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Is it possible to be judge a piece of music objectively?

There is a school of thought which says " If I like it it's good, if I dislike it it's bad"

Whereas I believe that a judgement based solely on a subjective response is not a judgment at all, at least not one worth considering.

As a composer, even when writing for 'oneself' as opposed to writing 'applied' music to order, is it not the case that one must strive for objectivity? 

It is my belief that whatever choices one makes in a composition, it is the musical logic, language and unity of any particular piece that should inform those choices. At least to some extent. Anything which appears as arbitrary can only weaken the piece.

 

( This is a topic some of us were discussing in another thread but was deemed 'off topic' so perhaps we can carry on here.)

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Nate Mitchell said:

 

 

 

“The only book by McHard I found on Google Books was The Future of Modern Music.  Sadly, it was an incomplete preview, however I did not see in the index a mention of "Brown Music," nor did I find a critique of serialism, perhaps I have the wrong book or that part is missing from the preview.  Could you perhaps paraphrase the argument against serialism and minimalism for me?  From what you said above I gather that serialism is too strict to allow for meaningful music and that minimalism is too stagnant.”

 

Yes, you are right.  More of that book used to be available online than is available now.  You can find only one brief quote about “brown music,” online, and then the text veers off into a discussion of Debussy

 

In essence, you have it right.  Serialism is too strict, and minimalism is, . . . . . . well perhaps “stagnant” is not exactly the word that is used.  Minimalism is too limited.  Too ‘minimal’, in that the sense that it lacks general variety and therefore fails to interest.  

 

John Winsor talks about this in some detail, in his book, Breaking the Sound Barrier, Chapter 13. Here he talks about a specific piece by Phillip Glass.

 

 

 

This passage does fit music's definition because it portrays rhythm to some degree - although it's virtually devoid of hierarchy. By incessantly repeating a single basic figure with only trivial variations (Glass would prefer “subtle” rather than “trivial,” I'm sure), it conveys its meaning to the listener. And its grammar is, of course, quite consistent. But it conveys almost no information at all. Measure 4 alone very nearly represents the entire message. The incessant repetition doesn't communicate the rhythm of human life so much as it suggests the drone of factory machinery. Ostensibly, Glass's music is important literature that is informed by his study of ancient Eastern mysticism. Actually, this excerpt, which is representative of his output in general, is a monotonously repeated arpeggio based entirely on the notes of a decidedly European F Major 7 chord. This music may be purported to facilitate a meditative state or trance - something that could be served just as well by listening to your refrigerator hum. Its remarkable lack of character, direction, significant patterns, and dramatic shape might well engender a state of aural habituation - of hearing without listening. Like the rock music that gave it birth, minimalism is probably best taken with drugs because its purpose is escape rather than engagement. I'm reminded of Samuel Johnson's description of music as a way of “employing the mind without the labor of thinking at all.” At best, this excerpt's appeal might lie at the shallow end of Copland's “sensuous plane.” Although Mr. Glass has a large following, his writing exhibits extremely poor craft.

 

 

-----end of quote----

 

You can read the whole passage by going to the book:

 

http://www.john-winsor.com/index.php4?showpage=btsb

 

There are several paragraphs about minimalism before the section I cited.

 

I don’t think John Winsor has conveyed much useful in his book regarding the depth and complexity of the Eastern Traditions, particularly Indian music. Nor do I agree with John Winsor’s views about what he calls “post-modernism” and the so called “post-modern mistake.”  But that’s another discussion.  However, what he says about minimalism is, I think, essentially correct. 

 

McHard takes the view that minimalism is hardly even worth talking about, and prefers to concentrate on what he considers to be genuinely modern music of the late twentieth century, focusing on the figures you saw in the table of contents.

 

The problem with serialism can probably be summed up in the phrase used by Curtis.  Serialism is a “music of suppressed contrasts.”  As such, it often feels emotionally wooden.

 

Of course, some serialist pieces and some minimalist pieces may be considered good music.  But you would have to name them for me, and I have not yet found very many representative works that I would be enthusiastic about.  Take Webern’s short Symphonie, for instance.  I have listened to that work many times.   It takes a good conductor to do it right.  Even then I am not particularly moved by the work, though I appreciate many of its subtle aesthetic qualities, and I partly understand why it is so highly regarded.  Some of the very best minimalist work, like the film score for Poaqaatsi, can be quite moving, emotionally.  However, I don’t think it stands alone as a form of art, apart from the visual imagery it was written to accompany.

 

You concluded,

 

“I also wonder about your definition of the word "successful."  Certainly minimalist music and serialist music both can move listeners, I have personally been moved by examples from both genres, in this sense they were "successful" in those cases.  What defines success for you?  

 

“To answer my own question, I would define success as the ability to produce a meaningful aesthetic response in any listener.   Certainly any musical language can produce such a response in at least some listeners, yes?”

 

Those and many other questions you asked are worth exploring in depth.  I’ll have to reply a bit later.

 

Regard,

 

O.

 

 

Reading about musical concepts is SO different from listening to music. ;-)

Ondib: before this discussion proceeds much further, I believe I should clarify what might be a misunderstanding (or it might not be).  When I speak of Minimalism and Serialism, I am referring not to necessarily to Minimalist and Serialist compositional approaches or techniques, but rather the musical languages typically associated with composers from those respective schools.  Thus, those that do not follow strict serialism (indeed, their compositional choices may not be particularly serialised at all) sometimes have chosen to write in the particular language that the second viennese school became so known for, and the same can be said about "minimalism," that is, music that adheres to the "sounds" commonly associated with minimalism, but which may often deviate from strict minimalist processes in favor of freer compositional approaches.  I recognize that this might be a misunderstanding that arose entirely from my underexplanation and particular use of the term, and I apologize if it lead to confusion.  Indeed I recognize that the languages I have termed "minimalist" or "serialist" may be a misnomer, since it may include examples which do not adhere to the compositional process advocated by the respective schools.

Thus I posit my position anew: any musical language has the potential for success within it. What matters is not what language a composer chooses to work in, but rather how effectively the composer can craft meaningful compositions in the style that he or she chooses.

Perhaps this did not need clarification, but it just crossed my mind that this oversight on my part may have caused some confusion in the discussion.

Yours is a well articulated position, and your clarification makes a great deal of sense logically.

Still, I would wonder what you would praise in the way of examples.

I mentioned two pieces, Webern's Symphonie, and Phillip Glass's score to Poaqqatsi, as pieces which were considered outstanding by many, as representative works of the "serialist" and "minimalist" schools respectively.  I thought these works failed, at least partly, because the criticisms of the two schools applied to these works, though the works are not without some positive qualities.

So I just wondered if you had any examples.   Of course, there are countless pieces, written by serialists and by minimalists that I have not heard, that many of us on this forum may not have heard.   

I am open to hearing any of them that you might suggest.

The more they depart from the strict definitions-- the "freer" they are in their use of compositional approaches--  the better, as far as I am concerned.   

(But then they would veer towards no longer being "serialist" or "minimalist" compositions, or they would even veer away from using what might be called "serialist" or "minimalist" musical languages.  It's a fine line, of course.  Or maybe it isn't so fine, depending on the example we examine.  )

Regards,

O.



Nate Mitchell said:

Ondib: before this discussion proceeds much further, I believe I should clarify what might be a misunderstanding (or it might not be).  When I speak of Minimalism and Serialism, I am referring not to necessarily to Minimalist and Serialist compositional approaches or techniques, but rather the musical languages typically associated with composers from those respective schools.  Thus, those that do not follow strict serialism (indeed, their compositional choices may not be particularly serialised at all) sometimes have chosen to write in the particular language that the second viennese school became so known for, and the same can be said about "minimalism," that is, music that adheres to the "sounds" commonly associated with minimalism, but which may often deviate from strict minimalist processes in favor of freer compositional approaches.  I recognize that this might be a misunderstanding that arose entirely from my underexplanation and particular use of the term, and I apologize if it lead to confusion.  Indeed I recognize that the languages I have termed "minimalist" or "serialist" may be a misnomer, since it may include examples which do not adhere to the compositional process advocated by the respective schools.

Thus I posit my position anew: any musical language has the potential for success within it. What matters is not what language a composer chooses to work in, but rather how effectively the composer can craft meaningful compositions in the style that he or she chooses.

Perhaps this did not need clarification, but it just crossed my mind that this oversight on my part may have caused some confusion in the discussion.

You are so right, Doug.

Isn't it the truth!

( I was struck by this realization very forcefully, when someone on the musical dissection thread admitted quite frankly to me the following:  He said he had no way whatsoever of describing what he was doing in his music.  He possessed no words to describe it.  I did not take that to mean he was avoiding the issue.   I took it to mean that the nature of music is such that there is no real equivalency between the medium of words and the medium of musical expression.  And yet we struggle on, trying to talk about music, using words, when perhaps the only reply to music is more music).



Doug Lauber said:

Reading about musical concepts is SO different from listening to music. ;-)

Or "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." (attributed to Martin Mull)

Still........



Fredrick zinos said:

 "Lenny" used to say that music begins where words leave off.

One example that I find particularly intriguing comes from Frederick Rzewski's epic hour-long piano piece Variations on "the People United Will Never Be Defeated." (The following is a performance by Hamelin with a video of the score)

Part I: Theme - Var. 8

Part II: Var. 9 - 15

Part III: Var. 16 - 23

Part IV: Var. 24 - 26

Part V: Var. 27 - 29

Part VI: Var. 30 - 36

Part VII: Cadenza - Theme Reprise

Now, this is a bit of an enigma of a piece, because it is really hard to classify in terms of the overall musical language.  At best we could term it "eclectic,"  the Theme itself is extremely tonal (Part I: 0:00) as are other sections such as V13 (Part II: 4:00), some contain references to textures that are very influenced by Boulez or Babbit, such as V3 (Part I: 3:00) , while others (V 27, Part V beginning with the Cadenza at 1:15) seem to very directly reference the minimalist textures of Phillip glass. Rzewski is obviously not using strict minimalist or serialist proceedures, but he is able to mix the languages associated with each combined with his own compositional decisions to create a composition that utilizes an immense array of languages while still remaining a unified musical construction in the large scale.  Really an incredible piece if you ask me.

As I said before, however, this is a bit of an enigma especially in our discussion since it does not remain in one a single language throughout.  However what is important is that every Variation contributes to the larger effect of the piece as a whole, yet if one of the languages was said not to be capable of producing an engaging aesthetic experience in itself, it would be hard to justify also saying that the languages can then contribute to the larger aesthetic effect of a work that utilizes multiple languages.  It would be in effect saying that one of the principle musical ingredients is inherently flawed, yet somehow it the flawed ingredient can contribute to a piece that would be significantly lacking without the ingrediant.  Instead I hold that the overall effect arises not in spite of the languages used in the composition, but rather because of each.

It is largely because of such "eclectic" pieces that I hold that each composition should receive its own honest judgment.  If we are to write off a particular language as incapable of producing a significant aesthetic effect, then we also (consciously or unconsciously) approach works in that language with a bias against it, which can sometimes close off our reception of a piece that we might find engaging or effective had we not had this pre-conceived bias.  We would then approach a piece like the one above with a bias towards some of its elements, which would cause some listeners to miss the larger aesthetic purpose of the piece as a whole.

I had a friend once who loved chicken salad but hated eggs.  When he found out that eggs were a primary ingredient in mayonaise, he proceeded to treat chicken salad as though it was the most disgusting food item on the planet.  I fear that the same can happen in our aesthetic judgment of music.  And thus I usually give the language the benefit of the doubt as being capable of producing an aesthetically satisfying piece.  In this way, any examples that do not satisfy me remain unsatisfactory, but I have no trouble accepting examples that are satisfying without having to reconcile it with my larger aesthetic stance.  

Ondib Olmnilnlolm said:

Yours is a well articulated position, and your clarification makes a great deal of sense logically.

Still, I would wonder what you would praise in the way of examples.

I mentioned two pieces, Webern's Symphonie, and Phillip Glass's score to Poaqqatsi, as pieces which were considered outstanding by many, as representative works of the "serialist" and "minimalist" schools respectively.  I thought these works failed, at least partly, because the criticisms of the two schools applied to these works, though the works are not without some positive qualities.

So I just wondered if you had any examples.   Of course, there are countless pieces, written by serialists and by minimalists that I have not heard, that many of us on this forum may not have heard.   

I am open to hearing any of them that you might suggest.

The more they depart from the strict definitions-- the "freer" they are in their use of compositional approaches--  the better, as far as I am concerned.   

(But then they would veer towards no longer being "serialist" or "minimalist" compositions, or they would even veer away from using what might be called "serialist" or "minimalist" musical languages.  It's a fine line, of course.  Or maybe it isn't so fine, depending on the example we examine.  )

Regards,

O.



Nate Mitchell said:

Ondib: before this discussion proceeds much further, I believe I should clarify what might be a misunderstanding (or it might not be).  When I speak of Minimalism and Serialism, I am referring not to necessarily to Minimalist and Serialist compositional approaches or techniques, but rather the musical languages typically associated with composers from those respective schools.  Thus, those that do not follow strict serialism (indeed, their compositional choices may not be particularly serialised at all) sometimes have chosen to write in the particular language that the second viennese school became so known for, and the same can be said about "minimalism," that is, music that adheres to the "sounds" commonly associated with minimalism, but which may often deviate from strict minimalist processes in favor of freer compositional approaches.  I recognize that this might be a misunderstanding that arose entirely from my underexplanation and particular use of the term, and I apologize if it lead to confusion.  Indeed I recognize that the languages I have termed "minimalist" or "serialist" may be a misnomer, since it may include examples which do not adhere to the compositional process advocated by the respective schools.

Thus I posit my position anew: any musical language has the potential for success within it. What matters is not what language a composer chooses to work in, but rather how effectively the composer can craft meaningful compositions in the style that he or she chooses.

Perhaps this did not need clarification, but it just crossed my mind that this oversight on my part may have caused some confusion in the discussion.

I'm completely against 'classification' in terms of the overall musical language.

I agree, of course you can say it "sounds like" something, but I am generally against such classification as well for precisely the reasons mentioned above. classification like that places a label on the music often before it is even experienced, and many render a judgment on the music before it is experienced as a result.

We can associate a particular kind of music with a particular composer. I went to a concert featuring Beethoven, but instead ate Glass. Who's playing tonight? 'Devo'. I hate it when they offer Mozart and give me Devo. Who goes to enjoy 'classical music'. Don't you go because it's a particular composer? Please! :)

LOL....

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