Saturday, November 23, 2019

Danielle Fosler-Lussier on George Rochberg's Third String Quartet by way of her monograph on Bartok

A while back I read a fascinating book published by University of California Press on Bartok and Hungarian nationalism.  I thought I wrote about that book but I have not, actually, it turns out.  But I picked up another book from the press on Bartok that caught my eye and in the Epilogue West chapter Danielle Fosler-Lussier writes about the influence of Bartok on George Rochberg's Third String Quartet.  Five movements in Rochberg's work call back to the five movement palindromic approach to cyclical works in Bartok's fourth and fifth string quartets.  Rochberg's opening salvo in his Third evokes a lot of Bartok, maybe too much Bartok for those who are already into Bartok.  Fosler-Lussier proposes that when Rochberg turned his back on serialism and twelve-tone he turned back to a mixture of Mahler and Beethoven, yes, but also just as clearly Rochberg turned back to Bartok. 

Rochberg's work is as niche as it gets in classical music and I learned of his work through a fellow I knew from my college days but I learned more about him through the blogging of Kyle Gann.  I have, obviously, gone to the trouble of quoting Rochberg a few times when he says stuff I find intriguing or that I agree with.  But for all that there is something about Rochberg's work that, however much I can find things to admire about it, doesn't quite stick with me.  I will never love Rochberg's Third String Quartet the way I love the third string quartets of Bartok or Shostakovich.  But what is it about the quartet that makes Rochberg's work seem okay but not altogether memorable?

Now I've written in the past about how Roger Scruton has said that Rochberg turned back to tonality and how my counter-proposal is that Rochberg introduced ostentatious code-switching into his quartets.
And let's quote Rochberg again, for sake of review:
The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music
George Rochberg
Copyright © 1984 by the University of Michigan
ISBN 0-472-10037-8

Page 240
… the twentieth century has pointed—however reluctant we may be to accept it in all areas of life, social as well as political, cultural as well as intellectual—toward a difficult-to-define pluralism, a world of new mixtures and combinations of everything we have inherited from the past and whatever we individually or collectively value in the inventions of our own present, replete with juxtapositions of opposites (or seeming opposites) and contraries. …

Page 241 (from “On the Third String Quartet”) [which you can hear here]

Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor—not style, language, system or method.

Polystylistics were becoming a thing in that period and whether it was Schnittke or even pre-"his sound" Arvot Part experiments in stylistic contrast and juxtaposition were going on.  Rochberg's embrace of stylistic shifts in his third quartet was revolutionary because he had mastered the high modernist norms of the academic scene he was part of. But Fosler-Lussier made the point about Rochberg and double-coding back in 2007 and, beyond that, nailed something that I wasn't able to put into words.

from Music Divided: Bartok's Legacy in Cold War Culture
Danielle Fosler-Lussier
University of California Press
copyright (c) 2007 by The Regents of University of California 
ISBN 978-0-520-24965-3

page 163
The openly polemical aspects of Rochberg's Third Quartet were crucial to its musical importance; at the same time, they work counter to certain of its expressive purposes in ways that weaken the work's artistic impact.  The polemical stance of the quartet encourages the reading of styles as signifiers--that is, rather than the gestures or nuances within a style conveying meaning, here the mere evocation of the style is treated as sufficient to transmit the meaning. ... Once the listener has learned to attend to the boundaries between styles as the carrier of meaning, it is difficult to shift back into the mode of listening where nuances within the style matter, and this substantially weakens the expressive force of the third movement and of the quartet as a whole. Although Rochberg maintained that his primary interest was reviving a language for genuine expression of a kind that existed in earlier traditions, some of his music clearly privileges the polemical, meta-musical, or even sloganlike use of tonal styles, such as the entire movement based on the much overplayed Pachelbel Canon that he included in his Sixth Quartet. The political goal of rehabilitating expression often seems to be at odds with the project of actually expressing something, and this is a serious obstacle for Rochberg's music. [emphases added]

Wow, yes, that's a fantastic way of putting it.  Rochberg's Third uses styles as signifiers and Fosler-Lussier has written what I couldn't find words for to describe what feels like a shortcoming in a string quartet I do admire, but admire more than I love.  As someone wrote in email correspondence years ago, Rochberg had balls of steel to reject serialism when he rejected it but he may be more of a pathbreaker who opened the gate for other composers to do more interesting things with the ideas he was exploring.

I have found Rochberg's writing and music useful but in a way he's more useful for what I think he didn't manage to convince me he did.  Or, let me be friendlier about this, I think the Caprice Variations constitute a more interesting direction within his work than the Third Quartet by exploring the possibility of continuity across the borders of styles that get unified by way of variation technique and variation as a large-scale form.  Now Ferdinand Rebay did that in his Historisches Suite for flute and guitar decades earlier and there was nothing postmodernist about that, so I wouldn't say what Rochberg did was postmodernist and Taruskin pointed out in his Oxford history that Rochberg rejected the label of postmodernist.  What Rochberg was grappling with was how musicians and composers could deal with a disconcertingly new and global sense of what he called pluralism.  Or as Leonard B. Meyer put it, in Western European terms the ideology of pluralism in the West seemed bigger than the amount of pluralism it needed to account for in European societies and the more non-Western societies came into contact with European cultures the more doubtful it was that the Euro-centric conception of pluralism was actually pluralistic enough to encompass the global pluralism observably in the, well, globe.

The book is officially about Bartok but along the way of highlighting how indebted to Bartok's work and styles Rochberg was in developing the Third Quartet Fosler-Lussier zeroed in on something about the Rochberg quartet that's been bugging me. 

Foreign Policy "The West has a resentment epidemic", urban vs left-behind gap, cf The Stranger on the "Urban Archipelago"

The results of the 2016 presidential election in the United States illustrate a broader reality, which is that the gap between the cosmopolitan city and the economic periphery has become the new social class divide across the West. Where people live, as much as how they live, now increasingly determines their beliefs, values, and sense of tribal belonging.
As the researcher Will Wilkinson explores in a recent report, such a “density divide” is not exclusive to the United States. It can also be found in the results of the 2016 British vote on membership of the European Union, where support for remaining in the EU was largely concentrated around London and its extended commuter belt, and the 2017 French presidential election, where support for the left-center candidate Emmanuel Macron clustered around the thriving cities of Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse.
Changes in the global economy have spatially sorted voters into progressive urbanites with a large stake in a new technological future, globalization, and liberal values, and the left-behind who see their own identity and economic prospects threatened as never before. Rural areas and small towns may have always been more culturally conservative, but this divide, combined with the resentment generated by economic and wealth inequality, has triggered the most prominent recent political explosions across the West.
It's time to state something that we've felt for a long time but have been too polite to say out loud: Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America. We live on islands of sanity, liberalism, and compassion--New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and on and on. And we live on islands in red states too--a fact obscured by that state-by-state map. Denver and Boulder are our islands in Colorado; Austin is our island in Texas; Las Vegas is our island in Nevada; Miami and Fort Lauderdale are our islands in Florida. Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country. And we are the real Americans. They--rural, red-state voters, the denizens of the exurbs--are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hate-mongers. Red Virginia prohibits any contract between same-sex couples. Compassionate? Texas allows the death penalty to be applied to teenaged criminals and has historically executed the mentally retarded. (When the Supreme Court ruled executions of the mentally retarded unconstitutional in 2002, Texas officials, including Governor Rick Perry, responded by claiming that the state had no mentally retarded inmates on death row--a claim the state was able to make because it does not test inmates for mental retardation.) Dumb? The Sierra Club has reported that Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee squander over half of their federal transportation money on building new roads rather than public transit.
If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country, we need a new identity politics, an urban identity politics, one that argues for the cities, uses a rhetoric of urban values, and creates a tribal identity for liberals that's as powerful and attractive as the tribal identity Republicans have created for their constituents. John Kerry won among the highly educated, Jews, young people, gays and lesbians, and non-whites. What do all these groups have in common? They choose to live in cities. An overwhelming majority of the American popuation chooses to live in cities. And John Kerry won every city with a population above 500,000. He took half the cities with populations between 50,000 and 500,000. The future success of liberalism is tied to winning the cities. An urbanist agenda may not be a recipe for winning the next presidential election--but it may win the Democrats the presidential election in 2012 and create a new Democratic majority.
For Democrats, it's the cities, stupid--not the rural areas, not the prickly, hateful "heartland," but the sane, sensible cities--including the cities trapped in the heartland. Pandering to rural voters is a waste of time. Again, look at the second map. Look at the urban blue spots in red states like Iowa, Colorado, and New Mexico--there's almost as much blue in those states as there is in Washington, Oregon, and California. And the challenge for the Democrats is not just to organize in the blue areas but to grow them. And to do that, Democrats need to pursue policies that encourage urban growth (mass transit, affordable housing, city services), and Democrats need to openly and aggressively champion urban values. By focusing on the cities the Dems can create a tribal identity to combat the white, Christian, rural, and suburban identity that the Republicans have cornered. And it's sitting right there, on every electoral map, staring them in the face: The cities.

Yet here we are in 2019 with the current president.  It's as though focusing only on appealing to urbanites without accounting for the influence of the electoral college might have meant that (even with beliefs that foreign elements tampered with the election) Clinton lost by a landslide in the electoral college vote.  How could that have happened?  In part because if you only aim to win over the people in the urban centers and explicitly disregard everyone not included in that scene the rest of the counties and districts might have gone red.

Foa and Wilmot point out:

While much attention has focused on differences in values between progressive cosmopolitanism and provincial conservativism, the fact remains that conservative values, at least on matters of lifestyle and religion (if not on matters of national identity), are either stable or in decline. This makes the populist insurgency an anomaly, for a constant cannot explain a change.
What has changed in the last generation, however, is the level of economic and wealth inequality between regions of Western countries. As Joan Ros├ęs and Nikolaus Wolf have shown, regional divergence began in the 1980s with globalization and deindustrialization, and it has deepened in recent years.
If we are to understand the depth of populist anger, we must look to the economics of regional resentment. In the United Kingdom, for example, a person’s position on leaving or remaining in the EU in the 2016 referendum was linked to the geography of the nation’s housing market, with research showing that property prices are one of the best predictors of whether voters supported or opposed Britain’s vote to leave the EU, even at the ward level (the smallest electoral unit, of around 5,000 to 6,000 voters). Estimates by Chris Hanretty, which we have mapped below, show that Remain constituencies were almost entirely concentrated around London and its satellite commuter towns, while Leave constituencies covered almost the entire rest of England.
It's doubtful the editors at The Stranger stopped to consider that given the economic and social trajectories of the urban vs the exurban regions there might be an electoral shift that would be a reaction to their "screw you" to everyone not in the blue-state cities.   
Op ed pieces at The Atlantic that warn against a rejection of democracy itself might have to be read with a pinch of salt.  What people may be rejecting is an Atlanticist American-centric EU-driven globalist order.  Depending on how things go we might not even have a UK in the next fifty years but not necessarily because of ecological catastrophe.  As Josephine Livingstone put it over at The New Republic, Brits can too easily forget how much raw power, force and coercion went into united the United Kingdom and it isn't necessarily going to last.
Had urban progressives made any effort to actually abolish the Electoral College system in the last fifteen years who knows if they would have succeeded and whether or not in some alternate universe we'd have someone besides the person we have.
As bad as I find the person to be I recall someone pointing out something as to why he supported the man.  Short version, of all the candidates who threw their hat in the ring DT was the one candidate who went so far as to say explicitly that the globalist Atlanticist post-World War II pax Americana policies no longer benefited mainstream Americans.  That in itself hardly seems like a reason to vote for the guy but a progressive once told me that DT gave voters a choice, someone who wasn't just variations on a Bush or a Clinton so people were going to back him.  While talking about the 81 percent who did back him tends to revolve around theories of clan-based backwater racism that's merely part of the morass--it's hard to forget, living as I do in Seattle, what The Stranger editors decided to say to anyone not-blue-state-cities about whether or not they were even Americans, after all.  
Some of the folks that come to mind who support Trump supported Nixon and there are jokes about how much things are similar.  Some things are different.  We've long since stopped having two parties in the two party system who are willing to lose.  The Clinton impeachment was a dog and pony show that came across like cheap self-serving political theater in spite of the character issues of Bill.  Claims that Bush 2 should be impeached were made and nothing happened.  Absent a president willing to voluntarily resign rather than face impeachment there is no precedent for anyone being removed from office by impeachment.  
The possibility that, since he somehow won before, he can win again, is on the table.  That he comes across as a populist agitator with a mouth I don't feel much need to belabor.   The "have you seen the other guys!?" approach to campaign slogans didn't work then and they don't give us reason to think they will work next year.
Here we are in 2019 and writers at The Stranger and editors are admonishing artists to LEAVE Seattle because it's getting expensive and hard to live in and is less and less arts-friendly.  Had there been less electoral balkanization over the last twenty years ... but that's  a pointless what-if.  

Richard Florida was writing recently about the geographic winner-take-all aspect of arts and urban centers, pointing out that creatives are leaving the super-star cities.
In recent years, America has increasingly been defined by a winner-take-all geography, with coastal superstar cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., garnering a disproportionate share of high-tech startups, corporate headquarters, and innovation and talent. But surging costs and inequality in these places—elements of what I call the New Urban Crisis—may be shaping the beginnings of a shift in talent to other parts of the country.
The big knowledge and tech hubs which once had such a stranglehold on attracting talent seem to be losing their allure. Many places around the country now have bundles of amenities—renovated old buildings, coffee shops and good restaurants, music venues, and not least of all, more affordable homes—that can compete with the biggest cities. In other words, the amenity gap between superstar cities and other places has closed, while the housing-price gap has widened.
After a couple of decades of winner-take-all urbanism, talent may be shifting away from the established superstars to less expensive places, large and small, urban and rural.

If this urban sort merely eventually relocates people without creating long-term shifts in the electoral outcome at a cumulative district level there's not much reason to think that 2020 will necessarily go blue.  
Sometimes it feels as though The Stranger articulated what in electoral and demographic terms was a manifesto that could be read as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Stranger has run with the idea that Trump's ground game was white supremacy.  The black friend who surprised me by explaining why he was happy to vote for Trump told me that the Clinton legacy on black incarceration and banks and foreign policy convinced him that keeping on voting for Democratic candidates was not really worth it.  It's not that there's no case to be made about white supremacists being drawn to Trump and his courting them, it's that The Stranger had already declared everyone that wasn't in their touted urban archepelago could go fuck off.  The red district electorate apparently decided to say "same to you" in 2016.  Somehow Clinton lost pledged votes between the election day and the electoral college vote.
It's conceivable that just saying Trump won because racism could become another self-fulfilling prophecy.  When the people I've met who told me why they voted for Trump say it involves a rejection of the United States having be a world cop backing globalist policies that gut working class interests in most places except the urban centers; or that the Atlancist centric post-World War II pax Americana in which we protect the interests of Europe from Russia isn't worth it for Americans then it's possible that, okay, so there are racists who vote for Trump.  But then Woodrow Wilson was pretty white supremacist and he somehow got us into World War I.  Maybe we have an executive as bad as Harding and Nixon and Wilson combined but to interpret the political shifts strictly in terms of white supremacist pandering has me worried that that could, assuming he doesn't get removed from office via impeachment (which has never happened in the history of the republic so it's a big gamble to assume it will happen now with such a polarized two-party system) land him a second term.

Cherie Hu writes that classical music is facing a changing world and its music journalists are grappling with how to adapt to this

There's an older piece from late summer at Columbia Journalism Review online I've been thinking about.


More and more, critics are going beyond reviews that focus on musicality and technique to report on problems concerning diversity, politics, and workplace culture. Independent publications such as I Care If You ListenNewMusicBox, and National Sawdust’s The Log reflect a more diverse creative landscape and a more politically-conscious audience. There’s an increasing drive, Gersten tells CJR, “to ask what a given concert is doing for the reputation of an institution and for the field at large…Can we use this concert, this particular piece, as a sign that there are better things to come?”


Still, virtually all classical-music writers avoid pronouncing the death of their field. “The conversation about the ‘death’ of classical has been part of my entire adult life, and so much about the genre has changed in that time period,” Brown says. “I don’t find it to be a helpful attitude anymore. When I first started at VAN, we were determined that the magazine would be a place where the phrase ‘classical music is dead’ would never appear.”

The first of those has some interesting stuff getting published.  Douglas Shadle has written some intriguing pieces on how African American composers and composers from America who didn't fit into the Beethoven or Wagner paradigm were sidelined by American music journalists during the nineteenth century.  

For me NewMusicBox feels has-been already and I only discovered it in the last few years.  I've read essays by composers who talk about how their music defies genre and how genre is just such an "over" thing ... and it feels like it has me stuck in some Portlandia skit in which some one declares "neckbeards are over!". 

The problems concerning diversity broached in the more memorable essays I've read at NMB tend to be ... well ... it's hard to shake a sense of hostile ... advertising.  "I don't fit into the white supremacist legacy of classical music because X, Y and Z."  

Well, okay, I can easily grant the symphonic traditions evolved during peak European colonial/imperial expansion but ... as a guitarist ... I might add that I think we've been witnessing the general decline of the symphonic idiom and ... I'm trying to stay positive here--we can develop new musical practices that build on those traditions so that even if the symphony has been on the wane in the last century and a half we can still learn from the symphonic tradition.  Some of those ideas need to be translated a bit for the probably smaller instrumental and vocal resources we'll have in our time, but it can be done.

NewMusicBox, however, has not impressed me as a platform in which those conversations are actually happening overall.  Battling old racist narratives with new narratives that trade in appeals to minority and orientation status deserve to be heard and brought forth ... but I am still not sold on some of the terms like Eurocentric and Afrocentric just yet.  I know Jacques Ellul claimed the old sacred can only be cast out with a new sacred but if art is religion for many people in our age then the canons are inevitably formed and one canon will be displaced with another.  People want purity in their canons, a purity that perhaps we shouldn't want so much.  The more I read about what we'd call Baroque music the more clear it is that stylistic purity was not a goal for them and that what has been presented to us in hindsight as a grand unified perfection of style and technique may be a heavy retroactive presentation ... we've had read for us a perfection of a "single" style that in the era of J. S. Bach was the simultaneous existence of a plethora of styles and forms.  It may be that our educational system presented things "then" as more monolithic than they were.

On the other hand ... I've found myself unconvinced that the unity we have through equal tempered instruments is really offset by stylistic differences; and there can be times where it's hard to shake a sense that some claims made about the slipperiness of Western notation seem like circumlocution.  I can read arguments that the literate musical traditions are clearly adaptable enough that the Kepler quartet recorded Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 7.  In other words, the sheer variety of pitches in that string quartet is so vast I don't think it makes sense to claim that Western notational systems don't have the accuracy to tell us what the pitches are a la Andrew Durkin's Decomposition.  If we wanted to say that most composers don't want to write a score that distinguishes between two notes that are just four cents apart, fine.  I'm with you. I, too, am not writing music that requires I be that picky about pitch. 

But in some writing from liberals who aren't people of color, arguments about the inaccuracy of Western musical notation can come across like shorthands for "non-white music doesn't fit into Western notational conventions".  There's still a difference between "this can't be done" and "this is so tedious a task to notate fully down to every last little microtonal shift and rhythmic nuance I don't want to bother".  In other words, a lot of writing about music and musical literacy can be about literally and figuratively white and black narratives when I'm not entirely sure it needs to be.  Thanks to equal temperament I can learn a Stevie Wonder song, a Joseph Lamb rag and a J. S. Bach two-part invention.  If liberal writers treat the divide as impassable from one side conservatives treat it as impassable from another while Stevie Wonder regards the boundary as practically non-existent.  That's where I land, personally.  If new generations of people who write about music have to do the work necessary to treat Haydn and Stevie Wonder as part of a beautiful, shared musical tradition then let's keep doing that.  

Particularly as I get older and think about the mixed race aspect of my lineage I'm worried, and I think with cause, that one potential proposed antidote to a white supremacist take on the Western literate musical traditions is a kind of inversion of the "script".  Raymond Knapp's observation in his book on Haydn, camp and the legacy of German idealism was that the ideals of authenticity and emotional rawness that emerged in Romantic era European art music got flipped in rock and jazz criticism to designate blacks in American cities rather than white guys in the Alps and so on, but the core problem is the basic script has been retained.  Andrew Durkin attempted to argue against an idea of authenticity but basically failed, and failed completely, because he was focusing ... fixating on the slippery nature of Western musical notation. 

I think a more fruitful line of attack is to do a full frontal assault on the legacy of German idealism.  Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating The Nation does a fairly good job of unpacking how a critical and educational establishment dominated by the legacy of German idealism sidelined American symphonic efforts as they were being made but I don't want to rehash that too much.  I think Durkin meant well in trying to attack a type of "authenticity" but he attacked the wrong type. 

Contra Norman Lebrecht types, there's not really a clear reason to imagine we're witnessing the "death of" classical music.  Taruskin thought this was happening in terms of the death of musical literacy but even he has been packpedaling on that since his Oxford History was completed.

Norman Lebrecht had his death of classical music moment and death of criticism moment but he's so ... over the top about it ... the death of the death of doesn't really even seem like a snarky idea:

Postmodernism, as has been rightly pointed out, is not a movement, a genre, a style, or anything else that can be formalized; it has no manifesto, no coherent creeds or tenets; only a loose association of tropes that have been exploited ad nauseam (irony, self-consciousness, recursion, epistemic contradictions). Like it or not (despite claims about New Sincerity, or the Post-Postmodern) our age is still a thoroughly postmodern one, and it’s hard to conceive of a time when it won’t be. This is conditioned partly by the belief that things are coming to an end. Or, that things have already ended––the finish line has already been crossed and we’re simply running around the track because we have nowhere else to go. This entropic countdown is part of what it means to be living “after” the modern.

For decades now, essays spelling “the death of…” have become a cottage industry, almost a subgenre within the critical essay. Yes, it seems that things have been dying for quite a long time now. Most artists share the same pessimism about the present: that the form is in decline, the best days are behind it, audience’s standards have been tragically lowered, and the stuff that gets picked up by the mainstream now is all crap. Musicians, filmmakers, photographers, all talk this way. But fiction writers seem to be uniquely obsessed with this belief. Indeed, literature is the only medium that actively, neurotically insists on its own obsolescence. It’s become the cosmic background noise against which today’s writer works, one that structures their whole view of their place in the world.

Many of these obsequies have been penned by some of the best and most successful writers. Jonathan Franzen’s “Why Bother?” (Harper’s 1996); Tom McCarthy’s “The Death of Writing––if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google” (guardian 2015); Will Self’s “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real)” (Guardian, 2014) are just a few. Others who haven’t committed these thoughts to the page have said as much in interviews. Zadie Smith has said she doesn’t believe that a coherent literary culture will survive her lifetime; Martin Amis has made similar rumblings, with a little more optimism. This is nothing new. Writers have been giving the novel funeral rites for years, and in reading these pieces, you’d think they were the ones digging its grave. So, I’m not keen to weigh in on the death of literature by adding another to the pile, especially with the added irony of claiming that “the end of things” also seems to be at its end.

The argument that the novel as a form is dead as a result of bi-directional media (Self) is distinct from the argument that the novel as a cultural force is dead (Smith, Franzen). The first presents a real challenge to the novel’s creative life, and the conversation about it will continue among writers. But for journalistic purposes, it’s the second that really deserves attention. The claim that no one reads serious, difficult books anymore is only half-true. Numerically, there are more readers now than ever. There are more students studying literature and graduating from writing programs, which means that books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Magic Mountain are being read by more people, with more care and attention than they were at any time previous.

If the argument is that once we've reached the end of a teleological conception of history that has a forward moving "direction" in the arts, Leonard B. Meyer pointed that out half a century ago. He also suggested that the traditionalist or the expressionist might not be the kind of artist that comes to characterize the new era.  The future might belong to the kind of artist Meyer called the formalist (not in the Emotion and Music sense, but in the sense he used in Music, the Arts and Ideas.


Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago 

ISBN 0-226-52143-5

page 191

... if earlier styles and materials are employed in contemporary art, music and literature, it will most likely be done by those inclined toward formalism, rather than by those who still consider works of art to be vehicles for personal expression. One cannot "use" the expressive quality of a Bach, a Rembrandt, or a Donne. ... In like manner, it will probably be the formalist rather than the expressionist who delights in the possibilities of mixing styles and materials from different epochs within a work or in employing different stylistic models in successive works.


That this is indeed the case is shown by the fact that it has been avowed and explicit formalists, such as Eliot and Stravinsky, who have employed past procedures, models, and materials most patently and most extensively. And we are thus confronted with an amusing paradox: the end of the Renaissance--of belief in teleology, individualism, expression, and so forth--has made possible a return to the styles and materials originally fostered by those beliefs. 


page 193

...  If this analysis is correct, it should follow that in the future a particular past will be favored and explored because of the specifically artistic problems it poses rather than because of the ideological position it represents. 

Now perhaps Meyer was wrong ... but if he was right then a formalist might tackle artistic problems in ways that do not tether a writer or musician or artist to using forms and idioms as defined by traditionalist, expressionist or transcendental-particularist ends.  In other words, if a guitarist were to emulate John Cage's use of prepared piano writing a work for classical guitar that would not necessarily be an agreement with or an endorsement of Cage's ideas but simply a formal adaptation of a range of techniques.  Traditionalists and conservatives tend to re-litigate old wars so Cage's influence can only be mapped out in terms of "visionary" or "charlatan".  As an American I tend to think of Cage as an American, with an American response to specific cultural, economic and musical issues of his day.  I can respect his rejection of a paradigm in which American music was always beholden to what Douglas Shadle called the "Beethoven problem" or the "Wagner problem" ... but I can do this without having to actually like most of the music of John Cage.  If Cage can seem marginally important in 2019 it is because the problems he felt obliged to confront head on and in a drastic way are not the problems many of us musicians feel a need to deal with in the same way now.  

I guess to put this in a rather clumsy way ... American musicology seems to have people who want an integrated canon, to have Ellington and Bach and Jelly Roll Morton and Messiaen and Thelonious Monk and Stravinsky all part of a single musical world.  I love that idea.  I am not so sure I love the battles within musicology in which people seem admonished to have to pick one or the other.  I'm not interesting in assertions that all of "classical music" is predicated on white supremacist views.  Any group can be supremacist.  

I've been thinking about the Wesley Morris piece on music that has been part of the NYT 1619 project and have written in the past about aspects of it I find troubling.  Short version, American music journalists and musicology can basically flip the script of the German Idealist Romantic era myth of the artist as prophetic renegade so that it's no longer a Beethoven but a Charlie Parker.  The script gets flipped from European art music to American popular music without actually rejecting the underlying script at all.  It's that underlying script that I have been rejecting much of my adult life.  

As I'm getting into Mark Burford's Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field (which is an amazing book so far, and well worth picking up!) I came across a passage in which the composer William Levi Dawson said that the nascent black American gospel popular style of music had its place but that he had reservations about it becoming the dominant style in church life.  The short version is Dawson suspected that churches would go with the new more or less post-Thomas Dorsey style of popular song because it required less stringent technique from performers than the kind of work in the spiritual song for chorus Dawson was working in.  It wasn't necessarily casting aspersions on the music as music as raising a question as to whether the music would supplant more difficult and in some ways explicitly classical or classicist music by contemporary African American composers in the interest of saving money. 

After 50 to 70 years of soul and soul-antecedent music being so prevalent in music industry standards it can be too easy to riff on the tropes of soul and the difference between an Aretha Franklin and a Mahalia Jackson on the one hand from an Aguilera or a Bolton on the other.  But those African American classically trained musicians who expressed doubts about the "dumbing down" that would come to black church music if it was dominated by "whoop it up" singers could be distilled into an axiom--once you know what the bag of tricks is for working a crowd you can do that even if you don't have a lot of cultivated musical skill.  If you do have spectacular skill (a la Aretha!) then you can use the tropes of soul to brilliant effect, having mastered the style but having that style informed by other styles.  

This constructive critique, in turn, might tie into a post-Adorno criticism of popular music as a corporate product which, in a sense, Thomas Dorsey was very upfront about.  Adorno, notoriously, saw no musical works that emerged from popular musical styles as challenging listeners to engage in critical thinking at the level called up by music from the serious art music traditions (i.e. Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Bach, Mahler, etc).  Fans of popular musical styles have more or less fallen into lockstep conformity with narratives and myths to the effect that there's nothing about African American music that follows "the rules" of white European classical music.

Since I've been listening to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's cantata cycle on excerpts of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha I don't see how that's plausibly true.  Thanks to writing by Joseph Horowitz I'm listening to symphonies by William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson and Florence Price.  In other words, my concern with a mythology that holds up African American popular music as the "real deal" is that it can be done so at the expense of capable African American musicians working in concert music traditions or in avant garde musical styles that, not being easily incorporated into popular music industry styles, will not make the grade.  Michael Jackson and Julius Eastman don't necessarily have bodies of musical work that map readily on to each other, as best I can tell.   

It's also possible, digging into the history of black gospel music as emphatically popular music, to consider that "serious" music by black American composers has been ignored not just because of racist tendencies in classical music but possibly also due to racial stereotypes in which, thanks to the flipped script of "authenticity" in American music journalism and scholarship about what constitutes "real" music by and reflecting black American experience, British-African music can be ignored altogether and Afro-Cuban music (Leo Brouwer, anyone?)  can be skipped over by American music journalists who are already not conversant in classical guitarist composers in general and might not have heard of Brouwer.  There are new music journalists who might be sick of every classical guitarist seeming to put Brouwer works into recital programs but I'm not in that camp.   I think Brouwer is amazing.  But in American mythology and pop culture history the Chuck Berry sound has more clout because, well, to be blunt about it, a Cuban composer who's been part of the Communist party would tend to get ignored by Americans thanks to generations of Cold War partisanship, even though Brouwer's music is worth studying regardless of whether or not one agrees with the gist of his political commitments.  In theory that's what a commitment to the liberal arts could involve but in the United States that doesn't necessarily follow.  

To bring this back to comments against a teleological conception of music history, I suggest we can translate that concept a bit into what I think is an effectively corresponding theological term.  If modernism in various forms evolved in a kind postmillenialist millenarian frame, and if fundamentalist reactions tended to shift over to an opposing premillenialism, then what people who have been trying to shake off all the things they regard as most damaging, colonial, racist and so on about the Romantic era may be trying to aim for is a kind of secular equivalent to a tempered amillenialist position, in which we don't have some narrative in which we are the saviors of society.  A rebirth of an art form won't signal a rebirth of the human race, just a rebirth of that art form.  

It may not be so bad a thing that criticism as conventionally understood by critics in the twentieth century is dying off not because there's nothing of value to it, but it may be that the ways in which the Western literate musical traditions are changing and shifting it might be just as well that those immersed in a business model that's been fracturing in the internet era are less and less in a position to have a kind of priestly/prophetic role.  

At a more meta-level one of the things I recall Richard Taruskin pointing out is a gap between what he's called the repertoire canon and the academic canon.  In the wake of reading so much Theodore Adorno and Jacques Ellul and trying to take seriously what I think are the better concerns raised by Roger Scruton and John Borstlap I think there's another way to describe some of what has gone on.  One does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate the confining or consolidating aspects of technocratic approaches to art.  This wouldn't just be something you could say about high modernism.  No, it could also be that a kind of factory approach that figures out assembly line paradigms of maximal production and then imparts that to students happens in technocratic cultures.  I'm thinking, at the risk of just throwing in something at the very end, on the order of Mark McGurl's The Program Era.  Axioms such as "Write what you know", "Find your voice" and "Show, don't tell" are axioms in college and grad school writing programs.  Do these axioms catalyze great literary art?  Eh ... maybe?  It could be thought of as the grad school variation of the axioms and precepts articulated by Joseph Campbell about the Hero's Journey for lowbrow fiction, a kind of highbrow counterpart to the middlebrow and lowbrow axioms.  You're not supposed to be so daft as to think that all of the stories in the world are reducible to a half dozen standard-issue plots but you are supposed to be sophisticated and cultivated enough to know that if you write what you know, find your voice and show rather than tell and don't make yourself too beholden to the old stand-bys in obvious ways, well, art.

Maybe I'll let a quote from Elif  Batuman explain things a bit because some of what Batuman has to say maps surprisingly well with criticisms Scruton and Borstlap have made about postwar European "zero hour" attempts to build an entirely new conception of musical art from within a set of academic axioms that sidelines building on canons:
Like many aspiring writers in America, I enrolled in graduate school after college, but I went for a PhD rather than an MFA. I had high hopes that McGurl, who made the same choice, might explain to me the value of contemporary American fiction in a way I could understand, but was disappointed to find in The Programme Era traces of the quality I find most exasperating about programme writing itself: oversophistication combined with an air of autodidacticism, creating the impression of some hyperliterate author who has been tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition.

McGurl himself observes that a limited historical consciousness is ‘endemic to the discipline of creative writing, whose ultimate commitment is not to knowledge but to what Donald Barthelme called “Not-Knowing”’. Formed in the shadow of New Criticism, the creative writing discourse still displays ‘not a commitment to ignorance, exactly, but … a commitment to innocence’. This commitment, this sense of writing being produced in a knowledge vacuum, is what turned me off the programme to begin with. [emphasis added] Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all. Literary scholarship may not be an undiluted joy to its readers, but at least it’s usually founded on an ideal of the collaborative accretion of human knowledge. It’s frustrating that McGurl, a literary historian, occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James, ascribing to the American postwar era various creative ‘innovations’ that actually date back hundreds of years.
Then there's this passage, in which we're treated to:

In the early 19th century, Jane Austen, who did not use the phrase ‘point of view’, or read an anthology called Points of View, nonetheless began writing novels whose sophisticated and innovative use of limited narration is founded on a firm grasp of the fact that ‘everything said is said by [i.e. from the limited perspective of] an observer’: an insight described by McGurl as the ‘foundational constructivist claim [of] contemporary systems theory’, and the cornerstone of ‘the paradoxes of narrative “point of view” in the Jamesian tradition’. Although James’s prefaces do describe, in possibly unrivalled detail, a writer’s struggle to find the right narrative perspective for a given story, writers had been conscious of this struggle for a long time. It was with great difficulty that Dostoevsky abandoned an early draft of Crime and Punishment, written in the first person from Raskolnikov’s perspective, and decided to shift to third-person narration by a ‘sort of invisible and omniscient being, who doesn’t leave his hero for a moment’.

and then this charming little statement, " It might not be true that you have to ‘know the rules before you can break them’, but knowing the rules can save you from certain pitfalls, like thinking you’re being revolutionary when you aren’t. " That is a thing that can be accomplished, in part, by criticism as a discipline and art form, if you make a point of reading criticism. 

In a passage that for me somehow evokes both Adorno and Ellul in one go Batuman writes:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique taken as telos. The raw material hardly seems to matter anymore: for hysterical realism, everything; for minimalism, nothing much. The fetishisation of technique simultaneously assuages and aggravates the anxiety that literature might not be real work. McGurl writes of the programme as a manifestation of ‘the American Dream of perfect self-expression’. Taken as an end in itself, self-expression is surely sensed, even by those who pursue it, as a somehow suspect project, demanding shame and discipline.

So should we get rid of writing programs?  Higher education?  No, not really, but as I read criticism about criticism or critical essays about the nature of literary production it does seem as though there's a bad conscience about "the program era" and whether there's a distance between residually Romantic ideals as to what makes for authentic and compelling art (literary, musical, plastic, cinematic and so on) and the reality of programs of education in the liberal arts.  There are the Roger Scrutons who unabashedly regard the fine and liberal arts as the domain of elites and elitists and those who regard populist anything as inherently bad, aristocrats of the soul and probably some actual aristocrats now and then and aristocrats of bank accounts.  

There is one respect in which I'd venture we might benefit from going "back" to patterns from the nineteenth century where classical music is concerned, and that would be that composers would be directly involved in the writing of music criticism and music journalism.  Music criticism as a scholarly activity is probably not in danger of going anywhere but music journalism and music criticism by active composers is something that we have in our era.  Local music writer Gavin Borchert comes to mind, though where he's writing now I'm not so sure.  I've enjoyed hearing his music and I like reading what he has to say about music.  I've loved reading Kyle Gann's blog and I have been listening to Hyperchromatica and it's a fun piece.  I'm not going to go microtonal myself because I have a six-string, but I am liking the music.  You know, even though I find I can really disagree with John Borstlap about stuff he writes he is a composer who does write critically about music.  I often reach dramatically different conclusions from the ones he does, which anyone who has read four or five posts here and compared that to his book would figure out.  The thing is, what I enjoy about our era is that while the Norman Lebrecht style ... I'm going to be a bit of a provacateur here ... while the vocational consumer as journalist style of critic may be in a bad way and Norman Lebrecht can be worried about that, the composer who wades into the fray with a specific point of view a la Kyle Gann or John Borstlap doesn't seem to be gone and that, as best I can tell, is closer to what was going on in the nineteenth century a la Berlioz and Schumann and Wagner than Lebrecht and company.  Charles Rosen, of course, springs to mind, too, people in whom critical activity is connected to actually participating in musical life in some way.

We have so many albums getting produced and marketed that I have relatively little use for the kind of criticism and music journalism that tells me to go buy this album.  I don't mind that kind of writing, really, but since I have gone on and on about what I regard as the ways we can synthesize ragtime and sonata forms I confess to having a more theoretical yet also ... dare I call it activist ... agenda?  I think we should do what we can through theory and practice to bridge the gap between academic and repertoire canons as Taruskin has pointed those out, and I also believe that in the era of 45 it is both harmful and self-harmful for advocates of high art practices to have a dangerously pejorative working definition of any populist ideals or impulses.  I can even admit that there are things about socialist realism as a set of aesthetic goals I can find admirable, which doesn't mean I won't read about the miserable plight of Zaderatsky writing his 24 preludes and fugues on telegraph cards in a gulag.  

The more I have read on composers in the Soviet system who were attempting to bridge the distance between jazz and classical and listen to  composers like Claude Bolling or more recently Michelle Gorrell, it strikes me that attempting to develop some kind of successful workable synthesis of the European concert music traditions with what is lately called African diaspora music has been a niche but passionate agenda on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  Music journalists don't generally do this kind of work ... scholars do ... so ... eh ... anyway ... I feel like maybe I've written enough on this topic for now.  :) 

On an Overgrown Path, blogger Pliable proposes younger audiences are not wired to listen to and understand classical music in the way older audiences are, so we should reconsider our approach

Something the blogger who goes by Pliable has been writing about this year, which I find fascinating, is about about the long-term changes in music cognition that have happened since the introduction of recording technology and the subsequent emergence of the commercially recorded music industry.    I've read some of Ethan Hein's arguments that the nature of the commercial recording industry should be taken into consideration in music education, i.e. we should consider popular song and hip hop and jazz as elements in musical education.  His writing is, at the risk of attempting to describe it in a single sentence, an exploration of continuing music education in an American cultural context in which the supremacy of the Germanic symphonic tradition is not taken as given.

Where Pliable is writing from is from a perspective of advocating for what we would colloquially call "classical music" but without the Mahler+Shostakovich dominance of the symphonic repertoire.  The potential intersection between what Pliable has written and what Hein has written springs to mind for me on the general theme of electronic dance music, whether a UK/European approach or an American approach.  

I realize just now that the sheer epic level of insider baseball involved in those two paragraphs is why maybe two dozen people any given day read this blog lately.  :)  That's okay.  I admit to having shifted the focus of this blog into the patently esoteric and niche realm of music theorizing.

So, here we go, Pliable has some thoughts about how our brains are being rewired by the use of digital technology:

A typical American adult spends more than 11 hours each day interacting with media. Our brains are being rewired by this extended use of all-pervasive digital technologies, and the resulting re-synapsing of neural connections is fundamentally changing behaviour patterns and value systems. My proposition is that classical music is not adapting to these fundamental changes with the result that the artform is failing to connect with a new audience.

A simple example of how quickly and easily neural connections are rewired is provided by an experiment carried out by the respected neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandaran. Test subjects viewed an image of jumbled black dots on a white background. After a short time the dots were seen to form a dog. Detailed brains scans taken during the recognition process showed that neurons in the temporal lobes became permanently altered once the dog had been recognised. That the dog was easily seen subsequently is confirmation of the new neural connections. Studies of musicians and of those practicing meditation have identified similar changes in the brain's structural connectivity.

I'm going to risk attempting to translate the implications of that a little.  Consumption patterns create patterns of cognitive shortcuts.  Daniel Kahneman proclaimed in the book Thinking Fast and Slow that the brain is a machine for jumping to conclusions.  Granting that there are "System 1" and "System 2" ways of thinking (very broadly known as largely automatic and subconscious gestalt observation and formal, analytical thinking respectively, for those who read the book), Kahneman made a case that most of the time our brain jumps to a basically correct conclusion and this happens 98% of the time, if you will, which means that in the proverbial 2% of the times where our brains jump to the wrong conclusion they jump to a catastrophically wrong conclusion that seems perfectly reasonable because we arrived at that conclusion on the basis of the patterns of pattern recognition our brains normally jump to.  

What Pliable has just pointed out is that once our brains are "wired" to jump to a set of conclusions about what we have observed retraining the brain to jump to any other conclusion(s) than the one we have acclimated ourselves to jump to is going to be exceptionally difficult.  The implications we should consider from the ways in which the era of music industry we live in are:

Classical music's new audience is new not just because it hasn't yet learned to appreciate classical music: it is also new because it has different behaviour patterns and value systems to the traditional classical audience. It is an important but overlooked point that the traditional audience is also becoming 'new' as its neural connections are rewired by the extended use of new technologies. The defining characteristics of this rewiring are well documented: shortened attention spans, demand for instant feedback/gratification, decreased reliance on linear thinking, reliance on mobile technologies, increased visual acuity, multi-tasking capability, etc.

One expressions of this rewiring particularly relevant to classical audiences is the change in sonic expectations. Research has shown that listening via computer speakers - notoriously lo-fi transducers - was the most common way for Americans to listen to music (55%), followed by headphones on a portable device (41%). The traditional reference standard of a component audio system was the listening mode of choice for only 12% of research subjects. This research also identified that 52 per cent of on-demand music listening is via video streaming. As a Financial Times article explains: "Then there's where people listen to music. Not in solitary confinement, but out on the streets, on public transport, in the car and in their bedrooms. External sounds, even with whizzy noise-cancelling headphones, have a habit of interfering with music. And that's OK. No one minds".
Long, long ago I got some kind of test in a corporate setting and a supervisor discussed those results with me.  He pointed out that something that made me unusual was that I scored as being able to think in linear terms but also in global terms, with a preference for global thinking over linear thinking.  I jokingly suggested that this probably meant that although I "can" think in a straight line from one premise to the next I prefer not to because it's too often boring.  

If our listeners who are more trained by popular song than concert music are not trained to listen precept by precept and line by line; if a shift in music cognition is more "global" or "gestalt" then Adorno's prediction that "spatialization is absolute" may mean that people listen in terms of continuous groove more than in terms of the syntactics of musical "argument" beloved by the Roger Scrutons of aesthetic punditry.  

But what Adorno insisted upon in Philosophy of New Music was that the linear-dramatic and spatial-rhythmic modes of music cognition had bifurcated in the twentieth century and that both had become false.  Now that's where I think Adorno made a categorical assertion he couldn't back up, insisting both modes of listening (and writing music!) are "false".  But I think he probably was on to something by saying that the best of Western classical music had a balance between "groove" and "argument".  To put it in terms I hope non-Adorno readers can appreciate, Adorno was saying that a J. S. Bach or a Haydn or a Beethoven had mastered the ability to write music that had both "groove" and "argument", rhythmic and harmonic vitality with melodic interest.  

We live in a lo-fi on-the-go listening culture whether we like that or not.  

If attention spans have shortened in what Chris Delaurenti has called the age of song (something I was mulling over earlier this month), then advocates for classical music, and by that I mean composers and musicians interested in sonata forms and rondos and fugues and forms often thought of as characteristic of eighteenth century music and beyond, need to account for the reality that attention spans have shortened.  The long nineteenth century gave us Wagnerian length opera and eventually gave us Mahlerian and Shostakvoich scale symphonies.  Now I do admire the music of Shostakovich but I'm more drawn to his string quartets than his symphonies.  I have been contending, admittedly my bias here is coming from being a guitarist, that the age of the symphony has been ending, slowly and steadily, since the dawn of the twentieth century.  This is in no way a denigration of the symphonic tradition as an art form.  I love Haydn's "Farewell" symphony.  I love Paul Hindemith's symphonic suite Mathis der Maler!  But ... as a guitarist what I think we guitarists can, and should!, work toward accomplishing is translating the range of formal and developmental possibilities of the symphonic and keyboard and chamber music traditions toward the end of scaling back the size of things to the post-popular song era attention span. 

Let's take any random prelude and fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance.  Ask yourself, how long are those pieces?  J. S. Bach's famous forty-eight actually lend themselves to the pop-song mediated attention span.  On average any given prelude and any given fugue are enough within the confines of "pop song length" that even people who are not into classical music in general can get into Bach's music in particular.  There is a potential irony in that, Ethan Hein's not into classical music in general but he loves J. S. Bach and yet Bach's work may lend itself to a post-pop electronic dance attention span by not being part and parcel of the patterns that were developed by what some scholars call the long nineteenth century.  

Something else Pliable has blogged recently keeps with the theme of how audiences hear music differently and what consequences this could have for attempts to continue classical music as a performance and concert tradition:

Prolonged exposure to digital technologies is retuning our sensory channels and changing the way we hear music, and that is something classical music cannot ignore. It explains why the full-blooded symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich eclipse the more nuanced masterpieces of Mozart and Haydn in the concert hall. And it means that for millennials - classical's chosen target audience - all-immersive electronic dance music is the soundtrack of choice.

Scriabin's experience of converging sound and colours has been dubbed pseudo-synesthesia and it is not unreasonable to suggest that the extremes of combined sound and visuals pioneered by electronic dance music create a different kind of pseudo-synesthesia. Dance music festivals are an extreme example, but there is no doubt that the digital zeitgeist is, in varying degrees, causing neural circuits to be rewired and sensory channels to be retuned. The classical industry's refusal to accept that audience expectations are changing is puzzling. Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc is the de facto online mouthpiece of the classical industry. Are the topics that are repeatedly discussed there really going to reshape classical music to meet the significantly changed expectations of its audience? The argument that classical music does not need to reshape itself is untenable. Classical concert conventions were not handed down on tablets of stone by the gods; they were established by orchestras and audiences more than a century ago when technology, culture, and sonic conditioning were totally different.

Classical music orthodoxy views the music - product - and the audience - customer - as two discrete entities connected only by supply and demand. However, Benjamin Britten’s visionary concept of a holy triangle of composer, performer and listener is a creative restatement of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which explains how the observer - listener - affects the observed - music. In subatomic physics the viewpoint of the universe as blocks of discrete matter has been superceded by the view that matter is no more than the expression of constantly changing relationships between different energy levels*. Classical music can learn much from this thinking: because if the listeners are changing, aspects of the music must also must change.

Now I don't much care for synthesthesia and pseudo-synthesthesia.  That seems like some kind of fad to me, honestly, but I take seriously the argument that as attention spans have shortened we will do ourselves a disservice by insisting that people get into classical music in nineteenth century terms.  That could be an "eat your broccoli and kale, it's good for you!"  I like broccoli and I like kale.  I even like brussell sprouts (and by musical extension I like Hindemith, I enjoy music by Alois Haba and Ivan Wyschnegradsky and little bits of Xenakis).  But I also like fruit.  In his sprawling Oxford HIstory of Western Music Taruskin pointed out that Haydn wrote a lot of symphonies and string quartets but he also wrote a lot of dance music, and that it wouldn't be too far out to consider Haydn to have been an MC and a creator of dance and party music for aristocrats.  Where that ties into Pliable's observations about contemporary classical music is, I hope, fairly obvious.  Haydn did develop and refine a variety of forms that we would consider complex and large-scale forms, obviously sonata forms, but he did so in a context in which he was writing music to order for aristocrats who liked to party.  He was also writing a lot of choral and vocal music for an observantly Catholic social world and Matthew Riley's relatively recent monograph on the minor-key symphony in the era of Haydn and Mozart's Vienna makes what I consider to be a plausible case that Haydn developed the idioms of the eighteenth century minor key symphony as a way to comply with the constraints and norms of Lenten observance with a continued demand for music even during Lent.  But I digress ... .  The point is that balancing an interest in complex forms with dance-based musical grooves is something that has gone on a long time in Western music.  Adorno's polemic in Philosophy of New Music was to insist that by the twentieth century the paradigms of "argument" and "groove" had sundered and both had become false.  

Okay, let me take that as given so as to make a point, Pliable is suggesting that classical music has lost its groove and that a renewal of vitality in classical music may need to come about by finding "groove" again.  That is something like the conclusion I've been coming to in the last twenty years, that guides my slow and incremental exploration of how it is possible and for me desirable to develop ragtime in the direction of sonata forms.  Ragtime was a genre of song and an instrumental style and obviously also a form of dance music.  To bridge the gap between ragtime as a style and the formal possibilities of sonata forms seems like a potentially helpful restoration of a synergistic relationship between "groove" and "argument" that Adorno claimed was lost thanks to capitalism and the evolution of a commercial music industry.  

The era of the seventeen minute long opening sonata allegro movement for a symphony has passed.  If people have the attention span of four and a half minutes these days why should I make them listen to a seventeen minute sonata form when I could write a four and a half minute sonata form?  Once you start slicing out the conventionally observed repeats in Haydn's sonata forms his sonata movements go from seven to eight minutes down to, oh, yeah, more hit song proportions.  My own point, being an admirer of Haydn who also loves Stevie Wonder songs, is that if we went more back to Haydn than Mahler we'd be skewing toward an approach to large-scale structural approaches that would be more amenable to the contemporary attention span that Pliable has said has been altered by digital and on-the-go listening habits.

My personal route to classical enlightenment was via 1960s/70s prog rock, and it puzzles me why today classical music does not make more effort to reach out to the progressive non-classical audience. This, of course, does not mean dumbing down the classical masterworks, so no Beethoven Nine with added synthesizer. However a recent post discussed the difficulty of finding music to preface that symphony. 

I would say that there is a lot of potential in the progressive rock side of things.  Progressive rock, reviled by many, was aiming at adding classical music levels of formal complexity to rock that would break free of the constraints of the pop song.  I think a lot of that music was exploring stuff that won't win over people who love the formal clarity and focus of pop songs whether they would recognize that or not.  There's nothing King Crimson did that is going to necessarily resonate with people into pop song format.  To borrow a complain Haydn made about some of his peers, there's such a thing as a surfeit of ideas and a lack of ways to organize them.  We live in an era in which hooks are played to death in popular songs if I would dare to call them hooks at all.  I am not thrilled with a good deal of what I hear on the radio lately and it's not because I don't have any appreciation for pop songs, it's because I'm sick of hearing I-V-vi-IV emotionally manipulative ballads.  Lewis Capaldi could vanish from the radio and I would rejoice.  

I guess let me put it this way, if you can't imagine how it's possible to create a fugue from the hooks in Stevie Wonder's "Ordinary Pain" then I'm going to go so far as to say you don't really understand harmony, counterpoint, or the art of composition.  

What I find frustrating about conservatives like Roger Scruton is that when they condemn pop songs for bad voice leading there seems to be a tacit assumption of an eighteenth century as taught by nineteenth century textbook set of tests that pop songs are supposed to fail but then the Scrutons can turn around and sing the praise of Schubert for not being beholden to the alleged strictures of eighteenth century music by breaking out and doing far out harmonies that were considered too abrupt to suit the tastes of the prior century.  Equal tempered tuning was still getting consolidated and, to pick up Pliable's idea about shifts in applied technology and listening habits, there were things that were probably still regarded as dissonant based on a collected cultural memory of how bad a G flat major seventh chord was going to sound on a keyboard tuned by mean-tone temperament and other not-equal-temperament tuning systems.  Haydn dealt with criticism that his voice-leading was bad because he doubled octaves.  Doubled octaves are bad voice-leading!  Sure, Haydn was doubling octaves by doing something like assigning a melody to oboes and bassoons but ... bad!  

It can be pretty bad faith to invoke rules in one context to say that something that's not trying to follow those rules is bad music and then turn around and talk about how great Schubert was for not being constrained by rules that weren't even being that studiously followed in the century whose rules the nineteenth century Genius wasn't following.  It's almost a comic axiom that when everyone discusses what a sonata form is expected to be like there's an extravagant discourse on what things you would and would not expect to hear and see in the music of a sonata movement and after hundreds of pages of this you could come across some phrase that is basically "except for Haydn".  

Which is one of many reasons why I love Haydn's music.  As Taruskin put it in his Oxford History of Western Music, Haydn was ignoring all the rules of proper sonata form before nineteenth century theorists had decided what those rules were supposed to be.

We don't need to get back to Beethoven.  We need to get back to Haydn, if we "need" to get back to anyone at all.  That gets at what I have come to consider to be the difference between a conservative and a reactionary.  A reactionary wants us to go back to something. A conservative wants to conserve something but how that thing, whatever it is, gets conserved, is not necessarily fixed.  If there is a way to preserve and pass on Haydn's genius for gestural development and large-scale handling of forms in a playful and entertaining way that can be done through popular song, go for it.  That has been one of my lifelong interests as a composer and musician. 

Haydn refined his art by, as he put it so simply, gauging audience response.  If an audience loved something he did more of it. If they didn't like something he didn't do it again.  Haydn did that and became so well-loved and famous his music was known about in the American colonies during his own lifetime.  Pliable's indictment of contemporary bids of getting us back to classical music is, if I may be so bold as to put it this way, the reactionaries want us to get back to thinking of Beethoven and Mozart as the great geniuses of all time when what they should be doing is what Haydn said he did, listen to his audiences and give them more of what they liked that he also liked writing himself.