Aunt Sally Disappointed With Contemporary Classical Piece

Old woman in kitchen pictured while washing carrots and radishes

Aunt Sally, a sweet and caring pensioner from a sleepy English town full of small shops, went to see a lunchtime concert held by music students at her local church last week. Though she liked the concert, particularly the pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, she was very disappointed with a new piece written by a famous living composer.

“It was all very plinky plonky,” she said. “Also, though I love vertiginously sparse chordal textures and enchanting serial manipulations as much as the next girl, I really feel we have had more than enough pulseless explorations of atmospheric timbral effects and we could do with a more vigorous sense of musical narrative and cogent thematic development.”

Pointing to the lack of a relatable structure and general paucity of invention, Aunt Sally says that the music simply failed to satisfy her broadly pluralistic, pan-tonal artistic ideals. “If you dispense with form, harmony and melody, you have to do something else to convince me that your politically relevant soundscape isn’t just random noise made by musicians guessing their way through some indecipherable scrawls not even the composer can tell apart. I don’t have time for that crap.”

John Man, the composer who wrote the piece, says that Sally’s objections to his music can easily be ignored with a couple of ad hominem attacks based on her musical tastes. “Anyway, she didn’t even read my programme notes,” he complained, “so it’s no wonder she didn’t understand my music.”

Aunt Sally says that she hopes contemporary music can enchant, surprise and fascinate her rather than make her want to squirm and do something else. “I’m not really keen on popular music, so I look to the world of classical music for inspiration. But if I hear one more violinist scraping his bow on a toilet seat or just making endless, recycled bird noises I think I might go and listen to Taylor Swift or something, because haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.”

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12 Responses

  1. megamezzo says:

    This time I daren’t comment……

  2. Couldn’t Agree more with Sally lol

  3. Since the region of the cerebral cortex responsible for musical intelligence has dedicated processors for melody, harmony and rhythm, a neuro-physiological definition of music contains at minimum these three elements. Breaking these down gets complex, however, because there are divers ways of implying rhythm and pitch and an infinitude of scale systems beyond well tempering, which is an historical anomaly.

    I see the divergence between compositional evolution and public taste in the late 20th Century as a lack of musical education. The Golden Ages of music occurred when the patrons were trained in musical performance, for example the courts of Alfonso X, Henry VIII and Frederick the Great. The Jazz Age resulted from the proliferation of pianos in middle class households and musical instruction in public schools.

    In Europe, serious art music is subsidized by government so the public can hear the developments on radio, television and in concert. Consequently, there is not only an audience for New Music, Helmut Lachenmann is publicly lauded for his brilliance while in America Michael Hersch toils in obscurity.

    After music was cut from the schools, the airwaves were de-regulated to the lowest common denominator and the public who couldn’t play “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Happy Birthday” on the simplest instrument listen to pablum that sounds like kiddie TV shows.

    Of course, “academic composers” who fabricate formulaic arrangements of notes with neither narrative arc nor precision of emotion exacerbate the problem. Just being repetitive does not make you a Minimalist and being complex does not qualify you for New Complexity. Recent three day Festivals in New York for composers Michael Finnissy and Richard Barrett included interviews regarding process, which confirmed my thesis that it requires talent, taste and intense immersion – qualities that don’t osmose from a book or University lecture.

  4. Hanna says:

    I love you aunt-Sally â˜ș

  5. Nick says:

    I love this! I don’t believe, like Lawrence, that it is a matter of an educated audience, however. It is not their responsibility to be ‘educated’. Musicians who like to work in less well understood areas of their art, have the responsibility to ‘expose’ audiences to their particular niche, as best they can, to as many repetitions of their work, as possible, until people are used to the sound of it, or indeed, used to the idea of not being used to particular ideas. To follow the example in Lawrence’s comment about the development of jazz on a little tangent; one atonal note is challenging for the less-exposed listener, but hitting it three times makes it the new tonality.

    In the end, a musician can make an equally proud choice to work in an anonymous experimental laboratory, or to be appreciated by as many as possible, or anything in between, and that’s ok. Similarly, the audience can make the choice of what they want to hear, regardless of their level of education or taste. There need be no theory of why they should listen. They either like it or they don’t, and the more we ‘encourage’ both exposure and education, the better, but the more we demand it, the more we isolate ourselves from the listener.

    I do agree that this is exactly where public funding should be playing its part, however. Some of these experiments WILL become loved future genres, and some will not. Older styles will merely remain popular, or fade to niches. The larger part of the public purse should go towards innovation, rather than preservation, in my opinion, by older styles are already well-known, and it is more reasonable that the public makes their own choice as to whether to hear them or not, without intervention from governments. Newer forms deserve to be encouraged. That’s how we got to the Moon, and how we’ll cure cancer.

    i was once, predominantly, a musician, but these days, work more in theatre. In my little realm (unscripted theatre), I keep creating forms that are so experimental, only half of them are interesting to more than my fellow experimenters. This is totally fine by me. With the other half, I’m often really on to something, and often the audiences have liked elements that I didn’t even realise were going to be significant to their appreciation. If folks pay money to come and see my shows, and they see one they don’t like, I don’t expect them to review it, well. It’s just the nature of the beast. I just have to suck it up and make the next piece, knowing that this is the necessary process of finding something that is not only theoretically fascinating, but also engaging……and that tastes will change over time.

    Aunt Sally should choose to go to whatever she wants to go to and to respond to it with as much passion and discourse, as she likes. Contemporary composers should keep doing their thing, with faith that they can’t create the next advance in music with a recognisable recycling of the classics. They should, however, have a self-awareness. Check-in to ask, “Why am I doing this?”. Is real answer simply the love of discovery, or is it the respect of one’s peers, or is it a desire for your work to be loved by all? The answer will tell them, whether they are frustrated for good reason, or whether they might alter the way they approach their music to better address their own needs.

    The audience requires no self-analysis. They can do as they damn well please and say what they damn well like, and we should simply be grateful that they attended at all. For those of us who need an audience to gauge our work, should be standing at the exit doors, shaking the hand of every person who bought a ticket, no matter their schooling and no matter their taste. We should never stand above them.

    • Throwcase says:

      This is a really great comment. I’m going to read it several times.
      You say a great deal here, and you say it very well. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I really appreciate it.

    • Nick, I tried to express both sides of this as the original thread so artfully illuminated in Aunt Sally’s diatribe. Indeed both contemporary culture and composers share responsibility for the disconnect. I fear that as a technologist I also bear responsibility, although I am bankrupting myself attempting penance for my radio, phonograph and computer building brethren who have effectively killed live acoustic music.

      Certainly there are still heavily subsidized concerts using traditional instruments, but it has become a foreign sound to people raised on loudspeakers, and bad reproduction for the most part. Even “audiophiles” find concert sound strange unless a “Stereo” PA system is employed. I have become so radicalized by attending over 100 acoustic concerts a year that I can no longer stand to be in a room with PA systems or listen to commercially overproduced recordings – which is 99.9% of them.

      I built an experimental music salon in Manhattan around a Steinway Model D, which was dubbed “the best room in New York to listen to piano” by the NY Times. It is also highly optimized for string quartet, and has six channels of amplification that I designed to more closely resemble acoustical sound generators like piano and violin family, and succeeded to a degree that 98% of conservatory graduates can’t tell when I am amplifying.

      This has the beneficial side effect of making experimental electronic extensions of Classical music blend seamlessly with the traditional instruments, whether musique concrete, sampling and looping, processing, traditional electronic and electric instruments or outright synthesis of novel sound.

      In nearly four years and thousands of shows this has developed ZERO audience besides musicians and composers. Not even major periodical coverage before and after events has induced the public to attend.

      Humans need to gather around music, and acoustic music is better for the ears and soul. I feel this also needs to be tribal scale in rooms small enough to recognize every face, roughly 500 seats maximum. Post-Impressionist attempts to infuse new modalities into composed music have failed, and not INMNSHO for a complete lack of musical talent and sensibility in the music makers. The audience is decidedly inferior to the ones that embraced mid-20th Century Jazz, and Jazz influenced composers like Gershwin and Stravinsky.

      I also fault the music business and particularly record producers who embrace robotic music made from MIDI scores, loops and spliced mixes where the final product is made from hundreds of snippets like a collage or cartoon rather than an un-retouched photograph.

  6. Susan Scheid says:

    No cogent comments, too busy laughing out loud.

Think. Type. Dazzle

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