Generalization of the day

My wife works for Harvard, so we get Harvard magazine in the mail, sixty or so glossy pages recounting fabulous adventures of faculty and alumni. Anyway, this month brings a half-page of pithy remarks culled from a confab with John Adams, who picked up the Harvard Medal for the Arts this year, including this one:

Harmony is where the psychological meaning of the music is. [Twelve-tone composers] wrote atonal music, and at the same time Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin were having a fine time with harmony.

Here’s a fun game: try and come up with a context in which this out-of-context remark doesn’t imply that, say, the Berg Violin Concerto contains no harmony. (Or the Lyric Suite, for that matter.) How about Martin? Henze? I’m spending the week walking orchestration students through a section of Dallapiccola’s Variazioni that’s nothing but harmonic progressions. And those are just the composers, who, off the top of my head, seem to put their primary emphasis on harmony. Triads are nice, but there’s more than one way to meaningfully stack up those notes.


  1. Actually, what I think is more offensive (and just a weird, nonsensical comment) is that harmony is the only musical element where psychological meaning lies (of course, it seems like Adams is just full of ill considered and offensive remarks these days; maybe that’s what being at the head of a hegemony does for you). Which goes both ways, temporally; it means, for example, plainchant, which doesn’t have a harmonic context, really, is devoid of psychological meaning. What are these melodies, chopped liver? What about that rhythm (which I guess Ellington wasn’t so much involved in?)? timbre? Space? None of these, apparently, contain psychological meaning (I guess emotional meaning is what is meant by this)? Dear Adams; would you please give your minimalism back to nice composers like Steve Reich? We’re tired of mean-minimalist pontifications.Sincerely,S

  2. S: you get right at the flip side of the comment, which I didn’t formulate clearly to include. I’m a pretty vertical-thinking composer myself, but it makes me appreciate the horizontal aspects even more, since I have to be consciously aware of them when I’m working.I should probably mention that I like Adams’ music a lot. But I do think he’s not as judicious in deploying his considerable contrarian streak as he could be.

  3. It shows that I’m tired and not thinking straight when I read instead “<>Harvard<> is where the psychological meaning of music is.” So I became flustered, wondering what the heck those three have to do with Harvard, while composers normally associated with Harvard lie forgotten (Kirchner, Carter, Piston, Sessions, etc.).Regaining sense, I see that Adams true comment is a different sort of curveball. Yes, I think it’s time for sleep.

  4. Kyle: Harvard has certainly gone through periodic stretches where your somnolent reading would have no doubt been the preferred one….

  5. Matthew,There’s nothing wrong with harmony or even a strong preference for harmonic thinking, but rather it’s harmonic (or actually, I suspect, stylistic, though that’s not explicit in the comment) snobbery that is distasteful. My point is that psychological content (or whatever kind of content) could be projected through a variety of other musical elements. There is no ‘natural order’ or ‘musical laws’ and there is more than one way to fry a fish.Adams’s music is an separate issue… I used to enjoy it more than I do now. I have increasingly found his pieces to be not as tight and polished as they were in the 1980s (i.e. as Harmonielehre, Harmonium, Nixon in China, for example). Also, I’ve found it difficult to separate the experience of listening to his music from his musico-political persona- his apparent role as high priest of minimalism and “accessibility” (a position which, I think tellingly, Reich, Glass, and Andriessen never accepted) and USA composer laureate (exhibit A; the hoards of big league awards that he has been reaping of late). This isn’t entirely a personal thing or just my reading too much external baggage into the music; his music has more often had a kind of Hollywood-esque sort of accompanying programmatic gloss (i.e. Transmigration of Souls, Dr Atomic, Century Rolls) that was missing from earlier works, which tends to lead one (or at least me) to think about rhetorical issues like “accessibility” and focus groups…Also, I think one of the reasons that his comments touch a nerve for me is that it’s hypocritical to complain about how a group didn’t make room for your music when you were a student, and then turn around and make life difficult for that group once the tables have been turned. Oh well; revenge probably has karmic consequences, and perhaps the tables will turn again.Best,S

  6. Oh, do get over your northumbrian selves. Adams is gifted by the gods and anybody with a good ear knows it. Reading the subtext of the “Harvard” magazine remarks leads one into all kinds of capitalist/imperialist byways we don’t even want to explore here. So let’s just say that the East Coast Refugee Adams is a brilliant explorer of the Beautiful West Coast, and he’s a member of both tribes without even trying.And “I have increasingly found his pieces to be not as tight and polished as they were in the 1980s” is an absurdity. “A Flowering Tree” is Mozart, Strauss, Sibelius and Just Plain Adams condensed to its essence and it is perfection, and it was written last year. Stop being silly.

  7. sfmike: Exploring capitalist/imperialist byways is the main form of procrastination here at HQ! But I can say that <>Harvard<> magazine doesn’t actually lend itself well, as it tends towards safe bromides. Cripes, they did a profile of <>Niall Ferguson<> last month that managed to come off pretty inoffensive.The one curious pattern I find in Adams’ music (and again, I’m a fan) is his habit of undercutting a propensity to grandeur with deliberately “light” endings—I’m thinking of <>Hamonielehre<>, the violin concerto, to a certain extent <>Klinghoffer<>, etc. The idea is probably to emulate the similar pattern of 18th-century classicism, but the grand parts are so grand that the balance is sometimes skewed for me. I tend to like those pieces best where that weightiness is continued through to the end—<>Grand Pianola Music<>, <>Nixon<>, <>Naive and Sentimental Music<>. It probably says more about me that the pieces of his I find most compelling are the old-fashioned statements that, vocabulary notwithstanding, you’d expect from a graduate of the school of Piston, Sessions, and Kirchner.

  8. Adams’ comment is disgraceful. It’s 2007, books (remember books?) are readily available, and nobody should have any patience for this kind of intellectual laziness.

  9. sfmike,Well, I haven’t heard ‘A Flowering Tree’, so I can’t say anything about it, but, in my opinion, Transmigration of Souls and Century Rolls certainly fit into my thesis (i.e. I think they’re bad pieces, and obviously he could have done a better job, but didn’t have the time or inclination). On the other hand, it’s a personal preference and aesthetic outlook thing; if you don’t hear the pontifications of a high priest in Adams’s music (as I do), then you don’t, and more power and enjoyment to you. I’ll persist in my silliness, because, in fact, you can’t really unhear what you hear in music.One more thing, though:“Adams is gifted… and anybody with a good ear knows it.”So I guess I’m either being insincere or have a bad ear? I think that I’m not the one(s?) that needs to get over themselves. Adams is a mere mortal (although, as I mentioned, I think that he forgets that, at times). There ain’t no ‘natural in music’, no muscial laws, an’ no musical gods.sincerely,northumbrian selves

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