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Mahler? I Barely Know ‘Er!

November 2nd, 2007 · 4 Comments

A few weeks ago, my regular pub trivia team took over the rotating hosting duties at our weekly game at Wonderland. Teammate and Reasonoid Dave Weigel and I decided to close with an audio round, split into two parts: Dave did five questions about his beloved mash-ups, and I did five about 20th century composers, with a verbal hint followed by a 45-second excerpt of a piece, given in chronological order of composition. This was—how to put it?—not well received. There were audible groans as we moved through the samples. One team wrote “worst round ever” over the second half of their answer sheet.

Maybe I’m just demonstrating how ensconced I am in the bubble of my own geeky, pretentious interests, but I was surprised at the reaction. I didn’t think these were terribly obscure pieces. I picked some of the more famous works of composers whose names I’d thought would at least be familiar to our (pretty well-educated) audience: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” John Adams’ “Nixon in China” (with a hint that the composer shared a name with a president, appropriately enough for the piece). A handful of teams got as many as three of them; just one team—the only one whose members all looked to be in their 30s—knew all five composers.

So I share this Slate reviewer’s hope that The Rest Is Noise, an excellent new book by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, will raise the profile of some artists deserving of much wider exposure. The one team that aced the category does give me some hope that, despite the Grup phenomenon, there are a lot of people who will begin discovering this stuff when they hit the age at which they start feeling slightly out of place at Walkmen shows and start gravitating more toward jazz and classical.

Actually, contemporary indie rock is part of what makes me think this is more likely to happen for the current crop of folks in their 20s and early 30s. There’s no especially easy segue from “Freebird” to Schoenberg—listening to the former doesn’t prepare your ear for the latter. But for a generation raised on the likes of Radiohead’s post–Kid A albums or Battles or Do Make Say Think, it’s not a huge leap to enjoying Terry Riley or Steve Reich. (Indeed, I see that Pitchfork has reviewed some of Reich’s records.) If that’s right, then the present obscurity of modern classical composers may not be a symptom of the form’s descent into some kind of pernicious obscurantism, but only a temporary hiccup in the traditional symbiotic relationship between pop and “art” music.

Update: Commenter Chris M. wants a little elaboration of this final claim. Mostly it’s just that the innovations 20th century composers introduced have trickled down into pop songs. As I’ve suggested before, Sufjan Stevens tends to write conventionally pretty vocal melodies, but he drops the vocals and instrumentation over a repetitive, looping backgrounds that are obviously influenced by folks like Glass and Riley—listen to just about any track on Illinois. Not that this is totally novel—the Velvet Underground loudly professed their debt to La Monte Young. But they were also significantly ahead of the curve. Partly, as Chris suggests, it’s that guitar-driven rock is becoming less central, and more generally, people no longer find it odd to hear odd samples and “non-musical” noises incorporated into a song.

Perhaps the main thing is that, as Ross emphasizes, one factor limiting the audience of 20th century composers was the way they embraced sounds that were deliberately “ugly,” or at any rate, not conventionally melodious and harmonic. And anybody with a shelf full of Pavement or Sonic Youth albums already understands perfectly well, in a way that their parents might not have, how dissonance, distortion, atonality, and “noise” can be beautiful and powerful—already knows how to look for the hidden structure in aural chaos.

Tags: Art & Culture



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Christopher M // Nov 2, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    Interesting point about the easier transition from the current style to classical & art music. What do you think are the key elements that make this transition easier? On a first take, I’d offer two: the decline of the domination of the guitar, and the decline of the verse/chorus/bridge song structure.

    I was listening to some 8-bit electronic stuff just yesterday (crazy kids making music with the noises producible from the sound chipsets in old-school, 8-bit videogame hardware) and thinking how similar a lot of it was, in its general aims, to Bach’s 2- and 3-part inventions: discrete tones, intellectual, centrally concerned with creating sort of harmonic geometries in musical space (by which I mean, for example, the way an ascending line and a descending line played at the same time have an almost spatial feel of divergent geometrical line segments, and how two similar melodies played in different keys or on slightly off-center rhythms can have the feel not unlike two geometrical shapes aligned on the page in the same slightly off-kilter way). And it doesn’t hurt that the Bach’s harpsichords sound like they could have been produced on an 8-bit system.

  • 2 Brian Doherty // Nov 2, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Very interesting. I’m NOT surprised at how hard most people found it–if they’d get it at all, it would that sort of Jeopardy level knowledge based on the clues, not recognizing the music itself. For my own part, after decades of obsessive pop music listening before delving into both jazz and 20th century classical-art musics—and despite hundreds of hours listening to hundreds of records of the stuff, my ability to recognize and remember specific pieces in those fields is HORRENDOUSLY bad, even things I’ve listened to a dozen times or more I might not recognize purely sonically out of context—whereas with pop/rock, almost every bit of it I heard (prior to age 30 at least) I can still name artist track probably year of release…my abiilty to retain this sort of musical info just is disappearing.

    When I was a young hipster in the late 80s-early 90s, pop/rock record collector obsessives were apt to know Glass, Reich, Cage, maybe if they were deep Xenakis and Varese, but that was about as far as it went…

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Nov 2, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    Well, I’m not saying I could necessarily peg exactly where (say) a particular snippet of Glass came from unless I’d listened to it recently, but it would be pretty unmistakably Glass, which was all they needed. (There was a bonus for naming 3/5 of the titles.) And I dunno, you don’t think you’d recognize “Fanfare” or “Rite of Spring”?

  • 4 Brian Doherty // Nov 2, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    Oh, you were asking only composer, not piece? I glossed over that part. OK, that I could probably have done pretty well on. Certainly in combination with any verbal clue.

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