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CLASSICAL  July 2004

CLASSICAL July 2004

Subject:

Re: Listening to "Difficult" Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 20 Jul 2004 14:08:48 -0500

Content-Type:

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Richard Tsuyuki:

>Perusing some of Steve Schwartz's latest edifying and entertaining reviews
>has prompted me to emerge from lurking to ask a few questions.  For those
>of you who regularly seek and enjoy "modern" music (whether it be labeled
>"contemporary", "avant-garde", "atonal", "evil and corrupt", etc.): Is
>your emotional reaction immediate, upon first listen?  Or does it take
>a while to "sink in"?  Does it depend on the mood you're in, time of
>day, color of the sofa, etc?  Does it change dramatically over long
>time scales?  Does it depend on your familiarity with the rest of the
>composer's (or other similar composers') oeuvre?  Does it help you (in
>emotional appreciation, not intellectual) to read liner notes/historical
>perspectives/theoretical analysis/critical reviews?  (Let me anticipate
>that a common one-word reaction to these questions will be "sometimes."
>Or perhaps two words - "it depends." However, responses of any length
>will be much appreciated.) In case you're wondering, I'm a relatively
>conventional listener (i.e., I go with ease from medieval chant up to
>some Bartok and Shostakovich, but beyond only with some sweat and bruises)
>who is trying to expand.

In my case, I began by prefering Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern music
to Baroque, Classical, and Romantic -- always excepting certain composers
and pieces.  For example, I loved Handel, Bach, and Tchaikovsky, as well
as the 19th-century nationalists (ie, non-Germans), but tended to like
only bits and pieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann,
Verdi, and Brahms.  I simply didn't care for the idiom.  I found it
bland and predictable at first.  It was the music I had to work at,
so my experience runs counter to almost everybody I know.

I drew the following lesson: modern or contemporary music isn't a special
case, as far as a listener is concerned.  Most of it works like any other
music on you, once you get at its emotional core.  When I listened to
something like the Brahms second symphony, for example, I used to wonder
why Brahms thought anyone would be interested.  Yet clearly many people
were interested.  It took me decades before I tumbled to Brahms in
general and to the symphony in particular.  I imagine the same thing
goes on with "hard" modern music -- Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, Sessions,
Stockhausen, Babbitt, and so on -- for other listeners.  They think of
it as an academic exercise and refuse to admit (or at least cannot hear)
it as an emotional trigger.  Some even regard the music as "unnatural"
or impossible for humans to groove to, thus ignoring all those who do
indeed groove to it.  Furthermore, despite my predilection for modern
music, I also had to learn something.  In many cases, I got to know works
by rehearsing and performing them.  My previous experience, I'm sure,
helped me with stuff initially alien to me.  Critical analyses tended
not to help me all that much.  In other words, even though I knew what
was happening, I didn't know emotionally why it was happening.  This
applied not only to Modern music, but to Romantic music.  I could analyze
a Brahms piece nine ways from Sunday and still not fall under whatever
spell it cast for many others.  I had to come at it in my own way.
Reading intellectual histories -- literature, art, and (rarely) music
-- helped somewhat.  It enriched my kit bag of analogies.  Thus, my mind
connects Brahms with Hoelderlin and Goethe and with Victorian furniture
design.  It's highly idiosyncratic, I know, but through it I could find
the emotional handle.

I must also say that I tend to like pieces, rather than composers.
Just because I like Boulez's Pli selon pli doesn't mean I like his second
piano sonata.  Just because I like Brahms's third symphony doesn't mean
I like Rinaldo.  And, remember, NOBODY LIKES EVERYTHING.  There are
pieces, even genres, out there that haven't grabbed me yet, and I'm
not interested enough to put in the work even of seeking it out.
Maybe lightning will strike -- that's the only hope at this point.

I've also changed my mind over the course of decades about this or that
work -- sometimes more than twice.  I loved Tchaikovsky as a child,
scorned him as an adolescent and young man, and loved him again as an
adult.  Experience changes us.  I would an unchanged view of any work
or composer very strange indeed.

Steve Schwartz

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