Is Discussing Music Counterproductive?

So I don’t mean to, ya know:

but I thought I’d weigh in once more on the ‘alt/indie/post/anti/whatever-classical’ debate, this time on the question as to whether it’s even relevant to discuss (a discussion on which is of course an awesome paradox).

Dennis Desantis weighed in on the ‘why are we even discussing this?’-tip:

The only thing that’s ever mattered about any piece of music, ever, is what it sounds like. Martin Bresnick used to talk about how a good piece of music should make you check for your wallet; you should feel like you got your ass kicked after listening to it.

How it got made only matters if what got made matters. No one gives a shit about your craft if your music sucks. Likewise, there’s plenty of music that makes you check for your wallet, even if it doesn’t hold up to analysis.

So what makes music good? What makes music relevant?

The answer is, “who cares?” Figure out what you like to hear. Then go listen to it and make more.

“Figure out what you like to hear. Then go listen to it and make more”. Words for a composer to live by. And of course as a composer I totally agree, but that is only one perspective. As I commented on his blog, “If I thought about all this shit while I was trying to create I simply wouldn’t create. I know this because I used to and I didn’t.”. Yes, anyone who is deeply considering these matters while writing a piece should probably stop. The alt-classical discussion isn’t primarily a discussion by composers though, it’s a discussion about composers and their compositions.

If you asked a football player what he was thinking about as he ran through a wall of linebackers he’d probably look at you strangely and say, “why the hell would I be thinking in a time like that?”. Should that stop the sports commentators from discussing what incredible maneuvers he did in the five seconds that made up the play? Of course not. But the more important answer is, should doesn’t matter. They’re going to discuss what they are going to discuss, no matter what the players involved think.

Should Greg Sandow, Allan Kozinn, Anne Midgette, or Steve Smith care if composers think “alt” as a label is tacky, or the discussion is futile, or that over-thinking your genre limitations is stifling to ones creativity? Hell no. They’re doing their jobs, and if they worried excessively about how composers would feel about any of these matters they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs any better than we could.

I believe it is healthy for this discussion to have some input from some composers involved. We wouldn’t want it to be solely framed by writers and critics. So I will add the Marks Corollary to the Desantis formula:

If you feel like discussing the current state of music do so. If not, then don’t. If you find it messes with your ability to create then stop. But others are going to discuss it and define it whether you like it or not.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Is Discussing Music Counterproductive?

  1. To this I would add two things, to all: 1) Do it yourself, and 2) in the immortal words of Jack Spicer, “Be a free fucking agent.”

  2. “I believe it is healthy for this discussion to have some input from some composers involved. We wouldn’t want it to be solely framed by writers and critics.”

    Why not? Not to diss our writer/critic brethren, but they’ve been talking about these “relevance” and pigeonholing issues for freakin’ ever, and where has it gotten them?

    My beef with perpetuating the conversation (as, you’ll note with irony, I’m doing now) is that it’s never going to solve anything. People who like this music (whatever we call it) are going to keep making and consuming it – because it’s relevant to them. People who don’t like/know this music are going to keep avoiding/ignoring it – because it’s not relevant to them.

    There’s never going to be “aha” moment, in which someone finally nails the right terminology to describe why, in absolute terms, it’s relevant or not.

    • mattmarks

      “People who like this music (whatever we call it) are going to keep making and consuming it – because it’s relevant to them. People who don’t like/know this music are going to keep avoiding/ignoring it – because it’s not relevant to them.”

      I think the crux of this debate is that it just might be becoming relevant to the latter people. What was somewhat groundbreaking about our Acoustica (God, still hate that title…) album is that it wasn’t a “classical crossover” album in the traditional sense: i.e. really only for classical audiences or for parents trying to trick their kids into listening to oboes and French horns. People bought it because A. “Oh shit it’s Aphex Twin!” and B. Oh shit it actually doesn’t sound like this crap!

      I’m hoping that more folks will realize that the key to expanding “classical” audiences is not by attempting to trick people into thinking classical stars are rock stars (though I feel like that whole thing goes over better in Europe…). It’s kind of like the ‘once you stop trying to be cool, you end up being cool’ thing (just like Parker Lewis!). Synchronize swatches!

      It’s also worth noting that this discussion was, for me at least, started as a response to Steven Hartke’s comments on the 8bb blog, who proved that the old-school rigrrrrr-minded perspective is still alive and well (and teaching at major universities).

      P.S. I feel like “rigorous” in classical music = “intelligent” in dance music. Both equally meaningless, especially to those that make the be-labeled music very well. Both used by hacks who want to feel good about their craft.

      • mattmarks

        Oops! Forgot to link to the 8bb discussion.

      • While I love the mention of Parker Lewis, and agree with you in general, I want to stuck up for the use of rigor. It’s a good word. It’s not about adhering to a dogma, and those who think it is are fooling themselves, it’s about adhering to the idea of a piece of music. A just pulled out of my ass example is Kind of Blue, where you can hear various forms of rigor in the solos; Miles is rigorously applying a focus on modes, Coltrane is working modes into arpeggiations, and Cannonball is totally ignoring the dogma of the moment. Thinking about this in terms of rigor helps describe what’s happening in the music and why it matters, without offering any value judgements. Rigor is also Ellington packing so many ideas and color into 3:30. Stravinsky, even at his most extravagant sounding, is incredibly rigorous and I would argue that’s what makes him so incomparably great. Rigor is good, but it serves craft, not vice versa.

      • mattmarks

        @gtrain I definitely agree that “rigor”, especially when meaning “focused and uncompromising”, is an admirable trait in art. But I feel like it’s often used as shorthand for “quality” which renders it subjective. It has also become synonymous with atonality and modernism in new music. Your use of the term when referring to jazz is totally refreshing.

  3. I support the Marks Corollary. p.s. I feel like the Alt-Debate Lurker. I keep wanting to weigh in but haven’t had time, so I just peep and leer and RT.

    • mattmarks

      I think we should add the Snider Corollary as well: Be wary of weighing in on the debate, for it will in fact suck your time away.
      :)

  4. The problem with labels is that they seem to be defined rather sketchily, then applied rather broadly, so that the reader ends up actually learning very little about the music. Better, I think, to talk about the sound/function of various pieces/musicians than to try and shoehorn them into a flimsy narrative.

    • I think labels are a necessary evil, but absolutely yes, find a way to describe how a piece works and what it’s aims are, then work out to contemporary and historical context of same and, voila, you just might have a useful label.

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