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Is it music? A listener’s journey

2012 has been a poignant year for avant-garde music. German composer Hans Werner Henze passed away in October at age 86; a little over a week later American composer Elliott Carter passed away at the age of 103. The late John Cage was, as Musical America put it, “feted beyond his own wildest dreams” this year in celebration of his birth centenary.

All three of these composers wrote music that challenged listeners to reconsider the boundaries of what qualifies as music.

John Cage once stated, “I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, ‘You’ll come to a wall you won’t be able to get through.’ So I said, ‘I’ll beat my head against that wall.’”

Elliott Carter (touchingly eulogized by Paul Griffiths last month on the OUPblog) likewise acknowledged that most listeners did not understand his music: “One thing I can’t understand is why people have such trouble with modern music. It seems to me to be perfectly intelligible. When I hear one of my pieces again, or listen to the record, I don’t see why people could find this perplexing in any way. Yet audiences can’t make head or tail of it… I finally said the hell with that whole point of view and decided to write what I really always hoped to write, and what I thought was most important for me. I’ve taken that point of view ever since.”

Hans Werner Henze, according to Norman Lebrecht, knew that his music would not be fully understood or appreciated during his lifetime.

What is it about these composers’ music that “perplexes” people so, and yet holds their attention? What makes Howard Stern, listening to a young composer’s piece exclaim “We couldn’t even figure out if it was music” and then spend ten minutes of his show excoriating it?

I personally have long been fascinated by this type of music — highly structured, arcane music that challenges my ears, requiring deep listening, still managing somehow to stimulate my emotions. Really this music is why I studied music theory throughout my graduate years; I wanted to be able to talk about what I was hearing in a meaningful way.

My journey began with Morton Feldman’s music, but after I moved to New York City I quickly became involved with the thriving and vibrant community of avant-garde musicians that live here.

Last July I interviewed two composers about the progression of their compositional styles over their heretofore relatively short careers. One of the interviewees, Matthew Hough (who wrote the piece featured on Stern’s show), seemed to subconsciously channel Carter when he said “At a certain point [in my career] I realized I was thinking too much about how I was being perceived and not thinking hard enough about why I’m doing what I’m doing and what composition means for me.”

And here we get to the crux of the matter: Is it music when someone approaches composition in this way? Is it music when what we hear defies classification? Indeed, I use the term avant-garde here, but one of the challenges of talking about this music is terminology: What do we talk about when we can’t talk about chords, melodies, themes, etc.?

Ultimately, my answer to the first two questions is ‘yes’; my answer to the last question is ‘get creative’. Above all, open-mindedness and a willingness to listen actively and creatively are absolutely necessary if we’re going to appreciate avant-garde music on its own terms.

“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.” –John Cage.

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