My Prerogative

The Composer’s Role In Society is one of those subjects that seems to occasion much furrowed-brow reflection (the sort of confab Eddie Izzard would call a “strokey-beard meeting”). I sometimes think that the subject is not really that complicated, but that people would rather not admit that the Role of the Composer is essentially whatever each composer wants it to be—because, I don’t know, maybe they don’t like to think they have no recourse against a piece of music they don’t like. Better to cast about for philosophical justification, and, if possible, blame.

Here’s a couple of recent, pertinent examples, which I point out not because they’re particularly outlandish, but because they’re rather pure versions of the canonical complaints against composers that have been around pretty much forever. The first comes courtesy of musikwissenbloggenschaft, in which Brent gives it the old college try teaching serialism.

i led what has to be my worse discussion session this year in the music history survey i co-teach. the subject was the second viennese school. problematic was: (1) trying to sum up atonality and the twelve-tone method in forty-five minutes, (2) hiding my seething dislike of all-things serial, (3) teaching to the half of my students that have done thorough serial analysis and before the other half that were encountering this sort of music literally for the first time.

(First, a digression. IU’s a pretty big school; might it not be possible to find someone to lead the discussion without a seething dislike of the subject at hand? Because in my experience, not only is such seething dislike well-nigh impossible to hide, but also inevitably results in nothing being learned. And: if one is a teacher, and one’s class is a) bored, and b) having their lack of curiosity validated rather than challenged, perhaps one shouldn’t be so, well, smug about it? I mean, I had a high school history teacher that could make bimetallism exciting.)

Anyway, here’s the money quote, from the student discussion:

“was it music like this that made people stop going to concerts? it all seems so arrogant.”

my response: again, no comment. but i laughed on the inside.

Ha-ha. I amused myself sitting in traffic this morning imagining how this discussion might play out under other hypothetical seething dislikes: the designated hitter rule, Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise, silent letters in words, &c. (“Was it spelling knife with a k that made people stop doing crossword puzzles? It all seems so arrogant.” I laughed on the inside.) Nevertheless, there is a real response to this that’s far better than “no comment,” and here it is: all composers are arrogant—maybe not personally, but certainly in the act of composition. Putting your name at the top of a piece of music is hardly an act of humility. For Wagner to present me, as a listener, with four hours of Tristan is equal parts generosity and cockiness. What’s more: the composition of a piece you like is just as arrogant as the composition of one you don’t.

And, boy, that rubs some people the wrong way. Via the gimlet-eyed crew at The Detritus Review, I give you Pierre Ruhe.

The telling moment came when Arrell… led a discussion with his [composer] colleagues. His simple question—about how the composer thinks of an audience when writing music—was met with awkward silence, then nervous chuckles.

Did this suggest these local creators share an I’m-too-cool-to-care attitude toward the recipients of their art? When pressed, each composer had a properly respectful answer about the value of audiences….

I encountered something more distressing last month, as a panelist at a national composer’s conference….

When someone in the crowd asked, “Why don’t [living] composers get more attention from the media?” I rashly shot back, “Well, isn’t that the composers’ fault?”

Um… no: if living composers aren’t getting any coverage in the media, that’s because the likes of Pierre Ruhe don’t feel like covering them. Now, Ruhe can like and dislike—and write about—whatever music he wants, but to say that it’s the composers’ fault is just plain goofy. It makes it sound like a moral failing to write music that doesn’t match Ruhe’s particular tastes. (I sometimes spout off my opinions in the Boston Globe, but that doesn’t make them any more “right,” just—in theory, anyway, if not always in practice—more informed and more entertaining.)

Of course, there are composers who want as many people as possible to like their music—and I’ve never met or read about any composer who didn’t want at least somebody to like their music. But here’s the thing: writing music that you think the audience will like is a compositional strategy, not a moral imperative. It is no more or less valid than any other compositional strategy. It produces the same mix of greatness (La Traviata) and crap (“My Heart Will Go On”) as any other compositional strategy. You’re free to swap Violetta and Celine if your taste is different than mine—but that doesn’t mean you get to call James Horner a more “responsible” or less “arrogant” composer than Verdi, just because Verdi doesn’t happen to write music you like. And Schoenberg may not have been aiming at the greatest common factor, but he was writing music that he wanted to hear, and frankly, why is his status as an audience member less privileged than yours?

Music is one of the few things that everybody, regardless of whether they actually know anything about it, feels entitled to have an opinion about. That is, in fact, one of the best things about it. But those are tastes, not moral guidelines or philosophical truths. If a composer isn’t pandering to your preferences, you’re free to not like it—but really, try not to take it so personally.


  1. I completely agree on the maybe finding someone to teach who doesn’t hate whatever it is that’s being taught. I suppose someone who dislikes something is arguably better than someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about at all though so…The thing I hate is how some ppl equate the technique of construction with the musical product. That’s like saying addition always results in similar numbers. Lulu sounds nothing like Structures 1A. This is why I try to never talk about my music. I want ppl to have to actually, ya know, listen to it form an opinion. Not that that works anyway. A lot of ppl are gonna like or dislike my work based on whether they like or dislike me I suppose. It’s how ppl say “I like Wagner” or “I like Schubert” instead of “I like Wagner’s music” or “I like Schubert’s music”. This is part of a different conversation though.Rich(ard)

  2. You know, I find myself so curious about just how much serialist music was being performed in any given period, considering that people are so swift to credit serialism with driving listeners from the concert hall. I think I have heard about five serialist pieces, total, in the last few years, plus some modernist music, so not really very frequently and certainly not consistently enough to chase people from concert halls.

  3. <>That’s like saying addition always results in similar numbers. Lulu sounds nothing like Structures 1A<>Exactly, but try to tell a typical concert goer that, to *me*, stuff like Vivaldi and Telemann and other musical factories of the Baroque all sounds alike and they protest.Lisa brings up one of my pet peeves. To hear it, you’d think concert programmes from 1927-1970 were all like this:Webern: 6 Pieces for OrchestraSchoenberg: Violin ConcertoStockhausen: GruppenObviously not. More than anything in my experience, it’s 10 minute pieces that get programmed, if “difficult” music is played at all. The great serialist monstrosities from the 50’s and 60’s have kind of been sorted through and the ones that will likely endure are still programmed once in a while. All the third rate Schoenberg and Stockhausen imitations are resting in oblivion, along with most of the other music ever written. But what’s the crux is what’s considered “difficult”. I’ve walked out of concerts hearing people complain bitterly about that “atonal” music they played and why don’t they play music people want to hear, like Schubert?Obviously, they’d just heard <>Le Marteu sans maitre<> or <>Metastasis<> or <>Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima<>, right? Nah, it was stuff like:Strauss: Don JuanRavel: La ValseBartok: Concerto for OrchestraScriabin: Poem of EcstasyMahler: 6th symphony Barber: 1st symphony Barber: violin concertoKorngold: violin concertoBritten: Simple symphony (seriously)I mean, what to do with such wrongheadedness?

  4. Sometime this summer, I hope to hunker down with the complete run of BSO programs they have at the BU library and actually work out some statistics on just how much new/avant-garde/easy-listening/etc. music was being programmed in any given decade.

  5. You know, that’s a great idea. Hmmm. PALM must have something like that for SFS. I wonder how many hours it would take to put together a works performance archive.

  6. I’ve just been teaching some twelve-tone pieces (Babbitt Duet and Widow’s Lament in Springtime, Schoenberg 4th quartet and Serenade) so I’m interested in the subject. For the life of me, I still can’t see how it would be possible to have contempt for “all things serial”. After all that covers a multitude of sins–I suppose it would be possible to hate Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Dallapiccola, Babbitt, Martino, Stravinsky, (all of them and all of them equally) and, as well, Ruth Crawford (which is what we moved on to after Babbitt and Schoenberg in my class) and Peter Maxwell Davies (who are serial, if not twelve-tone), but that’s a lot of different sounding stuff, and I’m skeptical about the idea that theserialism of them is what would make them all unlikeable. I would like to take this opportunity to point out once again that, in my experience, at least, whenever people start talking about music being either serial or a-tonal (how can they tell, I wonder), what they usually mean is just that they think it’s ugly. It seems to me that the purpose of the teacher in such a situation is to talk about why anybody might want to write music like that–what problems it solves and how, in as value-neutral a ways as possible. Incidentally, I think that Babbitt’s Words About Music is about the best explanation of what it is about twelve-tone music that would maybe make someone want to play that particular game.

  7. Wow.Thanks for taking my snarky rants seriously, as they are, perhaps not obviously, meant. But also meant seriously. Is that confusing? It seems like you understand our intent, so so be it.Also: Good work, sir. See you around the blogosphere, and thanks for reading.Sator ArepoPS:Gimlet-eyed? New one on me. Really more of a martini guy myself.

  8. Rodney, don’t forget Copland, Messiaen, early, early Adams, Schnittke, Part, Penderecki, Gorecki, Tavener (!!!!), and Robert Ceely. Serialist wankers. RE: the post. Certainly, one is free to have an opinion, for sure. Just have the guts to admit that serialism (or stuff “you” don’t like) has value to the greater perspective. It’s easy. AND you don’t have to like it! Yea!

  9. Ah, you’ve just written everything (and so much more!) that I was muttering angrily under my breath after reading that rather arrogant post the other day. Bravo!

  10. Rodney, empiricus: I’d add Frank Martin, Leonard Bernstein, and my current idealistic coolness goal, < HREF="" REL="nofollow">David Shire<>. (I listen to that cue at least once a week.)Sator: I’m more a martini guy myself, but that gimlet is in the top five. (I learned it from a Dashiell Hammett novel. I can’t turn down a recommendation like that.) Awesome summer variant—instead of Rose’s lime juice, use fresh-squeezed, unsweetened stuff. Dry as dinosaur bones.

  11. Good post. I agree a lot with what you say here, especially the part about composing being an essentially arrogant act. Reminds me of one of John Cage’s quotes-something to the effect of “People say that anyone could write this music. Of course they can–but they don’t”I’m also reminded of the first day of my intro to music history when the teacher, (who happened to be very open to and accepting of new/avant-garde/experimental music) played a sample of George Crumb’s “Black Angels”. The girl to my right, who was and is still a performance major, said “That music is scary.” Deep stuff…

  12. I imagine that teacher’s comment about “all things serialist” was not meant quite as literally as most of the comments here would have it. Rodney Lister is on the right track about general concert audiences conflating “serial” with “ugly”. But it doesn’t seem particularly useful to trash the sensibilities of some audience members for not liking the ugly music you and I might like and certainly not for failing to have the technical training to describe in words what it is they are objecting to. Nor does it seem very useful to make yet another list of all composers using 12-tone, serial, quasi-serial, and all other possible permutations of those techniques who manage to write music that is somewhat more pretty than, say, Boulez’s second piano sonata. So what? It’s preaching to the choir, and not very interesting. What is much more interesting (to me, anyway) is why the perceived ugliness of certain areas of “modern” music seems to persist, even after almost a century of exposure for some of it. And there’s a sort of ancillary question of why some folks seem to take to ugly music quite readily, where others (who may even want to very badly), don’t or can’t.

  13. <> it doesn’t seem particularly useful to trash the sensibilities of some audience members for not liking the ugly music you and I might like<>I agree. Which is why I’m thoroughly fed up with them trashing mine.

  14. First of all the person making the comment wasn’t some innocent audience member; he/she seemed to be a graduate student or, worse, a faculty member, teaching a class. It seems to me that such a person should have a higher level of accountability for first of all knowing something and secondly having a more highly developed vocabulary for describing whatever it is he/she knows or thinks he/she knows or thinks he/she thinks. The point of my list is to highlight the different kinds of music and sound that were being lumped together and tarred and feather on the basis of what is in at least some of those cases, a relatively unimportant detail of its construction.

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