a little gripe

with modern classical programming for concerts and festivals:

there is so much music from the 20th century which is BOTH rigorous, challenging, AND ALSO AT THE SAME TIME beautiful, seductive, sensuous, and (here's that word again) accessible ---- and sometimes, or often, i find the most impenetrable, difficult, and... almost farcical pieces performed.

i mean i kind of understand and even admire the impulse: a big acetic fuck you to "entertainment", to "bourgeois sensibilities", to consumerism... but at the same time, they are playing right into the stereotypical cliches the general population have about this music.

case in point: yesterday saw some Salvatore Sciarrino among others performed (don't remember whose piece the following describes) -- a group of 6-8 performers playing brief notes between long uncomfortable pauses, exchanging seats/instruments, all running to the piano to pound on it, etc., none of which being the least "musical", and just coming off like the sort of buffoonery people complain to arts foundations about -- and they wonder why funding often gets cut for "new music".

but the evening was saved by a drop dead gorgeous Stockhousen piece, which gently swelled and ebbed along elegant arcs... (nothing to do with the point but interesting: the 4 performers, per instruction of the score, had not slept or eaten much in 4 days)

well OK considering the theme of yesterdays concerts was "Audio Poverty" so maybe they consciously chose to showcase stringent works which do not "give", and embody an idea of "poverty" of experience... but the same holds true of many other concerts i've attended...

i think the reason stingy and difficult music is prized and elevated to the status of genius, and sensuous and generous music is often ignored, is because the institutions of academic music are run by joyless old male control freak kurmudgens.


Guillermo said...

I agree! More Kurtag! More Birtwistle! More Part! (but lets not have desensitization by Audi commerical/Starbucks coffee advert overuse, either, i plead)

zhao said...



A lot of the 20th Century repertoire takes hard work, and a lot of rehearsal, neither of which are very compatible with 21st century values. In "The Real Frank Zappa Book", Frank recounts some of the depressing realities of trying to get his classical stuff performed accurately. Nobody wants to pay for the rehearsal time, and often the musicians have nothing but disdain for the material. That's why you get *gimmicky* takes like the one you apparently saw.

Isaac said...

Difficult music is worthwhile though, no?
The big "fuck you" to entertainment and bourgeois sensibilities that you note is indeed problematic. Not because it's unmusical, or buffoonery etc. : but because it turns out that the "bourgeoisie" (arts foundations, etc) is quite entertained by "fuck you"s, and so the critique the piece offers is proved to be naive by its own performance.
I think the problem might be that classical music (whatever that means) has ceased to be a discursive music (moderated by feedbacking communities of listeners, musicians, etc) and has led to concert programming that is always somehow didactic.

zhao said...

good points everyone.

Isaac: it is true. critical agendas often become co-opted and impotent -- and this is for sure partly responsible for the cartoony cliches. so how should artists and directors proceed? attempt to further antagonize expectations in a futile game of one-upman-ship -- and produce and showcase works which are increasingly hard to swallow to, and past the point of absurdity?

i would say no. and perhaps an alternative would be something along the lines of zizek's "over-identification":

the waiter who shows contempt for the job that he has to do because of financial hardship like "i am really a concert pianist and this is so beneath me" is actually playing the role assigned to him to the letter, and have become a complete tool of the institution.

while the waiter who "overly identifies" with the role, who performs every deed with exaggerated enthusiasm, smiles with extra subservience to his patrons, is the one who actually retains his subjectivity.

not quite worked out how this can be applied to out topic at hand but i think there is something there...

Newk said...

Agreed. However, there are other factors I've seen come into play, like ticket prices. When I lived in San Francisco, the symphony would once in a while play Xenakis or Ligeti, but the ticket sales would drop. The natural conclusion for me is that folks who are actually into 20th/21st century work, and actually dig into the music (rather than going to the symphony as a class/status staple) cannot afford the usually high ticket prices. At least that was always my experience. I always had to depend on local musicians or music school students who were putting on chamber pieces on a small scale, even to experience composers such as Ives or Partch.
Thanks for bringing this up, and thanks for your many offerings. There's an Ocora release I've been trying to get my hands on for ages, one with music from the Dogon of Mali. Might you have that recording?

zhao said...

ah the long lost Dogon LP, never reissued on CD? watch this space :D

Noidal said...

Right on the money!! I’m a little off topic, but……I've always felt ( I’m generalizing) that the best music balances the intellect with intuition. Without intuition (spirit, instinct) music is cold and too thought out. This is a problem with a lot of music from academia. Too much left brain! Institutions are usually one step behind what’s really happening in music (whatever that really is). Much of their time is spent on analyzing what someone did, and putting rules to it. This is necessary in the learning process, but must be shed (or take a back seat) when creating. Over analysis leads to paralysis (creatively speaking). And…
There are a lot of joyless old male control freak curmudgeons running the show.

TomF. said...

But surely there are enough concert and CD offerings of easily digestible pablum? A little difficult music won't kill ya. The Scirriano piece sounds to me like a variation on Cage's "Water Walk" or "Music Walk", with deliberately theatrical elements. The silences also sound quite Cagean, of course. I never heard an "uncomfortable" silence in my life. Remember Schoenberg said "Pauses are never bad." :) Anyway, what is "accessable" to one listener can be just warmed-over movie music to another. We live in difficult times, so difficult music is useful to help put some backbone in our listening habits. If one wants soothing music one can always attend some traditional classical concert (nothing wrong with that!) or listen to some pleasant New Age oatmeal. I'll take Ferneyhough, Xenakis, and Boulez. Substance over superficial pleasantries!

zhao said...

agree with your sentiments to a degree Tom F.

but it's not a black and white polarity is it? it's not EITHER difficult and intelligent OR pleasant stupid oatmeal -- is it?

that is why the first sentence of my post describes a hell of a lot of music that are challenging AS WELL AS beautiful.

and no, there is not enough of this kind of music performed. and that is the point: funding for "new music" is very, very limited world over, and i have a problem with what often gets chosen by committees -- seeing curious people, who are perhaps potential patrons, walk away shaking their heads, frowning.

i would give my left pinky (so to speak) to see some pieces from James Tenney's Forms performed by a large ensemble, for instance. but what are the chances of this ever happening? next to none.

and "avant classical" programs keep filling up with deformed brains in jars.

zhao said...

and maybe my sensibilities can be more refined, but the silences of that piece were uncomfortable because they were used in such an artless, paper-cut out, one dimensional cliched fashion, not enhancing what came after them: because what came after was entirely dissapointing. the piece seemed not methodical with pointed intentionality, but entirely arbitrary, a dead fish in a bucket making fun of itself.

maready said...

Sciarrano is about as far from an academic as you can get. Maybe you should read up on him and listen to some of his work. I assume the Stockhausen you saw was from "aus den sieben tagen". If so it is a piece of his "intuitive" music --- i.e. what you saw was improv.

There are some very nice Sciarrano CDs on Kairos. Stockhausen was a very great composer when he was actually "composing". "Gruppen" is available.

Thanks for the Hans Otte. If you read up on Sciarrano I think you'll find that he is a very sincere, talented autodidact,much as Otte was. His music is often very moving. It's kind of surprising to see the "Emperor's New Clothes" diatribe popping up on this blog.

zhao said...


i don't know if my description of the farcical bufoonery was of the Sciarrano piece (it probably wasn't), like i said in the post. and i never doubted his sincerity in any way.

i also said that i admire the impulse to show case "difficult" music.

i myself, personall, am very much interested in, have massive respect for, and spend a lot of time with, VERY difficult music. ------ but that is not what my gripe is about, nor is it the point of this post.

please re-read.

Khroustaliov said...

"because the institutions of academic music are run by joyless old male control freak kurmudgens"

ain't that the truth!

for me, the problem seems to rest squarely with an orthodoxy of mindless academic cretins and the stifling Marxist bullshit that spews forth from their mouths, engulfing everything in a sickening halitosis miasma...

dailyleftover said...

any chance you up that music from the Dogon of Mali ..most preciated