Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 2)

When I hear any music in an unfamiliar style for the first time I’m often (maybe always) unable to judge or understand it deeply, and I’m certainly not able to respond with any deep feeling to it. Never mind whether the music has triads in it or not. For example: the first time I heard Monteverdi (it was Wendy Carlos’s realization of excerpts from L’Orfeo) I was baffled—I thought it was awful and boring. But once I got used to how it went, I found that I could respond intellectually and emotionally.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of our twentieth-century music has a much sharper learning curve. But I learn, with time. After many listenings, I find Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra beautiful; the variety of melodies and rhythm, and above all the sense of timing move me just as I’m moved when I hear Brahms’s Haydn Variations. And I’m excited and thrilled by the psychological drama Elliott Carter creates in his second string quartet. After spending some time listening with the score in hand, I find I can hear the dialogue Carter tries so hard to create in the music and perceive the very different personalities of the four instruments. And all this is in addition to what I intellectually understand about the compositional techniques in the music.

And surely some popular twentieth-century music can be very dissonant indeed. Think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which speaks clearly and easily even to the most uninitiated audiences. Now for me, the Rite is one of the most overrated pieces of our time. Still, I can’t deny the emotional power it has over me and over its audiences. There’s a lesson to be learned here. What if I had convinced people to believe, as I do, that The Rite of Spring should be retired from the repertoire? I wouldn’t have all the wonderful music written by men and women who have been inspired by it. And I have no doubt that it will inspire others to compose other music that I might love in the future. So will I discourage people from loving it, from learning more about it, from listening to it? No, of course not. I believe that we have no way of knowing what positive effects music can have, so why not allow it in? Why lock the door? This is, rightly or wrongly, what I think Mr. Baksa asks us to do—and all because he can’t respond emotionally to some twentieth-century and contemporary music and can’t accept the possibility that some of us do.

As a Cage enthusiast I couldn’t help but be irritated by Mr. Baksa’s facile and completely ad hoc dismissal of his music. Already I think there’s a wide appeal for some of Cage’s early work; the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano has been recorded over a dozen times and many people think it is a masterpiece, for instance. And now that we have a wide variety of Cage’s music available in wonderful recordings (the ones on Mode are the best for my money), I imagine other pieces will begin to make their mark, too. I will suggest two that I loved on the very first hearing: First, Roaratorio, that ebullient and richly textured glossing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on Mode 28–29 and Wergo 6303 (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1994). The world of sounds and music that Cage assembles evokes so many emotions in me, from a concert-hall reverence (the operatic aria) to wonder and joy. And of course Cage’s voice, reading his unfathomable mesostics on Joyce’s name, always moves and reassures me. A second work, of a much different sensibility, is Fourteen, a kind of concerto for bowed grand piano and thirteen instruments on Mode 57 (ARG, May/June 1998). The bowed piano has a stunning, gorgeous, lyrical sound; the other instruments, playing so simply and so unobtrusively, make me tranquil and attentive. In that piece I experience time in a way I never have before, and I’m certain others can respond positively if the music is here for them to experience.

In 1967, the great American scholar Leonard B. Meyer (in Music, the Arts, and Ideas) predicted a pluralistic musical culture in which diametrically opposing musical styles would co-exist: he advised listeners to stop attempting to judge which style was better and, instead, judge each according to its own standards of excellence and elegance. Now, more than ever, we must heed Meyers’s advice. We must build bridges to other styles, other generations—let alone other cultures.  For if we continue to fight over who is right and who is wrong, what is emotional and what is intellectual, what we should cherish and what we should discard, we may find ourselves with no classical music at all.

Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 1)

Robert Baksa’s argument against the overwhelming prevalence of left-brain-centric contemporary music and its adherents (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1999) strikes me as the latest example of a divisive mindset in Western classical music that has persisted since time immemorial. Critics have always tried to show how one music is inferior to another, usually by resorting to their own particular backgrounds. Scheibe criticized Bach’s music for not being natural enough; much later, Philip Glass called Boulez and his Domaine Musicale “these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this creepy, crazy music.” There is truth to both criticisms, I admit, but the truthfulness only strictly obtains when the standards of another musical sensibility (proto-Classicism in Scheibe’s case, minimalism in Glass’s) are applied lock, stock, and barrel to musical styles with very different aims and aesthetics. In similar fashion, the composer Robert Baksa appeals both to the history of Western music and to the oversimplification of recent scientific experiments to support a claim that dissonant music (particularly serialism, Cage, and Ives, who seem to be Mr Baksa’s principal targets) can only stimulate the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does not respond as strongly to emotional content.

Disputes over taste and preference are not unique to Western classical music, of course; but since the market for classical music is pitifully small and probably shrinking all the time, ultimately these disputes do us no favors. And worse, I’m afraid they may have a destructive effect, discouraging people from exploring possibilities and alternatives and eventually experiencing them fully. Let me first respond to Mr. Baksa’s arguments and then suggest a few thoughts on our twenty-first-century condition.

When we write history, we must privilege some facts and exclude others in order that the story we tell makes sense and feels true to us. Even so, I think Mr Baksa’s account of history is more exclusive than it needs to be. For example, we have certainly not always assumed that the most complicated or progressive music is always the best. Mr Baksa’s “periods of simplification,” in short, have usually not been ignored. The fiendish rhythmic subtleties of the late fourteenth century, the Ars Subtilior, for example, never held lasting sway. Likewise, the chromatic experiments by Lasso, Gesualdo, and Vicentino didn’t substantially change the prevailing style of the time.

Nor does Mr Baksa’s account of the natural appeal of consonant intervals—because of their more audible place in the harmonic series—hold up very well. Our wonderful, euphonious thirds were once regarded as incidental and harmonically unstable. In fact, it was only when Dunstable’s sweet “English countenance” made its way to the continent that composers began thinking about making thirds the dominant feature of the musical landscape at all. Moral: our ideas about what is interesting or moving or beautiful in music change, and they’ll probably continue to do so. The “absolute,” perfect state of triadic music that Mr. Baksa would like us to believe in has never existed, not even in the West.

Now as far as experiments in listening are concerned, I’m not an expert, but friends of mine who are experts believe that we are still at the threshold of our understanding of how the human brain responds to stimulus, how it interprets and processes what it takes in. For example, the left and right sides of the brain do interact and influence each other, but in ways that are still unclear. And, perhaps more important, what we consider to be consonant intervals are not inherently familiar to all. Non-musicians can’t discriminate between them and dissonant intervals as well as trained musicians can. (I know this from teaching music appreciation for 10 years; so do many of my colleagues.) And so I’m content not to take these experiments so seriously that they influence my decisions about what I want to listen to or what others should listen to. In other words, I choose not to believe that dissonant or intellectually-stimulating music is devoid of emotion. I’ll make up my own mind after I listen, thanks. And furthermore I will try to create a situation in which my students and friends can be free to make their own choices, too.

Rob Haskins by Michael Clayville (2012)

Welcome to my new blog

When my friend Raúl Santaella undertook a major redesign of my website, he suggested I include a blog with regular entries. I know he’s right: fresh content keeps people coming back.

However, as someone who’s had the good fortune to be published in a number of places and wants to continue to do so, I have a dilemma: what kind of content is suitable for a blog—that is, worth reading and worth writing—and yet is content that I wouldn’t want to try to publish elsewhere?

I haven’t thought very long and hard about this question, but my instincts tell me the best hope I have to maintain the required number of entries (one entry weekly or, at most, every two weeks) is to concentrate on the kind of quick writing I already do—principally, music journalism, reviewing, and the occasional program or CD liner notes—but choose topics that, for one reason or another, won’t easily appear in The American Record Guide, where I write many reviews on John Cage, harpsichord music, Philip Glass, and some piano music.

Though I regularly review new John Cage recordings, there are many older ones that I’ve never written about: especially many of the earlier Cage recordings on Mode Records, many of the volumes of Steffen Schleiermacher’s collection of the complete piano works, other classic Cage recordings that I’ve acquired over the years, and newer recordings that never made it to ARG. As I move forward with this project, it’ll be possible, eventually, to write a longer piece that serves as an introduction of Cage’s music for music lovers, students, and maybe even a few professionals—a kind of music-appreciation-style essay that complements the discographical essay I wrote for the Music Library Association’s journal Notes in 2010.

I’d also like to write some more about so-called minimalist composers both familiar and less-familiar: a short list would include not only Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but also Michael Nyman, Wim Mertens, David Borden, Simeon ten Holt, Scott Pender, and a few others. Some of these writings would be reviews of recordings (and possibly of some concerts), but I hope others will be shortish, more critical essays that, I hope, will contribute something toward the continuing reception of this music.

My great interest and affection for minimalism doesn’t mean, of course, that I see this music and others like it as the great new hope for new music. I’ve been exploring the music of serial composers for several years now, and hope one day to write a book that discusses this music in more ways than the technical ones that have dominated the literature on it thus far—appreciation, again. If I can, I want to explore some of the ideas for that book-to-be here.

I also continue to be interested in emerging composers and sound artists, and I want to write about their work here. One composer I’m very fond of is Tristan Perich, whose art background brings him an unusual but useful perspective to today’s new-music composition, and I would expect to devote a few posts to his work. But there are many, many others, many of whom I’ve discovered through social media. I would like these posts to serve as a forum for discussion with and about these artists; to that end, I would be grateful for these artists or people who love them to send me information and samples of new works. I hope to review some recordings of new music, especially the kind of music that lies in the interstices between styles and audiences and who might otherwise be overlooked. The easiest way to contact me is to follow me on Twitter or send a friend request on Facebook; you could also contact me through this website.

In short, I hope I can fulfill my hopes for this blog and that it will bring to those interested in music—especially new music—a forum for discussion and exploration.

Photograph by Michael Clayville