure pieces from the repertoire, naturalistic reproductions of bird-
song, etc.) and his unconventional analytical methods have been widely
documented, but I don’t think the efect of this on the early spectral
composers has been sufciently emphasized. Messiaen’s highly per-
sonal overview of musical ideas, for Grisey, Murail, and others, became
an impetus to look for the common links between vastly diferent man-
ifestations of musical phenomena. Te common links they discovered
were sonic, not structural, in nature. Te use of a wide range of primary
sources for sonic inspiration (i.e., gagaku, Höömi singing, bell sounds,
speech, etc.) remains an important aspect of much spectral music.
Perhaps the greatest infuence that Messiaen exerted on Murail and
Grisey was in his role as mentor. Murail has said that in many ways he
was not really teaching his students composition, but he was helping
them to look into themselves to fnd what was really authentic. He was
ingraining in them the deep sense of integrity to a personal vision that
is required to create original art. And more than this, he was there at
the perfect moment to say, “the way you’ve found, that is your path.”
13
Tis may seem a bit mystical or over the top, but this was exactly the
sort of encouragement that allowed composers in their early twenties
to feel confdent enough to forge a path far outside of the mainstream.
External Appearances
Te works of György Ligeti from the 1960s played a pivotal role in many
spectral composers’ eforts to fnd a means of realizing their vision of a
music that sounded and worked diferently. In the late ’50s, Ligeti spent
a few years in the electronic music studio of the German radio. Dur-
ing this time he partially realized three tape pieces. Working with the
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126 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
electronic medium, albeit in a primitive form, he came to think about
music in a very diferent way. He started to think of musical situations
and objects as global colors and textures and of counterpoint as the
superposition of these layers. He saw new formal possibilities emerge
from the techniques of splicing and cross-fades. And most important,
he realized that this new approach to sound — which could not have
been achieved without his exposure to studio techniques — need not
apply only to the electronic medium. Te sketches he had made for
his second and third electronic pieces were thus transformed into the
sketches for his frst micropolyphonic orchestral works (Apparitions
1958–59 and Atmosphères 1961).
Tis may seem like a contradiction: Earlier, I spoke above about how
much richer and more complex acoustic sounds are when compared to
artifcial sounds. Studio techniques are not just questions of the sounds
made, however. A host of techniques were developed to manipulate
sounds in time. Because these techniques used an electronic and not
a physical support, they suggested a range of novel musical processes,
from slow cross-fades or fade-outs to infnitely long loops of sound to
sudden cuts that let sounds appear or disappear instantly, and so on,
which are easy to do with a volume knob or a pair of scissors but much
less so with breath or bows.
Ligeti never returned to the electronic medium. He decided that
he possessed a greater mastery of the sonic tools ofered by traditional
instruments and that even his “electronic” ideas might be better real-
ized through these means (in large part because of the greater richness
of internal structure I discussed earlier). Te resulting works remain
some of the most sonically striking works that exist, the entire orches-
tra becomes a wailing or shining mass that can change its color or
density suddenly and produce truly dramatic efects. Te basic sound
of these works, in a distorted form, should be familiar from Stanley
Kubrick’s use of tiny out-of-context excerpts from Ligeti’s music in his
flms (most notably in Te Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey). Bowdler-
ized versions of this music have shown up ever since in horror flms,
because it is so charged with tension.
Ligeti saw a violin, fute, or clarinet as a tremendously sophisticated
sound generator and saw no reason not to use them in the same ways he
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 12?
had tried to use the very rudimentary radio oscillators and other sound-
generators of the electronic music world of the 1950s. Tis crosspolli-
nation of ideas let him create instrumental passages that would have
been nearly impossible to conceive without the metaphor of electronic
music processes. Terefore one can properly speak of Ligeti as a “post-
electronic” composer. Ligeti had arrived at a music that, while no lon-
ger directly electronic, would have been impossible to create had he not
passed through an electronic phase. More broadly, any nonelectronic
music whose composition depends on ideas, concepts, or techniques
borrowed from the electronic domain can be thought of in this way.
Tis idea of a postelectronic music that uses instrumental synthesis
to simulate electronic sounds with orchestral instruments is clearly cen-
tral to spectral music. Ligeti’s infuence, however, goes beyond these
conceptual realms. His techniques for achieving orchestral fusion used
perceptual saturation. Te sheer mass of sound (with its vast number of
independently moving lines) forces listeners into a global sort of hear-
ing rather than attempting to follow individual lines. Tis technique
became central to spectral music as did Ligeti’s juxtapositions of extreme
dissonances and shockingly open consonances as a means of produc-
ing contrast. Moreover, his treatment of individual instruments as tone
generators within a larger whole (not as real melodic lines) has also all
been very infuential for spectral composers. In many ways, pieces like
Atmosphères and Lontano are almost trying to be spectral: Tey present
the same high degree of instrumental fusion, the unusual colors, and
the slow, almost eventfree unfolding as the early spectral pieces.
Were it not for the severe limitations that Ligeti’s dependence on
“cluster”-based harmonies (harmonies built out of adjacent semitones)
created and the limited scope of the formal processes he employed, it
would be easy to imagine him having become a spectral composer.
14

However, Ligeti’s harmonic language forced him into constantly
choosing between extremes of hyperdissonance or hyperconsonance.
His language did not allow for much fertile terrain between these
poles. Moreover, his formal analogies with tape-splicing and panel
sections also kept him from having much room for a sense of direc-
tionality in the musical discourse, which is so important to large-scale
musical form. Ligeti seemed keenly aware of these limitations, and I
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12B CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
suspect they are the reason that his works from this period are mostly
quite short.
Instead of searching for a richer, more powerful harmonic language
and more gripping, multifaceted processes of formal development,
Ligeti decided to move on. He began by focusing more intensely on
motivic gestures (in pieces like San Francisco Polyphony) and a few years
later had moved so far as to write the unabashedly referential horn trio
(Homage à Brahms). By this time, his interest for spectral composers
had long been lapsed, but the infuence of his seminal works of the six-
ties remains. Even some younger spectral composers (including myself)
began their march toward spectral music by following the path that
Ligeti had marked during that decade.
Penetrating to the Interior
While many of the surface features of spectral music come from Ligeti
(the fused mass movements of sound, the micropolyphonic thickening
of textures, the global formal movements, etc.), the sonic content took
its inspiration from another source. As we’ve noted, Ligeti worked with
a very constrained harmonic toolkit; this was insufcient for the young
Grisey and Murail, who were looking for a way to give harmony back
the essential and structural (read: directional) role it had enjoyed in
the past. During their “Rome Prize”
15
stays in Italy, both Grisey and
Murail came to know the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi,
16
who is
much less well known to the musical public.
Scelsi began his career as a serialist. He studied with Walter Klein, a
pupil of Schoenberg, in Vienna and was among the frst Italian twelve-
tone composers. In the years leading up to the Second World War, he
started moving away from serialism. He studied with Egon Koehler, a
protégé of Scriabin, and was drawn to Eastern philosophy and mysti-
cism. Scelsi then sufered a breakdown, which led to years of hospi-
talization (at this time, he had already composed approximately thirty
pieces). Te story, surely apocryphal but with a grain of truth, is that
during his recovery he would spend hours each day banging on single
notes of the piano and attempting to listen inside the sound. Tis was
said to have brought him back to the purely sensual relationship with
sound he had enjoyed as a child. Tis approach seemed to liberate him,
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 12O
and in the early ffties he began composing again, but in a very difer-
ent style. He sought to write a music that penetrated the interior of the
sound. As he said, “He who does not penetrate to the interior, to the
heart of the sound, even though a perfect craftsman, a great technician,
will never be a true artist, a true musician.”
17
During this period, Scelsi composed prolifcally, writing nearly a
hundred pieces of somewhat varying quality but all focused on this idea
of voyaging to the heart of the sound. Perhaps the most extreme and
infuential piece in this style is his Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra (Ciascuno
su una nota sola) (Four Pieces for Orchestra [Each one on a single note]).
Tis piece, which is a sort of a prespectral answer to Schoenberg’s
famous orchestral study in tone-color, “Farben,” uses microtonal and
orchestrational fuctuations to color the single note (often including its
triadlike expansion) that dominates each movement. In this way, music
that should seem static opens up a new universe of microlistening
18
and
microevents. His concerto for violin, Anahit, uses a similar technique;
the central note being colored, however, is in constant progression. Tis
imparts a sense of formal progress, or at least formal process. It’s nearly
impossible to describe with words the truly strange and haunting sound
of this work, which is somehow both radically new sounding and oddly
nostalgic. Te sound of the violin is cracked open and we slither our
way inside it, becoming subsumed in its incredible richness. It is almost
as if we could take a single lush moment of Mahler or Bruckner and
open it up into a whole microuniverse.
Scelsi’s idea of looking for a new harmonic dimension inside the
sounds — combined with the microlistening and slowly evolving formal
processes — was to become a central feature of spectral music. Tere
are many parallels between Scelsi’s work and the work of American
minimalists, especially Steve Reich, except that the domain of focus
was the timbre of a sound for Scelsi and not the rhythmic alignments of
the minimalists. Moreover, while Scelsi’s music is very process-driven;
the processes are not mechanical or automatic but are controlled in a
freer, more intuitive manner than is true for the early minimalists.
Scelsi’s music, when studied on its own, is often dismissed as fatally
limited. Very few of the elements we have come to expect in pieces
can be found: almost no melodies, little even in the way of specifcally
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1BO CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
memorable events. Te music when listened to inattentively or poorly
performed can sometimes sound like little more than a slowly chang-
ing drone. When Grisey and Murail combined Scelsi’s sometimes
naive intuitions with a more in-depth study of acoustics, however, the
postelectronic attitude of Ligeti, the artistic integrity and dedication
to harmony taught by Messiaen, and their own high levels of composi-
tional “métier,”
19
spectral music was born.
What Shaped the Development of Spectral Music ?
Defning a musical movement requires at least some attempt at describ-
ing the milieu in which it was shaped. Te formation by Tristan Murail
of the group L’Itinéraire (especially the performing ensemble that was
the public face of the collective) in the early seventies along with the
bipolar opposition that existed between the serialist establishment (led
by Boulez and his Domaine Musical ensemble) and the spectral young
Turks (who, in L’Itinéraire, had their own ensemble) were the corner-
stones in the evolution of spectral music.
20
Trial and Error
A key aspect of early spectral music was its empirical nature. Te
term “experimental music” generally refers to pieces based directly on
untested intellectual speculations,
21
whereas spectral music draws on
the concrete results of musical experiments. Especially in the earliest
days, the collective L’Itinéraire was a place where a fairly close-knit
group of composers and performers (most of the composers were also
performing) could try out new ideas, retaining the successes and elimi-
nating the failures. Hugues Dufourt’s piece Saturne,
22
for example, was
created in the aftermath of an enormous phase of experimentation.
Dufourt had made reel-to-reel recordings of a vast array of percussion
efects. He then used several tape decks to simulate diferent superpo-
sitions from this repertoire. Te most striking and successful results of
these experiments (read: improvisations) could then be used in the fnal
composition. Tis sort of experimentation was central to the working
method of L’Itinéraire.
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OH5IGNING MO5IC FCÞ MOMAN EHING5 1B1
Another manifestation of their empiricism was their extensive use of
analog electronic instruments. Te state of computer technology at the
time meant that digital synthesis was an unavoidably slow and cum-
bersome endeavor. Analog electronic instruments — from the ondes
Martenot (a single-line electronic instrument which became popular in
the mid-twentieth century) to electric organs to ring modulators — on
the other hand, ofered a wealth of new resources that could be tested
and evaluated. L’Itinéraire had an ensemble of electronic instruments
whose members would meet for informal experimental sessions and,
in contrast to the traditions of American experimentation and impro-
visatory performance, these sessions were not the goal, but only a step
toward achieving a goal. Just as great improvisers like Bach saw the
need to go back to the table and perfect what could be satisfactorily
improvised, the composers of L’Itinéraire saw these sessions not as con-
certs or happenings (they were not public), but as a laboratory in which
to test and discover new ideas. Tese ideas could later be incorporated
in the context of fully mastered compositions. Tis enabled these com-
posers to avoid both the paralysis that can afect a composer who is not
constantly searching for new ideas and techniques, and the self-absorp-
tion of a composer who realizes his concepts in a pure and untempered
form without regard to the musicality or interest of the resulting work.
Te early spectral composers, in a curious parallel with some of the
early American minimalist composers, were reaping the benefts of
being practical music makers in a feld full of unheard and sometimes
unhearable experiments that were being presented as fnished products.
Tis is not to say that the members of L’Itinéraire ceded the intellec-
tual high ground to the serialists who represented the mainstream of
new concert music (what the French call “musique savant”). In fact,
one of the reasons that L’Intinéraire received government funding in
such a relatively short time was that certain other antiBoulez factions
(who favored something more like a return to tonality) saw spectral
music, which they did not particularly like, as a valuable intellectual
counterweight to serialism. At that time, French intellectuals were not
disposed to granting force to the populist arguments of the neotonal
composers. Of course, those same “conservative” composers who then
saw spectral music as an expedient strategic ally now feel free to attack
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1B2 CLA55ICAL MO5IC, WHY EC1HHÞ?
all stripes of “intellectual” music equally. Te publications by and about
L’Itinéraire are the frst forums where the ideas of spectral music were
presented to a larger audience.
23
While the importance of this group
became less clear in the very late seventies and early eighties — when
Grisey moved to America and the ensemble began to function in a
more routine manner — its impact on Grisey, Murail, and developing
younger composers in the early and mid-seventies was enormous.
Te Evil Empire
All revolutions need an enemy, and for spectral musicians the target
was clear: serialism. I’ve been throwing this word around a bit and it’s
high time I explained it as best I can for nonspecialists.
“Serialism” was originally used to talk about the music written by
Arnold Schoenberg and his followers beginning in the early part of the
twentieth century. Tey organized the twelve notes of the chromatic
scale into an ordered series. All twelve notes had to be used before any
one could be reused; in principle, it was hoped that this would guar-
antee a sort of equality among the tones, ensuring that the kinds of
hierarchy that are so important to tonal music did not creep in. Te
composer would write a new series — ordering — for each piece and
the characteristics of a given order would help determine the character
of the work; any order of notes was possible. Using this frst version of
a given series as a point of departure, the composer could perform per-
mutations of various sorts to generate new variants that they believed
would share some structural underpinnings. As serialism developed
after World War II in Europe, the use of complete twelve-note series
began to disappear and serialism or postserialism came to mean music
that used combinatorial procedures for organizing musical parameters
(these variants of a given series are called combinatorial permutations
by theorists). Te idea was that some abstract germ (a set of intervals,
or notes, or even just a list of random numbers) could take on myriad
musical manifestations, which might seem very diferent but which
— at least metaphysically — ought to have some coherence.
Te entrenched position of the well-known serialists was formidable
indeed. For most of the public, their music and ideas simply were con-
temporary music. A strong need to rebel against the perceived tyranny
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of this situation is evident in both the music and articles of the frst-
generation spectral composers. Where serial pieces of the day were
made up of an endless number of pointillistic microevents, spectral
pieces contained long stretches of slow evolutions with events occur-
ring only on a large temporal scale. A structural or functional use of
harmonic relationships was disdained by twelve-tone composers, but
was elevated to a central role in the musical discourse of spectral com-
posers. Te advocates of serialism espoused (though rarely actually
used) fragmented, nondirectional “panel” and “moment” forms that
attempted to create a sequence of “separate” moments or panels that
were not intended to “add up” to some larger-scale structure, while the
spectralists tried to create process-based evolutionary forms where each
event grew out of the previous event. And perhaps most profoundly,
the capacities of the music’s listeners were no longer something to be
mocked (at worst) or elevated through a program of auditory indoctri-
nation in some future, better society (at best). Te spectral attitude led
these composers to attempt to compose music that could be perceived
by any attentive human listener, rather than hoping for some improve-
ment in the society or species whose likelihood is doubtful. Tey saw
the phenomena of auditory perception as a set of fruitful constraints
that show what is relevant and what is mere utopian dreaming.
24

However, as with any bipolar opposition, the diferences and the
rhetoric were both exaggerated. Even in the earliest spectral pieces,
like Grisey’s Partiels, there are some elements that are organized in a
combinatorial manner. Moreover, this opposition that was so central in
the 1970s began to weaken in the ’80s, when a new generation of less
revolutionary spectral composers began to appear. In the ’90s (under
the common threat of a less intellectual, more “democratic” approach
that attacked equally all music that attempted something new — “the
people like this so we should give it to them!”), this opposition all but
evaporated. Te change in attitude can be clearly seen in the contrast
between a composer like Murail, who was never involved with serial-
ism, and one like Philippe Hurel,
25
who has always used some combi-
natorial procedures and who admires that repertoire greatly.
Te change from enemy to ally (although this term is perhaps too
strong) has not been purely rhetorical or social in nature, but has also
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manifested itself in the music. Both spectral and postserial music have
evolved greatly over the last twenty-fve years. Spectral composers no
longer disdain all types of contrast or rupture, and few postserialists are
now willing to write of the possibilities of human audition as irrele-
vant to musical composition. Furthermore, a sensitivity to sound seems
to have become a ubiquitous requirement for music of any style to be
deemed well crafted. As with political movements, both the spectral
and serial composers have matured to the point that they can openly
acknowledge and infuence each other without fear of losing their iden-
tity or “polluting” their ideology.
Where Has Spectral Music Gone and Where Is It Going ?
Although it may seem strange in a movement that is less than thirty
years old, three very distinct groups of composers have emerged that
could properly be called “spectral.” Most clear is the frst generation:
Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Together and separately, they
helped defne the goals and ideals of the movement and have created a
legacy of masterpieces that have infuenced a broad spectrum of com-
posers. While both have had many students, few of those students have
become spectral composers. Both Grisey and Murail adopted Messi-
aen’s approach of encouraging their students to fnd a personal form of
expression (although they certainly have pushed them to give harmony
a higher priority than many other composers do).
Te second generation of spectral composers (for those who follow
new music more closely, I am thinking of composers such as Saariaho,
Hurel, Durville, early works by Dalbavie, etc.) all studied with other
teachers and initially wrote in more postserial styles. Yet each of these
composers was drawn, over time, toward spectral music, and all of
them completed brief periods of study (late in their development) with
Grisey or Murail. Tey were drawn to spectral music as an alternative
choice, one that would allow them to exploit their particular sensibili-
ties. Tey are not polemicists by nature and most hold strong sympa-
thies for some other styles of music as well. Although their styles are
personal, they do not exhibit the same degree of extreme stylistic rigor
that so mark Grisey and Murail, and they often show signs of eclecti-
cism in their works.
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In the last ten to ffteen years a third generation of spectral compos-
ers, of which I am a part, has begun to emerge (including Jean-Luc
Hervé, François Paris, etc.). Tis group of composers turned to spectral
music for diverse reasons, but did so much earlier in their development.
All of these composers have studied extensively with Grisey, Murail,
or both. While the languages and aims of these composers are very
diferent (for example, Paris composes frequently for the voice and is
interested in the lyric possibilities of the spectral language, while my
music is almost exclusively instrumental), they share a greater degree
of ideological fervor than the second generation. Tis group has delved
deeply into spectral techniques and sought to continue its evolution in
new directions.
Besides individual temperaments, social conditions may explain
some of the diference between the second and third generations.
Whereas the second generation was still in many ways forced to declare
allegiance to a movement, becoming either spectral or remaining post-
serial, in the still-polarized atmosphere of the time, the composers of
the third generation were free to mix eclectically whatever elements
from whatever styles they chose. Most of Grisey’s and Murail’s stu-
dents have, in fact, proceeded in this manner, incorporating elements
of spectral music but not fully embracing the movement. (I do not
count these spectrally infuenced composers as belonging to this third
generation.) Tose with sympathies for other styles have been free to
pursue these styles, while at the same time integrating some aspects of
spectralism. Te real members of this third generation, however, have
forged deeper links with the spectral school. Furthermore, they have
done so without constraint, out of a deep commitment to the spectral
approach. In this way, they more closely resemble the frst generation
of spectralists.
So What?
If this attitude I’m describing and this musical lineage I’ve put forward
really are possible answers to the “how” question, am I predicting they
will somehow “save” new music? While my view is certainly biased,
certain tendencies clearly seem to be forming. Te spectral attitude
has already had a major efect on all styles of contemporary European
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music. In a historical progression that began in the Baroque period,
timbre has moved from an accessory, decorative role to an essential
place within the musical discourse. Spectral music has been both the
product of this trend and an agent in its recent progress. I think that
a musical style that totally ignores “the tones actually sounding” has
become an extremely unlikely venture in the twenty-frst century. Even
the most bloodlessly cerebral of contemporary composers now pay at
least lip service to the sonic reality of their music. Tis achievement
is extremely signifcant and much of the credit belongs to the spectral
movement. Composers like Jonathan Harvey and Magnus Lindberg
have integrated many elements of spectral music within a decidedly
nonspectral language, and this phenomenon seems to be spreading.
During my third year at conservatory, I suddenly felt lost as a com-
poser. I was not sure what to write or why I was writing. I asked myself
what had drawn me to music as a child. Te answer I fnally discov-
ered in myself was the same one Scelsi had found: the sounds. Tere
were sounds I wanted to make and sounds I wanted to hear. No struc-
tural principles or intellectual frameworks had motivated my initial
love of music, only a sensual fascination with sound. I wanted to com-
pose because there were things I wanted to hear — things that didn’t
yet exist. We have taken the frst steps and made some of the crucial
insights; I can’t imagine that there will not be future composers who
will feel the same need and who will proft from our eforts. Tey will
either build on our work or move in other directions in their search for
a personal means of sculpting sound into music.
Moreover, I think that the spectral approach ofers the potential for
creating really novel musics that are nonetheless perceivable and viscer-
ally satisfying to a wide range of listeners. We should not be surprised
that the Impressionists’ understanding of light and color led to works
that can be appreciated without a great knowledge of iconography
and chiaroscuro and ultimately reached a signifcant and appreciative
public. Nor should we be surprised if an approach like that of spectral
music turned out to give many new listeners, who possessed an open-
ness to new music and were willing to listen carefully, a way to begin
a meaningful relationship with demanding, innovative, even difcult
music. In the frst part of this book, I pointed out that the decline in
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the acceptance of new art is due to many aspects of modern society
that are essentially independent of considerations of the art itself. But
any solution or even improvement of the situation will require both a
changed context and fertile ideas ready to bloom in that new context.
I don’t know if the group of spectral composers has found those ideas,
but I know we’re out there looking.
Ultimately, what counts is that both sides of the art creator–perceiver
contract are fulflled. You must believe that if you make the efort and
sacrifce the time, there will be a reward. Music must not be of inter-
est only to the specialists who make it; it must at least sometimes ofer
something remarkable and rare to all those who are ready to fnd it.
Music cannot be an afair for the learned specialist; it must be at least
potentially accessible to any human being ready to invest the requisite
time and efort. Music must be designed not in the abstract as a piece
of sonic speculation, but as a work of sound designed to be heard by
human beings.
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1BO
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Endings are hard; any composition teacher will tell you that. You can,
of course, fall back on one of the old reliable options:
1. Recapitulation: I could review the main points of the argument
and try to tie them into a nice neat bundle that will defnitively
show my analysis to be defnitive.
2. Big, bombastic fnale: I could launch into an all-out screed about
the things we must do if we are to save art for future generations,
with an ever-increasing level of rhetorical fourish, leading my
readers to give all their money to arts organizations and volunteer
every weekend.
3. Non sequitur ending: One of my personal favorites — “and now
for something completely diferent” — can create a sensation that
is sufciently unbalanced that everything preceding it is seen in a
new light.
4. No-ending ending: I could present some last pearls of analytical
insight and then simply stop as if the very lack of conclusion must
imply something signifcant.
5. Fade-out: I could make a last tour of some issues, gradually
diminishing the intensity of the rhetoric until the book simply
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stops on an ambivalent note (this is the exact inverse of the “Big,
bombastic fnale”).
6. Art-house movie ending: I could sink into despair, overwhelmed
by the negative forces arrayed against serious art, until our main
character (contemporary classical music) slowly walks out into
the onrushing ocean of pop culture to drown.
7. Hollywood ending: I could fnd some small glimmer of hope and
greatly exaggerate its potential for counteracting the trends of
the last eighty years. Ten I could project that hope forward into
a glorious future where high schoolers will fll their iPods with
classical works and argue in the hallways about the appropriate
tempi for Beethoven symphonies, whether or not Bach ought to
be played on a modern piano, and whether microtonality ofered
more potential for innovation than electroacoustic techniques.
8. Cowardly academic ending: I could simply go on about how
impossible it is to predict how things might develop going
forward.
9. Clif-hanger: I could end with a whole series of questions and
unknowns about the future, without putting forward an image of
how things might turn out in the end.
Even if I really wanted to, it’s probably impossible to completely avoid
all of these formulas. More important, why would I want to? Many
of these schemas yield satisfying endings. Tat’s how they became old
reliables: Tey work. However, the desire for a satisfying form can put
pressure on the still inchoate content and turn it into little more than
a hackneyed cliché. You can think of all those movies where you know
exactly what will happen during the last ten minutes when there are
still more than twenty minutes to go. Tis kind of ending can ofer a
satisfying efect of ritual closure, but it rarely adds anything of much
value to what has already transpired.
I think the best course of action for me might be to create a hybrid
ending. Let’s start with a non sequitur. I had a concert in October 2004
where two pieces were to be played and then recorded on successive
days in the same hall. Te concert went fne, but as we were setting up
for the recording, we noticed a low frequency hum in the hall (it was
too soft to hear in a full hall, but much too loud for a recording). We
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tried the usual solutions of turning of electrical devices and the heat-
ing system blowers, but the noise would not go away. Te director of
the theater even brought in a technician from their HVAC company
to try to identify and eliminate the noise, but to no avail. It seems the
noise was either caused by the air circulation system of an underground
parking garage next door, which could not be deactivated without giv-
ing carbon monoxide poisoning to the attendants, or by the vibrations
transmitted from a nearby highway, which apparently could not be
diverted just for us. In and of itself, this is the sort of annoying contre-
temps requiring frenzied phone calls and called-in favors that everyone
faces occasionally, and it is not very illuminating. What struck me as
unusual and fairly encouraging was the response of the other institu-
tions we contacted in an efort to come up with a plan B.
New music CDs are made on budgets fimsier than shoestrings, so
renting commercial studio time was not an option. In France, where
these concerts were held and where this ensemble is based, the normal
solution is to line up a long list of publicly supported institutions and
studios as “coproducers” who contribute free studio time on the days
that they have no paying work. Tis works out for them because they
can list the coproduction in their year-end reports and make it seem as
though they are doing a lot with their subsidy, without spending much
extra. Tis has often meant choosing alliances carefully, however,
because each institution understandably wants to project the sense that
it is essential and unique. Terefore, asking one studio for help often
meant foreclosing the possibility of using some other studio. When we
started calling around for help, however, this was not the reaction we
got. Instead of people saying, “Well, you’re in with so and so, why not
ask them?” we found an immediate willingness to help (as long as it did
not engender any direct costs for them). Within a few hours we had
two or three diferent possibilities lined up. Now this might not sound
like very much, but it is.
As support for culture in France (where I was living at the time)
began its steep decline beginning in the mid-1990s, the frst reaction
was not the sort of unifed action one might have hoped for. Rather,
each composer, ensemble, and institution struggled ever harder to hold
onto his or her piece of an ever-smaller pie. We were all complicit in
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this. Even some groups that had diminished in quality would receive
all the composers’ support in maintaining their subsidy, because we
knew that money taken from one place would never be reallocated in
another: It would simply vanish into the ether. Each group of com-
posers became more and more partisan, publishers practically stopped
signing new composers, and so on. And this wasn’t unique to France.
In the days following 9/11, when many of the New York–based foun-
dations rightly felt obligated to redirect much of their funding from
arts to more basic health and welfare projects, the same reaction among
the composers and ensembles ensued.
Musical composition (and perhaps any life as an artist) is a deeply
self-centered existence. We work most of the time alone in a room try-
ing to hone an ever more personal vision. We come into contact with
the outside world only much later and in feeting bursts. Under normal
circumstances, we do not and probably should not think much about
the rest of society. Te current position of art in society, however, could
hardly be described as normal compared to 50, 100, or 150 years ago.
Despite the pressures all arts groups and artists are feeling, though,
there are rays of hope, such as the group of studios who ofered to help
out when I was faced with my emergency back in 2004. Te point of
my story is this: I believe that the real peril and perhaps real possibility
of the current situation is fnally sinking in.
I actually believe that we are at something of a critical juncture, a
tipping point. Composers no longer have the clout with politicians
or the public to impose their will (as they did in the immediate post–
World War II era). If difcult, demanding art that requires large-scale
subsidies is to continue, it will only be with society’s consent. If we
artists are unable or unwilling to make the case, we will quickly fnd
ourselves in the position of the Komodo dragon, living on one small
island and in a few zoos as we watch our population wither away and
our habitat shrink to oblivion. While my generation can probably go
on eking out some sort of continuation for ourselves, there can be no
guarantee of a future for this kind of nonfunctional, non-cost-efective
art if we don’t make one. While decades ago it might have seemed suf-
fcient to gripe about inadequate rehearsal time for difcult pieces, now
that just won’t work. We need to convince the players to do more, work
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for free, raise extra funds, or do whatever it takes. We can’t ofer medi-
ocre performances of mediocre works and hope that systemic inertia
will be enough to preserve the status quo. Not making people walk out
is not an achievement.
It is very likely that the generations alive today will either see non-
functional subsidized art begin to reestablish a societal consensus about
the value and importance of its existence, or watch it dwindle into a
marginal existence while waiting for the last of us to die of. Tis latter
outcome seems to me so unacceptable that I am unwilling to just sit
back and watch it happen (after all, I probably already have my sinecure
in the Komodo dragon’s nature preserve locked up). And while part of
me believes that the best way to fght this is through great art, another
part thinks that great art can only shape culture if someone is listening
or looking. If I can’t convince you of even the potential importance of
difcult, nonfunctional art, how can I expect you to support it passively
with your acceptance, much less to support it actively with your time,
attention, and perhaps even money?
When I was living and working solely as a composer, I didn’t think
much about these issues because everyone I came into contact with “got
it.” But since I began teaching nonspecialists regularly in the late 1990s,
I realized how great the peril really is. So much of the value system I
had always assumed was a shared part of Western culture is no longer
universal (if it ever really was). And no matter how good our marketing
and promotion savvy becomes, or how hard we try, I don’t believe we
will ever come up with a way of justifying the existence of this sort of
art through personal taste or market preferences alone. Moreover, the
simple call for diversity as an absolute good won’t help either, because
one kind of diversity is as good as another and may be much cheaper or
more popular to boot.
I’d been thinking about a new way of restating the importance of this
“useless” art when I attended a lecture/debate between the humanist,
Louis Menand, and the evolutionary psychologist and linguist, Steven
Pinker. Pinker discussed a study of perceived facial beauty. Apparently
this study showed that a composite image created by averaging together
all the faces in a group (this averaging is done feature by feature: aver-
age lip thickness, average distance between the eyes, average height
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of the forehead, etc.) is universally judged more attractive than any of
the individuals in the group that went into the averaged composite.
Tis scientist responsible for this work had stumbled on his results by
chance when trying to come up with the composite face of a group of
criminals. He had thought to produce the epitome of a criminal face
and instead ended up with what he judged to be a pretty handsome
man. Trough a series of experiments, he was surprised to fnd that this
works with any group. Our sense of beauty is somehow (even the sci-
entist doing the work was not proposing exactly how) infuenced by all
the faces that we have seen — whether we fnd them beautiful, ugly, or
indiferent. At dinner after the talk, Pinker amplifed this point, saying
that this research suggests that even a racist’s idea of facial beauty will
become more multicultural as the population he encounters and the
images he sees vary: It is afected only by the faces he or she sees, not
what he might think about those faces. Tere is no sense in which this
process is directly infuenced by personal taste; rather, taste is infu-
enced by this process. Pinker pointed out that post hoc studies of the
face types chosen by advertisers underline this idea. Te models used
to represent beauty in America in the more homogeneous 1950s were
in the Doris Day mold, while now advertisers are more likely to choose
someone like Halle Berry. Te humanist, Menand was deeply skeptical
and felt that, even if true, this fnding was not of interest: “science cares
about the means” he said, while arguing that the humanities is more
interested in the outliers.
On some level, I think both of them were partially incorrect. Te
real question we need to worry about (unless, I suppose, we work in
advertising or sales) is not what face or song or picture packs the most
wallop in an instantaneous rating of attractiveness, beauty, or memo-
rability. Te kind of art that we’ve been discussing is deeply ill-suited
to one-night stands and instant gratifcation. Te deeper implication of
the study on facial beauty is that only by seeing things that we do not
immediately fnd the “most beautiful” can our notion of beauty develop;
whether the mechanism of this development turns out to be a mechan-
ical calculation of means, or something more subtle, is secondary. If,
in some way, what we fnd beautiful is the sum (or, more precisely, the
average) of all the things we see, then we ought to be very sure that
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we don’t just keep fxating on our current notion of beauty. We could
think of art as pure research into the potential beauty or ugliness of
some superfcially unpromising avenues. To paraphrase Gérard Grisey,
art is much more about becoming than being, and this is, I think, the
real lesson of that study on beauty.
I’d like to put this into a context: One of the classes I sometimes teach
is a seminar on composition for undergraduates. In this class each stu-
dent works on a piece over the course of the semester. I try very hard not
to push them in any particular aesthetic direction and often the works
they write sound more like Mozart than like modern pieces. Most of
these students merely want to try their hand at writing something; the
majority have no ambitions of becoming professional or even serious
amateur composers. While I don’t try to make them write “modern-
sounding” music, I do make them listen to a lot of diferent music.
One of the composers we invariably deal with is Iannis Xenakis
(1922–2001). Xenakis was a Greek-born composer who spent most of
his career in Paris. He used the mathematical and architectural train-
ing he had received to bring a highly idiosyncratic approach to com-
position. His works began life more often as graphical drawings or
mathematical formalizations than as themes or motives. At frst lis-
ten, many of his works have little in common with what these stu-
dents think of as “music.” Te sounds can be loud and grating; there are
slow changes, but little that is recognizable within traditional catego-
ries of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Yet once the students get over
their shock, they never feel that there is nothing there. Clearly, shape,
movement, intent, form, and, in the best of his works, an amazing raw
power can be detected. When we’ve listened to and discussed all of
this at some length from a purely descriptive point of view, someone
will invariably venture: But is it music? At this point, I generally get
the real rush of hearing the students argue among themselves about
the efectiveness or memorability of these sorts of mass-based sonic
constructions. Someone often raises a question about the composer’s
obligation to attach his or her music to a tradition. Te idea of express-
ing abstract platonic forms within the sonic medium is also a perennial
topic. In the end, however, the conclusion is almost always that there
is a real musical intent, regardless of what tools were used to produce
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that result. I’m sure many of the students go away believing that it is
not very good music, but they can all hear the echo of a composer’s will
in the sounds. It is not noise, and it is not random. By hearing these
works, their notions of music and beauty are altered forever; the mean
of the bell curve in their mind has been shifted at least a little bit.
You could say that anything will shift this mean, but I don’t think that
just anything will be efective. For those beauty experiments, the image
must be recognizably a face and it ought to be diferent in some way from
other faces if the change is going to have much of an impact. Moreover,
it ought to be the kind of diference that you want to look at enough
for it to really burn into your senses and leave a lasting impression. And
this is precisely what abstract, difcult, sometimes overly intellectual art
that attaches itself to a tradition while frequently negating almost every
aspect of that tradition, that still believes in criteria of worth and the
relationship between a creator and a created object, tries to do (success-
fully or not). Tat many things, even many strange things, can be won-
derful art doesn’t mean that everything can or will be wonderful art. Te
choice often seems to be posed today as if we must either take it all or
leave it completely — but this is absurd. What we must do is consent to
and perhaps even support its existence, if we still want to be able to make
choices about what to accept or reject in the future.
A real danger exists that, as marketing and focus groups learn to
locate our current preferences with ever greater precision, the range of
stimuli we receive will draw ever tighter. If we only go to a museum to
see over and over again the paintings we already love, we are not devel-
oping into anything: We are like rats in a cage pulling the lever that
will deliver us a reward until we get so sated we fall asleep. Moreover,
the jolt we get each time is less fulflling than the last. Te malaise of
the modern condition often feels like we’ve already “been there, done
that.” But there are so many things we have not seen or heard — an
essentially endless supply. Yet we must put up with the discomfture of
travel if we are to discover a new place, if we are to return home with
slightly diferent eyes. If the orchestra only plays what we already know
we want to hear, we will never hear anything new and we will never
fnd a new way to hear the pieces we already love. It may be reassuring,
it may be entertaining, but it is not enough, or at least I hope not.
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One fnal non sequitur: Tere have been many recent articles about
the wonderful new addition to the Museum of Modern Art in New
York. Almost all ofer this as a sign of the great health in modern visual
arts. Yet what gets mentioned only in passing is the great tragedy of this
institution’s meaning for art. MoMA was founded to keep only works
less than ffty years old. Te idea was that older works, once sorted,
would move on to real museums, while MoMA was about creation.
Now, of course, they could never do that: Tose “brand name” paintings
are what pull people in and allow the museum to charge the very high
admission fee needed to support the institution. MoMA now thinks
of itself as a museum of twentieth-century art or perhaps a museum of
Modernist art. Tere is nothing wrong with this, except that it is the
kind of idealism that created the original MoMA (with its time limit
on paintings’ chance to prove themselves) that leads to remarkable art.
Te sort of savvy management and marketing combined with scholar-
ship and respect that created the current MoMA can create institu-
tions, not inspire art. It seems to me the original mission — even if it
meant small shows in patrons’ apartments — was much more ambi-
tious and admirable than the new $400-million-dollar MoMA with its
role as theme park for the culturally savvy and well heeled.
I don’t want to waste too much time on recapitulation or in an efort
to tie things into a too neat a bundle. Ultimately, it is not for me to
decide what will happen; I don’t think I even wrote this book with much
of a realistic hope of convincing you of my position (though I certainly
hope that I’ve achieved this mission). Te real reason that I’ve spent so
much time on this is that I think, whether it wants to or not, society
is currently in the process of choosing — through action or inaction
— whether nonpopular, nonfunctional art will remain a viable part of
our culture, or become a historical topic that scholars in two hundred
years will look back upon as a sort of aberration, a hopeless romantic
gesture. So few of the people I meet seem to grasp that the choice is in
our hands only if we face the problem and do not let the choice be made
without any conscious intervention, debate, or even regret.
Let me be clear: I am not saying music will disappear, or storytell-
ing, drawing, painting, or sculpture. I am saying that this relatively
recent, relatively fragile tradition of functionless, complex art, which
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14B CCDA
has produced such strange and remarkable results, is at risk. Te infra-
structure it requires is so massive and so expensive; the demands it
places on time, training, resources, and attention are absurdly high. If
we (both artists and public) continue to view an ever-increasing mar-
ginalization of this art with acceptance, this kind of art will become
nothing but a strange curiosity. I can see the future students now gasp-
ing in wonder at the idea of people going to so much trouble to read
Finnegan’s Wake.
Te moment I would like you to focus on is not the initial shock
of strangeness when you frst come across something really new and
perhaps even a little odd. Rather, it is the moment that very rarely, but
sometimes, happens two or three years later when you come across the
same work again: All sense of strangeness is gone and you just gape at
the beauty. You can’t understand what could have seemed so strange or
even so difcult in the frst place. Exorbitant luxury that those hand-
ful of moments in a lifetime are, I’d hate to see us decide they were no
longer worth the price.
So the next time you’re introduced to a composer at a cocktail party,
may I suggest the following:
“So, you’re a composer? [no gufaw, but perhaps just a touch of curiosity
or pleasant surprise] Is there any way I might hear some of your music?”
Tat’s the only question that really matters in the end.
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14O
Notes
Chapter 1
1. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of
Public Funding (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 258.
2. Nicholas Humphrey, Leaps of Faith (New York, Basic Books, 1996).
3. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity — An Incomplete Project,” in Te Anti-
Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend,
Washington: Bay Press, 1983).
4. Tomas Kuhn, Te Structure of Scientifc Revolutions (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1962).
5. Alvin H. Reiss, Don’t Just Applaud — Send Money!: Te Most Suc-
cessful Strategies for Funding and Marketing the Arts (New York: Te-
atre Communications Group, Inc., 1995).
6. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of
Public Funding (New York: Basic Books 1995), 249.
7. Jean Galard, “Une question capitale pour l’esthétique,” in Qu’est-ce qu’un
chef-d’oeuvre? (Paris: Musée du Louvre/Editions Gallimard, 2000).
8. MacGregor, Neil, “Chef-d’oeuvre — valeur sûre?” in Qu’est-ce qu’un
chef-d’oeuvre? (Paris: Musée du Louvre/Editions Gallimard, 2000).
9. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of
Public Funding (New York: Basic Books 1995), 102.
10. Research and Forecasts, “Te Importance of the Arts and Humanities to
American Society” (Washington, D.C.: National Cultural Alliance, 1993).
11. Joseph Rody in W. MacNeil Lowry, ed., Performing Arts and American
Society (Englewood Clifs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall), 1978.
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15O MC1H5
12. Some more extreme interpretations of quantum dynamics might sug-
gest a more privileged role for knowing and observing, but I’m going to
leave those very complex and not widely accepted ideas out of the cur-
rent discussion.
13. Harold Bloom, Te Western Canon: Te Books and School of the Ages (New
York: Riverhead Books, 1994), 17.
14. In Chapter 7, I will ofer some hypothetical candidates for universals
that might relate to music.
Chapter 2
1. Herbert J. Gans, Popular Culture and High Culture (New York, Basic
Books, 1999).
2. Henry James, preface to Te Wings of the Dove (New York: Modern
Library, 1930), xxvii-xxviii.
3. G. A. Miller, “Te Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some
Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” Te Psychological
Review, vol. 63 (1956): 81–97.
Chapter 3
1. Excerpt from “Entretien avec Daniel Buren: L’art n’est plus justifable
ou les pointes sur les ‘I,’” translated by Alexander Alberro and reprinted
in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical
Anthology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1999), 69.
2. First published in the catalogue for the exposition “January 5–31, 1969,”
New York: Seth Siegelaub, 1969 and reprinted in Alexander Alberro
and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cam-
bridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), xxii.
3. First published in Willoughby Sharp, “Lawrence Weiner at Amster-
dam,” Avalanche 4 (Spring 1972): 66, 69, 70; reprinted in Alexander
Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1999), xxxii–xxxiii.
4. Sarah Charlesworth, “A Declaration of Dependence,” in Alexander
Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 314.
5. Wallace Stevens, “Te Relations between Poetry and Painting,” undated
pamphlet published by the Museum of Modern Art and reprinted in
Arthur Berger’s Refections of an American Composer (Berkeley: Univer-
sity of California Press, 2002), 51.
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MC1H5 151
6. Tis overview of the history of the chef-d’oeuvre draws heavily on Mat-
thias Waschek’s “Le chef-d’oeuvre: un fait culturel,” in Qu’est-ce qu’un
chef-d’oeuvre? (Paris: Musée du Louvre/Editions Gallimard), 2000.
Chapter 4
1. William A. Henry, In Defense of Elitism (New York: Doubleday, 1994),
2–3.
2. Gaetano Mosca, in Te Ruling Class, trans. Hannah D. Kahn, ed. Arthur
Livingston, as reprinted in Harry K. Girvetz, ed., Democracy and Elitism
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967), 280–81.
Chapter 5
1. Glorianna Davenport, “Your Own Virtual Storyworld,” Scientifc Amer-
ican (November 2000): 80.
2. It would not be appropriate to go into a lengthy discussion of tempera-
ments here, but for those unfamiliar with the notion, a brief elaboration
is required. Since at least the time of the Greeks, musicians and theo-
rists have realized that there is no perfect way to tune an instrument.
Te main musical intervals are formed by creating simple ratios between
the fundamental frequencies (or equivalently by dividing strings into
simple fractions). For example, an octave is created by doubling the
frequency or halving the string length. When you try to create a full
scale this way, it doesn’t work, however. Te ratio for a perfect ffth is
3:2, and while it is possible to generate all twelve notes of the chromatic
scale by cycling up through eleven successive ffths, when you fnally
get back to what should be the same pitch as your starting note (though
seven octaves higher) with a twelfth perfect ffth, you will fnd that the
note is signifcantly higher than it should be. In other words, it does not
form an octave relation with the note that you started on. Te distance
between where this note ends up and where it should end up is called
the Comma of Pythagoras. [For those who want to check the math 3/2
to the twelfth power gives you a note at 129.746 times your starting
frequency, whereas the actual note seven octaves up should be 2 to the
seventh power (or 128) times the starting frequency.] Temperaments are
basically the art of hiding this comma, either by making a few intervals
very out of tune while the rest are reasonably close to their theoretically
“perfect” values or by making many intervals slightly out of tune. Tere
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152 MC1H5
is, unfortunately, no way to make everything in tune with everything
else; the math just doesn’t work.
3. A “perfectly” in-tune third has a frequency ratio of 4:3 between the fun-
damental frequencies of the two notes.
4. “Peter Weibel: Ars Electronica: An Interview by Johan Pijnappel,” Art
& Design Profle No. 39 Art and Technology (London: Academy Group
Ltd., 1994), 29.
5. I am using the term “computer music” here to refer very broadly to music
written to be “performed” with electronic apparatuses and computer pro-
grams. Much of this music is “performed” directly by the composer in a
studio and comes to the audience in prerecorded form. Live electronic
traditions also exist, however, as does hybrid mixed music that marries
acoustic instruments and electronic sounds, treatments, or processes.
Chapter 6
1. L. Henry Schafer, “How to Interpret Music,” in Mari Riess Jones and
Susan Holleran, eds., Cognitive Bases of Musical Communication (Wash-
ington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1992), 263.
2. Steven Pinker, Te Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
(New York: W. Morrow and Co., 1994), 237.
3. Ibid., 238.
4. George Miller wrote a famous article discussing the importance of units
consisting of fve to nine elements: G. A. Miller (1956), “Te magical
number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for pro-
cessing information,” Psychological Review 63: 81–97.
5.

Sandra E. Trehub; E. Glenn Schellenberg; Stuart B. Kamenetsky,
“Infants’ and adults’ perception of scale structure,” Journal of Experimen-
tal Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, Vol. 25(4) (Aug. 1999):
965–75.
6. Carol Krumhansl, Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1990).
7. “Learning and Perceiving Musical Structures: Further Insights from
Artifcial Neural Networks,” Barbara Tillman; Jamshed J. Bharucha;
Emmanuel Bigand; in Cognitive Neuroscience of Music, Isabelle Peretz,
Dept. of Psychology, University of Montreal (London: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2003), 109–23.
8. Tis idea was frst suggested to me by Joseph Dubiel.
9. One can fnd reasonably successful composers working today who use
random or semirandom permutations of a small set of numbers as the
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MC1H5 15B
basis for their music. Tey then map the lists of numbers generated by
their permutations to musical parameters to generate their scores. In
fairness, this mapping often leaves them room to use their ears and turn
the music into something worthwhile, but it remains mystifying to me
what beneft they think could fow from a list of arbitrarily permutated
signs and symbols.
Chapter 7
1. La Sonate. Etude de son évolution technique historique et expressive en vue de
l’ interprétation et de l’audition, (Paris: Ed. Rouart, Lerolle et Cie, 1913).
Chapter 8
1. It is, of course, possible that we are not “hard-wired” with these intu-
itions, but, rather, that they are learned through our constant exposure
to natural sounds that have simple acoustic structures (harmonic over-
tones, amplitude modulations, source-flter relations, etc.). Because this
exposure has been shown to begin in utero, however, and because we
cannot change the basic nature of oscillatory vibrations in the natural
world, they might as well be “built-in.”
2. I will be drawing many of these examples from an appendix I wrote for
a volume of the Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 19 (2) 2001.
3.

Dufourt’s use of the term was in an early article (“Musique spectrale,”
Paris, Société Nationale de Radiodifusion, Radio France/Société Inter-
nationale de Musique Contemporaine [SIMC], 1979 III, 30–32.) when
the spectral movement was still coalescing and was not accompanied by
any sort of defnition that would be useful in the current context.
4. Many recent electronic sounds have less of this “artifcial” quality. Tis
is not due to any real technological progress in generating appropriate
complexity; it is because most of these sounds contain information cap-
tured from acoustic sounds that have been modifed. We still have great
difculty modeling all of these fuctuations.
5. Personal communication.
6. Tis analysis and, in fact, the sound analyzed are not identical to those
used by Grisey when he wrote the piece in the early 1970s (although
I have tried to mimic Grisey’s procedures as much as possible), and
thus there are several diferences in the details of the realization. For
example, the loudest partial in Grisey’s realization is the ffth, whereas
in mine it is the ninth. (Tis is probably due to the sound I analyzed
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154 MC1H5
being performed more loudly than the one used by Grisey; with brass
the louder the note is played, generally the higher in the overtone series
the loudest partials will be. Tis is what creates the “brassy” sound.)
Another important diference is that the low double bass, which seems
to be presenting the fundamental along with the trombone is, in fact,
an octave too low. Tis note is in that octave for separate formal and
gestural reasons, however. Tis note’s separation from the other pitches
of the instrumental synthesis is refected in its exclusion from the com-
poser’s annotations of partial rankings for each of the other pitches.
7. J. Fineberg, “Appendix II — Musical Examples,” Contemporary Music
Review 19 (2) 2001.
8.

I use the metaphor of sculpting in time to evoke the compositional pro-
cess of a spectral composer who highlights certain groups of frequencies
and eliminates others — as a sculptor does with stone — in an efort to
create a sonic entity, in time, whose shape and movement corresponds to
the composer’s intent.
9. In France an academic is a member of the academy, not a university
professor (the term for that is an “universitaire”). Tus, by academicism
the French mean an ofcially sanctioned (and often uninspired) musical
style and not a pejoratively scholastic one as we would mean by the term
in America.
10. Te Italian futurist movement began around 1909 and was dedicated to
using technology and moving away from gracefulness and craft to the
brute force of our industrial future. In this context, however, their link
to the spectralists was a desire to make music with sounds not normally
believed to be musical. Tis led to quite a bit of sonic exploration.
11. More generally, it is difcult to imagine spectral music having developed
without the arrival of analog electronic music. From the sonic objects of
“musique concrète” to the real-time treatments of ring-modulators, the
works of early electronic music ofered an invaluable stock of models to
the later works of spectral composers.
12. Te summer courses at Darmstadt became, in the years after World
War II, a sort of Mecca for young serial composers. Tey heard perfor-
mances, made connections, and spread ideas. Te journal they published
out of these meetings became a bible for European serial and postserial
composers. Te hallmark of serial technique is that it attempts and to a
great degree succeeds in making all pitches equally important. Tis is in
contrast to the “tonal” system, where notes are organized hierarchically
in keys. Te problem is that harmonic sensations like tension and release
or departure and return can become nearly impossible when all pitches
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MC1H5 155
have equal weight. In music theoretical terms, serialism creates fat pitch
spaces in which there are few if any landmarks.
13. Tristan Murail, “L’exigence vis-à-vis de l’acte artistique,” Le Monde de la
Musique 156 (June 1992).
14. Tristan Murail in Olivier Messiaen, Harry Halbreich, Fayard/SACEM,
1980.
15. In recent years he has basically acknowledged this, saying that were he
younger and more energetic, that is where he would explore. Yet Ligeti
is not and never really was a good candidate to perform any sort of slow
and meticulous development of a style. He has always been a stylistic
experimenter (in the best sense), coming up with an idea, exploring
some of its potential, and then moving on.
16. By the late seventies, there was no longer a French Rome Prize that bore
the name. Te award that is so well known through Berlioz’s Memoires
was scaled down and became the award of a “sejour” at the Villa Médicis
in Rome. In many ways, this was still the same award — two years in
Rome, concerts, a stipend, and some money to travel; however, the of-
cial title of an award winner is a “pensionnaire à la Villa Medicis.” Since
the English-speaking world still thinks of this award as the Rome Prize
— and the American version still bears that name — I have referred to
it as such.
17. Murail spoke about the relationship between the composers of
L’Itinéraire (himself, Grisey, and Lévinas, in particular) and Scelsi in
a conference given in 1987 in Royaumont during their “Voix Nouvelles
87” festival. Tis conference was transcribed by Marc Texier and pub-
lished as “Scelsi, L’Itinéraire – L’exploration du son,” in Le Journal à
Royaumont 2 (February 1988).
18. Quoted in the liner notes for the CD Giacinto Scelsi, Accord 200612,
1989.
19. By “microlistening,” I mean an extremely close listening where small
fuctuations like slight crescendos or tiny glissandi can become major
events.
20. Te French term métier is very difcult to translate; the closest approxi-
mation in English is “craft.” It implies the full range of techniques and
skills required by a profession.
21. Te current situation is quite diferent: Te group L’Itinéraire has
become something else under other leadership, and the serial-spec-
tral tensions which began to ease in the early eighties — through an
IRCAM sponsored efort to promote détente — have by now largely
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156 MC1H5
disappeared. Tese factors were of critical importance in the seventies
when spectral music was frst coming into being, however.
22. In the period between the end of World War II and the 1970s all sorts of
musical experiments were tried, from using mathematical mapping and
statistical distributions to algorithmically “write” pieces, to using the I
Ching or random number generators to decide on the contents of a work.
Other ideas included multiday performances of a single chord, or pieces
written for radios where the results will depend on what is on the air-
waves during the performance. Some pieces were even literally concep-
tual and could not be performed, except as a sort of thought experiment.
23. Hugues Dufourt is not really a spectral composer, for me; although his
music does explore a fascinating array of sonic colors and combinations,
its organization is combinatorial in nature and not sonic. He was, how-
ever, a fellow traveler with Grisey and Murail, and this experience is
indicative of the spirit of the group and the time.
24. One point of clarifcation needs to be ofered as to the nonsynonymous
relation between the composers who belonged to L’Itinéraire and spec-
tral composers. Although at the beginning they all shared many of the
same ideas and interests, they gradually evolved in very diferent direc-
tions. Grisey and Murail became the frst full-fedged spectral compos-
ers, while the others moved in various directions, some being reabsorbed
into the larger contemporary music population and others following
a more solitary route. As with evolutionary speciation, it is difcult to
defne the exact moment when the spectral movement became a defnite
tendency and not part of the broader spectrum of ideas circulating in
this group; nonetheless, in hindsight one can see the formation of grad-
ually widening rifts within the collective and at some point the ideas
of spectral music can clearly be seen to exist independently from other
types of preoccupations that had interested the group.
25. Tis is not to suggest that musical training is not valuable — in par-
ticular auditory training. I am deeply skeptical, however, of there again
being a sufciently homogenous musical common practice to allow the
kind of overlearned schemata that efect our perception of tonal music to
be developed for contemporary styles. Furthermore, I believe that many
of the auditory demands made by serialists of this era exceed the capac-
ity of the human auditory apparatus, regardless of training.
26. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of many of the composers I mention:
I am including them to give some extra context to those familiar with
their work, but the argument should still make sense to other readers
who just skip over the names.
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15?
Index
A
Acoustic music, 68
Acoustic structures, 153n1
Adorno, Teodor W., 1, 38
Advertising, 7–8
Aesthetic(s)
abstract notions, 14
achievement, 25
appreciation, 44
beauty and, 18
Bloom on, 16
contract, 19
criteria, 18
domains, cognitive universals in, 16
economics and, 29
fascism, 37
frameworks, 15
intent, 17, 28, 29
measuring, 16
objectivist, 9
systems, 17
universality, 17
value, 20, 27
absolute, 29, 73, 86
Bloom on, 16
economics and, 29
entertainment and, 28, 30, 33
intrinsic, 16, 20
personal taste and, 14
Afect, 101
Alexander, Jane, 8
Anahit, 129
Apparitions, 126
Art(s)
belief in, 3
as bourgeois activity, 30, 37
decline, 2
defned, 28
entertainment vs., 28
intrinsic value, 3–4
market argument for, 13
segregation of, 10
Art Lessons, 1
Arts Electronica Festival, 65
Ashbery, John, 91
Atmosphères, 126, 127
Austria’s Arts Electronica Festival, 65
B
Bach, Johann Sebastian, 22, 58, 59, 76,
140
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15B !NDHX
improvisation, 131
Barzun, Jacques, 91
Baumol, William, 11
Beethoven, Ludwig van, 22, 59, 88
Berlioz, Hector, 47
Bharucha, Jamshed, 78, 80
Billboard, 4
Bloom, Harold, 16, 27, 29
Boulez, Pierre, 40, 110
on Schoenberg, 40
Bowen, William, 11
Brahms, 88
Buren, Daniel, 35, 37
Bush, George H. W., 12, 21
C
Cadences, 100
Cage, John, 21, 39, 40, 41, 52
Carrillo, Julián, 123
Categorical perception, 31
Chomsky, Noam, 16, 75
Chowning, John, 119
Classical music
American, 98
burden of, 52
composers, 4, 67
contemporary, 107
yardstick for success, 4
composition of, 67
contemporary, 52, 140
environmental movement and, xvi
performers, 7
defned, xi
forms, 96–97
future of, xiv
German, 98
highpoints, 101
Indian, 88–89
institutions, 7
jazz vs., 24
listening to, 31, 82, 100–101
marketing, 6–7
rock music vs., 24
soloists, 6, 7
training, 75
Western, 11
Close, Chuck, 115
Coltrane, John, 20, 24
Comma of Pythagoras, 151n2
Composer(s), 4, 22, 40, 46, 82
contemporary, 107
criteria for success, 52
electronic, 127
infallibility, 53
intentions, 94
market value, 52
opera, 55
paralysis, 131
performance of work, 69
public recognition, 51
skills, 67
spectral (See Spectral music,
composers)
tonal, 87
use of instrumental analysis, 116
Computer-generated recording, 69
Computer language, 76
Computer modeling, 86
Computer music, 67, 111, 152n5
Computer programs, 152n5
Conceptual art movement, 36
Concertos, 96
Content, 100–101
Conversing with Cage, 52
Cultural modernity, 6
D
Darmstadt era, 110
Davenport, Glorianna, 57, 60
Davis, Miles, 24
Dawkins, Richard, 84
Dennett, Daniel, 85, 94
Design
applied, 85
criteria, 85, 89
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!NDHX 15O
features, 85
principles, 84
solutions, 85
space, 84
aesthetic, 85
boundaries, 86
constraints, 89
evolutionary, 85
forced moves in, 85
language of, 86, 89
size, 85
tool-kit, 84
Directionality, 99
Donne, John, 20
Don’t Just Applaud — Send Money, 8
Duchamps, Marcel, 21
Dufourt Hugues, 112, 124, 130, 156n23
Durville, Philippe, 134
E
Electronic music, 67, 115, 116, 119, 125,
127
Elementi di Scienza Politica, 48
Elitism, 45–56
artistic, 51
degeneration into solipsism, 69
intolerability of, 51
sociological discussions, 48
Entertainment, art vs., 28
F
4’3”, 39–41
Form, 101–103
Fugues, 76
G
Galard, Jean, 9, 10
Gans, Herbert, 29
Gaultier, Téophile, 38
Gondwana, 118–120
Grisey, Gérard, 105, 109, 113, 115, 121,
124, 128, 133, 134, 153n6
infuence of Messiaen on, 125
Gruppen, 123
H
Habermas, Jürgen, 6, 7, 15
Hahn, Hilary, 7
Harmony, 100
Hayden, 59
Henry, William A., 45
Highpoints, structural, 101
Homage à Brahms, 128
Human phoneme, 79
Hurel, Philippe, 133, 134
I
Il Canto Sospeso, 110
Improvisation, 131
In-tune thirds, 59, 152n3
Intrinsic value, 7, 14
iPods, 140
J
James, Henry, 30, 33
Jazz, 24, 76
Jolivet, André, 123
Juilliard School of Music, 55
K
Kamloops Art Gallery, 8
Klein, Walter, 128
Koehler, Egon, 128
Krumhansl, Carol, 80
Kuhn, Tomas, 6, 14
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16O !NDHX
L
Le Marteau sans maitre, 110
Lewis, Robert Hall, 46
Ligeti, György, 123, 125–128, 155n15
L’Itinéraire, 124, 130, 132, 155n17, 21
Long Wharf Teatre, 8
Lontano, 127
M
“Market-think,” 7
Marquis, Alice Goldfarb, 1, 2–3, 9
Marsy, Gaspard, 42
Matrix, 19
McAdams, Steve, 80
Menand, Louis, 143, 144
Messiaen, Olivier, 23, 123, 124–125,
130, 155n14
Meyerbeer, Giacomo, 22
Microlistening, 129, 155n19
Mosca, Gaetano, 48
Motive, 97, 101
Mozart, 47, 59
Murail, Tristan, 109, 114, 118–120,
121, 134–135, 155n13, 14,
156n24
infuence of Messiaen on, 125
Music
acoustic, 68
classical
American, 98
burden of, 52
composers, 4, 67
contemporary, 107
yardstick for success, 4
contemporary, 52, 140
environmental movement and,
xvi
performers, 7
defned, xi
forms, 96–97
future of, xiv
German, 98
highpoints, 101
Indian, 88–89
institutions, 7
jazz vs., 24
listening to, 31, 82, 100–101
marketing, 6–7
rock music vs., 24
soloists, 6, 7
training, 75
Western, 11
computer, 67, 111, 152n5
critics, xiv–xv
design
applied, 85
criteria, 85, 89
features, 85
principles, 84
solutions, 85
space, 84
aesthetic, 85
boundaries, 86
constraints, 89
evolutionary, 85
forced moves in, 85
language of, 86, 89
size, 85
tool-kit, 84
development in, 99
directors, 7
electronic, 67, 115, 116, 119, 125, 127
language of, 86, 89, 107
design, 84, 89
development, 82
human language vs., 76–78, 83
performers, 7, See also Performance
pop, 7
real content of, 113
spectral, See Spectral music
Musical instruments, 41, 96, 122
brass, 119
design, 58
electronic, 131
string, 119
Musical language, 86, 89, 107
design, 84, 89
RT4509.indb 160 5/4/06 12:00:57 PM
!NDHX 161
development, 82
human language vs., 76–78, 83
Musical machinery, training of, 75
Musical performance. See Performance
Musical scale. See Scale(s)
N
Nancarrow, Conlon, 88
National Cultural Alliance, 12
National Endowment for the Arts, 1,
2, 19
budget, 8
National Gallery, 9
Necker cube, 95
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 56
O
Octave, 116, 151n2, 154n6
equivalency, 78
Online community, 70
Opera, 11, 13, 55
P
Partch, Harry, 88
Partiels, 116, 133
Pascal, Blaise, 19
Peabody Conservatory, 46, 55
Per Nørgärd, 123
Performance, 24, 70
composer, 69
composer’s instructions, 39
improvisatory, 131
teacher’s, 92
Performing arts, 11, 50
disadvantage of, 67
virtues of, 69
Performing Arts, 11
Permutation(s), 88
analyses, 110
combinatorial, 132
to generate new variants, 132
random, 152n9
semirandom, 152n9
Picasso, Pablo, 39, 43
Pinker, Steve, 75–76
Pinker, Steven, 143
Pollock, Jack, 99
Polyphony, 76
Pop music, 7
Popular Culture and High Culture, 29
Postelectronic music, 127
Q
Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra, 129
R
Receuil de pierres et de sable, 121
Recordings
cost of making, 67
Reiss, Alvin, 8
Rite of Spring, xv, 98
Rochberg, George, 88
Rock music, 24
Rody, Joseph, 13
Rossini, Gioacchino, 22
S
Saariaho, Kaija, 134
Saint-Saëns, Camille, 47
San Francisco Polyphony, 128
Saturne, 130
Scale(s), 78, 79, 82
chromatic, 78
degrees, 80
jazz and, 77
member pitches, 78
octatonic, 79
whole-tone, 79
Scelsi, Giacinto, 123, 128–130, 136,
155n17
RT4509.indb 161 5/4/06 12:00:57 PM
162 !NDHX
Schoenberg, Arnold, 38, 40, 52–53, 106,
132
Scriabin, Alexander, 60, 128
Selva, Blanche, 98
Serialism, 132, 133
Shafer, L. Henry, 73
Sonatas, 96–98
Spectral music, 111–123, 153n3, 154n11
approach to, 109–111
central feature of, 129
composers, 112, 113–114, 118, 122,
154n8, 156n23, 24, See
also specifc composers
defned, 111–123
development, 130
future of, 134
origins, 123–125
Stevens, Wallace, 39
Stockhausen, Karlheinz, 123
Stravinsky, Igor, 98
Streamlining, 86
Symphonies, 60, 95–97
T
Technology, 57–71
applications to art, 60
disadvantages of, 62
Temperaments, 58, 111, 135, 151n2
equal, 59
Tessier, Roger, 124
Texture, 101
Te Blind Watchmaker, 84
“Te Chinese Food Efect,” 31
Te Life of Pi, 19
Te Little Prince, 110
Te Louvre, 8–9
Te Wilton Diptych, 9
Te Wings of the Dove, 30
Tonality, 86, 89
Trehub, Sandra, 79
U
Universal Grammar, 16–17
V
Varèse, Edgard, 123
Virtual community, 70
Voyage into the Golden Screen, 123
W
Wagner, Richard, 20, 22, 60
Weber, Max, 6, 42
Weibel, Peter, 65
Weiner, Lawrence, 36
Well-Tempered Clavier, 58
What is a Masterpiece?, 9
Wilde, Oscar, 43
Wïshnegradsky, Ivan, 123
Woolf, Virginia, 43–44
X
Xenakis, Iannis, 88, 145
RT4509.indb 162 5/4/06 12:00:58 PM

Classical Music, Why Bother?

Classical Music. an informa business . Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture through a Composer’s Ears JOSHUA FINEBERG Harvard University New York London Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.

cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. mechanical.routledge-ny. LLC Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis Group Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 International Standard Book Number-10: 0-415-97173-X (Hardcover) International Standard Book Number-13: 978-0-415-97173-7 (Hardcover) Library of Congress Card Number 2005033461 No part of this book may be reprinted. I. ISBN 0-415-97173-X (hb : alk. Trademark Notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks. Music--Philosophy and aesthetics. or in any information storage or retrieval system.F444 2006 781.ISBN 0-415-97174-8 (pb : alk. including photocopying. or utilized in any form by any electronic. Title.taylorandfrancis. Classical music. p. why bother? : hearing the world of contemporary culture through a composer’s ears / Joshua Fineberg.com Taylor & Francis Group is the Academic Division of Informa plc. and the Routledge Web site at http://www. Joshua. without written permission from the publishers. or other means. ML3800.Published in 2006 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 270 Madison Avenue New York. reproduced.6’8--dc22 2005033461 Visit the Taylor & Francis Web site at http://www.com . paper) -. transmitted. paper) 1. microfilming. 2. ) and index. and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. and recording. Music--Social aspects. Abingdon Oxon OX14 4RN © 2006 by Taylor & Francis Group. now known or hereafter invented. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Fineberg. NY 10016 Published in Great Britain by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2 Park Square Milton Park.

Contents

Acknowledgments Prelude Chapter 1 Aesthetic Value Chapter 2 Taste Chapter 3 Concept and Craft Chapter 4 Elitism Chapter 5 Technology Chapter 6 Design Space Chapter 7 “Understanding” Music Chapter 8 Designing Music for Human Beings Coda Notes Index

vii ix 1 27 35 45 57 73 91 105 139 149 157 

ACknowledgments

Leonard Bernstein famously quipped that in his day the professors of Harvard’s music department believed that music was meant to be seen and not heard; my experience, however, has been completely different. The music department is one of the very few places I know where music is both carefully seen and deeply heard. Art music is taken very seriously as both something to do and something to study, offering an ideal environment for a practitioner like me to engage with some of the world’s finest scholars and students. Moreover, the Walton/Harvard Fellowship, awarded by the music department and the Fromm Foundation in collaboration with the William Walton Foundation, allowed me to have a concentrated chunk of time within Lady Susana Walton’s idyllic gardens at La Mortella to do the heavy lifting of turning a moderatelength article into the start of this book. Lady Walton deserves special thanks for putting up with what I am sure must have been the horribly boring dinner-table rehearsal of several of the book’s central arguments. 
ii

The ideas in this book have been shaped over many years of casual and not so casual discussions with countless people I have encountered. Most essential, though, have been my interactions with the students passing through my undergraduate courses since I began teaching at Harvard in 2000. My discussions with them have helped me to see the absolute necessity of engaging with a broader public, if my profession is to survive.

My father also deserves special thanks: He has tried throughout my life to teach me how to write prose and. Ioana. my wife. Why Bother?” which Salon. as if that Sisyphean task were not enough. Finally and most importantly. has had to bear with me throughout the whole process.iii Classical Music While I cannot individually thank everyone who has contributed to this book. and was forced to endure my accepting yet another project on top of everything else. . was also willing to put up with my stubbornness and petulance through several drafts of this manuscript. many parts of the text in the first three chapters originally appeared in that article.com first published in October 2002. Andrew O’Hehir. particular thanks must go to three people. gave me invaluable help and advice for the article “Classical Music. arguing out each idea in turn. First. the arts editor for the webzine Salon.com.

New York. My perspective may seem far too specialized at a time when many people probably don’t know that “classical” composers still exist and the culture at large dictates that most of those who do either don’t care or resent our intrusion and demands.” regarding these questions and the long-term impact our society’s answers to them will have on future art. In all these places I have listened to and participated in innumerable (and virtually indistinguishable) conversations that touch upon the nature and purpose of art in our society without addressing them directly. and now Cambridge. I am a composer and teacher of music. worked. I am not a philosopher or a cultural critic. I hope this book will offer my perspective. who the really “great” living composers ix .Prelude Even among members of the supposed “educated elite. we happen to be among a small handful of groups in society who are so directly affected by these seeming abstractions that we cannot avoid confronting them. However. We may discuss how to fill the hall for a particular event. and taught in Paris.” questions concerning the nature and purpose of art no longer have the clear answers that they might have had in the past. I have studied. that of a working professional composer of contemporary “Western art music. Massachusetts. Few of these discussions move past a very short-term view of some immediate problem regarding art and its reception. I believe. Over the last dozen years. This. is the underlying cause of the rupture between contemporary art music and its audience that has grown of late to Grand Canyon-like proportions.

what’s a real modern masterpiece. group of students. I’m not quite sure which path the conversation will take.” Over more than fifty years. Yet rather than jumping right into these rather daunting issues. I propose to begin by recounting a conversation I have had again and again with different people at various receptions. “So. or any of a host of other momentarily important issues. however. “So. but I am sure it will be well trod. and lunches. During the last few years. why can’t we sell more copies of some CD. society. Through my discussions with this highly educated. and an older and older audience. in practice there is almost never a meaningful way to answer it. The next question is often about my music: perhaps. what kind of music do you write?” or “What sort of songs do you compose?” While there is nothing at all wrong with the question in principle. I became increasingly convinced of the need to address to a nonspecialist public some thoughts on the role of art in society. Let me explain by using an analogy: I am color-blind. and when people find that out.) As I answer this in the affirmative. these trends show no signs of meaningfully improving. an ever more historically oriented repertoire.x Prelude are. The discussion often begins like this: “So. Working with this more heterogeneous set of students. ethics. moreover. a significant portion of my teaching has been directed at students who are not music majors. dinners. you’re a composer?” (A guffaw or an incredulously raised eyebrow is optional. their first question is usually. especially difficult art (and its relationship to the lack of audience for contemporary music). and meaning. this music has moved towards an increasingly marginal social and commercial existence. culture. I hope to address in a personal. what color do you see?” I then try to explain . It is very hard. rather than a detached philosophical. student meetings. to believe that this or that decision or tactic will really affect the fundamental trends in the world of so-called “art music. but non-musically oriented. cocktail parties. It is not so much a real introduction as it is a way of setting the tone for what is to follow — please think of it as a sort of prelude. way some of the greatest of all abstractions: art. I have come to feel that ideas concerning the nature and purpose of art were no longer givens. when you look at this [they hold up a random object]. worth.

we also lack a shared vocabulary. We have no shared vocabulary. I mean that it is written for mostly the same instruments and ensembles. I explain that while I and other composers of contemporary classical music feel that our work is the continuation of the classical tradition. On the contrary — we hear essentially the same thing but lack a shared context. When it comes to music. I mention . I explain that to the extent that I am capable of figuring out what label most people think should go with a given object I can answer. I continue by saying that it often sounds quite different from popular or film music as well. I generally feel impelled to attempt an answer. Beethoven. I’ve never seen green or blue as a person with normal color vision would see it. someone with little or no exposure to contemporary music is asking me to conjure the sonic image of something completely unfamiliar using a few words. it often does not sound at all like that music. which a complete answer to his question would require. as what they think of as classical music (Bach. without reducing the description to something equally applicable to a multicolor stone-washed T-shirt. (Try describing one of Mark Rothko’s large color field paintings to someone who has never seen an abstract painting of any kind. I explain that my music is “classical. First. I try to mention a few names of composers just in case the listener has chanced upon something that might give us a point of departure.” By that. etc. however. I usually leave it at that and go on. not usually desired) challenge of evoking a sonic image. Therefore. but I know that even if we reach agreement on the label. Brahms. even though I am skeptical that any verbal answer could really be helpful.) I usually try to answer in a way that will help my questioner categorize what I do. By this point both the questioner and I may well be growing frustrated at the difficulty of communicating with such a limited body of common terms. While many caveats would be necessary to make that last statement completely accurate. due to a fairly common inherited trait). in this case.). and using essentially the same notational system. Mozart. rather than actually undertake the difficult (and. it still does not mean that we see the same thing in the same way (since my retinal cones are defective. Prelude xi that I can’t say what I see. I suspect. Therefore. it is not due to an inequality of perceptual capacities. In good faith.

here my poor partner in this conversation is face to face with a living composer.xii Prelude some of the most celebrated composers of contemporary classical music (Boulez. but they must be thinking it: “Why?” “Why would a grown man do such an obscure. I didn’t even really think there still were composers. none of the names are even vaguely familiar to the individual. Ligeti. Why would anyone keep track of the most renowned steelsmiths making samurai swords? While this was an important and respected art in feudal Japan. whether we’re four or forty-four.). This kind of music has been pushed so far outside of the cultural mainstream that hardly anyone would feel the slightest compunction about failing to recognize the names of the most important contemporary composers. Stockhausen. Berio.. Classical composers have become the equivalent of some nearly extinct species of European men from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whose modern-day descendants. if they exist in some lost corner of a swamp. Often. etc.g. such activities are totally irrelevant today except for souvenir collectors. contemporary music of the sort I practice has no more cultural relevance than the work of those few artisans still practicing ancient techniques for forging steel. the ones they really want to ask. for many. At some point we give up our blind attempts to name the elephant by fondling its parts and start dancing around the really big questions. Being a . or he or she shows the sort of disembodied recognition that comes from having seen a name in print or heard it in a discussion (e. Grisey. The first big question for all of us. irrelevant thing? After all. I suspect that. It is one of the truly unfortunate consequences of contemporary music’s marginalization that. Yet. even highly cultured individuals — who would be embarrassed not to have read a book by a well-known author or seen an important art exhibition — have no knowledge whatsoever of these composers’ work.” Being a rock star or a concert pianist might be a crazy ambition. through no fault of their own. have long ceased to affect mainstream cultural consciousness. is always “Why?” Usually people are too polite to spit out that word. “Boulez — didn’t he conduct the New York Philharmonic?”). but that is because the chance of success is so slim.

Financial prospects vary from nonexistent (or in many cases negative) to mediocre.]?” In some ways. These are people whose love of music (at least older music) is such that they don’t wonder why. Mahler. Brahms. however. unpaid. the conversation often takes another tack. at best. If recruiting for today’s classical music composers were done in the want ads. any answer I propose will probably fail to satisfy the questioner. I’m sure nobody in his or her right mind would sign up. I do believe that wonderfully great music is still being written and that even in our modern society it is important enough to dedicate a life to. with indifference. Even if he — or she — wants to accept what I say. The question they really want to ask is closer to “How?” “How can you hope to make a meaningful addition to an impossibly exalted corpus?” A more typical phrasing might be something like this: “Do you really believe that any recent music can truly equal the works of _______ [fill in the blank with whichever timeless genius you prefer: Bach. Only one out of several thousand applicants need even dream of a subsistence income from his music. more likely. back-breaking. with hostility or.” As you will no doubt have already surmised. The only potential for a secure but limited income is that a very small percentage of applicants may be offered the chance to instruct future prospects in a structure quite similar to a pyramid scheme. etc. Can you imagine the text of the ad? WANTED: Contemporary classical music composers. At least fifteen years of eyestraining. No matter how passionately I might argue for the potential greatness of new works. Prelude xiii contemporary composer — having to compete with the giants of the last 300 years in an environment where even the most successful are hardly known and make modest incomes — why dedicate a life to that? It seems absolutely crazy. With other musicians or with regular concertgoers. my opponent is likely to remain unconvinced. he cannot because of the next question: “Where?” “Where is the audience?” If I’m right that there is all this . Mozart. or even costly efforts will eventually be met. Preparation should ideally begin before age seven. the “how” question is easier to address than the “why.

) 6. this revolution usually consists of using the classical instrumentarium to produce works that sound like pale imitations of popular music. 5. Some pieces attempt to offer a triumphal solution. 2.xi Prelude amazing music out there. or being radical enough to write music that sounds like something a particularly hopeless student of Brahms might have come up with (pandering is considered both positive and progressive in this context. it is like lauding as revolutionary a sex therapist who advocates rediscovering the missionary position). they are darkly pessimistic. at least temporarily. Some pieces offer no hope. 3. Some are written by composers who blame the audiences for not making the personal investment necessary to understand their art. to have successfully hoodwinked some sought-after market segment (young concertgoers. mourning the dismal future of classical music (usually citing poor demographics for season ticket holders or donations at major musical organizations. Anyone who reads the arts section of The New York Times or The New Yorker will have read countless think pieces about why contemporary music is not more popular. Some “more serious” critics write pieces beseeching listeners to make the personal investment that the composers (mentioned in point number one) berated these same listeners for not having made up until now. Unfortunately. then where is the audience that ought to have been won over by now? This is perhaps the question that musicians and critics think about most when discussing or writing about contemporary music. 4. for example) into attending a concert or opera. Some come from critics who bemoan the inaccessibility of the work of today’s composers. Sometimes a critic will laud one or another newly arrived “revolutionary” composer (often his or her personal discovery). These ruminations often fall into several broad categories: 1. The really sad versions of this story are when we learn that the ever-diminishing resources dedicated to cul- . hailing some organization or composers’ marketing efforts that seem.

I’m not going to give you my cocktail party response. I’m really going to try to answer those three very important questions even if the answer takes us far afield and forces me to monopolize the conversation. meant to convince us that if composers are hardworking or likable. Where) differently. How. therefore. that guy with whom you may come to regret beginning a conversation. In the current era. and head for the door. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to be a bit of a bore. In my imagined conversation. placating answer to something with real relevance. indifference to) contemporary works without confronting the “A word” (Art) head-on. no stylistic discussions — no matter how intellectually probing or unabashedly populist — would address them. 7. when the Rite of Spring has already outlived all but the oldest audience members (who still think of it as a bit risqué). we will have to enlarge the subject to art and its place in society. In this book. I’ll try my best to answer these questions in the rest of this book. hating the music is somehow petty. now is the time to look at your watch. mumble some lame excuse about forgetting you had an appointment. Prelude x ture have been used to support a multimillionaire rock star performing pop tunes with orchestral accompaniment in a so-called effort to reach new audiences (perhaps this sort of outreach is effective in winning some orchestra patrons over to pop music). worse. . I suppose. I wish us to look at all three of these problems (Why. or there would be no need to continue discussing these questions. To go beyond a quick. I won’t offer arguments that correspond to any of these models — though in the heat of the moment I have sometimes fallen back on one of those golden oldies. Moreover. If you aren’t up for the ride. I believe that the real issues at hand are not purely musical and. we cannot address either the reason that composers are drawn to writing contemporary classical music or the audience’s rejection of (or. instead. No standard argument is sufficient. I’m convinced that the real reason you see or hear less and less classical music of any kind and hardly any new music on your TV or radio is related to the changing place accorded to art in general within contemporary society. A final sort of piece falls back on the ever-present human interest profile. This sort of story is.

There is not a single cause. whether on the part of audience or composer. Ultimately. saving a nesting ground. This is. is more systemic: the ever-shrinking size of the habitat and the increasing competition with humans for a share of finite resources. come to see their value. I think. I believe we should at least pause and reflect on what we stand to lose if we decide no longer to support and foster the work of today’s classical music composers. hard work. will eventually receive recognition. Most composers. Changes in our society are having profound effects on the artistic ecosystem that has allowed nonfunctional. or has the audience abandoned its responsibilities? — we have ignored a fundamental difference between what composers think they are offering and what audiences think they are. sooner or later people will grapple with these works. Although we as a society may ultimately decide that this kind of music is out of date and built on superseded. elitist premises. once extant. what leads us to choose the profession in spite of the unpleasantly poor hourly wage that it brings most of us. We must at least take note of these . but a changing environment to which the kind of art and music that has thrived for hundreds of years in the West may no longer be well adapted. eliminating a pesticide. have held a deeply felt. we believe that great art enriches the world whether or not the world knows or cares. quasi-religious belief in “Art”. and develop the sense of awe we feel in the presence of true masterpieces. For years discussions about species extinction (at least those that reached the general public) centered on specific abuses: stopping poachers. or should be. I think that something parallel needs to happen if we are to understand the situation in the arts. An analogy that comes to mind for the situation faced by contemporary classical musicians is the environmental movement. receiving. and talent we are able to make truly great works of art. This is not to say that many composers are certain that they themselves are writing masterpieces. though. It has more to do with a belief in the possibility of masterworks and the inevitability that these works. I know that I certainly do. nonpopular art to be valued and supported (at least enough for it to have come into existence).xi Prelude By playing the blame game — did composers drive away the audience. The real problem. We believe that if through determination. since at least the nineteenth century.

Prelude xii changes or we may find very soon that things we believed would always flourish have mysteriously gone extinct. and why I think you should care that it might disappear. In other words. . leaving us with a very different silent spring than the one that was averted by banning DDT. this is perhaps my one and only chance to present you with my best case for why I believe what I do is important and necessary.

.

Adorno “Wait one second.” you say.” You might be thinking something along the same lines as Alice Goldfarb Marquis. — Theodor W. nor even the right of art to exist. even if the debates are sponsored by subsidized organizations. ultimately misguided arts funding in the late-twentieth century. in a “crossfire” world people who take an opposing view are always precious. nor art in its relationship to the whole. therefore she regularly shows up on panel discussions about arts subsidies. an independent scholar who works in various fields as a sort of arts journalist and cultural critic. She likes to take the contrarian’s perspective that what the arts need is less government support (not more). Dr.1 Aesthetic Value It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted any more: neither art itself. Marquis asserts that the National Endowment for the Arts is a group that “purveys a multitude of fictions: […] that non-profit arts  . she believes. At the conclusion of Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Funding. her rather damning critique of well-meant but. “Art is not so imperiled as all that.

more generally. But Adorno meant something slightly more.000 years ago). fictional though it may be.”1 Like Dr. I do not claim that music and the visual arts are in any danger of disappearing from the world. even in my worst fits of alarmism. that there exists a distinct cultural realm worthy of subsidy. She can blame ineffective bureaucracies and conservatism. a realm easily distinguished from simple entertainment.” One of the fictions Marquis feels the NEA purveys is the existence of a “cultural realm worthy of subsidy. Marquis. princes. and popes — that nonetheless produced art she would have more trouble summarily dismissing. Marquis believes that the arts in America have declined from what she perceived to be a high point in the twenty years after World War II toward ever-lower depths. This change is as far-reaching in its own way as the Copernican revolution. and it appears that even the Neanderthals made music with tuned bone flutes. There has been a slow shift in worldview over the last hundred years or so that has accelerated in the last thirty years. kings. She blames this decline on the cumulative effects of a centralized bureaucratic source of government arts support (the NEA) and. Fifty years ago the cultural realm that Marquis mocks would still. and worst of all that the arts in America would perish without federal intervention. All of her sociological and economic data do show changes in the acceptance and importance of subsidized art. She believes that these kinds of institutions inevitably reward mediocrity. or different. Classical Music. as if these were new problems. a realm easily distinguished from simple entertainment. have been worthy of subsidy. of the nonprofit structure of arts organizations and universities in America. Why Bother? deserve support while commercial arts do not.” And it is this particular realm. By focusing only on America and only on the second half of the twentieth century. that I fear is in danger of disappearing. 25. but I think they are not the changes she believes them to be. I believe the passage of this realm out of our world would be tragic — even for the vast majority of people who have no interest in art that is made there. in fact. Indeed. you are probably thinking that we have had painting since at least the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet (ca. than that when he referred to “art. Dr. not because the . she can ignore the defects of earlier funding schemes — used by assorted states.

Composers often speak of pieces being well constructed or clever. reincarnations. in spite of all their surface differences. all religions (and more broadly all belief in the supernatural) are at least tacitly dependent on a dualist view of existence. Contrary to most contemporary ways of thinking. even sometimes brilliant — and then say that they don’t particularly care for them. This is because they see personal preference as being much less important and enduring . but that battle mixed the issue of what should be in the canon with whether there should be a canon at all. 2 in which he quite persuasively argues that. miracles. nonmaterial realm. a true belief in art is also predicated on an underlying conceptual framework that depends just as absolutely on a belief in abstract criteria of worth. or so the public and government believed. but because it was better: The art produced within this realm had more worth. And even if the work is never recognized. Moreover. all fundamentally depend on a more basic belief in an immaterial soul — or at least in the existence of a nonphysical. This notion. a Rembrandt hanging in the woods would still be great even if no one had the good fortune to see it. some essential greatness (or lack thereof) will ultimately determine the worth of the art object if given the chance. Belief in afterlives. Aesthetic Value  NEA said so and not because it was easily distinguishable from simple entertainment. which is profoundly out of fashion today. Adherents of this idea believe that even if societal fashions or institutional structures are opposed to a particular artist or work. Partisans in the “culture wars” tried to attack these notions. has formed the underpinning of artistic endeavor in the West for a very long time. (I do not intend to imply that it was therefore easier to get funding — people’s attachment to their money has not changed — only that the premise behind subsidizing art was widely accepted even though this art was no more popular in absolute terms at that time. it is still of equal (albeit latent) value. and so on. divinities. it constantly mixed artistic values and political ones in a way that eliminates the possibility of really discussing art. called Leaps of Faith. Likewise. I believe that taste and social constructions are of decidedly secondary importance if there is such a thing as intrinsic value or worth.) The psychologist Nicholas Humphrey wrote a book debunking claims of paranormal activity. In other words.

then the Billboard Hot 100 would be the true arbiter of worth and value (in the noneconomic sense. as it already is in the economic sense) and any “classical” composer holding that view is in the wrong business. not a gain — even when the tickets are as expensive as seats at the Metropolitan Opera. each show repeated. harder to define criteria of worth. And though they may even believe this. Could we not somehow evaluate . then there is no gain to be had. Classical Music. Moreover. because it is for this very reason that even real Shakespeare haters are unlikely to criticize the quality of his verse. This should not be an unfamiliar concept. while an individual composer may feel he is considering both his audience and posterity. Whether high ideals or low commerce motivated the work is ultimately irrelevant. If taste and society were the real yardstick. not the creator’s intentions or motivations. From this point of view. the value or reception of the work will be what counts. This is not to say (as some have done) that success is a reflection of low cultural value: It is merely to say that the worth of a work is ultimately either intrinsic to it (as I believe) and therefore completely independent of success or a lack thereof. ultimately they are wrong. if you believe that something like intrinsic value exists. We can all feel the genius even if we are not all sensitive to the charms (at least this is what I tell myself). We must not forget that each ticket sold. not mediocre entertainment. Some composers have no doubt begun to bristle by this point. is usually a financial loss. not economic. The only possible (and therefore mandatory) gain achieved by subsidized art is cultural. You may think there ought to be a middle way. then the outreach efforts many arts organizations make seem quite puzzling. thinking that they are not so cavalier as to completely disregard public taste and societal demand. If the cost of reaching people is to destroy or at least dilute the “value” of what you are offering. things would certainly be easier for all of us if there were. Why Bother? than these other. Arts organizations are being subsidized to promote fine art. or it is determined by societal reception — in which case the most flash-in-the-pan “boy band” is “better” than just about any “classical” composer. the work will ultimately be valued either solely on its intrinsic merits (if there are such things) or solely on the reception it receives.

Thus Pascal asserts that belief is by far the safer bet. (I think this is why some creationists fight so hard against all forms of scientific proof: They realize that ultimately materialism and an immaterial soul cannot coexist.) But times occur when one’s life is truly in the balance. (Pascal’s wager is the calculation that if there is no God there are no negative consequences from falsely believing in one. accessibility. Every attempt to construct an intermediate framework seems rapidly to devolve into one of two opposing worldviews: Any system for evaluating works ultimately depends on either public reception or an attempted assessment of the works’ “intrinsic” merits. where reliance on science and rationality is much greater (or at least widespread) than at any time in the past. society ultimately makes choices and sets priorities. but our society has reached a junction where making a choice has become inevitable. To return to our analogy regarding the immaterial soul. Current debate about whether Intelligent Design is a rival to evolution that belongs in school or simply a religious fairy tale is only one instance where we will be forced to make a choice that will inevitably seem entirely unacceptable to a large group of people on the other side of the divide. a choice between flesh and spirit is unavoidable. yet large numbers of people still manage to believe in UFOs and government conspiracies conducted with perfect secrecy — not to mention the widespread religious fervor in contemporary America that rivals that of the Medieval era. this is the essence of Pascal’s wager. Some might object to my emphasis on this dichotomy. and neither option is without consequence. Although humans are very good individually at not reconciling our incompatible beliefs. Ad hoc systems of this kind justify particular actions but don’t address the underlying trends. and popularity in some sort of astutely weighted equation that would make everyone happy? After many years of trying. I have never come up with a middle ground that does not sit on a very slippery slope. one can claim to believe in a basically materialistic worldview and yet hope for an aphysical eternal afterlife. We live in a deeply inconsistent society. however. Aesthetic Value  quality.) Facing up to this dichotomous choice is not something most of us like to do. even if we don’t realize it . while if there is a God the price for disbelief is eternal damnation.

”4 He felt that any sort of hierarchy was an illusion.g. Each domain of culture could be made to correspond to culture professions in which problems could be dealt with as the concerns of special experts. Classical Music. morality and art. It may well be that this crisis in belief. goes back to the secularization of culture that has proceeded since the Enlightenment. normative rightness. because we can only add one more painting to this room we will take this one because it is more beautiful or more important). nineteenth. authenticity and beauty. Jürgen Habermas recalls the following idea from Max Weber: He characterized cultural modernity as the separation of the substantive reason expressed in religion and metaphysics into three autonomous spheres. Scientific discourse. however. theories of morality. They are: science. By the mid-twentieth century. this elimination of hierarchies of value from our worldview. take this further and suggest how one might proceed if we were to accept his ideas. 3 This system could work throughout the late eighteenth.” Kuhn believed we should simply see these new ideas as a different “paradigm.. at least they could be arranged hierarchically (e. the problems inherited from these older world-views could be arranged so as to fall under specific aspects of validity: truth. These came to be differentiated because the unified world-views of religion and metaphysics fell apart. it was unfair to think of the new theory as more “true. Kuhn believed that because some aspects of older theories might be more valid than some (usually peripheral) aspects of newer theories. jurisprudence and the production and criticism of art could in turn be institutionalized. He did not. moreover. we were willing to believe that they could be evaluated and if not determined in absolute terms. In speaking about cultural modernity. this new theory is more true than the old one. I believe that we have reached such a decision point. Why Bother? until many years later. Let’s back up a bit and look at what brought us here. Since the 18th century. Must we teach phlogiston theory along with everything else? If we cannot judge the validity of . normative rightness. thinkers like Thomas Kuhn were questioning this premise even with regard to truth. In the domain of subsidized arts. and early twentieth centuries because we were willing to accept its premise that “truth. authenticity and beauty” all existed.

Over the last few decades. A poor judgment reflected even more on them than on the artist who made the work. and — presuming the sampling techniques are adequate — it’s immediately obvious what’s a hit and what’s a flop. She seemed to feel it especially unfair to judge her in this manner because her taste in music is so conservative. This was almost the inverse of the current pop music or market-oriented system. where music is played for demographically sorted focus groups. even the most revered cultural institutions have been affected by “market-think.hilaryhahn. Aesthetic Value  one idea over another.” You need to have a clear theme or a marquee name: something to pull in the customer. I think NASA is in for many more disappointing and costly failures in the future. (I want credit if they actually launch that series. Museum curators. com) that looks as though it should be the publicity site for a new show on the WB about a beautiful teen violinist and her struggle to balance being a teenager with the rigors of art and touring. contemporary music performers!) When you look at those photos and the seasons now offered by classical music institutions you have to wonder: Are they listening for the next A belief in intrinsic values that can be evaluated has shaped our entire system of cultural production and delivery over several centuries. They were Habermas’s “special experts. artistic directors.) In 2004 The New York Times published a piece about how difficult it was for another attractive young violinist to be taken seriously after posing nude (with a carefully positioned violin) on her first album cover.” and to get their positions they had to demonstrate the acuity of their judgment. at least in principle. The fine young violinist Hilary Hahn has a Web site (http://www. (God forbid we get beautiful. because they were the person who was supposed to know better. But because even hit shows lose money. naked. With each choice they were to some extent placing their career on the line. you also need to convince advertisers to be “sponsors. and all sorts of nabobs from the chattering class were there to sift through the masses of mediocre work and find those with real quality.” Most major symphonies are giving marketing directors the equivalent of veto power over the music directors. ministers of culture. music directors. . If you look at covers of recent recordings by classical soloists you will be amazed at the amount of cheesecake or beefcake that goes into marketing.

This was apparently so successful that the art gallery still stocks and resells (presumably at a profit) these ceramic cows. Other suggestions for how to help the arts in America included sending out joke-filled postcards soliciting donations. grants panels. Another category of ideas included suggestions for how to completely reshape your programs to supposedly attract a public. as of 1991 it managed to spend more than half (53 percent) on administration. Why Bother? great composition or performer who will transform how we hear. or are they instead looking for a cute girl or a sexy guy or a performer who wears strapless gowns or has an attitude. Moreover. It contains no advice about the quality of art or really trying to help people grapple with what you are offering. tiny though the NEA’s budget is. like the very successful effort of the Kamloops Art Gallery in Canada. Does anyone believe that the Guggenheim exhibits on motorcycles or Armani suits are driven solely by their artistic merit and not the needs of sponsorship and patronage (read: advertising). put them on display in a grass field.” With that as her attitude is it any surprise that. and “infrastructure. Jane Alexander. an institution . it only offers stories of fund-raising successes. what is the point when each ticket is sold at a loss anyhow? One of the books I came across while doing research for this volume was Alvin Reiss’s Don’t Just Applaud — Send Money!5 This volume presents 139 pages of gadgets and gimmicks used by real arts groups to trick or at least prod people into supporting their causes. The Louvre. Even the priests of the art religion have lost their faith and are looking for other reasons to convince the masses. Classical Music. and then resold them to donors for twice what they paid. I think the blurb on the back cover sums up the strange attitude we often confront in the arts.”6 After all. The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven brought in Julia Child to give a cooking demonstration — so perhaps The Food Channel is the real future of the arts. which bought 1.500 ceramic cows. then chairman of the NEA. says: “The bottom line he [Reiss] illuminates is this: Be as creative in your marketing and fundraising as you are at your art. I’m sure the NEA feels that its administrative work is just as creative as the artists’ projects. if they are merely being held to attract a “larger” public. in an effort to repackage what they think is a recipe that works? This is all over the cultural world.

One might even say that. Jean Galard put it like this: It is commonplace and convenient to say a film.000 visitors? How good would the work have been if only 100. even though there are no criteria to allow it in absolute theoretical terms. However.” Does this mean that iconic value is what makes a masterpiece? Does he really believe that (if the Diptych is a masterpiece now) it was not a masterpiece until the publicity department of the National Gallery managed to draw in 200. However. A knowledge of history contradicts with all its force any hope for an objectivist aesthetic. eminent art historians and curators try to explain how they can single out works in practice. the idea of a master-piece becomes embarrassing.8 which holds as a sign of the value of the altarpiece known as The Wilton Diptych the vast number of visitors who came to see it and the fact that it even appeared in a humorous cartoon in The Spectator. for many reasons. through excellence over all comers. Particularly amusing is the article by Neil MacGregor. Aesthetic Value  whose very existence demands a belief in absolute hierarchy of worth.7 In the rest of that volume. the public will . one feels ready to proclaim. Firstly. It held a series of conferences and then released a volume titled “What Is a Masterpiece?” In that volume. has trouble with the notion. this idea supposes that one can make use of a principle of classification and ranking of works. “only a masterpiece can touch each person in a unique way. but you can’t have it both ways. if one has to make explicit the system (or at least the somewhat organized body of ideas) in which this excellence can be established.000 had come to see it and a few schoolchildren sketched it for art class? I do not mean to suggest that finding ways to engage the public with great art is not critically important. if forced to give one’s arguments. a building or a book is a masterpiece: in other words that one places it among the works whose vast superiority. If it is only though appreciation by masses and by engagement with a social context that the art is great. He writes. then why go to the trouble? After all. it seems completely indefensible. any such principle would be of doubtful objectivity. by definition as we just saw.

But if we are to believe Jean Galard.0 Classical Music. nonfunctional. funding mechanisms have always been flawed and people have always made bad choices as well as good ones. what they object to is being asked to pay for it when they don’t consume it. of course. it will be essential to convince even those who don’t love it that this kind of difficult. Marquis claims that the “arts have survived far longer without government intervention than with subsidies. for example. but in absolute terms.” But this is. nonpopular art makes the world richer. The change is something more profound than all that. and it will take me most of this book to even attempt to do so. She says again and again that the cultural “experts” make the wrong choices. but the arts as I mean them here (symphony . I fear that for the music we are discussing to survive. So let’s see just how bad the situation is. It is a grave error to consistently assume that the problems the arts have in relating to society today are mostly the result of infelicitous funding mechanisms or poor selection criteria.” This is essentially the advice Alice Marquis gives in her book. that poor work is advanced. The form of subsidy changes. Very few people object on principle to the existence of the kind of art that requires subsidies. We must convince people that it has real value — not just to me or a handful of others like me. Why Bother? find a way to engage with something without any outside help. completely false as it relates to the kind of art I practice. however. Persuading someone to value and ultimately help support something they do not really care for will be no easy task. Our discussion cannot focus on purely aesthetic and artistic issues — it must address financial ones as well. then we will have trouble formulating a problem-free way of justifying our judgment even in these extreme cases. I don’t think she really believes in the equality of everything either. Yet it remains very difficult to get over the notion that there is in fact a difference and that it is not an entirely arbitrary construction. and we can then simply pronounce whatever that is “great. She bemoans the segregation of art into high and low. but what about good and bad (or great and mediocre)? What do any of these terms really mean? She says that at the extremes there might be some clarity: the difference between mud wrestling in a local bar and King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

it is an integral component. It’s not called “chamber music” for nothing. ballet companies. because it allows and even obliges those with the expertise and experience to keep looking for better models of sustaining subsidized art. though. television broadcasts. a spouse who picks up the slack. and will go on avoiding. My goal in this volume is to convince you that as a society it is worth it to continue trying to support this sort of noneconomically viable art. and society (whether in the form of a prince. that reached by William Baumol and William Bowen in their report commissioned by the Twentieth Century Fund: Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma (1966). the experience is not the same as seeing an opera from the middle of the orchestra seats (although you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy your tickets). or a Ministry of Culture) foots the bill. Aesthetic Value  orchestras. question this conclusion by suggesting that larger concert halls. I am not a public policy expert.) have always cost far more than they bring in.” Marquis and others. in a time where wealth is less concentrated than in the past (at least in the more distant past). The broad acceptance of the general premise is what the art needs to survive. They found that the performing arts will never be self-sufficient. Lest we be tempted to spout something about diversity and say we should help preserve as many different kinds of music as possible — we should give all forms of expression a chance. a pope. because they are inherently labor intensive and cannot take advantage of economies of scale. a Rockefeller. Moreover. and intimacy is not only a preferable environment for some works. In fact. “a string quartet must always have four players. As Alice Marquis pithily summarizes. and so on — we need to understand just how expensive Western classical art music is and how unlikely it is to survive without the patronage of society as a whole. by . But as anyone who has sat in the Family Circle at the Metropolitan Opera knows. the question of exactly what sorts of public or private patronage would be ideal. do in fact permit economies of scale. etc. recordings. this inevitably means soliciting the patronage of people whose preferences are elsewhere. We should begin this review with a conclusion. and I believe that any scheme we create will have its advantages and disadvantages. I suspect they would be right if we were dealing with a commodity. and so on. You may notice that I am avoiding.

9 But those are only best-case numbers for large. after holding a luncheon for the ten very eminent winners of that year’s National Arts Medal. We can’t support this art in the long run based on the math that Marquis cites so thoroughly.500 on tickets from a concert that costs $45. The arts are simply not a significant part of most people’s lives. opera tickets — as expensive as they are — represent no more than 40 percent of the cost and often much less.10 Marquis is not painting an unrealistically bleak picture when she recounts the story of when the first President Bush. because there is no market-based reason to do any of this: In a survey in 1993. even among our leaders. In the end we may realize a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on tickets if the concert is a great success. Moreover. When I work with contemporary music ensembles. it would be too big a risk to their entirely artificial bottom line. the National Cultural Alliance. Even in the most successful and populist-oriented arts groups. well-publicized organizations with conservative. Classical Music. using highly leading questions that should have favored the arts. and dance company tickets are a mere 27 percent of the cost.000 to produce is too insignificant to even calculate a percentage. tickets are sold at a horrendous loss. I think that is exactly the point. now I want you to meet some real artists!” With that. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams entered the room to accompany President Bush to a baseball game. the largest arts organizations have made it so expensive to operate that they now have the perfect excuse not to let any untested new art through the door. the real situation is much worse. we do not even include in the budget any income from tickets. and they are from some time ago (the 1970s). But $1. . stood up and said “All right you artists. symphony orchestra tickets represent less than 30 percent of the cost. Nonprofit theater ticket receipts represent on average 52 percent of the cost of opening the door. Why Bother? trying to seek supposed economies of scale. found that only 5 percent of the population was “extremely interested” in the arts and humanities and that even among the more affluent and educated only 30 percent would even claim to be “very interested. market-considered programming.” 57 percent say that the arts and humanities play at most a minor role in their lives.

Aesthetic Value  In 1974. Any equivalent redirection of tax dollars to an area might well produce similar effects. and I’d like to eliminate that as well. even here in America) in the form of tax breaks on contributions to nonprofit organizations. That argument is not so much in favor of the arts as it is in favor of the buildings that house the arts. Boosters claim enormous financial gains to regions that construct arts facilities (both direct gains in tourism and taxes and indirect gains in property values and quality of life). Joseph Rody found that. this kind of art has never and probably will never interest the majority and perhaps not even a significant minority of the population (at least not one willing to do more than attend the occasional blockbuster museum exhibit once every couple of years). Another market argument is often made in favor of the arts. discount postal rates. and no more reason exists to support the arts than to support more playgrounds or a sports stadium. and so on. the only reason to go to all this trouble and spend all this money is that the result has great worth — not economic worth.2 percent of the population instead of 1. then the battle has already been lost. . why do we keep going back to marketing analyses or arguments? So what if you manage to entice 1. More important.1 percent to attend an arts program? So what if you lose only $30 per ticket sold instead of $32? There has to be another reason why we’re doing this. the kind of arts developed in the West over the last few hundred years probably still would not be self-supporting. It seems clear that even with fantastically effective arts education and outreach. after more then ten years of outreach by the NEA. As a society. When the only medical argument that can made for a cough syrup is that it also contains alcohol. or perhaps even a shopping mall.” one has to wonder about how economically valid it really is. The multibillion-dollar redevelopment of New York’s Upper West Side after the construction of Lincoln Center is a classic example. Moreover.11 So. What is often left out of these arguments are the enormous tax subsidies that go to the arts (yes. if this is really the argument. only 1 percent of the population had attended a single symphony orchestra concert. even if we could interest these masses. one has to wonder whether there might not be other ways to get drunk. land concessions. While this argument may be more viable politically than “art for art’s sake.

or that such a thing is even possible. that just shows how badly run the groups are. “Choice” is the word of the day. or how much better they need to become at marketing or branding. one must absolutely believe that there is no worth other than what someone will pay for something (its market value). and therefore it cannot easily figure into our calculations as a society. We must abandon an absolutist view of relativism. If it costs $75 per seat to put on the concert. and how can one object to it without seeming to be some sort of arch-reactionary snob who wants to force his taste on others? But there’s the rub. However we can no longer really evaluate cultural value. I’ll try to offer some arguments in the coming chapters as to why I think you might and how your personal taste and my rather abstract notions of aesthetic value can interact. A seat at the symphony is worth $40 if that’s what the ticket can be sold for. or that they simply ought not to exist: They are not “viable. this concept is even harder to accept. Today we want to decide for ourselves.” Value outside a market has no meaning. after all. it results almost inevitably from a situation where the public is no longer willing simply to take someone else’s word on whether they should see or hear something. If I want to maintain that the arts require the existence of another sort of value that is intrinsic to the works — and if I am not advocating a full-scale return to a hierarchical worldview where it is closeness to God or the word of a prince that conveys this value — where does this value come from? How can we justify the value of one work over another without succumbing to the pitfalls of objectivist aesthetics that (as Jean Galard reminds us) are bound to fail in time? I would like to address this problem in two different ways. Under a market system. we’re a democracy. especially one who does not care for this supposedly “valuable” art. If a current theory in physics corresponds to the results . and both of them require the same first step: We must correct Kuhn’s error.) This reticence should not be surprising. Classical Music. It seems to me that we can perfectly well judge one theory to be truer than another without claiming that we have found the final Truth. (For an individual. Why Bother? but cultural value. the whole market-driven system happens to also be predicated on a basic belief that is entirely incompatible with the idea of intrinsic value or worth.

I will be happy to say it is more “true. or that . perfect “Theory of Everything. if physicists work out the details of string theory and find that it subsumes the former theory’s results while using fewer experimentally determined variables (more of it comes from the structure of the theory directly) and now allows us to make accurate predictions to fifteen decimal places. but merely true enough to work for that application (most aerodynamic problems are solved with approximate answers that can be calculated on ever smaller grids of points — say. does not (at least for me) undermine my willingness to believe in the greater truth of the more refined theory. our inability to determine with precision the intrinsic value of a work does not mean that its worth is nil or entirely relative. We are all willing to get on airplanes made with theories that we know in advance are not true. or what Habermas in a perversely poetic way referred to as the “amount of Beauty. we can have and have had skewed. along the surface of the wing).” We must accept that these systems are not now and can never be perfect. we could choose to accept theories or aesthetic frameworks that allow us to make judgments with some amount of validity — even if these frameworks themselves cannot be absolutely and timelessly true. The same notion of “more” and “less” true might have a parallel in the arts. the kinds of useful approximations of truth we are familiar with in science might also become available as tools for evaluating the worth of art. and that even the new theory will undoubtedly be further revised. however. Perhaps physics will have a final. incomplete. Rather than seeking a perfect set of guidelines. I am willing to say it’s “true. Aesthetic Value  of experiments out to thirteen decimal places. Were we to make this leap. I certainly would not want to be the test pilot on the helicopter that da Vinci made using the theories of aerodynamics of his time — advanced though he was in relation to his contemporaries. biased — albeit useful and meaningful — theories.” Moreover. Furthermore. Our individual ideas of beauty and meaning are too twisted and blown by our culture and our personal history — not to mention the bias that taste inflicts on even our most objective judgments — to hope for a final “Theory of Aesthetic Value.” That the two theories imply slightly incompatible physical systems.” Nonetheless.” but the arts will not.

regardless of our mental states and cultural constructs. a world exists out there. independently from sociocultural values. you say.12 . in fact. What could aesthetic value possibly be and why ever would one believe that it exists? One theory I can offer as to why beauty and aesthetic value exist abstractly is that they are part of the human mind. I find it extremely compelling to believe that.”13 But we cannot escape the question. These are not theories about measuring aesthetic value. even if I buy this. they are the inevitable result of the operation of natural aspects of human cognitive universals within aesthetic domains. and that this world appears to be largely constant. In other words. That is not to say that mental states and cultural constructs are not real and powerful. Why Bother? it is impossible to make meaningful approximations of its worth relative to other works. Ultimately. what about beauty or. aesthetic value? As I have mentioned. to use a less loaded term. because such agreements are shortlived. All right. Linguist Noam Chomsky famously claimed that aliens coming to Earth would judge us to all be speaking dialects of a single human universal language. I suspect that even the most dedicated and dogmatic postmodernist does not really stop to gather his or her socially constructed thoughts before turning on the light switch — for fear that otherwise electricity might suddenly cease to exist. I am hoping to avoid the error of trying to badger you into agreeing with me about a set of specific aesthetic judgments. but that — while those constructs and states affect how we perceive and interpret the world — the physical world (call it Truth in this context) is largely indifferent to those beliefs. albeit imperfectly? In the case of science. He believed that the structure of this Universal Grammar was the result of our human perceptual apparatus coupled with our mental language Even if you’re willing to go along with me up to this point we still have a real problem: What are these theories supposed to be measuring. I have two possible answers. but theories about why one might believe that intrinsic. aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced. aesthetic value could exist at all. Classical Music. but it cannot be conveyed […] To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder. we can suppose that the theories are approximating a physical reality. Harold Bloom is probably right when he writes that: “Pragmatically.

At the museum of ancient art. because we know that hands and minds very much like our own formed these objects? Whether symmetrical or wildly irregular. It is clear to me that I am imposing these sensations. others frightening. To really make sense of what we are seeing. recent or ancient. We must remember. Although this does not necessarily imply that we are all artists. Aesthetic Value  organ (a simple example of the universality of human languages is the consistent division of reality into nouns [things] and verbs [actions] rather than into some sort of imaginable composites that mix those two notions. we can recognize aesthetic intentions. At the natural history museum. they all share some of the same structural underpinnings. although the similarities go much deeper). Whether it is simple and elegant or ornamental and rich. though. One always experiences at least some sense of familiarity with even the most exotic objects. we cannot instantly judge what is the best of each kind of work (although we may have gut preferences). as do the different manifestations of human language. but it is clear that there are differing degrees of . Look at objects from any culture. the sensation is entirely different. culture. some objects may seem beautiful. though I certainly cannot prove. I am giving those “meanings” to the pile of bones or colored rock in front of me. or even puns for that matter. we need quite a lot of information (fortunately supplied on the placards next to the exhibits). And why shouldn’t there be. and experience as our applications of language faculties. it should at least mean that we are all capable of being art appreciators. and I defy you to feel them as wholly strange or foreign. that just as not everyone is drawn to literature. Many may appear strange while some are familiar. that a similar universal aesthetic organ (or perhaps several suborgans) exists in the human mind. we see a form created by a human mind. He claims that all of the apparent diversity on the surface of languages is the result of a more unified set of tools and rules at lower cognitive levels. I suspect. While different “dialects” may implement very different forms of aesthetic systems. Certainly.14 A basic feeling for the universality of aesthetics can be achieved by comparing a visit to a natural history museum with a visit to any museum of ancient arts or culture. the range of uses each individual applies to the art faculty are as shaped by personality.

 Classical Music. This is not so with the fossils down the street. at least potentially provide a framework in which one work could be better. Why Bother? achievement. Fortunately for us. at least approximately. especially when used to account for any but the most trivial aspects of human activity. any specific theory about how this sense works and what specifically it says about one work of art or another may still be very problematic. it is easy to imagine that with more time and more context (knowledge) our appreciation could deepen. Beauty in this aesthetic sense is not just in the eye of the beholder. it feels artificial to speak of its beauty. Any of the deficiencies you might find with my proposed guidelines could be used to undermine the broader argument about the ability to approximate meaningfully (even though problematically) such judgments. but also in the eye of the maker. it is the product of the human creative spirit. in a sense that goes beyond a specific cultural framework. however. we are not extraterrestrials. These approximate theories do. No matter how much we learn about dinosaurs. This is why I have no intention of offering even my best theories of what artistic criteria we should use to judge art. The idea of cognitive universals can be hard for many people to accept. I know that most people are not content with this answer. To be perfectly clear. more perfect. I believe that if there were extraterrestrial intelligent beings and if they were to judge our arts. or how much we might appreciate the rarity or scientific importance of a particular exhibit. The calipers with which these absolute intrinsic values can be measured. More important. or more beautiful than another. Now.” Even though we may speak of more and less correct use of . It seems perfectly plausible (although perhaps not proven) that our sense of beauty and our need to create could be as much a product of our native gifts as the ability to learn language or walk upright on two feet. we happen to be human just like the maker of the artwork. Perhaps an even greater problem is that other types of cognitive abilities do not yield hierarchical judgments like “better” and “worse. they would most likely find them completely baffling and might never be able to understand the aesthetic criteria that let us say one imperfect representation of nature is better than another. though. can perhaps be made with our own human minds.

the world is a much safer and I believe better place while we hold this belief. This is the artistic or aesthetic version of Pascal’s wager. and short lives with wonderful art. the mistake can. the acceptance of an unprovable set of intrinsic values represents the norm and is clearly advantageous to society. we believe that in some way it is intrinsically wrong. or comforting. such as morality. in time. however. Moreover. For example. most of us believe that the gratuitous murder of another human being is not simply wrong because a deity or a law says so. the only way to avoid falling into despair is to believe in a world where there is reason for hope. which tells of a similar choice involving how a grown man should remember a trauma he suffered as a boy. become the rule. justified or not. or remind us of something specific). most linguists would argue that as long as enough people agree. Ultimately. In other domains. I believe that cognitive universals have far-ranging repercussions for human activity and that it is possible for the human mind to contain biases toward configurations of sounds or objects that might lead to some things being more beautiful or fascinating than others. only this time neither choice is without risk. Aesthetic Value  language. In many ways any big choice about how we organize our society will boil down to choosing the kind of world we want to live in and the premises it needs to exist. and relating this choice to believing in God. But. even than others that we prefer (because they are more useful. There is a fairly recent novel called The Life of Pi. the author suggests. just like Morpheus did in the Matrix: You can take the red pill or the blue pill. as a society we have . but either way you’re going to have to live on in the world you chose. as long as they are fictions that make the world better. I have one last proposition to offer you. Hobbes’s “social contract” sees us as trading in our “natural state” of freedom for peace. This is what I meant when I implied that it doesn’t really matter whether the NEA is purveying fictions. so perhaps we need to construct a parallel “aesthetic contract” that would acknowledge the tradeoffs we must make if we want to fill our nasty. I don’t think either of these problems is ultimately fatal. I offer a choice. brutish. Whether or not this view is true (we wouldn’t think of a lion killing another lion to establish its territory as wrong). if you just don’t buy any of this. or familiar.

presidents have invited orchestras to play whether or not they liked orchestral music. We should imagine that there are.0 Classical Music. the idea of intrinsic value has by no means been limited to “high culture”. What happens if intrinsic values truly exist. Let’s just contrast. or at least that we are all willing to act as if there are (the distinction between these two worlds would probably be impossible to detect). and ballets. people felt that if they got nothing out of more “difficult” art. Kennedy had an aide who told him when to clap so as not to embarrass himself. these works are somehow important. After enough time. some. On the other hand. Richard Wagner. perhaps even many. it has had an equally profound effect on even the most commercial of art forms. Even in the United States (one of the few countries that does not see the need for a cabinet-level guardian of culture). or if we at least believe that they do? This view has led schools to force children to read Shakespeare and college students to read James Joyce. Liking the most popular or accessible group was often seen as a sign of superficiality. in fact. If something doesn’t satisfy them. Furthermore. might make it over the hurdles and come to love “it” — whether “it” is John Donne. what happens if there are no intrinsic values or if we act as if there were none? Then it seems a waste of time to grapple with much of anything. Generally. in our imaginations. Rock fans who aimed at sophistication have sought out more ambitious “underground” music and were quick to display their highly developed taste to their friends. John F. Guys have tried to impress their dates by taking them to jazz clubs instead of going to hear a Bee Gees cover band. or John Coltrane. museums. a world that acts as if it believes in intrinsic aesthetic values with one that does not. intrinsic values. Why Bother? such a strong belief in the rightness (or at least utility) of this view that we are willing to lock away in jail or kill those individuals who disagree. It is a useful exercise to perform a thought experiment. the problem was likely their own. Families have dragged children to operas. People will need to have a wide menu of choices. Don’t worry for the moment where these values come from or how to evaluate them. and regardless of whether they want to tell a survey taker that arts and humanities play a major role in their life. they’ll flick to another . The idea is that whether they enjoy them or not.

and if nothing good can be found on any channel. It’s about submitting to someone else’s vision. But even in a techno-utopian future where content on demand lets each person’s taste be perfectly satisfied — those who like Schoenberg and those who prefer Billy Ray Cyrus — there may not be any place left for art. why pay for it? The lesson I take from Cage and Duchamp is not that all art is equal. They both know that art is a team effort between artist and audience and that the latter sometimes needs help in understanding the importance and nature of its role. Art is not about giving people what they want. The father of President George W. forcing your aesthetic sense to assimilate the output of someone else’s. It’s about giving them something they don’t know they want. this leads to the downward homogenizing of taste toward the lowest common denominator. To him the true artists are baseball players. then they must therefore be the equal of Mozart and Rembrandt as must be Garth Brooks and black velvet Elvises. why bother? Certainly. They lived in the . because he likes baseball. or claiming that traffic noise was as much music as Mozart) is that if a urinal or traffic noise could be appreciated aesthetically in any way. a phenomenon that makes almost everyone vaguely uncomfortable. the search itself becomes the program. but that all art demands a surrendering of your vision in submission to the artist’s or at least the museum or concert curator’s. This view quickly leads to taste being the only legitimate arbiter. And if there is not even the possibility of a really valuable return. he just wouldn’t eat it. With current distribution schemes. Bush was known to prefer the Beach Boys to the Philharmonic and saw no need to pretend a love for high culture: If he didn’t like broccoli. This is not to say that Cage and Duchamp are necessarily great artists. or perhaps he wants you to see the absurdity he sees in the whole museum setting as a way of perceiving. Duchamp dares you to see the beauty he found in a urinal or a shovel. but they understood how difficult it is to engage with art. Cage tries to force you to turn the same ears to the traffic that you would give to Mozart. Aesthetic Value  channel. The lesson that has been taken from John Cage and Marcel Duchamp’s attacks on the artistic status quo (placing a urinal in a museum display.

after all. at any given time. Most artworks are mediocre. but it’s very easy to forget the mountains of mediocrity that were sifted to lift Bach or Dante or Emily Dickinson to their Olympian heights. it is not certain that is what you would have heard when you went to a concert. . Classical Music. because we remember only the best parts. It is easy to forget how. if not downright bad! This idea. Gioacchino Rossini was arguably more famous than Beethoven in the early nineteenth century and the French opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was much more popular than his German rival Richard Wagner. knowing that ultimately they could not. demanding that level of investment. and if we believe that gems are not really there to be found. however. may have waded through Finnegan’s Wake or A la recherche du temps perdu. We think of art as the great masterworks we know. What they forget is that even if you had been living in Beethoven’s time. I have heard people suggest that the gene pool has somehow been diluted. the sheer mass of bad or mediocre work tends to dwarf the good or great works. We just haven’t finished sifting out the gems from the garbage yet. but how many would read such difficult works. already offers all the benefits of a Grisham novel without all that extra difficulty)? Even just the knowledge that in all likelihood they were complex dross (as inevitably will often be the case with new art) would make it all but impossible. I would venture to say. which is shocking to many people. even today. This can lead us to assume that the past was somehow better. that there have certainly been more masterpieces created during the past twenty years than were made during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century (an easy bet because the population is so much bigger now). Some of us. will be true whether or not there are abstract criteria by which to judge how absolutely awful they are. through massive population growth in the twentieth century. offer anything more than a John Grisham novel (which. to the point that no more Beethovens are possible (this came from a composer). Why Bother? world where art could be great — even as they were trying to subvert one particular theory of what might constitute art. and that is before we even start naming the legions of widely performed mediocrities whose works have mercifully been consigned to history’s dustbin. we might as well not bother. even potentially.

we need people who are able and willing to go through those 50 million paintings on the off-chance of finding one masterpiece. Aesthetic Value  However. and the desire to find the next big thing. Even if you knew there were a Guernica hiding in there somewhere. To find great art. Individuals will always try to advance their friends and punish their enemies. Ultimately. They can’t know if we will like them. Imagine having to go through the 50 million paintings — probably a very low estimate — done last year by everyone from famous artists to unknown talents to my ninety-something-year-old grandmother (who paints as a retirement hobby). and why any attempts to democratize it may bear unwanted side effects. how would you keep your eyes fresh enough to see it? And if you don’t think art is anything more than a cabal designed to extort subsidies from the public. promote their politi- . They’re no longer trying to find great works and expose them to the public. most great new works would never be discovered. they become a negative force. Difficult works. if no one were willing make this enormous effort or to carry forward with a belief that there really is something special to some works. why even try? I’m not saying that the system was ever perfect. which of course you wouldn’t.000 people had seen them and humorous cartoons of them have appeared in The Spectator. even before 200. But when the so-called authorities buy into the idea that nothing is intrinsically worth more than anything else. but they have judged that these works possess value. we can reduce our choices to works that have already been evaluated and recommended. they’re just hoping to impose their tastes. This is why culture became an undemocratic realm in the first place. it is in their interest to promote as “great” things that truly are. like those of Joyce or Proust (or Schoenberg or Messiaen). would become completely impossible to find. This screening process means that when you or I decide to spend time on art. Someone — presumably someone who has demonstrated a greater knowledge of this realm than we possess — thinks they are worth spending time on. But the pressure not to be left out of an important (read: valuable) trend. will force some degree of integrity and openness in even the most corrupt arts administrators. and perhaps also to produce.

In jazz and rock. We are risking our time. If we don’t believe at all anymore in the inherent value and . That relationship may blur some of the distinctions I have been making and certainly complicates the sort of atemporal judgments I’ve been describing. and our frustration. or simply get rich and famous. sometime might make the effort to understand what an artist has to offer and not merely seek what is already known and liked. Once that belief disappears. our money. Jazz. It requires a tremendous leap of faith to surrender control of our perception to someone else. turning on top-40 radio will be enough. sure that another Coltrane or Miles Davis is waiting to be found. Perhaps because these forms don’t make quite the same outrageous demands on listeners. The lack of a belief in intrinsic value does not only affect so-called high arts. Why Bother? cal or social agendas. There seem to be fewer and fewer hardcore buffs who scour the clubs. unhelpful force. things with real value. but only an act of faith — faith that great art is something truly remarkable. driving the various traditions of art cinema to the margins. our attention. however. they do so because they believe that great things are to be found out there. When high school students start broadening their record collections and searching for more adventurous artists they haven’t heard before. viewers. Real art cannot be an act of manipulation or marketing. I don’t believe it fundamentally alters them. This is how Dr. faith that someone. The same deleterious effects are appearing in more popular art forms like jazz or film or some kinds of pop music. somewhere. which requires an enormous amount of knowledge and connoisseurship to appreciate in-depth. or the society that subsidizes them — and I mean that in the best possible sense — the process doesn’t seem to be as far along. around the world Hollywood blockbuster productions increasingly dominate the market. on the off-chance that he may offer us something we never knew we wanted but now would not want to be without. the work itself and the performance of the work are joined in a way that is quite different from the case in theater or classical music. Still. unethical. Marquis sees the NEA: a bumbling. seems to be fighting for its survival — in constant danger of becoming upscale aural wallpaper or getting moved into the same prison/museums that have locked innovation out of the symphony orchestra. Classical Music.

whatever the cost. Aesthetic Value  transformative potential of art. and practicality. I’m very doubtful that anything like the Western artistic tradition would happen twice. A cultural form that serves no obvious function. Yet. Ovid said: “Nothing is of more use to man than the arts which have no utility. which sets a tiny handful of individual humans free to pursue their own visions of aesthetic achievement without regard to taste. should inevitably lead to some similar outcome. . understanding. it would be a terrible shame to give up completely on something that can bring society moments and objects of such value. You might think that aesthetic values as I have described. and is so expensive that it can never support itself seems like such an aberration. has given us an astounding body of work.” In an age when we spend so much on so many things. if real. then why would anyone in his right mind take the risk? If we could turn back the history of the human race and run it over again. does not appeal to most of the population. those of us who believe there truly are aesthetic values can see that this odd form of expression. but the structural principles that allow skyscrapers hardly guarantee a society willing to pour money into building 100story towers.

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Either way. we need (at least partially) to account for the thing that there’s no accounting for: taste. I am simply trying to specify my meanings for the purposes of the present discussion. I will avoid the term “culture” as much as possible. that you’re willing to consider that something like aesthetic value might exist. To deal with taste. First are the notions of art and culture. to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations. or that it would be beneficial to pretend that it exists. we need to differentiate several entangled concepts. we still need to explore why more people aren’t clambering to acquire as much of this supposed value as possible: If it is so valuable in the abstract. These concepts have been the subjects of entire books. and I have no intention of giving them anything approaching such comprehensive treatment here.2 Taste … you encounter a stranger. why is it not more personally attractive to many people? In other words. because the broad (societal) meaning and  . at least for argument’s sake. — Harold Bloom Let’s assume.

is discernable and we can consider these as two separable categories. For present purposes I’d like to define “art” in a very limited way as an aesthetic object (i.. The next term needed for our discussion. consumer. while engaging with art) or as objects and activities designed to produce enjoyment in the user. simultaneous intentions for the same act or object. no high or low art exists per se. Because I have defined aesthetic intent as central to art and diversionary intent as central to entertainment.” which never seems to yield much insight. difficult and accessible art perhaps . “entertainment. for now please bear with this very limited use of the word “art.e. by my definition art is not entertainment. in many if not most cases.” If I don’t limit our meaning from the start. I realize that many other definitions are possible and perhaps preferable in a general context — especially since the early part of the twentieth century when the centrality of objects over processes came into question. if we were able to determine intent perfectly and if it weren’t so easy to have multiple. artistic or entertainment-related. however. Why Bother? the narrow (art-related) meanings are too intertwined in our “cultural” (academic meaning) discourse. Although it presents many of the same difficulties.g. though certainly not necessarily. Classical Music. a computer program used to create an image). According to my definitions.” can cause real confusion. in this context. we are all too likely to fall into playing a game of “art is ______. Nonetheless. entertainment as either the subjective feeling one experiences while doing something enjoyable (potentially. I define. Although art may be entertaining. an object produced with an aesthetic intent) either produced by humans or by following instructions produced by humans (e. the primary intent. As I will touch upon the latter point in the next chapter.. I am the first to admit that much entertainment has a high degree of (presumably intentional) aesthetic value and that much art has (also presumably intentional) diversionary utility. I will also use the word in the context of collections of such objects or the quest to produce such objects. or observer. the word “art” will be impossible to avoid. they could be considered separate categories. Confusion between art and entertainment pervades much of the discourse on “high” versus “low” art or culture. but certainly good and bad art (or at least better and worse) does.

One hardly needs to defend the choices of the overwhelming majority over those of a curmudgeonly few. deceived emperor who now appears naked after all. Judgments made by you or me or the curatorial staff at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. commanding enough resources. Taste  also does. enjoy it enough to support it. Even if intrinsic. other than sheer satisfaction or diversion. if we assume that all artistic assessments are probably wrong — a sort of artistic caveat emptor — we may foreclose many possibilities in advance. absolute aesthetic values do exist. The threat is elsewhere. We must decide whether in some cases artistic or aesthetic value ought to override economic value and popular preference in the allocation of society’s resources. If enough individuals. Whether the medium is graffiti or carved Carrara marble. that might justify continued support. “Why should I pay (or help to pay) for something that I don’t like?” The first step toward answering this question is to address the underlying paradox: If it’s really better in a meaningful way. Herbert Gans’s book Popular Culture and High Culture1 is a good example of the high/low culture discourse genre. In other words. those things that cannot support themselves in the marketplace are threatened. old. we must admit to human fallibility. Popularity. our individual or collective judgments about a given work will often be incorrect. However. “great art is strange” (he was actually writing about canonical literature. What we took for the “emperor’s new clothes” might turn out to be a shadow on that poor. can be wrong. Gans sets out with what I suppose he views as the noble intent of defending popular culture from the attacks and condescension of “High Culture. Gans mixes metaphors of programming and consumption with ideas like art and aesthetics in a way that clarifies neither and obscures both. in good faith.” But his fears strike me as comical (perhaps in 1974 when the first edition was published this would have been less the case). but I will extend his lovely sentiment). it will be very hard to continue onward to the benefits. in this context. Whether we call art and culture high or low. aesthetic intent creates art. This doesn’t . To approach an answer. As Harold Bloom wrote. why don’t I prefer it? Unless I can satisfactorily answer this first question. it will exist in a free market society. we need to ask. is its own unassailable defense.

both mental and physical. capable of resisting. The price we must pay for that luxury is the effort of our attention and concentration. if one is not in the right mood it might be downright irritating.” the luxury is not greatest by my consequent measure.0 Classical Music. Art. Although these entertainments may well have some aesthetic value. This often leaves little or no mental energy for consumption in each “free” hour. Therefore. In fact. our highest experience of “luxury. like the thick ice of the skater’s pond. when the work asks for as little attention as possible. to my sense. it is delightfully divinely great. and thus a little off from anything we might expect. a bourgeois activity in that it requires real leisure. without a reward of any concrete utility. luxurious) place where art lives. the acceptance of an irresistible illusion. It places our aesthetic senses in a configuration they have never experienced before. Only those able to give their full attention and concentration. that is not why we choose them and it is not the way we are using them. This strangeness that comes with great art is a big part of the reason we often hesitate to approach such works. if we had not moved into that very strange (to James. Why Bother? mean that art has to be innovative or different in that sense. in fact. we (myself included) quite reasonably seek to fill much of our leisure time with light entertainments: things that will occupy and divert us. but it is always at least deeply personal and of itself. A deep aesthetic experience of even the most accessible art is . Modern life puts us in a sort of double bind. We must throw our strongest pressure against the ice to see if it is. constituting. It is what ought to happen. as the Marxist critics decry. As Henry James wrote in the preface to The Wings of the Dove: The enjoyment of a work of art. An enormously stressful.2 The sound of the crack is of course our normal expectation. This is not always very comfortable or entertaining. to make and to appreciate. except perhaps with the same work at an earlier time. but never surely to call it a luxury. when we feel the surface. It is greatest. can really experience art. constantly changing work and personal life is coupled with an unprecedented amount of “leisure” time. in the way I refer to it is. The sound of the crack one may recognize. bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw on it.

made such an effort and I still didn’t like it. I do have a guiding principle that bears upon it: “The Chinese Food Effect.” I distinctly recall a big banquet dinner at a local Chinese restaurant when I was a child. such as categorical perception and something psychologists call “chunking. the sensation of difference or unfamiliarity overwhelmed all other sensations.” Even chess grandmasters do not really hold in their head the next 350 moves. They are saying that the difference from their norm is so great that difference is their only salient perception. for that matter) sounds the same to them. no matter the context. were extremely leery of “ethnic food.” I remember peppering my grandparents with questions both during and after the meal to determine whether they liked the food or whether our efforts to force them to try this or that dish had yielded only the polite endurance of an unpleasant taste. Perhaps they were too polite to come out and say how awful everything tasted to them. Glancing at the paintings in an art exhibition or playing Mozart as background music is perhaps entertainment. at least occasionally. I felt for the longest time that they were avoiding the questions. we employ various sorts of mental data reduction techniques. Taste  exhausting and consuming. however (and I was nothing if not a persistent child). “But I have. a different sort of understanding dawned on me: They didn’t actually know if they liked it or not. My grandparents (especially my grandfather). like many of their generation. When my grandparents tasted this deeply unfamiliar food. they have chunked together families of possible moves into a still large. This is not a . giving me evasive responses. Cognitive science suggests that we can’t really think about too many things at once. but less superhuman number of categories. my maternal grandparents were there. As I persisted.3 Instead. but the experience is not the experience of art. I assume that this is what people mean when they say that all classical music (or all country music. They may also be saying something more subtle. They probably do not yet have the categories they would need to parse the experience into meaningful units. In addition to my parents and siblings. You may at this point quite reasonably say.” How much is enough effort before I call the supposed experts’ bluff? Although I don’t have one clear solution for this dilemma.

perhaps in a few different restaurants. or at least repeated exposure. You may notice that the starch served is always rice. this dish has a strongly scented spice in it (maybe star anise). They have to astutely mix repetition with discovery. Classical Music. there are things for everyone to love (my grandfather became especially partial to sweet-and-sour fish). Moreover. one can start to form some reasonable expectations about the next meal. perhaps by the type of sauce: sweet-and-sour dishes. but expectations will form nonetheless and gradually more reliable ones will take the place of those that are debunked. until one day you are served noodles. If by that point . Neither an ever-changing smorgasbord nor a constant diet of comfort food (the two most commonly offered options) will really help someone develop his or her palate. After eating a dozen Chinese meals. Why Bother? conscious strategy we decide to employ. you can still probably hold on to the idea that they will not give you potatoes. This principle in application puts a real burden on those who program and present art. steamed dishes with dipping sauce. Some of these may well prove false. however. this is just not for me? No single answer works for everyone. I suspect that in a cuisine that covers most of a continent and was developed by one the most ancient civilizations on Earth. soy sauce-based dishes. but I have a rule of thumb: Keep trying until you’ve gotten past the threshold I’m calling “The Chinese Food Effect. however. when you can compare and contrast them to other more or less closely related works. this dish is very spicy whereas it is a dish that is usually mild. all the while knowing that no one can attend every concert. But what does it mean for you as a receiver of art? How many meals that lead to a night of indigestion must you endure before you can legitimately call it quits and say. within each category you can now make and remember many finer judgments: the sweetand-sour sauces here are a little on the gloppy side. You may start grouping the kinds of dishes you eat into categories. it is an inevitable part of the way we process our enormously complex environment. It does require experience.” By the time you can clearly remember details about works in a given genre. I’ve probably already pushed the analogy too far. but once you get some bearing. you are at least seeing the aesthetic object not only through its deviation from your expectations.

Some of us may simply be lactose intolerant when it comes to a given type of expression. you’re willing to put up with the discomfort and inconvenience of traveling so you can go to someplace strange and new. But we need places like Yellowstone. As universal as I believe human aesthetics to be. Patagonia. Taste  the genre or style of work is still unsatisfying. if you’re ready to exert the strongest pressure. The point is that wonderful luxury of Henry James. though. If all you need to do is take a walk. our aesthetic sense can be adequately exercised most of the time with the stimulation of entertainment we enjoy and the discoveries of everyday existence. Each of us has been shaped by particular endowments and experiences. . I believe that the investment of time it may take to explore something really new rewards one with enormous gains. I am tempted to cite the studies about greater stimulation increasing the production of new neurons in rat brains. we are all still very different individuals. too. or the Galapagos to show us the extraordinary range of nature’s possibilities. Even more than reconsidering the works you love. That’s the goal of subsidized art — to provide those really exotic locales that you may never see but that can make you dream by just being out there. that once you have explored a few kinds of cuisine you may start to see what one might love even in dishes that may be too spicy for you. a treadmill or a small park will do. when you’ve saved up your pennies and energies and want to go someplace extraordinary. it may not be for you. exploring a whole new artistic terrain is a staggeringly powerful experience. but that’s not really the point. So. But every so often. I suspect.

.

3 Concept and Craft The artistic communication is cut: it no longer exists. inspiration. marketable. however. or techniques into the discussion. More damning than any other criticism of subsidized art is the idea that artists are simply charlatans  . […] Chance. and the right moment must be forsaken for a theory. Art is no longer there. […] My position is the logical conclusion based on art history and its apparent contradictions. The object presented no longer has any aesthetic. that I feel the need to address it. It’s about something else. aesthetics. The observer finds that he is alone with himself and confronted with himself in front of an anonymous thing that gives him no solution. or consumable function. It is solely and undisputedly there for nothing.1 — Daniel Buren Until now I have tried not to bring specific styles. One trend within the arts has done so much to undermine the very premises of subsidized nonfunctional art. and art is not capable of this. moral.

” For Weiner and for (most if not all of) . The Conceptual art movement had its heyday from about the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. “I don’t care aesthetically which of the three conditions the work exists in. Why Bother? out to bilk our patrons with aesthetic snake oil. Here is Weiner’s declaration of intent relative to these works (there were many such pieces): 1. Even now. The piece may be fabricated. 2. opened this floodgate. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist. he said. and many other individuals and movements had already embraced large parts of what would become the full Conceptual credo. this critique did not really exist. Marcel Duchamp. but the ideas that led to the movement were already apparent in the early part of the century. It doesn’t matter whether it is conveyed verbally or aurally. Surrealism. nor is it a set of instructions. One Gallon Water Based White Paint Poured into this Hole. Let’s look at an “important” piece of Conceptual art by Lawrence Weiner: One Hole in the Ground Approximately 1’x1’x1’. In an interview from 1972. Fluxus. It is all and none of these things at once. he amplified the meaning: “There’s no way to build a piece incorrectly. museum shows are still highly influenced by the Conceptual revolution brought about by these artists who in essence do not believe in art. John Cage. The artist may construct the piece. The piece need not be built. or you can accept them only on an aural information level.” Later in the same interview. more than twenty years after the tide has turned against this attitude/approach.2 Weiner really seems intent on preserving all possible ambiguity. The notion of an art that is purely conceptual. 3. In earlier times when craft was a more overt component of a piece of art. It would be a fascistic gesture on my part if I were to say you can accept the things only on a verbal information level. which would be type on a page. Classical Music. however. This is neither just a mental exercise. the decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

And being basically a Marxist. In that same interview Weiner said: Anyone who imposes a unique condition for receivership. The societal respect accrued by Romantic artists through the nineteenth century gave the artist a privileged position in modern society. It becomes Expressionist to say: “I am the only one who can make this work. it does not directly improve the lot of the suffering masses. unique. In Chapter 2. emotional object produced by a prophet. produced by the only person who can make this.” as Daniel Buren said in the quote that opens this chapter. I mentioned that. It becomes a moral issue as well as an aesthetic one. There is the specific.3 I have quoted at some length. Unfortunately. though. They believe the creation of objects with aesthetic or expressive value is an anathema. Although these new Conceptual artists thought of Romantic art as representing everything they despised. I’m tempted to equate their posture with that of a petulant child overturning the board of a game they no longer want to play. there’s no other viable means of doing it. or at least legitimacy. for interpretation for seeing a work. They believe that the necessary role of the artist has become that of a social critic. because I feared that some readers unfamiliar with this sort of discourse would assume any summary I might make to be hyperbole. They would use their art to show the world that “art was no longer there. Art will not feed the hungry. the public nature of the artist’s role became the most important thing for the Conceptual artists. Although art consumes some societal resources. It’s about something else. the question is not art. I find any kind of Expressionism fascist. it is a luxury. Concept and Craft  the Conceptualists. In fact. The artists of the Conceptual art movement decided that this was not a situation that could be accepted. it is almost impossible to exaggerate the rhetoric of these social critics–cum-artists beyond what they have done themselves. so . they were more than happy to make use of this public visibility. it does not make a very efficient source of heat when burned. and. it is art’s use in and by society.” I find Expressionism related to aesthetic fascism. in a certain way. though it was tried during the French Revolution. is placing art within a context that is almost 19th century. art is bourgeois: In other words.

I believe that there are two converging tendencies that led to the cataclysm of Conceptual art. whose 1834 preface to Mademoiselle De Maupin called for removing the utilitarian and moral purposes from art in favor of what I have been calling aesthetic values. with its catastrophic wars. shall we say. famines. however. so it is worth exploring a bit more why this happened and where their mistake lies. idiosyncratic gestures in the history of the world. Earlier critics also questioned whether art-for-art’s sake was not some sort of opiate that the ruling classes used to stupefy and control the bourgeoisie. Classical Music. They began to vehemently reject nineteenth-century notions such as the ideas of Théophile Gaultier. and genocide. He thought that Schoenberg’s ugly music was just what the bourgeoisie needed to hear as a way of prodding them out of their complacency. Conceptual artists were not the first to raise this critique. social critics became convinced that something was deeply wrong in Western society and that the people in these societies needed to be awakened from their complacent slumber. These critics believed that a self-satisfied bourgeois existence allowed unscrupulous leaders to manipulate the populations of their nations. The artist Sarah Charlesworth has put it this way: “When the power of validation and legitimization of human enterprise occurs more and more within an institutionalized system.” from utilitarian craft toward purely aesthetic creations. I believe their critique does. This Romantic creation of an art-for-art’s-sake philosophy that had led to what André Malraux called “the most profound metamorphosis.”4 So. The first is related to society’s view of art and the second to the art itself. What was “good” about the music was precisely that people . Why Bother? that everyone else must also stop. no personal iconoclastic gesture can withstand. population displacement. They just did not go quite as far. The philosopher Theodor Adorno encouraged modern music precisely by praising its shocking and ugly aspect. no personal vision. was viewed as outdated if not dangerous. contain at least a grain of something more serious. one might say that this impossibility of personal vision and iconoclastic gesture led to what were surely some of the most. it is clear that no private vision. Throughout the course of the twentieth century. where corporate power and investment potential are becoming increasingly the social consensus by which we signify meaning.

I suspect things would never have gotten quite so out of hand. The best artists paid little heed to this sort of discourse. If the problem had remained confined to the critical/philosophical side of the street. the piece takes place in time and elicits some sort of affect from the audience (boredom or annoyance. Schoenberg had no intention of writing ugly or shocking music. although initially their motivations and goals were quite distinct. . but affect nonetheless). prepare to play with all the usual gestures. Though certainly not the earliest. Extreme though this work is in some ways. Cage has been somewhat contradictory in subsequent writings and interviews about whether he wants the audience to “listen” to the silence or to grow uncomfortable with the situation — thus calling into question aspects of the concert ritual. For example. it is downright traditional in others. Trying to bring art or. perhaps. Picasso expresses surprise that people should ask what a picture means and says that pictures are not intended to have meaning. He sought a different kind of beauty and believed that his type of language would become so commonplace that it would be no more shocking than Mozart in a few more decades. it has a written score and title. artists into a social discourse (although we might support their social goals) is a terrible error. This explains everything. Adorno and other modern theorists thought of art as a sort of critical mirror that would help society see its faults and jostle it into corrective action. This piece calls for a pianist to walk onstage. even worse. and then wait. There was such an overwhelming amount of critical discourse flowing concerning meaning and modern art that the poet Wallace Stevens quipped: “Even the lack of a reason becomes a reason. counting off set amounts of silence. Concept and Craft  did not like it. more significantly. but Picasso is right. However.”5 Stevens is being facetious. artists and musicians joined in this folly. the piece takes place in a concert hall and involves a performer who has the composer’s performance instructions in front of him or her. a good example is John Cage’s work (originally for the piano) from 1952 titled 4’33”. The only really viable argument for art is artistic (aesthetic) and the work itself makes the argument far better than any text could.

calling attention to the concertgoers’ expectations required the complete elimination of the aesthetic object (at least one crafted and controlled by the composer) that is presented in the frame. that pouring new contents into the mold of old forms was a contradiction that was fatal to modern aesthetic aims. perhaps Cage felt he had to go even further.0 Classical Music. He wrote articles. one of which famously attacks Schoenberg — the composer most directly responsible for developing the very technique of Boulez’s musical language. To promulgate his view. serialism. continuing the work outside its conventional border. In the case of 4’33”. Many different sorts of artists felt that the weight of tradition (with the assumptions and habits that come with it) had become unbearable. a hall. To do this they chose to reduce the amount of aesthetic content inside the frame. Seurat and others at times went so far as to paint a portion of the wall surrounding the canvas. were meant to show us the too constraining boxes we had unwittingly placed ourselves in. Even many decades earlier.” Boulez proclaims that Schoenberg did not go far enough in his revolution. Now. Boulez did not burn effigies of Schoenberg in concert halls or stage eighteenth-century-style waltz parties to Schoenberg’s music where everyone wore wigs. “Schoenberg Is Dead. yet I believe the Impressionist example shows that the need to draw attention to the periphery and its confining assumptions does not necessarily require draining the object of its aesthetic center. These artists responded by focusing our attention on the frame: a concert. This is why many late Impressionist works have painted frames. This was not the inevitable unfolding of a historical process. or experiments. other ways of addressing these same issues were possible. It grew out of the choices made by a small number of artists and composers with a wonderful knack for self-promotion. In this article. Why Bother? I do not believe that the intention of the early conceptually oriented works was to undermine or destroy from within the very premises on which artistic endeavor was based (as later Conceptual artists explicitly intended). He published his conceptual ideas as ideas . The pieces. an audience. Pierre Boulez sought to call attention to another part of our inherited framework: preexisting textbook musical forms. Impressionist painters had also been bothered by the limits of a frame. More recently.

Great art is generally balanced in a way that calls for mastery over everything from the smallest details to the largest concepts. While Boulez felt the need to criticize and attempt to correct the past. fashioning their tools and utensils. Cage would probably have disputed this characterization. or. The capital error of many artists is to assume that the issues that obsess them.” but I have trouble accepting that even he believed this as anything more than a useful intellectual posture. “music. were real. perhaps even beautiful. where he hoped the aesthetic rightness of his views would become artistically evident. are necessarily the central issues of that work for outside observers. more precisely. artisanal craft. other aspects of the work are likely to take precedence. People who were able to make (or decorate) objects or music especially well could be paid by those less skillful or possessing other skills. In this way. their work could gain economic value that would allow them to spend more time on a single work. He would have tried to maintain that the silence of the concert hall. whether by cooking their food. at the moment of perception. One consequence of this process of individual creation/production/fabrication has been the sort of specialization that led to systems of barter and economic exchange.” These artists have completely divorced the ideas that might motivate an artist from the root origin of art. industrialized era. or building their homes. Until the modern. ready to use form. the random rustling sounds of the increasingly agitated audience. when we could buy nearly everything in an industrially produced. in their constant absorption with their work. Concept and Craft  presented linguistically in texts and then went home to write his music. For the audience. Another consequence led to artisanal art. They also made music: by singing or tapping their feet or learning to play an instrument (as used to be much more common than it is today). premade. Eventually. By flattening the possible readings to a pure social critique of the existence and relevance of art — even while allowing for infinite acceptable realizations — it is the conceptual arts whose conception is “fascistic. that effort did not require sacrificing the present or the future as it did for Cage in 4’33”. people always made things. Some people were even very good at making some of these things. society came to see that letting them develop these skills beyond what an individual buyer might be able to .

I suspect that it was this sort of projection (imagining the amount of effort) that first helped people separate the ideas of taste and value. Why Bother? afford to subsidize could be of benefit to society as a whole. was our ability to empathize with the labor involved in their elaboration. the sculptor Gaspard Marsy spoke of a sculpture as being an inimitable masterpiece whose origin was more divine than human.6 While no one disputes this link between artisanal craft and art’s past. the idea that a (absolute) masterpiece had a sort of perfection became current. which was demonstrated by producing a master’s piece. At this point. artisans worked under contract for a specified period of time as an apprentice. he had to convince the appropriate local craft corporation to admit him as a master. Part of the reason we could admire these particularly well-made objects in the first place. This masterpiece became the property of the craft corporation (these corporations were very similar to the guilds that operated in some parts of Europe. it was during the sixteenth century that the broader notion of an “absolute” masterpiece entered artistic discourse. In 1669. Craft corporations used the word “masterpiece” in this way since the Middle Ages. however. many see no reason to maintain that link in art’s future. but were a bit less restrictive) and established the artisan’s high level of professional competence. With an object whose elaboration we can empathize with it is relatively easy to say. “I don’t like the style. A masterpiece was just that: a master’s piece. then museums (the Louvre opened to the public in 1793) for the modern and romantic notion of the masterpiece to be complete in the minds of the general public. Then the artisan spent an unspecified period of time as a journeyman. Even the notion of a masterpiece is an outgrowth of artisanal work. I wrote in Chapter 2 about the changes that Max Weber felt broke the previously . Within the corporate structure of crafts. but can you imagine how difficult and time consuming this must have been to make?” These artisanal origins can still be seen all over the vocabulary and structure of the art world. since we now live in the industrial (or perhaps postindustrial) era. When a craftsman was ready to settle and open a proper workshop where he (only men were allowed) could have his own apprentices. It took the creation of public expositions. Classical Music. The two aspects to be adjudicated prior to his acceptance were the craftsman’s financial viability (measured by his ability to pay a hefty professional tax) and his skill.

This separation gave artists greater freedom. “All bad poetry is sincere. Art is different: It doesn’t really have a function in that sense. by at least preserving a made object. not just to perfect their craft but also to choose at least some of the ends to which that craft was directed. In this context. This empathy allows them to interact personally. with the object (and a piece of music is also an object in this sense) in a way that can engage their aesthetic sense. not remotely and abstractly. So few of the things around us are actually directly made by an individual. extra-aesthetic (especially political) things.” and I think the larger truth to his quip is that the more art tries to be about or for important. But. however. Much more important to our contemporary view of an object is its function (What does it do?). How most modern devices work or how they were made may be hopelessly beyond the usual learning abilities of even highly educated individuals. as I said before. that really great art can only happen in this way. Concept and Craft  unified hierarchical view of society into separate domains of knowledge and expertise. Picasso had the right idea. both artists and their audiences think much less about craft when they appreciate objects. This can be puzzling because we have made our lives so function oriented. but art doesn’t really do or mean anything other than what it is (as an object) and perhaps what it does on purely aesthetic terms.” Virginia Woolf wrote . I would argue. audiences can still develop the sort of empathy that allows them to imagine themselves in the place of the creator. In the final paragraph of her essay “How One Should Read a Book. however. Concepts and ideas could drive their creations and become an important ingredient in ways that were much broader than had been possible when works had to correspond to rigid categories or be highly functional. With the rise of industrialization. it is not surprising that many artists would begin to feel that what their art does is more important than what it is or how it was made. when craft and concept are married in the realization of aesthetic objects. By keeping art attached in some way to its artisanal past. it is no wonder that they were ready to destroy art if its effects (what it does) were detrimental to society. Oscar Wilde quipped. the weaker it tends to be artistically. This is the central preoccupation of conceptual art: What does art do? If that is their guiding principle.

linguistic. Why Bother? of her aesthetic pleasure in reading: “Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves. These objects are often far more awe-inspiring than the many technical wonders of modern life. because there is still that empathic echo that lets the receiver imagine himself in the role of creator. but the ability to appreciate an aesthetically formed thing — whether visual. Moreover. Classical Music. It’s about something else. and some pleasures that are final? And is this not among them?” I think it is ridiculous to accept the Marxist critique that creating wondrous aesthetic objects can somehow help fascist regimes by anesthetizing the bourgeoisie into tolerating their most heinous acts. what remains is. Though that link can survive a great deal of stretching. discovering or imagining the intentions of that creator. or physical — is a remarkable experience. however. creating and appreciating aesthetic objects shaped by our hands and minds are part of our identity as human beings.” Once there is no aesthetic value. regardless of the regimes under which they must live. one that lets us empathize across time and culture. at most. a limited sort of philosophy. once it is completely severed. Marxists call for an existence with the diversions of entertainment but not the joy of art. What I believe aesthetic objects can do. The skills and techniques developed over millennia have allowed us to create remarkable things. is improve the existence of some individuals. . when an object no longer feels created or no longer exists — and no sense of human thought or hands can be sensed — then Buren is indeed right: “Art is no longer there. aural. The great error of all Marxist reasoning is granting the individual so little voice. It may be a primitive sensation.

but never have I seen one reach the level of aggression. competing values. and almost brutality of these meetings. I realized that the wrath directed at elitism has less to do with money than with […] scorn for the very kinds of intellectual distinction-making I hold most dear: […] upholding of objective standards. III1 In the late 1980s. We have retrenched to the point that the very act of starting the process requires audacity … — William A. most important. meanness.  . however. and rank.4 Elitism Gradually and reluctantly. Henry. Most composition programs offer something like this seminar. Guests were sometimes invited. contribution or attainment is better than another. where I studied musical composition. but the main purpose of the meetings was for students to present their works. The worst aspect of what gets called “political correctness” these days is the erosion of intellectual confidence needed to sort out. Once a week all the composition students took a seminar along with the composition faculty. the willingness to assert unyieldingly that one idea. It used to be that intellectual debate centered on the results of such an assessment. I attended the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.



Classical Music, Why Bother?

Just prior to my enrollment as a student at Peabody, a group of four students had so terrorized their colleagues at these seminars that they became known as “the gang of four.” This shark-pit/feeding-frenzylike atmosphere is hardly the norm for composition seminars. In fact, in the equivalent seminar at Columbia, I can remember almost the whole student body rallying around colleagues who received even mild criticisms. (I have been back to Peabody’s composition seminar in recent years, and while the discussions are still lively, the environment there, too, has become more civil.) While I can certainly think of many problems that grew out of this incredibly confrontational atmosphere (and it certainly felt awful the first few times you were publicly ripped to shreds), sometimes this environment made it possible to speak a truth that usually remains unsaid. At one particular session a composer presented a long, slow work during which very little happened and the things that did happen were not very interesting. The sharks, smelling blood in the water, began to circle (the atmosphere tended to get more and more charged the worse the piece being presented was thought to be by the seminar participants). The comments began with gentle probing, dancing around the surely fatal attack we all wanted to make: “The piece is boring.” This particular composer was not some naïve freshman who would breakdown in tears and leave, however (as I’m ashamed to say happened several times); he was prepared to fight back. The composer began to explain his work. He stressed that he was trying to achieve a sort of stasis, a lack of happening, and then he pulled out the ultimate trump card. He said, “I really wanted to create an effect of boredom — music is too much about things happening; I wanted you to feel like there’s nothing; I wanted the listener to feel bored and restless.” This, of course, suddenly turned the whole debate on its head. Now, if someone said, “Your piece was boring,” the composer could respond, “Thank you — that’s just what I was going for.” Our best weapon now blunted, we discussed, for some time in a fairly civil manner, how one might evoke the notion of boredom without actually inducing the sensation of boredom. But, no — he wanted to bore us. He was adamant about this, no half measures or analogies: we were meant to be nodding off. Finally, Robert Hall Lewis, one of the professors known for his outrageous and

Elitism 

very politically incorrect statements, raised his hand and said, “Just because you have an idea and you realize that idea, does not mean it is a good idea and certainly does not mean it is a good piece.”

Readers who have persevered to this point are probably willing to concede that some pieces of music are better than others in at least some way. However, once we stop thinking of a piece as the disembodied artwork of an anonymous human being, but as the personal creation of an individual person, things get much harder. If we could believe that the differences were simply a reflection of differing degrees of skill, we might be all right. It seems fairly acceptable to assert that some people have more skill than others at particular tasks, but this is certainly not enough to explain why some works and, more troublingly, some ideas seem better than others. Great art seems to be the result of someone having the right ideas for his or her particular set of skills. Or perhaps it comes from having great ideas and at least sufficient craft to realize those ideas. A well-known anecdote involves the composers Hector Berlioz (1803– 1869) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Saint-Saëns was a remarkable prodigy, even in comparison to others like Mozart. It was said that you could name any piece from the entire history of music and he could go to the piano and play it, not just the main theme but the whole thing. (I suspect this reputation must have been at least a little exaggerated, but the feat is astounding nonetheless.) In concert he let the audience chose any of the Beethoven sonatas for him to play from memory. Saint-Saëns must have been thoroughly familiar with thousands of works. Late in his life when he had become an acknowledged leader among the so-called “advanced” composers, Berlioz was asked for his opinion about Saint-Saëns, and he replied that there’s not much you can say about Saint-Saëns, since he knows everything. He ventured, however, that the one thing Saint-Saëns might lack was a bit of ignorance (sometimes the term used in the anecdote is “inexperience”). For all his incredible knowledge, skill, and talent, SaintSaëns’s ideas were only mediocre. He lacked the imagination, ambition, or ability to reach beyond the vast reservoir of his knowledge and strive for something truly new or personal. Saint-Saëns unquestionably knew what he wanted to say and was able to say it with great skill. Yet, his music does not have the same power or impact as the best works of a composer like Berlioz, whose technical skills were only middling.



Classical Music, Why Bother?

By now you’re probably wondering what these anecdotes have to do with elitism. The word “elitism” itself has become a terrible condemnation. Calling someone an elitist is only slightly better than calling him or her a racist or a bigot. It has come to imply disdain, or at least a lack of respect and understanding for the value of everyone and everything outside of the elite to which one is said to belong. History, of course, gives us ample historical reason for mistrusting any group that holds itself above others. So many of these groups have based their supposed superiority on criteria that most of us would judge to be at best invalid and at worst immoral (racial superiority, gender superiority, divine right, hereditary position, etc.). If one is to be fair, however, most of these repugnant elites were drawn from societies whose dominant views were almost equally distasteful.

Sociological discussions of elitism, especially those prevalent prior to World War II, and found even in Aristotle, did not build their arguments around whether there ought to be elites or whether valid criteria (absolute or political) existed for forming elites. The authors’ ideas resulted from observations of human societies and organizations that all contained some sort of elite. That elites reflect realities in human life is as true today as it was in 1896 when the sociologist Gaetano Mosca published his Elementi di Scienza Politica:
We all know that, in our own country, whichever it may be, the management of public affairs is in the hands of a minority of influential persons, to which management, willingly or unwillingly, the majority defer. We know the same thing goes on in neighboring countries, and in fact we should be put to it to conceive of a real world otherwise organized — a world in which men would be directly subject to a single person without relationships of subordination, or in which all men would share equally in the direction of political affairs.2

Moreover, at least in the realm of politics, most of us accept these elites perfectly willingly as long as they seem to be chosen either by the majority (democratically) or upon some evident system of merit (meritocratically). At times we are even willing to accept the idea that a bad elite could, under certain circumstances, be preferable to no elite. Look at the system of referenda in California, which is so often criticized.

even of some of those who would have more under that system. gets at part of the answer. Thus it is easy to vote for increased services although they come at a higher cost. Elitism  Here is what we should all be seeking: a truly egalitarian system of governance. then place a cap on spending because government is wasteful. Too often people have come to believe that all hierarchies are completely illegitimate. We have come to believe that while some hierarchies may be necessary. even in spite of the fact that nearly all of us are constantly jockeying for position within one hierarchy or another. it seems clear from the ruinous and inegalitarian results of so many attempts to create communist societies and the needs of even small-scale communes to adopt a leadership structure that a completely egalitarian division of . a completely egalitarian distribution of resources might not be in the interests of the vast majority. and finally top it all off with a vote to decrease revenue through tax cuts — and we have three desires whose admixture is ruinous. but in a referendum the responsibility is so diffuse that the ensuing mess feels more like an act of fate than a fault of governance. the word “elitism” has become an epithet — why? I think the quote that opens this chapter. In other words. Without going into a detailed review of the complexities of Cold War politics. they are never fully legitimate — they always represent biases and distortions. Any party that openly tries to achieve all three goals at the same time would appear ridiculous. I don’t wish to rehash the arguments in favor of absolute values and criteria from earlier chapters. most of us have accepted the idea that a fully egalitarian approach does not work. In the domains of politics and economics. Yet the result is anything but felicitous. is that in spite of our clear acceptance of elites. from an otherwise disturbing volume (the author’s main goal is to rail against affirmative action and to lobby for wealth as the true measure of worth). but we do need to look at the benefit all of us might reap from an unequal distribution of resources. The paradox. This essentially correct notion has sometimes led us to the opposite extreme. though. Referenda allow majorities to state their will without having to reconcile the conflicts inherent in their desires. Any actual elite eventually bears the consequences of its decisions (though it may cause enormous harm and suffering first). which I think is at least as wrong as blind faith in authority.

Why Bother? wealth. social justice. we adopt a similar system where societies determine minimal amounts of schooling (for example. until age sixteen) required for all. It is very difficult to imagine a human society where everyone would receive the same salary. or class. or at least social stability — although no nation ships enough of its gross domestic product abroad to eliminate the enormous imbalances between rich and poor nations. the acceptance or rejection of an elite is based not on a sense of social justice. and responsibility is incompatible with human psychology. and most tax inheritances (cross-generational accumulation). where certain minima are guaranteed to all. the problem is not elites based on merit. while permitting a subset of the population to invest a larger portion of their lives in pursuit of further studies.” We also accept elites whose membership requires special qualifications that most of us . but on one of two conditions. however. and so on. at least an illusion of progress. spend the same number of hours a day on work and leisure. I suspect that for many people. While on the upper end we don’t necessarily directly limit the accumulation of wealth. In modern societies. In fields like education. we try to create a mixture. the smaller the fraction of the population to which it can be offered. allowing us to think. their inclinations would still be varied. the more years of studies. We need incentives. but elites of birth. The first is a belief that it might be possible (even if unlikely) to one day join that elite. race. Even foreign aid of various sorts is a sort of transnational redistribution of wealth from richer countries to poorer ones whose aim is presumably to promote more equality.0 Classical Music. so could I or my child. hopes. “If he could do it. gender. Similar criteria apply to the performing arts: Everyone can be in his or her first grade pageant or junior high talent show. For me personally. On purely empirical grounds. have identical levels of education and responsibility. some societies do tax wealth directly. A progressive income tax structure — used in some form by most nations — is also an attempt to redistribute wealth from upper incomes to lower incomes. Even if everyone had identical abilities. power. but very few can star on Broadway. it does not seem that we have a fundamental problem with inequality. This is why politicians who come from the most charmed backgrounds still pretend to be regular Joes.

While I believe that most people do not feel they could ever do the work of a composer. we have come to demand at least a semblance of equity in the domains of human and civil rights. It seems clear that this training cannot be made freely available to all comers without posing a burden that society . we might avoid this problem by defending artistic elitism based on a notion of craftsmanship. we expect medical care to be available to all (or at least are briefly outraged when reminded that it is not). I think that most people would still recognize that the level of skill required to make most art of whatever type requires intense and (from society’s viewpoint) expensive training. these two justifications for elites (lotto winners and highly trained benefactors. medical research). they are far from sure that there is any benefit to them from the work these composers do. Unfortunately. and if we have come to view art as first and foremost self-expression. although the cult of celebrity has made at least some art forms into something more like the former. We must believe society as a whole will benefit in some way from the output of these elites and that the criteria for membership in the elite have at least some validity (e. which is thought to be a good thing (at least in the abstract) and which is certainly a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. if you like) leave someone like a contemporary artmusic composer in a terrible bind. how can we possibly accept some “selves” as being more worthy of being expressed? This is a sort of elitism that seems completely intolerable. The arts used to be more like this latter type of elite. Elitism  cannot even delude ourselves into believing we will ever possess. As I mentioned earlier.. but that just doesn’t work in a post-Conceptual art era because almost no one would now claim that greater craft leads automatically to greater art. benefit) that most of society is still willing to grant to even the most esoteric art-forms is its usefulness as selfexpression. Even in earlier eras. this creates a new problem. Although we tolerate grave inequities in many domains. We expect at least the pretense of equal justice under law. Of course. especially quantitative ones. Perhaps the only value (utility. the exact correlation between craft and art is not linear (as the Berlioz comments about Saint-Saëns point out).g. Many are also probably unsure whether these “artists” have any real skills at all and must wonder whether they are simply charlatans.

” Evaluating the legitimacy of any type of self-expression has become somewhat hopeless. Composers don’t produce wealth as they become more successful. more prominent events lose even more money (and require more subsidies) than small student concerts. they consume it. It belonged to that individual and expressed something he felt. The success of a composer can be measured by taking the inverse of the composer’s market value: The more negative the market value. this viewpoint will nearly always end all possible argument. “That was my intent. Classical Music. Therefore no elitisttype judgments can be made. Bigger. Schoenberg apparently became very frustrated with Cage’s work one day and said to him.” In a less contentious environment than those campus seminars. You can never be sure you’re right. Debating the validity (or interest) of someone’s intentions has become “elitist. better or worse. “You have no ear for harmony and no sense of melody or rhythm. From this point of view. the more important the composer. Why Bother? would never be willing to bear. and even in this extreme case Schoenberg could not be sure whose ideas would turn out . but not the legitimacy of those aims. an art like contemporary classical music is doubly burdensome.” To which Cage says he replied. He responded by recounting a well-known story told by the composer John Cage in Conversing with Cage. if you stay in composition you will only be banging your head against the wall. Robert Hall Lewis had no right to tell that student that his idea was bad or consequently that the piece was bad. Moreover. That composer already knew the power of this attitude — the power of saying.” This story offers a glimpse of one of the greatest composition teachers of the twentieth century seen through the eyes of perhaps his most “untrainable” student. Self-expression is a domain where assessments like right or wrong. are not considered appropriate. When Cage studied briefly with the renowned modernist and inventor of twelve-tone composition. “In that case I would devote my life to beating my head against that wall. It’s permissible to discuss whether someone has achieved his or her aims. so most will not even try. I once asked one of my teachers what he would say to a composer he thought had no chance of becoming a good or even adequate composer. Arnold Schoenberg.

is more sensitive and self-aware about his feelings of love than anyone has ever been. What is special is their artistry — nothing more or less. but. Art is a special substance into which some individuals are able to transform life through a poorly understood alchemical process. The first is more in love than anyone has ever been in the history of the human race. Whose piece will be the most beautiful. a date would have a greater chance of success than a work of art. Elitism  to be important. while only normally in love. The third composer on the other hand is a bit of a cold-fish. are very fond of telling stories): One summer three composers fall madly in love. most moving. All three of them independently decide to express their feelings in the form of a love duet for oboe d’amore and cello. a composition teacher can’t really help any students he or she might find particularly worthy. It seems cosmically unjust. First. myself included. If your goal were to know love. because this would be unfair to the others who are a priori equally worthy. it is very hard to try to convince and educate a public to see the worth in works if we adopt a view of art so focused on the self of the artist. While she is somewhat infatuated. but there is nothing special about the humanity of artists. However this person is by far the best composer. Second. If we even partially accept this notion that artists’ . Another former teacher of mine told the following parable (composition teachers. it is much more than (and somewhat less than) self-expression. especially with an abstract art like music. The second. This attitude requires the transformation of art appreciation into a form of spectator psychoanalysis — an approach that is widely in use by a segment of art critics. most expressive of love? Without a doubt it would be the third composer. clearly false. So how can we avoid these traps without reasserting some. notion of composer infallibility? We must first try to deflate the myth that art is self-expression. If we accept this idea that even the most skilled teacher cannot always differentiate among the validity of individual approaches. it is quite superficial and not very important (this composer is already planning on how to break it off in a week or two). we are trapped in two different ways. Art is both expressive and personal. Some might even argue that Cage is the most influential composer to have studied with Schoenberg.

Moreover. I would like to suggest that even if we use the wrong criteria or make the wrong choices. The first problem — fairness — remains. but making these choices. yet you will have noticed that I am not going to suggest exactly what they are. You might say. will do something wonderful: It will open to those selected individuals (worthy or not) enormous possibilities to freely explore their artistic abilities. but what does it do for the rest of us? Surely society cannot be expected to do this for . then we can remove the second obstacle I mentioned. 8. or idioms for evaluating these works and creators and the evaluations yielded may be incompatible. Our biases and tastes will interfere with even the most well-intentioned efforts to evaluate the potential of creators and the worth of works. there may well be different frameworks. like the position and velocity vector of a subatomic particle. These are not narrowly focused pieces of introspection. If we choose a select few to train and even fewer to disseminate to the public. For now. I will try to look more closely at the kind of mental representations that must be involved in creating these criteria. any insight about these criteria we might possess will be filtered by our culture and experience. however. “Sure that’s wonderful for them. Classical Music. an erroneous or random selection still might be better than not making any choices. Sometimes the evaluators may be corrupt. styles. but a work. and 9. Moreover. These criteria — if they exist — reflect deep and sometimes contradictory aspects of the way we perceive. In Chapters 7. Why Bother? humanity is not special and what we are engaging with is not their self. we can never achieve more than a working approximation that will always be somewhat stochastic in nature. but people who make special things. I suspect that. right or wrong. we will undoubtedly make choices that are less than perfect. but potentially meaningful exteriorizations. if we accept that even the greatest artists are not special people. sometimes they may be flat-out wrong. I believe that giving resources even to the “wrong” artists would still be better than an egalitarian system that gives almost nothing to almost everyone. because we cannot be sure of our judgments: How can we single out one person to whom we will give an opportunity and ignore another? I have suggested in previous chapters that there might be legitimate criteria for making these choices.

Elitism  very many individuals. set designers. Even in periods when the link between audience and artist is weakened and we wonder whether the results of most working artists are worthwhile. and so on. We start to see what people are capable of freed from most of the constraints that are normally present. Think of what it takes to create a new opera: an opera composer. The apparatus reaches all the way from a neighborhood piano teacher through conservatories like Juilliard or Peabody to the great opera houses. so what’s the point?” However. Once a system and a context exist. The first thing that happens is that we can compare the works these artists produce. new generations of artists can interact with these works and a few of them will use their experiences as a background for refining their own still inchoate ideas. it would be tragic to risk the entire system that allows artists to be trained and works to be created. Building this system from scratch is a monumental task. it is easy to improve them. their presence provides an enormous service. Perhaps equally important. We may decide that everything at the Whitney Biennial is awful. an orchestra. This is not to say that the public should sit back and passively accept whatever art an “elite” offers them. allowing that infrastructure to wither during artistic low points poses . The advantage of having works produced and offered is that it gives us the best possible tool for really evaluating and comparing them. these works allow us to consider the criteria for judgment we used in selecting these creators and works in the first place. all of us will benefit. but events like this give us the chance to judge a few works and consider some ideas in an enormously idealized situation where we can engage with the work on as close to purely aesthetic terms as possible. by granting this opportunity to even a few individuals. none would be possible without this apparatus. singers. As long as traditions and institutions don’t become an absolute barrier against change or openness to innovation. however: It is like compiling the first dictionary. The cost of maintaining this system once it exists is orders of magnitude less than the cost of building it initially. In this way. we begin to establish a context. Even if most of these operas are truly awful (although more likely they will just be mediocre). The amount of societal infrastructure that allows the Metropolitan Opera to put on the occasional new opera is mind-boggling. Therefore. Moreover.

Something that often surprises the friends and families of composers is that we don’t spend much time listening to music recreationally. until we can be sure we have achieved that perfect standard of judgment. He said anyone really sane would be content with what already exists. and work for wages that are sometimes lower than the custodial staff that cleans the hall after the concert. However. Most of us may be wrong. if not most of us. For those of us with this disease. We don’t become composers because we see this amazing thing and want to do the same. we run the risk of ending up with nothing. I think many. If we have a canon. we become composers because we think something is not being done or is being done wrong. we gain nothing and lose much by demanding perfection before accepting a flawed compromise. I fear that almost everything will drown in an undifferentiated flood of work. . and if even a few members of that much smaller group have the chance to use their skills to make works that can cause all of us to reassess how we see or hear. we are willing to spend as much time in training as a brain surgeon. It would be wonderful to discern faultlessly the most meretricious works. however. Why Bother? the great risk of not having the conditions necessary for the next renaissance. Nietzsche spoke of creation as a form of mental illness. and if even a few of those few are given the chance to develop their skills. If we do not attempt to make those choices and limit our horizon constructively. it is easy to debate what should be included within it. but if even a few of us are on to something. I think society as a whole benefits more from our honest attempts at creating an approximation of that ideal. As long as we are on the lookout for ways to improve our approximation. so that we might have the opportunity to figure out what we believe is wrong with the works out there and how to fix it. believe that we are the only ones who see something that needs to be different. Some composers I know don’t even like most other people’s music (even that of the greats). Classical Music. to have a truly meritocratic elite that represents the best from all domains using various and complementary criteria. it seems amply worth the cost.

interactive technology will also offer a wealth of choices about how a story unfolds. smaller. What this kind of virtual storyworld will require is a database network that is embedded with enough story elements and decision-making algorithms to generate various serendipitous actions with unique content. The story environment — and characters within it — will respond to personal messages. news and other forms of information. — Glorianna Davenport1 Some have turned to new technology as a possible savior for the ills faced by contemporary art. new technology seems to be created simply because it is possible. because the people who enter the story will become the characters whose decisions move the story along. Often. A writer may shape the initial circumstances. faster — whether we need them to or not. but the story will unfold improvisationally. technological innovations in computers and digitization have revolutionized many areas of our lives. Often we  .5 Technology By its nature. Writers will not have to script entire tales ahead of time. Industrial development has taught us that things will continually get better. Certainly. so no two people’s entertainment experience need ever be the same.

one of the great ironies of music is that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is often presented in music appreciation classes as requiring and helping to promote the emergence of our modern tuning system of “equal temperament. “Just wait. however. but only a little.” The idea of equal temperament is that. “Our music for keyboard instruments would be great if only we had dynamics. prior to the development of truly equal temperament there were many systems of achieving “well-tempered” music.” It is hard to believe this could be the real problem. In fact. a justification for confidence that technology can cure the ills afflicting artistic domains.” convincing the world that equal temperament was needed. for example. which would only make usable a small subset of the keys. Classical Music. We went from hard-to-tune keyboards with no dynamic range to the technological wonder of a modern concert grand. in and of itself. Look at the history of musical instrument design: Every stage of its technological development saw wondrous works written for whatever instruments were available. For many years some have offered as the defense for mediocre works (both artistic and commercial) employing technology the underdeveloped state of the technology. while leaving the others too far out of tune for use). However. These tunings would allow one to play in any key (unlike earlier mean-tone temperaments. Developers and artists say. Why Bother? must just scratch our heads and wonder about some new technology’s usefulness until someone comes along with that “killer app” that makes us wonder how we lived without it. this will really be something. as far as possible. and I suspect that given the choice Bach would not have wanted a performer to use this “more perfect temperament. however.” We still admire pieces written for all stages in the development of these instruments. or better temperaments. yet a generation of composers never existed who said. Mistaken music appreciation teachers will say that Bach needed this temperament to be free to modulate to distant keys. The pieces were not written for equal temperament. These . the possibility that a transformative application of the technology might be possible is not. all keys should sound alike (in practice they must all be a little. However. when the computers or software get a little better. out of tune).”2 I have even heard it suggested that these pieces were the “killer app. and so on.

but that doesn’t mean that they will be more fun or engaging. heal the division between artist and audience? Perhaps the difficulties lie not with aesthetics or values. even technological ones. left the various keys very dissimilar. perhaps we . in and of itself. An important reason for writing in all keys (besides the obvious pedagogical reasons) was to show how different they were. Some were extremely out of tune and tense. and while his works don’t suffer from advances not yet developed. and so on. and Haydn seemed able to come up with awfully good pieces in spite of the technical deficiencies of their technology (poorly tuned woodwinds.). There is no question that new games offer a greater palette of graphical and interface possibilities. however. not on the absolute sophistication of that medium.). stable to wobbling. etc. we should still consider whether there might be a technological cure for many of the problems we’ve been discussing. greater range of instrumental timbre. barely playable. though. and it is not the art music that turns people off but the concert hall. To take a more general example. modulations are not just movements from one key to another. A major movement in video games in the last few years has been retro. better balanced. This is not different from other domains. Mozart. brass with limited agility. etc. Yet Beethoven. Bach used the most up-to-date technology available to him (especially in the domain of organs). These recordings are often more popular and more critically admired than recordings that are more technically perfect (more in tune. while others boasted the almost perfectly in-tune thirds3 that equal temperament so sorely lacks. A major trend of the last couple of decades has even been to use these less-developed instruments to play more “historically accurate” versions of the pieces. but with an aging media. Software simulations of early arcade and Atari video games are now available. Perhaps too often the music itself does not take sufficient advantage of the technological possibilities now available. The success of a work depends on how it uses its medium. they are huge transformations of the color of the instrument: pure to gritty. the instruments used in a modern orchestra have changed tremendously since even the late-nineteenth century. Maybe the medium is the message. With a well-tempered clavier. Could technology. Technology  well-temperaments. Caveats aside. not to exploit their homogeneity.

there are two ways in which technology could make a real impact on the kind of nonfunctional art we’ve been discussing and both of them already are being actively explored. and acumen to accomplish a large part of his goals. and so on. When Scriabin (a much less forceful politician). Technology might change all of that. we might all be able to make the kind of total multimedia art experience Wagner dreamed of a reality — and we could do it without getting a government to build a special theater and fund a festival (though our grandchildren might need to look for work if we skipped those steps). technological innovations could facilitate many things that are not new. We could reach far-flung virtual audiences and perhaps render viable art that could not command enough of a public in any one city or country. orchestras that play new works. The second way technology could change art is through the more profound revision of the role of artist and art-perceiver. they want to be an art-shaper as well. Wagner had been inspired to move in this direction by the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and he had the clout. Before we accept these technological panaceas. First. stores that stock new works (or even more generally classical music) in score or recording form. Perhaps we have alienated audiences because they will no longer accept the largely passive role of art-perceiver. Moreover. I’d like to discuss these two potential applications of technology to art separately. talent. as noted by the MIT Media Lab researcher Glorianna Davenport. we may need these new facilities to replace the vanishing infrastructure of publishers. For example. we need to look at the potential artistic cost that could come . at least initially. Saying that they must actively listen and that their perception shapes the work might not cut it any more in our brave new world. As I see it. it was impossible. Some might even say that better. Why Bother? would feel differently if he had turned his back on “modern advances” and written only for Renaissance instruments.0 Classical Music. wanted to take the ideas even further using massive mechanical and human resources. more engaging kinds of art can now be created. however. Perhaps entirely new ways of imagining and creating art exist now. They might make existing processes better or cheaper in ways that might alter the situation meaningfully. Maybe what art needs is more interactivity.

The idea is to convey not just one or two subjects but a whole panorama of Christian iconography. which both contribute so strongly to the effectiveness of the noninteractive version of this site-specific . Perhaps the Noah scene would be triggered by a humidity sensor on the roof (detecting when it was raining). Some feel that user-shaped environments are somehow more engaging. Moreover. and the story of Noah. but my fear is that two crucial things will have been lost. but you can cover the ceiling with projected images. so you will only have limited ability to tailor the experience to each person who enters. when people were congregating near the altar you might concentrate on the creation and fall of Man. more democratic. The church walls are already decorated. many have claimed that this kind of work is more in tune with the everything-at-the-same-time quality of contemporary life. I have heard many artists argue that this is the future. but high volumes of visitors are expected. Technology  from adopting these technologies. In addition. you can’t hang any screens downward. the creation and fall of man. The central images to be framed by these figures will be three sets of three images depicting the creation of the world. Because congregants want to be able to use the space for services and don’t want to obscure the artwork already in place. You can certainly divide up the territory and have many images going at one time. One can imagine that viewers coming in to see the installation might go to considerable efforts to see “what it will do. Let’s start with the second situation. you might make some images bigger than others to create a perceptual gradient to the different narratives. potentially more meaningful to the individual viewer. Imagine that you received a commission to create an interactive environment for a church. Perhaps you could measure the density of people in the room and when more congregated in one section you would favor the creation of the world (perhaps near the entry).” They may try to trigger the sensors in various ways to solicit different permutations. but you can use all the space above the windows. You need to include images of thirty-three separate ancestors of Jesus as well as twelve different oracles and prophets. Perhaps you could convince the congregation to put some sensors on the floor. These congregants may be deeply engaged. They may even try to stay long enough to have seen most or all of the variants.

from the artist’s viewpoint. we might lose our ability to appreciate the thing that is there in front of or above us. which can diminish the visceral aesthetic appreciation. I might wonder why the artist associated that image with a raised hand. however. Classical Music. not utilitarian. but my reading may well stop at the level of why link . I fear that when we try to manipulate and control something it is harder. The magical quality of trying to intuit meaning may be greatly lessened. And while it will be impossible to decode the actual artist’s intentions (and some features may. in which case real aesthetic appreciation would to a certain extent require the freeing of cognitive resources offered by some degree of passivity. imagined. I fear that these may be highly distinct cognitive systems. if not impossible. I have criticized previously the idea that a work of art is a direct form of expression or communication. we appreciate it qualitatively and make aesthetic. I am the agent and I know why I lifted that arm: to see what would happen. (I think this is why many professional musicians describe a sort of professional deformation that forces them to analyze whatever they hear in an active manner. but in the second case your vision is largely quantitative and utilitarian: How big are the flames? Are things getting hotter or not? When staring into a fire. In both cases you see the fire. so. too. if I raise my hand. the effort to decode a sort of as-if. It might certainly require the disengagement of the problem-solving sort of attitude we often engage in active tasks. Think about the difference between really watching a fire crackle and burn and using a bellows to try to keep the fire going. Why Bother? installation. However. to observe and perceive it in a deep way. In a famous psychology experiment viewers see geometric objects moving randomly on a television screen as directed agents with purpose and even personality. do many cultures and most young children attach agency to the seasons or the weather. have been unintentional accidents). intention will lead us to a deeper and perhaps more meaningful (to us) reading of the work. Even the most puzzling features will be assumed to have some sort of as-if meaning. First.) The second potential loss comes from the diminished sense of the artists’ agency within the work. triggering a motion detector that causes something to appear. highlighting instead the as-if communication that comes from our empathic link to a creator. judgments: It is beautiful or fascinating.

This kind of interaction captures the improvised nature of life. so their attempts to control the action will be ad hoc. Technology  gesture x to result y. I’m not sure that I would take my attribution process as far. but I fear they are more likely to generate an infinitude of so-so works rather the singularly remarkable work that is art’s essential contribution.” I’m not sure how easy or even possible it might be to make great art this way. viewers need some time just to figure out what different actions accomplish. In most cases. I fear that other problems may enter if we look at the situation from the artist’s perspective. but actually controlled artifice of so much . If I am reading a complex multifaceted individual creation. however. I am highly skeptical. making it difficult to present a strongly personal result. I will be forced to ask why he would stay with a single color. but the amalgam of that creator plus the creative input of the perceiver. Artists. whereas viewers are necessarily coming in only at the end. but lacks the pseudo-improvised. Interactive environments are by their nature approximate (some might say flexible). thoughts. and ideas in a work. how his reading of art history led to this. because in these new types of works the singular artist is not the creator of the environment. but great characters are surely not sufficient to ensure their quality. Many great novels have great characters. These two problems are from the viewpoint of the receiver. Their contributions can only have a limited amount of artistic control or planning. While I cannot absolutely deny the possibility of a team effort producing something special. I would be more inclined to see how it changes if I move to another area. If placing my foot in a certain square turns the ceiling blue. for good or ill. Even in the case of work with a much lesser degree of richness (say an all-blue canvas of Yves Klein). You might argue that I am making an error. I may be inclined to go further and read into how the placement and execution of the image should impact my reading not just of that choice but of that choice’s effect on the object. Although Davenport is right that richness and complexity can be generated with “a database network that is embedded with enough story elements and decision-making algorithms to generate various serendipitous actions with unique content. invest heavily of their time. Likewise interesting situations or types of interactional ground rules may be fascinating.

he placed the ancestors of Jesus. The five smaller framing works and the prophets/oracles below them were decorated to appear as wide framing pillars around the four. Michelangelo painted arches across the ceiling to delineate these nine pictorial fields. The more profound problem was how to order the quantity of images he wanted to include while still creating a comprehensible overall structure. Let’s return to the commission for a site-specific religious installation and see what an actual artist decided to do. From the nine images. The Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise. works: The Creation of Sun and Moon. Thus interactivity was not an option. This vast number of items is now arranged to allow readings at levels of hierarchy stretching from the unitary decorative conception through . In the space between these ancestors. not by controlling them ourselves. the separation of Light and Darkness and leading across to the most human. so Michelangelo Buonarroti had no computers or projection screens available. the four placed over the spandrels were made larger. He was not very familiar with fresco techniques. We achieve these states by submitting to the artist and trying to decipher his or her meaning. Classical Music. Yet in the clutter of images. The Creation of Adam. Thus the three three-part story lines are combined into a single four-part story that tells of the creation of the world in which we live. Together all these figures create a frame for the central story images that run down the center of the ceiling (both a pictorial and a theological frame). ideas. and their use in such a large-scale work was particularly problematic. we achieve it by contemplating God’s actions (or the actions we attribute to a God). The nine story images are divided into three triptychs. and sounds that change us. He faced some technological issues. another level of hierarchy was desired. and The Flood. Religious individuals do not achieve a worshipful state by being God. and this is difficult to accomplish while we are in control. now highlighted. His solution was to make use of image size and placement. but he sought advice and learned the necessary techniques. however. art has always served to give us feelings. the Drunkenness of Noah. In the lunettes and spandrels along the lateral wall. beginning at one end with the most cosmological. Moreover. Why Bother? great art. he placed the prophets and oracles. the other five smaller. The actual commission was awarded in 1508.

but you have to put a videocassette into a recorder to watch it. especially if we knew that a new arrangement was only minutes away? Peter Weibel. the less I feel drawn into an aesthetic . This is the lowest degree of interactivity. which might perhaps be equally full of both aesthetic and conceptual meaning. tactile. One enters into a new kind of event horizon. A more mobile form might be equally beautiful. but I fear we would lose the essential illusion that we are seeing something through someone else’s eyes. an artificial environment consisting of a dynamic system of different variables. Even a painting. the sheer detail of the choices allows us to feel that the arrangement is meaningful. and general. would we really read so much into the hierarchical arrangement. exists when not being watched. Even if the ever-shifting slideshow of images hit on exactly the configuration of images that currently exist. These events can be visual. the more we lose the visceral presence of an object and replace it with a more abstract concept. And. Technology  three levels of theological and artistic separations down to the individual panels. In the natural world we have the illusion of being external observers. one of the main artists behind Austria’s Ars Electronica festival and prize. But in the electronic media the basic principle is interactivity. at least in some configurations. stated the case for interactivity this way: I realized that this is in fact the point of electronic media. which are all multifaceted in and of themselves. I fear. is that to make this (no doubt real) subjectivity apparent.4 The problem. the world becomes an interface problem. In the electronic world we are merely internal observers. The art product is not a picture anymore. when touching something it appears not to change. we move from observing the work itself in all its intricacy and specificity to observing the epiphenomenon surrounding the work that is inherently more theoretical. The observer is both an external and an internal observer — inside the event. Although it is possible to imagine other combinations of these elements. abstract. at least for me. or audio. All these multimedia events only come into existence through one’s observation. it is not a two-dimensional window on the world but a door to multi-sensorial events. like a star. part of the system that is observed.

as did computer engraving (using programs like Finale) a few years later. It seems unnecessary to spell out how profoundly recordings have changed music. Why Bother? vision. I suppose. In some cases even relatively early advances made an enormous difference. you had to wait for the ink to dry and then scratch it off with a razor blade. or allow their publishers to achieve a financial equilibrium. Only the most widely performed works could justify the huge cost of engraving. and they would leave a big dot of ink that would then smudge if you didn’t blot the pen before almost every stroke. which allowed pencil scores. The kind of change produced by computer engraving or photocopiers. The ink pens were called Rapidographs (there were other brands as well. but these were what I learned on). we had to use India ink on vellums (nonaffectionately known as onion skins). in the arts. It may make their life a little easier. but what might be less evident is the effect of photocopying. I can still see my entire hand and forearm covered with little black dots of ink. will not make any fundamental difference in the situation for contemporary composers. By now. Classical Music. Let’s return to the other potential use of technology. In the bad old days. as in all other branches of contemporary life. however. technology is everywhere. In order to “erase” mistakes. I doubt that there is a single music publisher who has not switched to computer engraving of new scores. but the basic . transformed music publishing. The advent of high-quality photocopying. reproduction processes were expensive and of low quality. What made all of this worse was that when one made a significant mistake. To get better printing you needed to make larger quantities than those needed for scores and parts that are mostly rented from the publishers. to make a score that could be reproduced easily. Moreover. we can think of this as the facilitative potential of technology. it could mean redoing entire pages. the less I feel that illusory empathic connection that draws me toward works of art. might technology make a meaningful difference in more traditional modes of art creation and consumption? Without question. Even if we decide that great art might not be a likely product of new technologies that allow the roles of art-creator and art-perceiver to be merged.

make recordings. though. rent concert halls and percussion instruments (because percussionists play such a variety of instruments. and while the best of them are amazing experiences. might make a real difference to both the production and distribution of new art. but they still demand the kind of infrastructure and subsidies that other new music demands. but. One result of this situation is that composers have begun placing an ever-larger emphasis on recordings. It is outrageously expensive to rehearse and perform. again. tune pianos. Classical music is not very expensive to write (even the most famous composer’s commission fees are relatively modest). recordings have greatly affected musical composition. is enormous. they don’t usually own them all. Composers can become important figures even without . as long as we don’t expect composers to live off the commissions and royalties they receive for their music. Computer music5 is another domain that you might expect me to mention. and so they are rented for concerts). This is a real disadvantage the performing arts have relative to the plastic arts. They have allowed some amazing pieces of music to be created that possess sounds and effects undreamed of in earlier generations. and so on. I do not think that this development changes the underlying sociological realities of making new music. however. they make the situation even worse by enlarging the already great skill set a composer needs to acquire. but the product is more durable. let’s look at the production end. Technology  situation we’ve been discussing throughout this volume is not meaningfully altered by these technologies. I have spent a lot of time organizing concerts. I’ll confine myself to music because I’m not really the person to present new technological developments in the other arts properly. a certain suspension of disbelief is required to justify such an expense for something that exists so briefly. Some new technologies. In some ways. Certainly. Wonderful research centers for electronic or computer music have been created in universities and independently. Making recordings is usually at least as expensive as playing the pieces in concert. While I suspect that the developments I am going to discuss in music have parallels in the other arts. rehearse pieces. The amount of infrastructure used to create scores and parts. First.

An impossibly quiet sound at the top of the flute’s range is no harder for the computer to produce then a powerfully loud one at the bottom of its range. The problem is that learning to write for instruments is very much about learning the translation between the linear music notation system and the very nonlinear system that musicians and instruments propose. Many of the leading composers of our time gained their reputations at least as much through recordings as through concerts. many composition students ask the computer to play them a model of the piece rather than going to the keyboard themselves. synthesizers. Between sampling. it is possible for one person to realize a wide range of music without touching an acoustic instrument. This is to a large extent what is happening on TV and movie soundtracks. playing two adjacent notes is no easier or harder than jumping from one end of the keyboard to the other. I am dubious that acoustic music can achieve its full force in recordings. and without even going into the whole world of new sounds that can be created through synthesis. Even when writing for solo piano. What would change things is eliminating the performers. Classical Music. especially because the quality of home stereos has been relentlessly degraded as people buy ever-smaller equipment. This may not sound like such a bad idea (at least they are hearing their work) until you actually hear the results of these simulations. Moreover. Recording technology may help optimize the impact of the money being spent but won’t change the basic financial equation (unless recordings manage to greatly enlarge the audience) that requires society to subsidize this kind of art for it to survive. the weight of notes is completely lost: Will it speak quickly or resist? Will a rhythm dissolve into texture or remain articulate? The homogenized sounds of even the best synthesizers give only very gross approximations of these attributes and no sense at all of the physicality or even possibility of the music. Why Bother? being very widely performed. which is the greatest change to date in the music world. For a computer. and sequencers. We’ll return to this when I talk about distribution. however. I have had students complain that the . What recordings do indisputably accomplish is to allow music from much farther afield to be vetted and compared in a classroom or when making programming decisions. Recordings have allowed composers to participate in a world market of music.

I fear the day when composers will stay behind their computer screens — isolated in their studios — from a piece’s genesis all the way through to its realization. all these things are possible. A sculptor may well be able to make a wonderful model in clay of a sculpture that will ultimately be 60 feet high. if we get rid of the work for vast numbers of performers. and they cannot step outside themselves. Although I love having the ability to integrate computer-generated sounds into instrumental works and additionally use computers to help work out nearly all of my music (though not through realistic simulations). Composers cannot master every instrument. the recording of a computer realization of a work (or even a composer performance of the work) may be the composer’s only opportunity to hear it. composers. A number of very . is that we would then lose the justification for the whole system of musical training that is as essential to composers as well as performers. The tension that exists between composer’s pushing and an audience’s pulling may well be lost. however. and what now smacks of elitism may well degenerate into complete solipsism. Technology  real performers don’t play something as “well” as the simulation. but in the world of computergenerated sounds. If one imagines a computer-generated recording as the final product. That requires real knowledge of the materials that will be used in the final realization. by eliminating the need for instrumentalists. would lose the much-needed direct contact with performers. they cannot be objective about decisions they have agonized over for months. but that doesn’t mean the sculpture will be structurally sound once it is finally produced. Yet by interacting with performers. I require some amount of interactivity with both the audience as well as the performers. One thing that would be indisputably lost if performers were minimized or eliminated from the composition-performance-recording process is the interaction between the work and interpretations of the work. One of the great virtues of the performing arts is that the work does not exist as a fixed object: rather it is perpetually recreated. These models are often a real barrier to the learning of instrumental writing (especially when students are not able to interact regularly with performers). While this might be a boon to those who have trouble getting their music played. Recordings have already blurred this aspect of music. An additional problem. most of those objections might sound old-fashioned.

If the concert experience were to become a rarity as high-speed Internet. one can still find virtual communities from whom advice can be solicited. Now. If contemporary art music is doomed to speak to a shrinking audience. In one area. the virtual community phenomenon is not confined to recordings. In one way this is a huge advantage.0 Classical Music. however. I remember when I was in high school: A trip to New York or Chicago meant the possibility of going to a real record shop that would have a wide selection of contemporary music. wide-screen televisions. would eat up nearly my whole budget on these trips. I think technology has already begun to make a meaningful and positive change for art: distribution. however. of course. however. however. Why Bother? successful compositions for tape alone have already been made. that audience is at least becoming more accessible. You can get just about anything that is available online. however. and listeners. that the use of technology in musical composition will increase in the future as indicated by the increasing number of simulations of orchestra pieces submitted by applicants to graduate school. The real doubt is only how soon and how pervasively this trend will affect the musical world. then CDs. Records. performers. But. you also lose the highly knowledgeable people who worked in them. With electronically connected individuals. You may dismiss this possibility as akin to the current use of digital actors in films: a curiosity without much depth. of course. and home cinema systems proliferate. One of the reasons that really cutting-edge art has been limited to the world capitals is that those are the only places where you can find enough people to create a community of composers. The rise of online communities means that a few thousand people scattered throughout the world can actually be reached in a coherent way: Look at how international festival audiences have become. Even fifteen years ago you had to go to Paris if you wanted to know what was . because even in its heyday Tower Records could not stock everything and all possible imports. Moreover. and while these works now represent a highly distinct genre. without the stores. The Internet has really changed this. the line between static tape work and piece for performance would surely continue to blur. this is likely to change. those stores are gone or don’t carry much of a stock anymore. It is likely.

I doubt that better distribution will ever be able to make up for a society that does not have an interest in difficult art. the effects could spread quite quickly. As much of the traditional publisher/record company infrastructure pulls out of this nongrowth business (the stock market is not content for a business to be viable. now it is nice to be there. . we still must be convinced that art can have great value and that the value has meaning beyond our preferences. or interact with it. It is ever more difficult to stay a big fish in a small pond when the ponds keep linking up. we at least can construct a jerry-rigged replacement that is cheaper and more flexible. we will simply increase the efficiency with which an overproduced. if things begin to change for the better. receive. I think technology will certainly have an impact on what artists do and how audiences learn about it and perhaps even experience it. it will have to be judged valuable by many different groups of listeners/critics/performers. Technology  happening there. For your music to succeed not just in one or two places but in many very different areas. undesired commodity is marketed and distributed. To conclude. but you can stay informed from almost anywhere. A further advantage to this larger community is that it has raised the standards for composers. Otherwise. but this will not be a sufficient change to alter the issues discussed earlier in this book. it must grow ever bigger). No matter how we learn about. This is especially valuable in that it diminishes the role of personal ties (because you can’t be friends with everyone. Additionally. everywhere). but it can certainly help delay the worst effects of that attitude. Composers are more and more drawn into a world market.

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biology. but now I’d like to look a little bit at its potential reality and the constraints it might pose on art. yet young children can quickly master it. The drollery is perhaps misplaced since there are many examples in physics. and psychology of self-organizing systems which can converge on stable solutions to problems that defy formal analysis. I will move away from a more general discussion of artistic principles here and take most of my examples and ideas from music and from other fields only as they relate to music. Thus it should not be surprising that we do not yet understand the basis of many human skills. The history of ideas has shown that failures of understanding often arose from a poor initial perspective … — L. Henry Shaffer1 I’ve emphasized the idea of absolute aesthetic value and suggested that this might be a useful notion even if it is not “true” in some deep sense.  . It also seems true that performers and listeners can understand music even though musicologists cannot agree what music means.6 Design Space It has been drolly observed that linguists are unable to provide a convincing description of the grammar of language.

” which I will use liberally. presents an imperfect analogy at best. is anything but clear.” “complexity. Let me say right off the bat that the word “language. In language one finds a clear duality between the mechanisms of communication (grammar) and the content being communicated. this division. or at least quasi-universals. With music. if not infinite. Furthermore. almost universal meaning — at least until we meet some extraterrestrials. I propose to look at some of the reasons why I believe it is and some of the tools we might possess. Is such a thing plausible or even possible? In this chapter. number of different languages. this might offer a sense in which value-laden words like “richness. French. all of which can be related to parallel linguistic and literary structures. and gestures that confirm or contradict learned expectations.” might have a real. At most it means that there may be general cognitive tools and principles that. it is at least plausible that in the same way that human linguistic symbol manipulation machinery can be customized for English. Only if we find some sorts of perceptual and/or cognitive universals. How could this be? If we want to speak about anything absolute. as some have tried to argue (notably Leonard Bernstein in his Norton Lectures at Harvard). idiomatic musical expressions. though perhaps present. I will begin to move our discussion from why listeners should support music that is something other than pure entertainment to how composers might go about creating art that tries to merit this support. our . Moreover. can we hope to find any sort of absolute criteria that could be the source of aesthetic value. however. Classical Music. harmonies.” even perhaps “beauty. We need to imagine some universal musical language toolkit that allows the construction of a vast. Furthermore. We can think of a particular musical idiom as having forms.” “formal-coherence. to think about music for a moment as if it were a language. I should say that the existence of absolute criteria of worth does not mean that one true musical language or idiom exists. or Navajo. place constraints on what is perceivable and thus potentially meaningful. It may still be worthwhile. when combined with auditory perception. Why Bother? First. we need to postulate a sort of unitary framework that is deeper than the apparently very diverse surfaces of different musical idioms.

Balinese gamelan. Words have stable meanings. parts of speech including nouns and verbs. The linguist Steve Pinker describes what Chomsky means in this way: Chomsky’s claim that from a Martian’s-eye-view all humans speak a single language is based on the discovery that the same symbol manipulating machinery. Design Space  musical machinery can be trained in classical music. 2 Pinker then goes far beyond these design features to include other common attributes across all human languages: large vocabularies. Languages all show a duality of patterning in which one rule system is used to order phonemes within morphemes. which signify tense. neutral between production and comprehension. Linguistic forms are infinite in number. or hip-hop. phrases organized according to something called the X-bar system (which we don’t need to go into here) as well as “the higher levels of phrase structure including auxiliaries. and vice versa. independent of meaning. Noam Chomsky famously said that from a Martian perspective all humans speak one language. modality. specifying their meaning. aspect and negation. a sound that is acoustically halfway between bat and pat does not mean something halfway between batting and patting. […] New word structures can be created and modified by derivational and inflectional rules. […] Languages use the mouthto-ear channel as long as the users have intact hearing (manual and facial gestures. […] The phonological forms of words are defined by metrical and syllable trees […] their details […] found in language after language […]. Linguists have long known that the basic design features of language are found everywhere. allows speakers to produce any linguistic message they can understand.”3 . and another is used to order morphemes within words and phrases. because they are created by a discrete combinatorial system. without exception. Speech sounds are treated discontinuously. In the domain of language. Languages can convey meanings that are abstract and remote in time or space from the speaker. of course. are the substitute channel used by the deaf). give a strong impression that a Universal Grammar […] underlies the human language instinct. linked to them by arbitrary convention. A common grammatical code. underlies the world’s languages.

a bass drum “hit. music does not work simply through an arbitrary set of logical rules like a computer language. Much to the chagrin of some composers. at least sufficient to describe the note or sound. “So what?” You probably think of pitch as such an obvious part of the sounds in the world that we would necessarily use it in our music. Why Bother? Pinker specifically wants to put language in a very different category than music. however. “house” music.). etc. we tend to think of the pitch description of a note or sound as somehow being. Classical Music. a door slamming. many others do not (Gregorian chants. a cymbal crash. I believe. If I say to you that pitch is an important musical feature. here. you will probably be tempted to say. they are more like potential universals.” and so on. To highlight the convergence between the human language instinct and the human musical instinct. Some musical systems seem “learnable.” while others seem like just the sort of artificial construct Pinker calls all music.). breathing. A violin or flute is very good at produc- . or elements contained in a universal toolkit. purring. In order for a sound to produce the sensation of pitch. college fight-songs. breaking glass. fall more into the category of noise than pitch. This is why many musical notation systems show little else. jazz combos. he is wrong. its sonic constituents must approximate a particular “harmonic” relationship (integer multiples of a fundamental frequency). One feature present in most music is pitch. In fact. etc. Bach fugues. which he thinks of as an “artificial system” like a computer language. Basic design features are not quite the same as the often-discussed universals. if not complete. Most sounds in the world. I believe that there are real parallels. The traditional view of music often treats pitch as if it were a sort of unitary atom possessed by and characterizing all sounds: as if a sound and a pitch were essentially the same thing. And while many types of music take advantage of this capability (choral hymns. So although musical language is indeed very different from human language. A sound with energy distributed less regularly in terms of frequency will be nonpitched like the wind. we need to look at what “basic design features” might underlie the world’s musical languages. Polyphony is a good example: Humans clearly seem capable of processing multiple simultaneous melodic lines when those lines are at least somewhat related harmonically and not too large in number. However.

but it will be much harder. This separation of the auditory stream that reaches our ear into distinct sonic objects is at the heart of how our auditory system analyzes the world. and if you multiplied the number of “sources. a violin note. we can see that pitch is a very useful thing for music to employ. it is much easier to separate two pitches into distinct sources than it is to separate noise sounds. from an ensemble on a concert stage). which presents a huge advantage. Our ears and minds have multiple and overlapping strategies for performing this task. You may well succeed. When a jazz singer sings his or her “out-of-tune” blue note. But in a situation where all the sounds are coming from approximately the same distance and direction (say.” this processing advantage would become very significant. and realizing the dog is barking because he wants to be taken for a walk. See if you can hear who is singing what. we do not hear a different pitch from the one specified by the scale. From a perspective parallel to language.) if the internal logic of each of those notes is simple. You might also think we focus on pitch because of the human voice. If you want to go beyond the first level of sensory perception and build a more layered cognitive structure. just try asking two or three friends to stand across the room and sing different notes. the internal coherence of a structure like pitch is a huge help. they can more easily divide up the auditory “scene” into its various constituent elements (a clarinet note. When our ears receive a complex sound signal from out in the world. Because of the specificity of relation between the internal components of a pitched sound. etc. notes can be treated discontinuously (categorically) like speech sounds. as it is with a pitched note. making a windlike noise. and we also do not hear a hybrid between two members of the . a piano note. Design Space  ing pitch (although even with these instruments the nonpitched part of the sound — bow or breath noise — is still significant). Now ask them to blow unpitched air. but only vowel sounds contain clear pitch and a great deal of our vocalizations including all consonants are very noisy. and try to sort out who is making what sound. You can test this for yourself. but this is because we designed and built these instruments with just that purpose in mind. We have no trouble hearing the TV droning in the background while still following a conversation. which psychologists call auditory stream segregation.

Many musical cultures generalize notes across register through a principle called octave equivalency. they can create the hierarchical sensation of key. although we could understand the speech of almost any speaker. men with low voices and women with high voices can sing the “same” tune in the “same” key but in different registers. since five to seven seems to be just the right number of units for human working memory (think of phone numbers or zip codes. This is a very close parallel to what happens in language. like James Earl Jones. When scales are deployed in music. With octave equivalency.). where. The scales tend to have between five and seven distinct scale member pitches. the chromatic scale is not really a scale in that it cannot generate a key: All the notes in it are equivalent. as Pinker said. because their voices seem to communicate more than just the discrete linguistic content. but the vast majority of music in the world is organized according to these hierarchical arrangements of pitches called scales. etc. like the twelvenote chromatic scale (all the notes in one octave on the piano).” This is why. get paid large sums of money to read for television commercials. However.4 There are some entities we tend to call scales that don’t have this “magic” number of notes. some. Music that uses a scale to produce a sense of key usually shares some additional design features. Different cultures do this in different ways and some don’t do it at all. Why Bother? scale on either side of the “blue note”: We hear the expected pitch with an inflection that carries expressive meaning. Pitched notes organized into a limited number of categories have other advantages as well. Perhaps more significantly. This is the principle that lets us think of middle C on a piano as being in a sense the “same” note as a high C on a piccolo. Neuroscientist Jamshed Bharucha has even used his self-organizing neural net model to show that octave equivalency can form just through untutored exposure to the acoustical structure of pitched notes without any conceptual or theoretical predisposition. This should not be surprising. pitches and octave equivalency allow us to divide the frequency spectrum into a small number of related notes. or the common representation of dates. “A sound that is acoustically halfway between bat and pat does not mean something halfway between batting and patting. Classical Music. By this I mean that whatever .

Adults are better with the familiar unequal-step scales like the major and minor scales. the chromatic scale always contains exactly the same pitches and relationships. which is nonetheless much larger than the set used by any given language. but equally bad at all unfamiliar scales. Design Space  note you begin or end on. They start to focus exclusively on the subset of phonemes used in the languages they have been hearing spoken by those around them and which they will soon begin to speak. more tense. These symmetrical scales seem to be used for ornamentation and color. we allow inflection of those categories both for the sake of meaning (the verbal equivalent of the musical “blue-note” already mentioned) and robustness (the . and so on. Although all human babies are born with the capacity to learn any of these phonemes. so one never has a sense of one note being more important. There seems to be a limited repertoire of potential human phonemes. Thus.5 It is certainly tempting to see this as something like what happens with linguistic phonemes. it should not be a surprise that when you look at how these “scales” are used in pieces of music it is never to generate a key. more final. while a more limited or specific collection of pitches creates the sense of key. By limiting the number of meaningful categories. there seems to be a critical period beginning at around nine months of age and stretching until around age two when babies start to permanently lose the ability to hear any and every possible human phoneme. This same problem exists for the whole-tone scale and several other socalled symmetrical scales like the octatonic scale: In all of these scales. Sandra Trehub and others did a series of studies exploring why this might be the case and found that infants can detect mistuned notes much better within even completely unfamiliar scales made up of unequal steps than within equal-step scales. the collection of notes does not allow a unique set of relations between each scale member and the other scale-degrees. Within a very short time they even lose the ability to differentiate some phonemes that they could have easily differentiated a few weeks earlier. They interpret this result as showing an inherent processing bias towards unequal-step scales that allows the learning of particular unequal-step scales as we grow older. than another. They have pared down a large space of potential language sounds into a smaller but deeper set of usable and understandable ones.

Tension can be generated in all sorts of ways in all different art forms (contextual tension. but here I want to confine myself to harmonic tension in music. Tension is clearly very important to many types of music. The psychologist Carol Krumhansl has done a lot of work in mapping out these relations into multidimensional “pitch-spaces. In the mid-1990s.7 These learned key systems with their accompanying sensations are clearly very important to our perception of music. Why Bother? equivalent of my being able to recognize the tune based on its general contour in spite of my mother’s out-of-tune humming). but I suspect the more basic design feature that allows the mind to form these networks is tension. He and his students ran some pilot studies to try to determine how they should explain tension to the experimental subjects who were going to rate the relative tension of chord pairs.). Bharucha also showed that a set of hierarchical associations and expectations analogous to that of tonality is formed by these neural nets when they are trained with Indian ragas instead of Western tonal melodies. The nets learn to recognize scale degrees and even to follow modulations like we do. like linked clauses in a sentence. When you take a traditional harmony class.0 Classical Music. on some studies looking at harmonic tension in unfamiliar music. tension is almost always taught in a grammatical way: This chord requires that resolution. they came to very different conclusions about the . etc. are probably learned in a harmonic context. at least for tonal music. While these properties. In fact. emotional tension.”6 Jamshed Bharucha has used self-organizing neural nets to show that this can plausibly happen without any prompting from a music theory teacher. I was collaborating with an American expat psychologist then based in France. Keylike hierarchical systems often have the added virtue of allowing us to attribute sensations like tension or incompleteness to various scale degrees. They were able (just through self-organization) to go beyond individual notes to recognize the scale-degree function of chords. physical tension. that one is incomplete without this. the association causes us to feel functional associations when we hear even unaccompanied single-line melodies. Steve McAdams. but it can be hard to speak about from a common vantage point. What he found was that if he tried to call listeners’ attention to any of the specific features that might contribute to tension.

5 times per second — I was taught to think of this as the speed of saying “Denver-to-Milwaukee” moderately quickly. If you look at the roughness produced by intervals played on a piano. because some of the sonic components (rich sounds are complex and consist of many internal components) would fall within the critical band. however.” Piano tuners count the beats-per-second between notes to tune a piano in equal temperament. (If you listen to the beating between the C below middle C and the E above it. like the major seventh. almost certainly begins with a perceptual phenomenon — in this case roughness. What is surprising. is that if you play these same intervals with very pure sounds made by sine-tone generators lacking all sonic richness (upper partials for the more technically minded) that caused the roughness in the first place. they agreed almost perfectly on how relatively tense the chords were. while inexperienced listeners will not. musically trained listeners will make the same dissonance judgments as they did with more realistic complex sounds. When he just said “tension” and told them to define it in their own way. though. these neighboring sounds interfere with each other and produce a parasitic amplitude modulation called “beating. Design Space  relative tension of chords. Because of the way the ear works. even if the roughness is later removed. None of this should be too surprising to anyone who has ever watched a black-and-white TV: Although color is clearly . This leads me to believe that in mental terms some underlying reality to this category exists even if we cannot easily create a direct mapping onto one particular set of sonic features. Inexperienced listeners will tend to judge any sounds that lie entirely outside of the critical band as consonant even if these same sounds played by real instruments with rich timbres would have produced roughness. Roughness is produced by simultaneously sounding components of the total sound-field that fall close together within what is called the critical band. including cats and starlings. you will see that the total amount of roughness corresponds very closely with the perceived dissonance of each interval. This seems to suggest that we can all perceive roughness and learn to associate that roughness with musical structures. like pitch. This is true even for intervals we usually categorize as very dissonant.) Roughness is something many other animals also are sensitive to. Harmonic tension. it should beat 5.

we have no trouble seeing the gray face of the TV program as full of life because we have already seen so many Technicolor faces and have other cues for knowing that it is a human face. Approximate rhythmic regularity. even though the particular identities of the more tense chords and the less tense chords will be different and sometimes interchanged. dissonant note) so often in this context. Classical Music. we mainly refer to the pulse on those occasions when the composer chooses to mask or contradict the prevailing pulsation. This is due to a particular use of the tension I’ve been describing. but you can experience these degrees of tension very easily yourself. You will have something like this experience with almost any tonal piece. you should be able to feel your gut unclenching ever so slightly as the tension of the penultimate chord gives way to the release of the final chord. the perception of tension remains even without the psychophysical cause.) . this may seem to be incredible. Take almost any recording of a classical piece and play the final section until the second-to-last chord (it may be easier to start at the beginning of the next piece and scan backwards to get to the last thirty seconds or so of the piece). a G-major triad will sound tense. quasi-periodicity if you will. even though acoustically it is no different from the relaxed C-major triad. The reason is almost certainly that the triad built on the fifth scale degree is often accompanied by a seventh scale degree that introduces extra roughness. For those of you who have never really studied music. (Traditional theory refers to this as “pulse” and usually treats it more as an assumed axiom than a motivated choice. You will no doubt have seen the pattern I’m suggesting by now: A physical or perceptual reality creates a bias toward the adoption of certain types of cognitive structures for use in the development of musical language. is another very common feature of music. it will likely sound very unfinished. but stop it before the final chord. Because we have heard the dominant seventh chord (the version with that extra. If you are in C-major. If you now play the end of the piece again. If you play the recording until this second-to-last chord. and one might argue that it comes about in this same way. Western tonal music offers a familiar example of this. Why Bother? a part of how we perceive the difference between the animate skin of a person’s face and the cold gray of stone.

or four in what we call a metrical grid. I’d bet that if you really refrain from counting. the universal-musical-tools exhibit effects at larger timescales and higher levels of structure. In many musical systems. and you’ll see that there is not the slightest difficulty in distinguishing the two durations. Again one suspects that the . In each case we have taken the power of the local relation and given it a higher-level function. lyrical and rhythmic. Design Space  While I would imagine that heartbeats. like 5 to 7 note asymmetric scales. it is not by a factor of 100. Also note that while the pulse speeds of music vary quite a bit. tense and relaxed. and other quasiperiodic phenomena that are part of our daily life may lie at the origin of our attention to regular rhythm. Ask someone to take a stopwatch and sing one note for 6 seconds and another for 6. making the difference in average note density even less. Pulses are almost always organized into groups of two. we add further levels of related hierarchy. breathing. you could easily tell 6 seconds and 6. The slowest pieces will tend to have a pulse of 20 to 30 beats per minute and anything faster than 240 beats per minute is very rare. in the time domain.5 seconds. multiple keys can be organized hierarchically into a sort of larger metaset of relations called a pitch-space. because one would end right on the beat and the other would end just after the beat. three. is also an aid for our processing of musically useful information — in this case. Tell them to mix up the order and try to guess which one is which without tapping your foot or counting smaller units: Just try to hear which note sounds longer. or even 20. it shows the same sort of uniform toolkit. Moreover. Rhythm. slower pieces tend to have more subdivisions per beat. because music does not possess the direct information coding of language. like musical form. I think that the reason we use them in so many different musical traditions has to do more with a processing advantage similar to the one bestowed by asymmetric scales of pitch. In fact. Think of how many types of music take advantage of contrasts between fast and slow. you’ll hear the second note as longer whether it was or not. We’re not very good at making rhythmic judgments about the length of two notes in a vacuum. Now have them tap seconds with their hand while singing the two notes. In the pitch domain.05 seconds apart with a reliable metronome. While this is certainly very different from language. in fact.

”) They maintained that much contemporary music has given up the very elements that lead to a listener having a “musical experience. Richard Dawkins in his book The Blind Watchmaker talks about the metaphor of design space. Now you will notice that just like linguists. Classical Music. but regardless of the origin it has become part of the language.” While it is tempting to dismiss these arguments as reactionary. I have just been trying to convince you that some such set of principles does exist. In fact. it might be better to admit that there may be an element of truth that. one might view much of PC set theory as an attempt to “prove” the coherent and structured nature of the atonal and twelve-tone repertory.” (In this context “understandable” might be read as “coherent. if properly evaluated and understood.8) Rather than dismiss or attempt to “disprove” this argument. This is not the place to seek comprehensiveness in mapping out the basic design features of musical language. Perhaps an even better analogy for how these basic principles interact with potential musical languages comes straight from evolutionary theory. they could depend on an enormous body of empirical data generated by the musical tradition to which they belonged. I would suggest that from a certain perspective. the way in which a particular musical language uses them might affect its possibilities of being meaningful. Why Bother? natural motor ability of performers has much to do with this constraint. instead. and the way a particular work interacts with the underlying mental principles might be capable of making it successful or not in some absolute way. they have greatly influenced the discourse of most composers and music theorists. or narrow-minded. My motivation is that if such principles exist in any absolute sense. in the twentieth century advocates of a return to tonality were often forceful in arguing that new musical languages were simply not “understandable. self-serving. (For those with more of a music theory background. might impact in a positive way the development of musical languages not derived from the tonal model. No musician (at least prior to recent ones) set out to deconstruct the underlying principles of music in order to write it. The perspective I have adopted in speaking about a universal design-toolkit for music is borrowed from evolutionary psychology and evolutionary theory. however. I am forced into post hoc reasoning in trying to determine these design principles. By this .

at least with a computer. (DNA would have a tough time specifying an asbestos-lined throat. and a plethora of other things that guarantee that the vast number of possible designs is not the unbounded. where any attribute or combination of attributes is possible — where cows can sprout a spacesuit and fly over the moon. “design space” can be used to designate the range of solutions that satisfy the design criteria. but these sounds are not necessarily capable of functioning — in the sense of creating a musical sensation in a listener. we might be able to create almost any sound. The dimensions are not fully independent or even necessarily continuous: If you make SUVs taller so the people driving them can feel powerful and safe. unstructured chaos of Borges’s “Library of Babel. Evolutionary theorists use this concept when trying to disentangle two similar creatures whose resemblance might be caused by converging lines of development within a small design space or might be the result of related development within a potentially large design space. like dragons. Put another way. past events.” Some creatures that are easily imaginable. There may well be no region of the design space with a tall car and a low center of gravity. it is not a limitless space. do not seem to be accessible to evolution. and it may not be possible to treat them independently.) In our musical analogy. Design Space  he means the theoretical multidimensional space in which each potential characteristic that an organism could develop is represented on a separate dimension. An understanding of this space can help us see how almost inevitable certain design solutions are (the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls them “forced moves in design space”) and may let us appreciate how special and unique other regions of the space might be. it might be because they are closely related or it might be because they are both trying to accomplish some similar task that can . you will almost inevitably raise the center of gravity and make it easier for the trucks to flip over in an accident — thus reducing the driver’s actual safety. In all fields of applied design (and music is in a sense the applied design of sound). And while any possible organism would be situated somewhere within this space. current conditions. Design features that may seem very different can be linked at these deeper levels. Evolutionary design space is constrained by embryology. when two creatures resemble each other in some respect.

and airplanes all seem to share a related set of smoothly curved shapes called “streamlined. Streamlining is one of the classical examples given to illustrate a small design space. At least one elaborately developed musical language exists that most listeners agree is learnable and capable of producing satisfying musical results: tonality. how can we create these languages while avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of renouncing the potential for innovation versus creating impossible artificial grammars that can be studied but never “learned. While it goes far beyond the scope of this book to address the common-practice . while the forced moves help us map out the boundaries of design space.” Rather than debating the “validity” of specific styles. what are the limits to the design space in which coherent musical languages may be created? Or.” If music that has absolute aesthetic value really exists. but is the result of an attempt to accomplish the same goal — reducing drag on motion through a viscous medium. Some critics have attacked exemplars of these musical styles as “unhearable. of course. on comprehensible musical compositions. or shared lineage. perhaps the most effective means. What is important from my point of view as a composer is that this may be a way of understanding the constraints. This distinction between the two possible explanations for similarity (relation or forced moves) is very important for us. water or air — and streamlining is an effective means to that end. Why Bother? only be done in a few ways. are there constraints on it or could it be anything that someone can imagine? I am. the more interesting question is the general one: If we admit that some sequences of notes that may be logically coherent are not musically coherent even in principle. imitation. In other words.” This resemblance is due not to tradition. is it possible to use this information to design a musical language that is both novel and comprehensible? We ought to start with what we know. is it possible to determine the “design space” in which a musical language must reside to be viable? Furthermore. birds. or a host of other extramusical sources. A whole series of musical styles from the twentieth century takes starting points in combinatorial mathematics or chance-related procedures. cars (at least since the advent of computer modeling and wind tunnels). if any. because relational similarity tells us only about history. Classical Music. Fish. whales. not posing this question in a vacuum.

At least from the perspective of a tonal composer. composers in the later part of the nineteenth century were not impeded from pushing the organizing principles of tonality far from their roots while still profiting from . and so on. a few observations are necessary. but it is nonetheless real. Ideas that failed to function for performers and/or audiences had little chance of enduring. Just as structural principles of construction do not hinder an architect from building a novel geometry on a traditionally designed foundation. Composers were free to create novel structures of vast proportions without incurring a correspondingly greater degree of risk — because while the overall design might be novel. This golden era of collaborative research and development (of course the participants in this R&D would certainly not have seen it in this way) created a vast base of knowledge about what types of musical ideas. structures. the pedagogical practices that depended on study of older works and style imitation leave little doubt that most of what a composer did was based on what others had done. in which the successful efforts of the current generation were assimilated both by contemporary and succeeding generations: It was not created by an individual who “dreamed it up” and expected the world to learn it and adapt to it. Without the experience of other composers. Risk may be a difficult notion to assess relative to a musical work. Design Space  heritage in detail. In spite of stylistic differences between composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Though it was only later and gradually that this knowledge became codified in theoretical terms. impart a sense of departure and return. the lack of any of these elements would have constituted a serious failure. enough similarity between the various composers of a given generation and even across generations existed to allow one composer’s insights to be profitably applied to another’s dilemma and to allow one composer’s failures to forestall another composer’s attempt. Tonal music — like most other music in the world — was created through a long process of trial and error. create large-scale relations. This knowledge was both liberating and constraining. the elements were all well tested. one would have little hope of creating forms that could hold a listener’s attention over time. and materials could be employed in effective musical works.

when successful older styles remained viable. leaving nothing. In recent years. The composers belonging to these movements have recognized the futility of using the tonal model to write a music that shares few. though. He saw no reason to build on what he saw as failed modernism. He felt that an effective model should create music that sticks to you like burrs to your clothing after a walk in the woods. Why Bother? the structural principles that allow tension to be maintained over long time-scales. Harry Partch. but that so much new music just faded away after he heard it. These “mavericks” have sometimes produced remarkable results. if any. The languages they developed. and other movements that return to tonal principles reflects an awareness of this problem. common goals with the music for which that model was developed. Composers like Conlon Nancarrow. although a few composers have continued to ignore the contradiction created by preserving the symptom without the cause (making a virtual religion out of the permutation of an inherited set of symbolic elements drawn from traditional Western notation). turning away from our inherited tools to prospect in solitude for usable principles of compositional construction. Classical Music. Like many listeners. in the twentieth century many composers began to lose sight of the reasons that had motivated the choices made by tonal composers. Other composers have confronted this same problem — which of the inherited materials of tonality still make sense in the context of their music and which should be jettisoned and replaced with novel devices — through highly personal and sometimes eccentric means. or Iannis Xenakis opted for a difficult and lonely course. many have tried to address the issue. George Rochberg expressed this concern to me. he said that he remembered a lot of music of Brahms or Beethoven.9 The rise of neoromanticism. have turned out to be extremely personal. postmodernism. The materials of tonal composition that had been superbly designed for compelling reasons (at the time) became blind articles of faith separated from their raison d’être for many twentieth-century composers. Their solution has been to restore the foundation and return to tried-and-true methods of musical construction. individual visions. and as such they have not formed the foundation of any broad movements to rival tonality. Indian classical . However.

Theories are available that can give predictive and not simply descriptive information. By studying the music. Design Space  music. who want to understand the language itself. however. Any tradition that has endured over time must on some level “function” for its listeners. This will not be sufficient information for us. but also the content — and the two are intertwined in complex ways in a piece of music. we ought to be able to deduce some of the principles that allow it to function. It is now possible to accurately model a complex and completely novel structure and yet still know if it will stand (think of any building by Frank Gehry). another solution may be suggested again through our analogy with the study of design space. Tonality was developed by thousands of composers over hundreds of years and has received millions of hours of field-testing with audiences. Today’s architects and structural engineers don’t need to build endless models and perform impossible calculations. This should not be surprising. While this does not reduce the artistic impact of their oeuvre. If we want to understand the design space of musical language. However.” so that we can create new ways of satisfying those same design criteria. improved technology changed the givens. . It would be hard for even the most brilliant intuitions to rival the strength and depth of that collective effort (and it is astounding that sometimes this has happened). we are going to have to reverse engineer some of the world’s musical traditions. it may be possible to create work that is both meaningful and novel: Look at the range of forms that suspension bridges can take. composers need to discover the first principles that allow the language to function. because it seems very unlikely that these isolated figures can hope to build anything approaching the depth or scope of tonal music. We want to understand the “whys” rather than the “hows. while all using the same set of principles. If both abstract criteria and design constraints exist that create the background in which those criteria can be evaluated. because it is not just the language that will need to be developed. Before we look at my personal deductions and the first principles that seem most important to me. it does limit the usefulness these composers offer as a model for other composers whose aims deviate even slightly from their own. or other systems. Our goal as composers ought not to be the goal of music theorists.

Why Bother? we need to look at what the word “meaning” might mean in a musical context. we must remember that it is perfectly feasible to write an uninteresting novel with correct grammar. Great music must do more than function: It has to inspire. .0 Classical Music. The linguistic framework cannot provide anything more than the point of departure for a compositional elaboration. In discussing comprehensible or learnable languages.

as it were. we are going to need some  . When I use a word and you listen to it. If we are to deal with the kind of subjective communication that takes place during a musical experience. we discussed music as something like a language. is intangible and ineffable. — John Ashbery Music. to carry an argument through successfully to the finish. — Jacques Barzun In Chapter 6. not being made up of objects nor referring to objects.7 “Understanding” Music What I like about music is its ability to be convincing. but in order for that metaphor to be viable we need to discuss further what it might mean to “understand” a piece of music (or even a single musical idea). it can only be. we will be objectively communicating only if we agree almost exactly on what the words mean. though the terms of the argument remain unknown quantities. inhaled by the spirit: the rest is silence.

or resists and goes a different way until an agreement or perhaps a surrender has been achieved. what it feels like. . just that a clear semantic explanation (the sunset is beautiful because the light at this frequency provokes.” then plays. the first question we have to address is what. It is very easy to explain semantically why the sunset produces colors (perhaps not for me. A musical performance is a somewhat parallel attempt by the performer to communicate to the members of the audience the qualia he or she experiences when hearing a musical composition: It is the single most relevant and eloquent way to discuss the real “meaning” of a piece of music. and audience complicates the relations to some degree. A real discussion has taken place and real information has been exchanged — even if we cannot put it into words. it is completely impossible to explain why it is beautiful or why watching it is pleasurable. Classical Music. like this. but certainly for any physicist who understands the light emitted by the sun and its interaction with the atmosphere). However. the student tries to emulate the teacher’s performance. not the subjective experience that elements bearing those labels evoke. Because I’m not there and we cannot hold this discussion around a piano or even a hi-fi.) cannot be formulated for the qualia of a subjective percept. in fact. Philosophy has a word for subjective personal experiences: qualia. Every painting of a sunset is. This is not to say it cannot be discussed at all. While the added complexity of having the three layers of composer. performer. a more or less successful attempt to communicate the qualia of beauty produced in the artist by that event. Why Bother? help defining our terms. the subjective “quality” of an experience. Even an evolutionary “just-so” story about why it might be advantageous to find the sunset beautiful. the teacher says “no. would not really answer the qualitative question of why we find it beautiful. anyone who has studied an instrument will have had at least a hint of this experience of purely aesthetic communication. referring to categories and labels. in this case they might help. Although it often seems that philosophical concepts can obfuscate more than clarify. A typical lesson embodies a dynamic back-and-forth between student and teacher: The student plays. or a neuroscientific description of neuron activation patterns. etc. There is also a word for coded communication like language: semantic.

Decoding how the composer built the piece also will not guarantee a more satisfying experience. and. Semantic knowledge of a piece of music and its score will also help us separate the authorial voice from the interpretive voice. I believe you can get more out of close listening by starting with the affective. Semantic knowledge is clearly useful in that it can give referents. it will help us think about the work’s relationship to other pieces even when their surfaces are quite different — although one still might wonder if any of this allows us to listen “better. ultimately. Moreover. you probably will not love or hate a piece based on whether or not it was written while the composer played skittles. subjective experience the work creates in your mind. So much of our thinking is semantic in nature — we think in words — that we should probably ask ourselves whether semantic knowledge impacts the subjective experience of listening to music at all and. You love a work because of the sensations or qualia it produces when you hear it. can we discuss semantically (our only option in this situation) about pieces of music that might be of value. . Therefore. if so. Categorizing things this way will unquestionably aid memory (this is a form of the chunking that we discussed earlier). “Understanding” Music  if anything. Letting music wash over you may be pleasant. In a certain sense it will not even matter if the affects in the piece you love were intentional compositional choices or by-products of some other process or even just happy accidents. but you will only perceive the tip of the iceberg. in what ways? The answers to these questions are not direct.” What does it mean to listen well? Paying attention is certainly a big part of it. There are all kinds of things one can hear without any special knowledge or skill. I can explain that a musical motive is called “x” and then refer to it without having to play it for you. One might be tempted to listen for clues to the composer’s life or emotional state. I do not believe that charting out forms and labeling themes will help you very much in listening to and enjoying a piece of music — just as making an outline will not make you love a novel with a complicated plot. though this may be interesting. it is the sensation produced in each moment as you attentively listen that will matter.

semantic-oriented. What is left to the close listener to listen for? The answer. Impressionist . rather than calling this projected intent a real intention. and the question is how. we can imagine that creating this result (the affect) was the composer’s intent. Why Bother? If we go ahead and remove intentions. We tend to break our way of listening and analyzing into two opposing viewpoints. If you believe the psychoanalysts. however. Some of the ways this dichotomy is presented are: German vs. circumstance. This so-called “intensional stance” removes the question of “why” without upsetting the supremacy of effect over cause. Static Expressionist vs. Moreover. we are assuming that the bit of music in question is a machine designed to produce an affect. We can. The two quotes at the start of this chapter represent the two ways that musical meaning has traditionally been discussed. but they are often hampered by a rigid framework that can force our judgments into a narrow mold. French Discursive vs. maybe the composer himself did not know what he intended. and through reverse engineering we want to know how it was done. If you listen to a composer’s “intensions. we will use the funny philosophical lingo and call it an intension. We can’t really know what a composer intends. the listener. it might seem we are taking away your best listening strategies. as well as the detailed recipes for writing the music (la cuisine. in French) from our discussion of understanding a piece. At this point we no longer care about the composer’s intentions. Here is the finished piece that produced a specific affect in you. Even more traditional. These views are usually presented in oppositional terms. know what affects the piece produces in us when we hear it. analytical schemes will eventually need to address affect and the ways it is produced. Therefore. Classical Music. It is “as-if ” the piece was designed to make these affects.” you can look at a piece from the viewpoint of an industrial spy. and the words used to describe them say a lot about on which side of the divide you situate yourself. because they are why we listen to it and care about it. Decorative Developmental vs. I believe. comes from the way Daniel Dennett and others use the term “intensions” (with an s).

Do you appreciate the object itself on an aesthetic level. then think of the upper square as being in the foreground and look again. the conceptual divide is basically the same. you should watch a sunset. not listen to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. “Understanding” Music  In each case. or do you use the object as a tool to comment or explicate some other thing or idea? Debussy advised that if you want to understand nature. Let’s demonstrate this binary way of perceiving as it is applied to the analysis of musical forms. or is it the entire work? In this. seeing the dot in either the left front corner or the left rear corner. as in all dialectical presentations. capture some of the truth. I’ll mention some Figure 7. Which gives us another way of framing the divide: Does art help us understand the world or ourselves.) All this is still a bit abstract. I’m going to talk in more specific ways about music than I have up until this point. though.1 The Necker cube. You can flip your vision of a Necker cube back and forth. while I suspect that Adorno would have given the opposite advice. . (Think of the lower square as being in the foreground and look. but you cannot see it in both places at once. This debate is a little like those representations of a 3-D cube (figure 7. in fact. but not both ways.1) that we all doodle (its official name is a Necker cube in honor of the nineteenth-century Swiss crystallographer who discovered the illusion): You can see it one way or the other way. both sides. or does it give us something that is wonderful but distinct from other aspects of the world — existing in some aesthetic realm? Is the object itself only the surface of a meaningful dialectical network of meaning. but I will try to make sure it remains understandable.

library. If we look at sonata form from the traditional viewpoint (which we could also call the German viewpoint) we have two ways of describing it: harmonically or thematically (motivically). we will discuss how the two views might in fact be more complementary than we tend to think — even for pieces normally considered as belonging to one or the other camp. or on the Web. In either case. The recapitulation follows the develop- . but will not return to the original key. This form earned the name because it is generally used in the first movement of instrumental sonatas (which are sets of movements for a solo instrument or an accompanied instrument that were very popular from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries). After presenting this fairly standard way of using these different perspectives on repertoire to which they are well suited. but they will be taken from very famous works you can readily find at any music store. The development takes tunes or tune-fragments from the exposition and transforms them in various ways that can be more or less clearly linked to the original form of these tunes (occasionally new themes are even introduced). The most famous of all musical forms is the “sonata” form. Finally. Sonata form was probably the most important form in all types of large-scale instrumental works throughout the classical and Romantic periods. so the name is something of a misnomer: Concertos and symphonies use sonata form as much as sonatas. anyone who has had any sort of music appreciation class or read much in the way of program notes has at least seen references to this form. Why Bother? musical examples. we will divide the movement into three parts: exposition-developmentrecapitulation. Then we will look at how the manner in which we analyze or listen to a work may condition our expectations in ways that interfere with really hearing a piece on its own terms. less closely related key areas. It also serves to move the piece away from the key in which it started to another closely related harmonic region. The exposition presents some material and is often immediately repeated in its entirety. then discuss briefly a piece that calls for a different. Classical Music. We will analyze a form in the traditional discursive manner. The development will typically go through a number of different. I’ll try to offer a less conditioning framework for attentive listening. less directional sort of analysis.

short. From a thematic standpoint. It places more value on parsimony (a desire to account for as much of the piece as possible from the fewest possible generative elements) and development and can somewhat mask the role of symmetry. we focus on the notion of departure and return. progressoriented change (one of the hallmarks of Romantic music). We will still need to refer to thematic material. When analyzing a sonata form movement from a harmonic point of view. This viewpoint highlights the “classical” side of the form (its symmetry) while still shedding light on its highly directed (goal-oriented) Romantic side. long? In some ways. Now let’s consider a little snippet of a Romantic symphony first movement. also ends in that key. three repeated notes followed by a different pitch. unlike the exposition. While the exposition is repeated by itself (expo-expo). and probably will go into great detail in our labeling of material. we can think of this as a highly Romantic way of viewing music. a third lower. memorable snippets called motives. These motives will allow us to see connections between apparently different tunes. We might even look for ways of reducing the complexity of the musical surface to see this underlying architecture. This will allow us to classify what is happening musically and trace the way it evolves and how it returns. short. The overall description of the piece that comes from this . The recapitulation begins in the original key and. built from the same musical molecules). “Understanding” Music  ment and presents a more or less precise repetition of the exposition (though often shortened). the development and recapitulation are often repeated together as a unit (dev-recap-dev-recap). three notes followed by another note. the so-called “fate” motive (da-da-da-dahhh) is easy to follow and remember. We will probably go beyond the larger divisions to label small. the motive can be any of those things as long as you can hear a connection between the germ-idea and its current form. It is typical of motives in that you keep redefining it as you go: Is it a specific set of four notes. Try Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Because it highlights directed. but we will be more concerned with the tonal space that material occupies than with the nature of the material itself. we will focus more on the material itself. They will also help us see the profusion of ideas that may fly by in the development as being “organically connected” (that is. or just short.

not a widely used form like sonata form. The characters or themes all converge.1 . You could almost think of this movement as a sort of musical equivalent of a very big Calder mobile. by their gestures or words. Notice how. and geographically ill-suited to the more familiar (Germanic. the themes are the characters possessing word. wrote this about the sonata form: In the sonata. Through interpretation. it is hard to think of it as developing: transforming from one thing into another. now shortened). Listen to the “Danse Sacrale” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and try to remember a few of the little modules that keep coming back. Why Bother? sort of listening should be very familiar from program notes and music appreciation texts: “And then the so-and-so enters picking up the suchand-such element from the third horn’s this-and-that. Classical Music. I chose a first example for this nondevelopmental view from a piece that is musically. But. gesture and movement within it. etc. thematic) mode of analysis to help clarify my meaning. however. a pianist who taught at the Scuola Cantorum in Paris. I will not go through a detailed presentation of how these modules interact in the piece.” If you’ve had any training in formal analysis. Romantic. historically. the accent of the speech. which is the work. the timbre of the voice. The American classical musical tradition was to a large degree a German transplant and most of the music being analyzed is Germanic as well. the character-theme should be presented from the start. where tonality can be compared to the place of the action. in the general action. the driving pulse helps everything hang together. because it is a singular structure. there is another way to look at things. developmental. Blanche Selva. with all the habitual rapidity of gestures. so this makes sense. in spite of the asymmetries. The rhythm is the gesture and the melody the word. as we mentioned above. While the music certainly drives us forward. The developmental and nondevelopmental views can be informative in all sorts of works from all sorts of places and times. A few simple units keep swinging around so they can be seen in different contexts almost from different angles (now elongated. it most likely was in this Germanic viewpoint.

Directionality is the key feature: We move from one state toward another. it doesn’t require it. In a strictly musical sense. In fact. if we look back at a lot of older music (Couperin suites. So the problem remains: What should you do while listening attentively? It’s almost impossible to pay attention to something without developing expectations. You must practically know the . no learning. Part of the problem is that terms like “development” mean so many different things to different people. “Understanding” Music  While this view certainly allows for development. Moreover.” which could also serve as a motto for many nondevelopmentally oriented composers. but what kind of expectations should you form and how should you feel when your expectations are defied? This problem becomes particularly acute with contemporary art. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David of Seinfeld fame had a motto. even perhaps for Debussy. where there is nothing like a consensus among artists.” More nondevelopmental works may seem static or merely decorative if all you are searching for are developmental transformations of material. Development is generally thought of as a virtue in music (or at least in music appreciation classes). While I have been trying to suggest that either of these approaches could be applied to almost any work. But lots of wonderful things are not directional. let’s just think of development as directed change or transformation. Beautiful (or funny) ideas need not all be transformed into one organic. “No hugging. Return could be a prod for memory (like Proust’s madeleine) without being a triumphal revelation of the second theme now in its true home-key or some other inevitable achievement. for example) we can view the music as a series of character pieces that are lovely but don’t necessarily add up to some grand edifice. There are works whose conception is so entangled with one or the other view that trying to look at them with a contrarian’s spirit may be like looking for figurative objects in a Jackson Pollock painting. this characteristic is not necessarily a failure. Adopting the wrong approach may blind you to the virtues of the piece you are hearing. so you might be unsure how a nondevelopmental work could be equally meaningful. but it’s beside the point. repetitive. More developmental pieces may seem square. perhaps it is possible. you will sometimes be frustrated by this approach. inevitable package. and blocky if you don’t follow the “discourse.

so. like the vocabulary. and so on. closure. Content is the aspect that varies most from work to work. except that there are many more gradations of finality. however. developments. lyricism. Let’s look at a few specific kinds of content that are most important for music. It might be helpful to think of a piece as having three aspects: CONTENT AFFECT FORM These are not separate things. surprise. Harmonies are one of the best devices composers have for creating varying degrees of tension and closure. but within this current framework at least a little jargon might be helpful: Content Content is what we study most often when we first start to look at music. I’ve said that we must be skeptical of the value that semantic labels bring. there are ways of developing a framework that is general enough to help you pay attention to what you hear and the subjective affects it causes. They are achieved musically both melodically (think of the way a line can slow down and descend at the end of a phrase) and harmonically (by resolving a tense chord to a stable one). Take any classical piece and every . to think of harmony as the element of content that is critical for generating the affect of tension. Why Bother? specific work already if you are going to have any chance of developing realistic expectations. drive. continuities. Harmony is generally the combined sound of the notes being played simultaneously. though they vary. Even without specialized labels for various sorts of sounds it is easy to hear how the combined harmonic color can make a music unsettled or calm.00 Classical Music. sentence structure. It might be more useful. tension. and the plot or character elements of a novel. Form and affect are very much influenced by human memory and cultural experience. Cadences (strong to weak) operate much like punctuation in text. they often have the commonalities we have mentioned: contrasts. repetitions. juxtaposition. and so on. without trying to force works into boxes that will impede your ability to discover novel ideas. however. content is what happens at each moment of the piece. but they can profitably be looked at independently. I think.

The building blocks with . form has a richness and complexity that would require an entire volume to even begin discussing in any depth.. and so on. one might wonder what it really is and how it’s generated. satisfaction. boredom. a cadence has occurred.g. surprise. Texture is the specific way the musical elements are structured (e. Form can allow the sum of the moments within a piece to be vastly more meaningful than each moment in isolation could ever be. unison lines) in terms of general configuration. mapping out these highpoints can reveal much about how a piece is structured. We’ve talked about some of the most basic devices: Repetition: exact or varied Development: directed change Expectation: fulfillment or frustration In real pieces. As we’ve mentioned. a melody with accompaniment. Affect Although many kinds of affect are very personal. multiple independent lines. thick chords. The same musical elements arranged in different textures can have greatly different affects. Form Because form is created through content and the affects it produces. even the more ineffable affects contain aspects that can be discussed. we cannot define the whole issue. in some works it is a critical element of the material. By simply following the increases and decreases in energy and tension it is possible to achieve a real sense of the shape of a work. Although. Texture is critical to our perception of any music. as with the sunset. regardless of any specific formal analytical terms. Structural highpoints of a work are critical to determining an overall shape. “Understanding” Music 0 time you hear a break or an ending to a phrase or a section of a phrase. We’ve already defined motive. we may still be able to clarify aspects of these qualia. many others are more objective: a sense of closure.

Why are interior cadences weaker than the final cadence? To keep the piece moving forward with an incomplete sensation then grant closure in the final cadence. these ways that we can engage with what we’re hearing — not with a set of theoretical labels that we have been taught we should find. and the solution to the second is probably forcing yourself to listen more or more closely (see my earlier description of the .g. In order to apply our observations in any of these three categories. contrast and continuity seem like important affects that can be achieved with devices like repetition (exact or varied). need not be much more complicated than the simple examples given above (e. and so on. a fulfilled expectation that comes after a long series of frustrated ones is very different than an immediately fulfilled or frustrated expectation — with each frustrated expectation. I don’t mean to reduce the richness of a real musical experience through the banality of these labels. lyrical. Second. A sense of completeness or incompleteness is pretty close to universal even if some musical styles elect to project a sense of infinity by never achieving that closure. we should combine these semantic notions with our perceived affects through the intensional stance we discussed earlier. juxtaposition. The cure for the first ill is finding a way to free yourself from a single listening style. but the musical functions will not. the weight placed on the next expectation increases). More generally. Certain more concrete structural principles occur again and again. Why Bother? which these complex affects are achieved. the piece may sound like gibberish — it may seem completely random to that listener. however. The specific techniques of weakening those cadences are not so important and will change from one stylistic period to the next. Even certain gross emotional shapes are a part of vastly many pieces: slow and melancholy. like a cat walking on a piano. and so on. “I just don’t get that piece. however. It is important to point out.0 Classical Music. they may have expectations when listening to music that the piece in question does not fulfill. tense and driven. Simple cases are obvious. There are two possible interpretations of the common complaint made by many listeners. fast and joyous.. like alternations of slower and faster music. It is not so much the complexity of individual formal devices as the rich network of relationships between these devices that generates formal complexity.” First.

Music theory may help you understand how music does something. Music. “Understanding” Music 0 “Chinese Food Effect”). not getting it is not about how much music theory you have studied. often. and well there are ways not to like a piece. but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t get breathing. ultimately. is made for what it does in a human mind. involve that sort of semantic knowledge. but understanding the music itself does not. at its most important level. In either case. You might not get how the lungs oxygenate the blood. When you have listened thoroughly. not on a piece of paper or in a scholarly article. . though. but no way not to “get” it.

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contrary to the point of view of those who take indolent pride in the attainments of others and hold our system to be the ultimate. sound not theatre. the searching spirit will not stop pursuing these problems until it has solved them. geology. as long as we have not solved the problems that are contained in tones. I think. astrology or acupuncture. But more certainly. who will not tire before we have found out — we shall have no rest. quantum physics. We may indeed always be barred from actual attainment of this goal. we shall have no rest before we do. the restless. for we are the searchers.8 Designing Music for Human Beings We are musicians and our model is sound not literature. then. again and again. the definitive 0 . sound not mathematics. — Gérard Grisey We ought not to forget that we still must account for the tones actually sounding. solved them in a way that comes as close as anyone can to actual solution. and shall have no rest from them nor from ourselves — especially from ourselves. visual arts.

It is. of course. Why Bother? musical system — contrary to that point of view. from the audience’s perspective to the composer’s. and techniques to serve as a case study of a possible application in artistic works of the ideas I have been discussing theoretically. Yet if I am to have any chance at convincing you to support the kind of art we have been discussing. that will have to do. then Fauvist. it is essential that you get a feel for how this art might continue to develop without simply transforming into something entirely abstract and unperceivable.0 Classical Music. This is the “how” question of the dialogue I imagined in the prelude: How can a modern composer hope to make a meaningful addition to an impossibly exalted corpus? Up until this point I’ve tried to argue in a somewhat general and abstract way about art and music. however. to illustrate how artists explore the sort of aesthetic design space that I discussed earlier. Some parts of this chapter may be a bit difficult for those with little or no experience in this domain. equally possible to construct concert programs around the gradual evolution of some aspect of musical practice. placing Impressionist. This viewpoint is perhaps more familiar in the world of visual arts. then abstract landscapes in a way that highlights a deepening preoccupation with light and color at the expense of “realistic” depiction). and some readers may want to skim the parts that are . The focus in this chapter will shift somewhat. where curators have long oriented their expositions around design space explorations whether tacitly or explicitly (e. personal views about how I and a particular group of composers attempt to write music that corresponds to the limits on musical languages and musical meaning discussed in the last two chapters. and because I only have access to my own head. I think we stand only at the beginning. I need to give you a very small peek inside the workings of a living composer’s mind. We must go ahead! — Arnold Schoenberg In this chapter.g. placing late Medieval and early Renaissance works in a way that highlights the emergence of perspective in the representations. this is much less frequently done. compositions. but this chapter will deal more specifically with contemporary composers. I will offer my more specific.. therefore discussing music in this way may seem less familiar.

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too difficult to follow. I would, however, recommend to everyone that they try to listen to some of the works and composers I discuss in this chapter, in concert or at least on recordings.

Let’s ask it again: How can a composer hope to make a meaningful addition to an impossibly exalted corpus? The first step in finding a solution is to acknowledge that there is a fundamental dilemma at the center of new art music: Even if you believe that basic cognitive principles allow novel musical languages to be created, when is a listener supposed to learn these new languages? Even the most adventurous or committed among us will have relatively few occasions to hear new composers’ works. The pieces we do hear will often not be available in recorded format and will not be played again anywhere near us for years to come. This indisputable reality makes many wonder whether it is necessary to deviate so greatly from our existing musical models, because many listeners have already learned those languages. I suspect that some of these doubters are unsure of even the theoretical possibility of creating something meaningful that is not essentially similar — in not just deep ways, but also more evident ways — to our tonal models (most music critics fall into this category).

I have suggested in earlier chapters that I think this is possible: A composer can use the first principles deciphered through studying the music and sound humans generate and process to create something very different from what we have known before, but possessing equal potential as a musical language. The bulk of this book has been my attempt to answer why, if possible, this might be worthwhile, or even important. Now what remains to be attempted is offering an answer to how a composer might try to do this. In the final analysis, general theoretical observations will not be worth much unless artists are able to figure out a concrete way of using them to make real works of art. We must discuss the hard, specific and personal “Here’s how I …” at this point and not the general “How might one… ?” Although I could try to analyze certain works I find successful (and will do so to a small degree), I fear that would be too specific. So, instead, I would like to try putting forward the way that I, and some of the contemporary composers I most admire, attempt to answer this question when we sit down to work each day. Because I have been part

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Classical Music, Why Bother?

of a small movement, I will try to focus on the movement as a whole so that I do not descend too far into personal specificity and self-justification. For the purpose of our discussion, the utility of the compositional approach I will present does not depend on whether I’m right; what really counts is the quality of music these attitudes allow me, or others, to produce. And in the context of this book, what is really important is to show one possible framework for responses to the dilemmas facing the creation of the sort of new, difficult art (the reception of which) we have been discussing up to this point: one possible “how.” Although you may reject my conclusions, I think that looking at one way a group of composers might try to solve these problems in artistic works can perhaps convert a somewhat bleak assessment of the current situation for art into the groundwork for attempts to go ahead. At the very least, it ought to show that the very difficult set of constraints that face a composer today are not completely irreconcilable.

I need to offer one major caveat before we begin in earnest. When I move away from my work table and start to look at music as an observer, it seems obvious that a whole range of solutions to the problems inherent in composing a piece are possible. This is the detached reasoning of an outside observer, however. When I’m in the heat of the moment making the actual decisions that let me create a piece of music, I am incapable of taking this broad perspective. Intellectually, I may be sure that there are many potentially successful responses to a given set of compositional problems, and that my own is just one possibility; however, on a gut level, I can’t really believe in those other solutions (at least not while I’m still writing the piece). To create effectively, I think you need to be certain, not just pretty sure. Artists may be wracked with doubt about whether they have achieved their aims, but I don’t believe they can be effective if they doubt those aims. All this is my way of saying that you will get the sense in this chapter that I’m awfully sure I’m right and everyone else is wrong, because this is the way I need to think when writing my music. I want you to get a glimpse of the way a set of composers see the world and how that shapes their work. In a certain sense I could probably have chosen a different set of composers with a somewhat different outlook to demonstrate something very similar, but it would be a view from outside.

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Therefore I decided to risk the danger of this seeming too much like self-justification in order to offer a more direct and personal view of how at least a few composers try to make their music. So, we return to our question once again: How can someone set off, without a map, on a quest for the compositional “grail” of really new music that possesses the same potential for aesthetic richness as the greatest tonal music? Every day when I sit down to compose I think about this question, and every day I have to feel sure that I have found some kind of answer in order to continue. You might think of the way I, and several others, try to create musical structures that are both novel and “comprehensible” to human listeners as the “spectral approach.” This approach is built around the idea that writing music is not just pushing around tunes, intervals, numbers, or harmonies; it is designing evolutions of sound in time to be processed by human beings listening attentively. The Spectral Approach The spectral approach looks beyond the specifics of tonal music for the more general rules that allowed tonality to function so well. The idea behind this approach can perhaps be most clearly explained through an analogy: Engineers who have built fantastically complex devices through successive refinements of existing apparatuses sometimes hit a roadblock. In this case, the scientific method tells them to go back to the basic theories that allowed the initial device to function and reconsider them. It is often the case that a new consideration of these same “first principles” can lead to a very different perspective. Continued progress may depend upon the use of an entirely different apparatus to accomplish the same underlying function. This was the approach adopted by the spectralists starting in the early 1970s with the French composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Spectral composers felt that much new music was not producing satisfactory results: The theoretical constructions that were being discussed at great length by the composers of the time did not seem to correspond to anything audible in the actual works. In their reflections about a basis for musical construction that would function, be audible, and not return to tonality, they saw only one realm in which to explore: sound. Even the earliest Western treatises about music have used sound

etc. Nonetheless. For example. some of the classic pieces from the Darmstadt era of serialism in the 1950s and 1960s — such as Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso or Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maitre — whose effectiveness derives from a sense of orchestration. just as surely. While many aspects of most musical traditions are learned (through context and exposure). Why Bother? as the underpinning for their theoretical constructions — long before any deep understanding of acoustical or psychoacoustical principles existed. Theorists have always regarded musical hearing as a secondary. were (the opposition of consonance and dissonance. we can only learn to hear things that do not too directly contradict our natural intuitions. and contrast. Twentieth-century composers who speculated that consonance and dissonance were purely cultural. not through a study of the voluminous analyses of permutations and calculations that went into their . composers who wish to command the stars must be careful only to order the sun to rise in the morning and set at night. motion. compositionally controlled auditory impressions in the listener’s subjective awareness). Clearly. Spectral composers have sought to create a music that was built to function (by function. and that one could create a music where the fifths were dissonant and the minor seconds consonant. This is not to suggest that hearing can dictate a musical style. because we are severely lacking in the means to alter that arrangement significantly. but rather that a study of sound and hearing can elucidate the borders within which a valid (from the perceptual point of view) style might be created (the contours of some region in the design space we discussed earlier). were simply wrong. the hierarchy of tension between intervallic relations played by instruments with complex timbres. nonindependent effect of our general capacity for hearing.1 Like the king in The Little Prince. but they were developed from models that. I mean to create specific. the extended relations of tonality were not “natural” in any meaningful sense. This recognizes the indisputable reality that human hearing is not primarily for music and therefore music must be designed for hearing.).0 Classical Music. instead of a music that functions in spite of how it was built. phenomena affecting our general hearing (such as the combination of multiple partials into a unified sense of pitch) have clear implications both for musical and for environmental sounds.

electronic and computer music. Thus. its broad outlines are largely undisputed. formulating a clear definition of a broad musical category like spectral music is nearly impossible. for the present discussion what really matters is the general outline. but can offer background and perspective for further study and listening. or whatever else the music produces.2 These examples will be very broad in nature and are really intended for those readers who have little or no experience with this music. many of its specific details are controversial and many of those to whom this label would be appropriate do not like being classified. and formal models (while useful) does not clearly define Mozart’s style. just as a study of overtones. Designing Music for Human Beings  composition. However. we must address the question I’m sure you are all ready to ask: What is spectral music? What Is Spectral Music? As I’ve said. As with any definition. the spectralists turned to the developing fields of acoustics. . Only through extended familiarity not just with a type of music. The pieces work in spite of this intellectual baggage not because of it. and cognitive sciences to find directly things that could be heard and impressions that could be created. but merely where to look. The real ideas of the music are musical in nature and no amount of conceptual description should be accepted as a substitute for “the tones actually sounding. surprise. I cannot really “explain” spectral music. but also with its milieu. can one hope to develop meaningful categories that are more than mere simplified labels. This information did not tell them how to compose. temperaments. I will try to describe a mixture of historical and musical developments that together have helped define the spectral school. All the examples are drawn from works that are available on commercial CDs. Therefore. I will try in this chapter to give a general guide and orientation to spectral music. however. psychoacoustics. and hopefully some of them will incite you to hear the pieces themselves. tension. While my definition of spectral music is a personal one. beauty. Ultimately the real “meaning” of the music lies in the feeling of rightness. I’ll also include a few very targeted “analytical” examples interspersed within the discussion.” Nonetheless. In any case. Real musical understanding is sensory.

all of these composers share a central belief that music is ultimately sound evolving in time. They are simply the means of achieving a sonic end and not a discourse with intellectual pretensions in its own right. rather than a set of techniques. provides powerful new compositional tools. The musical approach is profoundly different from both structuralist (postserial) approaches and hybrid (neo-Romantic or postmodern) aesthetics. Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey. Why Bother? The term spectral music was coined by Hugues Dufourt. and what. Spectral music developed as a school of composition in the early seventies inspired by the works of two composers. how it may be controlled. Classical Music.3 but the most pertinent remark for understanding its meaning was made by Tristan Murail during his lectures at the 1980 Darmstadt summer course. the pieces remain intimately linked to the interpretive tradition of Western instrumental music. Musical works may be conceived much more closely to the manner in which they will ultimately be perceived than would otherwise be possible. That knowledge. as a special case of the general phenomenon of sound. However. While that remark was made without elaboration. ultimately. when applied musically. and evolutions. Thus. While tape pieces have been written by some spectral composers. spectral composers can have vastly different styles and some even prefer to reject the label. Sounds and musical colors (timbres) can be sculpted in time to produce musical effects. Spectral music addresses broad aesthetic consequences instead of specific stylistic ones. Its composers now cover three compositional generations and a large variety of styles. textures. He referred to spectral composition as an attitude toward music and composition. The panoply of methods and techniques needed to create these effects and to manipulate sound in this way is secondary. their goal is not electro-acoustic music. however. it offers a useful starting point for our investigation of what spectral music is. . They write for all types of instrumental groupings and often take advantage of new technological possibilities for enriching their musical palettes. They can refine their understanding of what sound is. Viewing music in this way. a listener will be able to perceive. but rather a new type of instrumental music with different sounds. facilitates these composers’ use of the available knowledge in the fields of acoustics and psychoacoustics within their music.

rhythms. In Monet’s series of paintings of the Rouen cathedral at different times of day. etc. in fact. but I don’t think he was just a hypocrite. Yet in any of these cases the piece at its most essential level is something other than sounds heard in time by human listeners. The prevailing schools of composition either regarded music as the structured combination of musical symbols (notes. In more recent years. Designing Music for Human Beings  Combining and manipulating spectral materials in the same abstract ways in which intervallic materials are treated (without taking into account the precise nature of these materials and a listener’s perceptual capacities) does not yield music that I would classify as spectral. chosen points of departure or made use of materials that are not directly related to sonic phenomena. new trends have also emerged that refer back to a more romantic notion that regards music as being essentially a vehicle for emotional content — usually produced through references (literal or evocative) to past works already possessing cultural associations. geology. with an emphasis on the interest or complexity of these structures. This is what Grisey really meant when he wrote that our model is sound. Spectral composers have often. shadow. The manner in which a spectral composer treats and develops his or her material. or as a vehicle for conceptual ideas (in parallel with the conceptual movements in visual arts we discussed earlier). dynamics. This may seem like an obvious idea to anyone who was not a composer in the twentieth century. This is what Grisey means: The real content of music is not mathematics. it is clear that the proximate subject (the cathedral) is just a vehicle for communicating the real content: light. astrology or acupuncture”. constantly takes into consideration the sonic entity that is being generated. this was a major breakthrough. quantum physics. yet Monet did not simply paint luminous washes of color. or even aesthetic philosophy. Any other ideas . and color. however. but sound.). Grisey wrote one piece inspired by the painter Piero della Francesca and another inspired by a pulsar. Sound is the model for spectral composers in the same way that light is the model for Impressionist painters. quantum physics. It is not that a composer cannot take inspiration from “visual arts. and this is the fundamental belief of spectral composers. but to those of us who were. in fact. the way sound changes in time and the affects it produces in the human mind.

each and every instrumental note. in fact. in fact. we must instead return to Murail’s observation that. In fact. Classical Music. Why Bother? (brilliant or insipid) will be useful or not only in how they affect those sounds and the mental representations they create in listeners. The score is not the actual musical work. they have no independent justification. is simply a question of attitude. writing this sort of music is often very technically demanding. the actual piece of music is what the sonic realization becomes in the mind of a human listener. This is why so many synthetic sounds have an “artificial” sheen . Spectral composers do not believe. You may not think of an individual instrumental note as a particularly complex or rich model for music. and any notational or other innovations that may be present in spectral scores are attempts to express the composer’s intent more clearly with regard to final realizations. at its core. however. In whatever manner it was made. nor the procedural means of notating the score are central or indispensable to spectral composition (these aspects are in fact in constant mutation). spectral music is neither about techniques nor styles but. it might seem like some tiny indifferent musical atom.” A great advantage of viewing the problems of musical organization from the perspective of the broader category of sonic organization is that very successful models already exist. Thus. However. contains a very complex interior structure that constantly changes in time — as complex in its own way as a piece of composed music. A score created by a composer with this spectral attitude serves simply as a means of communicating the composer’s sonic intentions to the musicians. the work must ultimately succeed “independently. Some of the best sets of models for sound organization are the instruments that have evolved over time into sound generators that composers want to use and listeners want to hear. it is not surprising that some of the first important spectral pieces made use of instrumental models in creating their orchestral sonorities. Because neither the technical manipulations used to generate and manipulate the musical material. and a lack of technique may well cause the piece to fail. that the success or interest of the piece on technical terms is a justification or validation of the musical work. This doesn’t mean that a spectral composer does not need to have technique.

he used a close-up view of this structure as the model for much larger orchestral structures. The painter Chuck Close has made a career of painting realistic representative paintings where the picture is pixilated into individually visible shapes and colors. With the advent of electronic devices that decompose sounds into their constituent elements.4 For acoustic instruments. The total is definitely something more or at least different from a photographic reproduction. reedy. bright. we perceive its pitch. and so on. We perceive the sound globally as brassy. This may sound a bit puzzling. In Gérard Grisey’s first pieces.”5 His idea was not to recreate the original sound (which he could have just played. sometimes even complete sections. The difference between Close’s . builders have sought to use the physical properties of vibrating materials to create sounds that are at once extremely appealing in their richness and sufficiently coherent in their structure to be usable as elements within larger structures like chords (multiple notes played simultaneously by one or more instruments). Of course. Designing Music for Human Beings  to them — they lack this interior mobility and are thus perceived as too simple or static by our ears. but there is a very good parallel in the visual arts. Each spot in the picture has a definite size and shape while still giving its overall color and shading characteristics to the larger image. but to make something new that preserves the overall coherence that comes from being part of a unified acoustical structure at a larger level. we could begin to see the workings of these structures. Grisey liked to describe the process as “putting a microscope on the sound. which becomes clear once you step back from the canvas to view it. after all). but we are not consciously aware of the details of that structure and the way they influence our global perceptions (any more than we perceive the atomic motion that gives rise to temperature in the air around us). its loudness. This internal organization offered a new model for how a large number of elements might evolve together in ways that offer both juxtaposition and collaboration within a larger structure. It is extraordinarily difficult to generate an artificial sound with the richness of internal structure that most natural sounds already possess. to listeners much of this richness exists at a level too microscopic to hear. however. We would certainly notice the lack of complex internal structure. or somber.

The first step is the generation of a sonogram showing the attack of the low E on a trombone played forte. Partiels (1975). because it is fairly simple and it should be easy to follow the shapes. The analysis of this attack became the model for the opening gesture of the piece (this gesture is then repeated with increasing degrees of alteration throughout the first section of the piece). this is an example of convergent musical evolution. I’m going to include some music notation in this example. For the later examples. we can very easily approximate the steps Grisey took with current tools. is called “orchestral synthesis. This is because the sound is “harmonic” like most pitched sounds (the partials are located at integer multiples of the fundamental frequency that determines the pitch of the sound). of course. it has to preserve just enough of the structure of the model to maintain its dual nature: as a fused global sound and as the sum of multiple individual sounds. for eighteenth instruments. Notice that the sound is made of component bands (called partials) that are equidistant on the frequency axis. transforming its micro-fluctuations into macro-forms.” Let’s look briefly at an example of this orchestral synthesis from one of Grisey’s pieces. Personal computers were. The musically inclined may notice that this model is used in a parallel manner to the use of tonal harmony within lateBaroque counterpoint. we can use the darkness of each band to see that the partials enter one after the other with lower partials generally entering earlier and . If we look at the way the loudness of the partials changes in time. so he used an electronic sonogram device to analyze the attack of a low E2 (an octave and a sixth below middle-C) played loudly on the trombone. Partiels is one of the best-known and earliest examples of a composer using an instrumental analysis to create a harmonic and gestural model that is then realized by an instrumental ensemble. While the specific analyses and devices he used are no longer available. not an option for Grisey at the time that he wrote the piece. even for those who do not read music. Classical Music. This musical technique of using the interior structure of a sound as a model for a rich new orchestral object. I’ll try to do as much as possible with descriptions. Why Bother? paintings and these first works of Grisey is that the end result in the musical use need not remain photorealistic to even a moderate degree.

Designing Music for Human Beings  Figure 8. frequency. . brassy quality to the trombone sound.1 A sonogram showing the low E on a trombone played forte. we can generate a Figure 8.2 A musical model that corresponds to the partials of the harmonic series (approximated to the nearest quarter-tone). higher partials appearing later. We should also notice that the lowest partials — including the fundamental — are not the darkest (loudest) ones. The numbers above the top staff represent the partial rankings within the harmonic series. we will have to translate it from the domains of time. Finally. These loud dissonant partials give the aggressive. we can observe that the partials above this louder region gradually trail off in amplitude. The x-axis shows the time. and the darkness shows amplitude. and amplitude to more musical dimensions like pitch dynamic and rhythm. This will often require approximations to the nearest available values that we call “quantification. the fifth and ninth partials are louder. the y-axis shows frequency in Hz. If we want to use this information in an instrumental score.” By quantifying this sonogram. This is especially interesting because both of these partials form dissonant high-tension intervals with the fundamental.

can then be used to produce the instrumental score. while preserving a distinct trombone-color in its overall presentation. the idea is not to offer a realistic simulation. This particular musical moment. This allows the sound of the sustained trombone to gradually emerge. It also creates an orchestral entrance that sounds neither like a chord nor like a single sound. This series. it sounds like something entirely new. Another defining piece of the spectral movement is Tristan Murail’s Gondwana. The listener can still sense the underlying trombone color of the sound. The idea is to go inside of . but that manages to simultaneously possess many elements of both. Murail could have just included bells with his orchestra. While it is generally not very helpful to write a textual commentary on the effect of a musical passage. When this is transcribed into musical notation of pitches (approximated to the nearest quarter-tone) and dynamics. the series in figure 8. Many of the second. was to have an enormous impact. with the double bass repeating the attacking gesture with less and less determination. This instrumental timbre does not seek to present an indistinguishable copy of the original. but rather to generate an amplification and transfiguration of the trombone note. while at the same time a doorway is opened up to a vast new domain of sound found within the original sound. Just as this happens. Classical Music. Deploying these notes in a vastly stretched out imitation of a trombone does not really sound like a trombone.6 In the following excerpt from the final score. orchestrally synthesized bell sounds that are gradually transformed into an orchestrally synthesized brass sound. At the very start of the piece one hears the trombone attack forte. coupled with a rhythmic modeling of the successive entrance of the partials. Why Bother? musical model that corresponds to the partials of the harmonic series. Again. I think it is important to note how striking this moment is. after all. especially at the time it happened. The brief opening section of this piece for large orchestra is a series of enormous.2 is produced. the sustained note that has been performing a decrescendo begins to give way — through a cross-fade — to an instrumentally synthesized imitation of itself.and third-generation spectral composers have cited their first hearing of Partiels as having caused their initial interest in the musical potential of sonic phenomena. Grisey wrote the partial ranking next to each note.

(This is like the vibrato of a string instrument. Moreover. © 1976 by CASA RICORDI — BMG RICORDI SpA. So Murail turned to the developing world of electronic synthesis. Used with permission. but instead of vibrating seven or eight times a second the vibrato might cycle hundreds of times per . a bell sound and render audible the normally microscopic structures that make it beautiful. it is possible to gradually manipulate these structures and make musical objects less and less bell-like in gradual increments (doing this with real bells would at least require a foundry). by recreating a hybrid with bell-like properties. had published the description of a versatile and simple technique for sound synthesis based on frequency modulation. John Chowning. A few years earlier a researcher and composer at Stanford. One way to create this effect would have been to analyze acoustic bells and then analyze a brass instrument.3 Excerpt from the opening of Grisey’s Partiels with the composer’s annotations of the partial ranking of each note. but by looking at distinct objects like that it is quite difficult to create a convincing intermediate space between the bell and brass sounds. Designing Music for Human Beings  Figure 8.

this technique offered a single method.) This technique became the basis of the Yamaha DX-7. Murail used a simplified form of this FM-synthesis model (one that did not take the relative loudness of the partials into account) and constructed a bell sound and a brass sound using the same carrier frequency but different modulators. which when used as a model could generate both convincing bells and brass spectra. These sort of literal models never represented the totality of a piece or even a section of a piece. Unlike brass instruments.4.4 The overall shape of the orchestral gesture as it transforms from a bell-like sound to a brasslike sound in the opening section of Tristan Murail’s Gondwana. however. I hope to give a clear handle on some of the basic ways spectral composers have tried to integrate sonic models into musical processes. one of the first really successful digital synthesizers. Murail wants to move from a bell-like orchestral sound toward a brasslike one. I have given quite simplistic descriptions of the Grisey and Murail passages. In the opening passage of Gondwana.” What then happens is the gradual disappearance of the partials moving from high to low. In all this series of five carriers affected by a single modulator produces five different modulation-based harmonies that are played by the orchestra. bell sounds have a very sharp attack. In fact. By focusing on one very prominent aspect. He then chose three other modulators that produced sonorities with intermediate sonic properties. Why Bother? second. so the overall shape of the orchestral gesture is gradually transformed as can be seen in figure 8. meaning that all the partials sound immediately. but they were very important to the early spectral works and can still be found Figure 8. these chords are completed by other chords that were generated by calculating intermediate steps (interpolations) between some of these FM chords. 7 There is more to a bell sound than a set of pitches. . In the piece. however. the music in question is in fact much more complex. these partials are completed by a brief spurt of noise called the “attack transient. For Murail. There is also the way those pitches function in time. however. until only the fundamental of the bell (called the “drone”) remains.0 Classical Music.

a more complex and sometimes less direct sort of model is now more common. The sustaining instruments of the ensemble can draw out the notes attacked by the harps. The sonic/instrumental analogy at the heart of the piece is drawn from the piano. In this piece. I’d like to illustrate this more complex use of models with one of my own pieces. Other types of models appear in the piece that are more specific. closer to the Grisey and Murail examples that we’ve already discussed. This technical or logistical analogy is inspired by a more poetic analogy: the raking of the sand in Zen gardens. the two harps create a sort of microtonal super harp that can play parts one harp is not capable of performing. This work is scored for two harps tuned a quarter-tone apart and an ensemble of six instruments. «Receuil de pierres et de sable…». but they can also change and color them. the nondirect nature of the analogy opens up many possibilities. However. because I’m only using the piano’s hammers and soundboard metaphorically. Together. This is a malleable sort of resonant body. Of course. all the way to fully concrete. At three pivotal points. becomes less important and interesting than the design that has been created. however. or playing of new attacks. I had many different categories of models ranging from the purely poetical. through statistical behaviors. The other six instruments create something like a sounding board for the two harps. The piece also uses what I would describe as behavioral models in the central solo for . Examples of this more subtle type of model can be found in any of Grisey’s or Murail’s pieces after the mid-seventies. I was drawn to the idea of the successive passages of the rakes being like successive percussive attacks that leave an ever-richer pattern on the sand or in the ensemble. The specificity of these three moments could be thought of as somewhat akin to the boulders encrusted in the sand/ocean of a Zen garden. the ensemble recreates through orchestral synthesis the sound of a Japanese mouth organ called a sho. Sounds produced by the piano have two distinct characteristics: the percussive attack produced by the hammers and the long sustain produced by the cast-iron sounding board and facilitated by a sustain pedal that allows the dampers to be lifted and the strings left free to vibrate. All of this leads to the point where the raking. Designing Music for Human Beings  in new pieces.

yielding certain intervals in its spectrum and producing certain melodic configurations when a flutist changes pitch by increasing the force and speed of his or her breath. counterexamples could certainly be found. I analyzed a Japanese flute called a Ryuteki. they would remain an incomplete way of understanding the attitude. I mimicked this behavior with two Western flutes. but it has a small lead tube with a different diameter between its head joint and its body. Classical Music. or even that this music simply sounds profoundly different from other musics. even if I were to give many more examples and spend much more time describing them. Though many of the gestures and sounds these two flutes communally produce come straight from Ryuteki analyses. Why Bother? two flutes (accompanied by the harps). not . with its more limited key system. The way this doubleness occurs is very specific. could never go. I could take this “instrument” into speeds. in each case I have dealt with only one or two aspects of a much richer musical situation. and harmonic areas a real Ryuteki. Anecdotes aside. While examples could be found to support all of these attributes. so that individual voices are subsumed in the richness of the overall texture and color. this flute has a very strange doubleness to its sound because the oscillating air (called “standing waves”) in the two tubes with different diameters and lengths interfere and interact with each other. registers. or that orchestral fusion is often a main feature of its surface texture. I might assert that the music has made color into a central element of the musical discourse. The story is that a flutist broke his flute on the way to the concert and had to repair the flute quickly. Moreover. or that the basic sonic image is often sonorous and resonant. For this solo. producing this instrument. often elevating it to the level of the principal narrative thread. giving the music a sort of acoustic glow that comes from the coherence — in the domain of frequencies — of the different constituent pitches. Any summary affirmations that I might make about a spectral style are all both true and false. Spectral composers have produced music that is too diverse for any kind of blanket assertion to be true. One has to take these very limited examples with a grain of salt. This flute is basically a tube (like all flutes) made of smoked bamboo. The only true constant for composers like me is that we consider music ultimately to be sound. In the central solo for the two flutes.

And while this revolutionary stance does reflect the reality of the movement’s emergence as a counterweight to the postserialists surrounding Pierre Boulez. Per Nørgård’s Voyage into the Golden Screen (1968) is another example of what might be called a protospectral work. but don’t worry if these references don’t mean much to you. a vocal piece by Stockhausen built around singing different vowels in a fixed harmonic spectrum. not to mention some of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s works. were very influential on Grisey. György Ligeti. One can certainly cite Edgard Varèse’s sensitivity to sound or even the Italian futurists’ obsessions with making a new sonic vocabulary for music. and Giacinto Scelsi. but quite wonderful. If we can only go so far in a book like this with technical/musical examples.9 Or. Gruppen. perhaps we ought to enrich the ideas with a little more general and historical context.10 In a certain sense. in a general way. and see composition as the sculpting in time8 of those sounds that a listener will hear. one might point to André Jolivet’s experiments with harmonic spectra (inspired by an attempt to imitate the mixture stops on an organ). Designing Music for Human Beings  symbols or concepts. Where Did Spectral Music Come From? Spectral music has always cast itself in the role of a revolutionary movement. Although all these influences on the development of the spectral movement were important. albeit less so on Murail. These three figures played pivotal and very different roles in Grisey . my focus will be on the three figures who had the most direct impact on the origins of spectral music: Olivier Messiaen. more specifically. is a spectral piece already. it does not mean that the movement was purely reactive. And Stockhausen’s experiments both there and in his large piece for multiple ensembles. Stimmung. or the early microtonal experiments of Ivan Wïshnegradsky or Julián Carrillo. The point is that many of these ideas were in the air in the 1960s and I wanted to list some names and works for those who might want to listen to some very strange. Spectral music does have its compositional forebears. however. musical experiments. fighting against the academicism (in the French sense)8 and dogma they perceived in the French New Music scene of the seventies.

. This aspect of spectral music is often attributed to the traditional French preoccupation with color (think of Fauré or Ravel). (L’Intinéraire in its original incarnation was. even in France. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of these composers — I’ll try to briefly explain the aspects of their musical thinking that were important to the Spectralists.) These composers (Michaël Levinas. and Messiaen was not one to suggest returning to the past). Classical Music. Le Maître des Maîtres Olivier Messiaen was the composer who assisted most directly in the birth of the spectral movement. a composers’ collective and performing ensemble that tried to elevate sound and timbre from a decorative role to the center of musical discourse. While his music was probably less influential for spectral composers than that of Ligeti or Scelsi. In the late sixties most European composers. but I think that it goes deeper. was also talking to them about the “vraie harmonie” of a piece. Messiaen influenced all of these composers. Roger Tessier. etc.11 Yet Messiaen. it was Messiaen who was the professor of both Grisey and Murail. as opposed to the emphasis on melodies and the linear (lines) dimensions of music. Messiaen’s most direct influence was the weight that spectralists place on the harmonic dimension of musical composition. which had become preeminent in the mid-twentieth century. but a whole group of French composers who formed the group L’Itinéraire with Murail.) shared many of the attitudes that would come to be associated with spectral music. It is difficult to imagine their music of the early seventies — the pieces that have become the defining classics of early spectral music — without the profound influence exerted by all three figures on the young and still searching Grisey and Murail of the late sixties. while encouraging his students to adopt this postserial approach (at the time he saw no other “progressive” option. Hugues Dufourt. and through them the spectral movement in several different but very important ways. which sought mightily to limit the importance of the vertical dimension of composition (harmony) at all costs. were still under the thrall of Darmstadtian postserialism. This influence affected not just Grisey and Murail. Why Bother? and Murail’s compositional and aesthetic development.

He was ingraining in them the deep sense of integrity to a personal vision that is required to create original art. etc. Messiaen’s highly personal overview of musical ideas. Höömi singing. not structural. The use of a wide range of primary sources for sonic inspiration (i. but he was helping them to look into themselves to find what was really authentic. bell sounds.” This idea. in nature. struck a real chord with the spectralists. Murail has said that in many ways he was not really teaching his students composition. Perhaps the greatest influence that Messiaen exerted on Murail and Grisey was in his role as mentor. he was there at the perfect moment to say. External Appearances The works of György Ligeti from the 1960s played a pivotal role in many spectral composers’ efforts to find a means of realizing their vision of a music that sounded and worked differently.) and his unconventional analytical methods have been widely documented. for Grisey. which might seem naive to many composers.”13 This may seem a bit mystical or over the top.. Gregorian neumes. but I don’t think the effect of this on the early spectral composers has been sufficiently emphasized. etc. well-known and obscure pieces from the repertoire. and others. “the way you’ve found. Working with the . “I verify the truth of this idea in my work each day.) remains an important aspect of much spectral music.”12 Messiaen’s use of all different sorts of music in his teaching (Greek and Hindu metric systems. and that some note choices were not just more interesting or complex than others. as do all composers who attempt to write a music based on sound. Ligeti spent a few years in the electronic music studio of the German radio. The common links they discovered were sonic. naturalistic reproductions of birdsong. Designing Music for Human Beings  The idea was that really successful music needed to be more than logically coherent. During this time he partially realized three tape pieces. gagaku. that is your path. As Tristan Murail has said. And more than this. but this was exactly the sort of encouragement that allowed composers in their early twenties to feel confident enough to forge a path far outside of the mainstream. speech. became an impetus to look for the common links between vastly different manifestations of musical phenomena. Murail.e. they were more “right. In the late ’50s.

and so on. He started to think of musical situations and objects as global colors and textures and of counterpoint as the superposition of these layers. Studio techniques are not just questions of the sounds made. He decided that he possessed a greater mastery of the sonic tools offered by traditional instruments and that even his “electronic” ideas might be better realized through these means (in large part because of the greater richness of internal structure I discussed earlier). they suggested a range of novel musical processes. The basic sound of these works. from slow cross-fades or fade-outs to infinitely long loops of sound to sudden cuts that let sounds appear or disappear instantly. Because these techniques used an electronic and not a physical support. He saw new formal possibilities emerge from the techniques of splicing and cross-fades. he realized that this new approach to sound — which could not have been achieved without his exposure to studio techniques — need not apply only to the electronic medium. I spoke above about how much richer and more complex acoustic sounds are when compared to artificial sounds. he came to think about music in a very different way. And most important. Ligeti never returned to the electronic medium. The sketches he had made for his second and third electronic pieces were thus transformed into the sketches for his first micropolyphonic orchestral works (Apparitions 1958–59 and Atmosphères 1961). the entire orchestra becomes a wailing or shining mass that can change its color or density suddenly and produce truly dramatic effects. This may seem like a contradiction: Earlier. in a distorted form. or clarinet as a tremendously sophisticated sound generator and saw no reason not to use them in the same ways he . Classical Music. Ligeti saw a violin. because it is so charged with tension. Bowdlerized versions of this music have shown up ever since in horror films. The resulting works remain some of the most sonically striking works that exist. A host of techniques were developed to manipulate sounds in time. however. which are easy to do with a volume knob or a pair of scissors but much less so with breath or bows. flute. should be familiar from Stanley Kubrick’s use of tiny out-of-context excerpts from Ligeti’s music in his films (most notably in The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey). albeit in a primitive form. Why Bother? electronic medium.

would have been impossible to create had he not passed through an electronic phase. concepts. it would be easy to imagine him having become a spectral composer. This technique became central to spectral music as did Ligeti’s juxtapositions of extreme dissonances and shockingly open consonances as a means of producing contrast. and the slow. Were it not for the severe limitations that Ligeti’s dependence on “cluster”-based harmonies (harmonies built out of adjacent semitones) created and the limited scope of the formal processes he employed.14 However. Ligeti seemed keenly aware of these limitations. Ligeti had arrived at a music that. His techniques for achieving orchestral fusion used perceptual saturation. This crosspollination of ideas let him create instrumental passages that would have been nearly impossible to conceive without the metaphor of electronic music processes. which is so important to large-scale musical form. almost eventfree unfolding as the early spectral pieces. His language did not allow for much fertile terrain between these poles. Designing Music for Human Beings  had tried to use the very rudimentary radio oscillators and other soundgenerators of the electronic music world of the 1950s. Moreover. his treatment of individual instruments as tone generators within a larger whole (not as real melodic lines) has also all been very influential for spectral composers. Therefore one can properly speak of Ligeti as a “postelectronic” composer. his formal analogies with tape-splicing and panel sections also kept him from having much room for a sense of directionality in the musical discourse. This idea of a postelectronic music that uses instrumental synthesis to simulate electronic sounds with orchestral instruments is clearly central to spectral music. the unusual colors. any nonelectronic music whose composition depends on ideas. Ligeti’s influence. and I . The sheer mass of sound (with its vast number of independently moving lines) forces listeners into a global sort of hearing rather than attempting to follow individual lines. or techniques borrowed from the electronic domain can be thought of in this way. however. pieces like Atmosphères and Lontano are almost trying to be spectral: They present the same high degree of instrumental fusion. Ligeti’s harmonic language forced him into constantly choosing between extremes of hyperdissonance or hyperconsonance. while no longer directly electronic. In many ways. Moreover. More broadly. goes beyond these conceptual realms.

more powerful harmonic language and more gripping. his interest for spectral composers had long been lapsed. he had already composed approximately thirty pieces). Ligeti decided to move on. which led to years of hospitalization (at this time. This was said to have brought him back to the purely sensual relationship with sound he had enjoyed as a child. He studied with Egon Koehler. the micropolyphonic thickening of textures. He began by focusing more intensely on motivic gestures (in pieces like San Francisco Polyphony) and a few years later had moved so far as to write the unabashedly referential horn trio (Homage à Brahms). Penetrating to the Interior While many of the surface features of spectral music come from Ligeti (the fused mass movements of sound. a protégé of Scriabin. Scelsi then suffered a breakdown. both Grisey and Murail came to know the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. This approach seemed to liberate him. surely apocryphal but with a grain of truth. the global formal movements. and was drawn to Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The story. Ligeti worked with a very constrained harmonic toolkit. who were looking for a way to give harmony back the essential and structural (read: directional) role it had enjoyed in the past. Why Bother? suspect they are the reason that his works from this period are mostly quite short.). . this was insufficient for the young Grisey and Murail. Classical Music. in Vienna and was among the first Italian twelvetone composers. Instead of searching for a richer. but the influence of his seminal works of the sixties remains. By this time. During their “Rome Prize”15 stays in Italy. multifaceted processes of formal development. etc. the sonic content took its inspiration from another source. He studied with Walter Klein. he started moving away from serialism. a pupil of Schoenberg.16 who is much less well known to the musical public. As we’ve noted. Scelsi began his career as a serialist. Even some younger spectral composers (including myself) began their march toward spectral music by following the path that Ligeti had marked during that decade. In the years leading up to the Second World War. is that during his recovery he would spend hours each day banging on single notes of the piano and attempting to listen inside the sound.

or at least formal process.”17 Scelsi’s idea of looking for a new harmonic dimension inside the sounds — combined with the microlistening and slowly evolving formal processes — was to become a central feature of spectral music. except that the domain of focus was the timbre of a sound for Scelsi and not the rhythmic alignments of the minimalists.” uses microtonal and orchestrational fluctuations to color the single note (often including its triadlike expansion) that dominates each movement. Moreover. even though a perfect craftsman. In this way. is often dismissed as fatally limited. more intuitive manner than is true for the early minimalists. will never be a true artist. This imparts a sense of formal progress. This piece. and in the early fifties he began composing again. little even in the way of specifically . It is almost as if we could take a single lush moment of Mahler or Bruckner and open it up into a whole microuniverse. As he said. is in constant progression. a true musician. Designing Music for Human Beings  During this period. however. There are many parallels between Scelsi’s work and the work of American minimalists. but in a very different style. to the heart of the sound. a great technician. The sound of the violin is cracked open and we slither our way inside it. which is somehow both radically new sounding and oddly nostalgic. His concerto for violin. Very few of the elements we have come to expect in pieces can be found: almost no melodies. “Farben. uses a similar technique. “He who does not penetrate to the interior. the central note being colored. while Scelsi’s music is very process-driven. Scelsi’s music. becoming subsumed in its incredible richness. music that should seem static opens up a new universe of microlistening18 and microevents. Anahit. which is a sort of a prespectral answer to Schoenberg’s famous orchestral study in tone-color. Perhaps the most extreme and influential piece in this style is his Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra (Ciascuno su una nota sola) (Four Pieces for Orchestra [Each one on a single note]). writing nearly a hundred pieces of somewhat varying quality but all focused on this idea of voyaging to the heart of the sound. the processes are not mechanical or automatic but are controlled in a freer. especially Steve Reich. It’s nearly impossible to describe with words the truly strange and haunting sound of this work. when studied on its own. He sought to write a music that penetrated the interior of the sound. Scelsi composed prolifically.

What Shaped the Development of Spectral Music ? Defining a musical movement requires at least some attempt at describing the milieu in which it was shaped. and their own high levels of compositional “métier.22 for example.”19 spectral music was born. This sort of experimentation was central to the working method of L’Itinéraire. Dufourt had made reel-to-reel recordings of a vast array of percussion effects. Hugues Dufourt’s piece Saturne. Why Bother? memorable events. retaining the successes and eliminating the failures. had their own ensemble) were the cornerstones in the evolution of spectral music. The most striking and successful results of these experiments (read: improvisations) could then be used in the final composition. was created in the aftermath of an enormous phase of experimentation.0 Classical Music. the collective L’Itinéraire was a place where a fairly close-knit group of composers and performers (most of the composers were also performing) could try out new ideas. however. the artistic integrity and dedication to harmony taught by Messiaen. The term “experimental music” generally refers to pieces based directly on untested intellectual speculations.20 Trial and Error A key aspect of early spectral music was its empirical nature. Especially in the earliest days. When Grisey and Murail combined Scelsi’s sometimes naive intuitions with a more in-depth study of acoustics. in L’Itinéraire. . 21 whereas spectral music draws on the concrete results of musical experiments. He then used several tape decks to simulate different superpositions from this repertoire. The formation by Tristan Murail of the group L’Itinéraire (especially the performing ensemble that was the public face of the collective) in the early seventies along with the bipolar opposition that existed between the serialist establishment (led by Boulez and his Domaine Musical ensemble) and the spectral young Turks (who. the postelectronic attitude of Ligeti. The music when listened to inattentively or poorly performed can sometimes sound like little more than a slowly changing drone.

as a valuable intellectual counterweight to serialism. these sessions were not the goal. Designing Music for Human Beings  Another manifestation of their empiricism was their extensive use of analog electronic instruments. L’Itinéraire had an ensemble of electronic instruments whose members would meet for informal experimental sessions and. Analog electronic instruments — from the ondes Martenot (a single-line electronic instrument which became popular in the mid-twentieth century) to electric organs to ring modulators — on the other hand. offered a wealth of new resources that could be tested and evaluated. These ideas could later be incorporated in the context of fully mastered compositions. but only a step toward achieving a goal. At that time. The early spectral composers. which they did not particularly like. in a curious parallel with some of the early American minimalist composers. In fact. the composers of L’Itinéraire saw these sessions not as concerts or happenings (they were not public). This enabled these composers to avoid both the paralysis that can affect a composer who is not constantly searching for new ideas and techniques. those same “conservative” composers who then saw spectral music as an expedient strategic ally now feel free to attack . in contrast to the traditions of American experimentation and improvisatory performance. and the self-absorption of a composer who realizes his concepts in a pure and untempered form without regard to the musicality or interest of the resulting work. were reaping the benefits of being practical music makers in a field full of unheard and sometimes unhearable experiments that were being presented as finished products. Of course. one of the reasons that L’Intinéraire received government funding in such a relatively short time was that certain other antiBoulez factions (who favored something more like a return to tonality) saw spectral music. The state of computer technology at the time meant that digital synthesis was an unavoidably slow and cumbersome endeavor. French intellectuals were not disposed to granting force to the populist arguments of the neotonal composers. but as a laboratory in which to test and discover new ideas. Just as great improvisers like Bach saw the need to go back to the table and perfect what could be satisfactorily improvised. This is not to say that the members of L’Itinéraire ceded the intellectual high ground to the serialists who represented the mainstream of new concert music (what the French call “musique savant”).

The entrenched position of the well-known serialists was formidable indeed. it was hoped that this would guarantee a sort of equality among the tones. or even just a list of random numbers) could take on myriad musical manifestations. any order of notes was possible. ensuring that the kinds of hierarchy that are so important to tonal music did not creep in. which might seem very different but which — at least metaphysically — ought to have some coherence. For most of the public. The idea was that some abstract germ (a set of intervals.23 While the importance of this group became less clear in the very late seventies and early eighties — when Grisey moved to America and the ensemble began to function in a more routine manner — its impact on Grisey. A strong need to rebel against the perceived tyranny . I’ve been throwing this word around a bit and it’s high time I explained it as best I can for nonspecialists. Murail. their music and ideas simply were contemporary music. Classical Music. Why Bother? all stripes of “intellectual” music equally. The composer would write a new series — ordering — for each piece and the characteristics of a given order would help determine the character of the work. and for spectral musicians the target was clear: serialism. The publications by and about L’Itinéraire are the first forums where the ideas of spectral music were presented to a larger audience. in principle. All twelve notes had to be used before any one could be reused. The Evil Empire All revolutions need an enemy. They organized the twelve notes of the chromatic scale into an ordered series. As serialism developed after World War II in Europe. and developing younger composers in the early and mid-seventies was enormous. the use of complete twelve-note series began to disappear and serialism or postserialism came to mean music that used combinatorial procedures for organizing musical parameters (these variants of a given series are called combinatorial permutations by theorists). Using this first version of a given series as a point of departure. the composer could perform permutations of various sorts to generate new variants that they believed would share some structural underpinnings. “Serialism” was originally used to talk about the music written by Arnold Schoenberg and his followers beginning in the early part of the twentieth century. or notes.

nondirectional “panel” and “moment” forms that attempted to create a sequence of “separate” moments or panels that were not intended to “add up” to some larger-scale structure. Even in the earliest spectral pieces. more “democratic” approach that attacked equally all music that attempted something new — “the people like this so we should give it to them!”). this opposition that was so central in the 1970s began to weaken in the ’80s. spectral pieces contained long stretches of slow evolutions with events occurring only on a large temporal scale. as with any bipolar opposition. while the spectralists tried to create process-based evolutionary forms where each event grew out of the previous event. The change from enemy to ally (although this term is perhaps too strong) has not been purely rhetorical or social in nature. The advocates of serialism espoused (though rarely actually used) fragmented. better society (at best).24 However. The change in attitude can be clearly seen in the contrast between a composer like Murail. but was elevated to a central role in the musical discourse of spectral composers. Where serial pieces of the day were made up of an endless number of pointillistic microevents. rather than hoping for some improvement in the society or species whose likelihood is doubtful. like Grisey’s Partiels. A structural or functional use of harmonic relationships was disdained by twelve-tone composers. the differences and the rhetoric were both exaggerated. who was never involved with serialism. but has also . And perhaps most profoundly. They saw the phenomena of auditory perception as a set of fruitful constraints that show what is relevant and what is mere utopian dreaming. the capacities of the music’s listeners were no longer something to be mocked (at worst) or elevated through a program of auditory indoctrination in some future. Designing Music for Human Beings  of this situation is evident in both the music and articles of the firstgeneration spectral composers. there are some elements that are organized in a combinatorial manner. The spectral attitude led these composers to attempt to compose music that could be perceived by any attentive human listener. In the ’90s (under the common threat of a less intellectual. when a new generation of less revolutionary spectral composers began to appear. and one like Philippe Hurel. 25 who has always used some combinatorial procedures and who admires that repertoire greatly. Moreover. this opposition all but evaporated.

toward spectral music. Hurel. Durville. and they often show signs of eclecticism in their works. early works by Dalbavie. both the spectral and serial composers have matured to the point that they can openly acknowledge and influence each other without fear of losing their identity or “polluting” their ideology. Spectral composers no longer disdain all types of contrast or rupture. and few postserialists are now willing to write off the possibilities of human audition as irrelevant to musical composition. I am thinking of composers such as Saariaho. While both have had many students. The second generation of spectral composers (for those who follow new music more closely. Furthermore. They are not polemicists by nature and most hold strong sympathies for some other styles of music as well. Both Grisey and Murail adopted Messiaen’s approach of encouraging their students to find a personal form of expression (although they certainly have pushed them to give harmony a higher priority than many other composers do). Why Bother? manifested itself in the music. one that would allow them to exploit their particular sensibilities. over time.) all studied with other teachers and initially wrote in more postserial styles. Classical Music. Together and separately. etc. Both spectral and postserial music have evolved greatly over the last twenty-five years. . few of those students have become spectral composers. three very distinct groups of composers have emerged that could properly be called “spectral. they do not exhibit the same degree of extreme stylistic rigor that so mark Grisey and Murail. As with political movements. a sensitivity to sound seems to have become a ubiquitous requirement for music of any style to be deemed well crafted.” Most clear is the first generation: Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. Where Has Spectral Music Gone and Where Is It Going ? Although it may seem strange in a movement that is less than thirty years old. They were drawn to spectral music as an alternative choice. Although their styles are personal. Yet each of these composers was drawn. and all of them completed brief periods of study (late in their development) with Grisey or Murail. they helped define the goals and ideals of the movement and have created a legacy of masterpieces that have influenced a broad spectrum of composers.

Whereas the second generation was still in many ways forced to declare allegiance to a movement. but did so much earlier in their development. or both. The real members of this third generation. Furthermore. becoming either spectral or remaining postserial. has begun to emerge (including Jean-Luc Hervé.) Those with sympathies for other styles have been free to pursue these styles. Murail. in the still-polarized atmosphere of the time. am I predicting they will somehow “save” new music? While my view is certainly biased. have forged deeper links with the spectral school. they have done so without constraint. they share a greater degree of ideological fervor than the second generation. All of these composers have studied extensively with Grisey. however. etc. certain tendencies clearly seem to be forming. Paris composes frequently for the voice and is interested in the lyric possibilities of the spectral language. while at the same time integrating some aspects of spectralism. Most of Grisey’s and Murail’s students have. the composers of the third generation were free to mix eclectically whatever elements from whatever styles they chose. social conditions may explain some of the difference between the second and third generations. out of a deep commitment to the spectral approach. The spectral attitude has already had a major effect on all styles of contemporary European . they more closely resemble the first generation of spectralists. While the languages and aims of these composers are very different (for example. of which I am a part. in fact. (I do not count these spectrally influenced composers as belonging to this third generation. This group has delved deeply into spectral techniques and sought to continue its evolution in new directions. This group of composers turned to spectral music for diverse reasons. while my music is almost exclusively instrumental).). incorporating elements of spectral music but not fully embracing the movement. Designing Music for Human Beings  In the last ten to fifteen years a third generation of spectral composers. In this way. So What? If this attitude I’m describing and this musical lineage I’ve put forward really are possible answers to the “how” question. proceeded in this manner. Besides individual temperaments. François Paris.

I asked myself what had drawn me to music as a child. This achievement is extremely significant and much of the credit belongs to the spectral movement. I wanted to compose because there were things I wanted to hear — things that didn’t yet exist. There were sounds I wanted to make and sounds I wanted to hear. In the first part of this book. Even the most bloodlessly cerebral of contemporary composers now pay at least lip service to the sonic reality of their music. I pointed out that the decline in . I think that the spectral approach offers the potential for creating really novel musics that are nonetheless perceivable and viscerally satisfying to a wide range of listeners. We have taken the first steps and made some of the crucial insights. The answer I finally discovered in myself was the same one Scelsi had found: the sounds. Composers like Jonathan Harvey and Magnus Lindberg have integrated many elements of spectral music within a decidedly nonspectral language. I suddenly felt lost as a composer. In a historical progression that began in the Baroque period. I can’t imagine that there will not be future composers who will feel the same need and who will profit from our efforts. innovative. Nor should we be surprised if an approach like that of spectral music turned out to give many new listeners. Classical Music. I was not sure what to write or why I was writing. even difficult music. Moreover. No structural principles or intellectual frameworks had motivated my initial love of music. timbre has moved from an accessory. They will either build on our work or move in other directions in their search for a personal means of sculpting sound into music. decorative role to an essential place within the musical discourse. who possessed an openness to new music and were willing to listen carefully. Spectral music has been both the product of this trend and an agent in its recent progress. Why Bother? music. a way to begin a meaningful relationship with demanding. only a sensual fascination with sound. During my third year at conservatory. and this phenomenon seems to be spreading. We should not be surprised that the Impressionists’ understanding of light and color led to works that can be appreciated without a great knowledge of iconography and chiaroscuro and ultimately reached a significant and appreciative public. I think that a musical style that totally ignores “the tones actually sounding” has become an extremely unlikely venture in the twenty-first century.

I don’t know if the group of spectral composers has found those ideas. Music cannot be an affair for the learned specialist. Ultimately. but I know we’re out there looking. . but as a work of sound designed to be heard by human beings. Designing Music for Human Beings  the acceptance of new art is due to many aspects of modern society that are essentially independent of considerations of the art itself. there will be a reward. But any solution or even improvement of the situation will require both a changed context and fertile ideas ready to bloom in that new context. it must be at least potentially accessible to any human being ready to invest the requisite time and effort. Music must be designed not in the abstract as a piece of sonic speculation. You must believe that if you make the effort and sacrifice the time. it must at least sometimes offer something remarkable and rare to all those who are ready to find it. what counts is that both sides of the art creator–perceiver contract are fulfilled. Music must not be of interest only to the specialists who make it.

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5. You can. any composition teacher will tell you that. No-ending ending: I could present some last pearls of analytical insight and then simply stop as if the very lack of conclusion must imply something significant. Big. with an ever-increasing level of rhetorical flourish. leading my readers to give all their money to arts organizations and volunteer every weekend.Coda Endings are hard. of course. Fade-out: I could make a last tour of some issues. 2. bombastic finale: I could launch into an all-out screed about the things we must do if we are to save art for future generations. 3. 4. gradually diminishing the intensity of the rhetoric until the book simply  . fall back on one of the old reliable options: 1. Recapitulation: I could review the main points of the argument and try to tie them into a nice neat bundle that will definitively show my analysis to be definitive. Non sequitur ending: One of my personal favorites — “and now for something completely different” — can create a sensation that is sufficiently unbalanced that everything preceding it is seen in a new light.

The concert went fine. whether or not Bach ought to be played on a modern piano. That’s how they became old reliables: They work. More important. 9. the desire for a satisfying form can put pressure on the still inchoate content and turn it into little more than a hackneyed cliché. and whether microtonality offered more potential for innovation than electroacoustic techniques. Let’s start with a non sequitur. Cowardly academic ending: I could simply go on about how impossible it is to predict how things might develop going forward. This kind of ending can offer a satisfying effect of ritual closure.0 Coda stops on an ambivalent note (this is the exact inverse of the “Big. it’s probably impossible to completely avoid all of these formulas. Art-house movie ending: I could sink into despair. but as we were setting up for the recording. until our main character (contemporary classical music) slowly walks out into the onrushing ocean of pop culture to drown. Cliff-hanger: I could end with a whole series of questions and unknowns about the future. I had a concert in October 2004 where two pieces were to be played and then recorded on successive days in the same hall. You can think of all those movies where you know exactly what will happen during the last ten minutes when there are still more than twenty minutes to go. I think the best course of action for me might be to create a hybrid ending. bombastic finale”). 6. 8. overwhelmed by the negative forces arrayed against serious art. Then I could project that hope forward into a glorious future where high schoolers will fill their iPods with classical works and argue in the hallways about the appropriate tempi for Beethoven symphonies. but it rarely adds anything of much value to what has already transpired. without putting forward an image of how things might turn out in the end. We . why would I want to? Many of these schemas yield satisfying endings. 7. Even if I really wanted to. However. Hollywood ending: I could find some small glimmer of hope and greatly exaggerate its potential for counteracting the trends of the last eighty years. we noticed a low frequency hum in the hall (it was too soft to hear in a full hall. but much too loud for a recording).

As support for culture in France (where I was living at the time) began its steep decline beginning in the mid-1990s. which could not be deactivated without giving carbon monoxide poisoning to the attendants. Coda  tried the usual solutions of turning off electrical devices and the heating system blowers. this was not the reaction we got. the first reaction was not the sort of unified action one might have hoped for. however. The director of the theater even brought in a technician from their HVAC company to try to identify and eliminate the noise. We were all complicit in . so renting commercial studio time was not an option. you’re in with so and so. Rather. What struck me as unusual and fairly encouraging was the response of the other institutions we contacted in an effort to come up with a plan B. In and of itself. Therefore. asking one studio for help often meant foreclosing the possibility of using some other studio. without spending much extra. but it is. This works out for them because they can list the coproduction in their year-end reports and make it seem as though they are doing a lot with their subsidy. In France. this is the sort of annoying contretemps requiring frenzied phone calls and called-in favors that everyone faces occasionally. ensemble. because each institution understandably wants to project the sense that it is essential and unique. where these concerts were held and where this ensemble is based. It seems the noise was either caused by the air circulation system of an underground parking garage next door. “Well. and it is not very illuminating. or by the vibrations transmitted from a nearby highway. Instead of people saying. and institution struggled ever harder to hold onto his or her piece of an ever-smaller pie. Now this might not sound like very much. however. New music CDs are made on budgets flimsier than shoestrings. Within a few hours we had two or three different possibilities lined up. why not ask them?” we found an immediate willingness to help (as long as it did not engender any direct costs for them). which apparently could not be diverted just for us. but the noise would not go away. each composer. the normal solution is to line up a long list of publicly supported institutions and studios as “coproducers” who contribute free studio time on the days that they have no paying work. When we started calling around for help. but to no avail. This has often meant choosing alliances carefully.

We need to convince the players to do more. While decades ago it might have seemed sufficient to gripe about inadequate rehearsal time for difficult pieces. We come into contact with the outside world only much later and in fleeting bursts. The point of my story is this: I believe that the real peril and perhaps real possibility of the current situation is finally sinking in. While my generation can probably go on eking out some sort of continuation for ourselves. such as the group of studios who offered to help out when I was faced with my emergency back in 2004. though. a tipping point. there can be no guarantee of a future for this kind of nonfunctional. there are rays of hope. We work most of the time alone in a room trying to hone an ever more personal vision. or 150 years ago. The current position of art in society. and so on. we will quickly find ourselves in the position of the Komodo dragon. non-cost-effective art if we don’t make one. could hardly be described as normal compared to 50. I actually believe that we are at something of a critical juncture. Coda this. Despite the pressures all arts groups and artists are feeling. it will only be with society’s consent. If we artists are unable or unwilling to make the case. when many of the New York–based foundations rightly felt obligated to redirect much of their funding from arts to more basic health and welfare projects. If difficult. Musical composition (and perhaps any life as an artist) is a deeply self-centered existence. publishers practically stopped signing new composers. work . however. Each group of composers became more and more partisan. we do not and probably should not think much about the rest of society. And this wasn’t unique to France. Under normal circumstances. Composers no longer have the clout with politicians or the public to impose their will (as they did in the immediate post– World War II era). Even some groups that had diminished in quality would receive all the composers’ support in maintaining their subsidy. demanding art that requires large-scale subsidies is to continue. the same reaction among the composers and ensembles ensued. living on one small island and in a few zoos as we watch our population wither away and our habitat shrink to oblivion. 100. because we knew that money taken from one place would never be reallocated in another: It would simply vanish into the ether. In the days following 9/11. now that just won’t work.

We can’t offer mediocre performances of mediocre works and hope that systemic inertia will be enough to preserve the status quo. I’d been thinking about a new way of restating the importance of this “useless” art when I attended a lecture/debate between the humanist. the simple call for diversity as an absolute good won’t help either. I didn’t think much about these issues because everyone I came into contact with “got it. attention. I probably already have my sinecure in the Komodo dragon’s nature preserve locked up). And no matter how good our marketing and promotion savvy becomes. I don’t believe we will ever come up with a way of justifying the existence of this sort of art through personal taste or market preferences alone. Louis Menand. Moreover. Pinker discussed a study of perceived facial beauty. how can I expect you to support it passively with your acceptance. Steven Pinker. or how hard we try. average height . Not making people walk out is not an achievement. because one kind of diversity is as good as another and may be much cheaper or more popular to boot. Coda  for free. raise extra funds.” But since I began teaching nonspecialists regularly in the late 1990s. So much of the value system I had always assumed was a shared part of Western culture is no longer universal (if it ever really was). I realized how great the peril really is. Apparently this study showed that a composite image created by averaging together all the faces in a group (this averaging is done feature by feature: average lip thickness. nonfunctional art. or watch it dwindle into a marginal existence while waiting for the last of us to die off. or do whatever it takes. another part thinks that great art can only shape culture if someone is listening or looking. much less to support it actively with your time. And while part of me believes that the best way to fight this is through great art. average distance between the eyes. If I can’t convince you of even the potential importance of difficult. and perhaps even money? When I was living and working solely as a composer. This latter outcome seems to me so unacceptable that I am unwilling to just sit back and watch it happen (after all. and the evolutionary psychologist and linguist. It is very likely that the generations alive today will either see nonfunctional subsidized art begin to reestablish a societal consensus about the value and importance of its existence.

etc. he was surprised to find that this works with any group. The kind of art that we’ve been discussing is deeply ill-suited to one-night stands and instant gratification. The deeper implication of the study on facial beauty is that only by seeing things that we do not immediately find the “most beautiful” can our notion of beauty develop. This scientist responsible for this work had stumbled on his results by chance when trying to come up with the composite face of a group of criminals. Pinker pointed out that post hoc studies of the face types chosen by advertisers underline this idea. while arguing that the humanities is more interested in the outliers. rather. more precisely. Our sense of beauty is somehow (even the scientist doing the work was not proposing exactly how) influenced by all the faces that we have seen — whether we find them beautiful. even if true. this finding was not of interest: “science cares about the means” he said.) is universally judged more attractive than any of the individuals in the group that went into the averaged composite. ugly. whether the mechanism of this development turns out to be a mechanical calculation of means. taste is influenced by this process. or indifferent. I think both of them were partially incorrect. Menand was deeply skeptical and felt that. or something more subtle. He had thought to produce the epitome of a criminal face and instead ended up with what he judged to be a pretty handsome man. in some way. is secondary. while now advertisers are more likely to choose someone like Halle Berry. we work in advertising or sales) is not what face or song or picture packs the most wallop in an instantaneous rating of attractiveness. saying that this research suggests that even a racist’s idea of facial beauty will become more multicultural as the population he encounters and the images he sees vary: It is affected only by the faces he or she sees. not what he might think about those faces. I suppose. or memorability. what we find beautiful is the sum (or. On some level. Coda of the forehead. The models used to represent beauty in America in the more homogeneous 1950s were in the Doris Day mold. The real question we need to worry about (unless. beauty. The humanist. Through a series of experiments. If. There is no sense in which this process is directly influenced by personal taste. At dinner after the talk. the average) of all the things we see. then we ought to be very sure that . Pinker amplified this point.

harmony.” The sounds can be loud and grating. movement. and. many of his works have little in common with what these students think of as “music. in the best of his works. Yet once the students get over their shock. form. While I don’t try to make them write “modernsounding” music. I try very hard not to push them in any particular aesthetic direction and often the works they write sound more like Mozart than like modern pieces. His works began life more often as graphical drawings or mathematical formalizations than as themes or motives. and this is. I think. they never feel that there is nothing there. I generally get the real rush of hearing the students argue among themselves about the effectiveness or memorability of these sorts of mass-based sonic constructions. One of the composers we invariably deal with is Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001). At first listen. regardless of what tools were used to produce . Most of these students merely want to try their hand at writing something. the real lesson of that study on beauty. To paraphrase Gérard Grisey. In this class each student works on a piece over the course of the semester. Coda  we don’t just keep fixating on our current notion of beauty. art is much more about becoming than being. I’d like to put this into a context: One of the classes I sometimes teach is a seminar on composition for undergraduates. but little that is recognizable within traditional categories of melody. Clearly. In the end. the majority have no ambitions of becoming professional or even serious amateur composers. Xenakis was a Greek-born composer who spent most of his career in Paris. I do make them listen to a lot of different music. however. and rhythm. We could think of art as pure research into the potential beauty or ugliness of some superficially unpromising avenues. When we’ve listened to and discussed all of this at some length from a purely descriptive point of view. He used the mathematical and architectural training he had received to bring a highly idiosyncratic approach to composition. The idea of expressing abstract platonic forms within the sonic medium is also a perennial topic. Someone often raises a question about the composer’s obligation to attach his or her music to a tradition. the conclusion is almost always that there is a real musical intent. shape. there are slow changes. intent. someone will invariably venture: But is it music? At this point. an amazing raw power can be detected.

difficult. if we are to return home with slightly different eyes. A real danger exists that. If we only go to a museum to see over and over again the paintings we already love. Yet we must put up with the discomfiture of travel if we are to discover a new place. By hearing these works. the jolt we get each time is less fulfilling than the last. Coda that result. That many things. can be wonderful art doesn’t mean that everything can or will be wonderful art. and it is not random. I’m sure many of the students go away believing that it is not very good music. even many strange things. The choice often seems to be posed today as if we must either take it all or leave it completely — but this is absurd. sometimes overly intellectual art that attaches itself to a tradition while frequently negating almost every aspect of that tradition. The malaise of the modern condition often feels like we’ve already “been there. Moreover. And this is precisely what abstract. but I don’t think that just anything will be effective. For those beauty experiments. . the image must be recognizably a face and it ought to be different in some way from other faces if the change is going to have much of an impact. if we still want to be able to make choices about what to accept or reject in the future. but it is not enough. If the orchestra only plays what we already know we want to hear. or at least I hope not. the mean of the bell curve in their mind has been shifted at least a little bit. done that. we will never hear anything new and we will never find a new way to hear the pieces we already love.” But there are so many things we have not seen or heard — an essentially endless supply. the range of stimuli we receive will draw ever tighter. What we must do is consent to and perhaps even support its existence. it may be entertaining. their notions of music and beauty are altered forever. it ought to be the kind of difference that you want to look at enough for it to really burn into your senses and leave a lasting impression. It may be reassuring. You could say that anything will shift this mean. as marketing and focus groups learn to locate our current preferences with ever greater precision. Moreover. but they can all hear the echo of a composer’s will in the sounds. It is not noise. we are not developing into anything: We are like rats in a cage pulling the lever that will deliver us a reward until we get so sated we fall asleep. that still believes in criteria of worth and the relationship between a creator and a created object. tries to do (successfully or not).

Coda 

One final non sequitur: There have been many recent articles about the wonderful new addition to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Almost all offer this as a sign of the great health in modern visual arts. Yet what gets mentioned only in passing is the great tragedy of this institution’s meaning for art. MoMA was founded to keep only works less than fifty years old. The idea was that older works, once sorted, would move on to real museums, while MoMA was about creation. Now, of course, they could never do that: Those “brand name” paintings are what pull people in and allow the museum to charge the very high admission fee needed to support the institution. MoMA now thinks of itself as a museum of twentieth-century art or perhaps a museum of Modernist art. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it is the kind of idealism that created the original MoMA (with its time limit on paintings’ chance to prove themselves) that leads to remarkable art. The sort of savvy management and marketing combined with scholarship and respect that created the current MoMA can create institutions, not inspire art. It seems to me the original mission — even if it meant small shows in patrons’ apartments — was much more ambitious and admirable than the new $400-million-dollar MoMA with its role as theme park for the culturally savvy and well heeled.

I don’t want to waste too much time on recapitulation or in an effort to tie things into a too neat a bundle. Ultimately, it is not for me to decide what will happen; I don’t think I even wrote this book with much of a realistic hope of convincing you of my position (though I certainly hope that I’ve achieved this mission). The real reason that I’ve spent so much time on this is that I think, whether it wants to or not, society is currently in the process of choosing — through action or inaction — whether nonpopular, nonfunctional art will remain a viable part of our culture, or become a historical topic that scholars in two hundred years will look back upon as a sort of aberration, a hopeless romantic gesture. So few of the people I meet seem to grasp that the choice is in our hands only if we face the problem and do not let the choice be made without any conscious intervention, debate, or even regret. Let me be clear: I am not saying music will disappear, or storytelling, drawing, painting, or sculpture. I am saying that this relatively recent, relatively fragile tradition of functionless, complex art, which



Coda

has produced such strange and remarkable results, is at risk. The infrastructure it requires is so massive and so expensive; the demands it places on time, training, resources, and attention are absurdly high. If we (both artists and public) continue to view an ever-increasing marginalization of this art with acceptance, this kind of art will become nothing but a strange curiosity. I can see the future students now gasping in wonder at the idea of people going to so much trouble to read Finnegan’s Wake. The moment I would like you to focus on is not the initial shock of strangeness when you first come across something really new and perhaps even a little odd. Rather, it is the moment that very rarely, but sometimes, happens two or three years later when you come across the same work again: All sense of strangeness is gone and you just gape at the beauty. You can’t understand what could have seemed so strange or even so difficult in the first place. Exorbitant luxury that those handful of moments in a lifetime are, I’d hate to see us decide they were no longer worth the price. So the next time you’re introduced to a composer at a cocktail party, may I suggest the following: “So, you’re a composer? [no guffaw, but perhaps just a touch of curiosity or pleasant surprise] Is there any way I might hear some of your music?” That’s the only question that really matters in the end.

Notes

Chapter 1
1. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Funding (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 258. 2. Nicholas Humphrey, Leaps of Faith (New York, Basic Books, 1996). 3. Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity — An Incomplete Project,” in The AntiAesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983). 4. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1962). 5. Alvin H. Reiss, Don’t Just Applaud — Send Money!: The Most Successful Strategies for Funding and Marketing the Arts (New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1995). 6. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Funding (New York: Basic Books 1995), 249. 7. Jean Galard, “Une question capitale pour l’esthétique,” in Qu’est-ce qu’un chef-d’oeuvre? (Paris: Musée du Louvre/Editions Gallimard, 2000). 8. MacGregor, Neil, “Chef-d’oeuvre — valeur sûre?” in Qu’est-ce qu’un chef-d’oeuvre? (Paris: Musée du Louvre/Editions Gallimard, 2000). 9. Alice Goldfarb Marquis, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Funding (New York: Basic Books 1995), 102. 10. Research and Forecasts, “The Importance of the Arts and Humanities to American Society” (Washington, D.C.: National Cultural Alliance, 1993). 11. Joseph Rody in W. MacNeil Lowry, ed., Performing Arts and American Society (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall), 1978. 

69. Excerpt from “Entretien avec Daniel Buren: L’art n’est plus justifiable ou les pointes sur les ‘I. preface to The Wings of the Dove (New York: Modern Library.’” translated by Alexander Alberro and reprinted in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. xxii. 69. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge. First published in the catalogue for the exposition “January 5–31. Wallace Stevens. 2002). Chapter 2 1.. In Chapter 7. 17. 314. 51. 13.. A. 14. 3. MA: MIT Press. 2. Popular Culture and High Culture (New York.0 Notes 12.” undated pamphlet published by the Museum of Modern Art and reprinted in Arthur Berger’s Reflections of an American Composer (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1930). Herbert J. MA: MIT Press. 1999). vol. Miller. eds. Henry James. 1999). 63 (1956): 81–97.” Avalanche 4 (Spring 1972): 66. 3. Harold Bloom. 1994). Gans. 1999).. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge. eds. 1969. 70. G. Some more extreme interpretations of quantum dynamics might suggest a more privileged role for knowing and observing. but I’m going to leave those very complex and not widely accepted ideas out of the current discussion.” in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. Sarah Charlesworth. 2. 4. xxvii-xxviii. . Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. Basic Books. 1999). First published in Willoughby Sharp. I will offer some hypothetical candidates for universals that might relate to music. Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge. 1969 and reprinted in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. reprinted in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. xxxii–xxxiii. Chapter 3 1. MA: MIT Press. 1999). Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge. eds. “A Declaration of Dependence. “The Relations between Poetry and Painting..” The Psychological Review. MA: MIT Press. 5. “The Magical Number Seven. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead Books.” New York: Seth Siegelaub. eds. “Lawrence Weiner at Amsterdam.

Glorianna Davenport. however. musicians and theorists have realized that there is no perfect way to tune an instrument. 1967). 1994).” Scientific American (November 2000): 80. an octave is created by doubling the frequency or halving the string length. Girvetz. 2000. For example. When you try to create a full scale this way.746 times your starting frequency. it doesn’t work. ed. William A. The ratio for a perfect fifth is 3:2. 280–81.” in Qu’est-ce qu’un chef-d’oeuvre? (Paris: Musée du Louvre/Editions Gallimard). In Defense of Elitism (New York: Doubleday. in The Ruling Class. “Your Own Virtual Storyworld. Democracy and Elitism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Kahn. as reprinted in Harry K.] Temperaments are basically the art of hiding this comma. The distance between where this note ends up and where it should end up is called the Comma of Pythagoras. Henry.. and while it is possible to generate all twelve notes of the chromatic scale by cycling up through eleven successive fifths. In other words. 2. Chapter 5 1. but for those unfamiliar with the notion. [For those who want to check the math 3/2 to the twelfth power gives you a note at 129. Since at least the time of the Greeks. whereas the actual note seven octaves up should be 2 to the seventh power (or 128) times the starting frequency. The main musical intervals are formed by creating simple ratios between the fundamental frequencies (or equivalently by dividing strings into simple fractions). Chapter 4 1. Hannah D. 2–3. trans. This overview of the history of the chef-d’oeuvre draws heavily on Matthias Waschek’s “Le chef-d’oeuvre: un fait culturel. when you finally get back to what should be the same pitch as your starting note (though seven octaves higher) with a twelfth perfect fifth. There . Notes  6. it does not form an octave relation with the note that you started on. a brief elaboration is required. ed. It would not be appropriate to go into a lengthy discussion of temperaments here. Arthur Livingston. 2. you will find that the note is significantly higher than it should be. either by making a few intervals very out of tune while the rest are reasonably close to their theoretically “perfect” values or by making many intervals slightly out of tune. Gaetano Mosca.

Cognitive Bases of Musical Communication (Washington. 25(4) (Aug. Emmanuel Bigand. Notes is.” in Mari Riess Jones and Susan Holleran. Dept. 4. Bharucha. 1994). however. 237. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: W. 29.” Art & Design Profile No. E. as does hybrid mixed music that marries acoustic instruments and electronic sounds. 3.. “The magical number seven. D. Ibid. Jamshed J. 5. Henry Schaffer. in Cognitive Neuroscience of Music. Live electronic traditions also exist. no way to make everything in tune with everything else. L. plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. University of Montreal (London: Oxford University Press. 2. 238. 39 Art and Technology (London: Academy Group Ltd. Glenn Schellenberg. Kamenetsky.” Barbara Tillman. This idea was first suggested to me by Joseph Dubiel. 7. 5.. Sandra E.. 1990). eds. 2003).” Psychological Review 63: 81–97. One can find reasonably successful composers working today who use random or semirandom permutations of a small set of numbers as the . Morrow and Co. I am using the term “computer music” here to refer very broadly to music written to be “performed” with electronic apparatuses and computer programs.: American Psychological Association. 3. Miller (1956). Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch (New York: Oxford University Press. or processes. 6. Carol Krumhansl. 4. Steven Pinker. Stuart B. 263. Vol. A “perfectly” in-tune third has a frequency ratio of 4:3 between the fundamental frequencies of the two notes. “Learning and Perceiving Musical Structures: Further Insights from Artificial Neural Networks. Chapter 6 1. 109–23. unfortunately. Trehub. the math just doesn’t work.C. “Peter Weibel: Ars Electronica: An Interview by Johan Pijnappel. 8. “How to Interpret Music. George Miller wrote a famous article discussing the importance of units consisting of five to nine elements: G. Much of this music is “performed” directly by the composer in a studio and comes to the audience in prerecorded form. of Psychology. 9. 1999): 965–75. “Infants’ and adults’ perception of scale structure. Isabelle Peretz. treatments.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance. A. 1994).. 1992).

they might as well be “built-in. This is not due to any real technological progress in generating appropriate complexity. but it remains mystifying to me what benefit they think could flow from a list of arbitrarily permutated signs and symbols. They then map the lists of numbers generated by their permutations to musical parameters to generate their scores. 19 (2) 2001. Vol. it is because most of these sounds contain information captured from acoustic sounds that have been modified.).” 2. This analysis and. 1979 III. Radio France/Société Internationale de Musique Contemporaine [SIMC]. Notes  basis for their music. (This is probably due to the sound I analyzed . 4. Lerolle et Cie. but. and because we cannot change the basic nature of oscillatory vibrations in the natural world. etc. I will be drawing many of these examples from an appendix I wrote for a volume of the Contemporary Music Review. We still have great difficulty modeling all of these fluctuations. Personal communication. Chapter 7 1. La Sonate. Dufourt’s use of the term was in an early article (“Musique spectrale. 5. 1913). the loudest partial in Grisey’s realization is the fifth. For example. 30–32. source-filter relations. Rouart. the sound analyzed are not identical to those used by Grisey when he wrote the piece in the early 1970s (although I have tried to mimic Grisey’s procedures as much as possible). of course. possible that we are not “hard-wired” with these intuitions. amplitude modulations. (Paris: Ed. whereas in mine it is the ninth. this mapping often leaves them room to use their ears and turn the music into something worthwhile. and thus there are several differences in the details of the realization. Etude de son évolution technique historique et expressive en vue de l’interprétation et de l’audition. 6. Because this exposure has been shown to begin in utero. however. Société Nationale de Radiodiffusion. Chapter 8 1. that they are learned through our constant exposure to natural sounds that have simple acoustic structures (harmonic overtones. in fact. Many recent electronic sounds have less of this “artificial” quality. It is. 3. In fairness. rather.” Paris.) when the spectral movement was still coalescing and was not accompanied by any sort of definition that would be useful in the current context.

This is what creates the “brassy” sound. 8. an octave too low. it is difficult to imagine spectral music having developed without the arrival of analog electronic music. their link to the spectralists was a desire to make music with sounds not normally believed to be musical. The Italian futurist movement began around 1909 and was dedicated to using technology and moving away from gracefulness and craft to the brute force of our industrial future. whose shape and movement corresponds to the composer’s intent. with brass the louder the note is played. in the years after World War II. not a university professor (the term for that is an “universitaire”). More generally. This note’s separation from the other pitches of the instrumental synthesis is reflected in its exclusion from the composer’s annotations of partial rankings for each of the other pitches. however. 9. however. This is in contrast to the “tonal” system. and spread ideas. by academicism the French mean an officially sanctioned (and often uninspired) musical style and not a pejoratively scholastic one as we would mean by the term in America. 10. which seems to be presenting the fundamental along with the trombone is. Notes 7. generally the higher in the overtone series the loudest partials will be. in fact. 11. In this context. I use the metaphor of sculpting in time to evoke the compositional process of a spectral composer who highlights certain groups of frequencies and eliminates others — as a sculptor does with stone — in an effort to create a sonic entity. This led to quite a bit of sonic exploration. 12. In France an academic is a member of the academy. The summer courses at Darmstadt became. From the sonic objects of “musique concrète” to the real-time treatments of ring-modulators. a sort of Mecca for young serial composers. where notes are organized hierarchically in keys. They heard performances. Fineberg. in time.) Another important difference is that the low double bass. The problem is that harmonic sensations like tension and release or departure and return can become nearly impossible when all pitches . being performed more loudly than the one used by Grisey. made connections. This note is in that octave for separate formal and gestural reasons. The journal they published out of these meetings became a bible for European serial and postserial composers. J.” Contemporary Music Review 19 (2) 2001. “Appendix II — Musical Examples. the works of early electronic music offered an invaluable stock of models to the later works of spectral composers. Thus. The hallmark of serial technique is that it attempts and to a great degree succeeds in making all pitches equally important.

In many ways. Murail spoke about the relationship between the composers of L’Itinéraire (himself. 18. Tristan Murail. 21. and the serial-spectral tensions which began to ease in the early eighties — through an IRCAM sponsored effort to promote détente — have by now largely 19.” I mean an extremely close listening where small fluctuations like slight crescendos or tiny glissandi can become major events. Grisey. and some money to travel. this was still the same award — two years in Rome. 15. Harry Halbreich. there was no longer a French Rome Prize that bore the name.” Le Monde de la Musique 156 (June 1992). Notes  13.” in Le Journal à Royaumont 2 (February 1988). Fayard/SACEM. saying that were he younger and more energetic. the official title of an award winner is a “pensionnaire à la Villa Medicis. 1980.” It implies the full range of techniques and skills required by a profession. 1989. Tristan Murail in Olivier Messiaen. serialism creates flat pitch spaces in which there are few if any landmarks. that is where he would explore. concerts. By “microlistening. 14. have equal weight. and Lévinas. 16. Quoted in the liner notes for the CD Giacinto Scelsi. The current situation is quite different: The group L’Itinéraire has become something else under other leadership. L’Itinéraire – L’exploration du son. In music theoretical terms. exploring some of its potential. a stipend. in particular) and Scelsi in a conference given in 1987 in Royaumont during their “Voix Nouvelles 87” festival. This conference was transcribed by Marc Texier and published as “Scelsi. 17. In recent years he has basically acknowledged this. The French term métier is very difficult to translate. By the late seventies. “L’exigence vis-à-vis de l’acte artistique. the closest approximation in English is “craft.” Since the English-speaking world still thinks of this award as the Rome Prize — and the American version still bears that name — I have referred to it as such. Yet Ligeti is not and never really was a good candidate to perform any sort of slow and meticulous development of a style. coming up with an idea. The award that is so well known through Berlioz’s Memoires was scaled down and became the award of a “sejour” at the Villa Médicis in Rome. . however. 20. He has always been a stylistic experimenter (in the best sense). Accord 200612. and then moving on.

I am deeply skeptical. and this experience is indicative of the spirit of the group and the time. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of many of the composers I mention: I am including them to give some extra context to those familiar with their work. some being reabsorbed into the larger contemporary music population and others following a more solitary route. although his music does explore a fascinating array of sonic colors and combinations. nonetheless. for me. These factors were of critical importance in the seventies when spectral music was first coming into being. of there again being a sufficiently homogenous musical common practice to allow the kind of overlearned schemata that effect our perception of tonal music to be developed for contemporary styles. As with evolutionary speciation. He was. it is difficult to define the exact moment when the spectral movement became a definite tendency and not part of the broader spectrum of ideas circulating in this group. I believe that many of the auditory demands made by serialists of this era exceed the capacity of the human auditory apparatus. its organization is combinatorial in nature and not sonic. 24. Although at the beginning they all shared many of the same ideas and interests. Grisey and Murail became the first full-fledged spectral composers. 26. Some pieces were even literally conceptual and could not be performed. Hugues Dufourt is not really a spectral composer. disappeared. however. or pieces written for radios where the results will depend on what is on the airwaves during the performance. One point of clarification needs to be offered as to the nonsynonymous relation between the composers who belonged to L’Itinéraire and spectral composers. however. in hindsight one can see the formation of gradually widening rifts within the collective and at some point the ideas of spectral music can clearly be seen to exist independently from other types of preoccupations that had interested the group. while the others moved in various directions. . This is not to suggest that musical training is not valuable — in particular auditory training. from using mathematical mapping and statistical distributions to algorithmically “write” pieces. 25. except as a sort of thought experiment. Notes 22. to using the I Ching or random number generators to decide on the contents of a work. regardless of training. 23. however. In the period between the end of World War II and the 1970s all sorts of musical experiments were tried. Furthermore. they gradually evolved in very different directions. but the argument should still make sense to other readers who just skip over the names. Other ideas included multiday performances of a single chord. a fellow traveler with Grisey and Murail.

3 as bourgeois activity. 28 intrinsic value. 29 fascism. 20. 140  . 25 appreciation. 37 decline. 29 measuring. 59. Theodor W. 126 Art(s) belief in. 91 Atmosphères. 19 criteria. 1 Arts Electronica Festival. John. 30. 15 intent. 14 Affect. 76. 2 defined. 17 universality. 38 Advertising. 16 contract. 16 objectivist. 9 systems. 65 B Bach. 8 Anahit. 37 frameworks. 58. 16. 68 Acoustic structures. 16 economics and. 30. 20 personal taste and. 1. 22. cognitive universals in. 29. 7–8 Aesthetic(s) abstract notions.. 33 intrinsic. 17 value. 18 Bloom on. 101 Alexander. 18 domains. 14 achievement. Jane. 28. 127 Austria’s Arts Electronica Festival. 10 Art Lessons. 73. 129 Apparitions. Johann Sebastian. 27 absolute. 29 entertainment and. 65 Ashbery. 17. 16 economics and. 153n1 Adorno.Index A Acoustic music. 13 segregation of. 86 Bloom on. 3–4 market argument for. 44 beauty and. 28 entertainment vs. 126.. 28.

41. 101 Indian. 84 Dennett. 151n2 Composer(s). 67. 52 electronic. 82 contemporary. 52 Carrillo. 11 Close. 60 Davis. 53 intentions. 96 Content. 80 Billboard. 82. 51 skills. 88 Buren. Ludwig van. 87 use of instrumental analysis. 21. 116 Computer-generated recording. 31. 24 listening to. 4 Bloom. 7 jazz vs. John. 88–89 institutions. xiv German. 7 training. 24 Comma of Pythagoras. 4 composition of. 22. George H. 110 on Schoenberg. W. 85. 67 contemporary. 16. 100 Cage. 11 Brahms. 110 Davenport. Noam. xi forms. 7 defined. 69 Computer language. 6–7 rock music vs. 75 Western. 52. William. 40 Bowen. 152n5 Conceptual art movement. 86 Computer music. Miles. 6. Julián. Pierre.. 27. 47 Bharucha. 78. 107 criteria for success. 100–101 marketing. Index improvisation. 52 opera. 35. 67 contemporary. 107 yardstick for success. 24 soloists. 40. 96–97 future of. Daniel. Richard. John. composers) tonal. 111. 89 . John. Jamshed. 11 Beethoven. 22. 69 public recognition. 127 infallibility. 131 performance of work. 52 Cultural modernity. Harold. 52 composers.. 140 environmental movement and. 115 Coltrane. 75 Chowning. Hector. 67 spectral (See Spectral music. 94 market value. 31 Chomsky. 29 Boulez.. 98 highpoints. 21 C Cadences. 131 Barzun. 37 Bush. 88 Berlioz. Jacques. 59. 4. 39. Chuck. 40. xvi performers. 119 Classical music American. 16. 76 Computer modeling. 85. 4. 20. 91 Baumol. 100–101 Conversing with Cage. William. 98 burden of. 123 Categorical perception. Glorianna. 36 Concertos. 57. 94 Design applied. 6 D Darmstadt era. 55 paralysis. 12. 85 criteria. 46. Daniel. 40. 24 Dawkins. 152n5 Computer programs.

85 tool-kit. 85 language of. 84 Directionality. 124. 130. Thomas. 7. 125 Gruppen. 85 forced moves in. Théophile. 127 Elementi di Scienza Politica. 156n23 Durville. 118–120 . 134 Grisey.. Henry. 140 J James. 89 evolutionary. Index  features. 67. Egon. Gérard. 86 constraints. 134. 84 aesthetic. 105. 10 Gans. 113. Philippe. 24. 101–103 Fugues. 84 solutions. Marcel. 14 G Galard. 9. 85 boundaries. 29 Gaultier. 153n6 influence of Messiaen on. Walter. 38 Gondwana. 59. 128. 7. 133. 51 sociological discussions. Jürgen. Jean. 128 Krumhansl. 123 Juilliard School of Music. 99 Donne. 45–56 artistic. André. Carol. 28 I Il Canto Sospeso. Hilary. 152n3 Intrinsic value. 134 E Electronic music. John. 8 Klein.. 124. 7 Harmony. 100 Hayden. 86. Herbert. 69 intolerability of. 133. 76 K Kamloops Art Gallery. 45 Highpoints. 128 Koehler. 125. Philippe. 39–41 Form. 8 Duchamps. 30. 55 F 4’3”. 89 size. 21 Dufourt Hugues. 115. William A. 51 degeneration into solipsism. 110 Improvisation. 115. 131 In-tune thirds. 48 Elitism. 6. art vs. 109. 79 Hurel. 123 H Habermas. 48 Entertainment. 14 iPods. 112. 59 Henry. 33 Jazz. 121. 76 Jolivet. 15 Hahn. structural. 80 Kuhn. 6. 119. 128 Human phoneme. 101 Homage à Brahms. 20 Don’t Just Applaud — Send Money. 85 space. 85 principles. 116.

Alice Goldfarb. 76–78. 127 M “Market-think. 4 contemporary. 24 soloists. 143. 97. 111. 67. 4. 8 Lontano. 85 space. Steve. xvi performers. 89. 58 electronic. 129. Gaspard. 89 features. 84 development in. 24 listening to. Olivier. 124–125. 85 forced moves in. 52. 84. 85 criteria. 100–101 marketing. 89 evolutionary. 85 language of. 7 training.0 Index L Le Marteau sans maitre. 31. xi forms. 114. 155n19 Mosca. 130. 130. 107 yardstick for success. 116. 85 boundaries. 1. 68 classical American. 67. 83 performers. 41. 47. See also Performance pop. 7 jazz vs. 48 Motive. 22 Microlistening. 155n17. Robert Hall. 131 string. 119 design. 122 brass. 80 Menand. 52 composers. 132. 19 McAdams. 14. 134–135. 89 size. 115. 89. 21 Long Wharf Theatre. Gaetano. 6. 7. 101 Indian. 99 directors. 121. 119. 125 Music acoustic.. 6–7 rock music vs. 7 electronic. 101 Mozart. 118–120. 96–97 future of. 96. 86. Louis. xiv German.. 85 principles. 23. 156n24 influence of Messiaen on. 119 Musical language. 7 defined. Giacomo. 110 Lewis. György. 84. 123. See Spectral music Musical instruments. 75 Western. 125. xiv–xv design applied. 89 development.” 7 Marquis. 84 solutions. 124. 155n13. 123. 82. 155n14 Meyerbeer. 11 computer. 67 contemporary. 86. 2–3. 144 Messiaen. 85 tool-kit. Tristan. 84 aesthetic. 7 real content of. 107 design.. 113 spectral. 9 Marsy. 98 burden of. 89 . 98 highpoints. 42 Matrix. 46 Ligeti. 140 environmental movement and. 155n15 L’Itinéraire. 59 Murail. 86 constraints. 125–128. 82 human language vs. 109. 152n5 critics. 107 design. 127 language of. 85. 86. 88–89 institutions.

11 Permutation(s). Jack. 152n9 semirandom. Blaise. 152n9 Picasso. Harry. 76 Pop music. 88 National Cultural Alliance. 11. 92 Performing arts. 50 disadvantage of. 13. 77 member pitches. 67 virtues of. 19 budget. 88 analyses. 116. Index  development. 133 Pascal. Alvin. 128–130. George. 11. 123 Performance. Giacinto. 43 Pinker. 88 Rock music. 78. See Scale(s) N Nancarrow. Steve. 39 improvisatory. Conlon. 8 Rite of Spring. 128 Saturne. 78 octatonic. 1. 2. 47 San Francisco Polyphony. 99 Polyphony. 24 Rody. 75 Musical performance. xv.. Pablo. 82 chromatic. 83 Musical machinery. 110 combinatorial. 67 Reiss. 132 random. 78 degrees. Gioacchino. 46. 70 Opera. training of. 127 Q Quattro Pezzi per Orchestra. 116. 70 composer. Kaija. 155n17 . 82 human language vs. Joseph. 98 Rochberg. 12 National Endowment for the Arts. 69 Performing Arts. 75–76 Pinker. 123. Steven. 22 P Partch. 8 National Gallery. 7 Popular Culture and High Culture. Camille. 78 Online community. 121 Recordings cost of making. 130 Scale(s). 132 S Saariaho. 9 Necker cube. 134 Saint-Saëns. 131 teacher’s. 79 Scelsi. 56 to generate new variants. 136. 95 Nietzsche. 143 Pollock. 13 Rossini. See Performance Musical scale. 154n6 equivalency. 29 Postelectronic music. 79. 76–78. 79 whole-tone. 24. 69 composer’s instructions. 55 R Receuil de pierres et de sable. 39. 80 jazz and. Friedrich Wilhelm. 151n2. 129 O Octave. 55 Per Nørgärd. 88 Partiels. 19 Peabody Conservatory.

79 U Universal Grammar. 30 Tonality. 130 future of. 62 Temperaments. 154n8. 86 Symphonies. 42 Weibel. 40. 113–114. 111–123. Richard. 111. Alexander. See also specific composers defined.” 31 The Life of Pi. Peter. Henry. 84 “The Chinese Food Effect. 16–17 V Varèse. 132. Ivan. 145 . 58 What is a Masterpiece?. 60. 132 Scriabin. 6. 123 W Wagner. 52–53. 123 Stravinsky. 65 Weiner. 156n23. 39 Stockhausen. 112. 110 X Xenakis. L. 154n11 approach to. 98 Streamlining. 57–71 applications to art. 153n3. 20. 151n2 equal. 133 Shaffer. 88. 123 Virtual community. Karlheinz. 123 Woolf. Iannis. 43 Wïshnegradsky. 123–125 Stevens. Sandra. 9 Wilde. 109–111 central feature of. Max. 60 disadvantages of. Lawrence. 60. Virginia. 9 The Wings of the Dove. 129 composers. 135. 96–98 Spectral music. Index Schoenberg. 134 origins. 22. Igor. Wallace. 43–44 T Technology. 70 Voyage into the Golden Screen. 124 Texture. 86. 19 The Little Prince. Roger. 73 Sonatas. 59 Tessier. 128 Selva. Oscar. 38. 111–123 development. Edgard. Blanche. 95–97 The Louvre. 118. 8–9 The Wilton Diptych. 106. 122. Arnold. 58. 60 Weber. 89 Trehub. 24. 101 The Blind Watchmaker. 98 Serialism. 36 Well-Tempered Clavier.

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