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Saturday, July 26, 2008

I Would Buy Punishment Ice Cream

Oh my goodness, this whole Kyle Gann/David Byrne thing is out of control. If you're tuning in here before reading their blogs, which is pretty unlikely because I think I win the, like, Web Razzy for Last Music Blog Anyone Is Likely To Read, David Byrne went to see Die Soldaten and was unimpressed; Kyle Gann said amen but got stomping mad at Byrne's suggestion that the impulse to alienate or assault the audience "is not limited to academic classical composer"; defenders of the prickly avant-garde (example here) went ahead and suggested that audiences often enjoy being alienated and assaulted. (DJA continues the debate here and here.) What makes this ragin' debate fun for me is that everybody talking is obviously silly and wrong. First Kyle Gann, who says Byrne has apparently "not closely observed the behavior of the Downtown scene for a few decades," because if he had observed said behavior as closely as Kyle Gann, he would have seen "that Downtown was first the world of Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, and a few hundred others" who were "devoted to music of great beauty, clarity, and accessibility," and only later the domain of wicked "John Zorn, Elliot Sharp and their cohorts." This is comical because, of course, during the period in question (pre-1980, as Gann defines it), David Byrne was actually rockin' the Downtown scene his very own self, while Kyle Gann was busy rockin' the music departments at some excellent Midwestern universities. So I'm not sure why Gann thinks we should trust his measure of dominant Downtown attitude, whose temperature he was apparently taking from the other end of the time zone, over Byrne's. It's also comical because it reveals that Kyle Gann has never actually heard David Byrne's music, which from '79 on is pretty obviously indebted to the likes of Reich and Anderson. I mean, you've all heard this song, right? Byrne, his fellow Talking Heads, and "fifth Head" Brian Eno were crazy about minimalism and performance art, and it's all over some of their biggest hits. So if you really think that's an aesthetic Byrne is unfamiliar with, dude, you and I need to sit down and listen to some records together. It's also a bit disingenuous for Gann to pretend that Zorn and his fellow noisemakers were some johnnies-come-lately to the Downtown scene. He should check out this great CD NO NEW YORK that Byrne's producer compiled of the noise-punk "no wave" scene at the end of the 70s. (Did you know, some music of the Downtown avant-garde was not made by classical composers!) Aren't we all familiar with the music, or at least the attitude, that Byrne is talking about? Isn't there a reverse-snob factor within many varieties of "simple" music that are also bafflingly ugly, or bafflingly loud, or just bafflingly repetitive? Hasn't Gann heard the complaint that, say, Philip Glass sold out when he stopped writing ear-battering counterpoint studies and started writing happy triads? I still hear that, in 2008! Byrne's also a little wrong, for reasons I mention in the comments section of the above-linked Rambler. To quote my brilliant self:

Why is it that everyone talks about “sadomasochism” in music as if it were a bad thing? I say, it’s the composer’s job to be a sort of dominatrix: one of the greatest pleasures of listening to music is being subjected to something you don’t want, or at least don’t know you want. Isn’t everyone who goes to a rock concert thrilled that the volume consistently exceeds the comfort level? Isn’t everyone teased and titillated when a pop song goes on to another wordy verse, instead of to the catchy chorus? I’m not sure why it’s socially acceptable for music to be difficult, disturbing, or even physically painful, in certain respects, as long as the harmonies, melodies and rhythms are clear. Why can’t the harmonies, melodies and rhythms be disturbing, too? I love a spicy, spicy, spicy meal, as long as it’s thoughtfully prepared from high-quality ingredients. And I love noise, feedback, distortion, and dissonance in my music, as long as they are wielded by someone who knows what she’s doing. I can’t speak for Zimmermann—I was among the many who, as Tommasini suggests, were left out in the cold—but Byrne hasn’t convinced me that B.A.Z.’s methods here don’t match up to his aims. I’m not sure quite sure what Byrne (one of my, let me point out, all-time musical heroes) was complaining about. In conclusion: a gut-punching hip-hop bassline? Yes, please! An hour-long disc of drilling hardcore? Sure! A nightmarish twelve-tone opera? Thank you, ma’am! May I have another!

Ha, genius! I could listen to myself all day! But seriously it's true. And the same young people I know who are fans of Stockhausen and Xenakis are fans of Rhys Chatham and Alvin Lucier and the Zorn clique and Sunn O))) and so on and so on. I think it's a bit silly to call Byrne's post "dumb," as Rutherford-Johnson does, for not remembering where in 2001 we first hear the music of Gy├Ârgy Ligeti, since I for one have seen The Shining about a billion times and consider myself a Ligeti fanatic but still could not tell you what scene has Lontano in it. But Byrne's claim that atonality has earned a place in film music that it doesn't deserve on the operatic stage comes so close to being right that it hurts me to see it miss.

See, that's a phenomenon whined at by no less a champion of whining than the prophet Moses himself, Arnold Schoenberg. Why do the vulgar masses I loathe and keep at bay dislike my music, but love atonality in the movies? he asked, or something like it. The answer is: Well, genius, in the movies, there is a dramatic analogue to this music-without-center, which most of your work, composed for the concert stage, lacks. But David Byrne isn't talking about a concert work, he's talking about an opera full of insanity and degeneracy and whatnot, so the dramatic analogue is right there! This is basically what high modernism is for! So what's he complaining about?

Of course, Kyle Gann actually loves him some thorny-ass high-modern, with a fondness at which he usually only hints on his blog, but which he articulates fully in this well-reasoned if slightly overlong (hi Pot, it's me, Kettle) post. (I actually met Kyle Gann one time, but before getting up the balls to shake his hand and say OMG IT'S ME THE GUY WHO BASHES YOU ON THE INTERNET I kept a respectful stalkerish distance while watching him talk high-modern with Yale's resident 20th-century dude, and I was duly impressed by his enthusiasm for the contemporary Euro avant-garde.)

The angry mob from whom he's defending himself in that post represents the next group that is silly and wrong here, the academic avant-garde and their defenders. There's still a surprisingly large contingent that subscribes to, in some form, the notion that music of nigh-inscrutable complexity is a historical necessity and inherently demands not only our attention but our baffled awe. It ain't necessarily so. If anything, the opposite is the case: the burden of aesthetical proof is higher for difficult musics.

Why? Well, the problem with complexity is, har har, simple. If the pitch and rhythm relationships in a piece of music are too complicated to be intuited by the listener, the listener will be forced to find a handhold (earhold?) elsewhere. This means that a masterpiece of atonal harmony is that much harder to write. F'rinstance, it might be easy for an untrained listener to distinguish, at least on some gut level, between a tritone (that one makes me feel "weird"!) and a major third (that one makes me feel "happy"!), or even between a major third ("happy" again!) and a minor third ("sad"!), but maybe not so much between a tritone and a minor seventh. This is one reason why John Q. Public can distinguish between the moods of near-identical pop songs but thinks all atonal music sounds the same.

(I'm ignoring the elephant in the room right now: Culture. John Q. Public also thinks all music made in any given country outside the United States sounds the same, and that's more obviously because he is an ignoramus and can't be bothered to listen to non-American music—God, I hate John Q. Public!—and the same is true of atonal music or music with irregular pulses. But you really can't argue that all of the antipathy towards music based on complex relationships is Mr. Public's fault, for the reasons I hope I'm articulating here.)

Like, you read an article once in a while about a chef who has invented a brilliant garlic or bacon or lobster ice cream, right? And while it's true that these ices are every bit as aesthetically valid as sweet ones—heck, I'm thrilled to see something just a little out of the ordinary, a Red Bean Gelato perhaps—an ice cream parlor whose 32 flavors were 8 sweet, 8 savory, 8 spicy, and 8 bitter would probably be offering fewer flavors, not more, that I would have the urge to lick on any given day than the 31 sweet scoops of Baskin Robbins.

Again, that doesn't mean you, as a composer, have to restrict yourself to the sweet menu of diatonic melodies in 4/4 time. That just means that if you aren't going to privilege the more readily distinguishable system of signals (simple pitch relationships) over the more opaque one (complex), you are making your job—namely, giving the audience something to think about—that much harder. You will have to corral every other resource available to you, every formal or coloristic effect, to draw listeners' attention to hear what you want them to hear.

So if you open your bacon ice cream shop in Apple Valley, California and call it MOM'S OLD-FASHIONED ICE CREAM, you can't sit at the counter and wail, "Why is no one eating my delicious ice cream?" You know exactly why. What you're supposed to do is open it in downtown Manhattan, call it PUNISHMENT ICE CREAM, and watch a line form around the block. That's the lesson to learn here, kids. Now if you'll excuse me, I need something cold and delicious.

UPDATE: Gann has pwned me in the Comments.

DOUBLE UPDATE: Gann responds further at his own 'blog.

10 comments:

DJA said...

David Byrne was actually rockin' the Downtown scene his very own self

It makes me indescribably sad that it was actually necessary for you to point this out.

I think Durian-flavored ice cream is pretty damn close to Punishment Ice Cream.

Dan Johnson said...

Yay thank you for droppin' in! I'm sure I'm being a little too hard on everybody here, not to mention going on wayyy too long about it. I think what really set me off was Gann's "UPDATE," where he pretended as if everybody were piling on him for criticizing a well-liked rock star.

Dude, criticize David Byrne all you want, there's a lot there to criticize! (Did you read where Byrne used the occasion of his opera "covers" on Grown Backwards to dismiss the bulk of Western opera as "yammering and drama and stuff"? That made me so mad!)

But ignorance of a platinum-selling, culturally ubiquitous body of work is almost difficult to come by. That Gann would show off that ignorance in the course of accusing that artist of musical ignorance struck me as... chutzpah-riffic.

Marcus said...

Dan,

You are right, of course, and it amuses me to see Gann unwittingly playing the role of the court jester.

Your rants have the lucidity and conviction of a fire-breathing baptist preacher. They always give me a raging intellectual boner and usually have me cheering you on.

You should go on them more often.

DJA said...

I think what really set me off was Gann's "UPDATE"

Yes. I like Gann, but that was both embarrassing and terrible. He should never, ever write anything about pop music.

Straussmonster said...

If the pitch and rhythm relationships in a piece of music are too complicated to be intuited by the listener, the listener will be forced to find a handhold (earhold?) elsewhere.

You can get away with anything as long as there's a beat, trufax.

I missed Soldaten because it was 6 PM and I was not in New York when I got offered the free ticket, but I'm not sure I really wanted to sit through it anyways.

Kyle Gann said...

Dan, I was listening to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and watching David Byrne at New Music America, as well as listening to Eno, Fripp, the Residents, etc., when you were in diapers. I said every way I could think of to say it how sorry I was that someone as insightful as Byrne could make such a tired old argument. Before you come up and shake hands with me next time, check your facts.

DJA said...

You know, I'm still not a fan of the now-infamous "update," but my statement about how Kyle should never write about pop music was wholly uncalled for.

I'm sorry, Kyle. I can be a real dick sometimes.

Dan Johnson said...

DJA: Agreed, that was a bit much. I think there's a lot he has misunderstood about pop performance, which I think you've articulated well elsewhere. But I also share, e.g., much of Gann's dismay at the win/win privilege of popular music. After all, it commands vastly more power at virtually every level of culture than concert music new or old, but still gets to complain whenever even its most resolutely anti-intellectual traditions are condescended to. I'm thinking especially of his anecdote about pop-smart students who appreciate avant-garde technique as a flourish to punctuate an indie-rock song, but never as a structural foundation for a piece of music, and think that the two strategies are equivalent. They aren't. It's a problem in listening, and I for one am glad he comments on it.

KG: First, thank you for weighing in. Second, what you fail to realize is that I am actually wearing a diaper right now. That's the beauty of the internet!

Heh but seriously. I'll certainly take your comment as a challenge, since it was a thrill to shake your hand the first time around, and I guess that means I'd better do my homework.

In my defense, it was not the tiredness of Byrne's argument that I was disputing. Frankly, I am certain that you know more about the history of 12-tone music than he ever will, and I think his attempt at historiography on that count smacked of dilettantism. (I mean that he is a dilettante in the best sense of the word. Music history is not his job.) We've all heard the sad sad story of the sixties a thousand times before, and the sixties are over. The dinosaurs of the academy are making their last sad march towards towards the tar-pits, while Philip Glass has grown up to be a motherfuckin' rock star, imitated and admired by young musicians from every genre.

Byrne's broader point, the one you more energetically disputed in your post, seemed far more valid to me: that within every avant-garde scene, even his own, there is an element of snobbery that rejects popular appeal. Surely you can think of more (and earlier) examples of this aesthetic than Sharp and Zorn, can't you? And so when you suggested that Byrne was somehow mistaken in that proposition—that within the Downtown avant-garde scene, there was a whole "world" that rejected popularity in favor of an often-alienating aesthetic purity—because of his failure to pay close attention to this scene (again, his own scene), ignorance on your part seemed the more charitable assumption. After all, it is not necessary, or in some cases even advisable, for a composer or musicologist to have heard everything, and I know some excellent and brilliant scholars and musicians who just can't stand rock. To suggest, on the other hand, from a firm position of knowledge that David Byrne was suppressing from his music-historical narrative the existence of artists with whom he has collaborated, artists who have influenced him and who he himself has influenced, seemed not only misguided but also unkind, and so I leapt instead to the conclusion that you just weren't a big Talking Heads fan.

I am proved wrong. I misread you, I underestimated the breadth of your musical tastes, and I take it back with apologies. I hope you'll accept them.

Kyle Gann said...

Apologies accepted. But I didn't dispute Byrne's point about reverse snobbery. What I said about it, specifically, was,

"Byrne's eloquent attack is pitch-perfect as far as its appropriate target goes, and still relevant; still, he's about 25 years late in failing to recognize that hundreds, perhaps thousands of composers had already agreed with him by 1980, and set about doing something about it."

By writing out of existence the myriad composers who long ago agreed with him, Byrne gets to be the wise, down-to-earth, common-sense man-of-the-people against the classical composers who are, by implication, all caught up in a self-defeating neurosis. Very self-flattering, but many of us starting making this same point as much as 30 years ago.

DJA said...

Byrne gets to be the wise, down-to-earth, common-sense man-of-the-people against the classical composers who are, by implication, all caught up in a self-defeating neurosis.

Byrne's post could have been more clear, but I didn't get the sense he intended to single out classical composers. It seems to me he was pointing out a specific kind of self-defeating anti-audience neurosis that is common across all kids of avant-garde music -- classical, jazz, rock, electronic music, etc.

It's a bit ironic that of all of those groups, classical composers are the ones who are most likely to have rejected this kind of neurosis, and (as Kyle points out) many of them rejected it a long time ago. However, the same is definitely not true of the avant-garde in jazz and rock circles. The old oppositional dynamic ("accessibility = teh suck") is still alive and well.